Monday, May 11, 2009

Change Makers: Joyce Meskis

Tattered Cover owner adds new role with Denver Publishing Institute

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 5/11/2009

As a student at Purdue, Joyce Meskis envisioned her future as that of a college English professor. “In my mind's eye, I saw myself kicking the fall leaves on a campus as I walked to my nice but not ostentatious house, where French doors would be open and I could hear the strains of Chopin being played by my children,” she says. But a stint at the college bookstores changed her course, and today Meskis is known to all as owner of Denver's esteemed Tattered Cover Book Store and one of the most outspoken free speech advocates in bookselling. Meskis added to her bookselling career in January 2008 when she was named to succeed Elizabeth Geiser as the director of the University of Denver's summer Publishing Institute.

The institute was founded by Geiser in 1976, just two years after Meskis purchased Tattered Cover, and the two institutions have grown side by side. The institute has graduated nearly 3,000 students, while Tattered Cover has grown from a single location of 950 square feet to three locations. Her store's growth over the past three decades—and the very fact of its survival—is something she credits to the growth of Denver rather than to any particular ambition of her own. “There's a misperception about Denver that it's a community steeped in a western tradition, if you will,” she says, “but people were attracted to the city. They came here, had families—it became a magnet for well-educated people all over the country. It's no different than in a place like Portland, which grew Powell's, for example.”

Over her 35-year career, Meskis's success as a bookseller has sometimes been overshadowed by the store's well-documented legal battles in defense of First Amendment rights. Her line in this regard is well rehearsed: “Trouble finds us, we don't go looking for it,” she says. “When you're in a general community, you will always have challenges. There are things I didn't expect. I didn't expect so many court battles. You've got to do what you've got to do.”

Meskis describes the rewards of bookselling as two-fold. Empirically, she says, “There is an incredible bubble that rises in me when I hear a customer, especially if it's a child, say, 'Oh, wow, you've got that book.' It's exquisitely gratifying.” Philosophically, she says, it's the social profit that makes up for the struggle to make a financial profit. “Being there for the community of readers that you serve and doing the very best that you can do to encourage and enhance the reading lives of the people in your community is how we can contribute to making a better world,” Meskis says.

She sees publishing as serving much the same function, and it's a message she's been delivering to students at the University of Denver's Publishing Institute for nearly 20 years, where she has been a regular lecturer on bookselling. Now, as director, she has the opportunity to instill this philosophy even deeper into the program.

While it might seem like a tough time to be steward of a program that promises to train students for jobs in an industry that has seen so much bloodletting in recent months, the facts prove otherwise. In 2008, 96 students graduated from the four-week program, and this year the number of applicants is up. “The applicants we're getting are even better than last year,” Meskis adds, “and many of them are stating in the applications that while they recognize there are changes in the industry, they continue to love the idea of publishing and reading and doing something worthwhile.”

Meskis's has enticed an A-list of some 50 publishing people to lecture this summer, and Harper Studio's Bob Miller will give the keynote and Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, will give the graduation speech. “I see the students as being able to participate as agents of change, people who will be able to make publishing work best for the community that they choose to serve,” Meskis says.

Though a full-time university career may have been seductive in her youth, Meskis still plans to devote the bulk of her time and attention to her bookstores. “It's extremely gratifying work,” she says.

“People may love their technologies, but ink on paper between boards is part of the pleasure of reading,” says Meskis. “Bookshops are the focal point in a community where reader and writer come together. It's important that publishers continue to recognize and acknowledge that.”


Name: Joyce Meskis

Age: 67

Company: Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver; University of Denver Publishing Institute

Title: Co-owner; Director

First job: working “semester rush” at Purdue's bookstore.

Publishing in the future: a work in progress, as it incorporates new techologies with the continuing demands and challenges of the marketplace.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Keeping the Mailer Spirit Alive

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 5/4/2009

A few months before Norman Mailer died in November of 2007, his longtime collaborator Lawrence Schiller sat down with the legendary author to discuss his legacy. “There's a whole generation of people out there who don't know who you are,” Schiller told Mailer, “and I don't want you to be an author who someone reads six or seven books and doesn't read the rest.” Since Mailer's death, Schiller has devised a plan to make sure that doesn't happen, launching the Norman Mailer Writing Awards, organizing the Norman Mailer Writers Colony and enticing publishers to reissue or repackage some of Mailer's lesser known books. “Usually all an estate does in the first five years after a writer's death is issue a comprehensive book of letters—and, yes, we'll do that—but this has a different energy to it,” Schiller said.

The first Norman Mailer Writing Awards will be presented this October 20 at a benefit gala chaired by Tina Brown and David Remnick at Cipriani in New York City. Four awards will be presented. Toni Morrison will be honored for “lifetime achievement” and the late David Halberstam for “distinguished journalism”; as well, there will be two winners of a new nationwide writing contest, sponsored by the Norman Mailer Writing Colony and administered by the National Council of Teachers of English. One prize of $5,000 will go to a high school senior and a $10,000 award will go to a college student. The idea behind the awards, explained Schiller, is to expose Mailer's name to as many young people as possible. “I want students to go out and discover who Norman Mailer was and is,” he said.

The Writers Colony, situated in Mailer's former home in Provincetown, Mass., will induct its inaugural class of fellows this July. The first list of seven fellows includes Philip Shenon, author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation, and Alex Gilvarry, a former editor at Scholastic. Lasting a month, it caters to emerging writers of fiction and nonfiction who will be given room, board and a community with which to discuss their work. The program will be overseen by Greg Curtis and Jim Magnuson, both of the University of Texas at Austin, where the Mailer archive is held. In addition, starting this month, the colony will begin a series of workshops taught by Mailer's friends, ranging from J. Michael Lennon teaching “Writing Techniques of the New Journalism” to Douglas Brinkley on “Historical Research and the Narrative.” All workshop participants, save for two of seven spots, will be funded by scholarships from the colony.

Finally, Schiller has enlisted publishers to publish collections of letters and take another look at some of Mailer's lesser-known works. The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and Playboy have all published excerpts from Mailer's letters, while Taschen has two new books planned, including MoonFire, a collection of photos of the first moon landing that will incorporate text from Mailer's 1970 book on the landings, A Fire on the Moon, and America, a photographic compendium, also with text by Mailer. “All the introductions to Mailer's works from now on will be done by young writers. Colum McCann will introduce MoonFire, for example,” said Schiller.

“What Larry is doing is something that encapsulates all sides of Mailer, his public persona and his private side,” said Chris Napolitano, Playboy's editorial director, who has worked with both Mailer and Schiller. “Our various projects—the colony, prizes, publications—are not only to preserve interest in his writings, but his craft,” Schiller said. “The way he worked—the tenacity, creativity and generosity—is in some way just as important as the books, the films and his run for mayor.”

Sunday, May 03, 2009

'Woods Burner' by John Pipkin: Engaging debut novel about Henry David Thoreau

12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, May 3, 2009
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Edward Nawotka is a Houston freelance writer.

In September 2003, Harper's magazine ran a "Harper's Index" item that read: "Estimated acres of forest Henry David Thoreau burned down in 1844 trying to cook fish he had caught for dinner: 300."

That line became the seed for Austinite John Pipkin's wonderful debut novel, Woods Burner, which recounts the day of the fire from the perspective of Thoreau and the members of the community who come together to battle the conflagration, one that threatened to raze Concord.

Pipkin, who holds a doctorate in romantic poetry from Rice University and served as the executive director of the Writers' League of Texas from 2006 to 2008, draws a detailed picture of then 26-year-old Thoreau as conflicted man, one on the verge of abandoning his literary aspirations.

As the fire smolders around him, the result of an ill-conceived decision to spark a campfire in a tree stump on a windy day in the midst of a drought, he commits himself to a life of pragmatism, vowing, "Henceforth I shall sign my name Henry David Thoreau – Civil Engineer."

Of course, any school-aged child knows that things turned out quite differently. Throughout the novel, Pipkin imagines a series of encounters that galvanize Thoreau and lead him to live in isolation at Walden Pond just one year later.

As the fire rages, all manner of townsfolk, privileged and poor, white and black, are compelled to fight the inferno. At one point the young Thoreau finds himself side-by-side with a man he dubs "Young America," one he's surprised to learn has "lived in the woods, alone." Readers will already know this man is Oddmund Hus, a Norwegian immigrant and farmhand, who is obsessed with his employer's Irish wife, Emma.

It is through these imagined characters (a foppish Boston bookseller, a troubled reverend) that Pipkin depicts the American melting pot, still simmering with strife from the Revolutionary War and preparing to boil into the Civil War.

However didactic and cerebral this may sound, the story is infused with moments of genuine drama, peril and suspense. Woods Burner is edifying, engaging and satisfying, an exemplary illustration of how fiction can illuminate the past, bring history to life and make it feel as fresh and relevant as the present day.