everything grows with love

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

Archive for Virginia Hamilton

Anniversary of Virginia Hamilton’s Passing

On this day, February 19, 2002, the blazing spirit of magnificent Virginia Hamilton, friend, mentor, writer, confidante, and kick-around girlfriend, took off with the power of a comet and left this world for the next. Virginia was–and still is–the most distinguished writer of books for young readers in the world, and she was given every major award in her field, including some that had never been given before, such as her MacArthur (genius) Fellowship. As her longtime editor and pal, my life has been blessed more than words can say. And I don’t want closure. I want every door and window and drawer she opened inside my heart and mind to STAY open. Virginia, I miss you every day. You go, girl. You go…. You reconfigure the stars in the sky and keep on shining.

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On the wings of time….

It’s difficult to believe that on May 26, two years have passed since Leo Dillon died. After more than twenty-five years of close friendship, what can I possibly say about that? And although many years have now passed since I lost Virginia Hamilton, I still find myself wanting to call her when some funny thing happens that would make her laugh. Suddenly, after 37 years of book publishing, I no longer feel that time is an endlessly renewing river. Suddenly those years of memorable moments are beginning to ask to be recorded. When I was working with Jimmy Buffett on A Salty Piece of Land, he said, “It feels as if time is flying by because it is.”  So here is a spot for me to share some snapshots of small events along my editorial journey. I started out this crazy career wearing snakeskin cowboy boots and ridiculously short skirts, and now I’m somebody’s mother…sitting quietly at a computer while my golden retriever sleeps on my feet. All these years of publishing, I have kept what Barry Moser called “day books,” and by now I have shelves of them. They are packed with quotes and snippets of conversations and pasted-in pictures and lots of contract negotiations. They are also overflowing with love. What I feel most today is gratitude. So I hope that comes across as I try to gather a morning here, a dinner there, and wrap my arms around these brilliant, generous, highly creative people who fill my life with such abundance.

June 4, 2012

IMG_5933IMG_5717     Photo of me 1992 by Leo Dillon, taken in the kitchen; and photo of Leo…

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Cover via Amazon

The Genius Club: Memorable Remarks from Memorable Writers

Every day something enters my mind that was said to me by a writer or illustrator I’ve published. 

“There is no such thing as a bad scene–just a badly written scene.”  –Cynthia Voigt (about The Glass Mountain, adult)

(Speaking on an ALA panel) “Every time a question about race is asked, all of you turn to me to answer it. Why is that? Am I the only person here who has any kind of racial or ethnic background?” –Virginia Hamilton (followed by a long moment of silence) (Plain City; Time Pieces; Her Stories; In the Beginning; etc.)

“There is no such thing as a coincidence.”  –Leo Dillon (If Kids Ran the World; Aida; Pish, Posh; Rap a Tap Tap; The Girl Who Spun Gold; To Every Thing There is a Season; etc.)

“We know there will be always be people who won’t like the book we’re making, so we may as well make a book we like ourselves.”–Diane Dillon (about If Kids Ran the World)

“Moderation in all things, including moderation.”  –David Shannon (No, David!; Duck on a Bike; Too Many Toys; Jangles; etc.)

“That shows maturity, when you’re beginning to notice the insecurities of other people.” –Arnold Adoff (Flamboyan; In for Winter, Out for Spring)

(After I asked him the location of Hidden Valley, where he had just moved) “If I told you, then it wouldn’t be hidden, would it?” –Harry Nilsson

“Let’s make a funny blog about the worst dates we’ve ever had, and all our bad boyfriend experiences.” –Dawn Barnes (laughing) (The Black Belt Club)

(As he’s about to step on stage at Irvine Meadows, we skid up to him, late to the concert because of my young son’s Little League game.) “Bon, don’t hug me because I’m all covered with wires!  (He laughs and turns to my son.) I heard )you had a big game tonight. And you played second base. Did you catch any fly balls? (My son, looking out at 16,000 screaming fans, is speechless.) Hey, I like that Red Sox cap. I like the Red Sox, too.” –Jimmy Buffett (concert while working on A Salty Piece of Land)

“Love is the path to forgiveness.” –Audrey Wood (Blue Sky; A Dog Needs a Bone; It’s Duffy Time; etc.)

“Whistle while you work.”  –Don Wood (Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear; Into the Volcano; Jubal’s Wish; etc.)

“Look at that man’s eyebrows!”  –Karen Barbour, who notices everything (Little Nino’s Pizzeria; A Sip of Aesop; You Were Loved Before You Were Born; etc.)

“Are you sure you want to leave a toy gun instead of a tip?” –Barry Moser (The Dreamer; When Birds Could Talk & Bats Could Sing; In the Beginning)

(When I asked her how she writes such impressive speeches) “I always prepare. Always.”  –Jane Yolen (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?)

“It’s catnip for boys.” –Mark Teague (about The Tree House that Jack Built)

(After I bragged that there was a blackout at the Algonquin Hotel, but I managed to grope through the room and find my high heels for dinner) “Look at your shoes. One is blue, and the other one is black.”  –Virginia Hamilton (The Bells of Christmas)

“Your son is the golden retriever of children.”  –Edward Gorey

(After I asked her how she was able to write an utterly believable scene where three angels appear in an ordinary American kitchen) “It’s the details.” –Nancy Willard (about The High Rise Glorious Skittle Skat Roarious Sky Pie Angel Food Cake)

“The problem with illustrating this book is drawing and coloring all that plaid!” –Chuck Mikolaycak (about Tam Lin)

“People always tell you what you need to know about them–right away. It’s just a matter of whether or not you’re willing to listen.”  –Steve Faigenbaum

(After I blurted out that I was intimidated by working with a writer who was Poet Laureate and had won two Pulitzer Prizes)  “That’s the nice thing about teaching at Harvard. You have to read the classics because you teach them. But I still haven’t read Anna Karenina.” –Richard Wilbur (adult)

“She pulled her lips back and snarled. Then she said, ‘I hate that book. It’s the only thing I ever wrote for money.'” –Barry Moser (telling me about his meeting with Miss Eudora Welty after I asked him to illustrate her long out-of-print children’s book called The Shoe Bird)

“I’d like to wear her guts for garters.” –Robin McKinley (The Light Princess)

“I don’t care what Harcourt wants me to do. I am leaving this party. Madonna’s concert is on TV.” (And when I asked her what she loved so much about Madonna she said:) “You never know what she’s going to do next. Never.”  –Virginia Hamilton (In the Beginning: Creation Stories Around the World)

(Talking about her cat, Blueberry, who had chosen to spend the night with her downstairs instead of upstairs in the big cozy bed where I had slept as the honored guest) “I was worried he would go sleep upstairs, because he’s used to that bed, but no, he came down  here and stayed with me.”  –Cynthia Rylant (my first visit, in Kent, Ohio) (Dog Heaven; Mr. Putter and Tabby; The Dreamer; Poppleton)

(Showing me a diagram he’s made on a napkin at our table at a Mexican restaurant) “Responsibility is here (he points to one end of the line), and surfing is here (he points to the opposite end of the line). I’ve spent the last two years at Art Center trying to get those surf colors out of my art.” (about the possibility of illustrating Jimmy Buffett’s first book, The Jolly Mon, which was all island, ocean colors)

“Just do the work.”  –Leo Dillon (To Everything There Is a Season)

“Bonnie, please come out from under the table.” –Dav Pilkey (The Adventures of Captain Underpants; The Dumb Bunnies; The Hallo-weiner; Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot; Ook & Gluk)

“I would love to become a member of the Hearts Club.” –Michael Rosen (A Thanksgiving Wish)

“I used paper that’s recycled from elephant dung.” –Richard Jesse Watson (The Magic Rabbit)

“It’s the way the green and red vibrate.” –Lois Ehlert (about the cover of Growing Vegetable Soup)

“We do not approve of our food product being used on your book.” (Hormel Foods Corporation, manufacturers of SPAM, which was sitting on a table in the “Good Night Moon Room” cover of Dav Pilkey’s The Dumb Bunnies.) “We deny you permission to use it.”

(After I asked him why he drew a different dinosaur on every spread of the book) “It was too boring to draw an entire book of Tyrannosaurs.” –Mark Teague (How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?; The Tree House that Jack Built; LaRue for Mayor; etc.)

“If we don’t stop putting carbon into the atmosphere, we run the risk of climate change so drastic that the path of the Gulf Stream could change.” –Molly Bang (about her five books in the Sunlight Series, which began with My Light)

(After flying me into New York on his seaplane so I could get to work on time) “It’s worse than heroin.” –Jimmy Buffett (about the addiction of flying in seaplanes, while working on Swine Not?)

“Every year my grandfather sat us all down and told us the story of how he and his mother escaped from slavery in Virginia–so we would never forget.” –Virginia Hamilton

“This manuscript has to be published exactly as it is, without a single change. If you feel the need to change anything,  I will have to withdraw it and send it elsewhere.”  –Cynthia Rylant (in her cover letter enclosed with the manuscript Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds which happily was flawlessly written and did not require as much as a comma)

“I love Christmas.” –Bruce Wood (after inflating and enormous Santa suit that made him bigger than a VW bug) (Alphabet Mystery; The Deep Blue Sea; Ten Little Fish)

“Did I tell you that my friend Debra Frasier wrote a children’s book? And Crown Publishers is interested. Their sales rep saw it and sent it to New York, and they’re going to publish it.” (my sister JoAnn, on the phone) “Why didn’t you tell her to send it to ME?” (I ask, frustrated.) “OK, I will.” (JoAnn is a photographer and very close friends with Debra’s husband, who is also a photographer; Debra created the banner’s for Jo’s wedding. So Debra sends the dummy  to me, and although Crown is making her an offer, I am nuts-cuckoo-crazy about the book and persuade her to do it with me at Harcourt. That was On the Day You Were Born. Thanks, Jo!!!)

( During an interview, Jimmy Buffett was asked about several very attractive women characters in Tales from Margaritaville who were passionate but also very kind to their male lovers–and when it was time for the male lovers to say good bye and head off on another adventure, the women understood and warmly wished them well.) “Where do you find these women???” the interviewer asked. And Jimmy, with a pirate’s laugh, said, “It’s fiction! I make them up!”

“When I was little, I always wished I had a big robot friend.” –Dav Pilkey, about Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot

 

(to be continued…)

Virginia Hamilton: Whiteout in PLAIN CITY

Plain City was conceived in a whiteout, a moment in a blizzard on a highway in Ohio when Virginia was driving and couldn’t see a thing. I wasn’t there, but I’m telling you this because all writers are different, and Virginia’s process of writing this novel was as unique as her voice, from the very start.

She told me about the scene on the highway. The story began growing in her head, and as it grew, she wrote pieces of it and sent them to me. She did not send me a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end. She sent me fragments. Scenes. They were disconnected. Some of the scenes I could see fitting together, and other scenes did not seem to belong in the same book. She kept writing, and I kept reading. Slowly, as in a darkroom, when you watch a blank sheet of photographic paper reveal gray shapes, then blurry images, then a sharp picture, the scenes in Plain City began to fit together. She wrote the scene about the frogs almost independently, and that was the one scene that concerned her in terms of the fit. But as if by magic, the quilting mechanism in her mind almost unconsciously created the fiction around that scene that made it fit perfectly into the rest of the book. And after that happened, she told me she had finally discovered why she had written the scene. It was as much a puzzle to her as it would have been to anyone else.

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I need to say that my editorial work with Virginia was intensely private. She asked me to keep our conversations to myself, and I respected that. What she said about them, if anything, to others, is something I do not know. But I do know that the process of working with Virginia was very intense, and it was also very calculated on both sides. I carefully devised methods of presenting information to her in ways that might maximize my ability to persuade her to my opinion. In turn, she had an arsenal of persuasive tactics herself. She could be charming, flattering, white-hot brilliant, pensive, irritated, angry, enraged–whatever it took to do what she wanted to do with her book. Our editorial relationship ranged from fun games of mental ping pong to very uncomfortable, tense disagreement. It became clear to me, when I first began working with her, that it was dangerous to call her right after I’d sent her editorial suggestions about anything. I learned to wait three days. On the third day, she would no longer want to rip me to pieces. She had taken in the information and processed it. Sometimes she agreed with me, and sometimes she did not agree with me. At no time, during our two decades working together, did she ever agree to make a change she did not wholeheartedly want to make.

At her memorial services, I told funny stories about the goofy things we did because when we were alone she dropped what I teasingly called The Mighty Hamilton and became a silly playmate who was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. In public she was almost always “distinguished,” and educators, teachers, and librarians were afraid of her. In private she was a stitch. I guess at the memorials I wanted people to know Virginia my pal. The funny one. The sneaky, wily, irreverent girlfriend who would silently slip out the back door of a party given in her honor because we wanted to go see Aaron Neville sing instead. Bad, bad, bad. Our behavior could be terrible. And what grand time we had being terrible. I am laughing out loud as I write this.

In Fall 1993 I launched the Blue Sky Press at Scholastic with four books, and one of them was Plain City. Virginia had been the first writer to call me when I changed my employment from Harcourt to Scholastic. In fact, it was Jean Feiwel’s question about Virginia’s husband/agent, Arnold Adoff, that made me think of changing companies for the very first time since I’d started working with Virginia–many years earlier. Jean wasn’t offering me a job, but she asked me if I would ever consider leaving Harcourt. I immediately said no. I could not leave, I told her, because I had recently signed up a second multiple-book contract, this one for nine books. I was finishing up Drylongso, with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, the first book in that contract. Leaving Virginia behind at Harcourt was out of the question. Jean, ever direct, gave me a hard look and said, “Do you really think Arnold Adoff is going to allow Virginia to stay at any publishing company where she is not happy?”

This had not occurred to me.

But Jean was right. If Virginia was unhappy at a publishing house, I was certain that Arnold would solve the problem for her. No question about it. It was inconceivable that Virginia would be made to stay anywhere she didn’t want to be. Arnold was her agent, and in that role he was tough as nails. There was no better agent in the business.

So Virginia called me one hour after I gave her the news about leaving, and she said, “Can I come, too?” And I don’t even know what to say about that. Maybe just that the atmosphere at Harcourt had become uncomfortable for both of us. She and Arnold broke that multiple-book contract at Harcourt, and she signed up a new multiple-book contract at Blue Sky to replace it. And the first book in that contract was Plain City.

The worst thing that happened with Plain City was that I was new at Scholastic and had hired an incompetent assistant who truly seemed to have come from Jupiter. I joked to myself that Janet Schulman at Random House must be secretly paying my assistant to undermine everything I was doing, and you probably can’t really imagine just how bad it was. My best example of the woman’s incompetence was the morning I came into the office and couldn’t find my MASTER copy of the Plain City manuscript that was going to the printer that day. Now this was 1992, and I only had one master. ALL my editorial corrections were on that one set. It did not leave my desk. I don’t even think I had a computer. If I did, I certainly didn’t edit anything on it.

“Have you seen my master of Plain City?” I asked. “I’m really confused, because I left it right here, in the middle of my desk. And now I can’t find it.”

“Oh, I have it,” the woman told me cheerfully. “I was fixing it.”

“You were what?”

“I was fixing it. Making it nicer for the printer.”

What she had done was use White Out to erase all my editorial changes. ALL OF THEM. The manuscript was clean as a whistle, without a single mark. My assistant had cleaned all the marks off it so it would be easier for the printer to read. I held the pages up to my lamp to see if I could at least see my corrections through the paper. I would have to reconstruct every single re-written sentence and all the punctuation and spelling and everything else. I’m guessing it was at least a year’s worth of work. And no, the White Out had done its business. NOTHING could be seen.

Fortunately I had a young brain, and fortunately I am a maniac. I go over and over and over and over everything I edit. I actually did reconstruct my edits on that manuscript, and I did them immediately. I do not know where the White Out version is–in some filing cabinet, probably. But if you go to Virginia Hamilton’s archive at Kent State, that is one edited manuscript you are not going to find.

Now that the cat is out of the bag, I’ll look for it one of these days. I never told Virginia, and thankfully I did not have to share that news. I did help the gal get a new job. She went to work for an agent. I am a softy and have only fired one person in my entire career, and it absolutely could not have been avoided. Plain City came out to rave reviews, and we successfully launched the Blue Sky Press. Virginia began making frog jokes, and all the pieces fell into place. It was a very good time for us, and many, many extraordinary books were made with great support and enthusiasm.

In the end, I suppose Virginia might have found humor in knowing Plain City began with a whiteout and almost ended with White Out; she loved to play with double meanings of words. But I can’t be certain she would think it was funny. That is something I will never know….

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.

 

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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.

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Captain Underpants and the Big Pitch

We are in Chicago, sitting in the cafeteria of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a modest lunch, and our sandwiches are still on paper plates on our plastic trays.

I brought Dav Pilkey to this museum because he likes Chagall, and I have been hoping he will love the stained glass windows here. He does. Last night, on the phone, he repeatedly told me to “bring a big glove” to lunch because today he is going to give me “a really big pitch.”  Now I am waiting.

The big pitch comes. I can see he is nervous, but I don’t know why. He tells me about going to grade school and being punished so often the teacher put a designated Dav Pilkey desk in the hallway.

Day after day he sat alone out there with pencils and paper, and what did he do? He drew.

He tells me he made up superheroes. His favorite, he says, was one called Captain Underpants. Superheroes, he says, all seem to dress in their underwear. He explains he wants to make a book that will feature Captain Underpants.

I laugh. It’s a great idea.  “I love it,” I say. “Let’s do it.”

He gives me a very curious look, as if I’ve just said something in Chinese.

“Really?” he asks.

“Of course. Why not?”

 

The first Captain Underpants book.

The first Captain Underpants book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

We change the subject and talk about Chagall and some of the other artists at the Institute. Then we bus our trays and go back to the galleries.

It is only much later that I come to understand that something big has happened. Not to me, because I love Dav’s sense of humor. I get it. I always have. And I’m a happy camper because now I have a funny new book to publish.

But something big has happened to Dav Pilkey. All his life, grown-ups have ridiculed his humor. They’ve punished him for it. And they’ve sweetly added things like “you’ll never get anywhere in life with those stupid drawings.”  He is certain the answer to the Captain Underpants book will be a resounding no. Instead, his editor said yes. No argument, no persuasion, no resistance at all.

So he didn’t give a big pitch, and I didn’t need a big glove. And I don’t feel smart for saying yes, because humor is subjective. Millions of people find Dav’s sense of humor really, really funny. Maybe you do, too. Or maybe you don’t. In book publishing a lot depends on making a good match–the way Barry Cunningham loved Harry Potter, and some other editors didn’t. I’m a big believer in single editorial vision, because it works for me, and obviously it worked for Barry Cunningham. I don’t believe committees can have a single vision. And in humor that’s particularly deadly since a group rarely agrees that something is funny. You love the Three Stooges, and your neighbor hates them.

I’d like to say the road to publication of The Adventures of Captain Underpants  was simple and smooth, but because it’s humor, it wasn’t. A number of people along the way wanted the book cancelled, and they were very angry and vocal about it. But Jean Feiwel backed us up and drowned them out. Barbara Marcus and Dick Robinson gave their support.  Roz Hilden, one of the most respected sales reps at that time, boldly announced it was her favorite book of the season.  And although our initial print run was only 10,000 paperbacks, Alan Boyko, in Scholastic Book Fairs, was so wildly enthusiastic about the book that his division sold something like 700,000 copies in the first season. I may be wrong about the number, but whatever it was, it was astronomical. And the last time I looked, the worldwide number of books in print was hovering somewhere around 60 million. What these books have done to promote literacy is one of the great victories of our time.

What’s my point?

This is a simple story with a happy ending. Volumes could be written about Dav Pilkey and his wonderful books, and they probably will be written–someday. I skipped past the fascinating stories behind Dogzilla and Kat Kong and Dog Breath and The Hallo-wiener, but I wouldn’t have been able to publish Dav Pilkey at all if Dogzilla, Kat Kong, and Dog Breath hadn’t been rejected elsewhere. That never stopped Dav. He is such an inspiration. I guess what I’m trying to say is that many of the most accomplished writers I’ve published–Dav Pilkey, Virginia Hamilton, the Woods, and Rodman Philbrick, for example–have had an unflagging willingness to take risks, and in many cases, they failed repeatedly before they became successful. Most people don’t know that it took Virginia ten years to get published. Rod wrote novels for twelve years before he got his first contract. In her inspiring TED talks, Dr. Brene Brown calls the collective TED speakers “the failure club.”  Why? Because before they became the genius successes that brought them to TED, they failed–and usually failed repeatedly, sometimes in very public arenas. ” Take risks,” she says. “Do your best. And if you fail, you fail having dared greatly.”  Just because you’re assigned to a desk in the hall, and your teachers say your drawings are worthless, it doesn’t mean they’re right.

During my divorce, Dav gently reminded me that if those teachers hadn’t belittled and punished him, we wouldn’t have Mr. Krupp, and George and Harold, and Captain Underpants. Sometimes very happy things come out of pain, he said.

And that’s the truth.

Cover of

Cover of Dog Breath

 

The Hallo-Wiener

The Hallo-Wiener (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Kat Kong

Kat Kong (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

Cover of

Cover of Dogzilla (digest)

Virginia Hamilton: IN THE BEGINNING: An Editorial Afternoon

It is 1987, and my father is dying of lung cancer. I have taken a leave of absence as Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt to be here with him, in the home where I grew up. He is in the final stages of a brief but highly aggressive  illness, and while he is sleeping, I spread my work out on the family dining room table.

Today I am working on the last pieces of Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, and the book is more profound and beautiful than I could have imagined. When we started this journey, we didn’t have any idea what her research would reveal, and every time I’ve had dinner with Virginia to talk about it, she’s been glowing with some new, wildly imaginative creation story she’s found. The tales are amazing, and they are from all over the world. It’s fascinating to see how people have explained their existence since the beginning of storytelling. She wants to cover tales from every corner of the planet, to keep it balanced and diverse. It is a trick for her to dig up stories from some of these places, and there are also stories that are so x-rated she can’t possibly include them. Some make her laugh. It is not an easy book to write, but it is endlessly fascinating. When she finally makes her choices of the stories she will include, I am stunned by the content.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

We both see the book as a celebration of human differences as well as all we have in common, and that’s how I am hoping people will approach it. So I am deep in thought, working on the introduction and the flap copy. Virginia and I have been lobbying hard at Harcourt to have Barry Moser’s watercolor illustration of Ra on the jacket. There is quite a bit of resistance, but Virginia and I prevail, and we joke that this will be the first “heavy metal” children’s book cover. Pages of text and illustrations are spread across the big cherry table on this September afternoon, and I’m working away with my favorite pencil.

That is when my mother comes downstairs. Upstairs, in their bedroom, my father, who has always been a big, strong man, has been reduced to 80 pounds. The cancer has spread all over his body, although nobody talks about this. We have been watching the person we love most in the entire world get eaten alive in front of us.

My mother asks me what I’m doing, and I tell her about the book. I need to preface her reaction by telling you that my mother was an intellectual genius who read as many as five newspapers a day, and she did a great deal with her life to enhance the lives of others, primarily as a political activist. She was a woman with vision and courage. But today she is furious that I am doing this book. Livid. She doesn’t want me to work on it at all. When it becomes clear that I am not going to stop working on it, she tells me it is of critical importance that my name won’t be on it–she doesn’t want anyone to know I’ve had any part in it. She is shocked and recoils from the book and the concept, and I still don’t understand why.

“This is how people cope with their difficulties,” she says to me, breaking down. “This is where they get their faith so they can continue to live. And you are making fun of them!” She goes back upstairs to tend to my father. He stopped eating days ago and lies in bed, blinded by the cancer, unable to move or speak, mostly asleep or unconscious. Later, when I take a break and look in on him, my mother is gently holding his hand and reading from the Bible. Does he hear her? Can he feel her hand?

That night I call Virginia and explain to her that we need to change the introduction. And I need to change the flap copy. We need to change the entire approach to the book–the shape of the copy that pulls it together. Because my mother is right. To the people who believe these stories, it is the Truth. We must be extremely careful and respectful. And we must say this. We were never making light of any of the beliefs in the book, but we did not make the point my mother made. Virginia and I talk about it, and we agree, and as a consequence she changes the introduction so this point is made–and made forcefully enough that you can’t miss it.  (I will say, over and over, that one of the great qualities Virginia had as a writer was her willingness to listen, to consider, and to handle suggestions with sheer genius. She enjoyed being challenged and questioned, although she would never agree to make even a slight change if she did not wholeheartedly agree with it.)

At ALA Midwinter, one of the members of the BBYA committee contests the Mayan creation story, saying it can’t be accurate because the Mayans did not have enough wood to put it into their story. This is the kind of thing that is a real challenge, because I have all the research at home from Virginia, and I have all the visual research from Barry Moser. I call each of them and go over the research again, just to be sure. There it is, faxed to me at the hotel. And the nutty thing is this: Virginia didn’t make up this Mayan creation story. The Mayans did. Virginia didn’t put the creation of Wood Man into the story–she just collected it and retold it. But I am a guest, and my role is to listen to the committee and keep my lips zipped. They are kind enough to actually discuss the book a second time, but I leave the room with the clear sense it will be voted down because of this question about the Mayans. I walk back up to my hotel room and ask myself why I am wasting my time with this ridiculous career. I am exhausted, and my shoulders are stooped, and more than anything, I want to give up making books and go home. My beloved dad is dead, and I’m depressed anyway, and after I put the key in my door, there is a phone message that In the Beginning has apparently been chosen as a Newbery Honor Book. After the BBYA discussions, I don’t believe it.

The next morning at the announcements, I find out it is really true. If anything, I’ve been worried the book might be banned. Putting the Judeo-Christian creation story in a collection along with twenty-four other creation tales could be the end of my career, and that has worried me. So the good news is particularly sweet. It was a concept I asked Virginia to tackle, and I run to a phone bank. The committee has already called Virginia, and I call her, too. She’s pleased!  After I congratulate her, I call my mother. As soon as she answers, I burst into tears. “I want to tell Dad,” I sob into the phone. My mother is sweet. “I’m happy for both of us,” she says. She has forgotten the project and her objection to it. Sadly I will soon get a call that she has cancer, too–brain cancer. They will die a little more than a year apart.

And the book? I don’t have to worry that it will be banned. And despite my mother’s protests that day, my name did end up in the book–because it is dedicated to me. And tonight, as I write this so many years later, after both of my parents have been gone for decades, and Virginia has crossed over, too, I smile with the thought that a book with so many gods in it probably had a pretty safe place in the universe all along.

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