WRITING CAREER COMES FULL CIRCLE AFTER FOUR DECADE DETOUR

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March 1, 2014 · Posted in Commentary 

 

With Editor_Nan_Talese_at Book Expo_Convention_1992

With Editor Nan Talese at Book Expo in 1992

BY BOB VICKREY

When my former college journalism professor spotted one of my columns in the Houston Chronicle a few years ago, he sent me a note that simply read, “What took you so long?”

The question he posed in that message has been asked by others in recent years after I had spent the majority of my working life as a publisher’s representative for a well known East Coast publishing house before my retirement in 2008. I had entertained early plans to build a career as a newspaper reporter and columnist after college, but somewhere along the way I became sidetracked and landed a job in the book publishing business more than four decades ago.

After spending many years promoting other writers and their books, I have since become sympathetic with their plight as I attempt to regain firm footing and lose some of the rust accumulated during my long absence from writing. I began sending out my stories to newspaper editors in recent years and was pleasantly surprised to find several of them found space on their pages for my feature pieces. There was an uncomfortable, but somewhat exhilarating feeling of producing my own work after a career spent critically reading other writers’ efforts. Suddenly, I found the shoe was on the other foot, and now have discovered a greater appreciation of the writer’s quandary in walking the creative tightrope without assurance of a “safety net” to catch us when we are in free-fall.

After reading several of my stories, a longtime writer friend mused that I had possibly spent my working life “on the wrong side of the desk.” However, I have refused to second-guess a career that I found richly rewarding while working with writers and independent booksellers.

I worked for Boston-based Houghton Mifflin, one of the country’s oldest publishing houses, and a company steeped in the roots of American literary history. The company had once published writers such as Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau. And just for good measure, you could also toss in names like Rachel Carson, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Winston Churchill.

In the 1970s, I became immersed in a publishing era graced by a certain manner of old-fashioned courtliness which may have been lost forever with the emergence of the corporate age. This was an era defined by closely inter-connected relationships between authors, editors, and staff members. I have always imagined those individual links as a relay in which we each passed along the baton to the next messenger who eventually placed our books in the hands of the American consumer.

Gourmet Cookbook Party -2004 Montreal

Gourmet Cookbook Launch Party- Montreal 2004- (Author Ruth Reichl, 2nd from left)

Authors and their editors often shared a symbiotic bond which was pivotal in the successful publishing of their completed work. Their relationship was a marriage, of sorts, that forged a partnership requiring compromise while maintaining an unwavering vision. Likewise, the relationship of publisher’s rep and bookseller has traditionally taken on its own unique quality. The overlap between the business and the personal was one of the true wonders of the independent book business. An unspoken common appreciation of the written word had ultimately created those strong connections that often transcended the business itself.

As a field representative for the company, I often served as “literary valet” by accompanying authors on their whirlwind promotional book tours. Those years provided a wide array of stories about literary figures, politicians, and news-makers.

A career in journalism was first considered while I was in high school when my brother-in-law offered his encouragement after reading a short sports piece I had written for our hometown weekly paper. Several years later, I found myself eagerly caught up in the journalism department at Baylor University under the guidance of legendary professor, David McHam. (He is still actively teaching at the University of Houston.) Now, decades after my college years, I still occasionally receive those encouraging little notes he sends along.

Baylor Professor David McHam 1967

Baylor Professor David McHam oversees his young staff at Waco Tribune-Herald in 1967

In resurrecting my writing life after retirement, I was quickly greeted with a startling reminder of my own limitations. I had always admired the talents of humorist Nora Ephron and columnist Dave Barry, but it didn’t take long to find out they were famous for a very good reason. I am admittedly jealous of the hilariously droll delivery of writers Calvin Trillin and David Sedaris. I marvel at the lyrical and evocative style of my friend Pat Conroy, but fully understand that I was blessed with neither his Irish muse nor his Southern roots. However, while working in the daunting shadow of talents like these, I’ve managed to find inspiration in each of their distinctive voices.

I’ve attempted to stir some publishing memories of days past, and to relate some stories about a satisfying career spent in books. I have written about Larry McMurtry, an author who provided inspiration in my early growth as a reader and lover of books. I have told stories about my time spent with the aforementioned Mr. Conroy, children’s writer, Bill Peet, former silent film star, Diana Serra Cary, as well as celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck, and Texas cooking legend, Helen Corbitt.

I have also offered a salute to several writers with whom I maintained a close friendship and who have influenced my life in dramatic fashion. I profiled the late television writer and novelist, Ben Masselink, who shared with me his stories of the Southern California literary scene in the 1940s and 50s. He had once hosted parties in Santa Monica Canyon attended by writers such as Christopher Isherwood, Dorothy Parker, and Tennessee Williams. Josh Greenfeld is another accomplished writer who has played a pivot role in supporting my return to journalism. His enduring friendship with numerous iconic 20th Century writers has provided a rare inside glimpse at several true giants of contemporary literature.

An unexpected benefit of this career change has been in reconnecting with many long-lost friends across the country. After my recent Houston Chronicle story was published about growing up in nearby Galena Park during the post-World War II era (“A Life Shaped by Early Suburbia”,) I received many responses from readers (and a number of former classmates) that had apparently identified with the period piece. My favorite message read: “Thank you for telling our story.” I knew at once that I had achieved some measure of success because of the reader’s use of the operative word “our.”

As this meandering career has returned to writing, I will soon be approaching the completion of my 100th column, and have now overcome one major hurdle as I reach that benchmark number. I have found that nowadays I no longer have the urge to glimpse beneath the tightrope to check if the safety net is there. Although the writing experience can feel terrifying at times, the adrenaline rush received in knowing I’ve connected with one single reader has made this high-wire adventure its own gratifying reward.

Bob Vickrey’s columns have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram and he is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

Vickrey engrossed in his daily habit -photo by Barry Stein

 Vickrey engrossed in his daily habit- 2013

 

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