Jonathon Keats on Buckminster Fuller, Being a Critic, a Writer, and How to Get Unusual Books Published
We first met Jonathon Keats many years ago, and we were immediately struck by what an eclectic set of interests he had, and what amazing bowties he wore. He’s working on a couple new projects, and his book You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future came out this year, so we picked his brain about philosophy, lighting, publishing, and how to get strange and beautiful books published.
The Book Doctors: First of all, tell us about your new book.
Jonathon Keats: I’ve written a book that explores the legacy of Buckminster Fuller, a visionary inventor and architect who styled himself as a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. Fuller spent much of the 20th century striving “to make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity.” His visionary thinking led most famously to his invention of the Geodesic Dome, but I believe his deeper legacy was as a pioneer of what we now refer to as world-changing ideas. Many of these – such as visualizing global resources and gaming world peace – were not possible in Fuller’s lifetime but have become feasible since his death in 1983, and are now urgently needed to meet the growing demands of an exploding world population.
My ambition with this book is to revive Fuller’s comprehensivist approach to framing and addressing colossal problems. Along the way I delve into his life story and personal eccentricities. This is a man who seriously proposed to make cars with inflatable wings and to build a dome over Manhattan. He was equal parts genius and crackpot, and I believe we need to consider all aspects of his character if we’re going to responsibly revive comprehensive anticipatory design science in our own time.
TBD: How exactly does one go about becoming a professional conceptual artist and experimental philosopher?
JK: It happened by default. I studied philosophy in college, but ultimately found it too stiflingly academic. So I sought ways in which to do philosophy in public, engaging the broadest possible audiences in questions that ultimately concern everyone: questions about what we value in life and what kind of future we want.
For instance, I recently designed a camera with a hundred-year-long exposure. Hundreds of these devices have been hidden in cities worldwide. You might think of them as surveillance cameras, invisibly watching over the decisions we make. They’ll reveal our activities to future generations that have no way of influencing us yet will be impacted by many of the choices we’re making today.
I’ve found the art world to be the most permissive realm in which to undertake these large-scale thought experiments. If I’m a conceptual artist, it’s really a matter of convenience. Conceptual art provides cover for doing what I’ve always done, which is to systematically question everything.
TBD: What has being a critic taught you about writing?
JK: Criticism keeps me honest. It exposes me to other work and helps me to examine my own work at a distance.
TBD: How did you go about getting your book published?
JK: This is my third book with Oxford University Press. My first book was about language and my second one was about forgery, and before those I wrote a collection of stories inspired by Talmud, which was published by Random House. My interests are eclectic and my writing reflects that. I suppose it can be a liability in terms of getting published, since publishers may be unsure of how to define me, but at a certain point, the eclecticism became a defining characteristic. My books all have in common the fact that they have nothing in common except my eclectic sensibility. Somehow it seems to work – and eclecticism turns out to be a good starting point for writing about a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist.
TBD: What do you want people to take away from the book?
JK: I want people to understand Buckminster Fuller’s way of thinking. Equally important, I want people to appreciate the limitations of his worldview. Fuller was a techno-utopian who believed that all problems could be solved by engineering. This assumption has become mainstream as companies like Google have come to dominate the planet. By seeing the ways in which Fuller failed – and there were many – we can be smarter about technology and how we engage the new economy.
TBD: Tell us about the global warming ice cream project.
JK: Maybe I should blame it on Fuller. He was obsessed with data visualization. Toward that end, he invented the Geoscope, a vast animated globe intended to reveal patterns ranging from cloud cover to human migration. While the Geoscope never got built, visualization has subsequently become increasingly mainstream. We’re increasingly immersed in big data, and we increasingly rely on visualization to model complex systems.
Yet for all the benefits of visualization, we remain incapable of understanding many phenomena, from the accelerating expansion of the universe to the intricacies of climate change. So I started thinking about whether visualization was the only way of examining complex patterns, and I realized that there was another option. Instead of visualizing complex systems, we could gastronify them. In other words, we could eat our data.
The human gut turns out to be a remarkably intelligent organ, second only to the brain in number of neurons. The enteric nervous system is also manifestly unlike our gray matter, as is suggested by talk about ‘gut feelings.’ By representing scientific models with digestible biochemicals instead of colored arrows, it’s possible to expose scientific phenomena to the alimentary canal, where they may be understood in terms that elude the brain.
Over the past year, I’ve been developing a chemical language based on the effect of substances like vanillin and capsaicin on receptors lining the intestine. Practically any phenomenon can be represented, but I’m initially concentrating on global warming, transforming the carbon cycle and albedo effect into edible feedback loops. My gastronification of the global climate will be presented next month at the STATE Festival in Berlin, where it will be consumed not only by climate scientists but also the general public.
I’ve chosen to serve the climate feedback loops in a specially-made sorbet, since ice cream seems to be universally popular and is bound only to become more so as the planet warms. Unlike the conundrum of dark energy, climate change needs to be understood by everybody because we need to act on it as a society. By consuming my sorbet, people may internalize the problem, emotionally confronting climate change through the enteric nervous system.
TBD: How does being a visual artist influence you as a writer?
JK: I really don’t differentiate between the two modes of expression, at least at the outset. In some cases ideas are more effectively explored through narrative, while others can be examined more incisively through an object or installation. So for any given project, I decide on an approach that I think will be most generative. There are countless considerations – such as the trade-off between control and flexibility – but ultimately I work on instinct.
And I’m also pretty promiscuous. Over the years I’ve made numerous artist’s books, and my installations inevitably involve language. Just consider all the words I’ve used to talk about data gastronification – and I’m only getting started.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading these days?
JK: My favorite books as a child are still some of my favorites, and remain some of the most profound influences on what I do every day. Harold and the Purple Crayon showed me how to create an imaginary world with the simplest imaginable materials. Goodnight Moon taught me philosophy. (What to make of the page reading “Goodnight nobody”? I’m still trying to figure it out.) The light touch of the best children’s books allows them to probe deeper than most anything else ever written. In everything I do, I strive for that lightness. I have yet to achieve it.
The books I’m reading today are often those that I’m reviewing. (The most recent is Time Travel by James Gleick.) Then there are new books by friends, such as Damion Searls’s excellent forthcoming history of the Rorschach Test, The Inkblots. And finally there are books I find myself rereading on a regular basis, always finding something I hadn’t previously noticed. One of those is Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements by Henry T. Brown. (The title pretty well encapsulates what it’s about.)
TBD: How would you improve the English language?
JK: I think we could benefit immeasurably by adding to our relatively meager stock of tenses and moods. One addition that comes to mind in this election season is the faithful. It would work much like the conditional, only instead of indicating statements of possibility, the faithful would mark statements of belief. (Present: I have, you have, s/he has. Conditional: I would have, you would have, s/he would have. Faithful: I believe I have, you believe you have, s/he believes s/he has.) The widespread adoption of the faithful tense – especially the first person faithful – might lead to greater accountability not so much because politicians would actually use it but because we’d be more attuned to what they were avoiding.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JK: The virtues of procrastination are greatly underestimated. I tend to do my most interesting work when I’m working on too many things and alternatingly procrastinating on all of them. Projects get mixed up in my head. Serendipitous connections occur to me. And serendipity is a pretty good proxy for creativity.
Jonathon Keats is a writer, artist and experimental philosopher. He is recently the author of the story collection The Book of the Unknown (Random House), winner of the American Library Association’s 2010 Sophie Brody Medal, as well as Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology (2010) and Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age (2013), both published by OUP.
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Selling your First Novel, Maximizing Writers’ Conferences and Making a Living While Writing
We are lucky to live in a town called Montclair, New Jersey. We had no idea when we moved here how many amazing writers would live within a stone’s throw of us. One of them is Christina Baker Kline. We got to know her before her New York Times best-selling novel, Orphan Train, was published. She was at the center of the writing community in Montclair, helping writers both published and unpublished to get their foot into the door of the book biz. It often seems like a bestseller comes out of nowhere, fully formed like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. But as you’ll see from our interview with Christina, a groundbreaking novel, like Rome, is not built in a day.
The Book Doctors: You were a writer for many years before you had a mega bestseller. Take us down the path of your decision to become a writer, the arc of your career, and how it led up to your most recent success.
Christina Baker Kline: I have always been a working writer, by which I mean I was a scrappy kid. I was raised by professor parents who had no money. My mother taught at a community college. When I was about 11 or 12, she put me in charge of cooking, and she put my sister Cynthia, who was about 18 months younger, in charge of laundry. She had to stand on a box to do laundry. And so we became quite self-sufficient. We also took care of our two baby sisters. We called them The Babies until they were 12. And I remember one of my sisters saying, “You have to stop calling us The Babies. We’re not babies anymore.”
In college, I majored in English literature. I did a Masters of Arts in literature for graduate school, and then I did an MFA. For me, as it so happened, English was a marketable degree, even though people might not think of it that way, because that’s where my skills lie. My masters in English literature helped me get teaching jobs. For my MFA, I knew that I could stave off student loans for two more years, and I also wanted to write a novel, but I knew I would never be able to do it if I was working full-time. So I applied to ten programs. I got full fellowships at two, Michigan and The University of Virginia, to, as far as I was concerned, write a novel. They didn’t know I was going to write a novel. MFA programs are not set up to write novels. But I was very directed. I had one shot, and then I was going to be repaying student loans and working. I wrote my first novel in two years while pretending to be writing short stories. I kind of handed in little bits and pieces and old stories.
I also was an entrepreneur, and I had a company called Writing Works, which I started with another grad student. We edited Guggenheim applications, professors’ essays, and letters. Books even. Then I came to New York and continued that little company. I’ve always set up a life in which I was working as an editor and teaching.
I’ve always assumed I would have to make a living in addition to writing. I have ten books, and I’ve always gotten reasonable advances. I broke six-figures once in that period of all those books, but I always had high five-figure advances. Sometimes I could support myself for a year, and sometimes I couldn’t. But the big picture is, I always knew that I wanted to write, and I always assumed it would also entail making a living in some other way as well. So I never expected to write a book that would mean I wouldn’t have to do other jobs.
TBD: What happened to that first novel?
CBK: For my first novel, I got $7,500. It was the little engine that could, and it far surpassed my modest expectations. We sold rights in other countries. We sold film rights, first serial rights. It was a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. For $40,000, Reader’s Digest bought it. That was huge because the book had earned out way before it came out. This led to a bidding war for my next novel. Of course, that’s how I thought it would continue forever. But the second novel did very poorly, and I had gotten a big advance. So I sold my next novel for a reasonable amount and got myself back on track in terms of publishers not being terrified to take me on. And then my next book was much darker, more serious. That didn’t do so well. My career was very up-and-down. That brings us to Orphan Train.
TBD: It’s interesting that you’ve never really experienced full-on rejection in the way that most writers have. Despite the ups and downs, it sounds like a really nice run!
CBK: Not exactly. I have been protected a bit from rejection. But I went through one very dark period. I had this wonderful experience with my first novel. I had a lot of interest in my second novel. But the editor who bought it was a celebrity editor; she was not hands-on. She took on a lot of writers like me, paid them well because she had a big budget, and then waited to see who would rise to the top. She’d tell me she read the manuscript but didn’t seem to know the story. Her assistant would call and say it was in the pipeline, and I would know it wasn’t. Crazy. I had just had my third child, my second book had done poorly, and my life was kind of a shit show.
TBD: You’ve written many different kinds of books. Now you have a huge bestseller. Do you feel pressure to recreate Orphan Train?
CBK: As you said, all of my books are really different from each other, and they probably always will be. I don’t feel constrained by the weight of Orphan Train. I feel freed by it in a way. Nobody ever thought Orphan Train was going to be a bestseller. There are these books–Eat, Pray, Love, or Water for Elephants, or The Lovely Bones–that writers publish and then have respectable careers, but they don’t repeat that level of commercial success. I fully intend to be that kind of writer. I don’t plan on having another one. I’m not a writer like Stephen King whose books will always be at the top of the bestseller list. And I don’t feel bad about it.
Look at a writer like Claire Messud, who made a big splash with her novel The Emperor’s Children. That was her big book, and she’s very respected. But if you read her other novels, they are very dark and intense. It’s who she is and what she does, and she’s not trying to write to an audience.
My next book is quiet and interior; it’s about a woman who essentially never leaves her house.
Another thing: after I handed in Orphan Train, before it came out, I called everyone I knew in publishing and asked for jobs. I thought, “I have to get a full-time job as an editor. I can’t do this anymore. This book is probably just going to fail.” I was editing 50 manuscripts a year and teaching. It was grueling. I had several interviews, and they all basically said, “You’re too old. There’s no way we’re hiring you as an editorial assistant or anything else.” They didn’t say that, but it was clear. I thought, “What am I going to do? Just work at Starbucks or something?”
TBD: You still teach at writers’ conferences. I see you’re going to be at the Kauai Writers Conference in November. (So jealous!) What impresses you when you come across someone who has never been published when you’re in this environment?
CBK: I was reading The New York Times on the plane yesterday, and there was this person talking about what leads to success. He said there’s an equation, which is Talent + Work = Skill. Skill + Work = Success. But Big Success is when you have a vision of how what you’re doing makes the world a better place. So what I guess impresses me is when they have the talent, the work ethic, the willingness to read a lot, and are willing to edit their own work–a lot of people aren’t. To me, editing is the secret to writing. I edit so much, and I think it’s very important. In literary stories and novels the sound and rhythm of words matter. But understand that even if you want to write a literary novel, plot and structure are incredibly important.
TBD: And on the flip side of that, what do you see people doing that’s a turnoff
CBK: If people want things from me but they don’t know my work, or they haven’t read it and have nothing to say about it, then I’m as anonymous to them as they are to me. If I don’t feel they have any particular reason for approaching me, I don’t have any particular reason for helping them. But if a writer knows my work and has some kind of connection to it, I’m open to being approached. I love discovering and championing great new writing. It’s one of the best things about this writing life.
TBD: We can’t wait to read the next book, Christina!
Christina Baker Kline is the author of five novels. Her most recent novel, Orphan Train, has spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, including five weeks at # 1, and has been published in 38 countries. More than 100 communities and colleges have chosen it as a “One Book, One Read” selection. Her other novels include The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines. Her new novel, based on the iconic painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, will be published in Winter 2017.
In addition to her five novels, Kline has written and edited five nonfiction books. She commissioned and edited two widely praised collections or original essays on the frist year of parenthood and raising young children, Child of Mine and Room to Grow, and a book on grieving, Always Too Soon. She is the coeditor, with Anne Burt, of a collection of personal essays called About Face: Women Write About What They See When They Look in the Mirror, and is co-author, with her mother, Christina Looper Baker, of a book on feminist mothers and daughters, The Conversation Begins. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Money, More, Psychology Today, among other places.
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Imagine Being the Writer You Are Not…Yet
We first met Cathy Salit when she had an idea for a book. As the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, a company that helps individuals and organizations with all things related to human development, we knew she had a life-changing book on her hands. Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work can now be found in the business section of bookstores. But we think it’s a book that everyone interested in becoming a better version of themselves should read, especially if you’re an author without writing experience, or a writer without publicity and marketing experience. You’ll see why.
The Book Doctors: In your book, Performance Breakthrough, you talk about the idea that you can be who you are and who you’re not at the same time. Can you explain what that means?
Cathy Salit: We human beings all have an innate ability to perform, to project, to imagine, and to play. This ability is something we are able to exercise effortlessly as children. We play mommy and daddy and different superheroes, on different planets, different animals, and so on. It’s something that is not just a cute and wonderful thing about childhood; it’s also a very big part of what enables children to learn and to grow. But what happens is, at a certain point in our childhood, all that playing and all that experimenting gets pushed to the wayside, and now it’s time to learn and behave and to get things right. This is for a good reason, in the sense that you don’t want to play and experiment with how to cross the street. But we end up minimizing the part of ourselves that can, and should, and could continue to play and experiment. We develop our identities, our personalities, and define ourselves by our profession, who we love, what we like to do. Performance Breakthrough proposes that what it means to grow–to keep learning and keep developing–is to combine who we already created ourselves to be and who we are not yet.
TBD: With a lot of authors, especially of nonfiction, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a writer.” Either they’ve had careers that they’re writing about, and that career has not been writing, or they are people who have always dreamed of writing a novel, but they have a day job, et cetera. Using the principles of Performance Breakthrough, how does one take on the role of “Writer” while thinking that you are not one?
CS: What if they don’t have to own that they’re a writer? What if they just pretend to be a writer and not worry about whether they really are? A helpful concept is to creatively imitate writers, and that can include learning more about what it means to be a writer. One of the many, many things that I did to put myself in the zone of being a writer was reading books about writing by writers, like Anne Lamott and Stephen King, and creatively imitating and doing what they said to do. Number two, as a performer, I’m a talker. I’m a speaker. I pretended to trust that I could just write down what I would say, and that would be enough to get started.
TBD: Today, being a writer means more than just writing. It means being a salesperson, a publicist, a marketer. Many of these jobs are completely the opposite of what most writers want to be doing. Many writers are introverted and are not comfortable in these scenarios of having to publicize and market and sell their work. We’re curious about how you would talk about using the ideas in Performance Breakthrough for adopting these roles.
CS: Yeah, it’s hard! I am a salesperson. I am a marketer. And I find it hard. You can think about it as a scene in a new play that you’re in where some scenes are alien to you. Give yourself some lines to say. Those could include: I’m not used to speaking in public. I’m not used to doing podcasts, or being on the radio, so bear with me. You can be playful and honest about this not being your natural habitat. You don’t want to do that endlessly, but it’ll help make you feel more comfortable. Also, it will lower your expectations and relieve some of the pressure.
TBD: Do you have any advice for people who, like you, are translating a lifetime of work to the page?
CS: What occurs to me is the importance of voice. This might seem contradictory, but you can never stop being who you are. If you’re trying to put onto the page your passion, your work, don’t let the fact that you’re putting words on a page and having to use a medium that is maybe not your natural habitat rob you of your voice. Find a way to still be who you are, even while you’re being who you’re not. It’s back to our philosophy that you need to be both. You’re not just being who you’re not. You’re being who you are, too. It’s got to sound like you. It’s got to feel like you. You don’t have to impress anybody. One of the biggest compliments that I’ve gotten for my book is that people feel like they’re in the room with me. Perhaps that’s particularly important for my book because our work is of such an experiential nature.
Cathy Salit is the CEO of the innovative consulting and training firm Performance of a Lifetime and author of PERFORMANCE BREAKTHROUGH: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books). She is a speaker, facilitator, executive coach, instructional designer, and social entrepreneur. Cathy performs regularly with the musical improv comedy troupe the Proverbial Loons and, less frequently, sings jazz and R & B on any stage she can find or create. She lives in New York City.
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Jerry Nelson on Feeding the Machine, Husband Training and Getting a Book Deal with a Great Publisher
We’ve been to the South Dakota Festival of Books twice so far, and we have now discovered two amazing writers who came to the festival without a book deal. Both now have books about to come out. Our conclusion is that there are lots of great writers in South Dakota, and many of them go to that festival. As soon as we met Jerry Nelson, we knew he was the real deal. He has that subtle, dry Midwestern wit that sneaks up behind you and then whacks you right in the funny bone. Since he’s writing about experiences that are so far out of the norm from people on either coast, we knew he’d need a special kind of publisher. We’ve seen over and over again how New York publishing doesn’t quite get this kind of Midwestern book and doesn’t understand what a big audience it has. Jerry’s opus, Dear County Agent Guy, is finally ready for publication, and we are so happy to see this book spread its wings and fly out into the world. We thought we’d check in with him to see exactly how he did it.
To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: When did you first become interested in being a writer, and how did you learn to be one?
Jerry Nelson: I was in junior high school when I read a newspaper column by humorist Art Buchwald. My first reaction was “Newspapers don’t print stuff like this! Newspapers are supposed to be serious and stodgy!” My second reaction was “Where can I find more of this?”
When I was a kid, I never imagined myself becoming a writer. My only goal in life was to be a farmer like my dad and his father before him. I didn’t think that a formal education was necessary for achieving this goal. I put in the minimum amount of effort required of me at school and barely graduated from high school.
I learned to be a writer by reading, which I call “feeding the machine.” Reading enables you to travel to exotic lands and experience new sights and sounds.
The next step toward becoming a writer is to do some actual writing. There are many who say, “I should really write a book!” yet never get past the “should” part. We all have that little voice in our head who is constantly narrating the passing scene. Writing is simply committing that narrator’s words to paper. In essence, I learned by doing.
BD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
JN: I thoroughly enjoy everything that Dave Barry has ever written. He is one of those writers who has the uncanny ability to make the reader spontaneously snort with laughter.
I adore the outdoor writer Patrick F. McManus. When our sons were young, it became a tradition to read one of Pat’s humorous essays to them as a bedtime story. This resulted in much giggling from the boys and from me.
At my bedside is Volume I of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. I dip in and out of it randomly, which I understand is pretty much the method Twain used to write it. Time spent with such a virtuoso is never wasted.
I also loved The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. The list goes on and on.
BD: Read any good books lately?
JN: Our son and daughter-in-law recently gave me a signed copy of Failure is Not An Option by Gene Kranz. It details the author’s experiences as a NASA Flight Director in the early days of our nation’s space program and during the near-disaster that was Apollo 13. These things took place when I was a kid, so it’s like time traveling for me.
I just finished Leaving Home, a collection of The News From Lake Wobegon essays by Garrison Keillor. They are from the early days of A Prairie Home Companion, so most of them seemed new to me. Reading them was nearly as pleasurable as hearing them. They gave me a chuckle and filled me with a deep sense of home.
BD: You have been compared to Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor. How do you feel about that?
JN: It totally blows my mind!
As a boy, I first fell in love with Twain when I read Tom Sawyer. I then proceeded to devour Huckleberry Finn and almost everything Twain has written. He was an American original and is still the undisputed master of his genre.
I first heard Keillor’s voice one Saturday in the mid-1990s when I was feeding my Holsteins. A commercial for Bertha’s Kitty Boutique came through the speakers on my tractor’s radio and I was instantly hooked. I cannot imagine a Saturday evening without A Prairie Home Companion.
Keillor is a living legend and being compared to him is an unspeakably huge honor. Keillor grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, which is four hours from our farm, so it’s natural that our styles might have a similar terroir. The difference is that Keillor writes about Norwegian bachelor farmers, while I once was a Norwegian bachelor farmer.
BD: Tell us about how your professional writing career started.
JN: In 1996, my area was suffering through an extended period of wet weather. It had been so wet for so long that cattails were beginning to grow in my field where there should have been rows of corn.
Feeling frustrated and helpless, I penned a spoof letter to Mel Kloster, my local county extension agent. In the letter, I asked Mel if he knew of a cheap, effective herbicide that could control the cattails. And while he was at it, maybe he could advise me on how to get rid of all the ducks and powerboats that were out in my corn field.
Instead of using a normal salutation, I started the letter with “Dear county agent guy.”
Mel told me that he had enjoyed my missive and that I should get it published somewhere. I replied that I had zero training as a writer and didn’t know the first thing about publishing.
Despite my reservations, I took Mel’s advice and showed the letter to Chris Schumacher, editor of our local weekly newspaper, the Volga Tribune. Chris read the letter and said, “Yeah, I’ll publish this. Do you have any more ideas?” I replied that I had maybe one or two. “Keep them coming,” he said, adding, “What should we call this?”
I asked Chris what he meant by “this.”
“It’s a newspaper column,” said Chris. “How about using the salutation, ‘Dear county agent guy?'”
I replied that this was fine by me and that’s all the thought that went into it. I have written a column each week ever since.
That tiny spark was the beginning of my writing career. As my confidence in my abilities grew, I began to get some of my work published in the nation’s premier farm magazines. I also began to submit scripts that were used on A Prairie Home Companion. I don’t recall exactly how much I was paid for those scripts, but do know that the money was put toward our home heating bill.
BD: You been doing your column “Dear County Agent Guy” for a long time, what have you learned about America by writing about this very particular part of it?
JN: I have learned that folks who live in the Midwest feel that we are all part of a large, extended family. I often write about what’s going on in my life, so my wife and our two sons have provided me a lot of fodder over the years. I have had numerous people say to me, “I feel like I know your family better than I know my own!”
A high school girl recently told me of a family ritual that involves my newspaper column. My column arrives at their home on Friday. When they sit down for their meal that evening, one of the family members reads my column aloud at the table. What I have written then becomes the official topic of discussion during the meal.
Reactions such as those are very gratifying and extremely humbling. They also drive home what a huge responsibility I have to my readers.
BD: What are some of your favorite stories in the collection?
JN: That’s like asking which of your offspring is your favorite child! I cherish them all equally.
But if you held a gun to my head, I might say that “Electric Fencing 101” has a special place in my heart, mainly because it’s mostly true with only a little embellishment here and there. That piece illustrates what it’s like to raise kids on the farm.
Another piece that is special to me is “The Four Seasons of Farming.” It’s one of the more ruminative articles in the book, an essay that speaks to my deep connection with my family, the land and the rhythms of the earth.
BD: Your family have been dairy farmers for four generations. How has farming changed since your great-great-great-grandparents were milking cows?
JN: When my ancestors homesteaded in Dakota Territory, they milked cows the same way it had been done for 10,000 years, that is, by squatting beside a cow and squirting the milk into an open bucket.
Modern dairy farmers utilize 21st century technology. Some dairies have milking parlors that can milk dozens of cows at a time. Over the past few years, robotic milkers have come to the fore. These machines can clean the cow’s udder, attach the milking unit and apply a post-milking teat dip, all without any direct human supervision. Daily milk production and numerous other data points can be accessed via your PC or your smart phone. The robot will send a text to your cell phone if it needs help with an issue.
Cow comfort is paramount on the modern dairy. It used to be that the cows were cold in the wintertime and suffered through the heat during the summer. Nowadays, dairy barns are climate controlled and some dairy farmers have even opted to equip their stalls with water mattresses. Many dairy operators put electronic necklaces on their cows that will track such things as how many steps the cow takes each day and how much time she spends chewing her cud.
My wife wants to put a similar necklace on me so that she can quantify how much time I spend doing actual work and how much time I waste goofing off. I am adamantly opposed to this idea.
BD: Many of our readers want to know, how exactly do you train a husband?
JN: My wife says that one of the things that first attracted her to me was the fact that I have five sisters and was thus “pre-trained.”
From what little information I have managed to gather, husband training is more of an art than a science. It’s also an ongoing, never-ending endeavor. I have heard wives say that it can take up to 50 years to get a husband properly trained.
Husbands are actually fairly simple creatures. We respond positively to rewards and have a deep aversion for unpleasant experiences. If you discover a training method that works well for your Golden Retriever, odds are it will also work for your husband.
BD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JN: There are six simple rules to becoming a better writer: read, read, read, and write, write, write.
Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read the greats and the not-so-greats, anything that will stretch your imagination and your vocabulary. Make certain that you consume a healthy dose of poetry on a regular basis.
As a writer, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Recognize that you are not perfect and will never be able to please everyone. Such is life.
It has been said, “Be bold and mighty forces will rush to your aid.” I have found this to be true throughout my years of beginning each week with the words “Dear county agent guy.”
Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. In addition to his weekly column, his writing has also appeared in the nation’s top agricultural magazines, including Successful Farming, Farm Journal, Progressive Farmer, and Living the Country Life. Dear County Agent Guy is his first book.
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Novelist Ellen Meister Gives The Book Doctors the Skinny on Switching Genres, Independent Bookstores and Thick Skin
One of the questions we get asked all the time is: What if I want to write more than one kind of book? Can I write a cookbook and a cozy mystery? Can I write a dark literary novel and a vampire romance? When we met Ellen Meister, we discovered that she was on the brink of changing courses, genre-wise. Her new book, The Other Life, is a literary novel, which comes on the heels of two novels that are squarely commercial women’s fiction. So we were excited to ask her about her experiences with this change. And in the course of doing so, we were able to find out some other great tips and information about Ellen’s publishing trajectory.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: Many writers come up against brick walls when they change genres or styles. With your latest book, you’ve moved from fun, sassy, upbeat women’s fiction (i.e. the perfect beach reads!) to a more literary premise and story. Did you have any difficulties with this change? Did your agent or publisher want you to stick with the voice you’d already established in your first two books? Did you, yourself, feel you had to stick with what you’d done so well?
ELLEN MEISTER: I was pretty worried about that when I came up with the idea for THE OTHER LIFE, which was clearly a major departure from my previous books. But I fell so in love with the high concept “what if” story about a woman who has the ability to slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she never got married and became a mother, that I knew I had to write it, even if my agent said she wouldn’t be able to sell it.
Of course, I hoped she would adore it, and prayed she wouldn’t tell me I had to stick with what I had been doing. So I wrote a proposal and sent it off, then spent an incredibly anxious week waiting to hear back.
When she called, her response was even better than I had dared dream. Not only did she love the idea, but she had shown the chapters to everyone at the agency, and the reaction was unanimous. Fortunately, several editors felt the same way and the book wound up selling at auction.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: Can you tell us how you got your first book published? Did you encounter rejection? If so, was there anything you learned from this rejection?
ELLEN MEISTER: Oh, the rejection! Pure anguish.
When I finished writing GEORGE CLOONEY IS COMING TO APPLEWOOD (later titled SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA), I attacked the chore of finding an agent as a full time job. I spent my days researching literary agents, honing my query letter, and sending it out again and again and again.
For nine months, the rejections poured in. And then it happened. A wonderful agent called to say she loved the book and wanted to represent me. I went to her New York City office to meet with the whole team. A dream come true.
Ironically, after all those months of rejection, another big agent called the next day to offer representation. It was stressful to turn down a major player … but validating.
I wish I could say I learned something from all the rejection–that my skin got a bit thicker and my fragile heart a little stronger. But I’m afraid this hyper-sensitivity is an incurable condition. Steelier types have lectured me about bucking up and growing a tougher hide. But that’s like telling someone who sunburns easily to go outside naked and ignore the UV rays. It’s just not going to happen. We thin-skinned types just have to nurse our wounds and hope for the soothing balm of success to make it all worthwhile.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You established your own sales promotion agency. How did the experience with this business help you with being an author? What tips do you have for other authors on embracing the promoter within? Are there any unique promotional ideas you’ve employed as a result of your experience?
ELLEN MEISTER: That experience helped me in so many ways. First, being a copywriter was great training. I learned how valuable it is to grab the reader’s attention from the first sentence and never let go.
Also, my background in marketing helped me understand how difficult it is to stand out in a crowded and competitive marketplace. So I never sat back and expected my publisher to do all the heavy lifting in terms of promotion and publicity. There are so many thousands of books in stores vying for attention that an author has to work tirelessly to help the sales effort. Once the book is finished, my floppy artist hat get tossed in the closet and replaced by my rigid marketing hat. (Or perhaps I should say helmet. Yup, it’s that rough out there.)
My advice to other authors is to keep trying and learning and figuring out what works. The Internet is such a dynamic and ever-changing medium that you have to stay agile and quick.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: We met through Book Revue in LI, near where you live. Can you tell us how your local independent bookstore has helped you become a more successful author? Any tips on how newbie authors can embrace their local independent?
ELLEN MEISTER: Book Revue has been so good to me! I’ve done several events with them, and just adore that store.
My advice to newbie authors is to understand the toll this economy has taken on the publishing industry. And indies, in particular, have taken a big hit. That means they’re often understaffed, and you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do a bit of work.
For instance, if you drop into your local indie to sign stock, know that the staff will probably be busy helping customers. So offer to round up the books yourself, and tell them you’ll be happy to affix the “autographed copy” stickers. When visiting smaller indies, it’s a good idea to bring your own stickers in case they don’t have any. (You can buy these pretty cheaply online. The source I use is Alpha Business Forms.)
Another tip: Indies are often happy to supply books for offsite events, but can’t spare the personnel to send out. So if you’re doing a non-bookstore event, contact your local indie ahead of time and ask if they would be willing to supply the books and sales slips. Then line up a friend or relative to lend a hand and write the orders.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You’re on book #3. How has your approach to publishing your books changed from book to book? What have you learned that has only come with time and doing it over and over?
ELLEN MEISTER: On a practical level, I’ve learned that breaking down my deadline into manageable chunks is critical. For instance, if I’m contractually obligated to turn in a manuscript on a specific date, I look at the calendar and calculate how many pages I’ll have to write per week to meet that deadline. Then I make that my weekly writing goal and stick to it. I recommend weekly writing goals even to authors who aren’t on deadline. If there’s a book you want to finish, this is the best way to accomplish it.
On a more philosophical level, I keep learning the same lesson in karma again and again. And it’s a good one. Throughout this journey, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of my literary heroes. A few of them were disappointingly cold and stingy souls, but most were warm, supportive, appreciative and generous. These are the ones I try to model myself after! And I’m happy to say that I never regret it–being kind and helpful to my fellow writers is always worth the effort.