Category Archives: works in progress

Project Lorax: The Research Zone

Over the past week, I’ve been on the road doing research on Dr. Seuss, a road trip that took me from Fredericksburg up to Hanover, New Hampshire — where young Theodor (Ted) Geisel attended Dartmouth from 1921 to 1925 — then down the Connecticut River to Springfield, Massachusetts, where the future Dr. Seuss was born and raised.  And yeah, there’s even a real Mulberry Street here, though contrary to rumor, Ted didn’t live on it.

My first stop, then, was Dartmouth, where I hoped to have a peek at the papers of Ted Geisel (Dartmouth class of ’25) held at the Rauner Library, housed in the Webster Building, right on the edge of the historic Dartmouth Green. For two-and-a-half days, I worked with a very helpful (and patient) group of librarians and archivists, who brought me one rolling cart after another loaded up with archival boxes.

Seuss ArchivesSome were full of press clippings — and believe me, Dr. Seuss generated a LOT of press in his lifetime — while others contained correspondence or photos or even his high school and college transcripts. Another contained a much worked-over mock-up of The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, with Ted’s careful notes about color use, margin heights, even changes to the copyright page.  There were back issues of Judge magazine, where Ted submitted cartoons back in the late 1920s, pages of art drawn for Dartmouth fundraisers, and a large envelope — think four feet long by two feet wide — containing advertising work and a large black and white drawing of a Seussian Noah’s Ark on white cardboard.

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And of course, I always love to go through correspondence — and the Dartmouth collection didn’t disappoint, with folders full of letters Ted wrote to college friends reporting on trips in Europe, commenting on his mother-in-law, or pitching projects to editors at various magazines. Letters are one of my favorite parts of research, as it’s just you and your subject together, listening as they speak candidly in their own voices, make inside jokes or — in those really wonderful moments — nervously reference projects they’re pitching, wondering if anything will come of them.

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And to think that I saw Mulberry Street.

After wrapping up my time in Hanover, I drove 90 minutes south to Springfield, where Ted was born in 1904. Springfield is rightly very proud of its most famous son (and that’s saying something, as the town actually has quite a few famous sons and daughters), and it shows: all the signage for the Springfield Museums prominently features Seuss characters, and the complex itself centers on a fun sculpture garden featuring Horton, the Lorax, Thidwick, Sam-I-Am, and — sitting in front, with one foot up on a drawing table — Ted himself, being given a coy hat tip by the Cat in the Hat.

IMG_4472I spent several days in the Springfield City Library, rolling one wheel of microfiche after another onto the viewer as I read through issues of the The Springfield Republican and The Springfield Union from the early 1900s. While inconvenient compared to modern online archives, there’s still something wonderful about the old-school experience of working with microfiche, from sorting through the huge drawers of film boxes (you can see them in the background in the photo at left) to that satisfying thwack-thwack-thwack sound the film makes as it rapidly spools back onto the feed reel.  The only real drawback — and this is purely personal — is that staring at the screen for hours on end as the film goes whizzing by in blur always makes me feel slightly seasick. Agh.

From here, I burrowed into the archives in the basement of the History Museum, going through various Geisel/Seuss histories and family trees.  When I was done, I had the happy experience of touring The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, the latest addition to the city’s cluster of permanent museums.

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IMG_4493I also had the pleasure of talking with museum administrators and staff, who helpfully arranged for me to walk through Ted’s childhood home (shown at right), still standing on Fairfield (not Mulberry) Street, and still looking — at least structurally — much as it did when Ted and his family lived there more than a generation ago.

All in all, it was a terrific trip up to Dr. Seuss territory. His legacy is in good hands in Hanover and Springfield, and I so appreciate everyone letting me be a small part of it.

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Project Lorax: An Update

It’s been several months now since I unveiled the subject of my current project, Dr. Seuss. Since that time, papers have been signed and we’ve made things officially official (the formal announcement should be arriving any day now), and I’m very excited about spending the next year not only with my subject, but with my editor, John Parsley, who I worked with on George Lucas.  It’s doubly thrilling, in fact, because I was able to follow him from the offices of the fine folks at Little, Brown (where we worked on George Lucas) over to Dutton, where John now serves as Editor-in-Chief.  It’s a good place to be; Dr. Seuss was a staple at Random House (which now owns Dutton) for nearly his entire career (it’s where he also established Beginner Books), so it seems only fitting to be working on his biography under the larger roof of Penguin Random House. I’m delighted to be there.

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My colorful bookshelf.

I’ve started my research–but first thing’s first: I had to stock up my library shelves with All Things Seuss. Mostly, I ordered books in large bunches from Amazon and other booksellers, which really threw off the way Amazon generates its recommendations. “BASED ON YOUR ORDER HISTORY,” it tells me, “YOU MAY LIKE GO, DOG, GO!” Which, I suppose, is certainly true.

But not everything Seuss wrote or drew is in print and easily available; I had to scour eBay, for instance, for The Seven Lady Godivas (a book Seuss called his “greatest failure . . . it was all full of naked women, and I can’t draw convincing naked women”). eBay was also my go-to to procure copies of two small humor books Seuss illustrated (but didn’t write) back in the early 1930s called Boners (by Those Who Pulled Them!)and its sequel titled (wait for it . . . ), More Boners. I know, I know . . . the jokes just write themselves.

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Get your mind outta the gutter. I know it’s hard. (That’s what she said.)

My next task was to start gathering and reading as many existing books on Seuss as I could find . . . and really, there aren’t many (some terrific analyses of his work, but only one real bio, dating to 1995).  Beyond that, one of my first big dives was into newspaper and magazines archives — mainly just New York TimesWashington Post, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as some selected magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Life — for contemporary accounts, interviews, reviews, cartoons . . . pretty much anything I can find.  Even in a limited scope like this, archival research is one of my favorite parts of the project.

Then, as I always do — because I’m terribly analog — I print everything out, three-hole punch it, and file it (for the most part) chronologically in binders.  Naturally, new binders get added as things proceed, and I have to change some of them out with larger versions as I stuff them full.  But this is how I start developing one of my most crucial documents: a timeline of the entire life that I can refer to as I write, and make sure everything is in order.

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The first binders. Titles change and binders expand as the research proceeds, but — for me, at least — it’s a good way to keep everything organized.

At the moment, I’m deep into research on the years from 1922, when Seuss* entered Dartmouth, to the end of World War II, when he returned to the United States determined to write books that mattered.

When I’m done here, I’ll work my way backwards to his childhood, which will be the perfect excuse to head for Springfield, Massachusetts, where I can walk the streets Seuss walked as a boy, scour the local archives, and visit the newly-opened Dr. Seuss Museum.

* Yeah, I know his real name is Ted Geisel. For the moment, I’m simply referring to him by his pen name.

Your Mountain Is Waiting…So Get on Your Way!

Who do those crinkling, smiling eyes belong to? Why, none other than Theodor Seuss Geisel — the good Dr. Seuss, whose birthday just happens to be today.

seuss-with-figuresI’m SO thrilled to be working on the life of yet another wonderful, creative, inspiring iconic subject — and I’m just as happy, too, that I’ll be working with the same terrific team at Little, Brown that helped put the George Lucas bio in your hands.

Buried Treasure

At the beginning of December, after spending nearly fifteen years living in a little town in Maryland — we had taken care of our main task, namely ensuring that our daughter got out into the world safely and successfully — Barb and I sold our old farmhouse in Damascus and moved about 80 miles south to Fredericksburg, Virginia. As you can imagine, packing up fifteen years worth of stuff required digging through every nook and cranny and drawer and box.  Lots of stuff got thrown out — user manuals, old atlases, plenty of random cables that didn’t connect to anything any more — as we made our best effort to simplify and downsize.

That can be tough work for me — I’m notoriously sentimental about things, and I’ve been known to hold onto receipts, guidebooks or business cards for decades. But I vowed to try my best to carefully sort through the countless boxes, bins and files in my office and throw out anything I thought might be considered clutter. And I did pretty well, too — or so I thought.  Imagine my surprise, then, when my wife — who is famously non-sentimental about things — looked at my pile of stuff to go into the trash and said, “Don’t you think you might want to keep that?”

She reached into the pile and pulled out this:

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It was the pile of assorted drafts for Jim Henson: The Biography, going all the way back to my first handwritten notes and outlines from early 2010. It wasn’t everything, but it was some of the earlier versions I’d written, printed out, proofed, then filed away as I moved on to the next draft. I was trying hard to be remarkably stoic about them, but when Barb pulled them out of my pile, I have to admit it I very eagerly put them into a banker’s box, on the side of which I scrawled JIM HENSON in fat black Sharpie.

As a bookend to the story, while unpacking in Fredericksburg, I opened a small wooden box — one I hadn’t actually looked in while packing, and had instead just thrown it into a larger box with some other stuff — and discovered another little bit of buried treasure:

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Much of this predates those early drafts shown above, as this is actually the proposal for the Jim Henson biography, which I was calling at that time, Ridiculous Optimism: The Life of Jim Henson (a title I still like a lot, but I totally understand the need to give it the shorter, clearer title under which it was eventually published). You can see at the top corner I’ve written “March 2010 — Proposal and Chapters Pitched.” The sample chapters, in case you’re interested, were eventually massaged into the much more greatly expanded first two chapters of Jim Henson.

Now flash forward three years or so, and you’ll arrive at the roughly bound book sitting on top of the proposal: the first reading copy of Jim Henson, containing the first round of edits from Ryan Doherty, my editor at Ballantine. This version still had to go through another round of editing and a legal read, and there’s not a single photograph — we were still working through photo clearances with Disney. All of this, too, went into that same banker’s box with the early drafts, with Belloq’s admonition from Raiders of the Lost Ark ringing in my ears: “Who knows? In a thousand years, even you may be worth something.”

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.

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.

What’s Up This Week

Happy Jim Henson’s Birthday Week!

Jim Henson would’ve turned 78 years old this coming Wednesday, September 24–and as always, there’ll be plenty of people commemorating his life and work all over the web and other media. Heck, I’ll be one of them. Here’s a bit of what’s in store for this week:

Today, I’m thrilled to be over on This Happy Place blog, talking Jim and Muppets with Estelle Hallick, one of the biggest Muppets/Jim Henson/Disney fans anywhere. You can see our conversation right here. As an added bonus, we’re also giving away an e-book, as well as a complete and unabridged copy of the audiobook — all 21 1/2 hours on 17 CDs — signed by Yers Truly.

On Wednesday, I’m taping a podcast with the crew at The Assembly of Geek, which should be available for you to listen to and download the next day.

And on Thursday, I think it’s high time I officially announced what my next project is — and on which I actually just completed the first chapter this past week. Stay tuned.

Conference Report and More Jim Henson

…and hello again.

I’ve had a wonderfully busy couple of weeks. In mid-May, I spent several days in New York City attending BIO’s Fourth Annual Compleat Biographers Conference, though attending seems a bit too weak of a word to describe what a terrific time I had. Here are a few highlights of my long weekend:

(1) Watching Janet Reid, Sarah Weinman, and Jennifer Richards enthrall a packed room with advice and tales of successfully (and unsuccessfully!) using social media — and gamely carrying on as if nothing had happened when the lights suddenly went out over their heads.

(2) Sitting on a panel with the remarkable Amanda Foreman, who was shot right out of a cannon and had the audience eating out of her hand with one funny story after another — and I had to follow her. Yikes.

(3) Listening to Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Chernow speak at lunch about the importance of listening to the silences in your subject’s story.  Your role as a biographer, he said, “is not to see what’s there . . . but what’s missing.”  Beautifully put.

(4) Moderating a lively panel on the the future of biography and publishing, with two crack agents and two crack editors — including my own agent and editor –participating enthusiastically and knocking it out of the park. Despite everything you might hear, print isn’t dead, or even dying — but it’s got to willingly share its space.

passage-of-power-review_320(5) Introducing BIO’s first ever Plutarch Award, given to the year’s best biography, as chosen by biographers. I’m really proud of this one — I sat ex officio on the committee that chose the ten nominees that would be sent to BIO members for their vote, and had the pleasure of coordinating the awards ceremony for the Saturday evening reception. The winner of the first Plutarch — as selected by BIO’s members — was the fourth volume in Robert Caro’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power.

While Caro couldn’t be there himself — he was off doing the research for the next volume in his series (which he joked was “volume five in a four volume series”) — his longtime editor at Knopf, Katherine Hourigan, accepted on his behalf.

(6) Meeting the incredibly modest and friendly Tom Reiss, whose The Black Count won the 2013 Pulitzer for biography.  Tom was probably one of the most photographed people at the conference (heck, have a photo with him, and I hate having my picture taken!) and he was always patient, generous, and genuinely interested in talking with everyone. A class act all around.

All in all, a successful weekend — and we’re already in the early planning stages for next year.

When I returned from New York, I had a week left to finish going through the galleys for Jim Henson. Fittingly, perhaps, I made my changes and notes in Kermit-green ink, and shipped everything back three days early. As a result, yesterday I got in the mail from Random House a heavy box full of these:

IMG_0340 These are the advance uncorrected proofs that will go out for review.  There’s still  no cover for it, and the photo insert is being finished off as well. But as my editor wrote in his cover note, “It’s nearly a book.” And it is indeed.