"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser



I think the first task for the aspiring novelist is to read tons of novels. Sorry to start with such a commonplace observation, but no training is more crucial. To write a novel, you must first understand at a physical level how one is put together . . . It is especially important to plow through as many novels as you can while you are still young. Everything you can get your hands on—great novels, not-so-great novels, crappy novels, it doesn’t matter (at all!) as long as you keep reading. Absorb as many stories as you physically can. Introduce yourself to lots of great writing. To lots of mediocre writing too. This is your most important task.

–from Murakami’s 2015 essay “So What Shall I Write About?,” tr. Ted Goossen

Take the old words and make them new again.

One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

–from Murakami’s 2007 essay “Jazz Messenger“

Explain yourself clearly.

[When I write,] I get some images and I connect one piece to another. That’s the story line. Then I explain the story line to the reader. You should be very kind when you explain something. If you think, It’s okay; I know that, it’s a very arrogant thing. Easy words and good metaphors; good allegory. So that’s what I do. I explain very carefully and clearly.

–in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review/em>

Share your dreams.

Dreaming is the day job of novelists, but sharing our dreams is a still more important task for us. We cannot be novelists without this sense of sharing something.

–from Murakami’s 2011 acceptance speech for the Catalunya International Prize

Write to find out.

I myself, as I’m writing, don’t know who did it. The readers and I are on the same ground. When I start to write a story, I don’t know the conclusion at all and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. If there is a murder case as the first thing, I don’t know who the killer is. I write the book because I would like to find out. If I know who the killer is, there’s no purpose to writing the story.

–in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review/em>

Hoard stuff to put in your novel.

Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─it’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I can’t recall everything, but he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.

First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!

–from Murakami’s 2015 essay “So What Shall I Write About?,” tr. Ted Goossen

Repetition helps.

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

–in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review/em>

Focus on one thing at a time.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist [after talent], that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. . . Even a novelist who has a lot of talent and a mind full of great new ideas probably can’t write a thing if, for instance, he’s suffering a lot of pain from a cavity.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Although I compose essays as well as works of fiction, unless circumstances dictate otherwise, I avoid working on anything else when I am writing a novel . . . Of course, there is no rule that says that the same material can’t be used in an essay and a story, but I have found that doubling up like that somehow weakens my fiction.

–from Murakami’s 2015 essay “So What Shall I Write About?,” tr. Ted Goossen

Cultivate endurance.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years. You can compare it to breathing.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Experiment with language

It is the inherent right of all writers to experiment with the possibilities of language in every way they can imagine—without that adventurous spirit, nothing new can ever be born.

–from “The Birth of My Kitchen Table Fiction,” tr. Ted Goossen, 2015

Have confidence.

The most important thing is confidence. You have to believe you have the ability to tell the story, to strike the vein of water, to make the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Without that confidence, you can’t go anywhere. It’s like boxing. Once you climb into the ring, you can’t back out. You have to fight until the match is over.

–from a 1992 lecture at Berkeley, as transcribed in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin

Write on the side of the egg.

[This] is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

–from Murakami’s 2009 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech

Observe your world.

Reflect on what you see. Remember, though, that to reflect is not to rush to determine the rights and wrongs or merits and demerits of what and whom you are observing. Try to consciously refrain from value judgments—don’t rush to conclusions. What’s important is not arriving at clear conclusions but retaining the specifics of a certain situation . . . I strive to retain as complete an image as possible of the scene I have observed, the person I have met, the experience I have undergone, regarding it as a singular “sample,” a kind of test case as it were. I can go back and look at it again later, when my feelings have settled down and there is less urgency, this time inspecting it from a variety of angles. Finally, if and when it seems called for, I can draw my own conclusions.

–from Murakami’s 2015 essay “So What Shall I Write About?,” tr. Ted Goossen

Try not to hurt anyone.

I keep in mind to “not have the pen get too mighty” when I write. I choose my words so the least amount of people get hurt, but that’s also hard to achieve. No matter what is written, there is a chance of someone getting hurt or offending someone. Keeping all that in mind, I try as much as I can to write something that will not hurt anyone. This is a moral every writer should follow.

–from Murakami’s 2015 advice column

Take your readers on a journey.

As I wrote A Wild Sheep Chase, I came to feel strongly that a story, a monogatari, is not something you create. It is something that you pull out of yourself. The story is already there, inside you. You can’t make it, you can only bring it out. This is true for me, at least: it is the story’s spontaneity. For me, a story is a vehicle that takes the reader somewhere. Whatever information you may try to convey, whatever you may try to open the reader’s emotions to, the first thing you have to do is get that reader into the vehicle. And the vehicle–the story–the monogatari–must have the power to make people believe. These above all are the conditions that a story must fulfill.

–from a 1992 lecture at Berkeley, as transcribed in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin

Write to shed light on human beings.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist’s job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories—stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

–from Murakami’s 2009 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech

No matter what, it all has to start with talent. . . 

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

–from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Writing is similar to trying to seduce a woman. A lot has to do with practice, but mostly it’s innate. Anyway, good luck.

–from Murakami’s 2015 advice column

. . . unless you work really hard!

Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can write easily, no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category. I have to pound away at a rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of my creativity. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another hole. But, as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening those holes in the rock and locating new water veins. As soon as I notice one source drying up, I move on to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their source, they’re in trouble.

In other words, let’s face it: life is basically unfair. But, even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness.

–from Murakami’s 2008 essay “The Running Novelist,” tr. Philip Gabriel

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Lisa Lucas, National Book Foundation: Stop Saying Books Are Dead. They’re More Alive Than Ever

Lisa Lucas is the executive director of the National Book Foundation, the presenter of the National Book Awards and a non-profit that celebrates the best literature in America, expands its audience, and ensures that books have a prominent place in American culture

“The book is dead,” is a refrain I hear constantly. I’ll run into people on the subway, in a taxi, in an airport, or wherever I might be and when I tell them what I do, they ask me “do people even still read anymore?” This simple question implies the very work I do at the National Book Foundation may not be worthwhile—or even possible. It’s generally a casual statement, a throwaway remark, a comment repeated so often that it’s taken as fact. The book is obviously dead, or at least dying, right?

False. When people tell me that fighting for books is fighting a futile battle, that’s the moment my optimism kicks in. That’s the moment I power up my very deepest belief in literature. A person who wants to challenge or lament the death of reading with me is a person looking for a fight and, I think, a person who wants to be convinced otherwise. This gives me hope. I’m here for this fight.

Not long ago, I came across an article with the headline “Reading is a rapidly depleting form of entertainment,” which cited recent findings from Pew Research Center that 24% of Americans didn’t read a book in 2017. Now, what I saw was that 76% of Americans did read a book. The reality is that if 76% of any population is participating in a single activity then you are surrounded by people doing that very thing. The article said that books are dying; the research said—to me, at least—that we are a nation of readers.

The glass is far more than half full. After more than a decade of decline, the number of independent bookstores is on the rise — despite the dominance of online retailers. The American Booksellers Association, which promotes independent bookstores, says its membership grew for the ninth year in a row in 2018. Sales of physical books have increased every year since 2013, and were up 1.3% in 2018 compared to the previous year.

Of course, we know that everyone doesn’t read, and we didn’t need a poll to tell us. But we do need to better understand who reads and why and how to encourage them to read more and more joyfully. We need to figure out who has been left out of the conversation around books and welcome them into the fold with open arms. And so the job of people like me is to widen the audience and make sure that books remain steadfastly relevant to our culture. At the Foundation, we bring authors from around the nation to meet would-be readers on their home turf, distribute books to young people living in housing projects, and celebrate diverse, wide-ranging, excellent work on our largest stage at the National Book Awards.

My colleagues at publishers, libraries, bookstores and literary non-profits share these challenges. We all need to figure out how to make more seats at the table. Our job is to build readers. And while some might consider this work an uphill journey, we do this every day because the profound pleasures of a good book are for everyone, everywhere.

Storytelling is fundamental to human beings. It is how we explore and make sense of this world and understand one another. Because books absorb us and harness our imaginations, they are an essential medium for storytelling—as well as a satisfying one. The idea that these benefits and pleasures are for a limited subset of any given population is dangerous. Books are not exclusive.

Literature strengthens our imagination. If we all have the tools to try to imagine a better world, we’re already halfway there. Each day, there are more books being published that speak to every kind of person, from every kind of place. And I believe readers can be built—because I know we have an unlimited number of invitations to this party.

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Mike Rowe A Guy Walks into a Bar...

So I’m at the bar last night, waiting for my drink to arrive, when the man beside me orders a “Clint.”

“A Clint?” says the bartender.

The man reaches into his pocket and offers the bartender a business card. The bartender examines the card and nods his head.

“One Clint, coming up!”

I turn to the man beside me, who appears to be the same age as my father. “It’s none of my business,” I say, “but what the hell is a Clint?”

The man smiles and hands me his card. “Keep it,” he says. “Might come in handy sometime.”

On the business card, are the ingredients for a very specific drink. I am intrigued, not only by the drink, but by the man who carries a card with instructions for bartenders to properly mix the cocktail he desires.

“Campari?” I say. “Interesting.”

“Don’t knock it till you try it.”

“May I assume you’re the Clint for which the drink is named?” I ask.

“You may,” says Clint.

“And may I further assume you’re a man who has grown weary of describing a drink no one has ever heard of?"

“You may,” says Clint.

We shake hands, and I make no further assumptions about the man with a taste for pink cocktails. We chat some more though, and I soon learn that Clint has spent his life in law enforcement. Specifically, I learn that he worked with the secret service.

“Interesting,” I said. “Did you know John Barletta?” John is the only secret service guy I’d ever met. He guarded Reagan for years. I met him at the ranch once.

“Sure,” said Clint. I knew John very well. Good man. Died not too long ago.”

“Yeah,” I said. "I heard that. Did you read his book, Riding with Reagan?"

“Sure did,” said Clint. “He was devoted to the Reagans. Absolutely devoted.” Clint raised his pink drink to John Barletta, and we drank to his memory.

“Were you involved with Reagan?” I asked.

“No, I was done by then. My last guy was Ford.”

“Your last guy?” I asked.

“Yeah, I guarded Nixon before that.”


“And Johnson before that.”


“And Kennedy before that.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“No. I actually started with Eisenhower.”

“Wow,” I said. “Five Presidents? You must have some stories.”

Suffice it to say, he does. Turns out, the man sipping the pink cocktail with yours truly is the agent who threw himself over Jackie Kennedy in 1963, two seconds after her husband was assassinated in Dallas. Clint was not only there - he was in the middle of it. All of it.

Last night, I came home and read up on Clint Hill. This President’s Day, I encourage you to do the same. His story is incredible. https://clinthillsecretservice.com/ Better yet, download the #1 New York Times Best Seller about his remarkable life, Five Presidents. That's what I'm going to do. Then, I’m going to make myself a Clint, and think not just about the Presidents we remember on this day, but of the men and women who risk their lives protecting them.

Carry on, Clint Hill.
Carry on.


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Camille Paglia: Sexism and the 'Star Is Born' Films

The academic, author and cultural critic analyzes the four versions of the tragic love story and finds one a "feminist landmark" and Bradley Cooper’s to be "a misogynous disgrace."

A Star Is Born, with its symmetrical plotline of rising and falling stars, is Hollywood's canonical myth-saga, capturing both the glory and cruelty of the modern entertainment industry.

The fourth version of A Star Is Born, directed by Bradley Cooper and starring himself and Lady Gaga, has been nominated for eight Oscars at this year's Academy Awards. How does this movie treat our red-hot theme of women's aspirations and achievement? Surprisingly, despite its progressive gestures toward masculine sensitivity and transgender inclusiveness, this A Star Is Born is the most sexist film of the entire series.

In Cooper's film, the epic Hollywood story has been hijacked by camera-hogging male vanity, curtailing the magnificent classic role of the ascending woman star who painfully eclipses her self-destructive, alcoholic husband. What the script has stingily left to Gaga to play is not leading lady material. Her performance has never belonged in the best actress category because Cooper demoted her to supporting actress from the start.

Particularly outrageous amid the overpraise of Cooper's film has been denigration of the previous, 1976 version, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, from whose performance Cooper heavily borrowed. Except, that is, for Kristofferson's robust sexy allure: With his greasy hair, hobo beard and chronic slump, Cooper scarcely manages more than two facial expressions (dull and duller) throughout.

The dynasty of A Star Is Born began with What Price Hollywood? (1932), in which a waitress (Constance Bennett) is discovered by an alcoholic movie director, who steers her to Tinseltown fame at a time when the phenomenon of movie stardom was barely two decades old.

Janet Gaynor, the heroine of the first A Star Is Born (1937), had won the very first Oscar for best actress for 1927. The girliest of the four, she was already 30 when the movie was shot, which explains why we sometimes feel a strain in her miming of fragile innocence. However, Gaynor's Esther Blodgett is gritty with ambition, inspired by the movie magazines she devours in her North Dakota farmhouse.

In the wake of American women winning the vote after World War I, the film foregrounds the then-new theme of female careerism. Esther rejects marriage and motherhood as her only choice: "I'm going to be somebody!" Overarching the film is her outspoken grandmother, a formidable dowager played by May Robson, who supports her drive to succeed and identifies it with her own generation of pioneer women who braved immense hardships. At the end, the grandmother, stronger than the heroine's dead spouse, reappears and plants her female flag in Hollywood, forcing Esther (now Vicki Lester) to embrace her professional dominance.

The film explores the unresolved conflicts still experienced by many women in balancing home and work. Most studio-era movies showed women eagerly surrendering their job for a wedding ring. A trace of this remains in the first A Star Is Born in Vicki's decision to abandon her career to care for her husband (Fredric March), who is struggling with substance abuse. But in a heroic gender reversal, he frees her by sacrificing himself, walking into the sea at Malibu.

Oscars: How Did 'A Star Is Born' Become a Longshot for Best Picture?
From its opening panorama of the glittering lights of Los Angeles, the 1937 film exhilaratingly documents the sights, rituals and churning mechanism of the movie industry, from clapper boards, screen tests and Central Casting to premieres, awards shows and mobs of ruthless fans (who tear off Vicki's veil at her husband's funeral).

Clinically inspected and processed by the brusquely efficient makeup and publicity departments, Vicki emerges with a new name and life story. She has become that supreme artifact, the movie star. All this sweeping expansiveness — the wilderness through which the fairy-tale heroine apprehensively makes her way — is missing from the disjointed Cooper film, which claustrophobically contracts to Jackson Maine's stalled relationships with other men. The ravenous industry in which Ally (Gaga) rises is hardly glimpsed.

The Judy Garland version (1954), like the Gaynor film, has a tremendous sense of place. It begins with the thrilling magnitude of spotlights, clogged streets and surging crowds at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, palpably vibrating with the excitement of old Hollywood. Compare this riveting specificity to the fogginess of the Cooper film, where we're never sure where we are. (Does Jackson live in Laurel Canyon or Santa Barbara? Does Ally live in New York or the San Fernando Valley? If the latter, why is she taking a jet plane to see Jackson's show, which is presumably in L.A.?)

The Shrine event is shockingly disrupted by drunken, belligerent Norman Maine (James Mason), who lurches through a backstage bevy of ballerinas and showgirls. Unsparingly presenting Maine as arrogant with male privilege, the script prepares the way for the tragic intensity of the love story. In contrast, Cooper upgrades himself to lovable stumbling klutz, merely drawing a few hard glances from fellow musicians. He thus defeats the entire redemptive pattern of the three earlier films.

What astonishes about the Garland version is how often she appears in daringly half-male clothing with a butch haircut. This film's Norman Maine, whose predatory womanizing is seen at the Coconut Grove club, zeroes in on Garland's Esther in androgynous mode — a man's bow tie and long tuxedo jacket flashing pert legs and high heels. Directed by openly gay George Cukor, the movie suggests a hidden sexual fluidity in Norman, also shown when he enthusiastically subs as Esther's makeup and hairstylist.

In the Cooper film, in contrast, Jackson fails to recognize a false eyebrow and ickily peels it off Ally's forehead like a parasitic slug. Inexplicably, Cooper sets the scene in a glossily sanitized drag bar while missing a huge opportunity to showcase Lady Gaga in drag — as in Marlene Dietrich's swaggering cabaret style.

The tour de force of the Garland Star is her epochal performance of "The Man That Got Away," a torch song that became an anthem for gay men in the pre-Stonewall era. Here we see the supranormal power of the true star: Garland's petite body literally throbs with profound passion, repeatedly arcing from soft to loud and back. A gifted performer operating at this level of near-mystical inspiration has entered an abstract realm beyond gender.

In the third A Star Is Born (1976), John Norman Howard (Kristofferson) is a rock star, while Esther Hoffman (Streisand) fronts a biracial trio, the Oreos. One of the greatest romantic scenes in film history is achieved by Streisand and Kristofferson when he charismatically improvises lyrics to her exquisite piano riff ("Lost Inside of You"). Two minds and bodies meld, as the locale shifts to a candlelit bathtub, where Esther flips sex roles by rouging John Norman's cheeks and tenderly tagging his eyebrow with transgender glitter.

Cooper's Jackson generates credibly hard-edged guitar rock in scenes filmed at several music festivals, but they are less well photographed than those at Arizona's Sun Devil Stadium in the Streisand film. Furthermore, the overall soundtrack of the new A Star Is Born is bland and forced. Gaga's pop singing still lacks subtlety and finesse. She and her hard-core fans mistake applause-milking bellowing for emotional authenticity. Truly great singers, from Aretha Franklin to Adele, know how to express and temper emotion at high volume.

A harrowing highlight of the series is the ritual humiliation of the leading man. The Gaynor and Garland films are gut-wrenching in showing the cold contempt of other men for a wounded alpha male as he tumbles down to become a mere adjunct to a more successful woman. The public scenes at Santa Anita racetrack, where Norman is shunned, derided and slugged to the floor are unforgettable, as are the private scenes where he is idly housebound and painfully called "Mr. Lester" by a delivery man.

Barging drunk into the Academy Awards banquet, Norman ruins Vicki's supreme moment with his bitter rant against Hollywood. In the first two films, he inadvertently slaps her, drawing gasps from the crowd — a fiasco that starts his slide toward suicide. In the Streisand film, a decade after the birth of second-wave feminism, the venue switches to the Grammy Awards and, significantly, there is no physical blow.

At the Grammys in Cooper's film, the tipsy Jackson simply slips en route to the stage with Ally. And it all ends in infantile passivity: Jackson pisses his pants in full view of the audience. This ugly scene, which reduces a triumphant career woman to a gal pal awkwardly hiding a urine spill with a flap of her gown, is a misogynous disgrace.

In retrospect, we can now fully recognize Streisand's A Star Is Born as a feminist landmark. Wandering into a low-rent club, rowdy John Norman is instantly attracted to her Esther when she sticks a mic under his nose and sternly rebukes him, "You're blowing my act." Garland's androgynous costumes are revamped by Streisand's gender-bending outfits ("from her closet," say the credits), including a belted Cossack shirt with high boots.

Finding John Norman in bed with a groupie, Esther says in white-hot fury, "You can trash your life, but you're not going to trash mine," then speeds to the game room to smash his liquor bottles with a pool cue, in spectacular close-up. After his death in a James Dean-like car crash, Esther (introduced as "Esther Hoffman Howard," rejecting the previous films' female erasure of "Mrs. Norman Maine") reappears for an operatic solo of grief, defiance and transcendence.

Streisand takes the audience prisoner in this almost unendurably protracted single take, a raw assertion of female ego and power. Then the credits flash with her multiple roles, starting with executive producer. Streisand was setting the terms for the new frontier: women in Hollywood seizing control of their own creative universe.

Camille Paglia's most recent book is Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education.  Read more 

Betty Ballantine, Who Helped Introduce Paperbacks, Dies at 99

Betty Ballantine, who with her husband helped transform reading habits in the pre-internet age by introducing inexpensive paperback books to Americans, died on Tuesday in Bearsville, N.Y. She was 99.

Betty and Ian Ballantine established the American division of the paperback house Penguin Books in 1939. They later founded Bantam Books and then Ballantine Books, both of which are now part of Penguin Random House.

In those early years the challenge for purveyors of high quality, inexpensive paperbacks was enormous. At the time, Americans mainly read magazines or took out books from libraries; there were only about 1,500 bookstores in the entire country, according to the Ballantines, who wrote about the origins of their business in The New York Times in 1989.

With a $500 wedding dowry from Ms. Ballantine’s father, the couple established Penguin U.S.A. by importing British editions of Penguin paperbacks, starting with “The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells and “My Man Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse.

They were not alone in seeing the potential of the paperback market in the United States. Pocket Books had just started publishing quality paperbacks, breaking in with Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” and James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon.”

Both companies charged just 25 cents per book, making books easily affordable for people unable or unwilling to pay for hardcover books, which cost $2 to $3 each (about $45 in today’s money). And they overcame the distribution problem by making books available almost everywhere, including in department stores and gas stations and at newsstands and train stations.

The paper shortage during World War II put a crimp in the business, but that was temporary.

In short order, paperback books were flying off the racks and shelves, with readers able to buy two or three at once and more companies starting to publish them. The Ballantines were making good on Ian Ballantine’s stated goal: “To change the reading habits of America.”

They left Penguin in 1945 to start Bantam Books, a reprint house. Having purchased the paperback rights for 20 hardcovers, their first round of titles included Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi,” John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

They started Ballantine Books in 1952, publishing reprints as well as original works in paperback.

While Ian Ballantine, who died in 1995, was the better known of the publishing duo, Betty Ballantine, who was British, quietly devoted herself to the editorial side. She nurtured authors, edited manuscripts and helped promote certain genres — Westerns, mysteries, romance novels and, perhaps most significantly, science fiction and fantasy.

Her love for that genre and knowledge of it helped put it on the map.

“She birthed the science fiction novel,” said Tad Wise, a nephew of Ms. Ballantine’s by marriage. With the help of Frederik Pohl, a science fiction writer, editor and agent, Mr. Wise said, “She sought out the pulp writers of science fiction who were writing for magazines and said she wanted them to write novels, and she would publish them.”

In doing so she helped a wave of science fiction and fantasy writers emerge. They included Joanna Russ, author of “The Female Man” (1975), a landmark novel of feminist science fiction, and Samuel R. Delany, whose “Dhalgren” (1975) was one of the best-selling science fiction novels of its time.

The Ballantines also published paperback fiction by Ray Bradbury, whose books include “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451”; Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey”; and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“Betty was succinct and to the point and had a steely eye and was a respected editor,” Irwyn Applebaum, the former president and publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, now part of Penguin Random House, said in a telephone interview.

“Most people who knew the Ballantines would say that much of the editorial vision and brilliance, from variety to quality, that Bantam and Ballantine were known for were due to Betty,” Mr. Applebaum said. “Ian was the proselytizer for their brand of books, but Betty was the identifier, the nurturer, the editor.”

Elizabeth Norah Jones was born on Sept. 25, 1919, in Faizabad, India, during the British rule on the subcontinent. She was the youngest of four children of Norah and Hubert Arnold Jones.

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Her father was an assistant opium agent who oversaw quality control of the crop before it was exported to Britain, where it was used for medicinal purposes. He often traveled to remote farms to inspect crops and would take along his family, who would live in tents with full linen and silver service, Ms. Ballantine, Betty’s granddaughter, said in an email.

Betty learned to read at 3 by following her father’s finger as he read aloud. At 8 she was sent to school in Mussoorie, in northern India in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the heat was less stifling than at home.

When she was 13, the family moved to the British island of Jersey in the English Channel, where she completed high school. She did not attend college; instead she took a job as a bank teller on Jersey, where she met Ian Ballantine, an American. They were married in 1939 and sailed for New York.

After building Ballantine, the couple sold the business to Random House in 1974, at which point Mr. Ballantine returned to Bantam in an emeritus status and Ms. Ballantine continued to work with authors, including the pilot Chuck Yeager and the actress Shirley MacLaine. The couple also published art books through their Rufus Publications.

Over time Ms. Ballantine earned a reputation as a shrewd and insightful editor.

“She was very traditional, and she put authors through their paces,” said Stuart Applebaum, a longtime publishing executive with Penguin Random House and the brother of Irwyn. “She understood that her job was to make the author’s work as good as it could be — in the author’s own words.”

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How The MEG Should Have Ended

How It Should Have Ended has released its latest fun take on Jason Statham's shark-hunting adventures in The Meg Movie!

Clocking in at just under three minutes, the clip runs through the various ways Statham's team could have and should have killed the shark.

You made a movie. Now what?

1. Making a good film isn’t enough.

Congrats! You made a good film. Sorry to say, that isn’t enough. “Of course, we want good films, but we are looking for a combination of elements that make it really stand out and give it a clear path to market. Having a film selected by a prestige festival gives a film an obvious path to market That’s part of the role of festivals, sales agents, marketing professionals and entertainment attorneys.” That said, sometimes films off the beaten track find their way to audiences. Just to say ‘it’s a good film’ is almost a meaningless description at this point. It’s totally subjective. If it's an advocacy documentary, is there a core audience or organizational value that will bring people out who will, in effect, vote their politics by buying a movie ticket? With a narrative film, there should be some approach to genre that makes it stand out stylistically. How is it unique?"

2. Determine your goals.

Before you set out to make your film, decide what your distribution goals are. “It’s really important to think about who you’re making the movie for and familiarize yourself with the marketplace. Do you care how your film is seen? On the big screen or at home? Socially or in isolation? Do you want a small, rabid group of people to see and love it or would you rather reach as many people as possible regardless of whether or not they appreciate it? Do you want to persuade a group of people to change their minds about an issue, or preach to your choir? Any and all of these are worthy goals in my view. It’s just important to decide upfront what’s important to you and then align your collaborators (and budget) accordingly. What are the goals and what do we want to accomplish? For most filmmakers, she said “the goals are to reach as wide an audience as possible, to pay back investors and to be in the position of making another film. When you're working with a distributor the goal is going to be money for the most part, but some want prestige or an awards campaign or visibility. When it comes to making those decisions, it's important that filmmakers have a holistic view and what are the sacrifices you're willing to make. If you want visibility, that may stand in the way of making money.

3. It’s never too early to start thinking about your distribution strategy.

Filmmakers should be considering festival and distribution strategy before they shoot. What kind of film are you making?

There are other steps filmmakers can take in pre-production that could benefit them when it’s time to seek distribution. “What can you do to enhance the marketability of your film? Maybe find someone with a social media following and put them in your film. During production, in addition to hiring a photographer to take set photos, you might consider additional original content that will help with marketing.

Research the market and develop a plan early in the process. Know what movies like yours have been doing in the market for the last five years and have a plan that you put in place before you start shooting. Distribution is work and time and planning and some money and it’s not going to be done for you. You don’t have a God-given right to make a movie and have it distributed, so be prepared for that not to happen and have a game plan.”

5. There is no “one size fits all” in distribution.

One film might benefit from a grassroots campaign with live events and another might do better going directly to VOD. Distribution is a strategy, not a formula.What works for a horror film is not necessarily going to work the same as a romantic comedy. Bbuild distribution campaigns that are specific to the film. Each film follows a unique path to distribution and it's up to the filmmaker to lead the way. Filmmakers have to understand that every film is different.The new equation is 50/50. 50 percent of your time, money and resources should go into making the film and 50% should go to connecting your film to an audience.

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Russell Baker on Writing...

“The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn't require any.”

~ Russell Baker

R.I.P. RUSSELL BAKER 1925-2019

Russell Baker (You might recognize his face if you watched Masterpiece Theater on PBS) died in January a few days after my birthday, and I recall with fond nostalgia our lunch at the New York City Yale Club about the same time in 1984--some months after The Los Angeles Times Book Review nominated his Growing Up for its Biography Award and asked me to do the write-up:

We share a gentler world in Russell Baker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Growing Up (Congdon & Weed: $15, hardcover; Plume: $5.95, paperback), a book that casts the spell of honesty on narcissism and turns it into sweet nostalgia. Baker frames his autobiography with the recent death of his mother: “It was useless now to ask for help from my mother. The orbits of her mind rarely touched present interrogators for more than a moment.”

His father died when he was five, and his memories of the wake have that family vividness that makes us realize how our memories are formed, “‘Do you want to kiss you daddy?’ Annie asked, ‘Not now,’ I said.”

Interwoven with gossip, insight and deeply moving letters from his mother’s Depression suitor, the texture of Baker’s reminiscence transforms deferred pain to present poignancy. We end at his mother’s deathbed: “Her eyelids closed again. ‘You remember Russell,’ I said. ‘And Mimi. You remember Mimi.’ Her mind seemed about to surface again. She got her eyes open.

‘Who?” ‘Russell,’ I said. ‘Russell and Mimi.’ She glared at me the way I had so often seen her glare at a dolt. ‘Never heard of them,’ she said, and fell asleep.”

The life of a human being is a million moments of action. Character is decision, a signpost along the way. Biographers serve us by revealing how human beings design for themselves the characteristic force that gives life meaning. They offer models for emulation or avoidance…

He’d written to thank me for the review, and I suggested the lunch because I’d considered him a mentor in my journalism career. During lunch we discovered dozens of what my friend the late Denise Levertov called “Interweavings,” those connections discovered only when human beings actually sit down to talk about nothing in particular, just life in general. If I recall, we talked about the creative energy caused by deadlines and word-count restrictions, Richard Nixon, and solitude vs loneliness. I walked out feeling exalted by being in the presence of a fully engaged human being. Even today I savor trips to New York, one of the cities, other than in my native South, where just plain talking is still considered the best that it gets and where many of this country’s just plain good talkers like Russell hang out.

He made it to 93, died of “complications from a fall,” as so many do, including my brother Fred this past July.

I’m sorry I can’t report massive insights from the lunch. What I can report is the gentleness of spirit that informed his writing and his life, and that made me want the genial conversation to go on forever. And so it will.

Congratulations to our friend and colleague Nancy Nigrosh who Joins The Partos Company To Head Motion Picture & TV Division!

Nancy Nigrosh The Partos Company

Nancy Nigrosh, the industry veteran who has worked repping directors and writers as a talent and literary agent at Innovative Artists and running the lit department at Gersh, has joined The Partos Company. She has been tapped to head the Motion Picture & Television department at the Santa Monica-based agency, which is known for its representation of artists behind the camera.

Nigrosh previously ran the consulting firm Literary Business and taught at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. During her career she has repped clients including helmers Kathryn Bigelow, Peter Bogdanovich, Chris Eyre, John Cameron Mitchell and Leslye Headland and scribes Barry Morrow, Amanda Brown, Luke Davies, Albert Magnoli and Stuart Beattie.

Partos, run by Walter Partos, reps clients including costume designers Albert Wolsky (Bugsy), Natalie O’Brien (Honey Boy) and Heidi Bivens (Mid90s); cinematographers Scott Cunningham (Kendrik Lamar’s “Humble”) and Maxime Alexandre; and producer Hartley Gorenstein (The Boys).

“Every agency has the same information, knows the same people and pursues the same projects,” Partos said. “Nancy has an incredible eye for material and, at the end of the day, choosing the right material is the difference between a great career and a good one. It is an honor to collaborate with her.”

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How To Book Meetings With Studio Heads And Get Into The Story Market - Dr. Ken Atchity With Alex Berman

With more than forty years’ experience in the publishing world, and twenty-five years in entertainment, Dr. Ken Atchity is a self-defined “Story Merchant” – author, professor, producer, career coach, teacher, and literary manager, responsible for launching dozens of books and films. Ken’s life passion is finding great storytellers and turning them into commercial authors and screenwriters.

In this episode you’ll learn: 

[01:14] Dr. Ken’s first deal was for 8 movies

[05:25] No one knows anything in Hollywood [06:14] Entertainment business is based on wild ideas 

[06:36] What stops someone from thinking outside the box 

[08:40] It took 22 years for Meg to get to the screen 

[12:13] Story market is very volatile 

[15:14] How is Dr. Ken setting up the meetings with studio heads 

[17:55] How to stay memorable 

[19:50] Pitching is an art 

[23:00] Difference between amateur and veteran pitching 

[23:55] What makes for a good film story 

[28:55] It’s hard to get in the story market at a national level

Brought to you by Experiment 27. Find them on Youtube.
If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to The Alex Berman Podcast on iTunes and leave us a 5-star review.

Let me help you make your career take off!

Whether you're a novelist seeking to break into publishing or film, a screenwriter seeking to be discovered in a volatile marketplace, an expert in your field ready for the global stage, or a published author in need of a smarter strategy, Story Merchant Dr. Ken Atchity provides dynamic personally-tailored coaching (and representation, in select cases) to take your career to the next level. 

 Visit www.StoryMerchant.com

Liz Manashil & Rebecca Green - This is What Distributors Want in a Film

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There is nowhere for filmmakers to go to learn the protocol for selling your film. No one tells you who is supposed to reach out to whom—do you call the distributors or do they call you? Liz Manashil and  Rebecca Green joined forces to  create a distribution resource for filmmakers that could help break down the walls between artists and gatekeepers.

To create this resource, they reached out to the distributors who are currently acquiring and releasing independent films and asked them a series of questions:

How long has your company been in business? HISTORY

How many titles do you acquire a year? TITLES PER YEAR

Of these titles, can you break down (even if a rough estimate) how many are theatrical vs how many are just digital? TYPES OF RELEASES

Do you take all rights? All territories? RIGHTS

Would you be willing to share a rough range for term length your contracts i.e. 1-5 years, 10-15 years. TERM

What do you look for when acquiring titles? WHAT WE’RE LOOKING FOR

How important is having name cast? CAST

Do existing social media numbers impact your decision? SOCIAL MEDIA

What festivals do you attend and consider strong markets for acquiring films? FESTIVALS

How many employees do you have? EMPLOYEES

How should filmmakers approach you? Do you take unsolicited submissions or do you only work with sales agents? SUBMISSIONS

What follows is a breakdown of the distributors who were willing to participate and be transparent in giving an inside look at their process.

1) Term lengths are still astronomically high.

If you look closely, you’ll see that the typical term length for most distributors is 10-15 years. At a time where we can barely predict what will be the most successful distribution model six months ahead of time, why are independent storytellers acquiescing to giving away our rights for so long?

2) Distributors did not admit the influence of social media in their acquisitions.

As someone who manages the Creative Distribution Fellowship at Sundance Institute, I’m aware that social media presence is really important. It implies that the filmmaker has taken the time to build a foundation of an audience from which a distributor (or themselves in scenarios of creative distribution) can build upon. It seems very clear to me that a distribution company would want to target an audience that is at least already partly built, but the answers below imply otherwise.

3) Shocked by lack of discovery.

Too often distributors are dependent on the curatorial powers and prowess of certain signature festivals without looking to regional festivals. You’ll see a lot of the usual suspects in the festivals that are mentioned below—it would be great to expand this list so that more films are being exposed to distributors. Please also note that distributors were interviewed before Los Angeles Film Festival decided to close its doors. I wonder who will take its place?

4) The majority of rights taken, territories focused on, and distribution strategies are similar across the board.

I’d love to see more distributors take a chance on innovation. Very often distributors will take as many rights that they can get (though mainly domestic territories noted below) and will not have the resources to be super customized in how they release their titles. Additionally, (there are exceptions) there doesn’t seem to be enough direct communication between artist and distributor. It would be great for the two forces to truly line up for each film’s release so that marketing and release strategy align with the filmmaker’s goals as well as their aesthetics.

5)There are still no open doors. 

The majority of people I talked to expressed reticence at looking at cold submissions. Sure, there’s an influx of content, but to be reliant on recommendations, agencies, and festivals is shortsighted. There are a lot of great movies out there looking for homes. I’ve even had distributors admit to me they are not watching the full duration of the films they receive. There is too much valuable substantive content for just a few festivals to properly curate and exhibit all of the quality work in the world. If distributors take chances on more festivals, they’re contributing to communities who could really benefit, and could have access to new quality and unsupported storytellers for them to consider.

Regardless of my takeaways, let this document inspire you to get your work out into the world. Abide by how each company wants to be approached and approach them respectfully.

Check out responses from individual distributors