Among the pleasures and perils of being a book editor is that the daily mail usually contains queries from folks who want to get published. The pleasure comes in opening the envelope (or email, since we now prefer digital submissions) and being drawn into a talented writer’s creative world. The peril comes in the volume of submissions (impossible for a small staff to keep up with) and in the cold reality that most querying writers are, sadly, neither talented nor creative.
Submissions fall into three categories: 1) the ones that are so good and so appropriate for the house that the answer is an easy yes; 2) the ones that are so bad or so inappropriate for the house that the answer is an even easier no; and 3) the ones that are either appropriate but badly written or inappropriate but engrossing. In the acquisitions process, categories 1 and 2 take little time, but category 3 involves back and forth discussion and agonizing efforts to calculate the editorial costs of rescuing a bad manuscript.
Most submissions come to us, but we occasionally solicit books on subjects we’re interested in or see a market for, and we’re constantly on the lookout for articles or interviews with writers we’d like to meet and work with. And that brings us to the point behind this post, which is that I was reading Shelf Awareness, a book industry newsletter, this morning and encountered the following interview with author William Gurstelle.
Reading this interview, you just know he’s the sort of writer whose query you’d open and be sucked right into. And because he’s a smart guy, he wouldn’t have sent the query unless he knew his idea was for the kind of book you actually publish.
Anyway, meet William Gurstelle. The bold parts are statements or questions by the editors of Shelf Awareness.
According to Newsweek, if Martha Stewart were a geek, she’d be William Gurstelle. A writer, licensed engineer, author (of Backyard Ballastics and other titles), inveterate tinkerer and super-charged inventor, he has been researching and building model catapults and ballistic devices for more than 30 years. His latest book, Absinthe & Flamethrowers (Chicago Review Press), shows smart risk takers how to add more excitement to their lives, explores why danger is good for you and details the art of living dangerously.On your nightstand now:
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, a taser-powered potato gun and Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure by Matthew Algeo. Also a stack of New Yorkers (who can keep up?), 37 cents in change, lint and a pencil with no eraser.
In your garage now:
Machinery’s Handbook, Edition 26, Rocket Manual for Amateurs by Captain Bertrand R. Brinley, Black Powder Manufacturing Testing and Optimizing by Ian Von Maltitz and The Boy Mechanic by Lindsay Publications.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. I also loved Caps for Sale by the delightfully named Esphyr Slobodkina.
Your top five authors:
I really enjoy 19th century British authors. I’ve read all of Charles Dickens’s novels, most of Jane Austen’s and many of Walter Scott’s. I also really like Americans Booth Tarkington and James Fenimore Cooper. There’s something so right about the literary worlds these authors construct. Virtue is rewarded, and evil is punished. Their worlds are as ours should be. (Plus, my two favorite character names of all time are the aptronymic Mr. McChokemchild in Dickens’s Hard Times and Cooper’s nearly unpronounceable Mohawk Chingachgook.)
Book you’ve faked reading:
I tried to get through Gravity’s Rainbow three times. Never made it past page 110.
Book you’re an evangelist for:
My buddy Dan Buettner’s book Blue Zones is a great book with a great purpose. If you’re interested in living longer and living better (and who isn’t?), Blue Zones is the logical place to start.
Book you’ve bought for the cover:
The Catcher in the Rye. I really can’t say what it is about that cover that appeals to me. It just does.
Book that changed your life:
Introduction to Computer Data Processing, Third Edition, 1984. If this textbook had not so clearly described how god-awfully boring a career in information technology was, I may have made some early career decisions that were even worse than the ones I did make.
Favorite line from a book:
“The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists, as the mother can love the unborn child. In creative art the essence of a book exists before the book or before even the details or main features of the book; the author enjoys it and lives in it with a kind of prophetic rapture.” — Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Big Phil’s Kid by Martin Parker. It was my favorite when I was a teenager–the funniest thing I’d ever read.
Favorite invention of your own:
Like a parent with many children, I love all my inventions pretty much equally. The hamster-powered night-light is as wonderful as the balsa-wood ornithopter in its own way. (Except for my flamethrower. My flamethrower is really, really special.)
The most dangerous books you’ve ever read:
The most dangerous good book I’ve read is Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Everybody should draw their own conclusions on Dawkins’s arguments, but remember: talking about his ideas in the wrong settings can lead to dicey situations.
The most dangerous bad book is The Anarchist Cookbook. It’s just a hodgepodge of badly written, bad-tempered, ill-conceived instructions that could only lead to dangerously bad outcomes.
The most artfully dangerous piece of advice anyone has given you:
Conventional wisdom says to know your limits. To know your limits, you need to find them first. Finding your limits generally involves getting in over your head and hoping you live long enough to benefit from the experience. That’s the fun part.