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Saluting Daniel Halpern, Venerable Champion of Fiction Writers

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Ironically, I had earlier encountered the circus novel, by an as-yet unpublished writer named Ellen Hunnicutt, when I worked as first reader/contest judge at Scribner, who at the time sponsored a first novel prize in Max Perkins’s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.

May 4th, a Key Date in My Life at 3 Critical Junctures

I published a version of this post on May 4, 2012, and have now updated it for 2013-14 with additional material, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” as you’ll see below. The comments below are from the 2012-13 posting–you are welcome to add your own.

May 4, a big date on my personal calendar

On this date in 1970 I was fifteen. That afternoon, around 4:30, I was standing on a sidewalk in downtown Cleveland, waiting for my sister Pamela to get off her job at Halle Bros., a local department store. Nearby, a delivery van pulled up, with the name of the evening paper, Cleveland Press, emblazoned across its side. The back door of the van rolled up and a worker began tossing bundles of that afternoon’s edition off the truck. It was a real “Front Page” moment, as in old movies when a swirl of numbered calendar pages and newspaper print resolves in to a splashy headline of bold, readable type and a brash reporter rushes off to get the rest of the story. Only this time, it was not a funny, Capraesque moment. In weirdly unfolding slow-motion I watched a particular bundle roll toward me until it landed above the fold, headline up. Like seeing a license plate in front of one’s eyes during a car accident—and remembering the combo of digits and letters forever—I read the inches-high black type: Four Students Shot Dead On Kent Campus. For several days prior, I had been following the antiwar demonstrations at Kent State, about thirty miles from Cleveland, and I knew that Ohio Governor James Rhodes had deployed armed troops to the campus. Pam soon joined me on the sidewalk and I told her the disturbing news. We shared our shock and dismay and probably dropped whatever we had been planning to do, though I have no memory after telling her about the newspaper headline. I recall that little more than a week later I heard on local radio Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s recording of “Ohio.” It was as if Neil had written a musical version of an instant book, as is still done in the book world after a terrible catastrophe. In fact, in Neil’s recent memoir Heavy Peace he recalls quickly writing the song and the alacrity with which they recorded it, pushing the acetate copies of the song out to radio stations, before the vinyl 45s had even been pressed. Here’s a youtube version of the song with many photos taken that week on the Kent State campus. Thanks to Hard Rain Productions for assembling the photo montage with the song.

Eight years later, May 4, 1978

Pamela, our brother Joel, our parents Earl and Sylvia, and I all opened Undercover Books, the bookstore that would define our lives for many years. When I was graduated from Franconia College a year earlier, with a BA in Philosophy of Education and History of Religion, I had imagined I might work for the Anti-Defamation League or some similar organization. I certainly hadn’t thought of working in a bookstore, but my siblings—with Pam having worked in department stores, and Joel at Kay’s Bookstore in downtown Cleveland–had the idea of opening a bookstore in our home suburb of Shaker Heights, where despite it being an affluent and well-educated community, no bookstore had ever been located. We were fortunate in our timing, for in Cleveland, as in several other midwestern cities, book retailing was migrating from the downtown core to the suburbs. Undercover Books caught on right away, and I got what amounted to a graduate education, provided by bookselling. As buyer for adult books for what would become our three-store indie chain, I met every day with bookbuying customers and browsers. We were regularly called upon by publishers’ sales reps, and became a go-to store for houses eager to break out books on the national scene. Notable authors who launched books at the store included Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale), Richard North Patterson (The Lasko Tangent), and Walter Tevis (Queen’s Gambit). I was with the bookstores for seven years before moving to New York City, and have written more about the transition here on this site. The bookstore proved to be a gateway to my career in the book business and it all began on this date thirty-six years ago today.

Another nine years, May 4, 1987

Now working as an editor at Walker & Company, my first full-time position with a publishing house, I was in the happy position of telling my author Ellen Hunnicutt that her novel, Suite For Calliope: A Music and the Circus—the first book I signed up on arriving at the company, and which was to be published that summer—had just received a starred review in Kirkus. Ellen was very excited as I read her the whole review with lines like these, “An extraordinary first novel that, in its remarkable inventiveness, intelligence, and charm-struck humanity, should draw—and more than richly reward—readers of almost every inclination. . . . A prodigiously masterful novel of profundity, breadth, and continual delight: waiting now only for what ought to be its very, very many readers.” Note I read it to her, and didn’t fax it, probably because neither one of us had one. What added to the special quality of the occasion however was that this day, May 4, was also Ellen’s birthday. You can read more about how I came to discover Suite for Calliope in this essay elsewhere on this blog.

Nowadays, when May 4 rolls around again, even if nothing so deeply tragic or personally historic is occurring in that given year, I marvel at it all. For now, I’m just really glad I created this site over the past couple years, so that this year, I have a proper venue to share my memories of May 4, from 44 years ago, from 36 years ago, and from 27 years ago.

The pictures seen here were taken in what we called “the middle room” at Undercover Books, where we placed a comfortable rattan couch. The black Labrador is our dog Noah, whose ear Joel is massaging. I am wearing the same style of pink eyeglass frames as I wear nowadays. I’ve told the story of how Joel and I came to get Noah at a dog pound in Deadwood, South Dakota, on a cross-country road trip in the summer of 1970, on a biographical blog post I tweeted out it a few months ago, with a picture of Noah and me that I cherish. I miss them both, Noah who passed in 1982, and Joel in 2009.

“Life is a Carnival”*

The Bard Graduate Center on West 86th Street is a gem of a small New York museum. On my birthday last Saturday, Kyle asked me what I wanted to do for fun. I suggested we go view Bard’s current exhibit, “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010.”

I’ve loved the circus for years, and have even collected artwork on it, like the print below of high-wire artists on a bike, by Dame Laura Knight. I bought it  in 1987 from my late art dealer friend Robert Henry Adams when I was editing and publishing the splendid circus novel, Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, by Ellen Hunnicutt, who won the Dru Heinz Literature Prize that same year for her short fiction collection, In the Music Library. Ellen’s novel centers around a young female protagonist who’s a runaway from a bizarre custody battle in her family. Holed up in the safe harbor of the Florida winter quarters of a circus troupe, throughout the novel she’s using their calliope to compose a musical work in memory of her late mother. The novel’s theme is how we may turn our mourning and loss to the service of art and creativity. For the record, Ellen passed away in 2005. I hope some day to republish her novel.

Much as I’ve read about circus lore, I had not understood a key aspect of the historical record as documented by the exhibit: the central role that NYC played in the growth and development of the circus throughout North America. Many of the biggest promoters were headquartered in Manhattan, the continent’s entertainment capitol. Once the circus began moving from town to town via train cars, Gotham’s status as a rail hub, as well as its large, diverse population, made it the essential city for promoters and performers alike.

The 20th century was covered on the third floor of the exhibit, with great photographs by Weegee, best known for his lurid crime scene photography, here depicting circus audiences enthralled by performances. There was also a video monitor showing a film of female stunt artist Tiny Kline performing the “Slide for Life,” in which she clamped down on a kind of leather bit she’d placed in her mouth, then slid on a cable for a 1,000 feet hanging above Times Square.

Along with the exhibit, which comprises more than 200 works displayed on three floors of the museum, there will be nine public talks given beginning October 11 and stretching into 2013, ending on January 31, discussing female equestrians; performance photography; the design and typography of circus posters; P.T. Barnum and Ralph Waldo Emerson; Alexander Calder; clowning; and the circus of the future. I hope to be there for one or more of these presentations. Meantime, here is a gallery of images from the exhibit. Please click through to view art and images from the exhibit.

*Thanks to The Band, for use of the title of their song, “Life is a Carnival, written by Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and J.R.R. Robertson, from their 1971 album, “Cahoots.”

Lost American Writer Found–Jim Tully

Until recently, I had not read even one of the fourteen books by the early- to mid-twentieth-century American writer Jim Tully (1886-1947) and knew little about him. Given my personal interest in Tully’s subject matter, which included circuses, hoboes, and riding the rails, springing from his twin milieux, rural Ohio and early Hollywood, I’m surprised at myself for having been slow to pick up on him. Now having sampled his work and discovered what an important and successful literary career he made in his life by reading the excellent new biography of him, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, I’m going to do my part here to redress this widespread case of historical amnesia. I believe that now–especially in light of the Occupy movement and the attention it’s drawing to the economic distress afflicting millions in our society–is an ideal time for Jim Tully to be rediscovered. / / more . . .