You Never Forget Your First

photo 2This is a photo I took today of the very first Lego Space set I ever owned.*  It’s the Rocket Launcher, and it was the first time I had ever seen a minifig, a sloped ramp piece with a computer printed on it, and the piece we always called the Gas Tank. I must have put this thing together a thousand times–and when I put it together at the desk in my office today, I was astounded at how my fingers seemed to automatically find each piece even before I knew which one I needed.

I was 12 when I got this, and as you can see, I still have the instructions and the box.  Which is a good thing, because I’m sending this set–and lots of others–off to my nephews. They’re big Lego fans, and I think they’re much better off being sent someplace where they’ll be enjoyed, rather than sitting in the box in my basement.

*Lego Crater Plate not included.

 

This and That

It’s a gorgeous early summer day here in Maryland and I’ve been outside mowing and working in the yard–but I’ve got a few noteworthy things to, uh, note for you.

First, for those of you in the Norfolk/Newport News region, I’ll be on HearSay on Tuesday, July 1, from noon until 1 p.m. (that’s 89.5 FM on the local dial, but it’ll be streaming shortly afterward).  I’ll be sitting in studio to talk Jim Henson with my pal Liz Humes (who also brings you the Wordy Birds radio show in Richmond every Friday), who’s sitting in for the vacationing Cathy Lewis for the week.

And as I mentioned, even if you’re not in the Virginia region, the show will be available online shortly thereafter over on their website.

Next, an interview I did with Neil Haley during last fall’s Miami Book Fair just went online right here. This one was a lot of fun, since we had thirty uninterrupted minutes — and I think Neil had just completed an interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, so it was a nice change of pace for him as well.

Finally, it’s always lovely to read a thoughtful reader review like this one.

In Which I Am On CNN, Go To Boston, and Get Back In The Chair

Good grief, it’s really been over a month since I last checked in here? I’m never gonna get a John Scalzi-type following at this rate…

First thing’s first–and because everyone asked me about it at the time–the CNN piece on the Muppets finally aired in late May. The CNN crew had come to my house here in Maryland ages ago to film me in my basement office, and then I never heard anything more about it. I had assumed it had turned into vapor trails, until a sharp-eyed fan on Twitter alerted me to it: a half-hour special called CNN Spotlight: The Muppets, with a brief look at Jim Henson about a third of the way through it.

In case you missed it (and even if you didn’t), here’s the piece in its entirety:

 

I also had the great pleasure of speaking in mid-April at the newly-opened Gaithersburg Library here in my neck of the words, with the added bonus that C-SPAN was in attendance to record my hour-long talk in its entirety for BookTV.  No word yet on when, or even if, it’ll air, but I’ll let you know what I hear. More than likely, some eagle-eyed Muppet fan will spot it before I do and let me know about it.

In mid-May, I headed for Boston to attend Biographers International Organization’s annual conference. It was my privilege to be elected the organization’s president in early spring, but that meant that in addition to the two panels I was on and the one panel I was moderating, I also had to act as emcee for much of the conference–which also meant I didn’t have as much time to spend catching up with everyone as I would have liked. One of the founding principles of BIO is to address with what we informally call “the loneliness quotient,” so the opportunity to mingle and trade stories with other biographers is one of the genuine pleasures of attending the BIO conference. It’s also perhaps the only place on the planet where you can grouse about having to assemble the index for your book (“And that index?!? AMIRIGHT?”) and have everyone in the room nodding sympathetically.

At the final reception, we announced the finalists and winner of the Plutarch Award, presented to the best biography of the year, as chosen by biographers.  I was pleased and honored that Jim Henson was among the finalists (along with Ray Monk’s Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center and Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin), with the well-deserved winner being Linda Leavell’s Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne MooreIf you haven’t read any of these fine biographies, do yourself a favor and grab any one of them. Better yet, grab ‘em all.

And, oh yeah . . . I’m at work again. On Something Cool. That means I’ll be back at the desk regularly again –which I’m also hoping means I can get back here more often. Bear with me.

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.

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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.