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Thoughts on Making “The List”

The Operator will debut at number three on the New York Times bestseller list (combined hardcover and ebook nonfiction; it’s no. 4 on the hardcover list) of May 14. Having a book I wrote, but have no cover credit for, make such an impressive showing obviously produces mixed feelings. Mostly I’m thrilled for the success — I’ve always wanted to write a bestseller — but there is a tinge of, not regret, but wistfulness I guess … If only.
But here’s the reality: It’s Robert O‘Neill’s remarkable life, and his impressions of that life, that made this a book that everyone would notice, and want to read. I was paid a fair sum to do the writing, and Rob couldn’t have been a better subject. I didn’t know this when I signed on, but he was smart, funny as hell, honest and unafraid to put himself out there. He also has an incredible memory. Not only that: he’d taken detailed notes on what he’d gone through, beginning with his mind-blowing stint at BUD/S, the infamous SEAL tryouts.
It was nonstop fascinating to work on this book, and really absorbing to try to inhabit Rob’s world and write in his voice.
The four-month Orwellian ordeal of getting the book vetted by the Department of Defense was no picnic, but other than that, the project was a joy for me, and I only continually gained respect for all involved, primarily Rob, his (and my) agent Howard Yoon of RossYoon agency, and Scribners editor Rick Horgan, who is something of a genius in his own right.
Finally, I’m just thrilled that so many people are, and will be reading it.

 

The Operator is now in operation!

My recent ghostwriting project, The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed bin Laden and My Years As a SEAL Team Warrior, published today, April 25, and as of noon it was #4 on Amazon bestsellers list. Robert O’Neill is a smart, articulate guy with a one-of-a-kind story to tell. You can read the first chapter here, just click on “Look Inside”.  Check it out.

 

My Top Secret Mission

I haven’t been able to talk about this for the past year, but I’m very excited to say that the ghostwriting project I took on last January is finally coming to fruition. The Operator, the very personal story of Robert J. O’Neill’s 400-plus Navy SEAL combat missions, will be released by Scribner April 25. Rob was the SEAL Team shooter who put two bullets in Bin Laden’s forehead. He was also present on missions to rescue Capt. Phillips from the Somali pirates and Marcus Luttrell, of “Lone Survivor” fame. How he became THAT GUY is an amazing, almost unbelievable story, and Rob was able to relate it to me with such detail, insight and humor that the book is far more than a series of tense firefights — though there’s that too. It reveals a world of warriors most of us could have never imagined. Honestly, if I hadn’t written it, I’d read it in a fever.

Naked in the Arena

Christmas 1959When you write an extremely personal book you kind of assume the fetal position when it comes out. It feels like that dream when you walk Ito a huge lecture hall and suddenly realize you are naked. So I can’t begin to describe the overwhelming relief and gratitude I felt when I scrolled through the Washington Post this afternoon and saw this incredible review from Susan Cheever.

 

 

 

 

 

My grandfather, my first bicycle and me.

The Ideal Reader

Writers are performers without an audience. Their performance is consumed by people unknown to them in privacy, leaving a writer to imagine what that might look like. Well I don’t have to imagine anymore, because I saw this on Instagram of a young reader halfway through my book Old Souls:

Rainy days are my favorite 🌦📚 #pnw #oregon #hulahoop #oldsouls #tomshroder

A video posted by Jasmine (@hoopable) on

Library Journal Reviews The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

Journalist Shroder (Acid Test) proves poring over one’s lineage brings to life parallels. His maternal grandfather, MacKinlay “Mack” Kantor, is the Pulitzer Prize–­winning author of Andersonville and numerous other books. Shroder explores the lives of his great-grandfather John Kantor, a villainous swindler and author; Mack, who at times shows his own charming charlatan side; and his novelist mother. He details his family’s history as his grandfather traveled, researched, and imbibed through the lows and highs of being a best-selling author. He outlines Mack’s participation in the infamous Sarasota Liar’s Club with John D. MacDonald, friendship with Ernest Hemingway, and Hollywood experiences with Gregory Peck and James Cagney, among others. The appeal of this memoir is Shroder’s personal appreciation of writers today who have endured many of the same struggles experienced by his family of authors, including the superhuman skill of focusing on daily writing amid a barrage of distractions. VERDICT Shroder’s intricate family story centers on what it takes to be a successful published author. Sprinkled with an abundance of helpful advice, it will be appreciated by aspiring writers.—Joyce Sparrow, Kenneth City, FL

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That Moment When the Hardcover of Your Book Arrives

hardcover

 

THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER

WHO EVER LIVED

A True Story of My Family

By Tom Shroder

“The urge to investigate one’s origins is on powerful display in Shroder’s exploration of his famous grandfather, Pulitzer Prize–winning author MacKinlay “Mack” Kantor…. Shroder draws on family letters, photos, and stories; his own memory; and Mack’s papers at the Library of Congress, in the process realizing how little he really knew his complicated grandfather…. The book is more than a biographical excavation; it’s a journey of understanding. Shroder’s visceral reactions and moving discoveries as he comes to terms with his grandfather’s life make for a trip well worth taking.” –Publisher’s Weekly

“A grandson of writer MacKinlay Kantor (1904-1977) unravels the tangles of his grandfather’s life and finds many of those same threads (the good, the bad, the ugly) in his own life…. A compelling account, suffused with both sympathy and sharpness, of a writer who’s mostly forgotten and of a grandson who’s grateful.” Kirkus Reviews

Tom Shroder has accomplished something extraordinary. With equal measures sympathy and dispassion, he has investigated the life of his grandfather and used it as an unforgettable lesson in fickle fame and the contradictions of modern life.” —David Maraniss, Pulitzer-winning journalist and author of Once in a Great City, Barack Obama, and Clemente

 

“Tom Shroder’s account of his twisted-genius grandfather MacKinlay Kantor reminds us of the perils of fame, ego, self-love, and all-id living. The old man may not have been the Most Famous, but in the ‘50s, particularly after the great Andersonville, he was a writer god. As Shroder tells us in vivid detail, he was one of those beautiful monsters, charismatic from afar, beastly from up close, like Hemingway or John Ford. He was hardest of all on his family and his lack of grace left him to die alone; Shroder’s tale should give pause to everybody who thinks he’s better than he is—that is, everybody.” —Stephen Hunter, New York Times bestselling author of the Bob Lee Swagger series

 

In THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER WHO EVER LIVED (Blue Rider Press; October 4, 2016; $28.00), noted author and journalist Tom Shroder unveils the unexpected life of his grandfather MacKinlay Kantor, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the seminal Civil War novel, Andersonville. As genealogy captures our collective interest—it is the second most popular American hobby after gardening, and the second most visited category of websites after pornography—Shroder launches an investigation into his own lineage that explores the rise and fall of literary celebrity, and the fleeting, ephemeral nature of fame.

Shroder’s career as an investigative journalist, writer of human interest stories, and editor of the Washington Post Magazine—which has taken him from interviewing children who believe they’ve had past lives in Old Souls, to examining the life of a former Marine being treated for PTSD through the use of psychedelic drugs in Acid Test—never prepared him for his most fascinating story: that of his larger-than-life grandfather, MacKinlay Kantor. What secrets, what forgotten calamities and unremembered truths, could be pried from more than 158 boxes filled with 50,000 items at the Library of Congress? What, ultimately, would Shroder learn about his family and himself?

Fame aside, Kantor suffered from alcoholism, an outsized ego, and an episodically overbearing, abusive and publically embarrassing personality where his family was concerned. He blew through several small fortunes in his lifetime, dying nearly destitute and alone. Shroder revisits the past, revealing Kantor’s upbringing, early struggles, and career trajectory—and writes not just the life story of one man but a meditation on fame, family secrets and legacies, and what is remembered after we are gone.

A special 60th anniversary edition of ANDERSONVILLE (Plume; On-sale 9/9/16; 9780147515377; $26) will be released this fall from Plume Books, timed to this year’s 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s end.

 

About the Author:

Tom Shroder is an award-winning journalist, editor and author of Old Souls and Acid Test, a transformative look at the therapeutic powers of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of PTSD. As editor of the Washington Post Magazine, he conceived and edited two Pulitzer Prize-winning feature stories. His most recent editing project, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte, was a New York Times bestseller.

 

Contact: Suzanne Williams, Shreve Williams Public Relations

908.375.8159 / [email protected]

Mary Pomponio, Blue Rider Press

212.366.2218 / [email protected]

 

WRITING FAQ

question-markI activated my Goodreads author account and the Goodreads bot sent me some questions to answer. Hey I put in the time, so I might as well post them here:

Q: HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH WRITER’S BLOCK?
A: In my first newspaper job, the news editor had a slogan printed in huge WWIII headline type and taped it above his desk. It was exactly three words long, and it has stayed in my mind ever since as the single best antidote to writer’s block. It said: “DON’T WRITE, TYPE.”
So whenever I get stuck, I remind myself that nothing matters but putting words on the screen, one followed by another. You can always come back to improve it — that’s the fun part — but you need SOMETHING to work on. And sometimes you surprise yourself, and just by typing, you come up with something unexpectedly worthwhile.
Q: WHAT’S THE BEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
A: It’s not the writing, that’s for sure. To borrow a phrase, it’s the “having written.” There is nothing to match the feeling of accomplishment you get when you manage to express an idea or a feeling or tell a story in a way that matches the inexpressible internal sensation you were trying to express to begin with.
Q: WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO ASPIRING WRITERS?
Never think that writing well is about the words and sentences. It’s about the ideas, information, sensations and insights behind the words.  You can have brilliant ideas and screw it up by failing to find the words to express them, but you can always keep working on it until the words get out of your way and the ideas come through. But if you don’t have anything interesting or important to say in the first place, no amount of beautiful words or clever turns of phrase will ever make what you write worth reading.
QUESTION: HOW DO YOU GET INSPIRED TO WRITE?
I clean out the closet. Not always literally. But to get ready to accomplish the almost impossibly hard work of writing, I start out accomplishing the much smaller, easier tasks of every day life — whether balancing the checkbook, answering emails or organizing my desk. Once I get that done, I’m feeling ready for the tough stuff. If I have something written already, I go through from the top, revising, adding, deleting, and by the time I get to the end of that, I’m warmed up and ready to push forward into the jungle.
QUESTION: WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA FOR THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER WHO EVER LIVED?
 
For so many people, maybe even most—and it’s certainly true of me and my siblings—even extreme dramas in family history beyond one generation removed become a kind of white noise, tuned out until it’s too late. I can’t remember the exact moment it occurred to me, but at some point a question popped into my head about my grandfather and I realized nobody alive could answer it.

Even as the details of my grandfather’s life evaporated from the reservoir of human memory, my questions about him grew more numerous and insistent. I couldn’t explain why it had never occurred to me that my desire to become a writer, or the fact that I had, to some extent, succeeded in that rather ludicrous ambition, might have something to do with my heritage, and specifically my grandfather. If anyone ever asked me why I wanted to write, I remembered a moment in an eighth-grade English class poetry section when the teacher chose my poem to read, and my chattering, snoozing classmates actually sat up at their desks, stopped talking, and listened. But suddenly, a half century tardy, I remembered that, around the time I was learning to read, I would corral a tiny portable typewriter—a functional toy (and who gave their five-year-olds typewriters as toys?)—roll in a sheet of crisp white paper, and attempt, letter by letter, to copy the text from The Cat in the Hat, mesmerized by the idea that by assembling words together, one typed letter at a time, one could actually create that magical thing called a book.

When I did the math in my head, I realized that this unusual childhood literary fetish would have coincided perfectly with the moment of my grandfather’s maximum fame. Could I really believe it was unrelated? Had I been predisposed by nurture or nature, or simply by imitation, to tie my identity to the written word? Could so complex a skill as writing possibly be passed down in Grandpa’s DNA? Could it be mere coincidence that my most fervent dreams of accomplishment were precisely those things my grandfather in fact accomplished?

I had only too late considered the possibility that I might have been formed or even influenced by the abilities, proclivities, or eccentricities of my near and distant forbears after the firsthand sources of knowledge about them had forever vanished.

Who arrives at maturity without experiencing that regret? Why, I wondered, do most of us have these dual and conflicting tendencies, resisting our genealogical past as if it were an existential threat, yet ultimately pining to connect with it, even as it vanishes before our eyes?

Suddenly, questions about the past, your past, and your family’s past begin to flood in, questions that could have been so easily, or at least profitably, answered during the lifetimes of your parents or their parents, but have become literally unanswerable, lost forever behind the impenetrable veil of death.

Tracing one’s lineage, a persistent psychological impulse through the ages, has also become a cultural mainstay. A 2013 Time magazine story called genealogy the second most popular American hobby after gardening, and the second most visited category of websites after pornography. Popular reality TV shows are filled with genealogical sleuths digging through crumbling registers and handwritten census documents. The portraits they manage to draw with great effort, even when they make lucky finds, are mere outlines providing in the end little more than ancestral stick figures.

I realized I had an advantage, a big advantage—if not unique, at least exceedingly rare: in the Library of Congress of the United States, which happened to stand less than twenty-five miles from my home, was a room stacked with 158 boxes filled with 50,000 items; countless pages of indexed correspondence, contracts, manuscripts, photographs, journals, tax returns, paraphernalia, and even an unpublished autobiographical novel—all of it by or about my grandfather. This vast cache—collected because a committee at the Library in the 1950s determined that my grandfather represented a “typical American writer”—was supplemented by the forty-some books that he had published, including at least two autobiographies, as well as a memoir about him written by my uncle—almost none of which I had ever read.

What secrets, what forgotten calamities and unremembered triumphs, what surprising revelations and shocking truths could be pried from those cardboard file folders, all that slowly disintegrating cellulose and black ribbon ink? Was it possible, forty years after his death, that I could get to know my grandfather, not as a teenager might remember a sometimes garrulous old man, but as a contemporary could come to know a living, breathing intimate? More than an intimate—someone whose blood ran in mine, whose most primal makeup mixed in quarters to make me who I am. In learning about my grandfather’s life, what would I come to discover of my own? What would I gain from studying the minute realities of the history of a man from a now distant era to whose life and mine bore such obvious parallels? What could I learn about writing from my grandfather’s mastery of words, his huge success, and his ultimate failure?

And what would that tell me about why any of us care about our ancestors? Are we blank sheets of paper, waiting to write our own stories? Or are we merely appendixes to lives already lived and largely forgotten?

Richard Thompson, RIP

Richard ThompsonA genius is someone who looks at the same thing you do, and sees something infinitely more wonderful. That was Richard Thompson. It was one of the great honors of my journalistic career to have had a chance to work with him and laugh at the truly funny things he said and the even funnier things he drew and, once about every two years, even have lunch with him. There’s no measurement that can assess how much we have lost with his death. Read this obituary by Michael Cavna, who knew and loved Richard so well.

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