broadsideblog

From Journo to Author: Best-Seller Ulrich Boser and Kelsey Timmerman

In art, business, Media on October 22, 2009 at 9:17 am
Cover of "The Gardner Heist: The True Sto...

Cover via Amazon

In this final installment of J-Day focused on bookwriting, here’s a Q and A with two recent non-fiction authors.

Ulrich Boser is a good friend of mine in D.C. His book, published in early 2009, went into its fourth printing within weeks, an account of the largest art theft in history and one that remains unsolved. (I was one of his “first readers”, so got to see the manuscript before his editor did. I couldn’t put it down.) Kelsey took the brave, bold and unusual step of taking out a second mortgage to travel the world reporting his book “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing background

UB: I’ve worked as a writer, reporter, and researcher for the past ten years. I’ve been lucky, and my work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Slate, and Smithsonian, among others. In general, I cover social policy topics. I’m particularly interested in education and criminal justice issues.

KT: I’m a new dad, a recovering SCUBA instructor, and a traveler-turned-writer. At first I traveled for traveling’s sake — to experience the freedom of the open road and all that jazz. I was a bum. It was pure. It was beautiful. And then, the writing bug bit me and now travel plays second fiddle to writing. I can no longer bum. If I’m not working on a story, or what could become a story, I’ve got to move on to one or I’ll go nuts. My writing career started in Key West, which seems kind of romantic, but it really wasn’t.  I wrote a column about my travels for the local weekly paper.  I got paid $0 per column and lived in an attic accessed by a fold-down ladder.  I tried to place the column in other newspapers with a little success.  Let me define little — I contacted every newspaper in the country with a circulation greater than 15,000 and got in to about three.

Eventually I started to place some freelance pieces with some decent-sized papers including the Christian Science Monitor, which was my first weighty clip.  On the strength of those clips, I got more and started to record essays for the World Vision Report which airs on NPR. “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes“, my first book, was published last year.  The book dropped about the same time as my first child.  For those authors who say releasing a book to the world is like having a child…uh, no.  My book has never projectile pooped all over me. It’s been a crazy year.

Where did you get the idea for this book?

UB: In late 2004, I wrote a story for U.S. News & World Report about a man called Harold Smith. He was one of the world’s most successful art detectives. He had recovered lost Renoirs; he had exposed forged Da Vincis. And Smith had worked the Gardner case for years. But within weeks of our meeting, Smith died of skin cancer, and after his death, I wanted to pick up where he left off on the case and tell his story of working the case. I landed a book contract from the Smithsonian Books imprint of HarperCollins, and the resulting book, The Gardner Heist, was released earlier this year. The book did much better than I ever expected. It got fantastic reviews and became a national bestseller. I felt very fortunate.

KT: Herve Villechaize, or more specifically Herve Villechaize’s face, gave me the idea.His devilish mug, which he lent to the character Tattoo on the 70s hit Fantasy Island, was emblazoned on my favorite T-shirt.  “COME WITH ME TO MY,” hung over his head and “TROPICAL PARADISE,” sat just beneath his dimpled chin. I was curious where Tattoo’s tropical paradise was. I looked at the tag; it read Made in Honduras. What if I went to the countries where my clothes were made and met the people who made them? Where was I wearing? As someone who has never needed much of an excuse to travel anywhere, this sounded like fun. Off I went.

When did you really think it might become a book — how did you develop it?

UB: I’m not sure that I can recall when exactly that I knew that it might become a book. But I always knew it was a good story, one that seemed worthy of a book-length treatment. There were great characters like Smith. There were incredible stories. And there was a serious social problem that I thought needed to be highlighted. According to experts, the stolen art trade is one of the world’s largest black markets, a $4 to $6 billion illegal business, and it’s increasingly being used to fund other illegal activities like drug running and terrorism. Plus, the paintings lost from the Gardner museum are true masterpiece — they need to be returned. There was also an excellent film made about Smith and his effort to return the art that served as an inspiration of sorts. It was called Stolen and was made by Rebecca Dreyfus.

KT: Since my initial inspiration courtesy of Tattoo, I thought it would make a great book. I did a little research and headed to Honduras. In Honduras, I did a lot of things that had nothing to do with my Tattoo T-shirt. I explored the jungle on the Mosquito Coast with my brother, who later contracted malaria (he’s okay). For a very brief moment I shared a dugout canoe with a deadly fer-de-lance. (The snake stayed in the canoe; I jumped into the river.)  On my very last day in Honduras I tracked down the factory that made my shirt and came face-to-face with a worker named Amilcar. I had been telling myself that this was the reason I was in Honduras, but once I had the opportunity to ask Amilcar about his life, I couldn’t do it. Part of me wanted to know what his life was like, but the other part was quite content not knowing, maybe even a little scared about what I would learn.

I left Honduras knowing very little about my Tattoo T-shirt or the workers who made it, and abandoned the idea of meeting the people who made the rest of my clothes. When I got home I was haunted by the fact that I wasn’t able to ask Amilcar the questions I wanted to.  I became totally obsessed with where my clothes came from, pulled out my favorite items, and booked a ticket to Bangladesh where my Jingle These Christmas boxers were made.

How and where did you find your agent?

UB: My agent is Gillian Mackenzie. I connected with her through a mutual friend Josh Landis. He and I had known each other through a journalism fellowship program, and he put me in touch with Gillian, who has been simply fantastic, an agent without peer.

KT: I met my agent, Caren Johnson, at a writers’ conference in my hometown, Muncie, Indiana.  Yep, it’s not exactly the hotbed of the literary world, but it worked out. Caren was hosting a table at which agent-hungry authors could pick her brain for 15 minutes.  I bellied up to the table and, when I was able to, worked in my question: “I have another agent interested in my book.  How does that process work? What questions should I ask?” I wasn’t lying.  I really did have another agent interested.  Before I left for my three-month tour to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China, an agent contacted me after stumbling on my blog.  This was amazing because I had a about three people that followed the blog, and I’m pretty sure two of them were my mom. Anyhow, Caren never did answer my questions.  Instead she asked me what my book was about.  Then I had two agents interested!  A few weeks later I signed with Caren because she had the most enthusiasm for the project.

Tell us about writing and refining, then selling the proposal

UB: In general, I found the experience of writing a book to be far more work than I expected. And that began with the book proposal. I worked on it for weeks. I went through dozens of different drafts and approaches. Gillian was key — she kept pushing me to make the proposal more narrative, more focused on story and character, and that really helped. In the end, the proposal was some 70 or so pages and that included an outline of the book as well as two sample chapters.

KT: I read enough of the How-To Write a Book Proposal books to be utterly confused.  Eventually I chucked them and just did it. Caren helped a ton, especially with the market mumbo-jumbo.  She also made suggestions on my sample chapter and gave me what I believe to be the best bit of advice I’ve received about a proposal: there’s a difference between writing a proposal and writing a book.I took all of my best parts and jammed them into the sample chapter.  When I eventually wrote the book, those bits were divied up throughout the book. After a few rounds of suggestions from Caren and edits from my high school English teacher, the submission process began. Two months later I had a contract with John Wiley & Sons.

What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing your book?

UB: The research of the Gardner case. No question. The advance gave me an opportunity to really dive into the caper, and I ran down countless leads, I spoke to countless people. I hired private investigators to help me shadow suspects. I visited maximum-security prisons to talk with jailed mobsters. This is an unsolved case, and you can blame the missing art, you can blame the $5 million reward, but this case has a deep and seductive power. You hear about the heist and the paintings and then, suddenly, without any warning, you’re trying to crack the museum riddle. One source called the Gardner case, “the crack cocaine of theft.”

KT: Living it. The narrative was what I did, where I went, whom I met, and what I saw.  When life is supposed to be a narrative thread, there is a lot of pressure to make it interesting.  But you can’t really force such things. You just hope that each day’s activities produced scrawled notes that can be made sense of and fit together with the rest of your notes at a later date. When you’re living a narrative thread, it’s really tough to see it.  It took a lot of long hours in my office digging through my notes and trimming away all of the less significant threads.   There were a few false starts, here and there, but overall the writing process went great, which was a good thing because my editor needed my completed manuscript in four months from the time I signed.

How did you support yourself financially during the process? What other work did you do to bring in income — was it tough to juggle it all?

UB: I’m a freelance writer and editor, and while I worked on the book, I continued to write stories for other magazines and newspapers. I wrote a piece about man-made diamonds for Smithsonian magazine, for instance. I also wrote articles for think tanks and served as the research director for an education policy project that graded the states on their systems of education. While it was difficult sometimes to juggle all the various projects, I enjoy having a diverse portfolio of work. It’s also important to me that I’m working on something that’s going to make a real difference, whether it’s investigating wrong-doing or putting a human face on a social problem. Having a diverse portfolio allows me to do that.

KT: There’s a fine line between “published author” and “crazy.” My wife and I got engaged in November of 2007, bought a house in March of 2008, and in April I went to Bangladesh because that’s where my underwear were made.  Yikes! That sounds really irresponsible.  It would’ve been less so if I had a book deal and half an advance to cover expenses, but I didn’t. However, I did have a cool little thing called a second mortgage.  Basically, you buy a home and the bank gives you money!  What’s not to love about that? I don’t think they exist anymore. I had a little money saved up and a few assignments from the World Vision Report. Our second mortgage was supposed to be a cushion, but then our home’s AC/furnace went belly up. Second mortgage to the rescue!

What’s the best advice you would offer to a would-be non-fiction author?

UB: Two thoughts. In terms of writing, I’ve also always thought that this Ernest Hemingway quote was painfully true: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” And in terms of the book process, the sooner that you learn that you are on your own, the better. I love my editor. I love my agent. They were both perfectly wonderful — they were always there for me when I needed help or advice. And I often needed it. But the process of writing a book is much different than writing a magazine article or working with a team to produce special report. It’s a very different experience. You’re far more responsible. You’re on your own much more.

KT: Go to writing conferences. Yes, they can be painful. If I have to sit through one more session on how to write a query letter, I’ll spend the workshop writing query letters to hitmen to off me so I won’t have to suffer any longer. But, if you’re like I was, and have zero connections in publishing and don’t even know anyone who has written a book, writing conferences are huge. I met an editor of the Christian Science Monitor at a conference in Dayton, Ohio. I just ‘happened’ to share an elevator with her, and I just ‘happened’ to sit beside her at lunch. She remembered a piece I had pitched her a few months back, (Remember I queried every newspaper in the nation with a circulation over 15,000). After the conference I sent her a new piece and she published it. That publication led to radio essays, which led to more opportunities, and eventually a book. And, of course, I met my agent at a conference. I wouldn’t have a book today or much of a writing income at all if it weren’t for attending writing conferences.

Anything else you’d like to add?

KT: Never stop wanting it. Some have told me that I’m fortunate to have had a book published before I turned 30. I appreciate the comment, but deep down when I hear this I’m thinking about the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written and the hundreds of rejections and no-responses I’ve received in the eight years I’ve been writing. There was some luck involved, but there was way more hard work. I’m sure some become authors in less than eight years, some in more. Regardless, there is one thing that every author (who hasn’t been kidnapped, landed a plane on a river in a major American city, or cut off a limb with a pocketknife) shares…

They didn’t sit around hoping to be published. They wanted it, so they went out and got it.

UB: Thanks for the opportunity!

I hope this series has been fun and helpful. Please email any ideas or suggestions for future J-Days!

  1. This is such a telling interview. Thanks for sharing. Ulrich Boser is refreshingly honest and funny about the life of a writer. I especially like the birthing a book vs. child anaology. I can’t imagine having a child projectile poop all over me. That is much worse, than writing a book.

  2. Thanks. Glad you liked it. Anyone who’s ever written a non-fiction book soon learns the gap between the fantasy and the reality of it. I’m about to start my second, nervous but excited.

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