My Thanks to Outstanding (Good)Readers

GoodreadscoverLike Lord Byron, who woke up one morning and found himself famous, I woke up this morning to countless e-mails and text messages alerting me to the wonderful news that Jim Henson: The Biography had won the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Biography of 2013.

Wow.

It was great to even be nominated — an old saw, but what can I say? It really is true.  And in the category of Biography/History, I was in great company: Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City. Bill Bryson’s One Summer. Reza Aslan’s Zealot – and that’s just for starters. With a fellowship of biographers and historians like that clustered around you, it really is exciting just to be among the  nominees. But what a genuine thrill it is to learn that readers loved it enough to vote for it — and keep voting for it multiple times, since that’s what it takes to make it through each round.

And so: THANK YOU to each and every one of you. And Goodreads aside, thank you all for the warmth and enthusiasm over these past few months. It’s a rare pleasure to get to document someone’s incredible life — and I’m so glad we could enjoy it all together. I appreciate all of you.

My congratulations, too, to the winners in all the other categories.  This marks probably the only time in my life I will likely be on the same list with Stephen King, Khaled Hosseini, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m marking the day with a white stone, as Lewis Carroll once put it.

UP (with People!), Pressing Matters, and Goodreads

I had a terrific time speaking at Jim Henson’s other hometown of University Park (UP), Maryland, last week — where the Hensons moved for good in 1948, where Jim went to high school and college, and where, perhaps most importantly, he discovered his love for television amidst the whopping four television channels available in the Greater Washington, DC Metro area. As in Leland, it was great to meet so many people who love Jim Henson and his work, and to get reacquainted with several people  who helped me in my research on Jim Henson, including former UP Mayor John Brunner (who burrowed deep into public records to locate the various Henson residences) and University of Maryland archivist Anne Turkos.

I also met a childhood friend of Jim’s named Harvey Beavers — which, given the name of a certain character in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, made me smile (though it’s just one of those happy coincidences, since the character appears in the source material…) — as well as the current owner of the Henson family’s former house on Beechwood in University Park, a very kind and quiet woman who says that, so far, no one has banged on her door and asked to look around.  Well done, everyone.

Next up for me: the 36th Annual Book Fair and Authors’ Night at the National Press Club here in Washington, DC.  I’m delighted to have been invited, and the reader and book fan in me is eager to attend as well, as I’m looking forward to meeting several of the writers in attendance — including Larry Kane, whose book on the Beatles, When They Were Boys, was a heckuva lotta fun, and Dan Balz, who penned the dynamite Collision 2012, all about the last election.

Finally, I’m thrilled, flattered, and humbled that Jim Henson has not only been nominated for a Goodreads Choice Awards for 2013, but that it’s also made it to the final round.

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Yay! There’s Jim Henson, in the second row, still in the hunt after the first two rounds, thanks to all of you.

Thank you so much, everyone who’s voted to bring Jim Henson into the  final round.  I appreciate it — and if you’re so inclined, vote for it once again in the final round, and let’s see how far it’ll go. Regardless, it really is an honor just to be considered, so thank you, too, for that.

If you’d like vote, go here.

Back in the Delta

I was there less than 24 hours, but the time I spent last week in Leland, Mississippi — Jim’s childhood hometown — was, as usual, one of the best times ever. With their Southern hospitality and gentle charm, the fine folks in Leland just plain take good care of their guests — and they take good care of Jim Henson there, too. They’re rightfully very proud that Jim’s roots run deep into the Delta, and the Jim Henson’s Delta Boyhood Exhibit is one of those not-to-be-missed attractions. It’s intimate and charming, with a peek at Jim’s life in Leland in the late 1930s and early 1940s, as well as some really nice displays featuring Kermit the Frog and — depending on when you might be there — other Muppets.

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The Jim Henson’s Delta Boyhood Exhibit in Leland, Mississippi. All it needs is you.

Ashley Zepponi and her team in Leland took great care of me — I had the pleasure of staying in the Thompson House Bed and Breakfast, one of Leland’s grand old houses — and on Thursday night, they hosted a really wonderful reception and book signing at the headquarters for the Leland Progress (whose ace editor, Stephanie Patton, graciously provided her newspaper’s offices — a sprawling loft-like space with exposed brick walls — and helped put together a terrific event). I had a great time meeting — and in some cases re-meeting — not just Lelanders, but the many Jim Henson and Muppet fans who had come from as far away as Kansas to have a conversation and get their book signed.  It was very flattering — and, as always, very humbling — to meet people with such enthusiasm. Thank you, one and all, for coming out.

I’m back in Maryland again, and later this week, I’ll be speaking over at University Park — Jim’s other hometown, where the Hensons moved for good in 1948.

Playing Catch Up (Again)

Augh! Sorry about the lack of posts here — the last few weeks have been a bit of a blur.

When I last left you — back in mid-October — I was giving you a heads up about the interview I taped with the super cool Tavis Smiley.  The interview did indeed run on October 18/19 — and if you missed it, you can see it right here.

I had a great time at Tavis Smiley, and it’s another one of those shows that runs like a well-oiled machine: quick, easy, and over much too fast. When I was finished, he very sweetly asked if I would sign his copy of Jim’s biography — and when I asked who I should make it out to (left to my own devices, I would’ve probably written “To Mr. Smiley”), he said gently, “Why, to Tavis — who else?” Awesome.

RipleyThe next week, I had the great privilege of speaking to a sold out crowd at the Smithsonian, where they know a thing or two about the importance of the Muppets to American History.  I spoke at the S. Dillon Ripley Center (the entrance to which you can see there at right — the gigantic facility itself is underground), which — perhaps appropriately — is where I saw the Jim Henson’s Fantastic World exhibit back in 2008, and met several of the Hensons for the first time.  My talk was called “More Than Muppets,” which let me cover a lot of Jim’s early TV commercial work and experimental projects like Cyclia, Time Piece, Youth 68, The Cube, as well as later projects like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. All in all, it was a lot of fun, with a lot of good questions and conversation afterwards.

The morning after my Smithsonian talk, I got a plane and headed for Albuquerque, New Mexico, to do a quick Home Town Tour, which — thanks to the Herculean skills of my pal Marron — involved me making lots of TV and radio appearances, speaking at several bookstores (including Page One and Bookworks) and giving presentations at a number of schools, including my high school (Go Eagles!) and college (Go Lobos!) alma maters.  In another fitting bit of full circle serendipity, my talk at the University of New Mexico made the front page of the Daily Lobo, the college newspaper where I spent every night of my college career serving as Night Editor:

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No, that’s not a photo of me on the front of the Daily Lobo — though my wife pointed out that I DO slightly resemble the puppet. (Bonus points if you applauded the photo bomb by the Frontier soda cup….)

I also had the pleasure of spending my last evening in the state in Santa Fe, speaking at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse, followed by an outstanding dinner party hosted by my friend and BIO colleague (and crack biographer of Pulitzer, to name but a few) James McGrath Morris.

I’m now back in the chair at my desk in Maryland, though only for a moment — now that I’ve done my home town, I’m spending the next week doing Jim’s, heading first for Leland, Mississippi and then over to University Park, Maryland.

Guy? No, TAVIS Smiley.

File this under the Had Enough of Me Yet? Department: I’ll be on The Tavis Smily Show on PBS this Friday, October 18.  Check your local listings for the time and channel — out here in Maryland, for example, it’s actually on at midnight, which technically makes it the morning of October 19.  But that’s nitpicking, innit?

I taped the interview early last week — and when you finish, they give you a cool framed photo of yourself on set, gabbing with the man himself.  Like so:

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That’s me, talking with my hands as usual, and doing what appears to be my best Walter White impression.

Click here for more information on The Tavis Smiley Show. And naturally, I’ll link to my appearance, once it’s online.

A Today Show Update

UnknownOkay, I have it on good authority that the Today show segment will air tomorrow — Tuesday, October 15 — during the eight o’clock hour.

And while I haven’t seen the segment — and won’t until everyone else does — I can tell you that you’ll see Frank Oz in it.  So that should be enough, really, for you to wanna tune in.

Set  your DVRs now. Or not. I’m not the boss of you.

 

Your Moment of Zen

DailyShowOnly a little more than two weeks ago, I received word from the publicity team at Random House that it was “extremely likely” that I would be booked for an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to talk about Jim Henson. My chin hit the floor as David Moench, the publicist assigned to me at Random House, told me the news. I think I responded with something clever like, “Gwah?” “Congratulations,” David told me, “but don’t get too excited yet. Until we get official confirmation, things could change.”

Well sure. After the constant scheduling and rescheduling of the Today show, I wasn’t going to get my hopes up and get stung again (though I should add that the Today show will, indeed, now happen). But there was another problem, too: the date The Daily Show was setting aside was Thursday, October 10 — the same day I was scheduled to appear at the New York Society Library. That event was scheduled to get underway at 7 p.m. — and if things went as planned, I wouldn’t be getting out of The Daily Show until that same time. We went to the NYSL, hat in hand, to see if we could get the start time pushed back even 30 minutes, though the mechanics of getting me across town at that time of night were going to mean cutting things very, very close. Unfortunately, none of us could figure out how to get it to work, and Mark Bartlett and his staff at the NYSL were incredibly generous — and very understanding — and graciously offered to reschedule the NYSL event for another time.

On October 1, then, came the word we (meaning me and David and the publicity team at Random House) were waiting for: I had been officially confirmed. The seventy-five minutes between 5:45 and 7:00 p.m. were blocked off on my schedule on Thursday, October 10. And while it was still nine days away, that was nine days I had to be an anxious mess. And man, was I nervous.

On the afternoon of the 10th, then — a somewhat cool and overcast Thursday — my wife (Barb, thank goodness, came along as moral support) and I sat in the lobby of our New York hotel, while I nursed a beer and nervously bounced my knee up and down. The Daily Show takes good care of you from moment one, and a car came by the hotel to pick us up and whisk us away to their studios—one of those experiences where you’re excited at the idea of riding in an Actual Private Car — with a driver barking his estimated arrival time into a walkie talkie the entire way — but still vaguely embarassed that someone is holding a door open for you.

We were brought up to the back door — a blank door in a blank wall with no sign whatsoever of what was behind it — and met by Hillary, the producer for my segment, who escorted us down a little jog of a hall to an open door with a sign next to it that read BRIAN JAY JONES.  Nice.

Next to the sign was the Green Room — which is actually not green at all, but rather a cozy, living room-like space with stuffed chairs and a comfy sofa where guests wait until needed — and here I was met by my editor Ryan Doherty, and the ever-patient, ever-present David Moench. Barb and I sank onto the couch in front of a large, hi-def television on which The Daily Show logo was visible. I bounced my knee again as I sat down, though a bit slower now, and we all chatted about what a surreal experience this was until I was taken away for a bit to go to makeup (mostly to reduce the glare off my bald head) and fitted with a remote microphone.

And suddenly, poking his head into the Green Room, was Jon Stewart.

My wife — a big fan — pointed and gasped. “No WAY!” she finally said, and Stewart laughed that quick high-pitched giggle of his and said, “YES WAY!”  We all shook hands and he stood with his arms folded as we chatted briefly for a few minutes — he was particularly fascinated by Jim’s memorial service, which he had recently viewed on YouTube. Then he disappeared to get to work.

We all watched the show on the hi-def TV in the Green Room. There was no noise, no sounds, no indication that a TV show was being taped anywhere in the building; we could almost have been sitting in our own living room.

Shortly after the second segment concluded, Hillary stood in the doorway and said, “Ready to go?” Acting much less nervous than I actually was, I followed her through a maze of corridors, each one darker than the next, until I was  standing with a dark curtain to my right and looking at Jon Stewart at his desk about ten feet in front of me. The desk was on a platform about a foot off the ground, and I was  considering the various ways I could miss that step and face plant on national television when Hillary jolted me back to the present. “He’s getting ready to introduce you,” she said matter-of-factly, like you hear Jon Stewart say your name every day. “When I say, ‘Go!’ you go — and have fun out there.”

Suddenly, I heard Jon Stewart — Jon freaking Stewart! — saying my name, Hillary said, ‘Go!’ and out I went. The music played, the audience applauded, and I didn’t miss the step. Then I shook Jon Stewart’s hand and sat down. And just like that, I was on The Daily Show.  No rehearsals, no walk-throughs; it’s a finely-tuned, well-oiled machine, and you’re doing it in real time, one take. Wow.

It took me just a split second to get going — the best advice Hillary had given me in our pre-interview conversation was, “Don’t be afraid to talk, and don’t worry about stepping on Jon while he’s talking. He loves guests who talk.”  – and it took me just a moment to realize why Stewart is a great interviewer: he doesn’t really ask questions. Instead, he throws out comments or a bit of a conversation starter, and then lets you take things where you will.

Somehow, once we started talking, I wasn’t nervous — and it was over almost before I knew it.  And have you seen that moment just after the  interview where Stewart puts his head down near the desk and he and the guest have a brief bit of a conversation? It’s actually a very clever way of ensuring the guest doesn’t start to bail out of their seat before the camera cuts away. Instead, Jon Stewart leans in and stage whispers, “That was great, thanks so much — you did a great job” –and you lean in to listen, straining to hear, which keeps you in the chair until the fade out.  Very smart.

After shaking his hand again, I stood up, and was steered back to the Green Room by Hillary, where we all watched the final piece, a nod to a departing long-time producer. Then we all said our goodbyes, and went back to the waiting car to be whisked away again.  All told, it took about 75 minutes, just as promised. They’re really, really good at this, and I had a really, really good time.

And now, here I am on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I’ll never forget.