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Behind the Bestsellers at an NYU Media Talk

How much talent can you cram into a room? At the latest NYU Media Talk hosted by the NYU SPS Center for Publishing last week, it would have been hard to squeeze in any more. On stage as part of a panel entitled “The Real Story: Four Authors Take You Inside Their Literary Lives,” four authors decided to let the audience gain insights into their writing process, from the original manuscript to the finished print product.

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(left to right) Pamela Paul, Editor of the New York Times Book Review, leads authors Erik Larson, David Baldacci, Alice Hoffman, and Jeff Kinney in discussion at the NYU Media Talk.

The panel was made up of David Baldacci, author of 30 international bestsellers including Absolute Power and Wish You Well, and co-founder of the Wish You Well Foundation; Alice Hoffman, screenwriter and beloved author of The Dovekeepers and Practical Magic and now the New York Times bestseller The Marriage of Opposites; Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, one of the best-selling series for children in history; and Erik Larson, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, as well as The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. The moderator of the panel, Pamela Paul, Editor of the New York Times Book Review, is the author of Parenting, Inc. and contributes to several other publications, including TIME magazine.

Despite their fame, the authors seemed as excited to share their literary experiences as we in the audience were to hear them. There were no grand entrances or special requests as the four arrived. We tend to forget that authors go through their day just as anyone else. Humble though they were that night, these authors are special; they see the world in different ways, using words to capture what few others can express. During the panel, Pamela Paul set out to uncover what the authors love about writing and how they connect with their audience—as well as with their publishers.

To make the point that the authors have different (and surprising) backgrounds, Paul asked each panelist what jobs they had held before they turned to writing. The answers came pouring out: a pool boy, a security guard, a park supervisor, and, in a surprising turn, a secretary at a sex clinic. (I’ll let you guess which title belongs to which author.) Paul thought back to when she was a supermarket checker, using this experience to spin stories in her head based on the items people bought.

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Covers of some celebrated books by the Media Talk authors were on display during the conversation.

Paul then continued the discussion by asking what made each author want to become a writer. To this, Alice Hoffman simply stated that it was because she had always wanted to be a reader. She usually starts off exploring a world that interests her and then the story unravels itself. David Baldacci started writing when his mother gave him a notebook; he continued writing throughout his early career as a lawyer. He even sent a story to Playboy, but never got a response.

Jeff Kinney wanted to draw cartoons and eventually changed from a computer programmer to creating cartoons for adults about the humor of childhood. These eventually became his beloved middle-grade books after his editor advised him to focus on a younger generation. He attributes the stories of childhood in his books to this formula: “Humor equals tragedy plus time.” Erik Larson also started out wanting to be a cartoonist, but returned to writing novels after repeatedly receiving rejection letters from The New Yorker about his artwork.

As the evening progressed, Paul questioned the authors about their writing schedules. Kinney explained that he spends 15 hours a day for two months on his cartoons, then about a month on the actual manuscript. (And that follows four months laboring over his jokes in the book.) Baldacci writes until “the tank is empty” without keeping a word count and loves the editing process. He said that an idea may not come for a long time, but that writing is “equal parts discipline and chaos.”

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Pamela Paul listens as Erik Larson explains his writing process to the audience.

For Larson, the finished project is like giving birth to a child. As he struggles to find the right idea for his next book, Larson goes through what a friend calls the “dark country of no ideas.” But once he settles on a project, he goes through an intense research phase and then starts writing one page a day.

Alice Hoffman describes writing as an escape. She used to write in the small amount of time before she went to work each morning. Now, she says, “I just write as much as I can. For me, it’s like meditating or taking drugs or something. I am in another place and I want to be in that other place.”

But writing the book is only part of the publishing process. Paul turned the conversation to the importance of having an editor. When she asked if the authors really needed an editor to publish their work, all of the publishing students in the room nervously shifted to the edge of their seats. Was all that studying of the publishing process soon to be useless? The students exhaled when the authors agreed that they could never self-publish because their editor and publisher are as invested in their work as they are. The publisher is your cheerleader there to “help you build a career doing something you really love to do,” Baldacci said. For Larson, the publishing process is invaluable: “I like the copy editing… I love the whole confidence that you get when it’s done.” Hoffman reflected that the “whole idea of self publishing is scary in a way. I have been very lucky with those [publishers] with whom I’ve worked.”

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Jeff Kinney (right) discusses the value of having a traditional publisher with Alice Hoffman and David Baldacci.

The only one of the four who has published any work online is Kinney; he originally published 1,300 pages of Diary of a Wimpy Kid on the website Fun Brain nine years before it found a print publisher. Though this created a mass following of 20 million readers, Kinney said: “There is nothing like the validation of getting your work published as a real book.”

Yet, despite all the support from a publishing house—the multiple layers of editing through many hands—the process is not infallible. Kinney told of a time when his own kids noticed a mistake in one of his books that had been through multiple editors and sent to press. There was a quarter moon in a drawing when the text referred to a full moon. “Of course, when I showed it to my kids,” he recalled, “they said: ‘That’s not a full moon!’ and I just went pale.”

And what about the push to digital? How have these authors adapted? Though Hoffman conceded that there is a beauty to digital formats, particularly when someone has grown up with them, she believes that “the book is a beautiful object, more than just the words, almost a piece of art. That’s what attracted me as a little girl when I walked into a library.” Still, the authors realize that they have to go where the audience is. Larson spoke of his love for Twitter to connect to fans, saying he is a “high functioning introvert.” Baldacci believes that a book is a book, no matter what format. That said, his kids like print books and have told him: “ ‘Dad, we spend every waking moment of our lives staring at a screen; the last thing we want to do to relax is to stare at another screen’.” Baldacci thinks this is one reason why ebooks have reached a plateau.

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The panelists and moderator pose with Dennis Di Lorenzo, Harvey J. Stedman Dean, NYU School of Professional Studies (second from left); and Andrea Chambers, Director of the NYU SPS Center for Publishing (right), at the NYU Media Talk.

In conclusion, the panelists reflected on how our fast-paced world affects their books. How do you capture the attention of a reader when they can watch Netflix instead? Kinney talked about his success in pulling in reluctant readers (code word for “boy,” he noted) by making them laugh at a character who is “complicated and a little bit unsavory. He [the character] is not a role model… the readers see a little of themselves when they read it.” Alice Hoffman told of the bond a book can form with readers. Hers tend to be loners, but a book makes them “alone, but not alone,” she observed.

When we live in a world that is so packed with information, Baldacci believes: “If you tell a great story, people will read it. Human beings are attracted to great stories, so keep writing them. Don’t worry about the length so much.” As for Larson, he likes to use social media to hear people discussing his work, and gains insight into the passion that people have not only for his books, but reading in general. “There is a hunger for a great story,” he notes, “If anything, it’s intensifying.”

by Lainey Mays

Want more from the NYU Media Talk? Visit our website to watch the full video

Credit for all photos: ©NYU Photo Bureau: Olivo

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