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God Save Your Mad Parade

“Life is a racket. Writing is a racket. Sincerity is a racket. Everything’s a racket,” as spoken by none other than the late, great Nick Tosches (1949-2019). I have to admit, this quote comes about as close to my life philosophy as anything I’ve ever seen. Insincerity is also a racket. Love is a racket. Friendliness is a racket. Hopes and dreams: big racket. Being nice, gossip, NYC, racket, racket, racket. Nature is not a racket. Good self-esteem may seem like a racket, but it isn’t. Your book advance, your number of followers, the idea of following is a racket. Publishing is a racket. Believing that you can make a difference is not a racket, though it often gets dressed up as a racket. Rachel Maddow, Starbucks, Netflix, New Yorker, the guy on the home page of Chase on-line.

What’s your racket?

 

You Take a Piece of Me With You

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What exactly does it mean to be in love with the sound of your own voice and why is that a bad thing, apart from the fact that it’s bad a thing. How does it manifest? Cleverness, for sure. Overwriting. Showing off. Maybe ascending to the second highest rung of the ladder is more canny or effective than going all the way to the top. False humility is also a form of it. Skipping down the keyboard like Lolita. It’s one of those things: I know it when I see it.

Are you in love with your own voice?

Hey There You With the Stars in Your Eyes

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I’m thinking about subtitles and jackets and promotional copy and blurbs. I’m thinking about how hard we try to get it right, get the book “positioned” in the marketplace. I like to stalk people in bookstores and observe what books they pick up, linger over, leave or buy. Do they read the blurbs on the back cover? Read the first line or paragraph. A book is like a guy at a bar. Sure, I might like how he looks but do I want to take him home? What makes a person whip our their Visa? Even after 32 years in the book business, I feel I am a student of book packaging. I once worked for someone who always said we were “overthinking” things when we went around in circles trying to come up with the best title and subtitle. He was also fond of saying that life was too short when it was taking too long to agree on a jacket image. So what? Settle? I guess the way I feel is this: when I stop giving a shit about all this stuff it’s time turn in my blue pencil. 

 

When do you turn in your pencil?

 

 

When your day is long And the night, the night is yours alone When you’re sure you’ve had enough Of this life, well hang on

Here is my eulogy from last night’s memorial for my friend George Hodgman. His life was filled with literary highs: bestseller, critical acclaim, meeting hundreds of people who turned out for his readings. And a film in the works. But as with many writers, depression settled in and boxed out hope. I share this with the hope that any fellow sufferers get the help they need.

Call 1-800-273-8255

 

I’m Betsy Lerner, George’s literary agent. He was also one of my first friends in publishing. George was a copy writer when I met him at Simon and Schuster over 30 years ago. I knew from his catalogue copy that he was a gifted writer and always pushed him to do his own work. When George gave me the first pages to Bettyville, I knew they were amazing, but I’m also a pragmatist and I felt the need to tell him that we had some challenges. First, that gay memoirs were still difficult to sell and that books about dementia were even more difficult. Fine, he snapped, I’ll go to Binky. George knew how to push my buttons and enjoyed doing so with relish. For the record, he continued to threaten me with going to Binky whenever I told him something he didn’t like.

Some of you know that the last months of my life have been filled with loss. My mother died in April, my beloved niece Ruby and nephew Hart were killed by a drunk driver in June, and then my dear friend took his life in July. There are days when I can hardly keep my head above water. My family has sadly had a crash course in grieving, and tonight I want to share four things I’ve learned. I apologize in advance for bringing you down.

1) Please don’t say that George is in a better place. A better place is sitting next to me at the National Book Critics Circle Award. A better place is sitting between me and Carole at the Discover Prize and watching George give his acceptance speech. A better place is watching him take Raj off leash in a wide field in Paris, Missouri and clapping while his dog cantered through the open air, filled with love for this magnificent beast more horse than dog in that moment, or sharing a ciggie after on his mom’s stoop and pulling a few dead petals from the fading roses. And better place is certainly having his lemon chicken at Il Cantinori with his publishing friends dishing up the best and latest gossip in town.

2) Please don’t say you wish there was something you can do. You can support the George Hodgman scholarship or any organization that you believe in. When a new assistant editor joins your publishing house, you can take him or her to lunch and make them feel less anxious and more welcome. George always did that. He arranged a reader for a friend going blind to read to him twice a week. He’d give a homeless person a twenty, or a sandwich or a cup of coffee. I always said George was the most wicked and the kindest person I knew. We can all be more kind. I can be more kind.

3) Please don’t say George is no longer suffering. Suffering is life. Suffering means you can go to one more meeting at Perry Street. Suffering means you can go to a movie. Suffering means I can drive you to rehab again and you can work on recovery because no matter how much a person wishes to die, life also beckons if only in a quiet voice. Life wants you at least as much as death. By the way, when I drove George to rehab, he had heard that Liza had been a patient there and when he wasn’t sleeping or eating powdered donuts, he was singing every Minelli song he could remember at the top of his lungs. Later he dubbed our journey Driving Miss Crazy

4) Last, please don’t say there aren’t any words. We are the people of the book. Words are exactly what we have. Words meant everything to George and he approached every book he worked on with the same expectation: excellence. He wouldn’t rest until everything was right: the structure, the prose, the narrative arc, the emotional impact. He always had a vision and cajoled and prodded and nurtured his writers until they got it. He put many writers on the map and on the bestseller list. Even when publishing bounced him out, a legacy of the books he acquired continued to win accolades and land on the list. George was deeply serious about his books, but he also knew about razzle dazzle, how to make it sparkle. He made everything more sparkly. When it came to Bettyville, George had the courage to find his own words, his own voice. When George found the words they were everything you might expect: kind, loving, beautifully observed, hilarious, heartbreaking. When my mother was failing, George had shown me the way in Bettyville. It’s a playbook on how to care for our aging and dying parents with patience and love. He gave us those words.

What is your experience with suicidal ideation in yourself or others?

How Can a Loser Ever Win?

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Whenever a writer asks me if he or she should quit working on a manuscript that has stalled out, I feel like I’m being set up. It’s like asking someone if you’re pretty. Of course, I’m sympathetic with anyone who is getting royally fucked by the writing process. But I want to say: Yes! Quit!  Do not pass Go. Trash the whole fucking thing! Liberate yourself. Move on! Move on! But of course I don’t say that. I suggest putting it aside for a while, or making an outline, or using index cards. Trust me friends, index cards are a euphemism for dead on arrival. Sometimes it’s a mercy to put a manuscript down. That’s what desk drawers are for! But the reality is you can’t tell anyone when to quit. Nor should you. Writing, at best, is folly. So what difference, really, does is make? If you’re miserable you could be on to something really amazing.

When do you put a piece of writing out of its misery?

You’re Gonna Make It After All

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I saw a post today on FB about an assistant editor who got a job as a full editor at one of the big five publishers. She was ecstatic.  I knew her because she was the assistant on The Bridge Ladies and she was amazing. Calm, efficient, encouraging, and always in a good mood. I could count on her to take care of any detail no matter how small. And to indulge any insecurity of mine, no matter how huge. I am so happy for her. But I am also so nostalgic for that moment in my life. My Ann Taylor suit and off white shell. My little loafers and Coach Classic Duffle. It was the most expensive thing I owned and took six months to pay off on my credit card. I acquired the first books that would put me on the map editorially and I’m still exceedingly proud of them and honored to have worked on them: Thinking in Picture by Temple Grandin, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, Train Go Sorry by Leah Cohen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel. I had my first office with a window!! I bought coffee and a bagel with a million anonymous New Yorkers in the deli below the office that once had been the great Max’s Kansas City.

What was your first job you really cared about?

Speak to Me Heart

My great friend, mentor and client has a new book coming out in ten days. As always, working beside her is a master class in tireless intensity, aesthetic devotion and a kind of literary and spiritual alchemy. Words in air. Beguiling sentences. Unexpected humor and a well of sorrow. But always at the center of her work is an optimist insistence that a better world can be realized if it can be imagined. The Year of the Monkey is an agitated, spirited reckoning with a year of wandering, loss, discovery, conversations with inanimate objects and figments of the imagination. It’s 2018 when a lot went wrong and few things exploded with light.