Adults clutching worn childhood copies of Goosebumps and Fear Street books mingled with Malcolm Gladwell aficionados and devoted Elin Hilderbrand fans, along with students from the NYU School of Professional Studies M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program, faculty, and alumni from the program and across the school. This was quite the occasion: for the first time in 17 NYU Media Talk panels, authors took the stage to divulge their views on all sorts of literary topics including the value of criticism, the author/agent relationship, and their first paid writing gigs.
The panel, “Behind the Bestsellers: Creating Beloved Books (and Buzz!) in Today’s Literary Landscape,” was moderated by Lev Grossman, New York Times bestselling author of the Magicians trilogy and book critic at Time magazine. “What is the first piece of writing each of you did for money?” he began, pulling no literary niceties. This immediately stumped panelist Malcolm Gladwell, contributing writer at The New Yorker and bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. “I don’t even know if I can remember!” Elin Hilderbrand, author of 14 New York Times bestsellers including Beautiful Day, Barefoot, and The Matchmaker, recalls sending her first short story, “Misdirection,” to all the magazines she could. The first magazine she contacted, Seventeen, bought it for $800 in 1991. R.L. Stine, author not only of world-renowned children’s series, but of adult titles such as Red Rain and Superstitious, looked back on his first writing gigs wryly, as he had a completely different introduction to paid writing. One of his first jobs involved writing fake interviews for questionably legitimate entertainment magazines owned by a women who ran this business out of her brownstone. “I would come in the morning and she would say, ‘Do an interview with Diana Ross. Do an interview with Tom Jones.’ And I would sit down and write an interview. I made it all up!” he remembered. “It was creative work, and I learned how to write really fast. It was very good training.”
The panelists then dove into their origins as budding writers. Graduating from Johns Hopkins University, Hilderbrand studied under Stephen Dixon and Madison Smartt Bell in the famous bell tower on campus. She took away from this experience the importance of getting and giving criticism. “You learn to take good criticism well and rip apart drafts,” Hilderbrand remembered. “You learn from the better writers.” Gladwell found the demanding nature of writing for The New Yorker to be the best place to find his voice and hone his skill. This also prepared him to write longer manuscripts, which segued into books.
The conversation turned humorous on the subject of finding the “writer voice.” When the question of “voice” came to Stine, he admitted he had no idea what it was, or if he even had one. Grossman jumped to his aid, summing it up as “your personality on the page.” Stine then disclosed the secret to the popularity of Goosebumps: “Goosebumps was the first series ever that had equal readership of boys and girls,” he declared, noting that perhaps this dual-gender appeal was somehow part of his elusive “voice.”
Grossman steered the conversation back to the behind-the-scenes cheerleaders that keep the writers’ work afloat: agents and editors. Hilderbrand stressed the importance of her editor, agent, and even social media team for support. “I have two agents. One of them does my editorial work and one does my business work,” she explained. She also has a dedicated editor, Reagan Arthur, who has worked with her for the past ten books. “I don’t have time to worry about anything because I’m always on deadline for two books.”
Of course, Grossman would have been remiss had he not mentioned the tenuous battle and recently settled suit between Hachette (which publishers both Hilderbrand and Gladwell) and Amazon. Gladwell then discussed Amazon’s refusal to stock Hachette books in relation to Wal-Mart not stocking lawn mowers if appropriate terms were not met. But Gladwell doesn’t believe lawn mowers and books should be treated equally. “Should books be carved out from other kinds of economic behavior as ‘special’? I say yes. The dangerous thing to draw from this conclusion is that this is just like every other predatory economic behavior. It’s not, of course, because it involves our culture.”
Panelists took questions from the audience at the end of the evening, and the topics ranged from writer’s block (Stine admitted to never getting writer’s block because he outlines all of his work long before he writes a page) to self-publishing (Hilderbrand could not imagine getting her work off the ground without the support of her editorial, marketing, publishing, and social media team). But one question struck a chord with the budding writers in the audience: “Do you share your work before you finish writing it?” Gladwell emphatically supported the idea of sharing partially written manuscripts. “I always tell as many people as I can about what I’m working on, as far as I can in advance. The idea of stealing an idea to me is preposterous. The number of good things that have come from telling strangers about my books is huge!”
Quite possibly, the most poignant exchange came at the end of the discussion, when the panelists were asked about the worst advice they had ever received. “Stop all that typing and go outside and play,” Stine’s mother used to say. (The audience roared!) Gladwell says he bristles at those who shoot down his ideas with the comment: “It’s been done.” Execution, he noted, is everything and it doesn’t necessarily matter that something has been done before.
At the end of the evening, the Goosebumps crowd rushed Stine with their tattered covers, and the Gladwell and Hilderbrand fans zeroed in. Grossman, too, was surrounded by admirers. The crowd sipped wine, shared their favorite bon mots of the evening, and finally sallied forth into the frosty New York night. It had been a true literary event.
by Christine Perez