Thursday, June 10, 2010

James Bradley Comes Home

Tonight I went to the History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton to hear James Bradley speak. I knew next to nothing about him, but I figured that any opportunity to hear an author talk about his work was one to snatch. Jay agreed to put Clara to bed, so I slicked on some gloss and threw a cobalt scarf over my baby-stained raincoat and was out the door. At the castle, I climbed two flights of stairs, passed a coffin of Harry Houdini's (was it really his?), and turned right into the Living History room. It was a biggish room, holding about 140 people in fold-out padded brown chairs. James Bradley stood in front of burgandy velvet curtain, his white Japanese shirt--short-sleeved with frog-clasps--a stark contrast to the suit and tie I had expected. But really what had I expected? I knew he was an historian. A WWII nonfiction writer. Honestly, I expected tortoiseshell glasses and tweeds.

James Bradley is the author of NYT bestseller Flags of our Fathers. He has also written Flyboys and The Imperial Cruise. I was a little late, so I missed the opening of his talk, but it was information I quickly gleaned from his website: he is a Wisconsin boy who went to UW-Madison. While still a student, he flouted most of his professors and followed the advice he read in Reader's Digest from James Michener (paraphrased): "When you're twenty-two and graduate from college, people will ask you, 'What do you want to do?' It's a good question, but you should answer it when you're thirty-five." Bradley took time off college to travel the world for a year. He asserts that this time prepared him for his journey as a writer because of the experience and perspective he gained.

When he graduated with a Bachelor's in history, he never imagined he would write a book. In fact, he didn't begin writing until he was 40. At that time, his father died. "I didn't set out to write a book. I wanted to know why my dad wouldn't talk about Iwo Jima. It was as simple as that."

He said he's often asked about his process, about his "research." He seemed to scoff at this a little. "'Research' is the big word. But I didn't have a plan." He started with a question about his dad. The question led him to several boxes of momentos. In one box he read a letter that his 22 year-old father, John Bradley, wrote to his parents two days after John helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. This discovery led to several phone calls to the families of the men in his dad's platoon.
He said that the families were tired of hearing from reporters and researchers. The families of the men who helped raise the flag didn't want to glorify their sons or make them into heroes. Bradley said, "I just want to know, did he have a girlfriend? Did he play football?" The book was well received by the families because he told their sons' stories honestly, frankly.

When his book came out in 2000, it was an instant bestseller. Bradley said this didn't surprise him because the photo on the cover is the most copied photograph in the world. It's an iconic image. He said that he had the most recognized image with stories no one had ever heard: from a marketing p.o.v., he was confident the book would sell.

How difficult it was for him, then, to hit brick wall after brick wall. First, he tried pitching the story as a movie. Whom did he call for help? Ross Perot! "He had a lot of money, he was patriotic, and he knew Hollywood," Bradley said. Unfortunately, Perot refused.

"'Bradley, you gotta write a book. You gotta write a book, Bradley,'" he told us he heard over the phone. "'Hollywood'll steal your idea. You gotta write it down. You gotta write a book.'"

So though he really didn't want to, Bradley wrote the book. After that, he cold-called 50--50!--agents. By the 50th, he realized that agents don't actually appreciate phone calls; they really just want to see your work. :) (Good tip!)

When an agent finally took him on, his manuscript was sent to three big houses in New York. Bradley told us that he mused, "Hm. Which one will I choose?" He was certain all three would be interested in buying it. All three refused it. Twenty-four more publishing houses refused it. He said that one publisher sent him a letter that said, "We've heard you're not getting any positive responses, and we wanted to let you know why. The publishing industry judges the stories you want to tell aren't worth the paper they'd be printed on."

Oh my stars! Do professionals in the publishing world really write letters like that??

Bradley took a moment to charge the young people in the crowd (I'm sure he was talking to me, right?): "If you want to get anything done, you gotta go through a lot of no's."

He followed up with a story he heard while working with Clint Eastwood during the production of the "Flags of our Fathers" movie. Eastwood told him that he pitched "Million Dollar Baby" to Warner Bros, with whom he'd worked closely for years. Their response was, basically, "Clint, you've lost it. It's a boxing movie? And it's a boxing movie with a girl in it?" They refused to support it. Eastwood said, "I don't even start to think it's a good idea until I hear two people telling me it's a bad idea."

So we'll keep those chins up, right writers? If Academy-Award-winner "Million Dollar Baby" and NYT-bestseller Flags of our Fathers had to struggle to live, we must expect our little seedlings will struggle too. But we'll be tenacious, yes? And we'll have excellent senses of humor.

He talked much more about his other books and on his current project, but it's really the QA I found the most interesting. He asked clearly that if folks had questions, to please raise their hands; however, if they had comments, please go to his website and share them there. He wanted to know their stories, but he couldn't write them down in a format such as this (he's looking for new stories for his next book). Clear enough, yes?

The first hand up was from a dear white-haired woman who shared for some time that the woman with her had been a neighbor of Bradley's father and that they had gone to school together. She was clearly delighted to be talking to the author; her voice was timorous and she was clutching the shoulder of the woman sitting beside her. Bradley was oddly terse. He inserted during each breath, "We'll talk afterward." "I look forward to talking with you afterward." "Are there any questions?"

The second hand was of a man standing on the side of the room holding a large frame. He wanted to tell Bradley about the photograph, that "meaning no disrespect," the photograph was taken moments before that iconic picture was taken. He said more, about the landscape, and maybe about his father. The man tried to give the picture to Bradley, but the author said, "Why don't you take this?" and asked for any questions.

The third--you won't be surprised, will you?--was a gentleman who shared information on a charitable organization that is slightly similar to the foundation that Bradley has started. Bradley said, "Did you hear that? He was talking about AFS, which distributes kids all over the world. Are there any questions?"

Questions. Authors want questions. James Bradley especially wants questions. He was hard-pressed to get them tonight. I was tickled to death by this. I wrote in my journal, "This has to be the suckiest part of authors' speaking engagments." It really must. Worse than leaving your family or lumpy motel mattresses or mikes that don't work, dealing with a difficult crowd HAS to be the worst. Have you ever seen an author deal with a difficult crowd? How did he/she handle it? Or are you an author who has dealt with chatty, opinionated folks? What's your secret for a gracious exit?

:) Yes, I'm back to writing my zero draft, but I'm already planning how to handle myself in upcoming speaking engagements. It never hurts to be prepared, right?

I hope James Bradley enjoyed his visit home in Wisconsin. He's looking for stories of today's America; he kindly reported that his talks with our principals and mayor have given him a positive view of our midwest version of America. He said he may just stop reading the New York Times. :) Reports of New York's beaches and parks closing down, of LA declaring bankruptcy had him thinking that we had fundamentally changed as a country in recent years. The buoyant tales of community and closeness he has heard here has encouraged him.

Whatever the truth of Wisconsin's 'community' may be, I do hope his next book offers all of us inspiration and joy. Wishing him the very best of luck on his continued journey!

1 comment:

  1. I am not a published author, but I do a lot of public speaking on animal related topics. Nothing annoys me more than asking for questions and getting long winded stories instead. The problem with allowing one person to finish is that everyone then wants to share their story and doesn't see why they shouldn't be allowed to since the first guy got to. I warn people now ahead of time. "Any questions? And I do mean questions only. If you start out with any word other than what, where, why, how, who, I WILL cut you off. We can share stories at the end IF we have time. If we don't have time for your story, feel free to come up to me as I'm packing up and share your story." I do wait afterwards and listen to plenty of stories then. I can just feel James Bradley's frustration. Poor guy. You really can't cut an old lady off without looking like a jerk. Trust me, I've done it.

    I love when you listen to visiting authors. You have the best write ups! I'm also jealous because you seem to get many great authors in your area. You'd think in Los Angeles, we'd get a ton, but not so much. Only at the expensive conferences, it seems. If I didn't live in L.A., I wouldn't come here unless paid to do so either, though! Certainly understandable!

    Thanks for sharing!!