Arthur Salm Interviewed by Judy Reeves
Judy Reeves interview with Arthur Salm, author of ANYWAY*, a book for young readers which will be released by Simon & Schuster the first of May.
JR: We’re recording. We’re at the Kensington Cafe, interviewing Arthur Salm, where I understand you come frequently?
AS: I’m in the neighborhood. I wouldn’t say I “hang out” here, but I do come occasionally.
JR: Are you in the book I saw at the counter; I think it’s about the charming characters who can be found at the cafe?
AS: I think “charming” pretty much took me out of the running.
As one who has known Arthur for a number of years, I can say he really is pretty charming. Something you can find out for yourself when you come to his reading and book signing at The Ink Spot, Sunday, April 29.
JR: I have to tell you, I love the look of your book; the cover is so full of energy, so alive.
AS: As you know, authors have absolutely no control whatsoever over the jackets of their books. For that matter they have no control over the title. You sign a contract and the publisher can do anything. Late last summer, I got an email from David Gale, my editor at Simon & Schuster, that said, I’ve attached a file. “Oh god here it comes.” I moved the cursor down and closed my eyes and I clicked and I opened my eyes and I took a breath, like a one-two count and — “That’s it! That’s my book.” And then over the next thirty seconds, one minute, this infestation took over my brain and it felt like the whole time I was writing the book, the cover was there. The cover was always there and from that point on it was impossible for me to think about the early stages of the book, when I first started writing the book … the cover was always there. That’s how perfect the cover is.
JR: You were Books Editor and columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune for twenty years. You resigned that job, decided to write your first book. The book turns out to be a book for young readers with a 13-year-old narrator, tons of footnotes and doodles, which not only gets published by a major New York publishing house, but it goes to auction! There’s more than one story here. But first, why a book for young readers?
AS: I’ll tell you what I had in mind, was an antic, dark comedy, dark and funny and upsetting, because that’s my view of life. I taught a couple of writing classes and one of the things I had the students do was free-writing. It’s a trick it’s a gimmick. But it works. [I said] “OK look, I’m just going to see if I can actually make something up so I’m going to write a short story for my daughter,”(she was 13 at the time) “something light and funny, no pressure because no one is ever going to see it.”
I’d put her to bed a thousand times and I always came up with a story for her. I’d start talking and I literally didn’t know where the story was going, but within a couple of minutes, a part of my brain that wasn’t engaged in moving my mouth said OK I know what I can do with this.
So, I said to myself, “You’ve made up a thousand stories, let’s see if you can write one. Just write something silly, a funny thing that happens to a kid her age.”
I remember I was a sophomore in college, I was at a party, sitting in a chair. I got up and while I was up, someone put a plate of spaghetti in the chair and I sat in it. What’s funny is that only one person saw me do it. It wasn’t even embarrassing. But what if a 12-year-old boy sat on a plate of spaghetti? Really embarrassing! And that came to me in the first couple of minutes, so I started writing this short story and well, OK, the boy’s got to tell a little bit about himself and I thought about all this other stuff…
JR: The book’s subtitle is A Story About Me With 138 Footnotes, 27 Exaggerations, And 1 Plate of Spaghetti. Is this where the footnotes come in?
AS: Of all the book reviews I wrote, 700 or 800 book reviews, I never enjoyed writing, but one book review I wrote—a book of essays by David Foster Wallace, fantastic, hilarious wonderful, wonderful footnotes. When I wrote the review of this book, I thought every book reviewer in the country is going to do this, but I’m going to put footnotes in my book review. I loved writing those footnotes, so when I was writing the book review, which was painful as it always was, I was just looking for excuses to put in those footnotes. So an hour or so into writing [the story], I said maybe I’ll put in some footnotes.
After about five hours and my brain’s whirling and I could see this happening and that happening, I leaned back in my chair, and shouted “NO! I do not want to write a children’s book.”
I’m not interested in writing children’s books. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, I’m just not interested in it. But I realized that I was going to write a children’s book and the voice was there from the beginning. I think if the voice isn’t there, there’s no story. Frankly there isn’t a lot of plot in this thing.
JR: What’s the book about, besides a boy who sits on a plate of spaghetti?
AS. It’s an almost coming of age story, because [Max, the narrator] is almost 13, and as he’s maturing, he’s realizing … he’s in this wonderful nether world between being a little kid, realizing he’s not a little kid anymore … and along with this he’s starting to make his own way. [This is] really heady stuff, a little scary, and it also leads him to think about stuff. Twelve and thirteen year old kids think about serious stuff.
The title of the book is Anyway, because the very first page he starts to tell about this incident happened to him and it takes him the whole book to explain it because he gets sidetracked. He has to keep coming back and saying, “anyway.”
It’s not a heavy book and there are no vampires, no werewolves, no zombies. Maybe I should have put a zombie, everybody likes zombies. I’ll try to put a zombie in the second book. I wanted to be intensely realistic. I didn’t want anything in the book that couldn’t happen in real life.
JR: Is this book something you intended or wanted to write for a long time?
AS: I always imagined that I was going to be a novelist from the time I was in college. By the time I was in my mid-30s it occurred to me that I had never written a word in my life, and I probably wasn’t going to be a novelist and I probably wasn’t going to be a writer. It was really traumatic … a rugged time I went through … that I came to grips with that I was never going to be a writer because I’d never written anything.
I was working for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and I accepted the fact that I was never going to be a writer. Then I landed with gig with KPBS to review a movie, so I started doing that. A colleague at (HBJ) Academic Press [showed me] a book review by one of my colleagues.
This is part of the interview where Arthur, who, like Max, talks in footnotes, told the story of how he got an assignment to write his first book review for the Union-Tribune, on spec. He continues…(anyway)
AS: … Every Friday I started to go down to the newsstand buy a Trib, tear it open and look for my book review. And it wasn’t and it wasn’t and it wasn’t, then it was. And I looked at it and I saw my byline. You know how it is when you shoot heroin?
JR: Actually, no.
AS: Actually I don’t either, but from what I hear that was what it was like, the rush of what it was like. It feels like a drug starting at the top of my head and coursing through my body.
That led to more reviews and [the editor] gave me another and another and after about a year and a half I became books editor. Never having taken a journalism course, never written anything in my life, in just about two years I was a book reviewer editor, book columnist, and arts writer for the Tribune. And I just told myself, “By God, you became a writer after all.”
JR: And now you’re a novelist. Are you writing another book now that Anyway is out?
AS: I’m just completing another book; not a sequel exactly. In my mind it’s not a sequel, but it’s a follow up. The second book overlaps the first book, some of the incidents in the second book take place in the first book, but it’s told from the point of view of a different character. Max is a major character in the second book, but the person who’s the focus of the second book is a major character in the first book. It’s a girl, third person, told from her point of view. And I set the second aside after the first draft and started the third book. It overlaps some things in the second book.
JR: So it’s not a sequel, but it’s kind of a series.
AS. It’s a series; I can’t think of the second as a sequel, because it’s so different. The third book is told in an entirely different point of view in a different manner. I plan to do that for six books. Same universe, Same kids. Each one told by a different kid, and each one told in a different manner.
JR: As a journalist all those years and the books editor, reading, I don’t know, thousands of books, did that critical way of looking at text or structure influence your writing?
AS: I think it had to influence it. I’ve read so much criticism, and edited so many reviews and looked at so many books I’m sure that had to influence me somehow. Though I had a terrible time of structure. Telling the story wasn’t a problem for me, the voice was not a problem. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard, but I was able to do it. But the structure I was not able to figure out. I meet every week with two writer friends and one of them gave me the key. He said, “Why don’t you do this,” and I said, “That’s it! OK. I can do that,” and I was able to make it work in a couple of weeks. But I needed an outside person to tell me that. Once he gave me that idea, the structural problem of the book went away.
In the end I wanted to write a book that I wanted to read and that I thought I would have liked to have read when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen years old. One of the things that I figured was going to be a problem, but it turned out not to be a problem at all, was the level of discourse.
In my book reviews and in my columns, I tend to write in long, complex sentences. I love dashes and parentheses. It’s the asides, it’s a device, it’s a tool. It helps accentuate a voice. I said, “Look, you cannot write the long complex sentences with lots of subordinate clauses and sound like a 13-year-old boy.” So the sentence structure has to be simpler. Then I said you’ve got to keep a handle on your vocabulary. And that’s it. That’s all I did. And then I just wrote. I did not even attempt, even think about writing to a particular level; I thought about Max’s voice, I thought about telling the story.
JR: What about rewrites? Did your editor ask for much in the way of revisions.
AS: The revisions that Simon & Schuster asked for took about three, four hours, maybe more. Call it a day at most.
JR: You had readers—good writers, published writers, read the manuscript before you submitted it. Did you have any kids read it?
AS: The only kid who read it was my daughter. She said she liked it. But she said, “I’ve heard a lot of these stories before.” A lot of the little incidents that happened were based on stuff that happened to me.
JR: Because we’re a writing organization and our audience is primarily writers and aspiring writers, I always have to ask a successful author if they have any advice for our audience.
AS: I’m afraid I’m going to be telling you things your writers already know, but your query letter is as important as anything you write. The query letter has to be great. I know a little bit of what its like to be an agent, because I was the book review editor and I was buried in books. How do you select? Agents have an avalanche of manuscripts. I’ll tell you what they do because it’s what I use to do, too.
The first thing you do is, whatever the agent’s guidelines are on how to submit a manuscript, how to submit a query letter, you absolutely follow those to the letter. Do not deviate. If you do, that tells the agent you’re not a professional. The agent has two hundred queries to go through and she’s looking for red flags; she’s looking for a reason to say no. She’s looking for anything that tells her this person is not a professional, this person couldn’t write a good book. This person’s not worth my time.
So do not give them an excuse to say no. You follow the guidelines to the letter and then you write a great query letter. It has to grab them and it has to be one page and it has to be perfect and that will get them at least to look at the manuscript. The writing has to stand on its own.
JR: I’ve saved what I imagine must be the most exciting part of your publishing story for last. Tell us about the auction.
AS: Four publishers bid on [the book], but in the end two more said they were interested in the auction. So we had a one-day auction. It’s done by phone, a kind of a round robin. I was sitting at home in front of my computer getting messages [from my agent, Nancy Gallt]. … Then it came down to Simon & Schuster and one other publisher and I had to choose. They both stopped at the same point. So my agent said, “OK now you get to interview them.”
So first I called the other publisher and talked to a senior editor and when I got off the phone I said to my wife, “I don’t think there’s anything David Gale could say to me that would make we want to go with Simon and Schuster. These people are incredible. I want to sign with them.” And then I talked to David Gale for about twenty minutes and [after I hung up] I said to my wife. “We’re so screwed. What are we going to do?”
Here’s where Arthur talks about the attributes of each of the publishing companies and how he and his wife put the dog on the leash and walked to the Kensington Café and sat outside and talked and talked and talked about what to do because the decision was so difficult to make. It’s been deleted because of space limitations.
AS: But I had to say something . . . and I just had a great feeling about Simon & Schuster. . . It was a pretty intense day. It’s nice to be wanted.
JR: You’ve interviewed about 10,000 writers over the years…
AS: More like a couple hundred…
JR: So what haven’t I asked you that you’d like to say.
AS. That’s one of my favorite questions. I would say that you have to be really methodical and in control of both the process and your emotions when it comes to queries because you’re going to get rejections. I was lucky because I only got eight or so rejections. But it’s hard, it’s a blow to get a rejection. Even though we’re told to expect them. The writers I’m working with right now, we came up with this thing where you always have six out there with agents and you have two or three sitting in the hopper. A rejection comes in — BAM! — you send out one to replace it. So that you’ve always got five or six out there. It’s a positive thing to do after you get the rejection. You have to be really… I keep coming back to this word “professional.” If you don’t act like a professional, if you don’t come across as a professional, they’re not going to want to have anything to do with you. Because they’ll figure it comes across in your writing, too. And it probably will.
Over the couple of hours Arthur and I spent together in a noisy corner at the Kensington Café, we talked about much more than could find its way into this Q&A interview. But one comment Arthur made during our dialogue stayed with me, and stays with me still, as to what it must be like for him to have his first book published. It was this:
AS: Tens of thousands of newly published books passed through my hands all those years [as books editor.] Finally one of them is mine.
Arthur Salm is the former book review editor and columnist, as well as feature writer and arts writer, for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Before becoming a full-time journalist he freelanced for magazines and newspapers, worked for Academic Press Journals, and spent a number of years as a city bus driver and doing various other knockabout jobs that he hoped would someday give him a man-of-the-people edginess in an author bio. At age 10 he moved with his family from Evansville, Ind. to Carlsbad, Calif., where he was unable to become even a mediocre surfer. He has a B.A. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in San Diego with his wife, daughter, dog, and two cats.
Judy Reeves is a former employee of the San Diego Union; she’s also worked in radio, and television, in PR, advertising, and marketing and all those other jobs writers get when they want to earn a living as a writer. Currently she is a writer, teacher and writing practice provocateur and has written four books on the craft, including A Writer’s Book of Days. She is a co-founder of San Diego Writers, Ink and serves on the board of directors. Her website is judyreeveswriter.com, where she also posts an occasional blog.