Category Archives: book signings

The One in Which I Enjoy Being George Lucas’s Biographer

Last week, I had the great pleasure of speaking on George Lucas as part of the Great Lives lecture series at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.*  If you missed it . . . well, it doesn’t look like I had a LICK of fun, does it? (I call this Study in Big Gestures, Number 1483 in a Series).

And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that all these terrific photos were taken by the remarkable Karen Pearlman, who manages to make EVERYONE look good.

* Yeah, I’m Associate Director of the series now.  But I was asked to speak here LONG before I signed on for the AD gig. DON’T JUDGE ME.

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More Comings and Goings

Urgh, I continue to be the worst. Blogger. Ever.

Hi, everyone.  How ya doin’?

Since I last saw you, I’ve come back from a wonderful trip to Kinderhook, New York, where I had been invited to come talk on Washington Irving.  Kinderhook is particularly important in Irving’s story, because it’s where he wrote his first book, A History of New York, in the summer of 1809, while recovering from the death of his 17-year-old fiancee. While I was there, I toured Martin Van Buren’s home, Lindenwald (which is THE ACTUAL HOUSE where Irving wrote his History of New York, though it was still owned by the Van Ness family at that time), and had the great pleasure of staying in this house right here:

kinderhook georgianThis is a local landmark, the Burgoyne House, where British general John Burgoyne was held after his capture by Benedict Arnold.  Arnold, however, had to stay at a very nice, but much smaller, house just down the street.  Which probably explains a lot about what happened later.

I spoke that afternoon at the Reformed Dutch Church, where I talked about Irving’s version of the Dutch history of New York. Afterwards, I was asked several really good questions, and only slightly disappointed the home town crowd when I informed them that Kinderhook was probably not the Sleepy Hollow of Irving’s famous tale (Had I been a bit faster on my feet, I’d have said that every place is Sleepy Hollow.  But it was hot.) Afterwards, we retreated to a reception at the old Jesse Merwin house, which at one time belonged to the historic figure who actually was the inspiration for Ichabod Crane. All in all, a lovely weekend — and I even got to bring Barb with me.

I’ve got several events coming up in the next few months, which I’ll post under the News tab as well.  

First, I’ll be speaking at the University of Maryland — Jim Henson’s alma mater, for those of you playing at home — on Friday, September 12, as part of the university’s parent’s weekend.  I’ll be at the University Book Center at Stamp Union, starting at 6:30 p.m.

In October, I’ll be attending the James River Writers Conference down in Richmond, Virginia, for three days (October 17-19), and I’ll be giving my hour long Jim Henson show on Friday night, October 17, as part of the many kick-off events. If you’re anywhere near Richmond that weekend and love books . . . well, it’s something you’d probably wanna do.

In November, I’ll be back at the University of Maryland (in association with the Prince George’s County Historical Society) to talk Jim Henson on Sunday, November 2, from 2:30 to 4, at the Hornbake Library.

Finally, on Wednesday, November 5, I’ll be making my long-overdue appearance at the New York Public Library’s Mid-Manhattan Library, at 6:30 p.m. I’m very excited about this one, especially as the library and I went back and forth for a long time trying to find a date that worked.

Pulitzer Priceless

Joseph Pulitzer

Last night, I had the great pleasure of attending a reception and book talk for James McGrath Morris’s Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power down at American University (which, as it turns out, is also McGrath’s alma mater).

If you have the opportunity to see Jamie talk about Pulitzer, jump at it.  Last night, he gave a presentation that encompassed his research (which included the kind of tale biographers love — that of finding The Source That No One Else Has), Pulitzer’s longtime feud with Teddy Roosevelt, his treatment in and by the very press he had created, and the challenges of dealing with that early 20th century e-mail device known as the telegraph. Jamie puts on a show, working without notes, and talking so animatedly that it’s impossible not to get caught up in his excitement for his subject.

Jamie’s on a bit of a whirlwind tour right now (last night, even as he was finishing signing books, he was already getting ready to make the sprint to the airport to get to Connecticut), but there are plenty of places you can catch him.  If you’re interested in learning more about an icon whose name is more familiar that his face or life story — and hearing the story told well — go see James McGrath Morris. His tour schedule is right here.

Trip Report: Blaze, Legends, and Sleepy Hollow

We had a great weekend up in Sleepy Hollow and the surrounding area — and the snow that was in the forecast never materialized.  Instead, we had a bit of rain, a bit of chill, but an otherwise perfect weekend for enjoying all that the area has to offer.  As Sunnyside curator Dina Friedman put it, “We like to think that we own the Halloween season here in Sleepy Hollow.” And they do.

On Friday night, we attended the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor, an old Dutch estate up at Croton-on-Hudson lit up by more than 5,000 carved pumpkins.  Pictures of the event really don’t do it justice, but here’s a few shots I took to try to give you a feel for just how creepily cool it is.

Everything you see at the Blaze is made of pumpkins, attached to each other with stakes or posts. For example, here’s a bat, swooping down over your head as you enter the property.  Each wing is carved into its own pumpkin, then attached to the central piece containing the body.

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Squeak!

Next, here’s the approach to Van Cortlandt Manor, lit by lots of yowling, shrieking cats and, if you look closely, even a few brave mice:

Approaching Van Cortlandt Manor.  Beware of cat!

Approaching Van Cortlandt Manor. Beware of cat!

And once you reach the house, Mynherr Van Cortlandt and his wife are waiting there at the top of the stairs to greet you:

The Van Cortlandts preside over the Blaze.

The Van Cortlandts preside over the Blaze.

Rounding the corner, you’ll see a few of the Blaze’s creepier effects.  First, a jungle full of ghostly dinosaurs rage and roar:

Where the wild things are.

Where the wild things are.

Next, it’s a nest of spiders and snakes — including an eerily glowing spiderweb, one of the Blaze’s How’d they do that? moments:

Yuck.

Yuck.

Snakes.  Why'd it hafta be SNAKES?

Snakes. Why'd it hafta be SNAKES?

Here’s a sea of grinning faces, peering out from the clearing:

"We seeeeee yooooou....."

"We seeeeee yooooou....."

Henry Hudson’s ship churns through a ghostly sea of skeleton fish:

"The seas boiled...."

"The seas boiled...."

Meanwhile, skeletons danced:

Grim grinning ghosts.

Grim grinning ghosts.

…and ghostly bees buzzed around a hive — another one of the Blaze’s surprising effects:

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Finally, to give you an idea of the kind of artistry on display, here’s a close up of a pumpkin carved to look like a shell.  Incredible, isn’t it?

Amazing.

Amazing.

The next day, I spoke twice at Sunnyside, as part of their daytime Legends events.  Curator Dina Friedman and her staff were incredibly kind and helpful, and I had a good crowd, with lots of good questions.  Dina even recorded the talks for a series of podcasts Historic Hudson Valley is hoping to launch.  That took a bit of experimenting with the Zoom technology — hence, the first talk went unrecorded, but we managed to catch the second one.  I’ll let you know if and when the podcast will be up over at HHV.

Anyway, here’s just a few quick shots at Sunnyside.  Strangely enough, while I’ve been to Irving’s home many times and have tons of pictures of the place, I had never actually taken a picture of the place with my own camera. Here’s a shot of the path to Irving’s home.  You can see the kind of beautiful fall day we were having:

The road from Tarrytown to Sunnyside.  While today's visitors don't use this path, it's the road your carriage would have used to pull up to Irving's front door.

The road from Tarrytown to Sunnyside. While today's visitors don't use this path, it's the road your carriage would have used to pull up to Irving's front door.

Next, it’s the approach down the hill to Sunnyside, where guests were beginning to queue up to tour the home.  The Hudson River is visible just to the left:

A gorgeous fall day at Sunnyside.

A gorgeous fall day at Sunnyside.

Finally, here’s a shot of the front door — obscured by wisteria, but still giving an idea of its charm.  Both floors of the house were open for touring that day — a real bonus:

Sunnyside.

Sunnyside.

That evening, we went into Sleepy Hollow for the Evening Legends events at Phillipsburg Manor.  Here’s the approach to the property, spookily lit by colored lights, and reflected in ghostly image in the pond:

Phillipsburg Manor by night.

Phillipsburg Manor by night.

Legends evening is an opportunity to walk around the site of an old farm and mill and just watch spooky things happen.  We saw a great magician (who we jokingly called Ryan the Temp, due to his resemblance to a character on The Office), sang along with pirates, stood at the fence as the Headless Horseman galloped past, glowing pumpkin in hand (I tried to catch him with my camera, but missed) and shrieked only twice when we found we were being closely followed by a lumbering catlike creature.

As we passed the graveyard, we peeked over the fence and caught  a glimpse of a ghostly woman, wailing over the loss of her beloved:

P1000457

Every once in a while, we would spot her strolling slowly through the crowd, staring blankly ahead.  Other times, a ghostly violinist would wander the property, playing creaky off-key music.  To keep the spooks away, we huddled near one of several Sleepy Hollow scarecrows:

"What party be ye with??"

"What party be ye with??"

And finally, as we strolled past the barn, we caught a glimpse of ghosts wandering aimlessly about just inside:

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All in all, a memorable weekend.  Wanna go?  Check out Historic Hudson Valley for more details.

NYC Trip Report, Part 2

I now understand that New York cabdrivers — and New Yorkers in general, I guess — think of their city as a series of intersections rather than as street addresses. I get it. But at this particular moment, I still had a problem: namely, I didn’t know the cross-streets of my destination.

I tried again. “Forty Seven Fifth Avenue,” I said slowly, then took an old receipt out of my wallet, scribbled the address on the back of it, and held it up for the driver to see. “Like this.”

“Oh, forty-seven,” he said, nodding, as if I’d been speaking Dutch up until this point. “That’s down at Fifth and 12th, Greenwich Village. Why didn’t you say so?” Grrrr.

And off we went, down Fifth Avenue in Friday rush hour traffic, careening around stopped buses, scooting around pedestrians, and squeezing between slower traffic in lanes that didn’t exist. New York City landmarks rushed by on my right — the New York Public Library, the Empire State Building (I craned my neck out the window to look up at that one), the Flatiron Building — until suddenly we stopped in front of a beautiful brownstone walkup, directly across from an imposing old Presbyterian church. I had finally arrived at the Salmagundi Club — and thanks to a cabdriver who clearly had no respect for the laws of traffic, physics or gravity, I had arrived quickly, relatively in one piece, and with plenty of time to spare before my 6:00 talk.

I greeted the staff, and checked out the room where I’d be speaking, a classy Victorian-looking parlor with wing-backed chairs and antique furniture. I camped out on the front steps to wait for Casey, my Patient Editor, and struck up a conversation with a very nice gentleman, who eventually asked me what I was doing in New York. I told him I was speaking at the club in about ten minutes, and he suddenly beamed proudly — he said he had made the trip from uptown just to hear me talk, and asked if he could shake my hand and take a picture, a request that still rocks me back with disbelief. As I say often, it’s just me, and I can’t believe anyone wants a picture of themselves with me and my giant pumpkin head. But naturally, I obliged — and right on cue, with my lone fan snapping away, here came my editor, Casey, with her colleague, Tessa.

I hadn’t seen Casey in person since the Book Expo in Washington, DC, more than two years ago (at that time, I made what I’m sure was a great first impression, as I knocked down her rack of catalogues when I reached out to shake her hand). Since then, we had written, edited, and produced Washington Irving — an experience that, for the rest of our lives, inextricably links us together. And it was absolutely great to see her; Casey is one of those people who bubbles with enthusiasm about her projects and her authors, and she’s at once your biggest fan, best critic, and most patient counselor.

As I think any writer might attest, the best author-editor relationship is built on trust — you are, after all, putting yourself and your work completely in someone else’s hands — and I’ve trusted her completely since Day 1 of the project. But now she was here, in her dual role as my editor and as Arcade’s publicist, to see me talk about “our boy,” as we’ve always called Irving. In other words, she now was putting her trust in me to make us look good, and I wanted to do us proud. And just like that, I was nervous.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one. To her surprise, Casey was asked to introduce me to the crowd of 20 or so that had gathered in the parlor — an easy enough task when you know its coming, but somewhat daunting when you’re suddenly put on the spot. Still, Casey did a fine job of it, telling a story I’d not heard before about the first time my agent pitched the Washington Irving project to her. It was all so interesting — and her enthusiasm was so sincere — that by the time she called me to the podium, I’d completely forgotten to be nervous.

I spoke about twenty minutes, giving them an overview of Irving’s Salmagundi magazine, from which the club had taken its name in 1871, and wrapped up by talking about Irving’s life among artists. I took a number of questions afterwards — there were quite a few about Irving’s views on religion, money, and John Jacob Astor — then signed and spoke with people for another twenty minutes or so. Afterwards, Casey and I were then given a quick tour of the place, allowing us to gawk at the paintings in the stairwell and the old books in the library.

That evening, Casey took me to dinner at Fatty Crab, a funky Malaysian restaurant over in the Meatpacking District. (“Any place with the name ‘Fatty’ in it sounds good to me,” Casey had said earlier — a remark only the rail-thin Casey can make with impugnity.) The place was noisy, so we had to sit next to each other, rather than across from each other, to be heard and typically, we sat chatting until a waitress chased us away, declaring (quite fairly) that others were still waiting to be seated.

Next, the two of us walked over to the Terribly Fashionable Gansevoort Room, a rooftop bar and restaurant accessible only by an Exclusive Goodfellas Elevator, with a great view of the city, and a loud and trendy New York crowd. We took up a post on some low benches close enough to hear each other over the din, and remained in animated conversation until (once again) a server shooed us away, saying they needed the room for a private party. At that, I checked my watch and saw it was 11:45 p.m. There are times when this would have been an ideal time for a change of venue for another few hours — and I do believe Casey could have stayed out until the wee hours as it was. But I’d been up since 5:30 a.m. — and now, I was just plain tired.

We stumbled out into a New York night that was still vibrating with activity and hailed a cab. Casey provided a quick primer on the meaning of New York Geographical Terms like West Side and Upper East Side as we sped back up the island. Our cab driver had misheard my directions (in which I was very careful to say “52nd and Madison Avenue”) and dropped me off at the corner of Madison and 56th, but it was a beautiful night, and I didn’t mind the walk.

I unlocked to door to my room to find my bed turned down, soothing music and video playing on the television, and a chocolate chip cookie and bottle of Yoohoo on the desk. Point scored, Omni Berkshire. I called my wife to tell her good night (we always do that when one of us is on the road, no matter how late it might be), uncapped the Yoohoo, took a sip, and remembered why I don’t like Yoohoo. It tastes like Quik in water.

I reset the clock on the bedside — I wasn’t going to get stung by that again — and rolled up in the comforter. Day One of my New York Tour was over.

To be continued…

In Which I Meet Washington Irving (For Real!)

I had a most extraordinary experience up in Newport this week — so extraordinary that I’m not even certain I can convey it here in this blog. With your indulgence, though, I’ll see if I can at least give you a feel for what the past few days have been like. I’m not even going to begin to do it justice, so for everything you read, please ratchet it up by a factor of ten for the appropriate amount of awesomeness.

On Wednesday morning, I traveled with Sainted Wife Barb up to Newport, Rhode Island, to make an appearance at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum. If you’re a bibliophile, you should make a pilgrimage to the Redwood at least once in your life, if not once a year, for it’s not only the oldest lending library in the United States, but also the one that’s been in continuous use the longest. It was established in 1747, and it’s a thing of beauty. The pic over there doesn’t even begin to convey how beautiful it is.

The oldest part of the library, the Harrison Room, is still crammed with books from the original collection–all there on the shelves for you to look at, marvel over, and think about what your well-read 18th century American wanted to see in his or her library: Encyclopedias. Jonathan Swift. Homer. Poetry. Every book a gem, and every one still in gorgeous shape. And what hangs above the shelves isn’t too shabby, either: original portraits — originals! — of notable Rhode Islanders by painters like Gilbert Stuart.

Well. Making an appearance in a room like that is an honor and a thrill, not to mention sphincter-clenching; it’s The Perfect Room, and you try your best to be worthy of it — and you’ve got almost 300 years of history staring down at you from the walls, reminding you not to embarrass them.

But there was another element in the mix at the Redwood that made this talk so important to me: members of Washington Irving’s family would be in attendance. In fact, I was in Newport at their invitation — an enormous honor, so I wanted to ensure I gave a talk that would give them, and all in attendance, a feel for just how remarkable their ancestor was and, I insist, still is. Barb had encouraged me — quite rightly — not to use any of the talks I had given in the past, and insisted I write a brand new set of remarks. So I had in hand what I called my E! True Hollywood Story speech. I knew it was going to run somewhat on the long side, but I hoped it would be informative enough, and funny enough, to keep everyone interested.

I had a crowd of nearly 100 jammed into the already intimate Harrison Room, and received a very nice introduction from, first, Cheryl Helms, the Library Director, and then from one of the editors of The Providence Journal (whose name, I am embarrassed to say, escapes me at the moment. I’ll edit this piece to insert it when I track it down.) I walked from the back of the room, through the crowd, to the podium, took a deep breath, and off I went.

…and it went even better than I had hoped. Because I had only finished my remarks the night before, I hadn’t had time for what I call a Deep Drill (where I read everything through in real time and “listen” to it) to determine whether it worked. I come from a speechwriting background, so I tend to script out everything — even what may sound like a casual aside — but my Deep Drill helps me determine where there may be dead air, where a joke has landed flat, or whether something has gone on too long — and right now, live on stage, I was Deep Drilling as I went along, getting a feel for the crowd as I talked, and deciding how to hit the beats as I approached them. And to my delight, it all went just fine. Laughs came in the right places, heads nodded or shook where I expected, the questions were interesting, and when I was finished, I got a really long, genuinely warm round of applause (as someone told me later, “We’re not a clapping crowd. We only clap when we mean it.”)

I signed and chatted for another thirty minutes or so, then after the crowd had gone, Barb and I got in our obscure rental car (an HHR? What the hell is that?) and followed Jan Gordon — head of Marketing for the library, who had also taken very good care of us — down Bellevue Avenue and over to the home of our host for the evening, the gentleman who had first approached the Redwood about inviting me to speak: Washington Irving.

Yes, for real.

In this case, it was Washington Irving III — or Rip, as everyone calls him — and he’s in a direct line of descent from Irving’s older brother, Ebenezer (since Washington Irving himself never had children, my first question to Rip upon meeting him — probably rather brusque, but I couldn’t help it — was “Which one do you come from?”) And what a charming gentleman, with an equally charming son (also Washington, though he goes by Knick, as in ‘Diedrich Knickerbocker.’ Cool, huh?).

Rip and Knick had very graciously put together what they called a “small” dinner party of about 3o guests, at his beautiful house, which he had carefully designed to reflect the contours and overall mood of Sunnyside, Irving’s home in New York. The food, conversation, and overall hospitality were all wonderful, the company exquisite.

And with their easy patter, gracious manners, and way of making everyone feel like the most important person at their house, it was obvious that Rip and Knick had the blood of Washington Irving coursing through their veins. If they’re any hint of what Irving was like in his day, it’s no wonder doors flew open for him to parlors around the world.

And staring down from his place of prominence over the fireplace, of course, was ‘Uncle Washie,’ in a beautiful Jarvis portrait that I had never seen before (“it was just cleaned,” Knick told me with a somewhat embarrassed laugh).

It was a true honor — it’s really the only word that carries the right amount of weight — to stand there in that house, under that portrait, and have the Irving family (I also met Rip’s brother Pierre, and his really acidly-funny wife, Kathy) tell me that my book had done their family proud. It was all at once humbling and enormously flattering, and it’s a moment of my life I’ll never forget.

And I think Washington Irving — who valued family perhaps more than anything else — would also have been enormously pleased to see just how much his own family is doing him proud. His name, reputation, and legacy are in good hands.