Tag 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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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.

This Week in Mess Making

My mess of books and binders finally became more than a mere desk could accommodate. I’ve now relocated to the dining room table, which I’ve quickly taken over. We’re at 80,000 words and counting–much, much too long already, but c’mon, when writing about the guy who brought you Star Wars, it’s really hard to be stingy.

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Latest Desk Update

IMG_1373Yup, it’s still a mess.

Thank the Maker! (Or at Least Wish Him Happy Birthday!)

George-Lucas-Star-Wars-Happy Birthday to George Lucas, who turns 71 years old today. The Force is strong with this one.

Making Progress — and Messes

I’m deep into Chapter 4 (or 5, depending on how I break these things up), and my desk is officially a disaster.

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And how’s your week shaping up?

There Is Another.

A reviewer for The Washington Post once remarked that when it comes to choosing biographical subjects, I seemed to have a fondness for “slightly off-center American geniuses.” I liked that a lot, and I have to say that’s actually very true. And if I had to get even more specific, I’d say my particular proclivity — at least at the moment — would seem to be for Enigmatic American Pop Culture Icons. Once you’ve done Washington Irving and Jim Henson, then, I think the next one should be obvious.

With that in mind, then, I’m thrilled to finally Officially Announce The Subject of My Next Book:

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C’mon, I don’t really have to tell you who that is, do I?

It’s George Lucas. And if I hit all my marks, you should have it in your hands in the Spring of 2016.

A Quick Rundown

Apologies for being away so long — I keep meaning to update here each day, and even get as far as opening up the blogging window and then  . . . well, things seem to get away from me, and I end up closing out the window.  In lieu of a proper post, then, here’s a quick rundown on what I’m up to:

– The BIO conference was a spectacular success, well-attended with truly interesting panels, and an amazing lunchtime keynote address by Robert A. Caro (the speech was filmed, and I’ll put it up here as soon as it’s available).  I participated on one panel, moderated another, and spent a good part of between-panel time buttonholing some terrific writers and begging them to update me on their works in progress. Trust me when I say that there are some great books coming out. In hardback, even.

During the course of the day, I made Kitty Kelley laugh (we were seated next to each other at lunch), got hugged by a Pulitzer winner, and tried really hard — and failed — not to geek out when I spoke briefly to Robert Caro as he signed my hardcover of Master of the Senate. I also had the honor of being elected to the BIO board, and I’m looking forward to the coming year. (Thanks, fellow BIO members, for the vote—and here’s a special shout out to Charles J. Shields for nominating me.)

– I’m making a quick sprint to New York this week for another conversation with An Amazing Person — and then another with a different person the following weekend, when I’ll piggyback a bit of work onto an otherwise family-focused weekend in New York with Barb and Madi.  It’s getting to the point where I can do the Northeast Regional train to New York in my sleep.  And have.

– Finally, to answer what’s continuing to be the number one question I receive each day (namely, How’s the book going?): I’m pleased to say it’s going well — and so far, it looks like I’m on target to ensure a Christmas 2012 release.  But that’s still a long way away, and there’s a long way to go, so stay tuned.

If It’s Friday, This Must Be London…

…and so it is.  We actually arrived here at our hotel here on Montague Street late Wednesday night, and while Barb attended meetings all day Thursday, I ran off to some of the remote parts of London to explore a few sites associated with Project Blue Harvest.  I was thwarted at one location, as a site I’d hoped was open to the public actually wasn’t, and no amount of pleading or begging was going to get me inside, but I did have better luck tromping around another spot at a different location.  It was a productive afternoon, even if it did seem like I spent most of it on the London Underground.

This morning, I hit the ground running as I made a trip over to Kensington to have a conversation with An Amazing Person, who graciously gave me nearly an hour and a half of her time, despite the fact she was getting ready to travel that afternoon. Following that, I hopped back on the train and made my way back to Westminster, where I had a quick lunch (and a quick pint!) with Andrew Lownie, the superagent who shared a circuitous cab ride with me in Boston back in May. And there was much rejoicing.

Tonight, it’s Avenue Q, then tomorrow it’s a day at the British Museum, just around the corner.  I’ll check in with you again soon.  Have a good weekend!