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That Moment When the Hardcover of Your Book Arrives

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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.

Hot Off the Design Table

Book jacket blurbs

The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived, Uncovered

When your publisher sends you an email with the early designs for your cover, that manuscript you’ve been sweating over for months or years suddenly becomes a book, something that will one day, and for years to come, look out at you from a bookshelf, or a book store, or an Amazon listing, becoming a permanent part of who you are, almost like a snapshot of a child. In some ways, it’s an even more exciting moment than when the first copies arrive in a box at your door — because by then you already know what it will look like. Seeing a cover design for the first time is a revelation. Everything after that is just confirmation.

 

 

 

A Course in Miracles

Jon Berry of the New College program at the University of Alabama is using Acid Test to teach the history of psychedelic therapy to some very engaged students. Here’s the course listing:

NEW 490 – 320 Psychedelics: From Stoned Ape to the FDA (CRN 13341) Spring 2016—Jonathan G. Berry—Tuesdays 7:00–9:50 pm—Lloyd 319 Course Description and Objectives This course will look at the history of psychedelic substances and plants beginning with theories of their earliest protohuman usage to the current FDA approved psychotherapeutic studies. As these substances continue to increase in both sanctioned and unsanctioned use, it is important that we educate ourselves about their role in the development of human language, consciousness, and culture as well as their potential to heal when used in responsible clinical settings. Special attention will be paid to the misuse of these substances during the revolution of the 1960s and their continued misuse in a variety of settings. The question of responsible clinical and religious use of a variety of psychedelic compounds and plants will also be discussed. Learning Outcomes An understanding of 1) the history of psychedelic substances and plants, 2) their possible place in human evolution and the development of human language, 3) their role in early shamanic cultures and the development of religious and spiritual systems, 4) the decline of their use with the growth of large cultural centers and mass religious movements, and 5) their resurgence in the past century in social, artistic, and spiritual movements, and finally their psychotherapeutic usages. There are no prerequisites for this course. This is a New College seminar. New College seminars are highly interactive courses that enable students to critically engage content in responsible ways. Each seminar is designed to explore interdisciplinary approaches to a particular issue, theme, or problem. All New College seminars include the following: • Student-led discussion • A research task • Meaningful and active in-class engagement with course materials • A range of learning activities • Multiple forms of evaluation and assessment • Oral and writing communication • Complex and critical thinking opportunities • Reading and writing as essential components of the class Instructor Information Jonathan G. Berry 224 McMillan 205-239-7016 (text or call) ● [email protected] Office Hours: Wednesday afternoons 4:00 to 6:00. Please contact me to confirm availability. I’m also available by appointment. Required Text for the Course Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy, and the Power to Heal.

Where Book Ideas Come From

I’m currently engaging in that ritual of publishing, filling out the “Author Questionnaire” my publisher’s marketing department seeks for my upcoming book The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived — an essentially hopeful act imagining all the vast audiences who theoretically will run on book stores and internet retail sites to purchase multiple copies, and all the media who will devote yards of type and gigabytes of content to cover it. Here I’ll share just  one of the 53 items on the questionnaire (I live to spell this word) and my response to it:

  1.  31. Please write a paragraph or two on how you came to write this book — including any interesting or newsworthy anecdotes about researching it, writing it, or getting it published.

Until two years ago, I had spent my entire life dismissing, ignoring, or denying my mother’s attempts to impress on me the significance of her father. His many books on my bookshelf went unread. The boxes and boxes of photos and letters my mother kept for decades were felt only as dead weight. When my mother died, if it hadn’t been for my sister’s stubborn insistence, they all would have been headed to the incinerator. For 17 years, I have lived within 25 miles of a repository of 50,000 items consisting of many hundreds of thousands of pages documenting every aspect of my grandfather’s life in shockingly intimate detail, and yet it never occurred to me it might be interesting to look into those 148 boxes sitting in federal storage space in the Library of Congress. As I neared the age of 60, with old age and death peeking ominously over the horizon, I began to wonder increasingly about my grandfather, and his influence on my life and career. Again and again questions formed in my mind, only to butt up against the reality that all those who could have so easily answered them were gone, and that the knowledge itself was vanishing from the face of the earth. I knew that many, if not most people face that same sad irony at some point in their lives. And then the bulb lit in my mind: I had a unique advantage, the mountain of material that would answer all my questions, and many more I never could have imagined.

Ironically, after two years of intensive research and reading in the world’s greatest library, of going through all those boxes my sister had clung to after our mother’s death, just as I was finishing the manuscript for the book, I made one final discovery that would shine a unique light on all that I had learned – in the unlit far corner of my own basement closet.

Please Sir, May I Have Some More?

My grandfather and grandmother, Mack and Irene Kantor, on their back patio, 1957

 

 

For months now I’ve been desperate to finish the first draft of my “investigative memoir,” The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived, a book taking advantage of thousands of documents concerning my grandfather’s life that have been sitting in the Library of Congress for half a century. It never occurred to me to look at any of them, until now. It’s been an amazing, perspective-altering experience — I only thought I knew my grandfather well, it turns out. And like all books, it’s been a physical, emotional and mental energy suck — this one for a stretch of 18 months. I’ve been sweating, gasping, groaning under the weight of it, each morning bellying up to my laptop to push and shove the boulder uphill, only to find it waiting for me at the bottom the morning after. Last week, I finally pushed it over the top. I wrote the last word of the first draft and sent it off to Sarah Hochman, my wonderful editor at Blue Rider Press. I felt elated for 24 hours, and then …. bored. I miss structuring my weeks around that awesome/awful challenge. Striding into battle day after day gave shape to my life, and made the moments after knocking off for the day the sweetest kind of release.

Have to find another project soonest.

Old Souls Revisited

I was looking at some old files from my research for Old Souls and was amazed and amused all over again at the resemblance between these two women. The woman on the right as a very small child began calling herself by the name of the woman on the left — a woman who died in heart surgery in the months before she was born. The two families lived in different towns and had never met. The girl’s parents said the child began asking for “her husband,” the dead woman’s husband, by name. She also said the names of the dead woman’s 7 children, in birth order. The dead woman’s grown daughters heard about this girl and were very skeptical. Their family was wealthy, and they suspected the girl’s family might be putting the child up to this in an attempt to get money. They paid a surprise visit, and said that the little girl called them by name, and then asked them if their uncle had given them “her” jewelry, as she had asked. This clinched it for the daughters: Only their family knew that before the fatal surgery, their mother had asked her brothers to distribute her valuables to her daughters. I took the photo on the right of the grown-up child (in her 20s when I took this in 1997), and later found a photo of the woman who had died in heart surgery.

Of course, there were many cases with similarly amazing fact sets in which there was no physical resemblance between the child making the statements and the deceased person who fit those statements. So make of the above amazing resemblance what you will.

 

Ghosts of August

Gene Weingarten was rooting around in the past and came up with a 400-word essay I wrote for Tropic Magazine in the “Calendar Issue” that ran the last Sunday of the year in 1986. This was a gimmick issue, where we had full page calendars accompanied by a piece of art and a short essay relating to each month. My month was August. It’s very interesting to read something you wrote that you have no (or almost no) memory of having written. That sense of not knowing what the next sentence, the next word, is going to be is essential to the reading experience — and impossible for the author to duplicate — EXCEPT if it’s something he wrote 30 years earlier and hasn’t thought of since. As in this case.
Gene’s verdict was that it was 8% overwritten, and I can accept that. But as I read it, as if it were the first time I was ever seeing this particular grouping of words, I thought, “not bad.”

AUGUST IN MIAMI
1986

By August, the heat is like an injury you keep reinjuring. You begin to worry that all that pain has got to add up to something bad. It bakes your paint job and cracks your vinyl dash. It melts the asphalt and lingers spitefully at night. Your sheets are damp.

Each day is the same, and the ocean is flat, windless, heavy — molten lead. ‘ It rains, but the rain brings no relief, and mold grows in your closets and you think it’s growing between your toes and on your teeth. Flossing doesn’t help either, and you begin to feel that whatever is growing isn’t mold but malignancy.

And then you understand a hurricane, you understand the angry force that spawns it. The sun cauterizes the ocean, a hot poker on an open wound. Power hemorrhages from the sky day upon day. The threat is born, and the threat is fed.

It is a threat you have to wake up with in the morning and sleep with at night, like the missiles in the submarines swimming up the Gulf Stream, or the words “I want a divorce” in a bad marriage. And like all threats you live with, you forget about it until the sun pounds it into your brain again, or if your head is deep in the sand, it takes the man on the 11 o’clock news.

Will you pull down the storm shutters that have been rusted in place for a decade? Will you pack your bags and roll up the carpets and leave for who knows where at 3 in the morning? Because if you believe what August has been trying to tell you, you shouldn’t have built or bought a house here in the first place. And will your insurance cover the loss or even begin to? Will the causeways be clogged? Or just washed out to sea?

The heat of August threatens to go on in unchanging monotony to the end of time. Until it starts to push the sea over the sea wall and threatens to change everything instead. Change beyond recognition or redemption. For the only point of the month is the Storm, or the threat of the Storm and to walk through the heat is nothing against walking with that dark threat on your back: a disaster with no one to blame, the kind of random, unpredictable horror we hope to eliminate with our vaccines and C-sections, V-E Day and the Neighborhood Crime Watch.

Back to Newsbreak: The watch has become a warning. It takes 12 hours to get out, and the storm is, or may be, only nine hours away. Since it is the middle of the night, you go to sleep with the radio on and wake up to blue skies and wind and another threat that was just a bad dream.

And now you’ve got a whole season, two seasons, of cool, but not too cool, breezes — six months to pretend that nothing is out there, nothing threatens. Six months to forget.