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December 14, 2018

Random House’s Fall Open House 2018


On Friday, December 7th, Random House held their Fall Open House, an event that sells out instantly and that people flock to in droves with their book clubs, friends and fellow readers. Held in their New York City office and featuring a broad variety of genres, authors and titles, Random House's Open House is a longtime favorite of mine --- I have only missed one to date!

The Open House kicked off this year with a fiction panel featuring Gary Shteyngart, author of LAKE SUCCESS; Karen Thompson Walker, author of the forthcoming THE DREAMERS; and Nathan Englander, author of DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. The authors were moderated by Bill Goldstein, the founding editor of the New York Times books website and the book critic for the weekend edition of WNBC's "Today in New York." Bill's first question asked where the authors each got their first spark of inspiration for the featured titles.

Shteyngart, who writes about a narcissistic, deluded hedge fund manager in LAKE SUCCESS, explained that he wanted to write a novel about a shmuck to see how far he could be redeemed. To create a shmuck, he turned to the hedge fund industry. A few years ago, he noticed that all the friends he grew up with in Manhattan were gone, so he looked to see who was left: hedge fund people. To a laughing audience, Shteyngart explained that he got friendly with them and went undercover --- and found some very unhappy rich people. As he befriended the unhappy elite, he felt as though he became their guide to the real New York, as so much of their lives existed in their palatial apartments, the clubs, the offices and weekend homes upstate. Some of their conversations in this time period made their way into the book, and the rest delivered tons of inspiration.

Karen Thompson Walker, whose upcoming book, THE DREAMERS, focuses on a sleeping contagion, always had an interest in contagion stories and what they reveal about humanity. She was at a writer’s workshop, and remembered her college dorm and thought about what would happen if a contagion began in a dorm. She didn’t initially know what kind of contagion it would be, but she sensed that it would be something extraordinary with room for a sense of wonder. She soon had a dream where she couldn’t wake up and knew she had her story.

Nathan Englander, whose book, DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, is a political thriller set against the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, moved to the Middle East during the peace process. He knew he had to write about what he saw, but he didn’t believe the world needed his heartbreak diary of how the peace process fell apart, nor did he want to write a huge history, so he had to wait until he had an idea around it. He wanted to build a book that would allow people to reflect. DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, he explained, starts as a literary political thriller, becomes magical realism and then there’s an allegorical love story --- "I call it a turducken," he quipped.

On their writing processes, the authors shared several stories about how their books were written. Walker explained that she revises sentence by sentence, then paragraph by paragraph, and finally chapter by chapter, editing as she writes. Shteyngart writes primarily in bed when he wakes up, but for LAKE SUCCESS, he also traveled the country in a Greyhound, just like his main character. He laughed and said that when you're traveling on the road, the reality is so horrifying that you develop laser-sharp focus on the writing. Somewhere between Walker and Shteyngart is Englander, who explains that he buys every single book he can find on a topic, reads one paragraph, and then begins his writing. 

Up next was the nonfiction panel, which featured journalists Barry Meier, author of PAIN KILLER: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America's Opioid Epidemic; Ken Auletta, author of FRENEMIES: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else); and Heather Won Tesoriero, author of THE CLASS: A Life-Changing Teacher, His World-Changing Kids, and the Most Inventive Classroom in America. Because the authors are all journalists, they began by describing their lives in journalism, and how they knew they had found their books.

Meier explained that he tumbled into journalism accidentally, and soon ended up at the New York Times where he won a Pulitzer for his report on a secret Ukrainian dossier that revealed secret payments to Paul Manafort. In 2001, his boss came to him with a tip about a new street drug --- Oxycontin. Meier chased the story and ended up in Pennington Gap, Virginia, where he discovered nearly an entire town addicted to the painkiller. He investigated and found that a major pharmaceutical group was misleading people, and became interested in pain treatment, drug abuse and the Sackler family. He knew he had to tell the story of the health epidemic and published PAIN KILLER in 2003.

Tesoriero actually began as a teacher, but always wanted to be a journalist. She ended up at both Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal before producing "CBS Evening News," where she did a piece on a student who won a Google science fair by developing a quick test for Ebola. The shoot reminded her why she was not suited to education, but it also revealed to her an incredible classroom chock full of awards. She learned that the teacher had an amazing backstory and that many of the students were off-the-charts extraordinary. She knew she had her book when she decided to come to the class every day for a year.

Auletta freelanced at several publications before landing at The New Yorker, where he likens his reporting to "visiting other planets." He had never been to Planet Advertising, but was intrigued by the way it affected several other industries and knew he was on to something. In his book, he profiles the ad world's most important players --- some of them business partners, some adversaries, many "frenemies" --- and investigates the ways that the world of advertising is changing and developing today.

I am more of a fiction reader myself, but I found the nonfiction panel fascinating. So much of what the authors learned in their writing --- from the spread of the opioid epidemic to the pressure on high schoolers to attend the "right" college --- is currently playing out on my newsfeed, and it was eye-opening to hear about it from the journalists tasked on the front lines with researching and writing these pieces.

Following the nonfiction panel, bestselling author Jodi Picoult took the stage to discuss both her new novel, A SPARK OF LIGHT, and her burgeoning career as a librettist --- someone who writes a musical. Picoult's book is about the last surviving abortion clinic in Mississippi, and what happens when a man with a gun enters it, killing some and taking others hostage. She explained that the story was very personal for her, as she has always considered herself pro-choice, but could not terminate her own pregnancy when her doctors were recommending it. She realized the debate around abortion is not just about being pro-choice or pro-life, and is more about the way you feel at the moment of pregnancy. In her research for the book, she discovered that 75% of women who terminate a pregnancy say that it is because they cannot afford it. She then talked to 151 women who had had abortions and found that only one regretted her choice, but that all of them thought about it every day. With so many women affected by abortions, she wondered why she was not seeing their stories in books and the media --- and then she knew she had to write A SPARK OF LIGHT.

Moving on to discuss her musical, which is based on BETWEEN THE LINES, a young adult book she wrote with her daughter, Picoult explained that she was a huge musical theater fan before beginning her work with the musical adaptation. What she did not know is that the person who structures the script also structures the entire musical --- a task she quickly undertook. We were then treated to a surprise performance of the song "Something to Hold On To," which left much of the audience in tears.

Following a lunch break, we returned for panels on bestselling author Louis L'Amour; self-care enthusiasts Mya Spalter, Emma Loewe and Lindsay Kellner; and graphic novelists Mira Jacob and Liana Finck. During the session on Louis L'Amour, we heard from his son, Beau L'Amour, who shared wonderful stories about growing up with his famous writer father, and how he is keeping the legacy alive. We then learned about practicing self-care in a chaotic world, and then heard from Jacob and Finck about translating the modern world into art to share their stories and thoughts.

To close out the afternoon, there was a panel on historical fiction, featuring Amy Bloom, author of WHITE HOUSES; Susan Elia MacNeal, author of THE PRISONER IN THE CASTLE; and Elizabeth Letts, whose novel, FINDING DOROTHY, is forthcoming. When asked how she began her book, Bloom explained that she had tons of information on the Roosevelt family from writing her previous book. On Eleanor, all of the biographies said that the president broke her heart and then she turned to "good works" for 40 years. With a raised brow, Bloom asked us to consider what that might mean, and what could be left out. In her research, she discovered letters between Eleanor and her best friend with clear romantic undertones. The woman, Lorena, lived in the White House next door to Eleanor's bedroom for 12 years, and yet she has been clipped out of nearly every photo from the time period --- and Bloom thinks we can imagine why.

Letts opened with a story about watching The Wizard of Oz at the age of four. She vividly remembered seeing it in color on television for the first time, but did not linger on the idea of the book for very long. Later, as a mother, she was reading the book to her son when she began to wonder about the author and, given the book's feminist undertones, if the author might have been a woman. As we know, L. Frank Baum was a man, but Letts learned that he was married to the daughter of a progressive activist for women. She then found a picture of Baum's wife on set and knew she had found her story.

As historical fiction is a terrific choice for book clubs, each woman then explained why her book is a good choice for a book club. Letts stated that her book tells the story behind THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ and why it is not what we think it is. She tells it from the point of view of Maud, Baum's wife, and explores their life together, touching upon not only their great love story, but also the roles of women at the time.

Bloom said that she only writes about love, sex, death and family. Combining all of those, WHITE HOUSES feels like it chose her to write it, and she feels that book clubs will enjoy the hidden history of the time period, which was already rife with stories. She also thinks that readers will enjoy a love story without a happy ending, as it highlights the ways people keep and share their secrets.

MacNeal, who writes about former spy Maggie Hope in A PRISONER IN THE CASTLE, explained that she was visiting friends in London when she saw an ad for the Churchill Museum. Her friend said, "Despite what you Americans think, World War II did not start with Pearl Harbor." Seeing the war from a British point of view --- and a British woman's point of view --- highlights some events that we usually ignore in our history books and makes for an interesting conversation about storytelling and perspective.

With the day over, we retreated to a different floor for wine, snacks and, of course, book signings! As always, the authors were endlessly gracious and kind, and it was certainly a day to remember. I particularly enjoyed the nonfiction and historical fiction panels, and came away with tons of books to add to my TBR list. Keep your eyes peeled for the announcement of the spring event, which will focus on health and wellness.