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October 25, 2018

Hachette’s Seventh Annual Book Club Brunch


On Saturday, October 20th, Hachette Book Group held their seventh annual Book Club Brunch, a day for readers and book clubs to hear about new books directly from the authors. This year's event boasted readers from all over the tri-state area...and a bit beyond as well. I attended for the fourth year in a row, and I can honestly say that this program has gotten better and better each year.

The day began with the Narrative Nonfiction panel, which featured authors Bridgett M. Davis (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO FANNIE DAVIS: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers), Brian Murphy (ADRIFT: A True Story of Tragedy on the Icy Atlantic and the One Who Lived to Tell About It), and Paige Williams (THE DINOSAUR ARTIST: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy). It was moderated by Bill Goldstein, who reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s “Weekend Today” and is also the author of THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature.

Bill kicked off the panel by asking the authors to introduce their books. Davis’ THE WORLD ACCORDING TO FANNIE DAVIS is a memoir focusing on her mother’s life as a bookie for an underground lottery system in Detroit. As Davis said, “It was a legitimate business that just happened to be illegal,” and one that she and her family were required to keep secret. Davis began writing the book after her mother had passed away, as she felt it would be remiss of her not to tell her children about their grandmother.

Murphy explained that ADRIFT is his second lone survivor story, and tells of a shipwreck that occurred in 1856 on the trip from Liverpool to New York. The ship held mainly Irish immigrants --- and only one lifeboat. After the ship hit an iceberg, the scene rapidly turned into what Murphy calls a “psycho drama,” with no effort for collective survival. Only one man survived, but that is not the entire focus of ADRIFT, as Murphy also sought to tell the story of a pivotal year for maritime revolution and its effects on politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Williams’ THE DINOSAUR ARTIST begins 4.6 billion years ago with the creation of earth. Tracking the course of the dinosaurs and their extinction, the book brings us to modern times, with a 38-year-old Floridian man, Eric Prokopi. Prokopi was obsessed with restoring ice-age fossils as a hobby, but as his passion deepened, he moved into dinosaurs. In trying to determine how to find and resurrect these creatures, he learned that fossils and other similar specimens were earning huge payouts in the fine art world, a world that was unregulated and sometimes delved into the black market. Prokopi soon ventured into the enterprise and began dealing in dinosaurs from Mongolia, where the process is extremely illegal. Suddenly, business was booming. THE DINOSAUR ARTIST tracks Prokopi’s life in dinosaur dealing all the way through his eventual arrest and imprisonment.

Bill then asked his authors about their research processes and any findings that particularly surprised them. Davis quickly jumped in as a huge fan of research, stating that she loves what other people find boring. One thing that surprised her in her research was that in 1961, African Americans could not get mortgages, so her childhood home was never even in her mother’s name. Through the numbers business, her mother had saved more than enough to buy the home, but still had to find a workaround to actually purchase it. Through this discovery, she learned that “When you tell a story, it’s not just the family lore, it’s the documents and what they tell you, too.” Davis explained that she did so much research that “When I sat down to collect my sources for the book, I had 100 sources...for a book about my own mother.”

Murphy seconded Davis’ love for research. He explained, “Using the breadcrumbs to go from one thing to another and asking for archives to open up collections they haven’t looked at in a while...what I’ve often said is that I really like the treasure hunt aspect of it.” For Murphy, the easiest part of researching was that the maritime world kept everything in writing at the time, so the records still existed. He only had the sketchiest information about who was on the lifeboat from letters from the survivor, but using names and references, he was able to tease out the lives and backtrack using other documents like birth records, baptism records and work records. One thing that Murphy wondered as he worked was if the digital world will continue to exist for writers in the same way 100 years from now.

Williams’ book began as a magazine article, though she thought from the start that it had legs for something more. It wasn’t until Prokopi brought the Asian cousin of the T. Rex to auction in NYC for over one million dollars that it began to feel like a true crime story she could turn into a book. Williams added that because of her journalistic background, THE DINOSAUR ARTIST often gets criticized for having too many facts. In a really interesting twist, Williams grew very close to Prokopi over the course of her research --- so much so that he even gave her his private laptop the night before he went to prison. She explained, “That was a remarkable act of faith on his part that I wouldn’t abuse that privilege.” She added, “You have to master every part of a story in order to tell it...if you don’t understand every part of it, you’re not going to write with authority.”

The panel capped off with Davis and Murphy discussing the broader implications of their books. Speaking on the Detroit numbers, Davis explained that lotteries used to be legal in the United States and actually acted as a precursor to bonds used to develop things like roads and bridges. They became illegal when it became apparent that African Americans were also utilizing the lottery --- in some cases to purchase their own freedom. Addressing the audience, she said, “I don’t want you to read this book because my mom was doing this illegal thing...I want people to read it for this extraordinary effort an African American woman went through to give her kids the American dream.”

On ADRIFT, Murphy added that what he wants readers to really take away from his book is the forgotten dead of the moment. In 1861, it was common to have 300 people lost at sea and it be a little blurb in the paper. This idea of risks at sea was so baked into the culture at the time that it wasn’t even part of the debate.

Up next was a spotlight on Luis Alberto Urrea, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY and, most recently, THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS. Urrea was laugh-out-loud hilarious and spoke freely for an hour about his childhood --- “I was born in Tijuana, Mexico, so why do I look Irish?” --- his grandmother, Guadalupe Murray, and his father, who learned English by memorizing the dictionary. His path to publication was not an easy one. As the first member of his family to go to college, Urrea was his father’s pride and joy. But when his father attempted to extract money from his bank in Mexico as a gift for Urrea, he ran afoul of Mexican police and ended up dead. In a particularly twisted move, the Mexican police then made Urrea buy his father’s body. The story ended up becoming his first book, THE DEVIL’S HIGHWAY, after Ursula K. Le Guin discovered a piece he wrote about it and mentored him through publishing it as a book.

Moving on to address his newest book, THE HOUSE OF BROKEN ANGELS, Urrea told the story of his brother’s passing and said, “After my brother passed away, I wanted to write a story that was a celebration of a family who was American...they just happened to be Mexican.” He then gave a lively reading from his book --- completely from memory. Clearly his father’s ability to memorize the dictionary was passed down.

I would be completely remiss in writing this blog if I did not share that Urrea also told an incredibly funny story about getting hired as a professor at Harvard. In need of a job, Urrea reached out to a friend at the esteemed university, hoping for some custodial work or something similar. His friend replied and asked for three of his published pieces, which Urrea found odd, but he submitted them anyway. As he waited for a response, he was going around telling his friends, “Man, Harvard is so snobby even their custodians need to be published!”

Following lunch, we returned to the lecture hall for the Fiction panel, which featured authors Monica Hesse (THE WAR OUTSIDE), Elise Juska (IF WE HAD KNOWN), and Daniel Mason (THE WINTER SOLDIER), and was moderated by Stephanie Koehler, Editor for BookPage, a monthly book review publication distributed to 400,000 readers through subscribing bookstores and libraries.

Koehler kicked off the panel by asking her authors about the initial spark that led to their ideas becoming books. Hesse, who writes World War II fiction for teenagers, explained that she found a picture of a beautiful prom queen. Everything about the picture was as one might expect --- except for the fact the queen was being held at an internment camp. Hesse knew about the horrors of the camps, of course, but had no idea that they were also like full communities with prom queens and football teams and everything in between. Hesse summed up her book by asking, “How do you figure out what it means to be an American or what it means to be an enemy, when your country is telling you that the enemy is you?”

Juska began working on IF WE HAD KNOWN in 2007 after seeing an interview with the Virgina Tech shooter’s creative writing teacher. She had seen disturbing things in the young man’s writing and tried to alert others, but was never quite taken seriously. As a fellow teacher, Juska was haunted by her story and knew she had to begin writing this book.

Mason’s THE WINTER SOLDIER took 14 years to write. He started the book in 2004 when he had just finished medical school. He was interested in writing a book about 1920s psychiatric history and the art produced by asylum patients, but he soon realized that any doctor he wrote about would have served in World War I. Thus began a “down the rabbit hole” frenzy of research, which sparked when he came across an anecdote about the unpreparedness of the Austria-Hungarian army, who did not even have enough doctors to serve the men on the front. Desperate, they began to hire vets, dentists and medical students to aid their soldiers. THE WINTER SOLDIER is about a young medical student who enlists and ends up in a very unexpected situation.

Koehler then asked Hesse and Juska about writing about characters younger than themselves. For Hesse, the teens in THE WAR OUTSIDE, which is set in an internment camp, were completely isolated from the outside world --- including things like news and maps. Hesse explained, “The way this isolation relates to adolescence is that when we think about war, we think about large movements like battles and invasions. The things I always find most interesting are the small moments, like who you like, who you hate. Think of the stupid things you did at 16 and think about how glad you are that those things don’t matter. But then think about having those moments during a war, when everything you do could have global repercussions. What if the normal moments you were having ended up affecting your life in ways they never should?”

In Juska’s book, a Facebook post goes viral, leading to a young shooter’s writing teacher being blamed for the tragedy. She was initially going to write from the point of view of only the teacher, but as she kept writing, the points of view expanded. Juska is not much of a social media person, but as she ventured into younger characters, she needed the social media aspect to make it feel real. Humorously, she workshopped these passages with her college student and asked them to vet her social media posts. Less humorously --- and a bit terrifying --- their biggest criticism was that Juska’s fictionalized posts were not mean enough.

Although Mason wrote about a doctor like himself, he too had to do a bit of fictionalizing when putting himself into the mindset of a doctor living 100 years ago, especially when it came to thinking of the treatments available at the time. He had to ask himself, “What is it like to fantasize about a magical elixir that could get rid of an infection in your blood?” Another group of illnesses that really took this shift was psychological illnesses. All of the men were coming down with symptoms that we now call shell-shocked, but at the time, doctors were investigating for chemical or microscopic illnesses that could cause symptoms.

For the last panel of the day, we heard from author Stephanie Land, whose debut, MAID: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, will release in January 2019. As a treat for attendees, we were all sent advance copies of the book in order to prepare for a book club discussion with Stephanie. This is one of the things that truly makes the Hachette Book Club Brunch special and is always a favorite with visiting book clubs.

MAID is Land's memoir about working as a maid as a single mother and the dark truths of what it takes to survive and thrive in today's inequitable society. As Land scrubs toilets and dusts shelves, we also see the ways in which her poverty becomes nearly inescapable and the toll it takes on her and her daughter’s emotional well-being. At the same time, Land was constantly writing about her life in a journal, and MAID actually began as an article for Vox.

It soon became clear that she had enough material for a book, and she began to revise the story of her life as a memoir. Land explained that she wanted to keep MAID focused on only a couple of years, mainly the year she and her daughter were living in a small apartment, because it was when she was working the most and it also was the most interesting due to the juxtaposition between she and her daughter’s studio apartment and working in houses with rooms as big as their home. She rewrote the book for four months, not knowing what it would end up really being about or, more importantly, how she felt about that version of herself as she dug deeper.

After Land introduced her book, the audience was invited to ask her questions, which gave the feel of a real book club, only much larger. Land was incredibly gracious, articulate and kind as she answered. And in a surprising twist, her daughter Mia was even in the audience!

Land’s talk was the perfect end to a lovely day, and it was made only better as we received generous tote bags full of books on our way out. Readers who would like to attend next year can mark their calendars now for Saturday, October 19th. I know I’m ready!