Books I’ve brought out as publisher; essays and reviews I’ve published
I spent the past couple weeks, amid so much disturbing upheaval in the world outside my reading, deeply enjoying Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel, which Random House published last June. (I had first shared about it on this blog last May.) From Kunkel’s acknowledgments at the end I’ve learned the book was commissioned by Bob Loomis*, the great editor there who, before his retirement in 2012, signed up the book, though the manuscript was evidently delivered after his departure. Mitchell grew up in a tobacco- and cotton-farming family in North Carolina (b. 1908) and, disappointing his father, moved to New York City at twenty-one, determined to become a newspaperman, even amid the Depression; he found work as a copy boy, and soon began reporting and writing, including at the Herald Tribune (where my longtime author, photojournalist Ruth Gruber later worked) and for the World-Telegram, which Mitchell joined in 1930. He began writing for The New Yorker in 1932, and joined the magazine’s staff in 1938. Kunkel’s book is a superb portrait of Mitchell’s whole life, to his death in 1996, and a rich appreciation of his writings.
While reading and really savoring the whole book, every anecdote, every chapter it covers of Mitchell’s life, I took down from a bookshelf my copy of Up in the Old Hotel, the 1992 collection that gathered Mitchell’s Profiles on true-life New York characters, and other work, which back then put Mitchell back on the map for many readers. Until then, his magazine pieces had frequently been gathered up and published between hardcovers—his first My Ears Are Bent, came out in 1938, followed by McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943); Old Mr. Flood (1948); The Bottom of the Harbor (1959) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965)—but it was more than two decades between books when, at the urging of Dan Frank of Pantheon Books, Mitchell published this full omnibus of his work, gathered from those books, and other sources. It made a big splash at the time, getting stellar reviews, and Kunkel tells us that Mitchell welcomed the spotlight that came with being remembered by so many readers, and discovered by even more.
I’ve had the book since soon after it came out—my copy’s a first edition. I was around that time editing and preparing to publish a comparable book, A Diary of Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist, by Edward Robb Ellis, a near-contemporary of Mitchell’s, who also worked at the World-Telegram, arriving there in 1947. Like Mitchell, Ellis savored writing about memorable NY characters, people like Fred Bronnenkant, riveter for more than thirty years on the Brooklyn Bridge, who had such affection for the span he regarded it as a kind of mistress**. Though Eddie was not quite the consummate stylist that I now see Mitchell was, like Mitchell, he aspired to make great work. Both men learned writing in the same milieu—the midcentury American newspaper, entirely at NY papers for Mitchell, partly true for Ellis, who before coming to the metropolis for what became the last twenty years of his career as an on-staff feature writer, had worked at papers in New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Peoria, and Chicago.*** They deployed vivid imagery, showed a fondness for lengthy list-making (a penchant embraced in more recent years by New Yorker writer John McPhee), a keen interest in what things cost back in the day, and an appreciation for character, with great skill at presenting to readers the people they encountered.
Seeing the success of Up in the Old Hotel, I recalling buying the book in hopes of imbibing some of that vibe and investing Eddie’s book with it. Though I was interested in Mitchell and his work, as happens for professional editors I got sidetracked from it, and had in fact never read it thoroughly, nor really sensed the charms of Mitchell’s writing until the past couple weeks. During the weeks I was reading the Kunkel bio, I leafed through the 700+page anthology, shown here, and now that I’ve finished the biography, I’m fully able to dive in to it. Last night, I read and enjoyed the third Profile in the anthology, about Mazie Gordon, a denizen of the Bowery, who ran a “moving-picture house” called the Venice Theatre, and who “Detective Kain [of the Oak Street police station] says that she has the roughest tongue and the softest heart in the Third Precinct.” Mitchell chronicles her working life, seated in a glassed-in booth along Park Row, selling movie tickets, and greeting her patrons, some of whom are by her own description “bums” that live in nearby flophouses. She is a key player in the street life near Chatham Square, and the piece includes many conversations she had with bums, cops, priests, and all kinds of urban operators which it seems certain Mitchell overheard. His chronicle of Mazie’s proprietorship of the theatre, and her status in the wider neighborhood, is among the most enjoyable things I’ve read this year.
Here’s the first paragraph of the 1940 profile, titled ‘Mazie’:
“A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery in the nickel-a-drink saloons and in the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name. She makes a round of these establishments practically every night, and drunken bums sometimes come up behind her, slap her on the back, and call her sweetheart. This never annoys her. She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any person in the city. Each day she gives them between five and fifteen dollars in small change….’In my time, I’ve been as free with my dimes and as old John D himself,’ she says. Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre.”
Now that I’m finished with the biography, I’ve also sought out reviews of it, such as a good one by John Williams in the NY Times, and a very insightful essay by Janet Malcolm in the NY Review of Books; she was a colleague of Mitchell’s at The New Yorker. Kunkel wrote an earlier biography of Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker, who hired Mitchell for the magazine, after his several-year audition as a contributing writer. I’ve never met Kunkel, but I’m glad to say I feel connected to him anyway. As it happens, he reviewed Edward Robb Ellis’s A Diary of Century when it was published in 1995, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, concluding his review in the Washington Post with the praise that Ellis’s diary of an Everyman, “produc[ed] something akin to Copland’s glorious ‘Fanfare for the Common Man.'” I’ll find a way to share this blog post with him, so I can belatedly let him know how glad I am that he enjoyed Eddie Ellis’s book, and I can tell him I felt the same for his superb book on Joseph Mitchell.
* Among Bob Loomis’s authors was William Styron; the courtly editor helped me enlist Styron’s aid in a championing a book I edited in 1999, about an arguably innocent inmate on Virginia’s Death Row. I wrote about that episode in my editorial career in an essay for the BN Review called “William Styron: A Promise Kept.”
**Ellis’s beguiling entry on Frank Bronnenkant is found on pgs 173-75 of A Diary of the Century (Kodansha America, 1995; republished by me at Union Square Press in 2008). Clicking on this link will take you to all my blog posts about Edward Robb Ellis, which includes one that examines the legacy of notorious faker Joe Gould, the subject of Mitchell’s last published Profile, the recently discovered photographer, Vivian Maier, and Ellis, in a 2014 piece I titled “Vivian Maier Was the Real Deal, the Ultra-Opposite of Joe Gould.” The relevance here is that Ellis—whose book was drawn from his diary, a journal he began keeping at age 16, and which he stayed with until 89, the longest-kept such record in the history of American letters—and the secretly great and prolific street photographer Maier did each create a magnum opus, while Gould never did, though Mitchell did believe for a time that he really was writing a seminal work, “The Oral History of our Times.” And yet Mitchell, even after publishing two long profiles of Gould (‘Professor Seagull,’ ’42, rather credulous) and (‘Joe Gould’s Secret,’ ’64, not credulous any longer) did not rebuke Gould. He generously concluded that Gould, some writings by whom he had actually read in the 1940s, had perhaps at least been writing in his mind, as Mitchell did with an uncompleted memoir and novel he never published.
*** For her part, Ruth Gruber, before and after WWII, wrote for the Herald Tribune and the NY Post. Unlike Mitchell and Ellis, she oscillated in and out of journalism, working for a time in the federal government during the FDR Administration, as Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes’ special representative to Alaska. Ruth is, so far as I know, the eldest surviving member of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration. This post is about a 104th birthday gathering with her this past October.
I was delighted to see Publishers Weekly reporting this afternoon that Daniel Halpern of Ecco Press is being awarded The Center for Fiction’s annual #MaxwellPerkinsPrize for “championing writers of fiction in the United States.” I met Dan in 1987, when his stewardship at the literary magazine Antaeus brought us in to contact. A book I’d edited and published, Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, won the Drue Heinz Literary Prize, an award sponsored by Antaeus.
Ironically, I had earlier encountered the circus novel, by an as-yet unpublished writer named Ellen Hunnicutt, when I worked as first reader/contest judge at Scribner, who at the time sponsored a first novel prize in Max Perkins’s illustrious name*. Though Hunnicutt’s didn’t win that contest, when my Scribner stint ended I got my first full-time job as an acquiring editor, at Walker & Company, contacted Ms Hunnicutt, and made her book my first-ever fiction acquisition. Some months later, with the novel edited and in galleys, Ellen was named recipient of a different award, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, chosen and given by Antaeus, for a distinguished body of work in short stories. A few months after Walker & Co published Suite for Calliope, by virtue of an Antaeus arrangement with the University of Pittsburgh Press, Hunnicutt’s short fiction was published in a collection titled In the Music Library. This link leads to other essays I’ve written for this blog that chronicle my experience in acquiring and editing Hunnicutt’s truly exceptional novel. The book received a starred review in Kirkus, sold out its hardcover printing, and Dell acquired the paperback rights. All in all, it was a great experience to have with the first novel I ever worked on, made all the better by Dan Halpern’s generosity toward my author. To me, it is truly fitting that Dan will receive the later iteration of the Maxwell Perkins Prize. I look forward to congratulating him in person.
* As Editor-in-Chief of Scribner in the 1920s-40s, Perkins edited and published novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, among many acclaimed authors.
I’m looking forward to being part of the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Publishing Conference on Sunday June 7. I will be evaluating the work of about a dozen writers during the workshop. It should be fun to encounter all this new work and talk about writing and publishing with all the participants. The conference will be held near Lake Placid, NY. If you know any writers who live in that region of upstate NY, please let them know about the event. Thanks to Michael Coffey and Nathalie Costa for the invitation. Click here for more details and see the screenshot below.
Fascinating Q&A on C-Span BookTV w/narrative science writer Karen Masterson, author of The Malaria Project: The US Government’s Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure, which chronicles the efforts of the US military which had for long been worried about the disease’s potential to infect American troops serving in far-flung locales. There was a move to find a cure for the mosquito-borne disease. Interesting to me, the book, which looks to be fairly serious science, is published by NAL. They brought out it in 2014, apparently first in hardcover. By my reckoning, NAL is a house long known more for mass-market paperback fiction than narrative nonfiction in hardcover. [It looks like they’ve now brought it out now in trade paperback.] Good for NAL, a nice piece of publishing. More on Masterson and her book via this link. You can view the video via this link on BookTV’s website.
One thing Masterson said amazed me. The effectiveness of bed nets—which have been a useful tool in combating malaria, preventing mosquitoes from biting people while they sleep—is being eroded because mosquitoes, hungry for what scientists call their “blood meal,” are adapting their behavior and learning to bite people earlier in the day when they are still out and about. In watching her talk about this global affliction that still sickens and weakens millions worldwide every year—and kills a considerable percentage of those stricken—I was reminded of a book that I began discussing in 2006 with Paul R. Epstein—a doctor and scientist, and at the time, associate director of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Epstein was a trailblazer in studying the effects of climate change on human health. I first heard his distinctive New York accent when he was a guest that year on an episode of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. You can still hear it, via this link. Listening to their conversation in a rental car, in a classic ‘driveway moment,’ I learned that due to the planet’s warming temperatures, mosquitoes that transmit malaria have over the past several decades begun doing so at more northern latitudes and higher elevations than they have ever been known to do before. Epstein also discussed the finding that the tick-borne illness dengue fever is also occurring at latitudes and elevations where it was before not seen. Epstein discussed how these diseases are infecting a much greater number of people worldwide due to the warming of our planet.
These are only a couple of the scientific discoveries chronicled in Epstein’s book, Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It, co-written with Dan Ferber, which ultimately came out in 2011. I actually commissioned it in 2007, shortly after I became Editorial Director of Union Square Press at Sterling Publishing, a job that ended two years later when Sterling, a division of Barnes & Noble, shuttered the imprint, a milestone I’ve also written about on this blog. When I left the company, my old bosses quickly canceled Dr. Epstein’s book, although I had nearly completed editing the manuscript. Fortunately, that decision, though very shortsighted, while preventing the book from being published as soon as it might have, it was later picked up by the University of California Press, to be published alongside other important environmental titles. This is a link to the book on U Cal’s website. Sadly, Dr. Epstein, died in November 2011, at age 67, of cancer. Here’s a Washington Post obit on him. Though we fell out of touch after Union Square Press closed, I recall we did speak a couple more times, and he sent me a finished copy of the book, which he inscribed to me with a very generous message, “April 25, 2011 To Phil Turner—The motivating force for this book. Warm wishes, Paul,” pictured below. I didn’t know he was ill, and was stunned by news of his death.
Before Dr. Epstein became a teacher and researcher at Harvard, he had worked as a doctor in places like Mozambique and Angola, devoting himself to the study of tropical diseases and improving public health in developing countries. It was a privilege to meet and work with him. I was really sorry he wasn’t able to make personal appearances in front of audiences, on TV, and on radio, like I first heard him. As I listened to Karen Masterson on C-Span tonight, I found myself wondering if she knows about Paul’s research on the growing incidence of malaria and other illnesses worldwide due to climate change, and if she has perhaps read Dr. Epstein’s book. I see she teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins, so perhaps I’ll have a chance to send her this post and find out. [I did correspond with Ms Masterson and she was interested to learn about Dr Epstein and his book.]
I’m glad to be one of three editors featured in a Publishers Weekly article about how editorial professionals with long careers in-house have re-made themselves post-corporate life. The other editors are Pat Mulcahy and Joan Hilty. It’s up online today, and will be a spread with photos in the magazine’s print issue on Monday. I’ll scan a copy of the print story to share on this blog when I get a print copy, but meantime here is a link to the story, headlined “Publishing, After a Life in Publishing.” In particular, I was happy to explain to PW reporter Calvin Reid the role that my blogs have played in my post-corporate career, which Calvin characterized it this way: “He launched a blog, the Great Gray Bridge, on his website, philipsturner.com, and got his first job, ‘by word of mouth.’ He credits the blog and his writing with bringing in work. ‘People come to my blog and find out that I’m offering editorial services,’ he said.”
Also very glad my author client Mike Orenduff and his superb six-book POT THIEF mystery series are both mentioned in the article, along with a mention of Open Road Integrated Media, the company where I licensed the books in 2013, to editors Tina Pohlman and Philip Rappaport. Until I get the print issue, Below are scanned images of each of the story’s three pages, and then a screenshot of the online story’s first six paragraphs. Please note I submitted three corrections for the story that have been input on the online version.
Readers of this blog, please note, I submitted three corrections for the story that have been input on the online version. For the record, they are: 1) In the 4th paragraph, while I was first “executive editor” at Carroll & Graf, I was “editor-in-chief” my last couple years there. 2) In the 5th paragraph, the author of the POT THIEF series is “J. Michael Orenduff” (not J. Michale Orendoff). 3) In the 14th paragraph, the correct quote about my writing is that I found I had the “psychic elbow room” to write, not “psychic space.”
JANUARY 2016 UPDATE: Readers of this blog may recall my connection to The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, mentioned on this site a year ago in the post below, after I learned the book, originally published in 2002, was about to be reissued by a new publisher, the basis of a major motion picture. I saw the movie last weekend, and found it quite engrossing, even at more than 2 1/2 hours duration. The cinematography is exceptional, the acting quite believable, and the storytelling very powerful. I recall that author Michael Punke was already then having discussions about possible film adaptations, since the Glass story had already once been filmed, as “Man in the Wilderness,” with Richard Harris and John Huston in 1971. Even so, over the years no film resulted, that until word came last year of the cinematic collaboration between Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s. As the credits rolled following the film last weekend, I saw that the production of course credited the book, though with a proviso I’d not seen before, stating that the movie was “Based in Part on the Novel by Michael Punke.” I imagine the wording was mutually agreed to between the author’s agent and the producers, because the two works do diverge. But I don’t criticize the filmmakers on that score, for as Punke himself wrote in an Historical Note at the end of the novel, the confirmed history surrounding Hugh Glass’s life is scant—little more is known for certain beyond the fact he lived, was a skilled tracker, was mauled by a grizzly bear during an 1823 expedition with the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company, following which he was left for dead by two of his likely companions, a miscreant named John Fitzgerald and a teenaged Jim Bridger; Bridger ultimately became a much more famous mountain man than Glass, with modern tourist sites in the Mountain West named after him. I’m pleased to see the movie is bringing more attention to the gripping novel, which is a bestseller in the Picador reissue. I’m also pleased to remind people about the book, since as the Obama administration’s Deputy Trade Representative to the WTO in Geneva, Switzerland, Michael Punke is not permitted to directly promote his own commercial interests. I’m happy to stand in for him, then, as relatives of his have been doing at premieres of the movie, which has now garnered many Academy Award nominations.
When I was a retail bookseller with Undercover Books, this is exactly the sort of novel that we would read in advance galleys from the publisher, then order 50 copies, and sell them all in the book’s first month on sale. If you enjoy adventure tales, I recommend you read this one, a gripping survival story based on the life of a real American who traverses a great swath of the inter-mountain west in a quest for justice, less than 20 years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition had opened the region to exploration.
January 2015nant-front.jpg”>the BN Review recently I was delighted to discover that one of the most engrossing novels I ever edited and published—The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge—has been reissued and is being made in to a major movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who recently directed “Birdman.” The novel, by Michael Punke, was published in 2002, when I was an editorial executive at Carroll & Graf. It’s inspired by the epic life and adventures of a historical figure, Hugh Glass. He was a frontiersman and fur trapper who in 1823 was part of a westward expedition spanning what is today Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. While foraging for game, away from the troop, Glass was attacked and severely mauled by a grizzly bear. Grievously wounded and bleeding, with the skin on his back nearly flayed off his torso, Glass was still conscious when his comrades found him. Believing that Glass would surely die soon, the leader of the troop ordered two men to stay with him until he expired, then bury him and catch up to the group. In the midst of this death watch, a band of Indians approached the camp, panicking the two men: they grabbed Glass’s rifle and hunting knife and fled. Deserted, defenseless, and enraged at being abandoned, Glass refuses to succumb to his wounds; he survives, determined to recover his weapons, vowing revenge on the men who left him to die. The novel is beautifully written and reads like a timeless adventure story. Talk about a film adaptation of the novel began years ago, and I’m delighted to see now it’s really happening, and with such a high profile team. Hugh Glass did inspire one earlier film, in 1971, when actor Richard Harris was cast as the Glass figure in “Man in the Wilderness,” a rather lurid and unexceptional movie. Punke’s telling of this epic saga, with Glass crawling and dragging himself across wild terrain until he was again able to walk, has all the elements for a great movie and I’m hopeful that is what the production will lead to.
Punke’s agent Tina Bennett submitted the manuscript to me soon after 9/11, an event and aftermath that I was close to, as the offices of Carroll & Graf and Avalon Publishing Group were only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. As I chronicled on this blog on Sept 11, 2012, in a post titled Remembering 9/11/01—Running Through a Dust Cloud in Lower Manhattan, the exertions of that day left me with nagging leg injuries that persisted for most of the year that followed. In fact, when I attended the book launch for The Revenant, held in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2002, I took the train from NYC using a cane to help me walk on a still-tender ankle.
Though novels don’t often have subtitles or reading lines, I suggested to the author that we use one here. We had quite an evocative title, though the word ‘revenant’ (a being that returns from the dead) was not then and still isn’t a widely familiar term. Glass’s odyssey seeking revenge and justice resonated powerfully with the spirit of the time, so “A Novel of Revenge” seemed the right way to position the book for readers. The publisher reissuing the book now is Picador, part of Macmillan, and I’m glad to see in online listings they’ve chosen to retain the reading line. Interestingly, they’ve reissued the novel in hardcover, not paperback, a somewhat unusual choice for a book published more than a decade ago, though perhaps a sign of the publisher’s confidence in its continuing relevance.
Michael Punke has written two nonfiction books in the years since 2002, both in Western history, Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 and Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West. The book launch for The Revenant was in DC because Punke worked for a law firm there. Among the hosts at the party was a mentor and colleague to Punke, Mickey Kantor, a lawyer involved in international trade who’d served as chair of the Clinton campaign for president in 1992. Punke now works as President Obama’s Deputy United States Trade Representative and US Ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. According to this article in Maxim, his ability to engage in promoting his books is very limited by his sensitive position in the federal government. I’m very glad to know that Michael Punke’s first book is coming back in to print, and that a movie is in the works. We have been in touch occasionally over the past decade, and I’m pleased that I have so much good news to congratulate him about when we’re next in touch. Above is the front and below the back cover of the paperback edition of The Revenant from 2003.
Despite an overwhelming preponderance of comments that were critical of the proposed remedy in the agency model case involving ebook pricing, the Dept. of Justice announced a ruling yesterday that was a huge disappointment to me and many people in the book business. The DOJ rejected the arguments of many, including me, who pointed to Amazon.com as the corporation whose conduct warranted scrutiny, not the defendant publishers. Worse, the DOJ dismissed comments critical of the settlement imposed on three of the Big Six publishers as stemming from fiduciary self-interest. Although people are definitely concerned about their livelihoods, they are also concerned about the future of the business and whether publishers and authors are going to be able to carry on at all. The DOJ claimed it was all about consumers paying less, but I think to only look at price is to miss the larger picture. Unfortunately, I think Shelf Awareness got it right when they headed their coverage, “Justice Dept. to Book Industry, ‘Drop Dead'”.