I found this out today, when a friend from middle school posted his obituary. The first thing I thought of? War songs. And then I thought, man, I wish I had sought him out and told him how much he’d set my life on this particular course.
You see, without Mr. Byers, I wouldn’t have a book. At least, I wouldn’t have written the book I wrote. I wouldn’t be interested in history. And I sure as shit wouldn’t give a rat’s red ass about the WPA, which kind of figured prominently in the book.
In eighth grade I didn’t know who I was yet. I didn’t know what I cared about, aside from Duran Duran and cute boys. I loved to write, but mostly poems that, honestly, weren’t exactly Pablo Neruda. And then I ended up in Mr. Byers’ history class, which was decidedly so much more than names and dates.
“Late is wrong,” he said the first day “and wrong will be punished.” Not a grand statement, of course, but if you’ve ever met a 12 year old, you know the importance of simple things. Even as he said it, though, he smiled. And you couldn’t be in his class and not smile, too.
We quickly moved from that to other things. History — a subject often relegated to phys ed teachers — often gets left behind the more practical (some would say) subjects of language arts and math. Mr. Byers would not allow this to happen; he forced us to care. With every new epoch of history, he had songs and posters. We’d walk into his class one day, and it would be covered, say, in election memorabilia from Herbert Hoover’s presidency, or war posters. When he taught us the Great Depression, he played us this song — of course, it wasn’t the Annie version. That’s how he drove home the horrors of the Depression, with this song. And then he moved us into FDR and why his New Deal was so balls-out awesome. He took an alphabet soup of agencies — FERA, WPA, CCC —and led us through them, explaining how these agencies pieced a battered economy back together and forever changed the landscape of America.
Years later, I rediscovered the WPA when I found the Guide to the Southernmost State, I remembered those long-ago classes. And while the narrative in Backroads doesn’t explicitly talk much of the WPA, the original book was a WPA project and my writing was informed by what I learned long ago in Mr. Byers’ class.
Only as an adult did I realize not everyone loved the WPA; not everyone loved President Roosevelt and his New Deal. This came as a shock to me; how could someone not love the man who saved America by using Americans? Clearly, these people had never taken Mr. Byers’ history class. I wonder, too, if I’d had a teacher less enthusiastic about the WPA, what my attitude upon discovering the writing the WPA would have been. Would I have pursued it? I want to think I would have, but honestly, when I realized the book was part of the WPA, my mind raced back to that classroom, those lessons, that man. Without his teaching, I do not know that I would have written the same book, if my writing style would have been informed the way it was.
I never told him. I never told him that, but not for him, there would be no book, not the book I wrote. Oh, yes, there certainly would have been a Backroads of Paradise, but it wouldn’t have been the same. No connection to the Great Depression so great that when I took an oral history of a woman who lived through it — just this afternoon — I asked her how she felt about FDR, and she told me she thought he was great and went on to talk about how awful Hoover was. At that instant, I remembered Mr. Byers and his “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover” song. I didn’t know he had died this afternoon, but all these years later, he was the reason I asked, he’s the reason I felt a spurt of excitement when she elaborated on why Hoover sucked and she liked FDR.
A few months after Mr. Byers covered the Great Depression, a few friends of mine and I organized the Lip Sync show at JFK. And then we got to the intermission, and nothing was planned. Dave Byers to the rescue: He stood in front of the crowd and, as was his custom, did what he knew: He led them in a political song, one that came slightly after my hero, FDR, led our great country into WWII. And every voice in that gymnasium — even the ones who hadn’t taken his class yet — every voice lifted to join him in a rousing chorus of song. Everyone loved this man and the way he taught history.
And so, tonight, with the world a little less rounded, a little less aware of itself and its history, I hear it again. Bear with me, as I play it again, in his honor, and I say, one last time…
When Craig Pittman told me my publisher had asked him to read my book, Backroads of Paradise, I vacillated between thrilled and nervous (this is actually a common state for me). Thrilled because, Craig Pittman, whoo-hoo! — and nervous because, well, Craig Pittman. In Florida circles, he’s kind of a big deal.
He liked it, and said so.
Then I had the chance to review his book, Oh, Florida! Turns out we both like each other’s writing.
Here’s my review on Goodreads, which, of course, links to the full story at Creative Loafing Tampa.
I reviewed this for Creative Loafing, and I also know Craig, so know that. However, I was prepared to shred this book if I didn’t like it. I did. A lot. Rather than paste in my whole article about why, here’s the link to what I’ve already said. Big deal to me is how Pittman doesn’t treat Florida as though we have only idiots.
Part of me wants to play this cool and be all, “Yeah, it’s cool, you can pre-order my book” and the rest of me — the real me — has an almost-insurmountable compulsion to run around the house screaming “My book! MY BOOK!”
So severely conflicted on this am I that it took me 19 full days to write this post, which has to be some sort of record for something, even if it’s a record for how batshit crazy things get inside my head.
Forget all that. The post has arrived, as has the book. It feels as though I’ve lived a lifetime since I first had the idea, which I suppose happens to many writers, unless, of course, you happen to be James Patterson, because that man is a machine. And if you are James Patterson, hi. Buy my book, OK?
Technically, the book has not arrived: You can pre-order it now on Amazon (or from the University Press of Florida) and they’ll ship it to you on October 4, the actual release date. Also, if you want it as an ebook, you have to wait — I mean, not much longer, but apparently the something about metadata or other things I don’t understand and don’t you dare pretend you do, either. The takeaway? You will have the chance to buy the ebook and no, I don’t know when but soon.
When UPF offered me a book contract, my editor told me in no uncertain terms to never promise people a publication date (well, until the Press itself released one) so I would make jokes when people asked me. My favorite one?
“Well, I’m not certain but I’m hoping sometime before we elect a new president.”
I made it with a whole month to spare.
“Asking a writer about his work is like asking a cancer patient the status of his disease.”
– Jay McInerney
I’m kind of a snob. Not about clothes, or about money, but about weird things, like intelligence or whether you use bottled tomato gravy (that’s usually labeled “sauce”). And, until the past year or so, self-publishing.
When I worked at Barnes & Noble – which was not actually all that long ago – we didn’t carry self-published books. Period. Why? Because they were something called POD, which stood for “print on demand”, which meant we couldn’t return unsold copies. If a customer came in and wanted a self-published book, we’d only order as many copies as they would purchase in advance.
Back then, if you had read – or tried to read – a self-published book, you quickly realized many – MANY – of the self-published books suffered from arrogance. Arrogance that the writer didn’t need beta readers, or an editor, or (I swear) to re-read what they wrote before shipping it off. Self-published books, it seemed, were just crap: A shortcut for shitty writers to get “published”.
That was 2007. Today, the game has changed. My feelings about the self publishing industry have changed, in part because I wrote a travel narrative and have a publishing contract with (what I would have called) a “real” publisher a few years ago. Sound weird? Stay with me.
As excited as I am (which is over the moon excited), the realities of it are not quite what you might think. Publishing a book through conventional methods takes time. A LOT of time. As in, I submitted my manuscript proposal in July of 2013 and we’re still a good year away from something people can hold in their hands (or read on the iPads).
I don’t fault the process. I’m thrilled to have the editor I do, I’m fortunate to have others in my industry (Florida) read the book and offer pre-publication insight, and I am wholly and completely overwhelmed with gratitude that in a day when publishing houses grow more and more restrictive in who and what they published, one of them has chosen my words as something worth their investment.
Because make no mistake about it: I (or, rather, my book) is a commodity to my publisher. They’re gambling (much like the stock market or blackjack), and the gamble is that if they invest money in editing, publishing, and marketing my words, they’ll get back more money than they put in to the effort. Because I worked as a freelance writer for many years, I’m OK with this and I’m happy to make whatever concessions they ask to make sure they get a good return on their investment (because that means I get more money, too).
Nevertheless, I am about halfway through the rough drafts of three serial romance mystery books that I intend to self-publish. Why? Several reason. One, the book at my publisher is pretty unique, whereas romance/mystery is not exactly a barren playing field. I’m a realist; I have a better chance of getting that book in front of more eyeballs on Amazon than I do shopping it to agents and publishers and then – if I’m lucky enough to get a contract – competing for shelf space in bookstores. A Florida travel narrative will absolutely benefit from a conventional publishing house that specializes in Florida; romance novels about a mythical Florida town where murders sometimes happen? I believe they’re likely to do just as well – if not better – on Amazon.
It helps, too, that the rules of self-publishing have changed. Writers who want to make a career off their self-published (let’s call today’s process indie publishing to separate it from the horrors of 10 years ago) work use beta readers, hire editors, pay for cover designs, and generally treat their work like as much of an investment as conventional publishing houses do. That’s not to say the crap doesn’t still get published; it does, but thanks to Amazon’s review system, things like that get revealed as such in short order, and the good stuff stands a chance of getting noticed.
My friend and colleague Jon Kile is proof; he wrote and indie-published The Grandfather Clock, and he’s working on the sequel this summer. Next month book is fodder for a new book club that focuses only on Florida writers. It’s called “Critical Drinking” and it’s sponsored by Wordier Than Thou, a literary group that’s not nearly as “Literature with a capital ‘L'” as it sounds.
I’ll let Jon tell you more about that in his blog post. If you live in Pinellas or the Tampa Bay Area, please consider joining us for the book club. Until then, read this “amusing in way that makes me sad because it’s true” blog post about things you should never, ever ask writers.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had this English teacher, Mrs. Parker. She did not particularly care for me and I hated her with the fire of a thousand suns, because she sneered at my writing. When you’re a 14-year-old girl who has only ever wanted to be a writer and your English teacher essentially makes fun of you for writing poetry and consistently gives you C’s, it stays with you and no, I no longer hate her but if she and my ex-husband were both on fire and I had but one bucket of water, it’d be a hard decision.
One of the things she did that makes her fire-worthy? The grading criteria for our weekly composition papers. If, in our composition, we used any instance of passive voice (be, being, been, is, am, are, was, were, has been, have been, had been), she gave us an “F” on that paper.
This scarred me for life, or so editors and colleagues tell me. I, along with fellow Parker survivors, still unconsciously edit out every instance of passive voice in my writing. I have since accepted that in rare instances, a writer may use passive voice, but I am in no way OK with it. I realize I could probably benefit from some sort of therapy.
Which is why I find it so amusing that when I received the final edits back for my book’s introduction, my editor included rewording the second paragraph to read:
“There was a time when not only could you find such a book, but the presence of such a guide was considered so crucial to the nation’s economy that our government sponsored such guides.”
The editor for the University Press of Florida – the same people who published Carl Hiaasen’s column compilations – inserted passive voice into my book. Delicious.
I can’t remember Mrs. Parker’s first name so I don’t know if she’s still alive, but if she is, I would love to send her a copy of my book, with the second paragraph highlighted.
Some days you go for the little victories.
Oh, and also, the editing process of my book is done and we are moving onto the next process: External review. I don’t know what that means, but it sound both scary and wonderful.
So, you know, kind of a big victory day, too. The editing process sucks. It took me longer to make the edits than it took me to write the book.
But either way… I’m going to have a book. It’s starting to feel real.
Suck it, Mrs. Parker. I am a writer.
I love Gulfport, but I also love living near downtown St. Pete. I wouldn’t want to live near downtown at all, but I do love that I can be there in less than 10 minutes (finding parking may take slightly longer.) The waterfront – which is public access, every bit – is, as the mayor said recently, a jewel. When I was in college, St. Petersburg’s downtown was a place one did not go alone, or, really, at all. Things have changed, and I am thrilled.
One of the things I do – and I really enjoy – is speak to people about my work re-tracing the tours from the WPS Guide to the Southernmost State. I’ve lectured and taught at OLLI at Eckerd College for just over a year now, and I love it. There’s something incredibly rewarding about having a group of students who attend your lecture – and pay to do so – when they don’t get college credit for doing so. They just attend because they love learning and find the subject interesting.
This year, OLLI expanded its reach to include satellite campuses at the Westminster retirement communities, and last night the downtown St. Petersburg Westminster crowd (Westminster Palms), instead of heading to the Vinoy Verandah for drinks or walking a few blocks to get dinner, chose to hear me speak about eating your way across the Florida panhandle. I was incredibly flattered, so as a thank you, I made the class sour orange margaritas. Now, the sour oranges didn’t technically come from the panhandle, but they did come from Florida and who hasn’t sat through a class where the lecturer droned on and on in a monotone and you couldn’t wait to leave? Think of my lectures as your reward for those times. You’re welcome.
Read more about it here. If you follow the links you can even find my recipe for sour orange margaritas.
… all you do is open your veins and let them bleed on the page.
Curious thing about writing. I do it every day, for a living, and have done for the past ten-plus years. But what I’m doing this month, writing for money I will not see for at least a year, is different, because I’m finding it takes more discipline than the shorter articles and smaller projects I do every day.
What’s also odd is that I’m finding the need to write before I write. There’s a great quote from Lord Byron: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” More and more this week, I’m finding that to be true. I have a lot of stuff floating around in my brain, and I find I need to clear out the cobwebs to make any sense at all. That’s what this is, and my apologies for that, but no one’s making you read.
This week is not without challenges. El Cap’s parents are staying with us, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not. They are not hard people to have around, but it takes some getting used to having other people around during the day, to say the least. I talk to myself a lot, which is fine when it’s me and Calypso. It’s just something I do, usually when I get up to stretch or get tea, which involves me walking out of my study (which I call my Bat Cave) and into the kitchen. Calypso usually comes with me because the clever dog knows there’s a good chance there will be cheese.
When you add two other people into the mix, one of whom doesn’t hear well anyway, it gets weird, because they think I’m talking to them when, in reality, I’m really just making words bump together to get my mind working, or talking to the dog to prove that I still have the power of speech. Also, Calypso doesn’t judge me when I talk to her. I can tell her anything. It’s an adjustment not to tell her I need to shave my bikini line or that my butt itches when I go get my tea, because I feel as though the El Cap v.1 and his lovely wife really don’t need to hear about those sorts of things. What’s more, they probably (OK, definitely) don’t want to hear those things.
Nevertheless, I’ve got a nice little routine going. Write things like this, get some tea, and get down to it. In between, I keep having these thoughts that I could very easily adjust to this lifestyle. I mean, aside from the lack of income at the present. So, you know, if anyone wants to just hand me money to do this, you know where to find me.
I’m on the first official day of leave from my regular gig at the Gabber Newspaper, and I’m supposed to be working. I’ve set my work e-mail to auto-respond and I’ve started ignoring phone calls. It’s also two days before the start of National Novel Writing Month, which should dovetail nicely with my plans to finish my manuscript and get it to my editor so I can get on with my career as a writer.
So far I’ve been on Facebook – just to check – and priced healthcare. I’ve also done a small workout, ran the dishwasher, and finished the laundry. Oh, and I’ve made a grocery list and returned a bunch of calls.
But as soon as I walk the dog, pick up my paycheck, and get to the store, I am totally going to do this thing. And I’m going to make myself blog about it on the regular so I’ll be staring down not only an angry, unrevised page but the collective force of all your derision on top of my own shame and humiliation should I fail. Which I won’t. I’m starting now. Honest.
Just let me walk the dog, OK?
US 98 in Florida is a treasure trove of food. El Cap and I are eating our way west this week.
Not too much now, because I’m sitting on the dock of the bay. Well, the inlet. The past two days have been… wonderful and horrible. Wonderful because a leisurely drive down A1A reminded me that not all of our coastlines are 3-for-$10 t-shirt shops and trinket stores; horrible because I can’t believe a few miles inland at Pahokee such poverty exists in stark contrast to the riches funneled out of the town to those who raise cane. Sugarcane, that is.
One more day to go on this pilgrimage into sunshine. I alternately crave my Tempurpedic and regret every little hovel I will not see this trip.
By the way, if you ever camp at Sebastian Inlet State Park, try and get site #14. The view is inspiring.