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Quite the World, Isn't It?

A different way of writing

So with The Fear Within launched and Detroit: A Biography safely in my editor's hands, I've been poking around for the next project while catching up on my general reading. I have a couple of ideas and am researching whether there's enough material available to make a book out of them, though at this stage I'm not too optimistic. Neither involves people who left much of a paper trail, which makes it nearly impossible to put flesh on the skeletons of their compelling stories. But we'll see.

Meanwhile, I've dusted off a mystery I've been nibbling away at for a number of years now, which is fun to work with, and has me contemplating the different requirements of writing history, and writing fiction. I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago for the launch of Adam Hochschild's new book, To End All Wars, his history of the antiwar movement in England surrounding The Great War, and he made a comment to the effect that fiction writing differs from history writing in that with a novel, what you write only has to be plausible. With history, what you write has to be true.

Adam was talking about some of the characters in his book, including a brother and sister who found themselves in key positions on opposite sides of the war, the kind of dramatic tension that would make you roll your eyes if it appeared in a novel. Yet here they were in real life. In the novel I'm working on, I keep encountering a similar friction. Not between plausibility and truth, but between what a character would do, and what a character should do.

It's a subtle, yet crucial, distinction. Making sure actions are true to character is obvious. But as I frame a scene, I keep stumbling over the issue of should my character do this? Is this action necessary? Does it help the reader understand the story, or reveal a subtle dynamic? Or am I just indulging my imagination?

So 40,000 words in, with the victims dead, the two main plot lines firmly established, and the characters in full dress, I find myself becalmed by second-guessing. I know where the story lines go, and how the threads come together at the end. I just don't know where the characters go in the next few thousand words. It is the difference between writing what happened, and creating what happened.

Ah, writer's block. Nice of you stop by unannounced. A short visit, I hope?

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Day Two at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

The 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
It was a little warmer, felt a little less crowded, and was a lot of fun for the second day in a row. And oh, yeah, I was on a panel.

The theme was "History: Democracy and its Discontents," moderated by Celeste Fremon, who came incredibly well-prepared, and included Barry Siegel and Thaddeus Russell. It made for an interesting conversation, with Russell talking about his A Renegade History of the United States, a "ground up" look at influential but ignored sectors of American history with some iconoclastic takes on such things as prostitutes as early feminists.

Siegel, a friend and former Los Angeles Times colleague, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winner, talked about his Claim of Privilege, and the lie that stands behind the U.S. government's ability to evade court disclosures of uncomfortable information by claiming to do so would violate a state secret. And I talked about The Fear Within, which has a nice overlap with Siegel's book (both of our subjects turned on decisions by the same Vinson Supreme Court).

The session was aired live on Book TV over CSPAN-2, and via its website, and is now safely lodged in its archives. So if you missed it, you can watch it at your leisure here. And yeah, it's true, a TV camera adds a few pounds (but then, so did the dinner at El Cholo afterward with my wife). The program begins with the tail end of a prior, unrelated interview, but you can move beyond that). Unfortunately, there was no link for embedding the program on my site. Read More 
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Day One at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

Patti Smith signing for fans after her panel discussion with Dave Eggers, moderated by David Ulin.
The first day of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the new place -- University of Southern California instead of UCLA -- went pretty well. I blogged about a couple of panels for the LA Times' Jacket Copy, one on science and belief, and the other on maps.

Also got a picture of Patti Smith as she was signing books and talking with fans. Which is really all the reason you need to do a fresh blog post over here.

My panel is tomorrow at 2 p.m. West Coast time (5 p.m. in the East). It's being carried live by Book TV, on CSPN2. Which makes me wonder whether I need to go, or can I just stay home and watch myself from my living room? Read More 
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Los Angeles Times Festival of Books details

Well, there's less than two weeks to go before the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which I mentioned before, but I've been remiss in passing along details of my appearance.

The panel is called "History: Democracy and its Discontents," and will be at 2 p.m. May 1 in Room 101 Taper Hall. Since my book is a narrative retelling of the trial of the leaders of the American Communist Party, I'm taking the May Day schedule as a good omen.

If you've never been, the Festival of Books is a great two-day literary orgy. This year it moves to the University of Southern California campus (used to be at UCLA), so I don't know what to expect in terms of fresh logistical challenges. But it is a great chance to spend time with a lot of authors and fellow book lovers. I'll be hanging around both days, and signing books after our panel. So look me up. Read More 
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Wanna buy a bookstore?

There aren't very many independent bookstores in Orange County, California, where I live, so I was sad to get an e-newsletter earlier this week from Tom Ahern, owner of Latitude 33 Bookshop in Laguna Beach, that he is planning to retire, which casts the future of his great little bookshop in some doubt. But he's hoping to find a buyer.

The store is a couple of blocks from the beach itself, a welcome part of the mix of art galleries, clothing boutiques and other high-end retail shops in downtown Laguna. It's just a bit too far from my house to be a regular stop, but when I've been in there the staff has been friendly and helpful. And while the size of the store limits the breadth of the offerings, it is pleasantly diverse.

All communities need a good (independent) bookstore, and a place like Laguna Beach, with it's upper-income households and artistic bent, should be able to support the place. I hope someone comes forward to buy it. If writing books about obscure moments in history paid a little better, I'd consider it myself.

From Ahern's newsletter announcing his pending retirement:
My reasons: I turn seventy this year and my wife has health problems that require more attention than I can give while still running the store. I don't want to shut the doors: hopefully, a book lover or group of book lovers will take over and keep Latitude 33 running.

I have the best staff ever: two former Barnes & Noble branch managers and three incredible book lovers. A new owner will be able to take over the portion of the store now occupied by Silver Images. There is a future for service-intensive independent bookstores, as the megastore chains decline. Much can be done to help Latitude 33 do even better, but recently, I have not had the time and energy to implement them.
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The moment we've all been waiting for

Well, at least I have. Came home to find in the mail a copy from the advance shipment of The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. Handsome little bugger, if I do say so myself. And the folks at Rutgers University Press tell me that the books are on their way to distributing warehouses, so should start showing up in stores (and fulfilling advance orders) in a few weeks.

At the same time, the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, gets shipped off in the next few days (cleaning up a couple of details, but it's for all intents and purposes done). I'm looking forward to a taking a couple of weeks to catch up with some freelance articles and then start forming the next project. I have a couple of things I'm looking into, but am a long way from committing - or getting a commitment.

Oh, and it's a beautiful 80 degrees here today with a brilliant washed blue sky. I suspect a beer on the patio will be in my near future.  Read More 
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On a (short) look at the Peace Corps' (long) history

The Los Angeles Times today carries a review I wrote of its former foreign correspondent Stanley Meisler's history of the Peace Corps. The book is When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, and as I say in the review it's a pretty good overview. Look at it as taking a survey course in the history of the institution.

From my review:
Despite his clear affinity for the Corps, Meisler doesn't gloss over the problems, from ineffective volunteers to wrong-headed staffing goals and policies. His final chapter asks, "Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good?," and it's a good question to ponder. Statistically, much of the work done by volunteers has had limited effect on making broad changes in the quality of life for the world's impoverished.

But, as Meisler argues, some gains can't be measured by a bureaucrat's spreadsheet. And in many ways, the Peace Corps' gains might have come to the U.S., as legions of former volunteers used their experiences as springboards to public service careers, including such political figures as former Sen. Christopher Dodd, Carol Bellamy (who went from New York City politics to lead the agency for a time) and Donna Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services.
I should note that while Meisler and I both worked at the Times, we've never met. Read More 
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The 2011 LA Times Festival of Books, and me

Some more good news to announce: I'll be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books again this Spring, this time at the new venue at the University of Southern California (Used to be held at UCLA).

Details can still change but at this point I'll be talking about The Fear Within on a panel called "History: Democracy and Its Discontents," at 12:30 p.m. on May 1 (May Day, fittingly enough - I'll have to remember to wear red). The moderator will be author/journalist Celeste Fremon. So far, only one fellow panelist has been lined up - my former LA Times colleague Barry Siegel, author most recently of Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case and the Rise of State Secrets, a riveting look at the sketchy legal case behind the legal precedent that gives the federal government the right to not respond to subpoenas if it invokes a "state secret" excuse. (Barry also offered a wonderful blurb for my book, so I owe him lunch). The third panelist is to be named later.

I'll update the blog when more details, including the specific site for the panel, are available. It will be followed by a book-signing, so if you plan to attend the Festival of Books please bring (or buy there) your copy of The Fear Within (available for pre-order at online sites and independent bookstores) and I'll be happy to sign it for you. Read More 
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The kind of thing that makes an author very happy

Two of the defendants among supporters at a rally. Library of Congress photo.
From the forthcoming Publishers Weekly, the leading trade journal in the book industy:

The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial
Scott Martelle. Rutgers Univ., $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8135-4938-5

In this illuminating examination of a troubling episode in America's past, veteran journalist (and PW contributor) Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West) recounts the celebrated 1949 trial of 11 American Communists for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed advocating overthrow of the government by force. All were public spokesmen of the minuscule American Communist Party. During nine stormy months, the prosecution was reduced to quoting Karl Marx and obscure Communist texts to prove that the defendants had advocated violent revolution. Martelle presents convincing evidence that the judge favored the prosecution, goaded by defense lawyers who the author admits were tactless and quarrelsome. In the end the judge sent every defendant and many of the lawyers to prison. Few readers of this gripping history will quarrel with Martelle's conclusion that the defendants suffered for expressing unpopular opinions. Further, says Martelle, many Americans, including political leaders, continue to proclaim that those who want to destroy America should not be permitted to "hide behind" the Constitution. Photos. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/14/2011 Read More 
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Jonathan Lethem and an enviable gig

A couple months ago I drove up to Pomona College near Los Angeles and sat down with author Jonathan Lethem in his new office, where he's now teaching (the resulting profile is here at Pomona College Magazine).

I have to admit to a stream of jealousy. Lethem has a great gig as the tenured Roy Edward Disney Professor in Creative Writing, where he teaches a couple of courses a semester to students who are serious about writing and literature, and has time carved out to pursue his own writing. In this environment, a steady gig for ANY writer is a Godsend (note to hiring committees: I'm available).

Lethem is a smart guy, self-aware and but not overly self-promoting, striking the right balance. We talked a lot about the writing process, and he made a point that syncs with one I make to aspiring writers when they ask about the actual process of sitting down to write. “Nobody is trying to stop you from writing," Lethem said about the distractions he's had to overcome throughout his career. "You just have to structure your day so that you get to it.”

And that is the process in a nutshell. If you're waiting for the muse to strike, you'll never write. If you're waiting for a big commission to come along, you'll never write. To be a writer, obviously enough, you have to write. There is always time; it's just a matter of where writing fits in on your list of daily priorities.

Chris Offutt once wrote something about his own early adulthood that he was an actor who never acted, a painter who never painted, and a poet who never wrote poetry, though he had pretensions to being all those things. He did, eventually, become a writer - by writing.

To be it, you have to do it. So what are you doing wasting you time reading blogs? Disconnect from the electronic world, and write. Read More 
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