Virgin Birth (The Making of a Book)

Note: Between now and the end of the year, I’m going to tell the story of how Tinsel got made. Mostly for myself, literary jackoff stuff, I guess, and before I forget it all. But I hope it’s interesting to others too. If not, skip it. Today’s episode is about the Idea.

Episode 1: Lunch with George

I first pitched “a nonfiction book about Christmas” to an editor four summers ago, during a deeply schvitzy July day in New York. I was there to do a reading at Housing Works bookstore for the paperback release of Off Ramp. George Hodgman, who was then at Henry Holt and who’d edited that book, took me to lunch at a little French place with excellent A/C. He wanted to know if I’d gotten anywhere with ideas for a new book to pitch.

Twice before we’d talked about a book “about television.”

stock-photo-steak-frites-166121Ever have an English or history teacher in high school tell you that your term paper subject is “too broad”? I can no longer remember what either George or I must have thought a book “about television” could possibly have been about, without being 800 pages long. A history? Hack social study? A very long essay? It was all way too broad. I think I wanted to do some kind of reported memoir about what I’d ever watched on TV and if it affected me, starting with Josie and the Pussycats and Mister Rogers and working forward. (Me, me, me. I was really into George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No-Context and My Pilgrim’s Progress at that point, which might have been a bad influence.)

Hodgman’s idea for a television book, on the other hand, sounded super hard to do, more Ken Auletta-esque.

Screw that. Another idea I had, about dead shopping malls, didn’t seem to float his boat. (Anyway, the Dead Malls website pretty well covers that. People are capable of getting poetic about abandoned malls all on their own, without my help.)

“Well, what else?” George asked.

Now listen up children and listen good: Never get involved with a book – or sign a contract – unless you’re dying, dying to do it. (Even you bloggers-who-get-book-deals based on material that’s already written! Even Sarah Palin, and the poor nameless ghostwriter who’ll have to translate her.)

Wanting to have a book with your name on it is not going to be enough. In the talking stage, a book idea looks great! (So doable!) The 25-page proposal is sharp and focused and, in some cases, actually rooted in narratives and facts the writer has already started reporting and researching. Then the writer’s agent (yes, an agent, I’m skipping ahead a few steps) gets the proposal into the hands of the right editors. Sometimes a fun little bidding war ensues and the low-grade gossip about this may produce great euphoria for the writer and everyone else. Then the contract is signed and soon enough, a little bit (maybe a third) of the advance money comes … and then … the writer is in instant agony.

I have friends who got the deal and Never. Wrote. The. Book. Sometimes they wind up writing another book, to fulfill the contract, years later. Sometimes this book is far better than the one they proposed, but usually not. I even have a friend who, last I knew, was still writing a $700 check every month to a very big publisher, paying back her advance on the installment plan. (She’s that honorable. I’ve also known writers who got the check, didn’t get the book off the ground, spent what money was left after taxes and their agent’s commission, and now live as sort of open fugitives on the literary market.)

I have this weird feeling that if your book is going to be any good, then it’s essential that you constantly rue the day you ever opened your fat yapper and pitched it. You’re going to loathe your topic and idea long before you write a single sentence – or worse, circumstances or fate are going to prevent you from getting the story you thought you’d get. So you better be damn sure it’s something you can let take over your every waking (and dreaming) thought for the next few years. An unwritten book has to be like a baby left at your doorstep: either you pick it up and care for it, or you call a social worker (ideally another author) to come take the idea off your hands and find it a good home.

scary-baby-picture(Also, here’s what I mean by baby. Still want to pick it up?)

Well, what else? George asked.

I hesitated. Was now the time to bring up my Christmas idea? I hadn’t thought it completely through, really, but it was an idea I’d carried with me for a long time.

When I was a feature writer at the Albuquerque Tribune in the early 1990s, I remember putting “follow a family through two consecutive Christmases” on my list of stories-to-do. That list is still with me. Some story ideas on that list I did do (“follow a couple through their engagement, wedding and honeymoon” – check; “a story about a funeral home” – check) and some I never got to. A Christmas epic was always on the list. At one point I wondered if it would be better as a documentary film, but I seem to have forgotten to go to film school.

I told George of my idea — a story that treats Christmas as truthfully as possible. I also really laid it on thick with the economic impact of Christmas, the fact that everything we love about it is manufactured in China, and the disconnect between the message of Christmas and the business journalism that tells the story of the shopping binge and the global outcome. By the time we finished lunch, George and I had both settled on “a kind of Fast Food Nation about Christmas” as a pitch concept.

This was not at all the book I wound up doing, but it immediately sparked interest with the editor-in-chief at Holt. By the end of the day my agent had already heard from George and called me before I called her: “What’s this about a book about Christmas?” she asked. She loved the idea too.

We all agreed I would start work immediately on a proposal and have something in a month or so. If the publisher liked it, maybe we’d move forward.

Way too easy. I blew that deadline by about six months. I had a lot of research and thinking to do – it would mean leaving my job at the Washington Post for a year or more, and it would mean a lot of travel and time away from home and my boyfriend. I stalled. I read a lot of books and articles about the retail economy. I watched very closely as Christmas 2005 came and went, looking at it in ways I hadn’t before.

I had to decide whether or not to pick up the baby.

To be continued …


  1. Tracy Simmons on July 16, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Hank – I’m so excited to have found your blog. I loved “Off Ramp” and
    can’t wait to check out “Tinsel.”

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