Friday, December 2, 2011

Blog CIV (104): The History Ph.D. as Novelist

Editorial Note: Today's posting is the third part of three essays that represents a return of the "The History Ph.D. as..." series. This article examines historians who have moved into the world of fiction as novelists. The article is exceptionally long even by internet standards (roughly 4,000 words), so it will be posted on "In the Service of Clio" in three parts. Part one appeared in Blog CII on Monday, November 28, 2011 and part two appeared in Blog CIII on Wednesday, November 30, 2011.

Having a Ph.D. can also be an unusual asset for a novelist. In 1997, Paretsky was a visiting scholar in Oxford and visited the Imperial War Museum, which she called an “incredible archive of everything about the war.” She decided to write a V. I. Warshawski novel that would “bring past and present together” in a novel about the recovery of Holocaust assets issue like dormant insurance policies and bank accounts.

This little story raises an important question: can a historian return to history after writing fiction, be it contemporary or historical in nature?  David believes so. “I had no worries, and quickly rattled off the first three chapters of my much-delayed history of the British soldier.” In that vein, Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ‘41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, co-wrote a novel Blindspot (2008) with Jane Kamensky, another historian, and found that fiction writing actually helped her in doing history. “What it turned into—and this is the thing that most surprised me—is that it fed back into my work as an historian,” she explained. “I'm working on Benjamin Franklin now, writing a biography of Franklin and his sister; I feel very close to both of them, as a nonfiction writer, in a way that I don't think I would have felt if we hadn't written this novel.”

How does one become a novelist? What are the detailed steps of publishing in a new venue? The first thing is to have a literary agent. An important note is that agents specialize: some do history, some do romance fiction, some do science fiction, and so on. Make sure you do research and approach the right individual for what you want to write. How? There are plenty of books on publishing and literary agents that you can find in the self-help section of any decent sized bookstore. There are many writers conferences that you can attend, and many feature sessions that give you face-to-face time with agents. This type of personal connection, like in many other fields, helps. Agents are swamped with proposals from aspiring writers and while we would like to think that our writing will sell itself, Tillman observed: “The world isn’t spun that way.”

Some creative writing classes might also be in order. Many schools have MFA programs in creative writing. Enrolling in a degree program is probably not necessary, but many do offer courses that will cover important topics that will be new to the historian such as character development and dramatic structure. Many agents require that first time novelists have a completed manuscript, so the exact sequence in which you go about this task might vary.

Sometimes getting an agent is a difficult thing in and of itself. Cobbs Hoffman methodically researched the agents she contacted and collected many rejections before finding representation. Even then, she had to go through two agents before she found one that successfully sold her book to a major publisher. “You do not necessarily benefit from being represented by a major, major agency.”

Another factor to consider in deciding upon this career path is that publishing is suffering in the national economy, just like most other businesses. Until recently, the publishing industry was always considered a recession proof entertainment medium. Books sold well regardless of the ups and downs in the economy, but the growth of personal, electronic media means now that there are other significant venues for the spending of discretionary income. In the last few years, publishers have been laying off editors and bookstores have been going out of business. Many houses are reluctant to sign new authors even if they have a proven track record publishing in another genre.

The implication is that authors have to be their own marketing machines. The publishers just are not going to be doing the same amount of work that they once did. This implication is more important for novelists than historians. “I learned early on,” Tillman explained, “that bestsellers are not written, they are sold.” Novelists have to be prepared to be on-line, visiting the blogs, using social media websites in addition to doing author events. “It’s more important than ever that authors get heavily involved in marketing their own books,” he added.

Some authors have chosen to go the self-publishing route. Cobbs Hoffman after having two agents tell her they could not sell her novel, decided on this venue, because she had to “do something other than press delete” with her manuscript. Keep in mind, she is an accomplished historian, winning the Allen Nevis Prize for her first book The Rich Neighbor Policy: Rockefeller and Kaiser in Brazil (1992). Carpenter also made that decision after playing with his Antimony manuscript off and on for twenty years: “It’s a way to get your product out there and get it noticed.” Most of the firms that produce self-published books are basically fee driven publishing houses and an author can choose from a number of available services, ranging from editing to marketing. These have additional costs and an author will still have to do a good deal of work in selling the book, finding reviewers, getting promotional blurbs from others, and submitting the book for awards. The problem is, as Carpenter admits, is that 99 percent of self-published work is “junk.”

Why then, would anyone go this route? “You are looking for that John Grisham effect,” Carpenter explained. If an author has something in print, it is easier to start conversations with publishers and agents about transferring to a bigger press. This process happened to Cobbs Hoffman. A major publisher picked up her book after it garnered critical praise and won some book prizes. She admits this would never have happened if she had not self-published the book: “I know for a fact that Random House would never seen it.”

Since this blog is about giving career advice to the new Ph.D., it is important to ask if being a novelist is a legitimate alternative career open to the history Ph.D.? That answer to that question is a complicated one. One of the hard facts about writing—regardless of its genre—is that it is difficult to making a steady living wage at it. Most book authors have some other job: journalist, academic, etcetera. Novelists are no different. A first time author might sell only 5,000 copies, which is better than your average academic monograph, but not that much better. It often takes several tries before a novelist has a commercially successful work. This is the “John Grisham effect” that Carpenter mentioned. It took two tries for Grisham, the author of legal thrillers, to become a best-seller. When The Firm (1991) started selling well, only then did A Time to Kill (1989) become popular. Michael Connelly, the mystery writer, did not become a best-seller until his fifth book The Poet (1996) appeared in print.

Most of the historians mentioned in this article have tenure-track positions and have turned to fiction as a sidelight to an academic career rather than as a substitute for one. In this case, Paretsky is the exception. She turned to fiction on a full-time basis. Even then, there are important qualifications in her story. Married to a University of Chicago physics professor, she knew she would not be able to find a history job in the Chicago area and went to business school, earning a MBA. She then worked at an insurance agency. “Insurance isn't anyone’s first choice for a career,” she remarked. She stayed there until she had three novels to her name. It was the $200,000 she received for selling the film rights to her V. I. Warshawski character that made it possible for her to leave the insurance company and focus on her writing. “It was foolish because I lost control of the character,” she says. “It was smart because it gave me the freedom to quit my job and become a full-time writer."

Connelly has made similar remarks about the financial windfall he received from selling the film rights to his books. Two of his books Bloodwork (1998) and The Lincoln Lawyer (2005) were turned into films of the same names. Those developments, however, came later in his writing career. He was a working journalist while writing his first four novels. “I sold Paramount the rights to Harry Bosch 18 years ago. I don't regret it. The deal I made allowed me to quit my job at the L.A. Times and be a full-time writer. But they never made a movie. We tried very hard. There were maybe six different scripts, but they just weren't Harry Bosch. So they put him on the shelf.”

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