Up Close & Personal is one of The Writer’s Life newest features. Here we feature authors who don't mind spilling the beans and telling what it's really like to write, get published and sell that book. Today's guest is Austin Washington, author of the historical nonfiction, The Education of George Washington. For more information on Austin and to watch him discussing his book in a video, visit his website at www.austinwashington.com and also on YouTube at http://youtu.be/1m6OvGRye9U.
How did I become a writer? Very stupidly, and very slowly!
When I was about fifteen I got a handwritten note from the editor of The New Yorker Magazine - the head editor, the "Editor" - carefully explaining that something I'd naively sent to the magazine was not quite right for The New Yorker. The note also something about it being...well...good? I didn't notice that 'til years later, when I dared look at the hastily hidden note, found buried in the desk drawer of my childhood room.
At the time, I was devastated, crushed, destroyed.
At fifteen, The New Yorker didn't print the very first thing I'd ever sent to any magazine. All I got was a lousy personally written letter from the editor telling me he liked what I wrote, but that the slightly personal nature of my story wasn't the sort of thing that worked well in The New Yorker.
It was only about two years ago that I heard Garrison Keillor explain that, for years, his submissions to The New Yorker were replied to with preprinted form rejections. He said he was elated when, after several years of dogged determination, the preprinted form rejections started having a hand scrawled "Sorry" on them.
In fact, at fifteen, I was already in the big leagues (if sitting on the bench,) but didn't even know it.
Later on, my lack of uber-confidence (to put it mildly) came into play again. This time, though, I blasted past it.
I was criticised persistently at my university for my essays sounding too much like "New York Times editorials." Not what I said - just the way I said it.
This time, it was meant to be a criticism. I was humiliated, crushed, destroyed.
This wasn't just my imagination. Just after a viva (oral examination) I apologised off-handedly, saying that I could have made what I wrote more entertaining if I'd....I was cut off. "You're not trying to be entertaining. You're writing history."
Of course the ultimate message, I now see, was:-"Why can't you be more boring?"
"Providence" (George Washington's word for destiny) led me to the opportunity I was given to write The Education of George Washington, giving me a platform to bring new, important, and I hope life-changing information about my great uncle, George Washington, to the you, and anyone who has the time to pick up the book.
Despite the genuine gravitas of the message, I've chosen to ignore the cries for commensurate boringness I hear echoing from the hallowed halls of academia.
First, I'm not writing "history", at least as I see it (and as my examiner saw it!) I'm helping write the future, I’d like to think, by bringing to the world - to you? - the profound yet simple wisdom that made George Washington a hero. I don’t think it’s necessary to do so. I’m not hypnotizing you, after all. Just imparting some wisdom.
It seems to be working.
Even professors have told me they like it.
There is dazzle, but underneath the dazzle - meat.
It's meaty dazzle.
Eat it up. It's good for you.
On Being Published...
(What was it like being published for the first time? What does it mean for you to be a published author? This is also where you can talk about your latest book)
I think the idea that this should "mean something" misses the mark by a country mile.
As a matter of fact, this book is a collaboration between the editor and me. It simply would not exist in any other way.
In point of fact, this is the third, entirely different, draft.
The first draft was academic in tone. Boring.
The second - well, too fun.
The third draft? I've been told: just right.
For this draft I sent in chapters twice as long as requested, filling up the excess space with asides designed to entertain my editor. I felt sorry for her, to tell the truth, slogging through manuscripts all day. I wanted to keep her life somewhat enlivened.
Almost invariably, the pinnacle of my excess 50% - actually, what I invariably thought was the nadir - the one sentence or paragraph I was certain would be cut - would be quoted in an email thanking me for...well, for doing what I intended to do. Entertain and inform.
My editor's broader contention was that the reader I imagined - formed from a composite of my scolding history examiner and my demons of insecurity - in fact did not exist.
The real reader (you?) - even the serious reader of history - didn't want to be bored, actually.
"Academic" historians are, I was told, incapable of being entertaining. They mask their insipid, and even occasionally brilliant thoughts, with a similar somber tone to hide their deep and almost unutterable lack of fire or spark. It is a slog of a job for them, and they make it sound that way.
It's what you get, living in libraries. The people they write about rarely lived in libraries. How could a hero's anemic scribe, really, be expected to understand him?
I, on the other hand, wrote at least some of The Education of George Washington living in beach shacks with two French girls and a Turkish girl. I realise this doesn't exactly echo Valley Forge. Still, think about it. It's George Washington's wisdom, after all. My job is to convey it in a way that competes with the fun of going down to the beach. An academic historian's job is to write something that competes with the silence of the library.
Which would you rather read? The wisdom remains the same. But now it’s gripping, entertaining, exciting, and all that. It’s enough of an adventure that it kept me from the beach – at least a few hours a day. So it is, I hope, enough of an adventure to compel you to read it on the beach.
Get wise will you tan. Why not?
To make a long story short, then, my book is a collaborative effort, which could never possibly exist without the kind patience of my editor, and the people who decided to spend their money on her time, editing my book, and inspiring me.
On Publishing Industry…
I'm still learning. It is a complete mystery to me, to be honest. The only thing I have learned thus far is that, unless you're a superstar, you really should learn about it. (Of course by the time you’re a superstar, you will have learned about it.)
I'm trying now. There is no better teacher than experience.
Mistakes Along the Way…
Mistakes along the way? Not getting and taking advice from the editor earlier. Insecurity masked by arrogance.
Thinking it would be easy.
I was kind of shocked after, for example, speaking to several hundred thousand people on just one radio show, I saw that far less than 1% - far less than that - bought the book the next day. Closer to .01%, I think.
At about the same time, I went to a convention - a political gathering - where my publisher had a booth set up. They'd only brought along three copies of my book, as they didn't consider The Education of George Washington exactly a political book.
Boom, boom, boom. 100%. Literally, ten minutes, I sold the three books to the next three people who came along. Well, the next three girls, to be honest.
So, I guess my advice would be write for the people you like to speak to, and speak to them through whatever medium you have available. If I could speak to everyone in person, I would.
This gave me the idea for my next book. I was working on a spec thing for HBO a while back, where I went around the world interviewing people on video about love. I have all of those interviews, those experiences. I'm going to write a book about it.
Men, professors, all sorts of people like The Education of George Washington when they hear about it, or read it. It's a brilliant feast of facts and fun, destined to change the lives of all who read it. At least that's what I'm told.
Still, it is so much fun to talk to girls, that I think I'll write a book more aimed at that audience. Love. That's definitely my next book.
What does this have to do with marketing? I don't really know. I don't think of myself doing something so unseemly as “marketing”, actually. I think of myself as offering the greatest wisdom put in a book in 200 years (not mine, George Washington's.) I don't feel as if I'm selling something. I feel that I'm trying to help you, and am just letting you know that the guide George Washington used to become both good and great is now an adventure, too.
What could be better, really?
I feel that, to be honest, most people are probably too venal, too self-centered, too selfish, to want to be great and good. But for those few people this book might touch, might help, might transform, might help grow - I don't have to sell to them. I just have to let them know it exists. At least that’s what I’m counting on.
On Goals and Dreams…
(What is your goal as a published author? How do you plan to make your dream of being successful a reality? What tips can you give to aspiring authors?)
My goal is to change the hearts, attitudes, minds and souls of everyone on the planet. Not that I expect everyone on the planet to read my books - but, then again, why not?
Or, give me ten percent. That's only eight hundred million. That's fewer people than saw Gangnam style. Don't you think that ideas that transform lives should have at least as much play as Gangnam style?
Whoop, whoop George Washington.
Whoop whoop George Washington.
Whoop, whoop George Washington .
About the Book:
In Austin Washington’s new book - - The Education of George Washington - - readers will learn all about President Washington’s true model of conduct, honor, and leadership, including the actual historic document that President Washington used to transform his life from a poorly educated child of a widowed mother, to the historic, curious, highly influential and awe inspiring figure he became and remains today.