We met Jacqueline Mroz when she put together the Montclair Literary Festival. From our first meeting and all the way through the end of the festival, she was smart, she was funny, she showed up on time, and she smelled good. So we were not surprised to learn that she had gotten a book deal. Now that Scattered Seeds: In Search of Family and Identity in the Sperm Donor Generation is out, we thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to navigate the rocky seas of the publishing world.
The Book Doctors: What was the inspiration for Scattered Seeds?
Jacqueline Mroz: The inspiration for the book came from a New York Times article that I wrote in 2011 about a sperm donor who had 150 kids. Once I started looking into the fertility industry, I found it was full of fascinating stories and people.
TBD: How is it possible that one man biologically fathered 150 children?
JM: The sperm bank continued to sell this man’s sperm for years–and it was very popular. Most donors are asked to donate around 3 times per week. Also, each donation is divided up into somewhere between 8 and 25 vials, which are then sold to women around the world. Those numbers can really start to add up!
TBD: How did you get that great article in the New York Times? What was the fallout from it?
JM: I came across the original news story through my sister, who was trying to have a baby on her own, using donor sperm. She noticed on a message board for Single Mothers by Choice that one mom wrote about her unease when she found out that her daughter had 75 half siblings. I was intrigued and decided to dig deeper—that’s when I found out that there was a sperm donor with 150 children. The article was very popular and was picked up all over the world. As a result of the story, a state legislator in NYC introduced a bill to limit the number of kids that a sperm donor could have—but she wasn’t able to get enough support to push the bill through.
TBD: How do you think that the process of sperm donation, and the industry it has spawned, ultimately affects kids and parents?
JM: Sperm donation can be great for families or women who aren’t able to have kids otherwise, but for some children who are born through anonymous sperm donors, it can be difficult. Some of these kids become confused about their identity, and end up endlessly searching for their biological fathers, trying to figure out who they are and what they inherited from their donors. There’s also the risk of rare, genetic diseases being passed on from donors to their biological children, and then spreading through the population. (I wrote about this in another Times article.)
TBD: What are some tips for people who want to artificially inseminate?
JM: For someone who is looking to use a sperm donor, I would recommend using the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley. They’re extremely ethical, they limit the number of kids that a sperm donor can have, they’re a nonprofit, and they try to connect kids with their donors when they’re of age. I would also make sure that the sperm bank tests its donors for a significant number of genetic diseases — and I would ask how many kids the donors has already!
TBD: Why isn’t there more oversight into what is one of the most personal areas of human existence?
JM: It’s hard to get the government to institute more oversight over the industry since there are actually few people that really want it — the parents want to have a baby, and the doctors and sperm banks want to help people — and make money. But that’s starting to change, as donor-conceived children are starting to come of age and demanding their rights. The other problem with oversight is it’s a slippery slope, and many are afraid it could lead to (even) more regulation of abortion.
TBD: What was your takeaway from talking to same-sex couples who have used artificial insemination to have a child?
JM: They are grateful for this chance to have children. Also, some of the single mothers by choice that I spoke to have been particularly good at finding and reaching out to their kids’ half-siblings — it gives them an extended family that their children might not otherwise have. Many visit each other and take vacations together.
TBD: How did you go about getting this book deal?
JM: The newspaper article was extremely popular, so I used that and my proposal to find an agent. My agent, Jane Dystel, is amazing!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Writers’ groups can be very helpful, especially if you’re having trouble finishing something that you’re working on. You can ask the other writers to give you a deadline to help you get things done.
Jacqueline Mroz is a veteran journalist specializing in reproductive and family issues. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and three children.
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Kathy Kmonicek for The New York Times
“For Would-Be Authors, a Chance at a Happy Ending”
By AILEEN JACOBSON
December 10, 2010
SUZANNE WELLS, a slight woman with a careworn face, looked a little shaky as she walked up to the podium and faced a table where four judges sat. To her left was an audience of more than 200 people, ready to listen to her bid to become a published author.
Glancing at her notes, Ms. Wells launched into a description of her life, which started in affluence and comfort and devolved into heroin addiction and poverty, including an excruciating evening “when I took my children to a housing shelter.”
That was one of the more dramatic moments of “Pitchapalooza!” an event at the Book Revue here during which would-be authors pitched book ideas to a panel of publishing experts. All the presenters got advice from the panelists; the winner was to receive an introduction to an agent.
Though only 25 people were chosen at random to make their pitches, 187 had signed up for the opportunity at the Dec. 2 event, which was part of a cross-country promotional tour by David Henry Sterry and his wife, Arielle Eckstut, the authors of “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It and Market It … Successfully!” The crowd in Huntington was the largest yet, they said.
Click —> HERE to read the full story on The New York Times.
“The Book Doctors Offer Cures for Book Proposals”
If hope is a thing with feathers, Politics & Prose Bookstore could have taken flight Wednesday night.
Usually a venue for best-selling authors, the Washington bookstore was filled instead with would-be novelists, expectant memoirists and unpublished writers of all kinds. They’d come for Pitchapalooza! — “The American Idol for Books” conducted by husband and wife team Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. The Book Doctors, as they call themselves, are the authors of “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published,” which instantly sold out at Politics and Prose.
Click —> HERE to read the full story on The Washington Post.
“One time, I only held a job for three hours. I hired as a lighting technician at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the early 1970s,” recalled author Steve Turtell. “I nearly killed someone when I lost my grip on a ladder that I was holding up—it just started falling and I froze! Luckily, a lighting cable stopped it from falling all the way over. After that, the guy who hired me asked me to leave.”
Mr. Turtell was in the sunken auditorium at the office of Workman Publishing, an independent publishing house in the West Village on Thursday evening, ready to pitch his book “50/50: 50 Jobs in 50 Years, a Working Tour of My Life.” (He has also worked as a nude artists’ model; a research assistant at PBS; a janitor at Gimbel Brothers; a fashion coordinator at Joyce Leslie; a butcher; a baker; and the director of public programs at the New-York Historical Society.)
Click —> HERE to read the full story on the Wall Street Journal.
Long-Form Journalism Finds a Home
By DAVID CARR
Published: March 27, 2011
It was a hit. But it was also the kind of deeply reported journalism that was going the way of the fax machine.
“In the digital realm, there is infinite space, but somehow this hasn’t resulted in a flowering of long-form content,” Mr. Ratliff said. He had long considered building a Web site that would be more hospitable to long articles, but had also been spending a fair amount of time on his subway commute reading those pieces on his iPhone.
The men called Jefferson Rabb, a programmer and Web designer known for building remarkable sites for books. In bars up and down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the three talked about whether there was a way to use these devices to make the Web a friend, not an enemy, of the articles they liked to work on and read.
And, in what may be the first tangible result of journalists gathered in a bar to complain about the state of reading, they did something beyond ordering another round.
The result is The Atavist, a tiny curio of a business that looks for new ways to present long-form content for the digital age. All the richness of the Web — links to more information, videos, casts of characters — is right there in an app displaying an article, but with a swipe of the finger, the presentation reverts to clean text that can be scrolled by merely tilting the device.
“We wanted to build something that people would pay for,” said Mr. Thompson, who has since switched to being a senior editor of The New Yorker and has had to pull back to consulting for the project.
“The Web is good at creating short and snappy bits of information, but not so much when it comes to long-form, edited, fact-and-spell-checked work.”
Readers who buy an article from The Atavist and read it on an iPad — there are also less media-rich versions for the Kindle and the Nook — could begin reading the piece at home and then when driving to work, toggle to an audio version. In each item, there is a timeline navigation that seems natural and simple, and a place for comments that mimics the notes that people put in the margins of complicated, interesting pieces.
Since opening for business at the end of January, The Atavist has published three long pieces that are native to the tablet in concept and execution, and it has had over 40,000 downloads of its app. Writers are paid a fee to cover reporting expenses and then split revenue with The Atavist. For the time being, an article costs $2.99 for the iPad and $1.99 for the Kindle or Nook.
“Lifted,” by Mr. Ratliff, one of the debut pieces, is about an immense heist at a Swedish cash repository, weighed in at 13,000 words. But instead of opening with a long explanation of how it was done, the reader is dropped into the actual video taken by the security cameras. A helicopter comes into view; dark-clad men in ski masks send a ladder down through a skylight and then are seen carrying guns, and later, heavy bags of cash through the interior. The video ends, cue text, and the story is rolling.
In another article of similar length, by Brendan Koerner, called “Piano Demon” about Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who stormed Asia, there are many extra audio obscurities that deepen the reader experience. And “Before the Swarm,” a 9,000-word dive into, you guessed it, a man who lived among the ants, gorgeous, highly detailed photography — and really funny, gross videos — pull the reader along.
The most remarkable thing about these can’t-look-away pieces of multimedia journalism is that Mr. Rabb devised a content-management system that allows a writer to build it alone. Before taking on The Atavist, Mr. Rabb had never before worked in Objective-C, the code used to build most apps for Apple devices, but he bought a book about the code and developed a prototype within a month.
The Atavist approach should easily scale to nonfiction books, and a number of discussions are under way with publishers. There have also been talks about licensing the content management software. One executive from a major publisher, who declined to speak for attribution because the company is in the midst of negotiations with The Atavist, all but wolf-whistled when I called.
“It’s almost unbelievable that these three guys came up with something so spectacular,” he said. “This is something we are all working on, and the solution that they came up with both in terms of the reader experience and the production is really remarkable.”
Because of the reading experience provided by the iPad and other devices, there is a bit of a renaissance for longer articles in realms beyond apps like The Atavist.
David Grann’s 16,000-word piece in The New Yorker about a possible wrongful execution in Texas generated almost 4.5 million page views, while a Twitter feed called LongReads has about 20,000 followers and a fast-growing Web site. A recent study by the folks at Read It Later, a service that helps a reader bookmark and save an article, demonstrated that many owners of the iPad are time-shifting longer articles for evening reading.
Among other businesses, education companies have expressed immediate interest in The Atavist’s layered, multimedia approach to complicated content.
“I am fascinated by what they are doing,” said Carl Hixson, chief technology officer of Pearson Education. “By bringing content to life by embedding rich media and doing it with a content-management system that works, it’s a very compelling solution.”
All of this from a project that cost around $20,000 in sunk costs and hundreds of unpaid hours.
If this had happened in Silicon Valley, there would be a garage involved. But in Brooklyn, it’s three guys sneaking out for drinks on Atlantic Avenue.