How I Sold And Wrote My Memoir


Forever Books
Image via Wikipedia


I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.

I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.

You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.

What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.

I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.

Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.

For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.

Here’s how my new book took shape:

September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall.  I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.

I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.

March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.

June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.

Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.

July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!

She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.

September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25  of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.

And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)

We have a deal. Cool!

December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.

February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.

I can’t rush this.

January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.

Not what I need right now!

March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences.  I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.

I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.

My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.

May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.

July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.

August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.

September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!

(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)

Madoff, Juju And The Marshals — The World's Weirdest Auction

Bernie Madoff's personal New York Mets jacket is displayed at a November 13 press review of a US Marshals auction (Mario Tama/Getty)

It was one of the weirdest scenes in midtown Manhattan yesterday. The lobby of the Sheraton Towers on Seventh Avenue, a few blocks south of Carnegie Hall, was clogged as usual with tourists lugging suitcases and shopping bags. It was a cold, rainy day.

But what was up with all the burly guys standing around and talking into their cuffs, clear curly earpieces tucked behind their ears? They were with the U.S. Marshals Office, under whose auspices the Madoff auction — the first to offer up some of the contents of their three homes — was held. It was an auction, in many ways, like no other: 1,936 online bidders from 20 countries, from Syria to Singapore, Australia to Denmark and a hotel ballroom filled with 500 people of all ages and races: professional dealers, wealthy collectors duking it out and curious locals hoping to snag a bit of affordable history.

Most auctions charge a seller’s and a buyer’s premium, each of 15 percent; it’s how they make their money. Buyers here were spared that, and some said they were comforted to know the money they were spending would repay Madoff’s victims. There was no huge moment when the Madoff material went on the block, just an announcement from the auctioneer, at 1:57 p.m., that this was now his stuff they were selling. All the reporters had marked their catalogues and knew that only the lots 196 to 299 and 301 to 386 were his.

The auction began at 10:00 a.m, selling before the Madoff items an endless parade of narco-bling seized from dozens of other miscreants across the country, like enormous diamond-crusted crosses and Jesuses and really ugly pendants and rings. Although it was worth being there when an 18-carat diamond sold loose for a cool $425,000 — far more than anything belonging to Ruth and Bernie.

Two auctioneers with thick Texas twangs poured out their spiels at lightning speed, moving the merch at 50 lots per hour. There was a serious disconnect between staring up at a screen at a vintage watch going for $65,000 and hearing the runners — male assistants spread throughout the room making sure no bid went un-noticed — bellowing and hooting while they pointed to a bidder. It felt like they were selling heifers, not Cartiers and Rolexes and Hermes gold chains.

The preview was Friday so if you hadn’t showed up then to try things on or check them through your jeweler’s loupe, too late. All there was by Saturday was an image on a screen and mere seconds to jump in and signal your intent. Sometimes a bid started at $40,000 and jumped to $60,000 within seconds. Snooze, you lose!

So, what was hot? His blue satin Mets jacket, of course — sold to an on-line bidder for $14,500. The underbidder, at $14,00 sat right behind me, Al Tapper, a writer who lives a few blocks away from the hotel, an avid collector of one-of-a-kind material. He figured he was bidding against his usual opponent and dropped out without remorse. I spoke to a businessman from San Diego, Chuck Spielman, who said if he was a successful bidder, (he was, at $16,000), on one of Bernie’s watches that he would wear it — but sounded a little embarrassed. “I wouldn’t tell people whose it was,” he said. Tapper said he would never have worn the jacket.

One of the auction’s ironies was that the extremely wealthy — the sort who were casually bidding in increments of $1,000, comfortably starting at $20,000 — are the very crowd who Madoff went after. Those who escaped Madoff’s imprecations were refunding those who didn’t. It’s their friends, neighbors and colleagues, several told me, who were cleaned out. For the dealers, from major sellers like Circa, which re-sells jewelry worldwide, it was just business as usual.

Unlike most fine auctions, where there are lovely objects to sigh over, this was clearly driven by Madoff’s name — beyond his and her jewelry, the household belongings were banal and unimpressive: posters, a silver tea-set, one set of 1777 English silver salt cellars. If they actually had great taste and elegant objects, which is usually the case when people are as wealthy as the Madoffs — you can always buy taste by hiring an art consultant or decorators — it sure didn’t show up in this sale. Four of his powerboats: Bull, Bull (no typo there), Little Bull and Sitting Bull, go on sale this Thursday, Nov. 17 in Fort Lauderdale, as does his 1999 Mercedes with 12,000 miles on it. (954-791-9601 is the phone number, if you’re interested.)

The Madoff stationery and pens went for $2,500 — far above their estimate of $90. Three white polo shirts with a logo designed for Madoff’s three yachts went for $1,300. A life-ring from one of his boats — $7,500.

And his class ring, 1960, from Hofstra, a Long Island commuter college, inscribed BLM — MA, went for $6,000.

I wonder how soon, and at what prices, much of this material is being re-sold. For every buyer who wants to wear one of Bernie’s watches against his own flesh, others clearly planned to profit handsomely from that legendary association. I looked at Ruth’s bags and belts, her boots and shoes and furs ($600 to $1,600 — they went cheap) and thought, no, there’s really not enough money in the world to make me want to wear your things. You slept for decades beside a monster. I don’t need that kind of juju in my home.

You can see all the auction results here and here’s my full story in today’s Toronto Star.