everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for Ira Ingber

A Pen, a Princess, and a Lot of Rock Music: Snapshot of Robin McKinley

I met Robin McKinley a million years ago when we both had long hair and wore snakeskin cowboy boots. She was into “goth” and I was into “new music,” and she was writing The Outlaws of Sherwood, although I don’t know what the manuscript was called at that time. She simply referred to it as “Robin Hood.”

She came out to Santa Monica from Maine and stayed with my rock-musician husband and me for a while. In those days, we spent a lot of time hanging out at Skyline Recording Studio way up on Old Topanga Canyon Road, and I don’t recall what records Ira was working on back then, but there were parties with Bob Dylan and sessions with Joe Cocker and concerts where Ira played with all kinds of great rock musicians. We went to clubs and showcases and wore our outlandish clothes and crazy jewelry. She was the princess of goth. And of course Ira was writing and recording his own tunes, some with Britt Bacon and Carl Sealove and a lot of other talented people. Ira had a recording studio in our small home, so he was making music all the time, and Robin and I had a great time with all of it. Everything in my closet was either black or white, and I never combined the colors. One day I bought an unconventional sweater from a catalog–completely not my style. We were walking along Main Street after breakfast one morning, and she gave me a puzzled look. “You’re OK with that?” she asked. She pointed at my sweater. “Wearing pink?”

I fell head-over-heels in love with Robin’s books when I read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Unlike most people back then, I read Beauty afterward.  She wrote books I could not put down, and sometimes I didn’t get my night’s work finished because I was reading something new by Robin. And in those days it was rare for me to work fewer than 80 hours a week.

Every morning Robin would go into my home office and work on the book. It was a tiny room someone had attached onto our tiny home–very dark and crowded. She explained her writing ability by telling me that she had a crack in her skull, and the words and stories came in through that crack. Since then, I have heard other people explain their brilliant writing in a similar way, but that is how she described her writing process, which was very mysterious to me. It was a mystery to me that anyone could write that well.

I don’t know how old we were, except that I am in my 50s now, so we had to have been close to thirty, but not much older than that. She had achieved highly unusual success for someone her age, and it was troubling her. She told me she felt tremendous pressure, and I don’t know what that was like for her. She had written Beauty, and it had been a wildly successful novel that knocked the socks off fantasy readers. Her second book was a Newbery Honor, and her third book won the gold. I’m sure it must have been enormously exciting to have that level of affirmation, but on the other hand, that is pretty heady for a younger person.

And how do you follow that?

Everyone (and I include myself ) was on pins and needles, waiting for Robin’s next miraculous novel to sweep us off our feet. Robin’s editor at the time was the legendary Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow, who had also been Virginia Hamilton’s editor (along with Janet Schulman and Ann Beneduce) most of Virginia’s career.

I met Robin because a new illustrator friend, Katie Thamer Treherne, had surprised me by bringing me all the finished picture-book illustrations for The Light Princess by George MacDonald, which he had published in 1864. They were intricate, gorgeous, and highly detailed, but in order to publish Katie’s art as a picture book, the original manuscript by MacDonald had to be cut. I decided to ask a “master” fantasy writer to tackle the job of cutting/editing it–not revise it or re-tell it, but edit it for length.

My first choice was Robin, and she agreed to do it. Of course she respected the writer and did a beautiful job.  I didn’t think her involvement with the project stepped on anyone’s toes, but it allowed an engaging, delightful picture book to come into existence (Harcourt) and bring that forgotten, light-hearted story back to contemporary bookshelves.

Along the way, I got to know Robin. And I state for the record that I did not understand Robin, and I never have, and I never will.  I’m not sure it matters, except I do not want to present a misconception that we were best friends. Everyone is different, every writer is different, every relationship with a writer is different, and this is no exception. Still, she is a genius, and this is a small collection of essays about my experiences with brilliant writers…and that includes the mysterious, complicated, wildly talented and unpredictable Robin. There you go.

At any rate, if you have read a few of the essays in Everything Grows with Love, you have seen that in my life, the process of publishing books is very personal. I have very personal passions for people and their individual visions, and it is usually a familial kind of thing for whatever reasons. Most of the time that works out well–meaning better books–and sometimes it backfires or goes south or drifts away into distance as is true with close relationships in the lives of most people. As well, I’m not saying this is the way editors and publishers should approach bookmaking. They should approach it however it works for them. This is what works for me. It has been at least two decades since I gave a rat’s ass how anyone else makes a book. This is how make books, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.

Meanwhile, back at the Robin McKinley snapshot (smile–I think Robin would like that little outburst, being the rugged individual and the maverick she undoubtedly still is)….  Robin taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about writing and publishing, and it has been invaluable these twenty-five years since. Some days she would go into my little study and come out feeling she’d written good fiction. Other days she would come out feeling she’d written terrible fiction. But what she said about it was this: At the end of the book, I can’t tell which parts were good writing days and which were bad writing days.

I always urge writers (and myself) to keep everything, no matter how bad it may seem. Because how you feel about your writing on Monday may be extremely negative, but in fact it may be the best writing you’ve ever done. I guess that’s true about a lot of things in life, right? You wake up after an argument with your sister, and the work you try to do that day feels wrong and inefficient and lousy. In fact, it may be the best work you’ve ever done. Why should it be any different with writing?

Robin kept the good and the bad and kept on writing The Outlaws of Sherwood every morning. She said it was taking her a lot longer to write this book because she felt the public’s expectations were deafening–my words, not hers.

People have told me that it is easier, emotionally, to win a Caldecott or a Newbery Medal after publishing a lot of books so you are better prepared for the celebrity and sudden fame and high expectations. I have known a zillion winners of those awards, and like their work, they are each individuals and very different.  But in Robin’s case, I think those medals were wonderful, and she so deserved them, but it may have made the rest of her career more difficult and challenging. I don’t know.

Katie Thamer Treherne, who created the paintings that led me to Robin, married a man she’d met on a pilgrimage, and they moved back to his ancient family home in Sussex, England, where she is probably now the mother of several grown children who have children of their own. Robin married the celebrated writer Peter Dickinson and moved to England with him. The last time I saw her was at a New York party given for them by her agent at the time. Robin and I stayed in touch for a little while, and the last photograph she sent me from England was a picture of herself with a tractor, in a beautiful British rose garden. She told me she was happy and very proud of the flowers in the photo. And I had to smile to see that like her own Beauty, she had become a lover of roses, and I hoped she was cherished by a prince of her own.

I think of Robin tonight and the people we were back then, and how we had no idea of what was before us. It was a unique time, kicking around those recording studios and being in publishing yet rejecting the stuffy rules of the business. We took great pleasure in drop kicking as many rules as we could out of the park.

Snap your fingers, and flash, more than twenty-five years have passed. What was once an irresponsible night on the town is rapidly becoming a ghost of a memory, and you want to catch it on your laptop before it vanishes. You gave up your cowboy boots long ago and have become a woman with a grown child, a publisher overflowing with stories, and a gardener with roses of your own.

Ah, the rose…that ancient storytelling symbol. Its entrance and its exit–and the people who cross over during that magical, transformational moment–can alter your life forever….

Afternoons in Margaritaville: Snapshots of Jimmy Buffett

Jimmy Buffett. Singer, songwriter, showman, novelist, journalist, sailor, airplane pilot, surfer, father, humorist, performer, husband, world traveler, survivor of Catholic school, entrepreneur, balladeer, chef.  The only person who reminds me of Jimmy is Mark Twain, who also defies description and refused to fit in a box. Colorful beyond words, part pirate and part angel, both men were mavericks and boldly stepped into the unknown. How appropriate that Jimmy Buffett’s favorite writer is Twain.

For somebody who is an open book, Jimmy Buffett manages to be a very private man. I edited all his books but his autobiography, which he wrote after I left Harcourt’s adult department for Scholastic, where there was no adult publishing at all. He told me he had nine editors on that book at Random House, and I don’t doubt it. It’s not a criticism of Random, and it isn’t a criticism of Jimmy, either. It all comes back to that chemistry thing that writers and editors have when they get lucky. I have been very, very, very lucky with Jimmy Buffett, and I will always love him to pieces.

 

Cover of

Cover of The Jolly Mon

 

I worked with Jimmy for about 28 years–from his first book, The Jolly Mon, after a friend introduced us, and I asked Jimmy to try his hand at writing–to his last novel, A Salty Piece of Land as well as his collaboration with Helen Bransford, Swine Not, that followed. He hasn’t written a book since. My stories and observations about those years are so long and detailed and filled with funny anecdotes it would take a year to write them all down, so instead I will present a few snapshots of memorable moments. Why not? There is nothing here that Jimmy wouldn’t tell you himself, or I wouldn’t write it. Any close relationship has lots of confidences, or it wouldn’t be close. And to edit Jimmy Buffett, you have to walk around in his head and his world, because he is one of a kind. Fortunately for literature, he is confident enough to let that happen. The fiction that emerges from that degree of trust is something to behold. The editor listens, observes, encourages, and then gets out of the way. The writer creates a show-stopping display of fireworks and delivers a quality of fiction he never thought possible. It is a rare and beautiful thing.

 

Cover of

Cover of A Salty Piece of Land

 

Of all the writers and illustrators I have worked with these 36 years, two people have consistently taken direction most enthusiastically: One was MacArthur Fellow Virginia Hamilton–winner of the Newbery Medal, four Newbery Honors, the Andersen Medal, and a list of awards so long it would take me pages to recite. The other is Jimmy Buffett, whose list of accomplishments is so broad and so lengthy I won’t even start. I will say he is one of those rare writers to have earned the number one spot on both the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists of the New York Times, and that’s not even counting his gold and platinum records. He has earned some of the best reviews I have ever read in my life (Kinky Friedman in the NYT reviewing A Salty Piece of Land, for example), and his first book for adults, Tales from Margaritaville, was the longest-running bestseller of that entire year.

 

 

When I say “take direction,” I don’t mean the editor tells the writer what to do, and the writer does it. That’s a no-brainer and not nearly as interesting. Again, keep in mind that Virginia and Jimmy are both shockingly brilliant and endlessly creative. No, what I mean is this: I make a comment that a scene isn’t working, and then I make a suggestion about how to fix it. Here’s an example from Jimmy’s first novel, Where Is Joe Merchant? 

I am visiting Jimmy at a quail hunting lodge in Mississippi that looks very much like a log cabin, except that it isn’t a cabin–it’s made for groups of men to come and hunt quail. If my memory serves me well, I believe Jimmy flew us in, because I vividly recall looking out the window of the very small plane (it reminded me of flying in a Volkswagen) and watching the carefully controlled fires below that created the perfect environment for quail. Jimmy’s a pilot, and it makes traveling a lot faster and easier.

That night, we sit in comfortable chairs and go over the new fiction. Trevor Kane’s brother, Joe Merchant, has disappeared and is believed dead, and Trevor’s mother has died. Right now Jimmy needs to send Trevor off someplace so he can keep her occupied while other things are happening at the same time in other scenes. The sun has set, and Jimmy says, “I’ll send her to a spa. Isn’t that where you women go when you have this kind of stress?”  And I say, “No, you can’t send her to a spa. She has to deal with attorneys and her mother’s estate. After my parents died, my cousin was the executor, and I had to read the will and take care of the bills and get everything straight. She has work to do.”

Jimmy looks at me for a minute, and I can see the wheels turning. Then he lets out a laugh that is more like a whoop. He runs outside onto the broad porch and sits down with his computer and starts typing madly. He’s out there having the time of his life, and peals of laugher drift in through the open window as he’s typing. What the hell is he writing? I’m wondering, and then he comes back inside the lodge and sits down to read it to me. The grin on his face mirrors the Cheshire Cat.

Trevor has gone to handle the details of her family’s estate alright. She has gone to Miami to meet with her shady cousin lawyer, the executor, who drives up in a black Mercedes convertible with a license plate that says: I’m Clean. His name is Hackney Primstone III, and he’s wearing a custom-tailored khaki suit, one of his hundreds of pairs of elevator shoes (he’s short), and Person water-buffalo-frame sunglasses. In one hand he’s gripping the steering wheel and a Monte Cristo cigar, and the other hand is outstretched to help Trevor into the car. Only highly paid women would ever get into bed with this slimeball, Trevor thinks, cringing. Her revolting cousin has recently been under investigation in connection with a black-market organ-donor scam…and the scene goes on. (That scene and character will eventually surface again in a song Jimmy writes called “Everyone has a Cousin in Miami.”)

SNAPSHOT: I am walking down a cobbled street in the French Quarter of New Orleans on my way to have lunch at somebody’s house with Jimmy. Around the corner I hear men hooting with glee, and who should appear but Jimmy and his close pal Ed Bradley, the investigative reporter from Sixty Minutes, wearing the robes of alter boys. If you know Jimmy’s stories about growing up Catholic, you’ll know what makes that funny.

SNAPSHOT: I am staying in Key West at the Marquesa Hotel, and Jimmy is supposed to pick me up at 8am. I’m bleary because my puddle jumper from Orlando was cancelled, and it was the last plane out. I ended up sharing a stretch limo with a very bigoted Mormon businessman who secretly wanted to be an opera singer. But the racist things he tells me about his so-called faith annoy me to the point that I have the driver pull over and stock up on cigarettes and beer. For whatever reasons (maybe because I’m going to Hell anyway, the Mormon figures), it doesn’t bother him that I chain smoke and chug Fosters the entire drive down to the Keys. But I find drowning him in smoke and the heavy scent of beer satisfying.

Anyway, Jimmy is late, which never happens. When he finally pulls up in his convertible, during the drive to his house, he tells me that his parents are visiting, and very early this morning when J.D. (his dad) got up to take a swim, three Cubans pulled up to Jimmy’s dock on the canal on a raft. They had paddled from Cuba all night and were doctors. We don’t do any work that day because the press comes, and the Cubans are shown being welcomed to America with Parrothead tee shirts and CDs. That night, family and close friends have dinner outside at a local restaurant, and I get another lesson in Southern Storytelling–the kind that makes these tellers legendary. Even the kids can tell a story better than nearly any writer I’ve ever read. No more details except to say that Jimmy Buffett’s father is an even better storyteller than his son, and as the moon shines over us (yes, the Cubans paddled when there was a moon, which has been pointed out to me as very dangerous), I am conscious that I am a Yankee girl who is quietly having a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into a lifestyle I may never see again.

SNAPSHOT: We are in Nashville, where Jimmy and his wife are living in a plantation house off the Nachez Trace, and they are restoring it back to its original period–with some new amenities such as a state-of-the-art kitchen and beautiful bathrooms based on a recent trip to Europe. The hunting dogs want to come into the house, but an invisible electric field keeps them from entering, because Jane’s rugs are handmade and exquisite, and dogs are dogs. On the side of the house I see Jimmy’s horse, Mr. Twain, and Jimmy asks me if I want to get up early tomorrow and go riding. Anybody who thinks he is a drunk is mistaken. This is a man who is so organized it makes my head spin, who is always on time and often early, found sipping cranberry juice and revising his manuscript on his Mac as I drag my way down to coffee. He is sharp as a tack, quick as greased lightning, has the patience of a saint, and always seems to be in a good mood. In fact, over the thirty or so years I have known him, I have only seen him in a bad mood once. And that was later on this same day in Nashville, and only for about two minutes in his car on the way to lunch. I have made a strong suggestion for a revision to Where Is Joe Merchant, and he absolutely hates it. He driving and wants to show me a new place called Borders where they sell not only music but books, and the store even has a cafe where we can get lunch. After we eat, we will go back to his study and work on the book some more, and then the phone will ring, and it will be Savannah’s school, calling to tell her parents that she did especially well on a test.

SNAPSHOT: We are in New York City, and Paul McCartney is having a show at Madison Square Garden. Do I want to go? We won’t have seats, we will be backstage, but Jimmy wants to see Paul’s show. Jimmy is a showman, after all. He is very curious.

We end up standing close to the stage, and the thing that blows my mind is that we know the words to every single song. Remember, I am married to a rock musician during this time period, so I am used to going to concerts and recording studios and being backstage and talking to famous musicians and going with Ira to parties with Bob Dylan or hanging out at Don Henley’s house on Mulholland. It’s my world, and although it sometimes seems a little weird to be a book publisher in this environment, I don’t think about it much because it’s just my life, you know?

Anyway, the McCartney concert is awesome. It’s incredible! And we’re so close, it’s right in my face. Jimmy is planning his upcoming summer tour, and again I see the wheels are turning. Afterward we join some friends at Elaine’s for champagne, and years later, when I am in New York on publishing business and see that Jimmy has sold out Madison Square garden for two nights in a row, I will remember this night and smile. He’s come a long way…and deserves every inch of it.

SNAPSHOT: I know Jimmy has this other career besides writing–but that’s how I think of it. His other career. In fact he has a lot of careers, but he doesn’t talk about them much. With me he talks about the books, but along the way he is always sending me the recorded sketch of a new song he’s written that is connected to one of his short stories or one of his characters, and it’s a big surprise–when he finishes Tales from Margaritaville, a massive effort on his part, and his first book for adults–that he hands me a copy of what he’s been working on in the studio. He’s used a red Sharpie to scrawl on it “Off to See the Lizard,” and it’s an early copy of the album he will be releasing where every song goes with one of the short stories in Tales from Margaritaville. See what I mean? He is one of a kind. Like Twain in that way of being unique, but not Twain at all. He is the only Jimmy Buffett we will ever have, and I am convinced history will be drawn to him in a similar way. Right now, as was true with Twain and Fitzgerald and so many other people we now revere–he’s alive and living his life, so none of it seems historic. But the songs are beautiful. He captures the landscape of Tully Mars and his longing to find a better place than the poodle ranch he escapes in “Take Another Road,” as he rides his horse, Mr. Twain, “to the shore.” And Jimmy writes about food in his fiction because he loves good food, and he makes a mean shrimp salad, which I remember eating in Key West. “I Wish Lunch Could Last Forever” is the perfect New Orleans song and again captures the sweetness of Slade’s love affair in that story. It’s a unique blending of the fiction and music, and I can’t imagine that anyone else on the planet could do it. At least not do it well. So I am once again stunned. Speechless.

We are in Key West again, and I’m working away at his house while he’s out with J.D. and Peets, his mom. The convertible pulls in the driveway with “The Pascagoula Run” on at full blast, and his dad is laughing. After all, it’s a Buffett family song. At the end of making Tales from Margaritaville, Jimmy gives the typeset manuscript pages to Peets to proofread.

Cover of

Cover of Tales from Margaritaville

And when I call her to ask her about it, she is laughing so hard! “Willet Rainer Snow!” she says. “I can’t believe Jimmy remembered that after all these years.”  And after I get off the phone and ask myself why she was laughing about Willet, I finally get the joke. Yes, I am a Yankee girl who has edited this entire book and read the story at least two hundred times, yet every time I read it, I missed the humor. Willet Rainer Snow. A Buffett family joke from childhood. From the shipyard, I think she said. Amazing.

 

 

SNAPSHOT: Book jackets from Hell. I am in the middle of one now, more than twenty years later, and it just doesn’t ever stop, does it? The marketing and sales people always want exactly what was on the jacket that sold so well last time, and Jimmy says it’s the same way in the music business.

For Tales from Margaritaville, we didn’t have this problem because nobody but me expected it to sell. The initial print run was 3000 copies, and after pressure from the sales reps, Peter Jovanovich reluctantly allowed us to raise the run to 10,000. Fun and games, because when our New York rep, Schuyler Huntoon, reported his first sale to the chains, the order from Walden Books was 10,000 copies. If you have a first edition of Tales from Margaritaville, hold onto it. They are very rare.

Back to the jacket. I am in the hands of a designer I don’t work with, because he’s what they call “the jacket man” and only does the jackets for the adult books. Most of my books are beautiful picture books for younger readers at this point, so I don’t have to deal with him. And it appears he is having some kind of breakdown or family problem or something, because I keep asking for some cover comps, and I keep hearing that they’re on the way, and they never come. It is getting closer and closer to pub date, and I’m getting really, really anxious. Finally I get a cover comp that is a map (a nice idea) with Jimmy’s picture imposed on it. It’s a bit stiff, and a bit awkward, but we are out of time, down to the wire, and Jimmy approves it, and we are off to the races.

Since Tales from Margaritaville becomes an immediate bestseller and remains not only the longest-running bestseller of the year but is also, according to ABA, “the hardest book of the year to buy” because it is always out of stock (God forbid we have a 1% return rate; thanks for the confidence, guys), when it comes time for the cover for the second adult book, Where Is Joe Merchant?, a novel, it is really no fun at all.

We have the same delay–endlessly asking for comps, and endlessly not seeing anything. Then we are at the “911” emergency wire, and I’m told that we are going to do a map again because it did so well on the first book.

(Expletive here.)

Really, sometimes it seems truly miraculous that book publishing houses ever stay in business at all. I mean it.

We have something like two days to come up with a cover, and I am getting a comp shoved down my throat (the old “We’re out of time so we have to go with it” trick) that shows a map with two suitcases in front of it, and Jimmy’s face on one of the suitcases. I KID YOU NOT. Jimmy and I have been working on this novel, seven days a week, for years, and I am still publishing a complete children’s list of superstars. In fact, I have two jobs. I have changed from Editor-in-Chief of the Children’s Books Division to Executive Editor so I can build an adult fiction list, and I am also Executive Editor in the Adult Trade Department. I report to one person, but I have a full list for both jobs. When I tell my boss it’s too much–I am working myself to death, he simply says, “Bonnie, we want both from you, and so we are going to push you hard to get both. You are the only person who can balance it, because nobody is going to look out for you but you.” Thanks a lot.  I am going out of my mind, and the stress is killing me. Now I have a gorgeous, funny, engaging novel by a bestselling author and recording artist, but the cover is ugly as sin…and insulting.

I show it to Jimmy, and he hates it.

“We are out of time,” I am told, and even when I remind my boss that in his contract, Jimmy has jacket approval, my boss doesn’t budge. “Give me twenty-four hours,” I beg. “Just give me 24 hours, and I’ll get a new cover for you. Something that Jimmy will like, and something that will sell.” My boss begrudgingly gives me the 24 hours.

At this point I am living in New Jersey in the house where I grew up because my parents have each died horrible, violent, grisly deaths from their respective cancers, and being a workaholic is an effective way, I’ve discovered, to medicate the pain. I have taken out a mortgage and purchased the house, and although I commute in to my office in New York City a few days a week, I’ve turned the top floor of my home into an office, complete with a desk, a drawing table, art supplies, a fax machine, and two cats, Nick and Nora, gifts from Barry Moser. I sit down at my drawing table and remind myself of all those years of art school and get out my paints. Then I paint the scene I think should be on the cover. It’s in the book, of course. The sun is setting over the ocean, the lone palm is on the edge of the beach with its tire swing hanging down, and a sea plane–Frank Bama’s Grumman Goose–is coming down for a landing. I’m rusty as hell with my paintbrushes, but when I finish, it’s good enough to photocopy and send to Jimmy and send to New York. Which I do.

Cover of

Cover of Where is Joe Merchant?

 

Jimmy loves it. Perfect. My boss buckles under and agrees. We will find a “real” artist to take my primitive watercolor and make it into a “real” jacket. Which is exactly what happens. And my little joke is on the back flap. Jimmy is a jokester, so I plant a little humor of my own for his Parrothead fans. Something to make them scratch their heads. The lead female character in the book is Trevor Kane, who is an artist. So this is the credit for the cover art:

         Jacket illustration by Michael Koelsch based on a painting by Trevor Kane

That will keep them guessing.

SNAPSHOT: For the first few years I worked with Jimmy, I thought most of the places in his fiction were imaginary. And they are. He uses scrupulous detail to make them utterly real. But there are a few outlandish places in the short stories and the novel that are not imaginary–and I found out about them because I stumbled upon the real places in my travels. So I actually can’t tell you, for certain, which places are real, and which places are imaginary. I will say that one location is very real. I published it as fiction, but I now know better because I’ve been there.

Jimmy won an award in Alabama, and he couldn’t go, so I went in his place to accept on his behalf. The plane was late, and Harcourt (or maybe it was the awards group) had put me up at what I assumed was a hotel near the venue. All I know is that my plane was late, I had flown out of New York straight from work, so I was wearing a snappy little business dress and high heels. When I got off the plane, the entire wall of the airport was covered in a gigantic Confederate flag. I rented my car and set off to try to find the hotel–with no directions other than the car rental man’s instructions on how to get to the address on the highway where my hotel was supposedly located. Harcourt was closed, cell phones hadn’t been invented, and GPS navigators were a thing of the future. It was dark, late, and once I found the highway, it was completely, although it ran for miles and miles along a sandy beach. All I had was my little slip of paper with an address on it, yet the address didn’t match up with any of the buildings, and all of them seemed to be vacation condos, off season, and every single one of them was dark.

Also to my dismay, I discovered that the highway crossed the Alabama-Florida border, and on either side of the line, the street numbering system was different. I was already spooked by being alone on a deserted road late at night in a place I’d never been, but the hotel didn’t exist, so I was now guessing I was staying at a condo–except that didn’t seem to exist, either. There were no gas stations, no stores, no Seven-Elevens, no nothing. Then I remembered that I had driven past a bar. It was miles back, but maybe the people at the bar could help me find the condo.

I pulled into the driveway of a deserted condo to turn around, and Jersey Girl Bonnie learned a big, important lesson. If you back your car into sand, you are going to get stuck.

Nothing I could do would move that rental car an inch. I knocked on the door of the deserted condo, and knocked on the doors nearby. Again, nobody was there, and it was getting close to midnight, and there I was, my car stuck in sand, and I was wearing high heels and a business-type dress, and the only thing I could think of to do was to haul my sorry self down the deserted highway back two or three miles to that bar. Great.

Off came the heels, and I wasn’t brave at all. The rare times a car or truck came by, I wasn’t about to flag them down. By the time I finally saw the lights of the bar, I was completely freaked out. There weren’t any gas stations to drag my car out of the sand anyway, even if I found a pay phone. What was a fancy Yankee girl going to find at a local bar at this hour?

And then I realized where I was. It was the FloraBama Bar, right out of Jimmy’s short story in Tales from Margaritaville. Oh, my God. I had walked into a Buffett short story!

When you are lost at midnight in a place that scares the pee out of you, it is very reassuring to find a place you know from a scene in a short story by the author you are there to honor. So I walked into the FloraBama Bar, figuring that if Jimmy knew the place well enough to put it in his book, then hopefully they would know him.

Of course everyone in the place turned and stared. I was in my early thirties, my long blonde hair was pulled up in a bun, and I sure wasn’t wearing my snakeskin boots. I was about as out of place as a ferret on a bicycle. No, as out of place as a New York publisher in a loud, drunken, backwoods redneck bar. “Hi,” I said, counting on Tales from Margaritaville to pull me through this one. After all, Jimmy’s nickname for me has always been Glinda the Good Witch. “I’m Jimmy Buffett’s editor. I’m here to get a writing award because Jimmy had to work. And my car got stuck in the sand, and I can’t find my hotel. Can anyone help me?”

I am not going to tell you what happened after that, except to say that many drinks were consumed at the FloraBama, and my car was pulled out of the sand, and they found the address, and it was a condo, and I managed to find the venue at the right time the next day, and the awards ceremony began with a prayer. A few weeks later I had Jimmy sign a box of copies of Tales from Margaritaville to my new friends at the FloraBama Bar who had been so helpful, and I assume the box made it down there. I never did go back.

Years later, when my son and I went to Belize to scuba dive, I walked past a nightclub in San Pedro town that I also thought had been a figment of Jimmy’s imagination, but there it was, smaller than I had imagined, but real as the fingers on my hand. It was right out of a scene in A Salty Piece of Land, and Tully Mars had had quite a wild night there.

I am ready to take a break from Jimmy Buffett snapshots right now, but I hope you can see that the man has more talent in his toe than most people have in ten lifetimes. So working with him all these years has been great fun, a great challenge, and many great lessons in kindness, generosity, and the value of hard work, passion, and imagination. We all have our ups and downs, but Jimmy Buffett chooses to walk on the sunny side of the street.

And I am so delighted to share a few moments of that sunshine with you.

IMG_4523

Barry Moser & Van Dyke Parks: JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit

 

387445 copy

It is 1985, and I am fascinated by what my husband, Ira Ingber, can do with a guitar. He pulls music out of the air and bends notes into songs that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Today he is on his way to a recording studio in Hollywood, and he wants me to come. His friend, renowned composer Van Dyke Parks, has been commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony to create a body of music that is distinctly American. Parks, who hails from Mississippi, has chosen the subject of Brer Rabbit, and he has built a musical around the rascal trickster. I don’t know a lot about Brer Rabbit except for Disney’s Song of the South, which I saw as a child, but I am about to be educated.

Parks is in the studio and seems to be torturing the singer. She must sing a very challenging song over and over and over and over. She is singing from the point of view of Miss Molly Cottontail, one of Brer Rabbit’s “neighbor ladies,” and that’s probably all you need to know. At any rate, Mo Ostin at Warner Brothers Records is making an album from it (yes, this was the era of albums and record companies, and JUMP! was actually one of the first CDs), and I watch Van Dyke coach the singer to get it exactly the way he wants it. He is hilarious, although he doesn’t seem conscious of that. She is a real pro and keeps belting out this impossible song, and Parks is pacing and saying things like, “I’m not making one dime from this!” in that funny, unforgettable voice of his, and you really have to know him to imagine what I am describing here.

I have just taken the position of Editor, Children’s Books at Harcourt Publishers in San Diego, and I find myself very interested in Parks’s JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. (I may be wrong about this, but I think it was Parks’s pal Harry Nilsson who came up with the name Jump! for the project–I’ll have to ask Ira if he remembers. Of course it is the perfect title.) And the music is astounding. I go home thinking that this might be a very good book to create and to publish.

My first stop is the San Diego Library. Harcourt is located in San Diego in 1985, and I am commuting from Santa Monica where I live with Ira to San Diego so I can acquire, edit, and publish children’s books. I ask the librarian if they have a copy of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the famous collection of Brer Rabbit stories, and she hunts it down for me. It is a massive book, and the copyright page says it was published in 1881, although that is not entirely accurate. The librarian looks at the paper glued in the back of the book and tells me it has not been checked out for eight years.

During the Civil Rights Movement, which was during my era, Brer Rabbit was one of the babies thrown out with the bath water, and there are good reasons for it. But the stories themselves are absolutely wonderful. I stop by two bookstores on my way back to work, and I ask the buyer at each store if he would consider buying a book of five stories about Brer Rabbit. “Absolutely not!” they both tell me emphatically. The Rab, as Parks calls him, is persona non grata. He has become a symbol of racism. And the more stories I read, and the more I learn about Harris and how he collected them after the Civil War, and how they came with slaves from Africa who brought little more than their stories…well, it is all very powerful, and storytelling is one of the best ways people communicated in those days. If they wanted to make a comment about someone, that person might come out as a character in a funny animal story told for the amusement of the community. As well, storytelling was the source of entertainment–and Brer Rabbit is the good guy, the little, oppressed character who outwits the bigger animals in every single tale but one.  Brer Bear and Brer Fox are always after him, but Brer Rabbit wins again and again, usually making it clear that his adversaries may be large, but they’re no match for his smarts.

Harris is both applauded and deeply criticized for the way he gathered the tales, wrote them in his own interpretation of African American colloquial speech (to use Virginia Hamilton’s phrase), and created a warm, “uncle” slave storyteller who told the tales to a white boy. By doing so, he made these remarkable stories acceptable and popular to a broad white audience, who loved them. Those who admire him are also grateful that he recorded stories that might have disappeared during post-Civil War times, thus preserving an important page in American history to say nothing of world literature.  One of the complexities of the Brer Rabbit stories told in Harris’s voice (where he tried to mimic the speech of the original teller) is that you cannot talk about slavery without talking about shame. The fabric of the tales, the blood and pain that shaped them, is steeped in human suffering. All of this, and much more, must somehow be fed into the book. Van Dyke asks his friend, book critic Malcolm Jones, to help with the project and to write an introduction that addresses these issues in a way that will inform children and their parents without weighing down the exuberance of the stories.

Van Dyke and I work on the manuscript. We sit on his front steps or in his living room in Hollywood while his two children run around. It’s a fun and funny and extremely interesting project and process. We decide to choose five of the best stories for the book, but we will leave out the most famous one, the story about the Tar Baby, because it has too much luggage, and if we are lucky enough to do a second book, we can publish it there.

One of the first decisions is to get rid of the framework Harris invented to tell the Brer Rabbit stories. That was the character of an African American slave, Uncle Remus, who happily told these stories to a young white boy. It is the seeming cheerfulness of the slave that is offensive and unrealistic in 1985. Without it, the Rab is back to belonging to the original tellers. So we peel off the framework, and Parks steers me through the stories, staying true to the voices and also drawing upon his Mississippi childhood to know, absolutely, what to keep in and what to take out. He likes the word “segatiate,” and he insists on keeping it in. He likes it so much, in fact, that I write it into the front flap copy. It becomes an asset, not a liability. And the whole manuscript goes that way, with the stories flowing in Van Dyke’s rich Southern voice, and their beauty protected by his deep understanding of the red earth in that place where he was a child.

65587._SX67_SY100_ Mister Van Dyke Parks

As we are working on the manuscript, the “book” for the Broadway musical is also being written, and Tony-Award winner Lewis Allen, who produced Annie and I’m Not Rappaport and a host of Broadway hits is supposed to develop it and bring it to Broadway. I meet Lewis many times in New York, and we have dinner and drinks, and he invites me back stage to various shows, including I’m Not Rappaport, and I bring Virginia Hamilton with me back stage so I can introduce her to Ossie Davis and Hal Linden, who are starring in it. But the project keeps stalling, and Lewis explains to me that this business of Broadway plays is not for New Yorkers or people like me; it is for tourists and visitors who are coming to New York from out of town and want to see a show. That’s who goes to see Annie. He has said he is going to try Jump! out at a small New England theatre, but time passes, and I have the brains to publish the book alone, as its own entity, without tying it to the musical in any way.

Backtrack to the manuscript as all of this is going on, because I need the perfect illustrator. One always does. I start my search with Maurice Sendak because I know he loves theatre, and Lewis says there is a possibility of having Sendak design the sets for the show. I send it to Sendak, and (this shows you how long ago it was) in doing so, I go to a place where they send documents using something called a fax. I fork over the manuscript, and the gentleman behind the desk feeds the pages into a machine. I don’t recall why, but it is imperative that Maurice Sendak must get this manuscript on this particular day, not a day later. And I keep questioning the gentleman about the newfangled machine. “You mean you put it in there, and then it magically shows up in Connecticut?” I keep asking. A courier will pick it up at another fax machine in Connecticut and drive it over to Maurice’s home. The man is patient with me and assures me that yes, this is precisely what is going to happen. And I believe him, and sure enough, Maurice gets the manuscript, and I continue to be baffled about how it all happened.

Yes, he would like to illustrate the book if he can also do the sets for the show. But again, Lewis is stalling. I am very young, and I do not know how difficult it is to get a Broadway show produced–how much money and commitment it takes, and how rarely it actually happens, despite many good intentions. So, as the months pass, I have to give up on Maurice Sendak. And when he and I have the conversation that he is going to move on, I remember feeling so depressed at my San Diego desk, with this wonderful, funny manuscript in front of me, and no idea who could visually bring it to life. Maurice suggests a number of people who are similar to A.B. Frost, who made the original engravings, but alas, Maurice tells me, they are all dead.

It is Maria Modugno, the manager of Children’s Books at Harcourt at that time, who shows me the wood engravings of Barry Moser. She shows me Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which has won the National Book Award, and an editor of adult books, who ran the paperback publishing program at Harcourt at the time, is her friend and is very hot on Barry Moser. She is not suggesting him for this book. She just thinks I might be interested in Moser’s wood engravings, and she is absolutely right. To illustrate this lively, funny, Southern collection of Brer Rabbit tales with wood engravings in our children’s picture book form would be the kiss of death.

I look at Barry Moser’s work, and it is exquisite for a thousand reasons. His use of space, his design sense, his acute sensibilities, and his dark side might be perfect for a new telling of “Beauty and the Beast,” I am thinking. So I get his number from the adult editor, and I give him a call.

Although he is painfully polite in terms of his Southern manners, Mr. Moser is not remotely interested in “illustrating a juvenile,” as he puts it. He almost spits the word out. “Jew-ven-eye-al,” he says, enunciating every syllable and coating it with his distaste. I thank him, and I am thinking this is the end of the conversation when he snaps at me, “The only Jew-ven-eye-al I would be willing to illustrate is one that no one will ever publish.”

“What book is that?” I ask.

“Brer Rabbit,” he says.

Pause while I almost swallow my tongue. Even now, decades later, I have to pause when I recall that conversation. I DO NOT WANT WOOD ENGRAVINGS IN THIS BOOK. Yet I feel as if God’s pointer finger has parted the clouds and is directed at the manuscript that is planted in the middle of my desk.

“Mr. Moser, I know you have won the National Book Award, and many, many other prizes. You are internationally famous, and I feel like such a loser asking you this question. I beg for your forgiveness to even ask such a thing, but do you ever paint in watercolors?” I ask.

“I’ve been painting with watercolors my entire life,” he says.

“Because,” I go on, “I have a wonderful manuscript in front of me, and it is by a composer named Van Dyke Parks, adapted from the Joel Chandler Harris tellings of Brer Rabbit stories. It is connected with a Broadway musical that may or may not happen, and the music is being made into a record album by Warner Brothers. But the five stories in this book have to be illustrated in color,” I tell him. “And I feel the size of a worm to ask someone of your accomplishments and stature to do a sample piece of art for me–I am so embarrassed. But I have to see a watercolor to know this is going to work. Again, I am so sorry.”

To make a long story short, I send Barry Moser the manuscript. He loves it. He sends back a watercolor that brings me to my knees. Why? Because I have been researching Harris, and the tales, and the slaves who told them, and their history, and Moser has nailed it to the wall. Bull’s Eye. This is the real deal. It is a colorful character sketch of the rabbit, so perfectly suited to this book and to Harris and to Van Dyke Parks that I almost can’t believe what I am seeing. Brer Rabbit is in suspenders, and he is sitting on a log, and he is holding a fishing pole. A cigar hangs out of his mouth, and a bottle–moonshine, no doubt–sticks out of his pocket.

The Rab. In all his glory.

The Book Angel has spread her wings and circled above this project and made impossible things happen. Van Dyke is beside himself when I show him. He’s not sure about the sample wood engravings, but the sample watercolor art is utterly convincing, and Parks is a visionary. He knows.

From start to finish, JUMP! will be one of the most important books of my career and one of the most joyous events of my life. And so begins my long and rich friendship with the remarkable Barry Moser, who turns out to be a gentleman in every way, one of the warmest, kindest people on the planet, and a true friend for life.

There is more to this tale, and one of the great things that happened was the reception to the book that held those stories that had been banned for so many years. The critics loved it and showered it with starred reviews, it was an ALA Notable Book, and it sold like hotcakes. The Rab was back, and suddenly a flurry of Brer Rabbit stories cropped up from various publishers.  Barry and I took a trip to “Wren’s Nest,” Harris’s house in Georgia, and I got to see the red clay dirt and the hanging moss and places where these stories were translated by slaves into African American folklore–where the African animals were changed into local animals like foxes and bears and terrapins, and, of course, the rabbit.

Not every book is a miracle. But in my blessed career, a great many of them have been. And JUMP! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit was a startling, thought-provoking journey that sparked so many new and wondrous fires I can’t begin to count them.

For years, I had this quote in a frame over my desk, and now it hangs over my sink at home, where I read it every day. It is the original piece of paper I enlarged and photocopied and hung up at Harcourt while I was working on this book:

“Brer Rabbit say, sezee, ‘Dey’s allers a way, ef not two.’

%d bloggers like this: