- How have you managed to write over 40 books since 1991?
By managing to be born before Ritalin was invented. If it was around in the Sixties and Seventies when I was growing up, I have to think that my habit of bouncing from one topic to another would have been severely curtailed.
Plus, I’ve discovered that if left unmedicated, the ADD just gets worse. But that’s fine with me, there are still thousands of topics I’d like to explore, and I haven’t yet given up on the idea that there just may not be enough time to do it all.
But seriously, I did crank them out for awhile there. But I consider all of them—from The Everything One-Pot Cookbook to Time Off From Work —as part of an apprenticeship that continues to this day. I started writing magazine articles in 1981 and have pretty much been able to make a living at it ever since.
- How much time do you spend working and writing each day?
I have no idea. Some days, when I’m under deadline, I put the blinders on first thing in the morning and just go. Other days, I have been known to waste hours wandering around online under the guise of “research.” (No guilt here, it’s all research, even hanging out at a local pub to eavesdrop.) It’s not the time spent that’s important, it’s what I’ve been able to produce and—more importantly—learn in the course of a day.
- What’s the favorite book that you’ve written?
For several years, it was Death Warmed Over. Today, I’d have to say it’s A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein, my third full-length biography, which was published in November 2007 by St. Martins Press. It was by far the hardest book I’ve ever written because Shel wanted to squeeze as much as possible out of every second of every day, and he flung himself into the world with so much abandon that it was like writing and researching five books instead of one.
But at the same time, Shel was such a character, making no excuses for his behavior and creativity, that it was sheer pleasure to talk to the people who knew him and listen to their stories, because their own memories of him were still so vivid. I regret that I never met him.
- I’ve written a book that will be the next Da Vinci Code/The Secret/etc. How do I get an agent?
Run out and buy Judith Appelbaum’s How to Get Happily Published. Subscribe to Publishers Weekly. Learn everything you can about the book business and develop a thick skin.
- What are the differences you’ve found between the subjects of your four full-length biographies?
I recently realized that as I begin to research each man’s life, I unconsciously start to live like them in order to better understand who they were and what made them tick. With Dr. Atkins, I mainlined steak day in and day out for months. With Dan Brown, I absorbed his methods for how he writes and plots out his novels, not only into my own novel but in my biography of him as well. With Shel, since he was much more than just a children’s author, with prodigious output in music, theatre, art, and writing, I found that I was bouncing around more, going from working on nonfiction to fiction while also taking more time for my music—I play classical and blues piano—and to hang out with friends. Shel didn’t need much sleep, and I started sleeping less as well. I don’t do this deliberately, it’s part of the organic process of learning so much about one person’s life that I first have to become them in a way and only then am I able to accurately convey that life to a reader.
BTW, I write my biographies for fans of the subject, not their detractors. I’m not out to do a hatchet job, that’s not my personality, I’ll leave that to the Kitty Kelleys of the world. When researching Dr. Atkins, I tried to talk to people at his company as well as his wife, but no one would agree to an interview. Their spokesman actually sent me a nasty note to tell me to lay off. After the book was published, I received a note from Mrs. Atkins who said she picked up my book with trepidation, but she was very pleased to see that I managed to capture his personality and who he was in his professional and personal life. That letter really validated all the hard work and my approach to it.
- Why do you like to write about writers?
They fascinate me because I like to see what makes them tick, and how their work reveals themselves, usually unwittingly. Also, since I’ve been writing for more than 25 years, I learn new things from their own work habits. They also inspire me to branch out into new areas and styles of writing.
- How are the quote books you’ve edited on Barack Obama, Colin Powell, and Howard Dean different from the biographies?
These books are collections of quotes that are organized into categories so people could get a better idea of who these people are and where they stood on a variety of political issues. Each was published just before the primary season got into full swing. They provided good practice for writing the biographies.
I lived in New Hampshire for twenty years, and the presidential election process never really shut down completely since the state has the first primary in the nation. Three out of four years, potential candidates are crawling all over the state to appear at events that are just short of the opening of an envelope. I lived in places where it’s not unusual for a cat-up-a-tree to be the lead story on the top-of-the hour news at some local stations. Well, during one primary run-up a two full years before the election, the cat up the tree story beat out John Kerry sucking on ribs at a local senior center barbecue the day before, which you think would humble these guys somewhat, but it doesn’t.
Some people in the state love the primary while I was always more amused by it, particularly how far these guys are willing to go and what they’re willing to say to win us over. New Hampshire is a place where you can get right into a candidate’s face and grill them for the better part of the afternoon. It not only shows how they stand up under pressure but also that they’re human. Unfortunately, it also makes me think, of all the millions of people in the United States, this crop is the best we can come up with?
- What was it like to be a featured guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show?
I appeared on Oprah’s show in summer of 1997 for a show she did about small towns. One of my long-ago books was Moving to the Country Once and For All, and for a couple of years I specialized in this topic; I wrote a couple of books on the subject and also published a bimonthly newsletter. At the time, I lived in a very remote area in New Hampshire, in a town with a population of about 1000 people.
How times have changed…Today I love everything about cities, the busier the better.
- What are you working on now?
In addition to running BehindTheKnife.com, I also blog at TargetVacations.ca, write articles about food, wine, and travel for a variety of magazines and websites, and am nailing down the subject of my next biography.
- Okay, why the morbid fascination with death stuff?
I’ve never been to embalming school and I’ve never worked at a funeral home. And I don’t have a morbid streak. My focus on selling vintage funeral items began early in 2001 when I was in the process of taking some time off from my main vocation as magazine and book writer, temporarily, or so I thought.
At the time, every one of my regular gigs had gone under or cut way back as a result of the first dot-com bust — I was writing on high-tech — and I needed a break anyway. I had always dabbled on eBay, and served as the business columnist at the sadly-defunct eBay Magazine, so after I had sold everything I owned that I no longer wanted, I started poking through local flea markets and antiques malls to see what I could find.
My epiphany came at a junk shop in Claremont, New Hampshire. I’ve always been a sucker for things in original boxes and cases, and one day when I was wandering through one of my regular haunts, I turned a corner and laid eyes on a box of funeral candles, circa 1910.
I was fascinated by the candles, the crackly patina of the old wood, the crucifices, the flame-like light bulbs, but mostly that such an item existed. I bought them, put them on eBay, made almost no money on them, but the winning bidder was a funeral director in Tacoma, Washington, who immediately sent me his wish list. I spent the next two years buying and selling old funeral equipment from funeral homes throughout the northeast. And the funeral directors I spoke with loaded me up with stories, so that I knew when I returned to writing a few years in the future, the stories would inevitably turn into a book or two.
Both Death Warmed Over and Stones and Bones of New England were published in 2004.
- Why do you drive a hearse?
I first started driving hearses when I was buying and selling the old funeral stuff. Hearses get in your blood, and I am now on my seventh, a red 1992 Buick Roadmaster Eagle named Ruby that I purchased from a funeral home in South Dakota.
Not only does Ruby come in handy to lug all of the musical equipment around, but it also makes it easy to spot in a parking lot. Before moving to Charleston, I always had a non-death car as well, but now I just drive the hearse, which makes for some interesting stories, like this one:
One day, I stopped in the parking lot of the local Piggly Wiggly. A guy is heading towards his truck parked the next spot over and stares at the hearse.
I issue my standard line: Want a ride?
(An aside: Most say no, but once a few drunk 20-somethings said Hell yeah! and jumped right into the back. They texted their friends like crazy from the back, saying, You’ll never guess where we are right now. When I stopped to let them out and take a picture next to Bert’s Market in Folly Beach, an almost-dead crow fell from the sky and onto the street right next to the hearse, whereupon a horde—what’s the official term for a flock of crows? a murder!—of his blood-lust-filled compatriots set upon the hapless bird, pecking him to finish off the job, which was kinda surreal…)
Anyway, the guy at The Pig turns me down but peers in the back. “Is that a suitcase?” he asks, pointing at a squarish hardshell case. “Are you running away?”
No, I tell him it’s an accordion.
“Is it dead?”
No way could I go back to driving a boring car.
- What do you like to read?
Mostly non-fiction, for research and for pleasure. And cookbooks, food magazines, and culinary websites, blogs, and newsletters. I also like to read a lot of memoirs, along with loads of screenwriting books to help structure my fiction.