Pulitzers and Plutarchs

The 2014 Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday, and I’m thrilled with the winners for a couple of reasons. First, as vice president of Biographers International Organization (BIO), I’m delighted that this year’s winner was BIO member Megan Marshall, for Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Megan’s been a steady, supportive force in BIO for years, and I’m so thrilled for her — as the saying goes, it really couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. (And if you want an opportunity to congratulate Megan in person, she’ll be attending BIO’s annual conference on May 17, which you can sign up for right here. Just sayin’.)

Speaking of good things happening to nice people, here’s the second reason I’m thrilled for this year’s Pulitzer winners: my editor at Random House, Ryan Doherty, also happened to edit another pretty spectacular book released in 2013, Dan Fagin’s Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, which won the Pulitzer for Nonfiction.  As soon as I saw the announcement, I immediately sent Ryan an e-mail of congratulations, and completely stunned him, as he hadn’t even heard yet. To say I’m excited for Ryan would be an understatement; he’s a creative and hard-working editor, and I’m so pleased for him and Dan Fagin.

Meanwhile, back over at BIO, we’ve announced the ten nominees for the Plutarch Award, our annual prize given for the Best Biography of the Year. I’m honored and humbled to have Jim Henson among the nominees — and it’s such an interesting list that I’m going to reproduce the full roster of nominees here.* In alphabetical order by author, then, the nominees for Best Biography of 2013 are:

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Doubleday)

Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana (Simon & Schuster)

Wilson by A. Scott Berg (Putnam)

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee, Jr. (Little,Brown)

Jonathan Swift: His Life And His World by Leo Damrosch (Yale)

Gabriele D’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer, and Preacher of War by Lucy Hughes-Hallet (Knopf)

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones (Ballantine)

Holding On Upside Down: The Life And Work of Marianne Moore by Linda Leavell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (Knopf)

Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center by Ray Monk (Doubleday)

Like the Nebula award, we turn the voting for the award over to our membership, and the winner will be announced at our conference on May 17.  I’ll be sure to let you know the winner at that time.

___________________

* Disclaimer: while I’m an officer for BIO, I have no role in selecting the nominees for the Plutarch.

Places To Go, Things to Do

I’m hanging my head in embarrassment that I’ve let the ol’ blog lie fallow for the past few weeks. For shame, Doc, for shame.

First off, I’ve got several folks to publicly thank and acknowledge. I’ve thanked them all privately, but the events were so terrific that they deserve a public mention as well.

In mid-March, I had the great pleasure of being one of the twenty authors invited to the Literary Feast, a three-day fundraiser for literacy programs sponsored by the Broward Public Library Foundation.  Our hosts took great care of us, the company was grand, and the weather . . . well, considering it was 21 degrees when I left Washington for Ft. Lauderdale, the weather just could’t be beat.  In fact, it was while griping about East Coast weather in a shuttle bus that several of us discovered we had come in from the DC region; besides me, there was John Shaw (author of JFK in the Senate) and Andrew Carroll (a multitasking machine who’s latest is Here Is Where), and making their acquaintance was one of the high points of the trip. As an added bonus, I also spent a good part of one reception hanging out with the super cool Rupert Holmes (yes, that Rupert Holmes) and never once made a Pina Colada joke.

The day after I returned, I had the pleasure of speaking at the Arts Club of Washington, one of DC’s really great (and under appreciated!) venues, housed in a 19th century mansion that once served as the home of President James Monroe.  I had to task my host for the evening, the poet Sandra Beasley, with running my slideshow from my laptop from her seat in the center aisle–and with our unspoken language of arched eyebrows and nods and finger waves, things ran smoothly. (In fact, I thought it was one of the best presentations I’ve done in a while.) My thanks, then, to Sandra and the Arts Club for having me. It was a terrific evening — and if you find yourself in DC, locate the club over on I Street and drop in.

Up next for me: I’ll be at the newly-renovated Gaithersburg Library on April 16, starting at 7 p.m.  It’s free and open to the public, and it’ll be a lot of fun.  Here’s a bit of video of me (sitting in my basement office) giving a sneak preview of the April 16 event:

And as an added bonus, here I am again, talking about Jim Henson in Maryland:

Finally, on the weekend of May 17-18, I’ll be attending the Biographers International Organization’s annual conference in Boston. I’ll admit to being a bit biased about this one — I’m BIO’s vice president, after all — but BIO’s conferences are always informative and entertaining, with first-rate panelists and moderators. I’ll be sitting on two panels, one on book tours, the other on working with the family of your subject.

Even better, the recipient of this year’s BIO Award — given to individuals who’ve made a significant contribution to the art of biography — is Stacy Schiff, whose Cleopatra: A Life is an art unto itself. Plus, Stacy’s a class act, and a dynamite speaker — and you’ll get to hear her at lunch at the BIO conference.  Really, that should be enough to convince you to attend right there.

Credit Where Credit’s Due: The Audience Is Listening

17288885I have to confess to not being much of an Audiobook Guy. It’s nothing personal; I’m mainly just a Book In The Hand Guy (worse yet, I’m  a Hardcover Book In The Hand Guy), and if I have a choice between listening to a book and reading it, I’d rather just pick it up and read it rather than find my iPod, untangle the headphones, and listen to it.  It’s really just a matter of preference, and your taste is your own.  

All this is just set up to explain to you why it took me so long to listen to the audiobook version of Jim HensonMy first book, Washington Irving, never made it into audiobook format. But with Jim Henson, I was told on day one that the audiobook would be released on the same day as the hardcover.  That sounded pretty good to me–and I said so–then thought no more of it until early June 2013, when the audiobook process kicked in. To my surprise and delight, I was being asked to listen to a short audition tape from a potential audiobook reader — while I had no actual say over who could or couldn’t read the audiobook, it was really, really cool to be looped into the process and asked my opinion.

kh_10202_t

The versatile Kirby Heyborne.

The producer for the audiobook–a talented guy named Aaron Blank–had a reader in mind from the very start: Kirby Heyborne, a versatile voice actor, singer, and comedian who, Aaron assured me, had exactly the sound the book needed. (Hey, wanna see Kirby starring in a recent Best Buy commercial? Here ya go.) I listened to the short digital file Aaron e-mailed me, and I did like it — but the particular sequence he had sent me was all exposition; there was no dialogue, no characters.  I e-mailed Aaron back and asked if it might be possible to hear Kirby reading as Jim, or maybe even a quick Muppet segment. Moments later, there were several digital sound files in my inbox of Kirby reading as Jim and Frank Oz and Kermit–and they were all terrific. I was sold.

I sent Kirby an e-mail saying hello and letting him know how happy I was that he was reading — and Kirby sent a very nice note back, and we dutifully followed each other on Twitter, because that’s what you do, you know — and there was much rejoicing. After that, the only other interaction I had with the audiobook team was a phone call in which we went over various pronunciations, such as “David Lazer” (pronounced like “laser”) or “Wontkins” (pronounced like “WON’T-kins,” and not “want-kins”). Everything was in capable hands.

Flash forward now to the fall of 2013. I received the audiobook along with the hardcover . . . and put it on my bookshelf, where it sat silent and un-listened to. I knew the audiobook was a hit — Frank Oz specifically asked for a copy, while over on Salon, Kyle Minor called it “one of the most pleasurable audiobooks I’ve spent time with this year”–but I still hadn’t found the right time to listen to the thing.

Finally, in January and February of this year, I had to make several lengthy drives into Virginia, and decided to take the audiobook along with me. (Is it considered gauche to listen to your own audiobook? I really don’t know.) From the moment I heard Kirby read the prologue, I was driving with a big smile on my face — Kirby had gotten it down perfectly, even reading some lines with the same beats, the same inflection that I had “heard” as I was writing them. And he does a great job giving every main “character” in the story their own voice, whether it’s the somewhat lyrical tone he uses for Jim Henson, a more cynical, tougher edge for Frank Oz, or his dead-on impression of Muppet performer Jerry Nelson.

There were also times he put on a voice that made me laugh out loud–while driving!–such as the Lorne Michaels impression that sounded like the one Bob Smigel used for his “TV Funhouse” cartoons on SNL (“Come back here with my shoooo!”) or the way he said drawrings (instead of drawings) when doing Labyrinth screenwriter/Monty Pythoner Terry Jones. And his David Bowie? Forget it; he killed. It was a lot of fun, and more than once, I found myself sitting in the car after arriving at my destination, engine off, just listening to the rest of a particular section.

And so: here’s my Official Thank You! to Kirby Heyborne for making me — and Jim, and everyone else — sound so great. Many thanks, Kirby — I truly appreciate it.

Remembering John Henson

GTY_sweetums_john_henson_split_ss_jt_140216_2x1_992I was shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of Jim Henson’s son John Paul Henson this past Valentine’s Day at the age of 48 — too damn young, too damn soon. Apparently he’d been out in the snow near his home in Saugerties, New York, building an igloo with his daughter when he suffered a massive heart attack. My heart goes out to his wife Gyongyi, his daughters Katrina and Sydney, and the entire Henson family–as well as to the Jim Henson organization, where they really do still think of each other as family.

I had the great pleasure of getting to know John, at least a little bit, while I was researching Jim Henson: The Biography, and found him to be a really beautiful guy. I traveled up to visit him at his home in Saugerties, where he met me at the train station in his pickup truck. He was listening to Sirius radio–and though he had the volume all the way down as we talked, I could see the channel display read HOWARD 100 — the Howard Stern channel. John saw me noticing, reddened for a moment, and started to change the station. I laughed and said, “Hey, I’m a fan, too.” It was a good start.

While John was an experienced puppeteer, he was actually a different kind of artist, and whatever he touched — he was a metalworker, carpenter, electrician, pipe fitter — he made that medium sing. As a younger man, he had built the elaborate Muppet mobile “The Great Hot Air Balloon Circus,” which gleamed and twirled in the four-story atrium wrapped by the spiral staircase in the Muppet headquarters at One Seventeen.

And he loved renovating, restoring, and redesigning buildings. He was especially proud of all the properties in Saugerties that he had either renovated or was in the process of restoring, and we spent much of the afternoon driving around town to look at them, tromping around in rooms with no roof or kitchens with no appliances–everything was a work in progress.  He took a special delight in the HVAC work he had done in an old hospital he had purchased overlooking the river: every pipe was perfectly aligned with the next, snaking tightly from the walls and ceiling into the central box in a geometric pattern. I can’t exactly explain why it was beautiful; it just was. He had the same design sense as his father; everything had to be interesting, and finished, and fun to look at.

He proudly gave me a tour of his home–a renovated early 1900s schoolhouse, complete with a ringing bell in the cupola on the roof. He had purchased the place  in 1981 or so, and had only just completed the renovations. “A project thirty years in the making!” he told me, laughing.  And it showed. Again, everything was interesting to look at, and not a spare square foot had been wasted; John snuck secret corridors between rooms, snaked rope lights into sculpture under the eaves, and navigated much of the house by catwalk. It was whimsical and wonderful, and very much John’s own unique sense of space and design.

I had dinner that evening with him and his family–and they were all as charming and delightful as you might expect–then John and I retired to his enormous workshop at one end of the house, so I could interview him (with its gigantic and loud ventilation fan, the workshop, John explained somewhat sheepishly, was the only room in the house where he could smoke!) As the fan whirred like a jet engine — and as I hoped against hope that one of the two digital recorders I had placed near John would pick up his voice over the clatter of the fan* — we talked long into the evening. John was deliberate and thoughtful, tilting his head slightly to one side as he considered his answers.

He was also a very spiritual, almost ethereal, gentleman. He genuinely believed in guardian angels; he would never have survived his high-speed automobile crash in his twenties without one, he said. His absolute faith in the belief that there was someone, something, out there watching over us was one of his most endearing qualities. He was sure his dad was there waiting for him–for everyone–wherever he might be.

Jim Henson’s biography was that much better–dare I say that much more beautiful–for having had John’s unique voice in it. I’m glad I got to know him, even just a little.

__________

* Thankfully, one of them did.

Behind The Scenes: The Prologue

One of the sections of Jim Henson that readers seem to enjoy the most — at least as far as I can determine from my very unscientific assessment of things — is the book’s prologue. Under the chapter title “Blue Sky,” it’s a behind-the-scenes look at this classic moment from Sesame Street, when a little girl named Joey sings the ABCs with Kermit the Frog:

love that people love this prologue — and it might surprise you to know that the very first thing you read in the book is actually one of the very last things I wrote for it.  I wrote the current prologue so late in the process, in fact, that if you were one of those readers who received an Advance Review Copy (ARC), you actually got a book that had a different prologue in it.

My editor Ryan and I knew we wanted to open the book in media res – the moment you started reading, we wanted you to see Jim already successful and working and being creative, and doing all those things that made him Jim Henson. We talked about some places in the manuscript where a quick story or vignette might be fleshed out into a slightly longer opening piece, and I made a long list of several good moments in the book where, while writing the manuscript, I wished I’d had just a little more time and space to give to a particular story. After much consideration, we decided to go with a slightly-less known moment–at least for casual fans–from the 1960s, when Jim and the Muppet team decided to paint the pipes in his dressing room at NBC while waiting to appear with Jack Paar. You can see Frank Oz talking all about those pipes–now preserved and built into the NBC Studio tour– fifty years later, in this clip:

Oz used the term “affectionate anarchy,” and I loved the phrase so much–it’s such a perfect way to sum up the Muppet mentality–that I put it at the top of the opening chapter. And that was how the ARCs went out in early 2013 — with a prologue about the Muppet pipes called “Affectionate Anarchy.” And it stayed that way for quite a while.

Then, in the late Spring, Ryan called to go over some final edits and review photo credits—and while we were talking, he brought up the prologue. “Everyone here loves the book,” he said in his usual diplomatic manner, “but a few people have mentioned they’d like to see Muppets in the prologue. While I still think what we have is great, do you wanna take a stab at another one and we can see what we think?”

That actually sounded fine to me.  Two years earlier, even before I had written a single word of Jim Henson, I had always pictured his biography opening with him working on the labor-intensive opening scene of The Muppet Movie, sinking himself in a makeshift bathysphere to perform Kermit from underwater. I had even tried writing just such an opening, but hadn’t been happy with the first few drafts.  This seemed like a good opportunity to go back and work on it again.

I wrote and rewrote for a week, but after several more drafts, it still wasn’t coming together. It was too big and ambitious and technical; I needed something warmer and more intimate. So I decided to start over, looking down my list of Muppet moments, and decided to expand on one that I particularly loved–the ABC Cookie Monster bit–which took up only about a page in the ARC.

The chapter’s title actually came right away, courtesy of a story told to me by Sesame Street performer Fran Brill who, during one of our phone interviews, told me of director Jon Stone and others calling out “blue sky!” when a child was on the set, reminding staff to watch their mouths. I loved that; it was such a warm image for Sesame Street — after all, wouldn’t one of Sesame Street‘s famous “sunny days” have a blue sky?–and it seemed a perfect way to begin.

I wrote the prologue over two days—a slow pace to be sure.  I sent it off to Ryan, who smartly excised one line near the end, then sent me one of his typically concise e-mails: “This is perfect.” I don’t know about that, but I do like it.

Henson-pipesOne last thing: with the new prologue in place, I now had to find a new photo to use at the top of the chapter. In the original ARC, I had planned on using a photo of the Muppet pipes — probably something like the photo at right — but with the new prologue, I would have to look for something new.  There were no photos of Jim performing the ABC sketch with Joey; about the best I could do was a screen grab. Without that, then, what I really wanted was a photo of Jim getting ready to perform—preparing to bring a character to life simply by putting it on the end of his arm, which is one of the themes of the prologue.

JimandKermitonLapInitially, I wanted to go with the photo at the left — it’s Jim with Kermit draped across his lap, miked up and waiting to perform, probably not on Sesame Street, but it makes the point.  When it came time to clear the image, however, Disney wouldn’t allow its use, informing me that they didn’t permit photos of “dead” Muppets.  I argued that that was precisely my point — that Kermit is dead until Jim puts him on–but despite the help of a sympathetic archivist at The Walt Disney Company, I had to scuttle this particular image and look for another. If you’ve got the book, you can see the image I eventually chose (you actually don’t have to look much further than the top of this blog, where you’ll see Jim squatting with Kermit on his arm).

So there you have it.  If you’re one of those readers who has an ARC of Jim Henson: The Biography, and are wondering if there’s anything significantly different between the ARC and the final product, you’ll find it in the first few pages.

You Can Talk All You Wanna…

As you can imagine, I love talking about Jim Henson — so much so, that it’s sometimes difficult for me to keep things short.  That’s why I love doing online interviews and podcasts, where you’ve got the time to stretch out, tell longer stories, and/or go on at length, as needed.  And sometimes even when not needed.

To that end, I point you toward three extended interviews I’ve done in the past few weeks, some of which you can watch, and a few of which you can even download and listen to later. Because nothing gets you moving quicker on the treadmill than listening to me in your headphones.

First, here’s a nearly hour-long interview I did with Oline Eaton for New Books In Biography.  In the interest of full disclosure, Oline’s a fellow member of BIO and a friend, but all that really means is that when you put the two of us together, we love to talk shop — so this interview spends some time on the process of writing and researching biography.  And you’ll even get a little behind-the-scenes look at the writing of the book’s prologue, which — spoiler alert! — I actually wrote last.

bitofachat-headerNext, here’s A Bit of Chat I did with the smart and cheeky Ken Plume.  If you’re a Muppet fan, you know that Ken knows his stuff — heck, in Jim Henson, I cited a number of interviews he’s conducted over the years with folks like Frank Oz and Steve Whitmire. We had a great time together, and talked for nearly an hour about Jim, the Muppets, mugs on The Daily Show, and the choreography of the unseen (a term I wish I could claim, but it’s Ken’s, not mine, darn it). I could have kept going much longer, but I had to take a phone call for another interview — and you’ll hear me answer the phone and apologetically bring the interview to a rather anticlimactic end.  Hopefully, Ken and I can do it again sometime, since things were really getting good.

Finally, during my trip to New Mexico at the end of October, I sat down for an interview at the local PBS station in Albuquerque to tape New Mexico In Focus. The regular host was out that day, so I got fill-in host Larry Ahrens instead — and I have to tell you, as a New Mexican, there’s actually no other interviewer I’d rather sit with.  Larry’s a New Mexico institution, hosting radio and TV shows for nearly as long as I can remember.  He had also really done his homework, which always makes for a fun interview — and since it was PBS, we talked quite a bit of Sesame Street, of course.

Here’s the New Mexico In Focus piece:

….and we were having so much fun with that, that we taped a Web Extra:

Jim Henson in The New York Times

After teasing us (meaning my editor and me) for the last two months, the Grey Lady is finally reviewing Jim Henson in its pages. We had heard one was coming — back in September, in fact, we kept hearing a review was “imminent,” and then . . . well, it just kept on not showing and not showing, until eventually we began to doubt a review would run at all.  Then suddenly, several weeks ago, they started asking for photos, which made us believe they were up to something.

That something, as it turns out, will appear in this Sunday’s New York Times Sunday Book Review. And you can already read it online by clicking right here. Oh, and HERE BE SPOILERS: It’s a terrific review, really thoughtful and eminently fair — and really, it’s one of my favorite reviews since Will Friedwald’s spectacular piece in the Wall Street Journal last month. It’s considered bad form to reach out to reviewers, so I’ll just say it right here instead: John Swansburg, if you’re reading this, thanks for the review.

And thank you again, everyone, who’s reading and enjoying Jim Henson. I appreciate it.