My Next Project–Revealed!

June 22, 2015

Goats

With even McDonald’s offering artisanal fare—an “Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich”—it occurred to me that I really ought to do something artisanal myself before the trend toward artisanal and craft products wore itself out, so I decided that for my next project I would produce a wholly artisanal book.

First, though, I had to look up the term artisanal. I had only a limited grasp of its meaning, which was further confounded by McDonald’s official description of its sandwich as being “100% grilled chicken breast filet seasoned to perfection with ingredients like salt, garlic and parsley – seared in our kitchens, no preservatives added. Crisp leaf lettuce, fresh tomato, and a vinaigrette dressing. All atop our delectable artisan roll.” I did not understand which aspect made it an artisanal chicken sandwich. Was the chicken artisanally grown, as in fed, slaughtered, and plucked by hand, or was it the salt, garlic and parsley that made it artisanal, and was there even such a thing as artisanal salt, because making salt by hand seemed like something that would be tedious and costly and likely to give rise to abusive labor practices in Malaysia. Was the artisanal part the searing, or merely the “delectable artisan roll,” and was it reasonable to imagine that a company the size of McDonald’s would make this “artisan roll” by hand without any mechanized assistance?

The word artisanal itself seemed more or less self-explanatory, a combination of the words artist and anal, suggesting tight-sphinctered craftspeople in Brooklyn, with small hands, hard at work with small utensils, making things like artisanal cheeses and breads and counterfeit car parts. But to confirm my understanding I consulted the online Oxford Dictionary, which provided these definitions: “Relating to or characteristic of an artisan: artisanal skills,” and “(Of a product, especially food or drink) made in a traditional or non-mechanical way: cheeses.”

The term traditional seemed to offer a lot of leeway. McDonald’s has traditionally mass produced its sandwiches and their components, so in that context mass-producing the chicken sandwich would not in itself be anti-artisanal.

McDonald's artisan

For further insight, I consulted Siri, in my iPhone 5S, and asked her to define artisanal. We had communications issues. First she replied, “Let me think about that. Okay, I found this on the web for ‘what does artistical mean.’”

I corrected her and tried again.

She said, “Here’s what I found on the web for ‘what does artistic Noel mean.’”

“No, Siri. Artisanal.” I spelled it. Siri does not like it when you spell things for her. “Ok,” she said, “I found this on the web for ‘what does our Tisza Nalle mean a RT I S a and AL.”

But I decided I knew enough to proceed with my plan to produce an artisanal book. First I had to manufacture the paper—that much seemed obvious. I bought a kitchen grinder with a manual crank and put pieces of a cardboard box in its hopper, along with some artisanal water. I turned the crank and watched the grinder extrude a brown slurry of pulp, whose appearance would not be unfamiliar to any dog owner whose dog had just eaten a whole stick of butter. I rolled this slurry out on a pizza stone, and put the stone in my oven at 500 degrees for 20 minutes, figuring that the artisanal manufacture of paper probably had a lot in common with baking a pizza crust.

When the flames were out and I was sure my smoke alarm would not start up again, I went to the Staples store at Lexington and E. 86th St., and asked the clerk there if she could direct me to the artisanal paper. She called her manager, who said, “Sir, if you continue to use language like that in this store, I am going to have to ask you to leave.”

I bought a ream of paper made from 100 percent recycled stock, figuring this was close enough, and brought it home in an artisanally produced hemp bag that I had picked up years earlier at a concert at the Filmore East, which I realize dates me, but there it is.

Next I realized I would need some artisanal ink. I went to my nearby Gourmet Garage and bought several pints of blueberries, and brought these home and used my meat grinder to crush them. A stream of deep blue liquid slipped from the mouth of the grinder into a strainer and from there into the bowl underneath. I saved the crushed remains for an artisanal blueberry pie that I made later that night and that was wonderful, with a dab of artisanal vanilla gelato made by my friend Vincent Tonno, known to friends as Vinnie the Tuna, though because of his ankle monitor I had to go to his building in Bushwick to pick it up.

I had a fountain pen which had been given me once as a gift for teaching a writing course. I filled the pen, and began to write. I got as far as “Th—,” when the point clogged. No matter what I tried—hot water, olive oil, picking at it with a needle heated over a match—I could not get it unclogged. I looked through my extensive pen collection for whatever ballpoint might come closest to being artisanal, and chose a Bic Cristal, and yes the spelling is correct. It had a clear plastic shaft and a chewable black top. I decided it was artisanal because it dated back to when I was a kid, and therefore fulfilled the “traditional” aspect of artisanal production, though I suppose by the same standard one could resume making steel in Pittsburgh the way they did in the 1960s when you could get emphysema just by stopping to pee at a rest area on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The writing came easily. I decided to write about artisans, specifically the Roycrofters in Aurora, NY, and soon I had a stack of artisanal prose that I considered quite good, until my wife read it and said “artisanal schmartisanal, this stinks, maybe you should think about making artisanal cheeses instead. And if you do, clean your fingernails.”

She was right about the prose. I was so focused on the artisanal part that I forgot that people who engage in artisanal reading like a good fast plot and lots of artisanal sex, and my book had none of that, so I went back to the drawing board, which by the way was made from hand-hewn planks salvaged from a barn on the North Fork of Long Island.

Within six months I had accumulated about 200 pages of artisanal prose that even my wife liked. Now came the difficult part: Carving my own type font, so that I could set the type for each page by hand. I bought a dozen wood blocks and some cutting tools and for the heck of it a green visor, and set down to work. Soon enough, meaning after five years of labor, I had a collection of type, and began hand-setting my book and running off pages to proof read. Some letters were illegible, but then this was also the case with the calligraphy in certain medieval manuscripts and some of those were so pretty they ended up in museums, so I printed enough pages to make five books.

Morocco binding

Morocco binding

Now came the binding process. Here I realized I would have to make certain compromises. I knew I wanted to bind the books in leather, maybe a nice Morocco binding made from goat skin, but how far really was I willing to go? I knew of a farm in Sullivan County that had goats and considered briefly going up there in the dead of night and kidnapping one, bringing it back to my apartment in Manhattan, and skinning it and tanning its hide, but I realized that my co-op board might have objections, and in any case goats were only allowed in the service elevator, which had to be operated by one of the building staff and ceased operation at 4:30 each afternoon, no exceptions.

Besides, I was tired. I understood now why McDonald’s just sort of slapped the name artisanal on its chicken sandwich, because if McDonald’s had really gone the artisanal route the sandwich would cost $1,395.58, and this price would not include fries or even one of those giant sodas that you should never drink before a long rush-hour drive because you will have a problem.

I decided to take my artisanal pages to a copy center and have them bound with one of those spiral things and a clear plastic cover, and call it a day. An artisanal day. In the end I was very proud. I bought some artisanal gin and made myself a craft cocktail, and in short order was asleep and dreaming of power plants filled with people on tread mills creating artisanal electricity, until I was abruptly awakened by a dream in which a man pulled an artisanal handgun, took my wallet and my shoes, and as he ran off shouted over his shoulder, “stay down, motherfucker, or I’ll blow your artisanal head off.”

 

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It’s All in the Details

June 4, 2015

My 'office' in Paris, with the first fruits of my research

My ‘office’ in Paris, with the first fruits of my research. I based myself there for six months, for easier access to European archives and locales.

A surprising number of readers—meaning more than one—have expressed an interest in how I go about organizing the materials I collect while researching my books. This perplexes me, because frankly I would rather watch 24 hours of Norwegian “slow TV,” than read about how writers find and manage information, and if you want to see an example of slow Norwegian TV please go to You Tube and tune in to the train ride from Bergen to Oslo, and take special note of the tunnel scenes. However, since the question appears to be a pressing one among those otherwise well-balanced souls who enjoy my books, I will now reveal the key elements of the process, at great risk of also revealing how compulsive and tedious my workday life can be.

In the course of conducting research for a book I accumulate tens of thousands of pages of documents, many of them utterly useless but fun to stack in large piles that help maintain the illusion that I do more in my office than sit around and play with the various Nunzillas and other desk toys that line my window sill. You might think, in this age when everything is digitized, that I would have done away with paper files long ago, but anyone visiting my office will see that I reside in a catacomb walled with the remains of dead trees. This causes me significant guilt which I assuage by not cutting down the trees in the front yard of my Seattle house, even though they currently block what would otherwise be a killer view of the North Cascades.

Nunzilla

Here’s my m.o.: I parachute into an archive, along with my trusty digital camera. Only masochists still use photocopy machines. Cameras are easier and do less damage to old books and letters. I don’t read all the way through each document I come across—only enough to gauge that it might be useful down the line. Then I photograph it, and move on to the next. By the end of the day I will have shot hundreds of photographs, which, once I return home, I will then download to my computer. This is far more cost-effective than holing up in, say, the National Archives of the UK, in London, for months at a time, reading every word of every document, while spending pots of money on hotels, meals and martinis.

Next I print all these photographs, after first using various photo-enhancing techniques to brighten and sharpen otherwise hard-to-read text. The process is benumbing and is best done in short sessions spaced between bouts of reading or writing, or orchestrating elaborate battles among my desk toys.

For my book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, I made numerous trips to the UK archives. The first week resulted in a couple of reams worth of documents, which I broke into less immense piles of 200 or so pages, each bound with a large binder clip (and may I just say that if there is a spare Nobel waiting to be awarded, it should be awarded posthumously to the inventor of the binder clip, Louis Baltzley, who invented the clip in 1910, patent number 1,139,627, for his writer-father to help him organize his manuscripts. In my opinion, fasteners do not get the attention from the Nobel Committee that they deserve).

I then marked each pile with a code, UKArch-I for the first, UKArch-II for the second, and so on, and then lodged these on my shelves in a location reserved just for them. I try to keep the coding as simple and memorable as possible because god forbid I should have a crucial stack of documents coded in such an obscure manner that I have no idea what the code means and therefore no idea where in my office that particular pile of paper resides. My favorite code was Liver, for the University of Liverpool, which holds the early archives of the Cunard Steamship Co. I could have used U of L, or Liverpool, but I liked the simplicity of Liver and frankly I am a fan of liver, especially as done by the French, in the classic dish foie de veau, medium rare, with a shallot reduction. It should also be noted that Liverpool harbor’s most prominent landmark is the Royal Liver Building, built in the 19th century by the Royal Liver Assurance Co., and watched over by two gigantic copper birds atop its two towers, the Liver Birds, each 18 feet tall.

After printing and arranging all the materials I collected on that first trip to the UK archives, I was able at last to sit down in my favorite armchair and start reading, with pen and yellow highlighter at hand, to see what I had managed to capture. (Incidentally, my preferred pen is the classic Bic Cristal, here correctly if badly spelled, a cheap and utterly reliable writing utensil; my preferred highlighter is a Sharpie. And as long as I’m on the subject, my go-to pencil is the Ticonderoga No. 2 HB, the best all-purpose pencil ever made.)

This phase is compelling, because you just never know when you will turn a page and find some wonderful bit of lost history staring you in the face. It also means, however, that you end up reading a lot of material that is utterly useless. I rarely throw anything out, however. I am too indecisive. I place such documents in a pile named “little use.”

While reading, I highlight only the best bits. These pages get a small tab of Scotch tape (the “invisible” kind, not the glossy old-fashioned kind, which reminds me too much of the indignities of grade school). I then number these tabs in sequential order, and append this number to my code. Thus the 36th item in my UKArch-I stack becomes UKArch-I, 36, where anyone unlucky enough in the distant future to go through my notes will find pages from the 1915 book of Deceased Seamen, once published annually by the British government, which reveal the wide variety of jobs done by the ordinary crew members who were killed when the Lusitania sank.

 

SONY DSC

The 1915 book of ‘Deceased Seamen,’ which has a separate section for the dead crew of the Lusitania.

I also jot little notes in the margins to indicate my perception of each item’s value. For example, I may write, “Great!,” or “Funny,” or “Sad,” which are self explanatory. These are important, because when the time comes to write my book, two or three years down the road, when everything I read starts to repeat itself and becomes familiar, the emotional and intellectual power of a particular item is likely to have receded. It is important to be reminded of how it once made me feel.

I may also note in the margin the word “Scene,” or “Dialogue,” or  “RUN.” Anything marked “Scene” has a cinematic quality that could impart something rich and visual to the narrative, for example, the Christmas celebration aboard U-20, the submarine that eventually sank the Lusitania. Any document that contains actual dialogue, such as court testimony or a published interview or something recounted in a diary or letter, is of particular value, because historical dialogue is hard to come by, and can be very useful for bringing a scene alive and increasing the pace of the narrative.

The last margin note, RUN, is not a command to evacuate the premises, though all writers at one point or another have been tempted to flee their offices at a high rate of speed; rather, it indicates that the associated account has enough energy, action and descriptive weight to carry the story forward in a robust manner, possibly for several pages. One such RUN appears in the first document in my sixth stack from the National Archives of the UK (coded UKArch-VI, 1), in a page from a once-secret ledger that shows the exact positions reported by U-20 during its first full day at sea. Material like this is gold, because it can be used in many different ways, such as to foreshadow future events or add texture to a passage. I decided to present some of these position reports as a list, in a small, half-page chapter entitled “Cadence,” which appears in the hardcover edition on p. 131, just after the chapter in which the Lusitania enters the open sea. Inherent in that juxtaposition was a sense of threat. Also, I am a sucker for miniature chapters (and horses, for that matter), especially when they contain lists or, better yet, menus, as in the case of my book, The Devil in the White City. I call these chapterlets. A chapterlet dropped now and then into a narrative can be very effective at ramping up pace and tension. It can also make me feel productive, because I can go downstairs and tell my wife, hey, I just wrote one whole chapter.

SONY DSC

A key UKArch document, in which the Admiralty first contrives its case against Capt. William Thomas Turner, with comments from Adm. Jacky Fisher (red) and Winston Churchill (green).

As I dig through my mountains of documents, what I especially hope to find are obscure nuggets of detail that reveal something compelling about the way lives were lived in the past, and that seem likely to ignite a reader’s imagination. I was delighted, for example, to learn that several junior crewmen whiled away the hours before the Lusitania’s last departure from New York by electrocuting rats in a cargo hold, a detail I culled from material provided by the BBC Written Archives Center in Reading, England. Cleverly, I coded these documents BBC-1, 2, etc. One of my favorite little discoveries was that one Lusitania passenger, young Dwight Harris of New York, had the forethought to go to the Wanamaker’s department store in New York on the day before the ship’s departure to buy a custom lifebelt. I found this detail in a long and enthusiastic letter he wrote after the disaster, which resides now in the archives of the New York Historical Society, a lovely old building on Central Park West in Manhattan, that is home as well to an excellent Italian restaurant, Caffè Storico, Italian for historic cafe, which for a time made a killer dish of prosciutto panzotti with gooseberries, robiola crema, and baby arugula.

The little stories, unfortunately, are also the stories that can be most readily lost amid the thousands of other details that accumulate over several years of research. I am here to tell you there is little that is as likely to cause table-slapping frustration as knowing about something like the custom lifebelt and not being able to find it again when the writing begins or when the time comes to begin fact-checking and assembling my source notes. This is where the most important part of the process comes in: The master chronology.

I first got the idea to index all my research materials in chronological order from a homicide detective, back when I was a reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pa., which by the way was an excellent paper for someone new to the business. The detective told me that for each homicide investigation, he and colleagues prepared a “murder book,” that is, a binder in which every new investigative detail was entered and where all events associated with the homicide were listed in precise chronological order. By the time I finished Dead Wake, the length of my master chronology was 165 single-spaced pages. I grouped the earliest material by year, starting with 1903, but as the action advanced, my time increments shrank to month, day, hour, and, as the submarine and the ship converged, minute.

Compiling such a chronology is tedious in the extreme—and yes I can hear you muttering, “well, not as tedious as reading this essay, of that I can assure you”—but the resulting tool is very powerful. Not only do I end up with a more-or-less complete index of the best things from my files, but, because chronological order is the single-most effective structure for story-telling, I also end up with a de facto outline. Key moments in the narrative reveal themselves wherever lots of details clump together around a particular date or time. The chronology also invariably reveals odd little moments where events in far-flung places occur at the same time. For example, one very busy node in my chronology was April 30, 1915. On that particular Friday:

—U-20 left Germany and began sending wireless messages reporting its position;

—the boys on the Lusitania began killing rats;

—young Dwight Harris bought his lifebelt;

—a reporter for the Daily Mirror in London cabled his office to say that Cunard was assuring passengers that the Lusitania would be protected by the Royal Navy;

—the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, left the ship to give a deposition as an expert witness in a lawsuit involving the Titanic, which had sunk three years earlier.

The confluence of such moments suggested an architecture of suspense, with opportunities to cut from one thread of the narrative to another and to deposit micro-cliffhangers here and there.

There is another benefit to constructing a chronology: The act of doing so lodges the details of the story more securely in my memory. Thanks to the multi-level processing powers of the human brain, some part of my mind will be soldiering ahead even while I’m asleep, piecing together the narrative in ways that I might not otherwise have anticipated. Which is a good thing. Because by the time I finish listing everything in my master chronology, I am ready to throw myself off the Space Needle.

When the writing begins, however, I am so very glad to have been through the whole exercise. I know where everything is and how it all fits together, and I don’t have to spend hours looking for that Wanamaker’s lifebelt or those charred rats. Now the writing is cake. Well, not cake. It’s never cake. Now I can at least concentrate on the writing itself, without the unsettling feeling that some juicy detail is hiding in my files, lost forever, like the time during my childhood when I was at the beach and my expensive orthodontic retainer popped out of my mouth into a receding wave, just barely visible as it slid pink and crablike into the deep, never to be seen again.

wine

Another important element of the research process.

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Notes on a Tour in Progress

March 16, 2015

The Verandah Cafe, a popular spot on the Lusitania.

The Veranda Cafe, a popular spot on the Lusitania.

 

 

So, my new book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, has now launched, and the reception has been amazing. I just finished the first leg of my very long book tour, which took me from Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to Odyssey Books in Northampton, Mass., to Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, to Gibson’s in Concord, NH, to Northshire, in Manchester, Vt., and then back to NYC via the Taconic State Parkway, which, may I say, is the second-most-beautiful road in America, after my beloved California State Route 1, the Coast Highway.

As many of you know, I hate flying. I am six-foot-two and claustrophobic, and prone to panic at 40,000 feet. Happily, this leg consisted of me driving from place to place. I’ll take road rage over high-altitude thunderstorms any day. I love driving long-ish distances. I always turn on NPR, and always get a road coffee, sometimes a little road food. (Quarter Pounders and Egg McMuffins, you know who you are.) I was a bit bummed today. I stopped at a Mobil station in Bennington, Vt., to ask how to get to the Taconic, because my GPS was having a bad day—it refused to pull up addresses in Manhattan, where I now live. The young woman at the register was very sweet, and pulled up directions on her computer, though when I told her my GPS troubles and the lack of Manhattan addresses, she said, well, maybe New York isn’t there anymore, which made me look at her twice and check for white robes and end-of-days memorabilia. Admission! It also drove me to check CNN on my iPhone as soon as I got into my car. What truly bummed me, though, was that the store had sold out of Hostess Ho-Ho’s. I know, I know, I feel your pity and I embrace it. I had to get Hostess Devil Dogs instead, which are essentially chocolate Twinkies. I devoured them reluctantly. Hmm, can one devour things reluctantly?

I measure the miles by food and drink. In Rhinebeck, the Beekman Arms—which bills itself as the oldest inn in America—has an incredibly cozy bar. I half-expected Aragorn, from Lord of the Rings, to walk in with a bunch of Hobbits. In Boston, I stayed at the Charles, one of my all-time favorite hotels, and on the morning of my departure had one of the best breakfasts ever, their “Red Flannel Hash” with two poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce. From there I traveled to the Centennial Hotel in Concord, N.H.. The restaurant at the Centennial is terrific. I had a light dinner before my evening talk—a half order of the duck. Half order. My word. The duck was to die for, which in fact the duck did die for, and for which I honor the duck. Later in the evening, over drinks with Michael Hermann, owner of Gibson’s Books, and his wife, I also had the gnocchi appetizer, which was amazing. Next day I drove to Manchester, Vt., and stayed at the Reluctant Panther, an excellent inn. Before my talk, I had a glass of white wine and an order of pork belly. This was no ordinary pork belly. This was bliss. I wanted to stay and have eight more courses and waddle up to my room, the Library Suite, and continue reading Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of dozens of “Great Books” in the room.

That’s the problem with book tours—you stay at so many great places but just when everyone else is having dinner and sipping wine by candlelight, you’re out doing a book talk and by the time you get back to the hotel, the restaurant is closed! Which, by the way, is why God made potato chips.

The tour thus far has also led me to try to codify what makes a hotel really good. So, bear with me, here are Larson’s First and Second Laws of the Hospitality Industry:

First Law: The quality of a hotel is directly proportional to the quality of the glassware set out in each room. In one hotel, there was no glassware. At least, none that was made of glass.

Second Law: The quality of a hotel is inversely proportional to the complexity of the manner in which the cleaning staff is required to fold the hand towels. Earth to a certain hotel in Florida: You do NOT have to make your cleaning staff fold your towels into the shape of a sea turtle. A golden retriever, yes. But not a sea turtle.

Onward.

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