The Write Stuff: Authors share tips at Morristown book fest

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson has chronicled the dramatic post-retirement life of George Washington.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson has chronicled the dramatic post-retirement life of George Washington.
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Editor’s note: As we ease off the throttle during this holiday week, we offer our version of C-Span, featuring video of some of the best author talks from the Second Annual Morristown Festival of Books. We start with Edward J. Larson, who gave a fascinating lecture about how George Washington shaped America in the years between the Revolution and his presidency.

By Kevin Coughlin

Go to the Mojave Desert.  Spend a year at Mount Vernon. Have your book mistaken for one of Stephen King’s.

2015 festival of books logoThere are many paths to success as a writer, according to authors at the second annual Morristown Festival of Books.

Emily Schultz’s first novel, Joyland, went largely unnoticed… until Stephen King published a book with the same title.

“Then what happened was, I got some royalties that I think were meant for Stephen,” Schultz told listeners, who roared with laughter inside Morristown’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in October.

Emily Schultz got 'discovered' by Stephen King.
Emily Schultz got ‘discovered’ by Stephen King.

Schultz turned the experience into a blog, Spending the Stephen King Money, which garnered national attention…and a nice jacket cover blurb from King on her new novel, The Blondes.

The first draft for that one, a comedy about a rabies-like disease carried by blondes, was banged out in just two weeks, in a cabin in the Mojave desert.  Schultz had been struggling to write a historical novel based on her family history of rum-running in Detroit. But it felt too weighty; she was not ready.

Instead, she listened to her inner voices.  The voices telling her it was time to start a family… and to become a famous author.

“I want to have it all. But I have a lot of stupid dreams,” Schultz remembered thinking. Suddenly, she had the opening for The Blondes:  “Women have stupid dreams.”   Hair color became a vehicle to explore identity, and the personal issues consuming her, she said.

'the blondes' by emily schultzThe gestation period was much longer for Christopher Scotton, who procrastinated for 15 years before writing his coming-of-age novel,  The Secret Wisdom of the Earth.

“I became the King of Excuses,” said Scotton, who has worked as a bouncer, carpenter, kite flyer amusement ride operator and startup CEO. “Fear was keeping me from starting the novel.”

Finally, at age 39, over a bottle of wine in Tuscany, he realized he had two choices: Buy a motorcycle and take an epic journey, or write the book that was gnawing away at him.  Living in London with two young sons, he awoke at 5 am each day and hammered out 500 words per sitting.

“They weren’t all great words,” Scotton said. “Don’t be afraid to write crap. Eighty-five percent of what I write is embarrassingly bad…  Craft is important, but diligence is the most important thing. You must approach it like a full-time job and go to work every day.”

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

When writing non-fiction, you can’t beat being on-location for finding inspiration, according to Edward J. Larson, author of The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson has chronicled the dramatic post-retirement life of George Washington.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward J. Larson has chronicled the dramatic post-retirement life of George Washington.

“I tried very much to write on-site, and deal with the original sources,” Larson said. “I like going to a place, feeling a place where Washington was. That’s why Morristown is special, because you can feel Washington here. That’s why Mount Vernon is special, you can feel Washington there. And that’s important to me as an author.”

For his Pulitzer-winning book about the Scopes monkey trial, Larson made 17 trips to Dayton, TN. Other books have taken him to the Galapagos Islands and the South Pole.

“They were much more interesting than Dayton — nothing against the Volunteers,” he joked.

“That’s what made this book so nice, because Mount Vernon is truly, in so many ways, the perfect place to do research.”

the return of gw larsonLarson compared Washington’s home to Atlanta. If you fly Delta, you must pass through Atlanta. And if you want to understand America in the years after the Revolution, all roads lead to Mount Vernon.  He got a fellowship and lived on the grounds for a year, rising before tourists arrived each morning.

“It loses its feel when there’s literally thousands of tour groups walking around. But it’s a great place to study Washington, first because of the place.  It reflects George Washington,” the farmer, innovator and entrepreneur.

Washington’s archives are there, too, along with 17 sets of tea-stained walrus ivory false teeth. They were anchored to his one good tooth… a configuration that made public speaking difficult.

Privately, however, Washington was a great conversationalist and raconteur, like Ronald Reagan, according to Larson.

“He was a people person, and when you are in Mount Vernon, you get a feel for it,” Larson said.

All the great minds of Washington’s day came there to seek his counsel on how to build a nation. And so it stands to reason that a great biographer would go there as well, for insights into how Washington salvaged America’s Revolutionary victory.

SEEN THE MOVIE? READ THE BOOK

The 33, the recently released movie starring Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche, about men trapped in a Chilean mine in 2010, has gotten mixed reviews.

But the book upon which it’s based, Hector Tobar’s Deep Down Dark, has fared much better with critics.

Héctor Tobar, author of 'Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free.'
Héctor Tobar, author of ‘Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free.’

Describing the powerful moment when drillers break through to rescue the miners required tremendous thought, Tobar told listeners at the Morristown Festival of Books.

“For me it’s a writing challenge. It’s finding the language that conveys the emotion… I said these men cried the way men cry when their sons are born and when their mothers die…and I cried when I wrote that. That’s it, that’s what they’re feeling.”

Although Tobar knows about tight deadlines from his newspaper reporting days, he also knows better than to rush through a book of this magnitude.

“Mostly, it’s a question of taking time to find the right language, and to feel the full emotional weight of something,” he explained.

“A lot of this is about relationships–mothers and sons, husbands and wives, men and their girlfriends and mistresses. It’s all about these relationships, and you have to take time to feel them. I tried to give those relationships the weight they deserve…It’s about living fully in the moment of those people.”

'I DON'T BUY HAVING IT ALL' : Gail Sheehy speaks at the 2015 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Katharine Boyle
‘I DON’T BUY HAVING IT ALL’ : Gail Sheehy speaks at the 2015 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Katharine Boyle

Gail Sheehy of Passages fames said she learned her craft as went along… with some help from New Yorker editor (and eventually, her husband) Clay Felker.

Sheehy learned about covering politics on the campaign flight with Bobby Kennedy. Her baptism under fire as a war correspondent came on Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland.

Yet she contends the learning curve may be steeper these days. You must go to journalism school to master multiple skills: Blogging, photography, videography, podcasting and so forth, she said.

FINISH WHAT YOU START

Novelist Emily St. John Mandel, author of 'Station Eleven,' a tale about a Hollywood star and the end of civilization.
Novelist Emily St. John Mandel, author of ‘Station Eleven,’ a tale about a Hollywood star and the end of civilization.

Emily St. John Mandel has written four novels, including the best-seller Station Eleven. Her advice to aspiring authors:

“Finish what you start. Anybody can start something.”

And be persistent.

“Don’t assume the publishing world is closed to you,” Mandel said. “The popular conception is you must know the right people, live in the right place, go to the right parties. The publishing world is full of people looking for writers.”

She queried 13 agents before striking pay dirt with the 14th one.  And then it took two years to sell her first book.

“I was very lucky.”

MORE FROM THE 2015 MORRISTOWN FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

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