(d)Evolution of a Workspace

Over the last ten years, I’ve written three books at my desk in my home office in Maryland. Below is the desk where I wrote Washington Irving over the span of just ten months in late 2006- early 2007.

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My office at that time was in a long, narrow upstairs room, just off our bedroom. When we moved into the house, it was an old and unused kitchen (don’t ask). We removed all the old appliances, laid down some vinyl tile, painted the walls blue and brown, pulled some phone line, and moved in a daybed, IKEA bookshelves and an IKEA workbench (with the unfortunate IKEA designation of JERKER). While the room was small, I could keep nearly any reference I needed within arm’s reach on a bookshelf directly behind me (which you can’t see in this photo). as well as on the low shelf just over my computer screen. At that time, I was writing on a Dell desktop, which we bought new just for me to write on, since our main computer was located in a public space in the parlor.

This was a small, cozy set-up, and I actually enjoyed writing here.  Getting Irving done in ten months meant getting up every morning at 5 a.m, writing until about 7:30, then heading for my day job in local government. I’d return here each evening at about 5:30 p.m. and write until 11 — then repeat the next day for the better part of a year. One of the nicest things about this set-up, however, is that from time to time, Madi — who was barely a middle schooler then — would sometimes crawl into the day-bed and fall asleep while I was working in the evenings.

When I began work in earnest on Jim Henson in 2010, it was immediately clear the space in the upstairs office wasn’t large enough to contain all the notebooks, books, and other resources I was using — including a gigantic white board that I was using to map out family trees and outline chapters. So, in the autumn of 2010, I set up an office in our basement, making a desk out of two farm tables pushed into an L-shape in front of the corner fireplace.

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Sorry the photo is blurry–but as you can still see, it got messy in a hurry. Instead of the Dell, I was now working on a desktop Mac, with a gigantic screen that made it easier for me to look at multiple documents on screen at the same time. For 2 1/2 years, all I did was Jim Henson–the elected official I had worked for had opted not to run again in 2010, which permitted me to dedicate myself to Jim full time. As you can imagine, then, this particular corner got messier and messier, and the piles of books and notebooks deeper and deeper.

Forward now to late 2014-early 2016. Initially, I was writing George Lucas in my basement office, sitting at a new, modular L-shaped desk that took up roughly the same footprint as the two farm tables shown above. However, as I began my work on each chapter, I would pull out all the books and notebooks and interviews anything else I needed, and start making piles on my desk–and it was clear that this was book was going to be more than my desk could handle; I simply needed more horizontal surfaces on which to pile and stack and spread out. By mid-2015, I finally took over our dining room table.

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While I’ve got an old MacBook laptop in the middle of things here, I eventually moved my desktop Mac up here as well. And I’ll admit it: while the hardbacked chair is uncomfortable, there are windows on three sides of the room, making this a much warmer and brighter spot in which to write than the basement. It was also much less isolated; while Madi is long gone, the dog would come in and sleep under the table while I worked, and Barb could come in and check on me every now and then.

I was also back at work full time while I wrote this one (working for a different elected official), which could make for some long days. I’m not the early riser I was when I was writing Washington Irving; instead, I would get up around 7 each morning so I could be at work by 9 a.m.–then, once home by 6 p.m., I would immediately sit down to write, stopping for about thirty minutes for dinner with Barb, then write non-stop again until 2:00 a.m. or so . . . then do it all over again the next day.

What I find so interesting about all this is that as the projects got larger and more labor intensive, my workspace seemed to get less and less formal. While I’m one of those writers who likes a dedicated space for writing (like Washington Irving, I love cozy writing rooms), what I found as time went on is that I preferred a less formal, more spacious, and much less secluded writing area.  Not that it made things any less messy.

Today’s Mail

A box of these showed up on our doorstep this morning — it’s advance reading copies of George Lucas: A Life. And boy do I still love that cover.

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One Last Thing

Since turning in the first draft of George Lucas back in March, the manuscript has been through the hands of my editor at Little, Brown, John Parsley, vetted by the legal department, and then given a rigorous copyediting. Now it’s landed back on my desk, where I’ve got until next week to finish it all up, answer any questions my editors might have, add any new material (Lucas Pulls His Museum From Chicago!), make sure the endnotes are correct, and generally make any necessary tweaks and revisions before sending it off to production.

There’s a lot going on in the margins of an edited manuscript; the document is edited with Word’s ‘Track Changes’ function on so you can see every change to the draft and — one of my favorite parts — read the comments from the various editors where they ask whether a suggested edit works, seek clarification, or even just maintain a friendly running commentary, like a less sarcastic MST3K. And, of course, I can’t resist making my own comments as I go through it, either.

And seriously, guys: editors and copyeditors are amazing. They not only edit for clarity, for instance, but they also fact-check things, remind you when you’ve used a quote twice, or somehow manage to clean up and make better sense of hundreds and hundreds of endnotes. I’m always impressed.

Wanna see what the Table of Contents for George Lucas looks like on my computer screen as it’s being edited with the ‘Track Changes’ function on? Have a look:

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And now, back to it.  I’ve gotta get this done, if you’re gonna have it in your hands on December 6.

Words to Love By

Now, more than ever:

“Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.” — Jim Henson

BIOpics

I’m back from the 2016 BIO Conference in Richmond — and what a terrific three days it was.  As promised, I tried to take as many pictures as I could, blasting away with my iPhone, sometimes from the back of the room. We’ll have video of some of this weekend’s extraordinary moments here sometime soon — but meanwhile, here are a few highlights, taken at the panels I attended (and there were LOTS more, trust me!):

The opening plenary session featured two master biographers discussing the craft, mulling over everything from whether you need to like your particular subject as a person (answer: no) to whether a biography can be truly definitive (answer: probably not).  Oh, and did I tell you who the two biographers were? A pair of aces, with a list of awards as long as your arm: Annette Gordon-Reed, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, and T.J. Stiles, whose Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America won this year’s Pulitzer for History. And as I think the photos below convey, what a lively, wonderful, invigorating session it was.

Next, I attended a panel moderated by my pal and colleague Marc Leepson on the Future of Research.  Are you one of those researchers who wants everything in a library available digitally and on-line right now? Librarians and archivists want that, too — but stress that it’s not likely to happen as quickly as they’d like, either.

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Kathy Jordan (Library of Virginia), Paige Newman (Virginia Historical Society) and Marc Leepson.

Then it was over to one of the most lively and entertaining panel discussions of the day, as James Atlas, Blake Bailey, Stacy Schiff, and D.T. Max reflected on how they chose their subjects.  And laughed . . and laughed . . . and laughed. Wonderful.

The lunch session featured a show-stopper of a speech by the winner of the 2016 BIO Award: Claire Tomalin, biographer of Jane Austen, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and so many more. At 82, she’s as spry as ever. Take a look:

After lunch, I was off to another spectacularly good panel discussion (moderated with aplomb by Dean King) on Writing Family Biographies — in this case presidential or royal families — featuring Nigel Hamilton, Kitty Kelley, and Andrew Lownie. The conversation quickly evolved to authorized vs. unauthorized biography, and then to the legal nuances needed to ensure you protect yourself from legal challenges (hint: take pictures and write personal letters). As you can see from the photos below, this was another panel that knew how to have a good time:

Finally, at Saturday’s closing reception, we announced the winner of the 2016 Plutarch Award, the only international literary award presented by biographers for biography. It went to Rosemary Sullivan for Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.  After learning only a few weeks back that she was the winner of the award — even we didn’t know who the winner would be until the ballot was closed in May — Rosemary went out of her way to come in all the way from Chile to attend the conference and make a lovely acceptance speech.  Well done.

As the outgoing president (and congratulations to Will Swift for presiding over this year’s conference so spectacularly), it was really nice to attend the conference from in front of the curtain, rather than keeping tabs on the goings-and-comings that go on behind the curtain.  My thanks to the hardworking bunch at BIO who made the conference so special, and so wonderful.  And thanks, Richmond, for having us.

Thursday Odds and Ends

I was thrilled this week to see Jim Henson get a nice shout-out in the New York Times Book Review, where it was listed in their “Paperback Row” as one of seven new paperbacks worth checking out this week. Many thanks for that — and thanks to all of you who’ve mentioned how much you’re enjoying seeing Jim in paperback.  I appreciate it.

Second thing: I’m leaving today for Richmond to attend this year’s Biographers International Organization (BIO) Conference. As the outgoing president of the organization, I had the pleasure of watching this planning and programming for this conference over the last year, and let me tell you — while it seems I say this every year, this really does look to be one of the most informative and entertaining conferences yet.

And with BIO’s new president (the terrific presidential biographer Will Swift, by the way) taking the reins of the organization as of yesterday, this’ll be the first conference I’ve attended since 2010 without being a board member, officer, moderator, or panelist.  I get to just sit and talk with people and enjoy the thing, which I’m really looking forward to. I also promise to report on things when it’s finished.  With photos, even.

See ya in Richmond!

Out Today: Jim Henson (Finally!) In Paperback

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After nearly three years in hardcover, Jim Henson is finally available in a nifty paperback format. Just for fun, I’ve posted the entire wraparound book jacket, so you can see what a nice job the folks at Ballantine have done with it. There was a bit of discussion about the best color to use as a background to give the paperback a different look and feel than the hardcover, and I think the light blue is a nice touch. You can click here to get it on Amazon, here for Barnes and Noble, and here to find it on Indiebound.

CiGzhBZXAAA7fdzIt was also neat this morning to see Random House tweet out a photo of the five books they launched today.  There’s Jim, in the photo at right, leaning casually up against the Rolling Stones.

I’ve been asked if there’s any material in the paperback that wasn’t in the hardcover, and the answer to that is: yes, but you probably won’t really notice. There were a couple of corrections to be made (somehow, I put Featherstone in the cast of Tales of the Tinkerdee, when, doggone it, I knew better than that), and a reference to the TV reboot of The Muppets, but for the most part, there are no real major additions. I got pretty much everything in the first time.

Oh, and in case you’re still without one, the hardcover will stay around for just a bit longer, too, before it’s finally taken out of print.

What I Told You Was NOT True, Not Even From a Certain Point of View.

My bad: the publication date for George Lucas: A Life is actually Tuesday, December 6, and NOT Friday, December 16, as I reported earlier.*  (And here I was being SO smug about coming out the same day as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Which looks doggone cool.)

I should also note that while the current listing says the book will be 320 pages, I’m guessing that, given the current length of the manuscript, the final book will be longer than that. Which is probably why it’s got a thirty dollar price tag.

Oh, and did I tell you? George Lucas is now available to pre-order from several booksellers. And with the corrected pub date, you now know it’ll arrive in plenty of time for Christmas.

Click here to pre-order from Amazon.
Click here to pre-order from Barnes & Noble. (Nook only at the moment).
(I’ll update this information for Indiebound, once it’s available)

* Serendipitously, perhaps, December 6 was the pub date for  A History of New York, the first book published by Washington Irving in 1809.

George Lucas Is Covered.

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Nice, huh?

Apparently, this has been up on the Hachette Books page for a bit, but I checked anyway to make certain it was okay for me to share this with you. I’ve actually had it for several months now, and I’ve been dying to show it to you, I think it’s so terrific.

I should also offer the caveat that there may still be some minor tweaks made to the cover as we get closer to the publication date — which as of this morning is now Friday, December 16, 2016. 

It’s not available to pre-order just yet, but should be soon.  I’ll let you know the moment I hear.

Stay on Target…

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Whew.

Late last night (or early this morning, whatever you want to call 12:04 a.m.) I completed the first draft of George Lucas: A Life.  It’s in the hands of John Parsley, my ace editor at Little, Brown, at this very moment.

The vital stats, you ask? It came in at just under 175,000 words–that includes the bibliography and endnotes–and took up 569 double-spaced pages.  How many pages of an actual book is that? Ya got me. (For reference: the first draft of Jim Henson came in at 700 pages, and eventually ended up as a 608-page hardback.  Out of the gate, George Lucas is already shorter than that. And there’s probably a height joke in there, but I’m not gonna make it . . .)

Technically, the draft was completed around 7:00 this morning, as that’s when I had Barb sit down at the desk and type the final period at the end of the last word. She’s definitely earned the right to be the one to finally blast this one into the net.

The fine folks at Little, Brown are still working hard to have this thing in your hands by Christmas of this year. If all goes as planned, it’ll be out December 10, 2016.

And now, I’m off to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.