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#FridayReads, August 2–Boris Kachka’s “Hothouse” & Lee Child’s “A Wanted Man”

FridayReads, Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, a rich chronicle focusing on Farrar, Straus & Giroux, its charismatic founder Roger Straus, and its talented editorial chief of many years Robert Giroux. Established soon after WWII, FSG has over the decades published dozens of notable authors including Czeslaw Milosz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Grace Paley, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, Abraham Joshua Heschel, John McPhee, Bernard Malamud, and Flannery O'Connor. Kachka holds his narrative to quite a fleet pace, touching on some books and authors only briefly, but always situating his protagonists in the cultural moment. I have always enjoyed reading in the realm of books on books and I couldn't be happier reading Hothouse. Kachka's book delivers great literary stories in spades.


I'm traveling this week and so happily succumbed to the purchase of an airport paperback, another terrific thriller by Lee Child, A Wanted Man, which places recurring series character Jack Reacher in a Nebraska winter trying to evade suspicion for several murders and disappearances even while trying to solve the case and convince FBI agent Julie Sorenson that he's not the culprit she and her agency bigs are pursuing. While Reacher is something of a brute when he needs to be, Child has an amazingly deft touch with great finesse as a storyteller.



#FridayReads–Lee Child’s “Bad Luck & Trouble” & Gerard Helferich’s “Theodore Roosevelt & the Assassin”

#FridayReads, July 12–Bad Luck and Trouble is a deceptively simple thriller that I found compelling throughout. Only the second Jack Reacher novel I’ve read, I’m finding these books are real easy to get hooked on. Reacher is a very interesting character, a drifter and loner, he’s an unconventional investigator–actually more of a crusader for justice and decency than a typical problem solver, a real knight errant, as many of the best protagonists are in suspense fiction.


Just picking up a galley of a fall title, Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin: Madness, Vengeance, and the Campaign of 1912, that was sent to me by my friend, and long time Carroll & Graf colleague, Keith Wallman, who is now Senior Editor at Lyons Press. He’s been signing up great narrative nonfiction there, and this book on the failed attempt on Teddy Roosevelt’s life, in the midst of a presidential campaign, is a too-little known historical drama. Author Helferich is himself a former publishing executive who worked at Doubleday, S&S, and Wiley before becoming an author. I’m just getting started on this one, but I already like how it begins–with a map showing the separate but intertwining travels of candidate Roosevelt and his maniacal pursuer, a Manhattan saloonkeeper named John Flammang Schrank, over the summer of 1912, when Schrank stalked the man he crazily believed was going to leave the USA open to foreign invaders.



#FridayReads, Feb 15, “Worth Dying For,” a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child

#FridayReads, Feb 15, “Worth Dying For,” a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. I’ve been hearing about Child for quite a while, and now have finally picked up one of his books.  It’s a corker, I can see why they’re so popular. Reacher is a marauding justice-seeker who knows no limits, physical or psychological, in avenging those who’ve been wronged. In this case, it’s about justice for an 8-year old girl who went missing 25 years before the primary events in this story, with her disappearance having gone unsolved all this time. Reacher shows up in a desolate Nebraska county unsuspectingly, and soon gets drawn in to a tangled web with the corrupt Duncan family at the center of it all. The violence–and there’s quite a bit of it with Reacher being one of the toughest badasses I’ve ever come across in suspense fiction–is thick and visceral, and though very realistic, somehow hasn’t made me avert my eyes, figuratively or literally. It’s a bit like the mayhem in a comic book–thunderous and full of punch. Still, unlike the Road Runner, who always gets up again after having an anvil land on him, the blows sustained by Reacher’s opponents leave them down for the count.Reacher backReacher front

As usual, also reading book proposals from prospective author clients, in this case, a manuscript about the recently excavated Richard the III, translated into English from Dutch. Timely, and if good enough, could be something publishable here in North America, and perhaps in other English-speaking countries.


The Unexpected Joys of Synchronous Reading

I love it when I find unexpected correlations and thematic continuities among the books I’m reading, especially when there are really no circumstantial connections among the authors and the books.

I’m traveling these twelve days (August 7-19) from NYC to St. Louis to Chicago to Cleveland and back to NY, and so have a number of good books with me. First book I finished during the trip was Emily St. John Mandel’s wistful Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future that might be not too distant from our own, when a deadly flu has driven the world’s inhabitants in to a tenuous existence, with familiar communities splintered and new ones reconstituted around survival, with safety from brigands and cults their paramount goal. Grim as that may sound, it’s really a sweet book as Mandel uses flashbacks to skillful oscillate between the pre- and post-disease worlds, devoting much of the narrative to memorializing things we’d miss from today if the world suddenly fell in to chaos. Amplified music, electric guitars, buying gas at the pump, surfing the Internet, ordering a meal in a restaurant—these are a handful of the quotidian details suddenly subtracted from the lives of her characters. She imagines that surivivors have retrofitted automobiles and trucks so that, in the absence of petrol, they can be pulled by horses. In fact, the symphony/theater troupe at the center of the story moves itself in the Lake Michigan region this way, with musicians and players in tow, and young or vulnerable members stowed in the back, in what I imagine as modified Conestoga wagons supplying cover.

Prior to Mandel’s novel, which will be published next month, I was reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a post-nuclear event novel published in 1957. I met Mandel in July, at a Fall Book preview sponsored by NAIBA, and mentioned Shute’s book, which she told me she hadn’t heard of was. It’s set in Australia, after the Cold War nations have traded atomic bomb attacks, leaving the world above the equatorial line a death zone. An Australian submarine crew is tasked with traveling, submerged beneath the ocean, to assess the radioactivity of the post-incident world and determine if there might be habitable zones elsewhere. Shute’s novel is told in a measured, even laconic style, a bit less literary than Mandel’s. Like her though, he imagined that the inhabitants of his wrecked world would need some mode of land transport, and so they’ve retrofitted their cars and farm vehicle so they can be pulled by horses.

Now it’s not surprising that the authors of two post-apocalyptic novels would each employ common elements, like the retrofitted vehicles. What’s more surprising is when the author of two entirely unrelated books—one historical nonfiction, the other a thriller—share a thematic unity.

While reading Mandel’s novel I’d also been enjoying Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of American’s First Spy Ring, a history of espionage during the Revolutionary War published in 2006 that’s the basis of the current AMC TV series, “Turn,” which I had made one of my #FridayReads last month. It’s fascinating, and using the letters that General Washington’s spies sent to him, covers aspects of American’s war with Britain that are entirely new to me. One of these side stories is how the British army flooded Boston, NY, and Philadelphia with “hundreds of thousands of fake dollars,” counterfeit money they hoped would undermine confidence in Colonial currency, reduce its value, and motivate local populations to avoid using it.

According to Rose, British generals arranged for prolific counterfeiters from English prisons to be released, who were then pressed in to service printing bogus dollars, some of them with their engraving tools and printing presses aboard ships floating in New York harbor. Rose writes that disinformation efforts were undertaken with “Royalist papers like…New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury print[ing] public ‘editorials’ noting, by the by, that ‘there has lately…been a large distribution in the country of counterfeited Continental bills, so admirably executed, as not easily to be discerned from those issued by order of the Congress. This has contributed not a little to lower their value, and will be one effectual bar to their repayment or liquidation.'” Rose even discovered that classified ads were run in some papers, seeking people who would be willing to pass the currency in Colonial cities.


While still reading and enjoying Washington’s Spies I was ready for another novel to read, and so browsing in Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s well-known indie bookstore, last weekend, I was delighted to discover that the very first Jack Reacher suspense novel, by Lee Child had been reissued. I love the Reacher novels, an enjoyment that only grew after meeting him at a book party for Valerie Plame’s first novel in October 2013. The only reason I sometimes hesitate in picking up a Reacher novel is that I often can’t recall which ones I’ve already read. But I knew I hadn’t read Child’s inaugural entry, from 1997, so was happy to buy it that day, especially as it included a new preface by Child, explaining how he came to create the character of Jack Reacher, a former MP in the US Army who since leaving the service has lived a rootless life, rambling from town to town, and inevitably, encountering bad guys in his path, harming innocents whom he chooses to protect. It’s called Killing Floor and with lots of leisure time the past week, I’m deep in to it now. The plot centers around Margrave, Georgia, a small town that Reacher drifts in to, idly, in search of the legacy of a bluesman named Blink Blake who his brother Joe, his only living relative, once told him had spent time in Margrave. After only a few hours in town, Reacher is arrested on suspicion of murder, and even though he’s quickly cleared in the case, his sense of moral indignation is aroused when he glimpses all the corrupt things going on in the town, so he sticks around to try and straighten things out.

Imagine my surprise when in my reading I discovered that the rotten underside at the heart of the story is a counterfeiting ring that his brother, a federal agent, had been investigating. At one point, Reacher meets an elderly professor who tells him of his own countefeitiung exploits, though more of the wartime Washington’s Spies sort than the typical criminal kind, bearing more than a passing resemblance to that done by the British against the Colonies: “During the Second World War, young men like…me ended up with strange occupations….Considered more useful in an intelligence role than in combat….We were handed the job of attacking the enemy with economics. We derived a scheme for shattering the Nazi economy with an assault on the value of its paper currency. Our project manufactured hundreds of billions of counterfeit reichsmarks. Spare bombers littered Germany with them. They came down out of the sky like confetti.”

The congruities among historical events described in Alexander Rose’s history of Revolutionary War espionage and Lee Child’s contemporary thriller are pretty striking, aren’t they?

[NB: This post was written in the excellent Blogsy app on my iPad on an Amtrak train traveling from St. Louis to Chicago.]






Celebrating Publishing Friend Jane Isay’s Success as An Author & Reflecting on My Own Career

Leaving Cleveland and Finding My First Job in New York City

Secrets & LiesWhen I moved to New York City in 1985–after working the seven years following Franconia College for the Turner family’s 3-store book chain Undercover Books–my first job in Gotham was not in publishing. The job that enabled me to pack up my life in Cleveland and exit a family business and a city which my siblings and parents didn’t want me to leave was Membership Coordinator of a Jewish educational organization, the National Havurah Committee (NHC). I wasn’t staying in books, I thought, but starting work in what at Franconia–an institution that was born and thrived in the educational ferment of the 1960s-70s–I’d hoped I would be doing: working against bigotry and anti-semitism, maybe in inter-faith dialogue, applying my double major in History of Religion and Philosophy of Education, trying to mend the broken world.

Right after graduating, people working in communal service and career counselors with whom I met told me I’d need an advanced degree, like an MSW, to get anywhere in the field. Yet as an alum of an alternative high school and an experimental college, I had no interest in grad school. I sometimes wonder, if my family hadn’t opened the first bookstore in 1978–affording me a place to park myself right after college–what I would have done in my life. It might not have been in books, as it’s turned out. When I enlisted in the family business, I didn’t know my work in the stores would last seven years, that’s for sure. At about the five year point I began seriously mulling what I would do next. When I turned thirty, in the fall of 1984, I was ready to leave Cleveland and move on from my hometown and the family business.

I might’ve tried moving in to publishing right away then, but for two reasons: First, I was still eager to work on mending the world and wondered if fostering dialogue among groups that too often regarded opponents as an alien “other” might be as important and fulfilling as bookselling. The second reason was more complex, and gets to the heart of secrets and truth, very much in the vein of Jane Isay’s new book, SECRETS AND LIES: Surviving the Truths that Change Our Lives, the occasion for this post covering my collegial friendship with her; the relationship books she’s written since leaving publishing, and ineluctably, my own family and personal history. The nub then was that my siblings and parents viewed me as indispensable to the stores, and felt betrayed or abandoned or hurt that I really was going to leave them. I viewed it that I had never signed on for more than temporary–if extended–duty in the family enterprise, and besides, who could be expected to stay in one’s birthplace, if you had the urge to pull up stakes and explore putting down roots elsewhere? We had some hard words when I told everyone my decision–it came right around my 30th birthday that September of ’84, when I was feeling impatient, sensing the acceleration of my own years, and not amenable to being hemmed in by an obligation to my birth family, no matter how much I respected them and cared about them. Resisting their appeals that I stay, and disregarding doubts they expressed about whether I could really find a job in another city, my resolve was solid as I began my quest for new work and a new home. Given the still-raw feelings, I felt some constraint about not looking for new work in publishing, which could’ve felt to my siblings almost like I was using the bookstore years purely as a personal springboard in to publishing, something they could’ve perhaps chosen to do, too.

Jane IsayAs Jane observed in her talk at Manhattan’s Corner Bookstore last week, given time, the breaches among family members often will heal. This was certainly true for the five of us, as the hurt did not persist. The rest of the family carried on in to some of Undercover’s best years, maintaing active store locations until around ’92, before going mail order and then online, utilizing the new Internet, beginning in 1993, before Amazon began selling books. My brother Joel and sister Pamela, and our parents Earl and Sylvia were quicker past the post than Jeff Bezos, confirmed by my recent reading of Brad Stone’s excellent book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

Looking past publishing as a possibility, I focused my search from Cleveland on Jewish communal service organizations in Chicago and New York, and got an offer from the NHC, which generously included help with my moving expenses. However, after nine months with them, the executive director who’d hired me announced his resignation. It looked like the NHC was going to enter a rocky period, and I hadn’t fallen in love with the field, anyway. I decided to re-chart my course and now try to work in publishing, closer than in retail to where the books begin. Undercover Books had been a prominent indie store with a good reputation, so I was hopeful I could effectively network my way in to some kind of a publishing job. As it turned out, I was able to seek advice and find encouragement from lots of helpful bookpeople, publishing veterans I already knew, and others I met for the first time. All were generous with their time and eager to share their experiences in the business, along with views of the job prospects at many different companies. Among this group of friends and well-meaning contacts, three women I met in New York for the first time were particularly helpful to me.

The Three Publishing Women Who Helped Me Find My Path

In 1986, Mildred Marmur, the first female chief executive of Scribner’s, would give me my first job in publishing, a part-time stint as the first reader and judge of the Maxwell Perkins First Novel Award. Milly had earlier worked in subsidiary rights at Simon & Schuster and Random House where she famously made lucrative mass market paperback deals for such big books as All the President’s Men and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. Later,  I met Ruth Nathan, a literary agent who earlier in her career was a story editor for Paramount Studios, working in NY. Ruth’s husband was Paul Nathan, longtime Rights&Permissions columnist for Publishers Weekly. After my stint at Scribner’s ended, Ruth recommended me to Beth Walker for an open position at Walker & Company, demonstrably helping me land my first full-time job as a full-fledged editor.

But before I was even in a position to be helped by Marmur and Nathan, I had to first decide if I wanted to become an editor, or explore some other role in publishing, like working as a traveling sales representative. Also essential to this process was meeting Jane Isay, already a longtime editorial professional, who I recall having been at Basic Books before I knew her, and at S&S when we met. A great listener, Jane took me to lunch, and heard my tale of a bookseller recently arrived in NYC who was looking for a berth on the publishing side of the business. I told her I thought I wanted to become an editor, but wanted to be sure about what the role would entail.

Jane outlined the editorial enterprise to me–reading constantly, scanning newspapers and magazines for new book ideas, cultivating agents with talented author clients, taking work home on weekends, and line-editing, always line-editing. She explained the latter involved engaging authors in a focused effort on the page and in vigorous conversation to help them make their work as good as it could become, including of course taking pencil to their manuscripts and working through them line by line. I was a bit daunted by the prospect, but thrilled at the same time. Our lunch, and subsequent conversations we had, made me more hopeful that this was going to be the right field for me. We agreed that I was in an unusual spot, since the career path for most editors was to start in publishing soon after college as an editorial assistant, assistant editor; and associate editor, until finally being named editor. Such a path could take 5-6 years, or longer. Yet, I had already been out of college seven years and had learned the book business as a retail buyer, ordering most of the adult books for three stores, while recommending books to customers every day and observing how real readers responded to my suggestions. The bookstore had been like graduate school for me, and I wasn’t interested in a lengthy editorial apprenticeship. Jane understood my situation and advised me how I might conduct my job search. She, more than anyone I met during those early years in New York City, helped put me on the career path I pursued.

Our Rabbi’s Friendship 

My friendship with Jane soon expanded beyond books and publishing to embrace our spiritual sides. We were fortunate to both become members of Congregation B’Nai Jeshurun, a Manhattan synagogue whose lead rabbi, until his untimely death in 1993, was Marshall T. Meyer. I met Marshall one summer day in 1985 while at work in the NHC office in a building on W. 89th Street. A tall man with a big but elegant frame and a booming voice came waltzing over from an adjacent office on the same floor where I’d heard hammering and someone new moving in. “May I borrow your stapler, and some tape, and do you have any paperclips?” I instantly liked this big man with a big personality. He was unflinchingly vulnerable, giving and receiving lots of hugs. One of the things to love about Marshall was the mix of influences that combined in him, including a manner of speech and elocution that made him sound like and seem to me a latter-day Emerson or Thoreau, a sturdy New Englander to his core, a Jewish Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Walter Huston could’ve played Marshall in a movie, a model of rectitude and upright bearing. He grew up in Norwich, CT, near the Connecticut River, went to Dartmouth farther north along the Connecticut, and after completing studies in NY moved with his wife and growing family to Argentina where he served a lengthy sojourn as a rabbi. In the latter years of his time there, a military junta took power leading to the imprisonment, torture, and ‘disappearing’ of thousands of people the regime deemed opponents in their ‘dirty war.’ Marshall became an outspoken critic of the generals, while continuing to serve his pastoral function as a counselor for families and individuals caught up in the crackdown. He told me that he endured death threats, adding that his best defense against them had been to remain a highly visible and public person, never retiring or hidden. The dedication of the searing 1981 prison memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, by Argentine activist Jacobo Timerman, which we had sold at Undercover Books reads,

To Marshall Meyer
A rabbi who brought comfort
to Jewish, Christian, and atheist prisoners in
Argentine jails.

Think about that–Marshall went behind high prison walls, visiting political prisoners in whom hope for justice was dimmed. It makes me think of Bob Dylan’s, “I Shall Be Released.” Marshall dealt with the jailers, pleading for the people. After the brutal regime fell, he was appointed to the national tribunal that investigated the junta’s crimes and violations of human rights, the only non-Argentine to so serve. He told me later that one of the reasons he felt he finally had to leave Argentina was because, in serving on that commission, he learned horrific details of torture and abuse inflicted on people, many who didn’t survive. Holding this knowledge–terribly weighty secrets and truths–he found he could no longer serve the pastoral role with, say, the parents of ‘disappeared’ children. They understood Marshal knew details about the end of their loved one’s life; it would be no kindness and bring no cessation of pain for him to tell them what he knew. Yet, how he could withhold this from them, if they insisted he tell them?

The brave work Marshall did in Argentina was prefigured by his time as a rabbinical student in the 1950s, when he studied with a spiritual giant of the twentieth century, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a transcendent and activist rabbi who later marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and opposed the Vietnam War with MLK. Marshall worked as Heschel’s assistant and typed several of his manuscripts prior to publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In Hothouse, Boris Kachka’s recent history of FSG, he chronicles how Roger Straus, a very non-observant Jew, nonetheless greatly valued Rabbi Heschel’s place on their list. Marshall was very conscious of upholding Rabbi Heschel’s legacy and living by his example.

Soon after returning to the States, just before we met, Marshall was named rabbi of B’Nai Jeshurun, until then a rather moribund congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and within a brief span made it one of the most vital synagogues in the city. Marshall taught an evening class devoted to the writings of Rabbi Heschel. Jane and I were among the students who regularly attended these one night per week sessions. Each class began with Marshall reading from Heschel’s The Prophets, one of the books he had prepared for publication. With Marshall reading verbatim passages, we wrestled with Heschel’s text and the biblical sources, also discussing social justice, metaphysics, the homeless on NY streets, and our personal life missions. During Marshall’s tenure at BJ he recruited two younger rabbis to serve alongside him, Roly Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein–from Argentina and Chile, respectively–who fully took the helm after his wrenching death, at age 63. Though I’m not much involved with B’Nai Jeshurun these days, I still consider myself a kind of lay disciple of Marshall’s, and a friend to the congregation. I supported Roly and Marcelo when in December 2012 they came out in favor of Palestinian statehood in a letter that was discussed in the New York Times. Marshall-Meyer-obit-

Jane Isay–Making her Mark as an Author

In the 2000s Jane and I saw less of each other, though I kept an eye out for word of her in the business, and the superb books she was publishing, like Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock, a heroic and true civil rights story. As has happened for many senior people in the business over the past decade, Jane left corporate publishing. In 2004 I saw that she had edited a volume of Marshall Meyer’s writings and sermons, called You Are My Witness. I was delighted to see her name on the cover, under Marshall’s name.You Are My Witness

In 2007, I saw that she published a book of her own, Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents. I was glad to see Jane had successfully turned the tables on her old career, coming out from behind the editorial desk to be an author in her own right. Like I discovered for myself a few years later–prior to leaving big-house publishing in 2009, I did little writing of my own, and then found I suddenly had the psychic elbow room to write and maintain this blog–Jane has continued to write and publish, with Mom Still Likes You Best: Overcoming the Past and Reconnecting With Your Siblings in 2011, and now her new book on living with the secrets we keep from each other and navigating the tough terrain of truth.

In her spirited and upbeat presentation at Corner Bookstore, Jane began by discussing the human capacity for shame, our ability to keep secrets hidden from the people to whom we’re closest, and our propensity to rationalize all our behaviors. She suggested that in a real way, we are the being that rationalizes, almost like a cartesian proof of existence: “We rationalize, therefore we are.” She pointed out that while the disclosure or discovery of some secrets can rupture a relationship permanently, in other instances, once anger has receded, there can be a resulting diminishment of anxiety, a new breath taken, so great that mutual forgiveness and reconciliation can follow, in time. After Jane’s talk and a few questions from the full house at the bookstore, there was a reception and I had a chance to give Jane a hug and congratulate her. If you are still pondering the mysteries of your family and other longterm relationships, I urge you to look at her books–she’s such a good listener that people she interviews really trust her. She’s really able to glean from them important examples and valuable truths that–with her own hard-won wisdom in life–make her books so wise, helpful, and healing. You’ll find more information on Jane’s books at her website.



Celebrating Valerie Plame’s “Blowback” & Recalling Tumultous Events of a Decade Ago


Blowback frontKyle and Ewan and I had a great time last night at the book party for Valerie Plame’s terrific new spy novel Blowback, co-authored with Sarah Lovett. I  had picked up a galley of it at BEA last June, and really enjoyed it a lot. I’d been looking forward to the party for some weeks, as in 2003-04 I edited and published The Politics of Truth–A Diplomat’s Memoir: Insider the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity by Valerie’s husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson. It was going to be a treat to see Valerie and Joe last night.

Joe and I had last met up in 2010 when he was part of a New York Times panel that included Nora Ephron, Anna Devere Smith, Roy Blount, Jr., and Garrison Keillor marking the 25th anniversary of the Times’ Op-Ed pages. It was moderated by then Op-Ed page editor David Shipley*, who invited Joe because he judged Joe’s July 6 2003 op-ed  What I Didn’t Find in Africa had been one of the most historically significant columns the newspaper published that decade. It led to the Bush administration’s repeated disclosures that Joe’s wife Valerie Plame was a CIA official and years of flimsy denials that the administration had doctored the intelligence that fueled their false claims about WMDs in Iraq, enabling the unjustified invasion of the country.

Publishing The Politics of Truth was a high-wire act for Joe, for me and for Carroll & Graf that lasted over a year. In July ’03, I heard about it right away when Valerie’s CIA employment was reported by columnist Robert Novak. A few weeks later indie book publicist Barbara Monteiro connected me with Joe. She had earlier worked on the book I did with Whitewater heroine Susan MacDougal. Barbara knew my sense of justice would’ve been offended by what was being done to Valerie, and Joe. He had been writing opinion columns about Bush’s misguided rush to war and was already thinking of writing a book. We quickly made a deal and got to work while the news story swirling around Valerie and Joe grew and grew.

Right off the bat, we were fortunate in that before retiring from the State Dept in 1998, following 25 years in the foreign service, Joe had sat for a full oral history of his career. He had the transcript and used it as an aide-mémoire and the basis of the historical portions of the book, later justifying our use of two subtitles on the front cover and spine! With this foundation, Joe then wrote practically every day and in February ’04 he delivered an excellent 150,000 word manuscript to me. C & G leapt in to action, as colleagues from several departments and I line-edited, copyedited, designed, typeset, indexed, and produced the book on a “crash” production schedule, for planned release only four months later, in what was going to be May ’04, less than a year after Novak’s column. From a marketing and strategic standpoint, it was like riding a tiger.

The toughest part of this as a publishing proposition was that though the story had only gotten bigger over the intervening months–and while we knew we’d be able to book Joe on tons of media–at the same time we wondered and worried:

  • What will be the state of the journalistic investigations and of the federal grand jury hearings looking into the unauthorized disclosure when we publish the book?
  • How can Joe in the book, in his public statements, and we in our press materials take advantage of new developments while still conforming to the latest important events?
  • How could we take advantage of breaking news but not have Joe get too far out on things that were constantly shifting?

Of course, for Valerie and Joe it was more than a publishing proposition, it was their lives. This was a dynamic in publishing a book I had never encountered before, a delicate strategic challenge. I was already a highly-tuned-in-to-news-person, especially after the 2000 presidential election and 9/11, but this tendency became even more pronounced the year I was actively working every day on Joe’s book. The book sold more than 60,000 copies in hardcover and spent more than a month on the NY Times Bestseller list. I have written about the lessons I learned working on it a number of times on this blog, in such posts as “Hubris”–10 Years Later, Run-up to the Iraq War Still Shadows the Media & the U.S. and On the Imperative of Publishing Whistleblowers.

Last night’s party for Valerie and Sarah Lovett was hosted by director Doug Liman, author Naomi Wolf, and producer Avram Ludwig. Liman had directed the 2010 movies “Fair Game” with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, based on Valerie’s 2006 book, Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House and on The Politics of Truth.

We enjoyed meeting the three co-hosts and many of our fellow guests. Among the latter group was one of my favorite suspense writers Lee Child, with whom we happened to ride up in the elevator. About Blowback he’s said: “Great storytelling, real insider authenticity, and above all a fascinating main character in Vanessa Pierson. And maybe those initials are not a coincidence–sometimes fiction can reveal things nonfiction can’t.” The latter part of Child’s blurb–and the reference to “redaction” in my tweet above–are rueful nods to the unfortunate fact that Fair Game was heavily redacted by the Bush-era CIA, and though it had a well-reported Afterword by national security reporter Laura Rozen, the many blacked-out passages inevitably left readers in the dark in many areas. I’ve included three of Child’s books among my weekly #FridayReads essays, including Worth Dying For, a true corker of a suspense novel, the first of Child’s Jack Reacher books that I read. His latest is  Never Go Back, which I am eager to read. Guest Maggie Topkis–longtime co-proprietor of the NYC mystery bookstore Partners and Crime who nowadays works with Lee Child–told me she thinks it’s his best book yet, which is saying a lot.

I met co-author Sarah Lovett, and told her how much I’d enjoyed reading Blowback. From Blue Rider Press, I congratulated David Rosenthal, Valerie’s publisher, and Executive Editor Sarah Hochman. I was also glad to see the two sides of the recent Penguin Random House merger well represented, with Kent Anderson, a sales rep from Penguin (now Penguin Random House). He had been with Publishers Group West, distributor for Carroll & Graf, when I published The Politics of Truth there in 2004. With Kent, I saw Madeline McIntosh, COO of Random House, a senior executive in the merged company. I liked that she had come to this book party for a key title of a Penguin imprint.   

I was also glad to see book biz pal Will Schwalbe,* who after a distinguished publishing career has made himself in to a successful author most recently with The End of Your Life Book Club, which I wrote about here. Will explained that he and Naomi had been old college classmates, and said how much he’d enjoyed her poetry from those years. Naomi seemed touched by that. Will graciously introduced me to Naomi who asked how I had come to know Joe and Valerie, at which I mentioned The Politics of Truth . She said how glad she was to be able to show special support for Valerie and her new book. Those comments were echoed when a few minutes later she and Doug Liman convened the gathering for toasts and congratulations. Liman gestured toward a nearby portrait of his late father, the prominent lawyer Arthur Liman, a pivotal player in the Iran-Contra scandal who served as chief counsel to the Senate committee that investigated the Reagan’s administration’s notorious arms-for-hostages conspiracy. The younger Liman cited his father’s example as an inspiration to him in working with dedicated public servants like Valerie and Joe.

After the toasts, I approached Joe once more. As we chatted Ewan took a picture of us. Here it is, along with a few others from last night. (Please click here to see all pics) It was a fun book party and the three of us were very happy to be a part of the celebration.

If you’re looking for realistic and pacy suspense fiction with a smart and appealing female protagonist, I highly recommend Blowback , the first of a series featuring covert operative Vanessa Pierson. Valerie has done lots of media this week including “Morning Joe” (See video below.) One of Valerie’s next stops is going to be in Washington, DC this Friday night, October 5, when Laura Rozen will be interviewing her at Politics & Prose Bookstore.

*Will Schwalbe’s first book, SEND: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better was co-authored with the same David Shipley– Joe Wilson’s Op-Ed editor and moderator of the NY Times panel with Joe, Nora Ephron, etc.