I got thinking the other day — completely by chance — about how much fun it is to be a publisher.
The occasional moments of sheer joy in publishing came to me, improbably, shortly after I picked up a biography of Amelia Earhart for some vacation escape reading. The choice of the Earhart book was itself somewhat serendipitous: It had been recommended by my friend, E.E. Whiting (fans of the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction will know her), who in turn is a friend of author Mary S. Lovell, the acclaimed biographer of Bess of Hardwick, the Mitford Sisters, Betty Pack (the American spy who seduced secrets out of the Nazis), and — coming soon — the Churchills. Lovell’s Earhart book, while written in 1989, is about to come back into the news. It has been optioned as a source for a major motion picture on the aviatrix and her ill-fated round-the-world flight. The stars are Hilary Swank as Earhart, and — as her husband — my former brother-in-law, Richard Gere.
So the choice to read during a five-day stay in the sticks of northeastern Pennsylvania was none other than “The Sound of Wings.”
The surprise came five chapters into it, when Amelia’s husband was introduced. He was the publisher, George P. Putnam of G.P. Putnam’s Sons in New York. While some Earhart biographers have painted a dark picture of Putnam as an exploitative businessman who encouraged Amelia’s high risk flight as a publicity stunt for a best-selling book, Lovell takes a longer view of the man, maintaining that Earhart did not resent his help and in fact welcomed it.
One thing’s for sure. George Putnam the publisher sure had a hell of a lot of fun. Though born into a publishing family that was comfortably well off, George got his hands-on training running — and eventually buying — a small town paper in the Oregon frontier.
When he came back to New York he embarked on a series of adventures, all with a book or two or three coming out at the end. Before he met Amelia, Putnam had organized an expedition to Greenland, planned another for Canada’s Baffin Island, and commissioned Charles Lindbergh to write the first person account of his 1927 trans-Atlantic solo.
Given all the changes since the days of the Earhart-Putnam partnership, it’s hard to imagine having the same kind or the same quantity of fun as George Putnam. But even we at a small weekly publication still have our moments. There’s the adventure of putting together a summer fiction issue, based on an open call to mostly unpublished and unknown writers from all walks of life.
There’s the forays into the uncharted world of the Internet, trying to figure out what to pack from our large collection of print resources and how to package it for the virtual new world.
And there’s the sheer terror of waking at 5 in the morning, and discovering an empty space of 30 or 40 column inches in front of you, looming like a chasm in a mountain glacier. You throw out some lines and hope readers will be able to follow your course.
These days, with the economy reeling and the print end of publishing facing new competition, you might think it’s hard to have much fun in this business. Once again, I found some surprising encouragement from the Lovell biography of Earhart and Putnam. After his wife disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, 22,000 miles into her flight and so close to her goal, Putnam had to put his own life back together. His business had been weakened by the Great Depression, and he had no choice but to keep working.
He went on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, enlisted in the Army during World War II, and eventually settled high in the Sierra Mountains of California. When his new wife complained about the winter cold in the mountain altitude, Putnam managed to buy a place in Death Valley, the lowest spot he could find. What fun.
From the Readers: My July 16 column on the excesses of suburban lawns drew some enlightened responses. Pravin J. Philip expressed hope that the rant against unutilized lawns “will help turn us from our diseased egos and the need to feed them with stuff we do not really need.” Philip referred to a website maintained by Annie Leonard that “talks about re-focussing our life around essentials — www.storyofstuff.org.”
Carolyn Edelmann, who has contributed many nature-related articles to U.S. 1 (see page 4 of this issue), noted the new interest in “backyard agriculture,” and quoted a passage from Michael Pollan’s book on home gardening, entitled “Second Nature:”
“Domination, translated into suburban or rural terms, means lawn. A few acres of Kentucky bluegrass between house and landscape, a no-man’s-land patrolled with a rotary blade. It looks sort of natural — it’s green; it grows — but in fact it represents a subjugation of the forest as utter and complete as a parking lot. Every species is forcibly excluded from the landscape but one, and this is forbidden to grow longer than the owner’s little finger. A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”
Imagine equating a lawn with a parking lot — fun stuff, this publishing business.