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Literary biographers and the LAT Festival of Books

April 25, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

We're spending a couple of days at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where I'm doing some blog coverage for the LAT and hosted a panel yesterday -- which was interesting, and great fun.

The topic of my panel was Literary Biography, and the panelists authored works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain, though the Twain book is as much about personal assistant Isabel Lyon as it is about the last years of the venerated American icon.

The challenge was finding common ground among the subjects so that the authors -- Carol Sklenicka (Carver), Michael Scammell (Koestler) and Laura Skandera Trombley (Twain) -- could engage with each other. They managed quite nicely, offering some fine insights into their work, and their subjects, to an audience that filled about two-thirds of the seats and an auditorium in the Humanities Building at UCLA. And it was a gorgeous day for it, too, in the upper 60s with blue skies and a nice breeze.

We talked a bit about the struggles to find the truth in the letters and journals of people who are very conscious -- and concerned -- about their places in literary history. Trombley said she had to be particularly careful because Twain was such an unabashed liar. Sklenicka had to sweet-talk still-protective friends and relatives of Carver, who died at age 50 in 1988, into sharing memories and material. For Scammell, it was a matter of vetting the details in Koestler's two autobiographies. I wasn't taking notes so can't quote, but Scammell said he was surprised to learn how truthful Koestler's works were, good bad and ugly (though Koestler had a propensity for not including some of the uglier stuff).

You may remember that I profiled Trombley for the LA Times a few weeks back, and it was a great pleasure to see and talk with her again -- smart, poised and interesting (traits that likely helped her ascend to the president's office at Pitzer College).

Key highlight of taking part in the Festival -- meeting and chatting with so many smart, intelligent lovers of books. And the people who write them.


Next book is set - Detroit: A Biography

March 26, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

Those of you who know me understand that I'm not one to sit around. I like having several projects bubbling at the same time, and so, as Rutgers University Press works at publishing The Fear Within, I'm already off and running on the next project.

The working title is Detroit: A Biography, and I'll just crib the description my agent, Jane Dystel, sent over to Publisher's Marketplace: "DETROIT: A BIOGRAPHY, a sweeping look at the disintegration of a once great city, in which the author describes how collapse came about through a mix of corporate hubris, globalization and ill-conceived government policies overlaid with racial and class divides, to Jerome Pohlen, by Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management."

And after publishing two books through Rutgers, this one is going to be published by Chicago Review Press. I've been very happy with the folks at Rutgers, especially editor Leslie Mitchner, who have been wonderful partners in these first two books. But I felt this book would be better-suited with Chicago Review Press, primarily because some of the key people there have Detroit roots and, in a sense, speak the language of Detroit.

As you can imagine, I'm pretty excited about this. And I hope to see some of you in Detroit this summer....


On Mark Twain, and an image problem

March 19, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

I'm a little slow in posting this piece from this past weekend, which ran on the cover of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. I sat down with Laura Trombley, president of Pitzer College, to talk about her new bio of the last decade or so of Mark Twain's life.

Samuel Clemens, who carefully crafted the Twain image into a brand, was afraid that revelations about his daughter's affair with a married man might cut into his sales and royalties. So he turned to his best weapon, his pen, and wrote a secret manuscript as a bludgeon to silence his longtime personal aide -- whom he feared would spill the beans. If she talked, his orders were to publish his 450-page screed against her.

Twain's fears are comically quaint in this era of Tiger Woods, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer, but Twain's fears were real to him. From my story:
That manuscript, never published but well known to Twain scholars, had little in common with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the other books that made Twain one of the nation's first celebrities. At its heart, Trombley believes, the manuscript was a blackmail tool, a libelous screed against Lyon, whose life Twain was fully prepared to ruin to protect family secrets and his place in American history.

Early biographers believed the manuscript's details, including Twain's charge that Lyon tried to seduce him, to be true and that Lyon's role in Twain's life was too minute to bother with. But Trombley saw the work as an elaborate lie and wondered why Twain would bother. Her speculation turned into obsession, and eventually into "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years" (Alfred A. Knopf: 332 pp., $27.95), her third book dealing with Twain's life and legacy.


The LATimes Book Festival, me, and three other authors

March 10, 2010

Tags: books, history, writing, biography

This morning's inbox held an email from the organizers of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books - the top book festival in the country - firming up my role there this Spring, and I'm quite pleased.

In each of the last two years I was invited to take part as a panelist, discussing themes related to my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. This time I get to sit in the moderator's chair (full disclosure: I "suggested" the role and they took me up on it). The panel they've assigned me to looks incredibly interesting - the kind of thing I;d sit in on even if I wasn't moderating it.

Called "Biography: Literary Masters," I'll be leading a discussion with three authors of well-received works on Raymond Carver, Arthur Koestler and Mark Twain. The authors are Michael Scammell (Koestler), Carol Sklenicka (Carver) and Laura Trombley, whose new Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years is due out next week. And, coincidentally, I profiled Trombley for the LA Times - the piece is supposed to run this weekend, I believe.

I'll post more details as I get them. The session is slated for 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24. Hope to see a bunch of you there.


Some updates, and Roger Ebert

February 21, 2010

Tags: writing, books, nonfiction, movies, biography

Sorry for being AWOL -- been a busy three weeks. Been filing regularly for Aol News, including this piece trying to set the Joe Stack suicide-pilot story into context, as well as finishing up some freelance articles, teaching, giving a two-part lecture on the state of newspapers and journalism, and trying to resurrect a dormant murder mystery while my agent shops my next book proposal.

Oh, and nailing down photographs and making final revisions to The Fear Within. No wonder I'm tired.

Unrelated, I'm guessing most of you saw the Esquire piece on Roger Ebert by Chris Jones. I'm not a movie-goer but have a professional -- and human -- interest in Ebert and his disfiguring struggle with cancer. I ran through the piece quickly and thought it well done, and up to the magazine's standards as one of the few places where writers have the space to give a subject, and a story line, its due.

But a piece about the story caught me up a bit short. Jones, in an interview at About.com, reveals that he wrote while being acutely concerned about what his subject would think of the piece. That's a dangerous way to write journalism. I teach my students that a journalist's primary responsibility is to the truth, and to the reader, while being faithful to the subject and the results of the reporting. But I also tell them to NOT be concerned with what the subject of the story might think, because the subject of the story will inevitably look at things differently than the reporter. You have to write from a vantage point of detached independence.

Makes me wonder how this profile might have differed if Jones had been less concerned about what the subject of his piece thought about it.


Who knew Pops was a pothead?

December 1, 2009

Tags: writing, books, nonfiction, music, biography

A little slow in posting on this - I have two weeks to finish off the current book project, so am under the gun - but I had this piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend on critic Terry Teachout's new biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

It's a good, solid bit of work, infused with insights Teachout gleaned from some 650 reels of tapes Armstrong made - many surreptitiously - on his home recorder. As I mentioned in the piece, that let Teachout eavesdrop on large portions of the last half of Armstrong's life.

The tapes didn't reveal any significant new details on an already well-chronicled jazz legend, but the book is likely to introduce Armstrong as a full character to a generation of people who only know him as the voice in "It's a Wonderful World." And yes, Armstrong enjoyed the occasional - okay, daily - joint. And behind that engaging smile there existed a complex man who was eager to please, saw himself as an entertainer first, and who was more than capable of flexing his ego.

The book is an engaging read, and worth picking up for yourself or the jazz lover on your holiday list.

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About me


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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