Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A (Somewhat) Clean, Well-Lighted Place

It goes without saying that writers--for a variety of reasons--are an odd bunch. We obsess over lots of different things, but one of those little issues that gnaws at us most is a sense of place. Because writing is an inherently lonely profession, we're very picky about our work space.

Now, certainly, there are many writers who can sit in a noisy cafe or a random park bench with their laptop and immediately lose themselves in their work, blanking out all outside sound and other stimulus. Charles Dickens was that way. He could allegedly sit in the corner of a room with a party whirling around him and scratch out (in longhand, no less!) chapter after chapter of his latest doorstop.

I'm not like that, though. I need quiet, I need a closing door, and I need a space of my very own with my own stuff. It doesn't have to be a big space -- in fact, I sorta like a smaller, more intimate space. It's like having my own clubhouse. And if it's a mess, it's my mess and mine alone.

Anyway, writers like to see where other writers work. We like to visit their houses and see their desks or the places they hunkered down with a piece of wood in their laps to grab a moment to write. Our passion for those places has even inspired a beautiful book, American Writers at Home, that provides sumptuous photos -- and really spry prose by poet J.D. McClatchy -- of the homes of writers like Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Louisa May Alcott and, yes, Washington Irving. You'll see how writers made use of their own personal spaces, often writing plot outlines on the walls or scratching notes into the windows.

What's most surprising about these spaces is just how inelegant most of them are. Most writers don't have a workspace that looks like a stage set. We might think we long for a room with an enormous oak or rolltop desk, with huge, creaking bookshelves groaning under the weight of leather-bound classics -- but really, we wouldn't get much work done sitting in the Merchant-Ivory version of a workspace. Most of our workspaces are much less elegant and disorganized--and therefore more useful and conducive to the way we work.

Here's mine.

It's a bit cleaner than normal (I knew you were coming, so I tidied up my piles), but for the most part, it looks exactly as it did for the ten months I wrote Washington Irving here -- all the way down to the row of Post-It notes stuck to the bookshelf just over the computer monitor.

The room that I turned into my office was originally a small, narrow upstairs kitchen (odd, I know -- the home's previous owners had at one time hosted missionaries, and our upstairs area was essentially a dormitory). It's essentially a long skinny walk-in closet. We ripped out the cabinets and the rather gerry-rigged plumbing, painted the walls, shoved in a day bed, desk, and bookshelf -- all courtesy of IKEA, nothing fancy there -- hung some blinds, and there you have it. It's small, cozy, sometimes messy, but it's mine, and I always know where everything is.

At some point, I'm actually going to move my office to a new spot in the house, mainly to give myself just a bit more shelf space. And while the new room has a fireplace, giving it a bit more of a 19th century look, the feel of the place will be essentially the same -- cavey, cozy, and inelegant. And really, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Beatlemaniacs Suck!

Yes, we really do. I'm one of them, and I'll admit it: I'm part of the problem.

As hardcore Beatlemaniacs, we read anything about the Fabs we can get our hands on, whether good (Bob Spitz's The Beatles: The Biography), bad (Hunter Davies' The Beatles, though it's not his fault), or ugly (Albert Goldman's Many Lives of John Lennon, so ugly it's one of my favorite books ever). We've read books by friends and sycophants, critics and musicians, pop culture analysts and psychiatrists. Some are elegantly written, some are clunky, some are gushy, and some are snarky. But after a while, they all eventually start marching out the same old stories, cribbing from the same sources, and relying on the same dumb cliches. And still we read them, because as Beatlemaniacs, that's what we do.

So many books are written about the Boys every year, in fact, that it seems like it should be getting all but impossible to say anything new. Yet, some of them -- like Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love -- still manage to beat the odds and manage to be really thoughtful, and look at even the most familiar Beatle stories in new and interesting ways.

But here's why Beatlemaniacs suck: we're a brutal, picky crowd -- and any writer who publishes anything about the Beatles earns my instant respect, because it's like jumping into a tankful of sharks waiting for the taste of blood in the water. That means that no matter how good a book might be, we're still going to pick and pick and pick, applying our own impossibly high standards as we determine whether the book does our favorite subject justice. It also means we're going to groan and obsess over even the slightest mistakes, whether it's a mis-labeled photograph, a garbled spelling, or a skewed date.

But what makes us the craziest is a misquoted song lyric. The music is what matters the most, so while an incorrect date or time might be somewhat forgivable (especially when you're in the weeds and trying to make sense of recording logs), a botched lyric is another story entirely. It's like writing a book about Wordsworth and then misquoting The Prelude.

So, Jonathan Gould . . . I'm watching you. I love your book, I'm enjoying it immensely, but I'm on page 405, and you've already driven me nuts with two botched lyrics.

Botch #1 is on page 214, discussing "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The opening lyric is "Oh yeah, I'll tell you something..." and not "Yeah, well, I'll tell you something...."

Botch #2 comes on page 326, during the discussion of "Paperback Writer." I'll quote you here:

"...[Paul] brings a starry-eyed reverence to this dubious occupational title that almost stands up to the punning counterpoint of "Pay-per-back-er" (sung to the tune of "Frere Jacques") that John and George provide."

Uh, no. The backing counterpoint lyric is "Frere Jacques." Isolate it in your headphones, then try again.

Proofreaders and copyeditors everywhere, take note: when proofing Beatles books, triple check those song lyrics -- because there are millions of anal-retentive, obsessive Beatlemaniacs who'll shriek when you get it wrong.

Yeah, we know: we suck. But it's our job.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Washington Irving in Foreign Affairs

Continuing to make my point that Washington Irving led one of the most unique 19th century lives -- even beyond his role as America's first Man of Letters -- Foreign Affairs magazine (published by the way-intimidating Council on Foreign Relations) recognized Irving's achievements as a diplomat and politician, and gave Washington Irving a good review in its May/June 2008 issue. They called it "a pleasure to read," and said it "belongs in the library of any serious student of the United States' engagement with the world." Very nice.

You can see the whole thing here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

NYC Trip Report, Part 4 (Final Issue!)

After enjoying a brief moment of Zen with Washington Irving's library card, I walked with Mark back down the curving staircase to the second floor. Here I met with Jonathan and Casey at the top of the marble stairs just outside the Member's Room (you're peeking through the door, just as I saw things, in the photo to the right), and chatted with several of the librarians and a number of patrons who had shown up early -- including yet another charming member of the Irving family, who proudly showed me a fleur-de-lis ring of Washington Irving's that she was wearing on her pinky. Meanwhile, staff whizzed in and out, setting the room up for their National Library Week reception (cake and lemonade, appropriately Spring-like fare).

It was a bit warm, and I have to embarassingly admit I'm something of a sweater -- it didn't help that I was wearing a suit (my Senate Uniform, I call it), but changing temperature from a Spring day outside to a temperature-regulated building usually turns my head shiny with perspiration, regardless. Fortunately, Jonathan and Casey went above and beyond and took good care of me -- Jonathan pressed a cool glass of lemonade into my hand while Casey handed me a wad of paper napkins and dabbed a bit below my left eye -- and like that, I was fine. I must say, having a posse with you is really cool.

A little after 2:00, Mark led me into the now-packed Member's Room -- a really great venue that allows some lucky audience members the luxury of sitting on couches and overstuffed chairs. Casey and Jonathan took seats discretely off to one side, and as I sat in a classy wingback, Mark stood at the central podium and gave me a very nice introduction.

I gave what I call my E! True Hollywood Story talk -- it gives me a good opportunity to hit several of the high points of Irving's life, with enough famous names and events to keep things really interesting (Look! Mary Shelley! And here's Edgar Allan Poe! And now Martin Van Buren!). And to my delight, just as it had in Newport, the speech went over terrifically. (Want another look? Jonathan very kindly blogged about it himself over on his own website.)

And if you'd like, you can even hear audio of the entire thing right here. The NYSL has only just recently started putting its talks and presentations up on their website, and I'm very proud to be among their first three featured speakers.

As always, I had a wonderful time signing and talking with people afterwards. Interestingly, a number of folks were curious about my time in the U.S. Senate; I'm guessing that life in DC is as enigmatic to New Yorkers as life in New York is to us DC-ites -- an iconic place that we can picture in our heads or see in the movies, but can't imagine what it's like to actually live or work there. I was having so much fun talking with everyone, in fact, that I completely missed having a piece of the cake they'd brought in for their National Library Week celebration.

It was 4:00 by the time we wrapped everything up, and I had a 5:05 train to catch at Penn Station. Jonathan graciously carried my suitcase (see what additional duties an agent shoulders?) as we headed down 79th Street in search of a cab. We finally managed to snag one on the corner at Fifth Avenue, pointed toward Central Park. I threw my bags in the back seat, then hugged (yes, hugged -- I can't help it, I'm a Westerner) Jonathan and Casey goodbye.

I made it back to Baltimore about two hours later than anticipated, thanks to a medical emergency on the Amtrak train directly in front of mine that had stopped on the tracks and required us to pull up next to it and load all of its passengers onto ours. Topping things off, I was then forced to detour about ten miles out of my way on my drive home when an accident -- within spitting distance of my house -- closed the road and turned me back around. At that point, I couldn't get home fast enough.

I won't leave you hanging. I made it home in one piece. And while New York was an unforgettable experience . . . man, was it nice to be back home. My wife took my things and sat me down at the bistro table in the kitchen and put a warm bowl of pasta fazoli in front of me. "Tell me all about!" she said.

I took a spoonful and smiled. Delicious. "Well," I said, dabbing my mouth with the corner of a napkin, "I arrived at Penn Station in New York City on Friday afternoon, about an hour later than the 11:57 a.m. my train ticket had promised...."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

NYC Trip Report, Part 3 (Collect them all!)

I awoke on Saturday morning at 9:45 a.m. or so. I was due to meet Casey (my editor) and Jonathan (my agent) for brunch at Cafe d'Alsace at 11:45, so I had plenty of time to shower, dress, pack and check out of the hotel before heading out to hail a cab. Given that it was Saturday morning instead of the Friday rush hour, I assumed I would have no trouble finding a cab.

I was wrong.

I came out the revolving door of the Omni, dragging my suitcase behind me, and saw that the entire length of 52nd street was lined with barricades, separating the sidewalk from the street. Pedestrians could move along the sidewalk, and traffic -- what little there was of it -- could move along the street, but no one could cross. I backtracked toward Fifth Avenue and ran into the same thing: the entire street was effectively blocked off.

I had completely forgotten the Pope was coming. New York City -- or at least a good portion of it -- was shut down.

I called Casey's cellphone and left her a grumbly message, telling her the situation and letting her know I would do my best to get to the restaurant on time. Then I headed back down 52nd and crossed over to Park Avenue, planning to start a hike up the island toward 88th. Here I found things were moving just fine -- apparently the police barricade didn't extend this far. The roads and sidewalks were open, and cabbies were freely plying their trade up and down the streets. I hailed one easily, and stepped out of the cab only 10 minutes later on the corner of 88th Street and 2nd Avenue (did you see that? I just gave you an intersection rather than a street address. Drinks all around!)

Jonathan was standing outside waiting for me. While he may have been jetlagged -- he had just come back from the London Book Fair the night before -- he looked super cool and relaxed, with his sunglasses and a suit that struck just the right balance between business and casual (it was a "casual business" look, rather than the more stilted "business casual"...) We shook hands warmly -- I hadn't seen him in person in more than two years, either -- and headed inside to grab a table while we waited for Casey, who came gliding in a few moments later.

We had a terrific conversation over omelettes, salmon benedict, and strawberry Belgian waffles ("But hold the strawberries," Casey specified) and believe it or not, I actually did more listening than talking. No, really. It was fascinating to hear Casey explain how a project gets pitched in editorial meetings, to learn just how many queries Jonathan works his way through in a week, and to hear their mutually strong opinions on New Yorker magazine (the consensus: every New Yorker reads the magazine, and nearly every one of them yells back at it. Sort of like we in DC do to The McLaughlin Group).

It was only a little after 1:00 when we finished, so we decided to walk the twelve blocks over to the New York Society Library, where I was scheduled to speak at 2:15. The weather was beautiful, the Pope Barriers had been removed, and New Yorkers were bustling up and down the streets to find somewhere to enjoy their first real weekend of Spring sunshine. In no time, we were under the blue and white awning in front of the New York Society Library -- a dignified but otherwise unassuming white brick building just east of Central Park. Head Librarian Mark Bartlett greeted us warmly and escorted us up to the newly-renovated Member's Room where I'd be speaking.

Mark generously offered to store my suitcase and briefcase in his office, so I followed him up an elevator to one of the upper floors where we stowed my bags. But then, instead of taking me back to the elevator, Mark opened one of the low doors to the stacks and asked me to follow him.

Well, sure. I'm a sucker for stacks. When I was a Senate staffer, one of the real perks of my U.S. Senate badge was that (at that time, at least) I could get into the stacks of the Library of Congress -- a dark, cool, bibliophile's paradise. And now Mark was leading me back among the Society Library's collection of old books. There was that great Old Book smell that I wish they could somehow bottle so I could spray it in my own house. Heck, I'd even wear it as cologne.

"I thought you might want to see this," Mark said, steering me toward an enormous old leather-bound ledger lying open on a low table. "We just found it this morning."

At the top of the ledger's right-hand page, written in perfect cursive script, was the name WASHINGTON IRVING. Just below it, in pencil, was the date 1836. Running in neat rows down the page were the titles of books Irving had checked out, along with the dates he had checked them out and returned them. This was, in effect, Washington Irving's library card.

I swallowed hard. "Can I touch it?" I asked, and Mark nodded, smiling.

I've thumbed through Irving's own letters, held an 1819 original of The Sketch Book in my hands, and, thanks to friends at Historic Hudson Valley, even walked through his private rooms. Compared with those, the document before me was nothing special -- it was merely Irving doing one of those mundane, day-to-day activities we all do: going to the library and checking out a book. Yet, for that very reason, it was one of those remarkable moments where your subject comes suddenly to life.

I took a deep breath, inhaling that wonderful leathery old smell. Then I rested my hand gently on the 170-year-old page.

To be concluded.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

NYC Trip Report, Part 2

I now understand that New York cabdrivers -- and New Yorkers in general, I guess -- think of their city as a series of intersections rather than as street addresses. I get it. But at this particular moment, I still had a problem: namely, I didn't know the cross-streets of my destination.

I tried again. "Forty Seven Fifth Avenue," I said slowly, then took an old receipt out of my wallet, scribbled the address on the back of it, and held it up for the driver to see. "Like this."

"Oh, forty-seven," he said, nodding, as if I'd been speaking Dutch up until this point. "That's down at Fifth and 12th, Greenwich Village. Why didn't you say so?" Grrrr.

And off we went, down Fifth Avenue in Friday rush hour traffic, careening around stopped buses, scooting around pedestrians, and squeezing between slower traffic in lanes that didn't exist. New York City landmarks rushed by on my right -- the New York Public Library, the Empire State Building (I craned my neck out the window to look up at that one), the Flatiron Building -- until suddenly we stopped in front of a beautiful brownstone walkup, directly across from an imposing old Presbyterian church. I had finally arrived at the Salmagundi Club -- and thanks to a cabdriver who clearly had no respect for the laws of traffic, physics or gravity, I had arrived quickly, relatively in one piece, and with plenty of time to spare before my 6:00 talk.

I greeted the staff, and checked out the room where I'd be speaking, a classy Victorian-looking parlor with wing-backed chairs and antique furniture. I camped out on the front steps to wait for Casey, my Patient Editor, and struck up a conversation with a very nice gentleman, who eventually asked me what I was doing in New York. I told him I was speaking at the club in about ten minutes, and he suddenly beamed proudly -- he said he had made the trip from uptown just to hear me talk, and asked if he could shake my hand and take a picture, a request that still rocks me back with disbelief. As I say often, it's just me, and I can't believe anyone wants a picture of themselves with me and my giant pumpkin head. But naturally, I obliged -- and right on cue, with my lone fan snapping away, here came my editor, Casey, with her colleague, Tessa.

I hadn't seen Casey in person since the Book Expo in Washington, DC, more than two years ago (at that time, I made what I'm sure was a great first impression, as I knocked down her rack of catalogues when I reached out to shake her hand). Since then, we had written, edited, and produced Washington Irving -- an experience that, for the rest of our lives, inextricably links us together. And it was absolutely great to see her; Casey is one of those people who bubbles with enthusiasm about her projects and her authors, and she's at once your biggest fan, best critic, and most patient counselor.

As I think any writer might attest, the best author-editor relationship is built on trust -- you are, after all, putting yourself and your work completely in someone else's hands -- and I've trusted her completely since Day 1 of the project. But now she was here, in her dual role as my editor and as Arcade's publicist, to see me talk about "our boy," as we've always called Irving. In other words, she now was putting her trust in me to make us look good, and I wanted to do us proud. And just like that, I was nervous.

Turns out I wasn't the only one. To her surprise, Casey was asked to introduce me to the crowd of 20 or so that had gathered in the parlor -- an easy enough task when you know its coming, but somewhat daunting when you're suddenly put on the spot. Still, Casey did a fine job of it, telling a story I'd not heard before about the first time my agent pitched the Washington Irving project to her. It was all so interesting -- and her enthusiasm was so sincere -- that by the time she called me to the podium, I'd completely forgotten to be nervous.

I spoke about twenty minutes, giving them an overview of Irving's Salmagundi magazine, from which the club had taken its name in 1871, and wrapped up by talking about Irving's life among artists. I took a number of questions afterwards -- there were quite a few about Irving's views on religion, money, and John Jacob Astor -- then signed and spoke with people for another twenty minutes or so. Afterwards, Casey and I were then given a quick tour of the place, allowing us to gawk at the paintings in the stairwell and the old books in the library.

That evening, Casey took me to dinner at Fatty Crab, a funky Malaysian restaurant over in the Meatpacking District. ("Any place with the name 'Fatty' in it sounds good to me," Casey had said earlier -- a remark only the rail-thin Casey can make with impugnity.) The place was noisy, so we had to sit next to each other, rather than across from each other, to be heard and typically, we sat chatting until a waitress chased us away, declaring (quite fairly) that others were still waiting to be seated.

Next, the two of us walked over to the Terribly Fashionable Gansevoort Room, a rooftop bar and restaurant accessible only by an Exclusive Goodfellas Elevator, with a great view of the city, and a loud and trendy New York crowd. We took up a post on some low benches close enough to hear each other over the din, and remained in animated conversation until (once again) a server shooed us away, saying they needed the room for a private party. At that, I checked my watch and saw it was 11:45 p.m. There are times when this would have been an ideal time for a change of venue for another few hours -- and I do believe Casey could have stayed out until the wee hours as it was. But I'd been up since 5:30 a.m. -- and now, I was just plain tired.

We stumbled out into a New York night that was still vibrating with activity and hailed a cab. Casey provided a quick primer on the meaning of New York Geographical Terms like West Side and Upper East Side as we sped back up the island. Our cab driver had misheard my directions (in which I was very careful to say "52nd and Madison Avenue") and dropped me off at the corner of Madison and 56th, but it was a beautiful night, and I didn't mind the walk.

I unlocked to door to my room to find my bed turned down, soothing music and video playing on the television, and a chocolate chip cookie and bottle of Yoohoo on the desk. Point scored, Omni Berkshire. I called my wife to tell her good night (we always do that when one of us is on the road, no matter how late it might be), uncapped the Yoohoo, took a sip, and remembered why I don't like Yoohoo. It tastes like Quik in water.

I reset the clock on the bedside -- I wasn't going to get stung by that again -- and rolled up in the comforter. Day One of my New York Tour was over.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

NYC Trip Report, Part 1

I arrived at Penn Station in New York City on Friday afternoon, about an hour later than the 11:57 a.m. my train ticket had promised. The weather was beautiful -- the Pope was scheduled to arrive that weekend, and his advance team had obviously used his considerable connections to chase away the rain and cold and bring in temperatures in the 70s -- so rather than hail a cab, I decided to walk the mile from Penn Station to my hotel, over on 52nd Street and Madison Avenue.

I was staying at the Omni Berkshire -- a hotel that would normally be so far beyond my means that it would be all I could do to press my nose against the glass and look so forlorn that perhaps some symapthetic millionaire would take mercy on me -- but I had lucked into an astonishingly reasonable rate, and strode into the place and checked in like I had never stayed anywhere else. I even authoritatively grabbed an apple from a nearby bowl as I walked to the elevator, then looked around to see if anyone was going to say anything about it. To my disappointment, no one had even noticed me owning the place with such decisiveness. Darn it.

I spent most of the afternoon just watching and wandering, and even lounged around in the room for a while (I figure if I've paid for it, I'm using it). I read for a while, then stood at my eighth floor window watching the people coming and going down on 52nd street (with Billy Joel providing a soundtrack for them in my head) -- and all the while I was casually watching the bedside clock until it was time for me to start getting ready to change for my event. I was planning to start changing for my 6:00 p.m. talk at 4:30 or so, then catching a cab in front of the hotel at around 5:00. As I closed the blinds on my window, I just happened to glance at my watch and realized the clock in the room was thirty minutes slow. It wasn't 4:30; it was already slightly after 5:00 p.m.

Now, understand that when it comes to arriving some place on time, I am the world's biggest pain in the ass. If I have to be somewhere by 6:00 p.m., chances are good that I'd like to leave at 4:00 p.m., just in case weather, accident, or Godzilla attack impede my normal progress toward my destination. In most cases, it means I arrive an hour before I really need to be there; at other times, it's paid off in spades, as I've hit a major traffic snarl on the DC beltway, and still made a train or airplane with room to spare. Right now, however, I was in a panic. I hadn't changed -- forget showering at this point -- and it was Friday rush hour in New York City.

I dressed quickly, grabbed my briefcase containing my speech and my well-thumbed book, then sprinted out the front door of the hotel to hail a cab. Unfortunately, no cab traffic was moving on 52nd Street. The bellman regarded me with a shrug -- "Rush hour, man," he told me. "Maybe you'll have better luck over on Fifth Avenue."

I hustled over to Fifth, but things weren't much better. Every cab that passed me was already occupied by passengers who seemed to look at me smugly as they went by. I briefly considered making a break for it on foot, but my destination was still 40 blocks away. Still, some progress was better than none, so I just started walking down Fifth Avenue, doing that crab-like walk where you're looking sidelong for a cab while still moving in generally the direction you ultimately need to go.

Finally, one of those bike cabbies pulled up next to me and asked me in a thick voice where I was heading. "Forty-seven Fifth Avenue," I told him -- which, as I discovered later, was my first New York Rookie Error of the night.

"Hop in," he told me, gesturing to the open back seat.

"How much?" I asked.

"Twenty bucks, flat rate," he said. I now made my second rookie error of the night, and climbed into his cab seat. ("You're the only person I know who's actually ever taken one of those cabs," my agent told me later, trying hard to ooze sympathy rather than sarcasm.)

Only minutes later, as we passed through Fifth Avenue and 48th Street, my cab driver asked me on which side of the street I wanted him to drop me off. As I looked at him stupidly, he pulled up on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 47th Street. "Here we are!" he beamed.

As I learned later, one does not provide cab drivers with actual street addresses. My request to be taken to 47 Fifth Avenue had been translated by his cabbie brain as "47th and Fifth Avenue" -- a destination only about five blocks from where I'd started. While I might have my fits of laziness, even I can walk five blocks.

"No, no, no!" I told the driver, "I need 47 Fifth Avenue. Four-seven. On Fifth. Not 47th and Fifth."

"Oh," came the response. That was it.

"How much, then?" I asked, knowing full well what was coming.

"Twenty bucks, flat rate."

"Yes, but you didn't take me to my destination," I said with a slight edge in my voice that I hoped said Don't f**k with me.

It didn't. "It's 20 just to get in," he told me blankly. Useless.

"This is a bill of goods," I said, and angrily handed him my money. He offered to hail a cab for me "to make up for it." I told him I didn't want him to miss any other scandalous opportunities and to be on his way. "Whatever," he shrugged, and off he went, standing in his pedals as he chugged away, in search of new victims.

With a visible black cloud over me, I began the crab-walk again, and finally spotted a minivan cab dropping a family off in front of a hotel. I ran over just as he was flicking on his "Out of Service" light and stuck my head in his window. "Any chance I can get a ride straight down Fifth Avenue?" I asked.

"Where you going?" he asked, lifting his cap slightly and rubbing the top of his head, the universal sign for You're Really Putting Me Out.

"Salmagundi Club, 47 Fifth Avenue," I said, clearly articulating each word.

"Forty-seventh and Fifth?" he said, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder toward the intersection behind us. "That's right there."

My hands slowly curled into fists.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The City That Never Sleeps

I'm off to New York City tomorrow to appear at two different and really exciting venues -- and if you're in town, come on by.

On Friday evening at 6:15 p.m., I'll be speaking at the Salmagundi Club, a hub for fine artists from New York and around the country. Originally formed as the New York Sketch Club in 1871, the Club's present name -- adopted a century ago -- is a nod to Washington Irving's satirical magazine, Salmagundi. I plan to talk about Irving's Salmagundi -- an ancestor of today's MAD magazine -- and a bit about Irving's life among artists.

And if I have time afterwards, I plan on sampling some of the club's famous Salmagundi Stew.

The Salmagundi Club is at 47 Fifth Avenue, in New York City. That's their famous stairway in the pic up above to the right. I'll try not to fall down it.

On Saturday at 2:00 p.m., I'll be the keynote speaker for National Library Week over at the New York Society Library. Irving used this library while researching his mock History of New York and was later, briefly, a Trustee. While it's changed locations several times in its history, it's still the oldest library in the city of New York.

I'll be giving one of my favorite talks, about Irving as the nation's first true literary celebrity. You can see the announcement on their website over here. The event will be held in the Members' Room -- a really neat old room. The NYSL is located at 53 East 79th Street, in the city.

As an added bonus, I'll be having dinner with my editor on Friday night (who keeps finding really interesting places to eat), and brunch with my editor and sure-to-be-jetlagged agent on Saturday morning. I'll have a trip report up here later.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Fitting a Pitch

Take it from me: pitching your book to a prospective agent is (not just "can be" but is) a nerve-wracking process. But guess what? Agents have to pitch books, too -- check out the blog of Superagent Jonathan Lyons to see what he has to say about pitching at the London Book Fair. And then get all jealous reading about him enjoying London.

Now here's hoping he comes back to tell me he's sold foreign rights for Washington Irving. Hey, I can dream, right? (Yes! Come onnnnn, Spanish market! Donde esta casa de paypay...)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Woof! Woof! Woof!

As I was standing in the kitchen making dinner last night, I started casually flipping through the latest issue of Mirage, the surprisingly charming alumni magazine from my alma mater, the University of New Mexico (sidenote: I have always argued that if the FBI really wants to find its Ten Most Wanted, it should simply sic their respective alumni associations on them, as they seem to have an uncanny ability to find you no matter how many times you move and fail to fill out a New Address Card). And to my surprise, right there in a two-page spread, was a piece on Washington Irving: An American Original.

Now, that was nice. I had e-mailed the alumni association months ago, just to give them a heads up on the book, hoping it might make an appearance in the "Album" that runs along the right-hand column of each page. I never expected a whole article, much less a Two-Page Feature Article. In color, even. (My only gripe, and it's a small one, is they tagged my course of study incorrectly -- I was an English major, not a history major. It only bothers me because I really liked the English department and -- perhaps ironically now -- never took a single history class in college.)

My thanks to the crew at Mirage for a bang-up piece. (Yes, I sent them thank you notes as well.) Eat 'em up, eat 'em up, woof woof woof!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

I'm a great fan of Sirius satellite radio. I can't stand the commercials on terrestrial radio any more -- if I get in the car to drive to Home Depot just as regular radio goes into a break, chances are good they'll still be playing commercials by the time I reach my destination 15 minutes later. And when they do come back from a break, the brainless patter of deejays makes me so crazy that I generally spend most of my time yelling at the jock to SHUT THE F*** UP AND PLAY SOME MUSIC! And then, of course, there's the music: the same old limited playlist of the same old tired songs. I can say with confidence that it was overplay of the Supremes' "Stop In The Name of Love" and the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" that drove me to satellite several years ago. And the fact that Howard Stern had announced he was heading to Sirius only made the XM/Sirius choice that much easier for me.

Anyway, that's a long way of saying that I love satellite radio. My particular model of radio has a function called "S-Seek," in which you can program the radio to alert you when one of thirty of your favorite songs comes on. At the press of a button, you'll be whizzed over to the station that's getting ready to play your song of choice.

And I realized today, as I was driving to Rockville, that most of my S-Seeks are, to put it bluntly, quite lame.

What they all are, I realized, are guilty pleasures -- songs that I love to hear and (God help you) sing along with. Some are one-hit wonders, while others are just plain dopey songs that the artists themselves would probably just as soon forget. Still others are good songs, but the kind that no card carrying middle-aged straight guy should be squealing about when they come on the air.

So without further ado, here are my Top Five Guilty Pleasures (as determined by my Sirius Radio S-Seek Function):

(5) "Bad Blood" (Neil Sedaka)

With its opening synthesized bass notes and Elton John-assisted harmonies in the chorus, what's not to love about this mostly forgotten chunk of well-produced 1970s pop from one of the Brill Building's tin pan alley icons? Bonus points as well for Sedaka's almost too-enthusiastic enunciation on the word "bitch."

(4) "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" (Elton John & Kiki Dee)

Another Elton John assist, this time on a catchy call-and-response notable for its complete lack of sexual tension, especially for a song allegely about heartbreak. Yet, the hook is irresistable -- it's impossible not to sing "woooo hooo..." at the chorus. Just try.

(3) "Don't You Want Me" (Human League)

My wife often teases me about what she calls my "mod" tastes in 80s music, and this song probably epitomizes those tastes. No drums or guitars, only heavy synthesizers (hey! that was part of their novelty!), and a plot straight out of A Star is Born, with lyrics all but screamed by frontman Philip Oakley. And the fact that I know the name of the lead singer makes me want to punch myself right in the area.

(2) "Head Over Heels" (Go-Go's)

You can have your "We Got The Beat" and "Vacation" -- to me, this is the finest Go-Go's song ever produced. It's a clean sounding track, with well-placed back-up harmonies, and a strong vocal from Belinda Carlisle, but it's the little quirks in the song that really sell it. There's heavy piano, a bass guitar solo(!), and, the icing on the cake, handclaps -- which arrive on a half-beat -- in the chorus. Go ahead: try to clap along. I'll just point and laugh.

(1) "Afternoon Delight" (Starland Vocal Band)

I loved this song as I kid, and I'm still a sucker for it today. It took me years to even realize that the lyrics were suggestive -- I thought for a long time that the fireworks themselves were the "afternoon delight." Oooh! Ahh! -- I was more impressed with the acoustic sound and the harmonies. To this day, when it comes on the radio, I try to pick a harmony part to sing and see if I can stay with it for the entire song. I hate myself.

What are YOUR guilty pleasures, hmmm?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Happy Birthday, Washington Irving!

April 3, 2008, marks Washington Irving's 225th birthday -- let's call it a Nearlysemiquincentennial. I sent off birthday wishes to the folks at Historic Hudson Valley earlier today, and wanted to be sure I did the same here at home base.

If you only know Washington Irving through his short stories "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" or "Rip Van Winkle" . . . well, then, you're missing out on quite a bit. Irving's repertoire was expansive, and ran from the serious -- he wrote biographies of George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and Muhammad -- to the downright bawdy. If you've never read Irving's A History of New York -- especially in its original 1809 wild-haired glory -- what are you waiting for? It's available from the Library of America, and you'll find it more than worth the effort. While Rip and Ichabod might be better known, you'll find William "The Testy" Kieft much funnier. The Sketch Book may have made him famous, but it's A History of New York that first got him noticed and remains, I would argue, some of his finest, and funniest, writing.

So, pick up History of New York -- or for that matter, anything by Irving -- then read it. By doing so, you'll be celebrating the life of America's first genuine bestseller, celebrity, and all around good guy. Happy Birthday, WI.