Interview with Author Diane Lapis: Hot on the Trail of Cocktails Across America

by Julie Chibbaro

pexels-photo-338627

We recently hosted author Diane Lapis who, with her writing partner Anne Peck-Davis, just published an unusual book that offers a unique overview of midcentury cocktail culture, featuring both recipes, and reproductions of the postcards used to advertise popular lounges and bars of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. But it’s more than a mere compendium of recipes and pictures. In Cocktails Across America, Lapis and Peck-Davis tease out the stories behind each postcard, revealing some mighty strange history in these United States. I cornered Diane to ask a few questions about how she wrote the book, working with a co-author, and her unusual (yet serendipitous!) path to finding not only a great publisher, but a great agent too.

GLB: At Get Lit Beacon, you read to us a story about an Atomic cocktail. Is that really true? Can you tell us how you dug that story up?

Diane: The stories in Cocktails Across America use postcards as a starting point. My coauthor Anne Peck-Davis and I used a variety of materials to learn about the origins of the cocktail, or the bar or city in which the drink was first introduced. Vintage cocktail books and menus, newspaper and journal articles and advertisements, books, and websites were our go-to resources. For certain stories, we contacted historical societies, postcard clubs, and specialty libraries.

61R71oxI14L._SX387_BO1,204,203,200_

Two postcards depicting views of atomic blasts were featured in the Atomic Cocktail story: Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Club, and Vegas Vic’s Pioneer Club. I gathered information from the Nevada National Security Site, the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and various websites and books about popular culture in Nevada. Then I pieced together how the hospitality industry capitalized on the atomic blasts as a form of entertainment. Finding old photos of beauty queens sporting the atomic bomb style hairdo, convinced me that this story had to be told.

GLB: You also mentioned you decided to find an agent for the book once you’d written it, even though you’d already found a publisher. Can you say why you made that decision?

Diane: Anne and I were thrilled that Countryman Press (a division of W.W. Norton) was interested in our manuscript. Before signing the contract, I serendipitously met the CEO of the Curtis Brown Literary Agency. He took an interest in our project and suggested that we consider using his agency to help with the business side of publishing. I was reluctant, as we already had a publisher… what could we possibly need an agent for??? Everyone that we knew in the publishing industry highly recommended engaging the services of an agent. Anne and I then interviewed one of Curtis Brown’s agents and liked his attitude and personality. He was well versed in the field and patiently answered our long list of questions. We are so thankful that we signed with Curtis Brown! Our agent was helpful in negotiating the complicated contract and added value to it as well.

GLB: How did you work together with your writing partner? Can you share a story of when it didn’t work so well?

Diane: Working with a creative collaborator was a gratifying experience. Anne and I shared similar interests in postcards and 20th century cultural history. We readily agreed on content and the design of the book, thereby making it easy to achieve our goals. We were ready to jump into something new and bold, and delighted in stretching our horizons. We split the workload, edited each other’s writing, suggested pathways to follow, and discovered and shared new resources.

However, our biggest challenge was finding time to work together. We were free during opposite times of the day and live about a 45-minute drive from each other. Therefore, we had to carefully plan our meetings. We prepared agendas that kept us focused and ensured that we discussed specific and time-sensitive items. Sometimes we met at a bookstore or traveled to each other’s homes. We sent hundreds (possibly thousands) of emails and had many lengthy phone conversations. Scheduling telephone conferences with our editor and agent required additional planning. Anne and I both loved working on this project, so we found positive ways to deal with our time challenge.

 

Paul Lisicky: An Essay, a Poem, a Story, and a Song

By Flora Stadler

Author Paul Lisicky’s memoir The Narrow Door reads like a scrapbook elegy—its loss archived in love notes, fragments of feeling, snapshots of memory. The book (a New York Times Editors’ Choice) documents the death of his longtime friend and fellow writer, Denise Gess, and the disintegration of his relationship with his ex-husband, writer Mark Doty. There’s emotional enormity in his remembering, the placement of personal and natural disaster side by side—cancer and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helen; isolation and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I love the structure and sensibility of this book, and that’s why I asked him:

What was the one thing you didn’t want to do when writing The Narrow Door?


“This is a great question but a tough one for me too, because I don’t think I ever consciously write out of negation. With The Narrow Door in particular, I was trying to see how much life I could get on the page without destroying it, without making some incomprehensible mess. I say that knowing so many of my favorite visual artists and writers make amazing work out of subtraction—in other words, limiting their work to the use of a few terms. Think of songwriters who write songs built of two chords, or graphic novelists who use only black and white. I’m fascinated by that approach, but I seem to be after trying to accommodate my too-muchness, always asking myself how much can I put out there? Can this feel like an essay, a poem, a story, and a song all at the same time? Can I create a sense of simultaneity, a sense of the connections between disparate people, who are never really all that separate if we hold them side by side?

So I never really go into any project overtly thinking about what I’m not going to do. It’s much more intuitive than that. It’s more like writing thirty pages and thinking, maybe—hmm. This feels more like F minor when I need three chord changes here. Or: this feels bright yellow when it needs some darker yellow and gold and bright green. Or: my friend was a hell of a lot sillier than this self-dramatizing person I’ve conjured up. Start again. So a lot of different moods are tried on until I find something that feels remotely accurate. I’m sure at a certain point in The Narrow Door I must have been thinking of other grief books. I must have been thinking, Man, this could be an awful slog, some guy’s feelings in the wake of his friend’s death. Who would want to read that? Haven’t other people done that better? The shock was the book started evolving into its own creature over time. Even the most crushing stuff, say, the climate catastrophes, had a weird kind of awe and alertness about it, and the book was so much less about death and mourning than it was, well, the texture of going through the day in the middle of trouble. But that never felt chosen. What better way to kill a book before it’s even had a chance to breathe? At least for me, I should say. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m tossing out some maxim that should be true for everyone.

But back to your question. I think all of my work is written out of some desire not to write the book that’s already on the shelf, but I don’t want to repeat myself either, which is a hell of a lot harder to do than it sounds. Joy Williams says: ‘The moment a writer knows how to achieve a certain effect, the method must be abandoned. Effects repeated become false, mannered.’ That’s sort of religion to me. Those words might sound scrupulous to the point of scary, but I don’t think there’s any better way to stay alive as an artist, a person.”

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, along with Paul Lisicky’s other books, is available at Indiebound. His next novel, Later, is coming in 2020 from Graywolf Press.