Sometimes, I just want to sink into a thick, wide-ranging novel. Getting lost in a world completely unlike my own, or sliding deep into the consciousness of a character—my earliest reading memories are of experiences like this, whether I was reading Black Beauty or Little Women.
Over the last several years, I’ve been drawn a bit more toward work that is lean and spare. I suspect this is because I feel inundated by news and social media on all fronts (who doesn’t?), and I long for something focused, quiet, and controlled. Then again, sometimes the best way to drown out the everyday noise and chatter is to dive deep into a long book. It’s like food cravings: sometimes all I can think about is pasta drenched in a hearty meat sauce—but then, on another day, a crisp, fresh salad calls my name.
Lately, I tend to ping-pong back and forth between these reading tastes. I’m reading Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. James’s book is over 600 pages long, and is the first installment of a proposed trilogy. Drawing on African myths and narrative traditions, James has created an entire universe which, while rooted in African sources and sensibilities, is also profoundly original (the book includes maps of the various regions and locations which the characters inhabit, such as The Darklands, The Blood Swamp, and The House with No Doors) and unabashedly expansive (it also includes a list of all the characters, which is helpful, given that there are over 50). I’ll be honest: I don’t want to enter the world of Black Leopard every day. It’s a violent and complex one, and sometimes, after a day of work and kids, that’s not what I want. But even on the days I don’t visit, I marvel at the scope of the book, and the many threads it weaves.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis clocks in at just over 700 pages—but it includes about 200 stories. The longest are no more than 8 or 9 pages; the shortest, a paragraph or two. Many of them are singularly unnerving, not only in content but in form: how does she compress an entire narrative down to a couple of pages? When I read Davis, I often finish a story and my first instinct is that I’m disappointed that it’s already done. But this isn’t because the story seems incomplete—if anything, it makes me a little sad to realize how succinctly a story, or a life, can be summed up (not that it’s easy to do as a writer!).
Reading Marlon James, I’m reminded that, as a writer, I have the right to go big, and to offer my readers entire worlds. Lydia Davis, meanwhile, reminds me not to burden my stories and poems with anything they—and the reader—don’t need.
I’ve now tried my hand at writing a (still unfinished) 250-page novel, as well as several poems that are no more than a page. I’ve written lyrical essays that clock in at 15 pages, and barely 1 page. The writing has its own necessary length—whether it’s 500 pages, or 5.
We are very excited to partner with Special Education English teachers at Beacon High School to bring student libraries to their classrooms for Get Caught Reading month in May. The teachers put together a special wishlist of culturally diverse books that they would like, and your help is much appreciated!
We will match any donation, up to $300.
3 ways you can help:
Go to Binnacle Books in Beacon to choose books from the teacher wishlist below, and Binnacle will order them for you.
By John McPhee for The New Yorker
Approx. length: 2,000 words
John McPhee is one of my favorite long-form writers. He’s been writing for The New Yorker for decades, but it’s been a while since he contributed. So I was excited to see a new piece about the black bears of New Jersey.
McPhee has a geometer’s sense of structure when he writes (which he outlines in his book, Draft No. 4)—each element, from lead sentence to closing scene, builds a story that perfectly complements its themes. He knows how to frame a subject to make the reader see why it’s interesting, why it matters, and he does this because he understands that chronologically is usually not the most compelling way to reveal a story.
I never think much about bears (except when I’m hiking at certain hours), but this story goes beyond the fluctuating bear population of New Jersey. It considers geography, politics, guns, tragedy. In it, the bears aren’t monsters—the real bogeyman is time, sweeping up animals and their human neighbors in changes they can’t avoid. McPhee isn’t showy or sentimental, but his writing is beautiful and deeply felt, and I love that.
Proof of why he’s great: “In the past three years, twenty-one bears have entered New Jersey homes, with no human fatalities. For example, Diane Eriksen, of West Milford (Passaic County), was under the impression that she was alone in her house. Hearing a sound in her living room, she went and had a look. A bear looked back. She beat a retreat and called 911. The bear, at the coffee table, helped itself to half a bowl of peppermint patties, scattered the wrappers all over the floor, and took off. The 911 call resulted in its death.”
By Jennings Brown for Gizmodo
Approx length: 5,000 words
This insane profile had me at the title. It’s always interesting/terrifying to read how willfully gullible a reporter, program host, or publication can be in the name of a good hook. This time, the hook was Dr. Damian Jacob Markiewicz Sendler, a self-proclaimed forensic sexologist and research scientist, who is actually neither. He’s not even a doctor. It took one reporter making a bunch of calls to Harvard and Columbia (whose medical schools Sendler didn’t attend) and checking his license to practice in New York State (which he doesn’t have) to completely dismantle the good doctor.
But Sendler was able to sell himself as an expert to every outlet—from Huffington Post to Savage Lovecast (the popular sex podcast by Dan Savage)—hungry for a shock factor. Described by Brown as a “serial fabulist,” Sendler delivered shock—waxing faux-scientific on everything from necrophilia to suicide.
Backing up his fake credentials were fake research papers—about a dozen of them, published in peer-reviewed academic journals. There’s a lot of conversation about why peer review is flawed, and this guy certainly makes the case. But it’s satisfying to read as Sendler paints himself into a corner and, one by one, every claim he made on his website disappears. Luckily, there are screenshots!
What will happen to the “scientific” papers he published? Will news outlets offer retractions for the times they trusted Sendler’s imaginary expertise? Will he be arrested for practicing without a license? This article left me wanting a part 2.
The implications: “The articles published in forensic journals [Sendler’s ‘studies’ have been published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine] are often based on case files. And even if they’re wacky, they could influence legal cases, according to Anna Randall, a certified sex therapist who has researched sexual asphyxiation and paraphilia. ‘Oh absolutely. They could use this in court,’ Randall told me, referring to Sendler’s published articles.”
By Shannon Stirone for Longreads
Approx. length: 9,000 words
This story is an epic in the truest sense: it’s an adventure that involves high stakes and new worlds (literally), the main figures are both heroic and fallible, and as it continues, the journey becomes more important than the destination.
Science writer Shannon Stirone does a wonderful job of capturing part of that journey as Caltech astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown search for a massive planet they believe exists around the edges of the solar system. Looking to prove their very complicated calculations, the pair end up on the summit of Mauna Kea (the highest peak in all of Hawaii), using one of the world’s most powerful telescopes to find their prize.
Stirone brings life to the landscape, describing technicolor Hawaiian sunrises and isolated Martian-like mountaintops with equal beauty. She also observes the two astronomers in all their comical humanity: gobbling Pop-Tarts and making crazy calculations before realizing they may need to hit the oxygen tank.
If found, the mythical Planet 9, estimated to be 5-10 times larger than Earth, could reveal a lot about how our solar system was formed. But between the astronomers and it are limited time, billions of stars, and lots of handmade algorithms.
SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t find it. Yet. But there’s increasing confidence that it’s out there.
Fun fact: Finding Planet 9 would allow Brown—whose earlier discoveries in space led to Pluto being demoted from a planet to a mere planetary-mass object (aka dwarf planet)—to replace the one planet he removed from models of our solar system with a much larger and more informative one. Meanwhile, Batygin mathematically proved that eventually Mercury could either fall into the sun or collide with Venus and be ejected from the solar system. Essentially, these guys are smart enough to undo the galaxy.
This kind of reporting and writing doesn’t happen for free. Think about subscribing or donating to a publication if you enjoy what you read!
Where do I even begin to talk about the work produced by Lesa and James Ransome? As an author myself, I think of the process of writing and publishing books as a very slow one indeed.
Except when I look at Lesa and James.
I’m not supposed to compare myself, I know, I know. But they seem to produce a new book (or two, together and/or separately) every time I check in on them. And each book is great—a solid work of beauty. How the heck do they do that? I have been following them for years, and I finally reached out to ask them to be our guests for our March 10 salon, to see if they could shed some light on their remarkable productivity. They agreed! Below is just a taste of some of their inner workings, which we will be hearing more about in person:
Get Lit Beacon: You have written & illustrated a wide variety of books that have won many awards. Where do your very top ideas come from?
James Ransome: My ideas come from all around me—books, movies, what I’m interested in painting. I am constantly gathering ideas for books I’d like to create. I only wish I had more time to fully flesh out every one. I once grabbed a biography off my shelf on the life of Harriet Tubman before we took off for a trip. On the first page the writer listed the many lives and jobs Harriet Tubman had throughout her life.
In that moment I knew that we should create a book about it and our book,Before She was Harriet was born. Sometimes, the tricky part is not coming up with the idea, but finding someone to write it. More often than not, Lesa will pass on a project I really want to do because she is not interested and I may have to find another writer or shelve it for later.
Lesa Cline-Ransome: I let my interests guide my choice of topics, but the one subject that remains a constant is my desire to tell the many untold stories from the lives of African Americans. In particular, the stories of women who have persisted in the face of discrimination, prejudice and obstacles and how they found a way to overcome. My interest in sports led me to write biographies about the Negro League player Satchel Paige, soccer star Pele and cyclist Major Taylor. I am an aspiring rapper (if rapping in my car and kitchen counts), and a lover of music, which inspired me to write about musicians I love—Louis Armstrong, Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman, Joseph Boulogne and the forthcoming book on Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. My love of libraries was my inspiration for my very first middle grade novel, Finding Langston, about a young boy who finds refuge from bullies and solace from Langston Hughes’ poetry in the Chicago Public Library.
GLB: Do you ever feel like you want to branch out from writing for children? What are your fantasies regarding that? Or, if not, what are some future ideas?
JR: I am definitely interested in studio painting. I spend some time doing my own personal work for exhibits. And I love the idea of my work one day being featured in galleries and museums throughout the country. I would always want to do at least a book or two a year for the children’s market. I enjoy the challenge of telling a story with visual images. When I look back on my childhood, I have always loved books and the idea of combining art and words is, for me, one of the highest art forms.
LCR: While I am an avid reader of adult fiction, my heart is in writing stories for young people. Their curiosity, imagination and impulsiveness make them the perfect protagonists to write about and write for. I find it to be a rewarding challenge to tell stories in a condensed format, sorting through research to find only the most interesting parts of a person’s life and weaving together a story that is both informative and entertaining.
Award-winning author Lesa Cline-Ransome, whose work focuses on African-American history, has written numerous books for children that have garnered her top honors. Her latest, Finding Langston, won the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction.
As an illustrator, James Ransome’s work has appeared in over 60 books for children. His art has won Coretta Scott King and NAACP Image Awards, among others. He is on faculty at Syracuse University.
Kristen’s post last week about her work as a copy editor reminded me of how—once a book is accepted and bought by a publishing house—there are so many different individuals who are involved in a book’s actual publication.
Obviously, there is the writer, the creator of the content, the most important piece of the book-creation puzzle. Without the writer (without you), there is no book to read.
But there are many hands that touch the book before it goes final. Beyond the writer, publishing houses often have the following departments:
Editorial: The publisher and/or editorial director, the editors
This is the team that initially brings a manuscript in to the house. The editors evaluate projects, buy them when their publisher signs-off on the project, and then conceptually and developmentally edit the manuscript. After the actual editing is done, the editor serves as a project manager and liaises with the various departments below during pre-publication, on publication, and after publication.
Design: The creative director, the designers
I wrote about the book cover design process here, but in short, the design department is responsible for creating the visual cover for the book as well as designing the interior layout.
Managing editorial: The managing editors, the copyeditor, the proofreader
The work that Kristen described in her post falls within this department. Managing editors are responsible for a book’s schedule of production and that includes hiring copyeditors and proofreaders; ensuring materials are turned in and passed over to the appropriate departments in a timely manner; working closely with the production department and design to upload digital files of the book jacket and interiors to our printers websites so that the printer we’ve contracted can physically create the book.
Production: Production editors, in-house pre-press department
The production department is responsible for working directly with internal pre-press departments and printing houses. The pre-press team simulates what certain printed materials will look like; having this function in house saves publishers time and money when evaluating things like printed proofs of book jackets.
Production editors make sure all flows well with pre-press as well as set up the actual printing of the book by ensuring that the printer has the time, space, and capacity to print the book to a publisher’s specifications. Most printers are based in China or India, though there are some US-based printers for any books that a publisher may want produced quickly.
Marketing and publicity
These two departments work closely together to create a comprehensive campaign for each book published.
There are sales reps for every major account including retailers like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Target, Walmart, and other types of accounts like wholesalers, independent bookstores, museums, and military bases, to name a few.
This is the team that licenses book rights to other parties. These rights can include audio, foreign translation, UK, book clubs/fairs, graphic novel adaptation, film/TV, and more.
Other important players at publishing houses include the Legal Department, the Business Office, Inventory/Warehousing, and the mail room.
Each department also has several assistants, and in truth, the assistants are the ones who make the publisher function. Without them, the system would crumble. They make copies, answer calls, route paperwork, coordinate meetings, go on coffee runs for last-minute visitors, and more, all while learning the business.
It takes one person to write a book…but it takes a large team of people to make one.