The Whirlwind, Ernest Hecht

A little while ago, I received news of the death of my publisher in Britain, Ernest Hecht. The news hit hard, even though I was always worried about his health. When I first met him, back when Souvenir Press released PC Bedtime Stories in the UK, he was overweight, in his late 60s, almost addicted to ice cream, and had that air of a man who thought he was immortal. Over time, I began to have the feeling he would outlive ME! Then, news came that he suffered a fall and never recovered from it.

Ernest was a fascinating man. Read his Times of London obit here to get a taste of his life.  (Also here, the obit from The Guardian.) He had a ferocious wit and kept conversations moving at such a pace that I felt like a clod next to him. When my wife and I visited London, he took us to his favorite restaurant, the White Castle, and pontificated and charmed in great amounts, with potato chip crumbs down the front of his shirt. It is one of my fondest memories.

He was a great publisher for me, managing to keep PC Bedtime Stories in print long, long after it had gone on the remainder piles in America. He also talked me up with many publishers on the continent, which led to contracts. What’s more, he would call me regularly to say that they had had steady sales all year, a few good article placements, new press runs, etc. That’s the kind of thing that’s good to hear in the long, lonely life of putting words on paper. My American publishers? Deposed, out of the business, burned out, deranged. Ernest was a rara avis in the UK as well, last of the dying breed of independent publishers, but he reveled in that. He knew no other way to be. His motto was that the publisher’s main responsibility to the writer was to make enough money to stay in business. He declined to publish many of my books, which was wise of him I guess, but he knew how to ride one of my winners for a long time. And his faith in me was always unshaken. I have huge regrets now that I didn’t make time to visit him in recent years. Good lord, the time does fly.

From a trade journalist in the UK, quoted in The Bookseller:  “No one would say he was easy, but being difficult was for Hecht a sport. Being with him, even in the last couple of tricky years, was never dull. He was truly unique, a Technicolor figure in a now-monochrome world. Publishing will never see his like again.”

Goodbye to a devoted fan of Arsenal football, ice cream, Brazil, and doing everything his own way. Ernest, you were an inspiration.

(Photo credit of his actual catastrophe of an office, The Time of London)

Interview with Reduced Shakespeare Company

I probably didn’t post this link last year, when the event happened. I was pretty out-to-lunch last year for a lot of reasons, and many simple things and deadlines fell through the cracks.

Anyway, below is the link to a very good conversation I had with my friend Austin Tichenor, one of the brains behind the Reduced Shakespeare Company. We touch on political correctness, of course, and comedy and codpieces and everything that makes life worthwhile. Enjoy!

Episode 499. On Political Correctness

Talking Political Correctness at Grand Valley State

Think political correctness is dead? Think again, pally. There’s been lots of news to take apart and make fun of, both on the left and the right. (Remember, extremism and identity politics is an equal opportunity befuddler now.)

So last week, I traveled up to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to talk to the nice people at Grand Forum, which is a speakers series run throughout the year at the GR campus of Grand Valley State University. More than a hundred folks spent part of their morning, listening to me carp and mock and jape and chaff. It was a great time, with both the speech and the Q&A afterward. AND folks bought a lot of books, both PCBS and Honk Honk, My Darling, which is a great way to win the heart of a writer, in case you had any question about that.

This appearance was especially enjoyable because I have a lot of family up in the area. So, my in-laws, my aunt, cousins, my niece and nephew and his girlfriend were all there, as well as an old college friend that I’ve reconnected with (and who has been a huge promoter and beta reader of Rex Koko). They remarked that it was interesting to see me up their in my “public” persona. In other words, shaved and wearing pants.

The funniest part of the morning was all the self-effacing West Michiganders who kept asking me, incredulously, “And you drove all the way up from Chicago for us?” Yes, I really did. Lake Wobegon has got nothing on these folks. Thanks again for having me up there, Grand Forum.

Speaking Before the Lawyers Club of Chicago

And it wasn’t even a deposition!

Last night my wife and I had a grand old time at the Union League Club down in the Loop, as guests of the Lawyers Club of Chicago. A little cocktail, a little dinner with some fascinating people (including a lawyer I was on staff with 25 years ago, when I worked for the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers), and then it came time to earn my meal, with my speech on the current state of political correctness.

Lucky for me, that current state is always ripe for skewering, basting and ribbing, even if food isn’t involved.

My audience was very receptive and laughed a lot as I talked about various forms of extremism and ideological purity on both the right and the left. Among the topics we explored were the Washington Redskins and culturally sensitive team names, whether there is coded language in the word “thug”, and how Sweden is working to eliminate pronouns that indicate gender. Afterward we had a little Q&A. It was all a very fun time, and I thank the club for being so cordial and asking me to speak with them. (I had been pretty intimidated when they first asked me, considering they usually have a Supreme Court justice come and speak, and had recently had the Chairman of the Chicago Black Hawks and Peter Sagal talking about the US Constitution. Not together, of course.)

But wait, did I mention hardware? Yes, hardware!

The folks there were so nice that they even gave me a memento of the evening, to decorate the office bookshelf. I might be a sap, but I love these kinds of things. It shows thoughtfulness and planning. It also shows that they didn’t chase me off the podium by throwing dinner rolls. Win Win! Thanks again, Lawyers Club! You’ll always have an amicus in my curiae.

(Political) Corrections from the Mail Bag

I’ve always told readers of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories to send me their corrections of mistakes I’ve made in my writing, of unwitting sexism, racism, classism, antipolyamorism, or any other bias that might offend any reader or non-reader. I’m only human, after all, though that’s a pretty flimsy excuse. Here’s my latest mea culpa (sorry for the pro-western classicism), a big error brought to my attention by new fan Sherry Spence:

Since you encouraged suggestions in the event of “any bias as yet unnamed” in your Introduction, I feel encouraged to point out the unnamed bias in your use – in that very sentence – of the word, “rectification.” This reference to the right hand being the one that corrects is a direct affront to my left-handed husband and left-handed grand-daughter. I am sure that you can right this sinistral wrong with even-handed treatment and your usual verbal dexterity in the next printing of your righteous tome.

Guilty guilty guilty. Right doesn’t make might, not without what’s left.

New 15th Anniversary Edition of PC Bedtime Stories in the UK!

Like in anything else, there have been some ups and downs in my writing career, but one of the luckiest breaks I’ve had has been to have Ernest Hecht as the publisher of PC Bedtime Stories in the United Kingdom. He’s managed to keep me in print for more than 15 years in Britain (along with getting my name in the press once in a while, to keep interest up), with smaller and better thought-out press runs than was the case in the US market. Contrast this with the fact that the US edition of PC Bedtime Stories has been out of print since 1997, two years after selling 2 million copies, and you’ll understand the stark differences between the markets. It’s been so much more fun to have a real person as my publisher, instead of the employee of a large media conglomerate.

Ernest also brought my first book to the attention of Grasset, my French publisher, and Goldmann, my German publisher (and possibly a couple others I’ve forgotten). He earned no profit from this, except in keeping relationships alive and happy. At the helm of Souvenir Press (which he started at age 18 with a special edition of stories and stats for football fans), he’s the last of an old breed of publishers who are hands on with just about everything his company prints. “A publisher’s main duty to his writers,” he’s said many times, “is to stay in business.”

So imagine my joy and pride in the fact that Ernest is publishing a 15th anniversary edition of PC Bedtime Stories AND has put it on the cover of his latest catalog. Those ugly caricatures of Grandma and the Woodcutter have never looked so good.

For a little extra sizzle in this edition, Ernest asked me if I had any other PC stories cluttering up the office that could be included. I looked around and found some things, but none of them truly fit the bill. So I sat down one morning last spring and decided to have a whack at the story that could be made out of what was only a punchline title, “The Duckling That Was Judged On Its Personal Merits and Not On Its Physical Appearance.” To my surprise (or shock?), the words just flew onto the page. After a couple of rewrites, I sent it to Ernest, who was very happy with the result. So that story is included in this British edition, as well as in my e-book edition available in America and Germany.

There is even talk about this hardback edition being distributed again in the United States, which is very exciting news, even if Ernest inserted extra U’s in “color” and “odor”.

Years ago, when the book first came out in Britain, Ernest flew me and my wife over to London to do some media. It was a trip we will never forget. He had me running around a lot, but it was terrific fun. Got to be interviewed by Allan Bennett, visited the HQ of BBC Radio at Bush House, met Walter Mosley at a studio. Ernest put us up in the company flat, which hadn’t been decorated in a while (rotary phone, blue shag carpeting, plumbing that only allowed hot water to make it to the tub if you sat down and used the shower as a handle), but it was a terrific treat for us. Even better was when he took us out to dinner at his favorite London restaurant, the White Castle (I know, we Yanks laughed about it too), and told us stories about his travels, his adventures as a producer on the West End, and his beloved football team, Arsenal.

So my ever-lasting gratitude goes out to Ernest, who took a chance on importing a humor book from America and managed to keep it alive and kicking for longer than anyone anticipated. To his instincts, his savvy, and his generous love of life, I raise my glass.

How to Torture an Indecisive Tightwad

So, this whole self-publishing thing has its ups and downs. For each big plus, there’s usually a negative (especially for someone with 20/20 hindsight like me).

It’s exhilarating to be able to supply books directly to readers, and to receive posts and emails and reviews from them. At the same time, it’s a drag not to have stronger relationships with the bookstores and the people who own them, at least for the projects in my foreseeable future. There’s no better place in the world than a good bookstore, and no nicer people you will ever meet. I hope this is not a permanent estrangement.

It’s also a drag not to have a stronger connection with the NY publishing houses now, though frankly, I’ve never had a good long-term relationship with any of them. There is nothing quite like having a trip to NY underwritten by someone else, when all you have to do is be pleasant and eloquent and funny. But that only lasts, of course, as long as they are making money off your writing. It’s been a long time since they’ve bought what I was selling, so it’s a godsend that e-publishing has developed at this time.

One of the aspects of self-publishing that is both a joy and a drag is that all the decisions have to funnel through one wishy-washy bozo: me. Making decisions will excite the entrepreneurial side of me, but sometimes that side is having an off day, and the creative side of me will start to whine, “Aw geez, I just had to write three pages of copy — I’m tired!” Decision-making is a muscle strengthened through use, but sometimes I easily sprain it.

One such decision involves publishing Politically Correct Bedtime Stories in the UK. While it’s been out of print in America since, maybe, 1998, it’s been in print in Britain for more than 15 years. The reason is that my publisher there, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, is a one-man dynamo, raconteur, and all-around savvy character. His firm’s publishing list is interesting and varied, and he keeps my sales up with subtle but steady promotion and mentions in the press. He’s what every publisher should be. He says his only obligation to his writers is to stay in business. I like that directness. It’s worked so far.

So we talked a couple months ago about the UK rights for the e-book edition of PCBS. We didn’t agree on who really owned them, but long story short, I decided to grant Ernest the rights for two years, with a 50% royalty. My negotiation skills, like my decision-making skills, come and go with the tides, but we were both happy with this arrangement.

Ernest is also planning to release a 15th anniversary edition of PCBS, for which I wrote a new story: The real, honest-to-Jah version of “The Duckling That Was Judged On Its Personal Merits and Not On Its Physical Appearance.” (You can find it in the US e-book right now.) I’m looking forward to seeing how it does, and I’m grateful for his faith in me and my book.

But the hardest decision came just a couple weeks ago. I’ve been selling the e-book worldwide (Hi Turks and Caicos!!) through Amazon since mid-November. All that time, Amazon UK sold three times as many (and sometimes four times as many) copies of PCBS as Amazon elsewhere! It was shocking, but the only explanation could be that there’s still a hard copy in the stores. One is driving sales of the other. This made me further realize that a deal with Ernest was a worthwhile venture (at least it will be if he keeps the e-book price down).

Our agreement forced me to do something that went against my nature. A couple of weeks ago, I had to pull the plug on my version for sale in the UK. I had been putting off doing it because of the sales, but I had signed the contract long before that and said I was going to take it down. Pulled the plug on a moneymaker. Ugh. I still think the deal was the best for the long run (or at least a two-year run), but it wasn’t pleasant to do.

Now you know why I didn’t become a brain surgeon or a spy: my decision-making capabilities are sometimes limited to answering the question, “Should this character be holding a sandwich or a banana when he enters the scene?”

Oops. Now I’ll spend the rest of the morning sorting THAT out!

Do I Sound More Suave in French?

Like I wrote in the post below, I was interviewed by the Swiss paper Le Temps about the whole bowdlerization-of-Huck-Finn dust-up going on. The reporter didn’t send me the PDF like she promised, so I went on the website this morning and found I’d said this:

Joint aux Etats-Unis, James Finn Garner, auteur du grinçant Politiquement correct: contes d’autrefois pour lecteurs d’aujourd’hui (traduit chez Grasset, 1995), se réjouit que la décision de la maison d’édition ait provoqué une telle polémique. «Il y a un vrai débat. Les gens en ont marre du politiquement correct. Et tout colorer en rose ne change pas le fait que l’Amérique reste un pays disloqué, inégal, encore très raciste.»

Hope I come off good. I think she’s quoting my most lurid comment, like that’s surprising or something. Here’s what Babelfish says I said:

Joint with the United States, Fine James Garner, author of squeaking Politically correct: tales of formerly for readers of today (translated at Grasset, 1995), is delighted that the decision of the publisher caused such a polemic. “There is a true debate. People have some enough of politically correct. And all to colour pink does not change yet the fact that America remains a dislocated country, unequal, very racist.”

Didn’t know my book was “squeaking”, but I’ll take it as a compliment.

Glad to See Twain Can Still Rile ’em Up

Just got off the phone with a journalist from Le Temps, which is a big daily newspaper in Switzerland. She wanted my opinion on the bowdlerization of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has dominated the news cycle during this slow week. I’m Mr. Politically Correct, after all, so I was flattered to be remembered and asked my opinion. At least her call forced me to think a little about the plan and my reactions to it.

Of course, substituting “Slave” for “nigger” in Huck Finn is ridiculous, but like many a ridiculous plan, someone is going to try it. The professor who is editing the volume says it’s intended for the teachers who want to use it in the classroom but are worried about lawsuits. I’m sympathetic to the teachers’ potential issues, but I have a suspicion that some people want the book to be a rollicking adventure story suitable for preteens, rather than the complex and often painful book it is. It’s not a book about a cracking fun raft ride, it’s about a young orphan’s moral growth and rejection of basically everything around him.

And Mark Twain is not our more literary version of Will Rogers. Just imagine the world of American letters without him, how arid and provincial and easily manageable the remaining writers would seem. We NEED the difficult, ornery, contradictory and flawed writer that Mark Twain was, because the era in which he grew up gave us a lot to be ashamed about. A lot that we need to remember.

Twain was a stickler for language, and he had the chance often in his life to change the offending word to something else. But nothing else had or still has the punch, the sting, the stink of human hate. “Nigger” is nowhere near the equivalent of “slave” (even though someone in the NYT asked why “slave” should be considered inoffensive in its own right). Nowhere near the dehumanization, the belittling, the oppression and pain. Was America built on the backs of slaves? Yep, right up til 1865. Was it built on the backs of niggers? Even more so, from sea to shining sea, and continues to this day. And, (not to diminish what black Americans have suffered) they come in many colors.

But I don’t think this new edition will gain any traction at all. For one thing, it’s still easy to pick up Huck Finn and enjoy it, so the original version will always attract readers who want to see what all the fuss is about. It’s not a fusty old cadaver of a book, it’s maddeningly alive. And until something else comes along, like Hemingway wrote, all American literature flows from it. I tried to explain this to the Swiss journalist, but probably didn’t do it adequately. For every person who might want to change the text, there are 50,000 of them who want to preserve it. (Now, if he’d made fun of religion or capitalism in it, like he did in his other lesser-known books, it might be a different story.)

It was gratifying to hear the reporter (who sounded kind of young, maybe in her 30s) talk about how people all over Europe and the rest of the world take a great deal of interest in American culture, and the perception that if America is anything, it’s a place where freedom of speech is a paramount virtue. She stumbled a bit when she almost said, “But America is still a racist country, right?” I agreed with her partially, that some parts (not just geographical) of the country will always be racist, but more to the point, it will always be an unequal society, which is why we can’t sanitize writers like Twain.

What’s more likely to diminish racism in America, editing out one word from a novel, or having people read the novel and be confronted all its pain and cruelty? The answer is obvious.

At least all this news coverage has unearthed a Twain quote I’d never heard before, which I really like: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

New E-Books for Politically Correct Bedtime Stories!

The time has come to announce that my first three bestselling books — long out of print in America — are now alive again. I have done it. I have brought the dead back to life, with the help of the newest technology.

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, Once Upon a More Enlightened Time, and Politically Correct Holiday Stories are now all available as e-books, for all you e-literate readers out there. (All you illiterate readers out there will have to content themselves with the Twilight books.)

Kindle, Kobo, Nook, IPad, mobi — however you like reading a book that’s not made of a dead tree — they’re all available. You can even buy them as pdf’s to read on your regular old computer (the free apps, Kindle for PC and Kindle for Mac, also make this possible).

And to sweeten the pot, especially for those fans who already have the hardback editions, each volume contains extra material, most of it never before seen.

To wit:

PC Bedtime Stories: the rewritten rhymes of “A Child’s Garden of Political Correctness”; the story “A Royal Revenge,” commissioned by the BBC; and the long-awaited “The Duckling That Was Judged on Its Persunal Merits and Not on Its Physical Appearance”

Once Upon: A full-length PC novella of the adventures of Pinocchio!

PC Holiday Stories: the hardscrabble story of Santa’s poor Irish childhood, “Santa’s Ashes”, written with A.J. Jacobs (The Know-It-All); and my first published story, the Christmas tale “Jerry’s Last Fare”.

Each book also contains a free chapter of the upcoming Rex Koko debut novel, Honk Honk, My Darling. Yes, fans of clown noir and pantaloon pulp, Rex Koko’s first adventure will soon be available in e-book versions. Later, I’ll also have a paperback version and an audio podcast of Honk Honk available. The only thing holding it up is that I’m waiting for the cover art. A complete Rex Koko webpage is being forged as you read this. Yes, it’s Christmas in December. Well, Christmas in EARLY December. Yahoo!

Click here to order the Kindle editions from Amazon. (You know, you don’t need a real Kindle to buy these, right? You can download the free apps Kindle for PC or Kindle for Macs, and enjoy them on your home computer. You can also read them on your phone.)

Click here to order them from iTunes. (coming soon 12/2/10 — ISBN updates processing)

Click here to order the Nook edition from Barnes & Noble. (coming soon 12/2/10 — ditto)

Click here to order them from Smashwords (all the pdfs and epubs you’d ever want).