I would call it a guilty pleasure if I felt guilty. But my subscription to People magazine actually liberates me. Instead of furtively flipping pages in the checkout line, hoping to find the photos of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s baby before it’s time to unload the hummus, I have Blue Ivy Carter (seven pounds) delivered, so to speak, right to my door. Instead of trying to catch up on the last two months’ worth of celebrity gossip while under the dryer at the hair salon, I get the news fresh, in the comfort of my living room, without the distraction of overheated earlobes.
So it was with zero pangs, qualms, or first-degree burns that, on the evening of February 17, 2012, I sat down to indulge in the latest issue and a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. (I do have some class.) I had barely made it through the table of contents when my cell phone buzzed with an e-mail. Melissa, my editor at Red Line Editorial, was sending out an offer for a new assignment to several of her writers. The first one of us to respond would get the job.
Technically, Red Line is a book packaging company, though, as Red Line’s founder and president Bob Temple explained when I contacted him for this article, he prefers the term “book development house.” Its clients, mainly educational publishers, hire Red Line for a variety of services, from shepherding a manuscript through the writing and editing process to collaborating on the development of new series.
Authors writing for Red Line do so on a work-for-hire basis. They’re paid flat fees, no royalties. Each manuscript must conform to fairly strict series guidelines. The word that comes to mind when I think of the deadlines is insane, but let’s just call them tight. Still, tight deadlines can motivate a writer to produce more than she would if she had all the time in the world. (Feel free to substitute me for a writer and I for she in the previous sentence.) As a friend of mine who has done work for hire for other publishers said, if you’re efficient and “get in a groove,” you can make a living, or something close to it, with work-for-hire projects, though this road to semi-solvency does come with a stigma. As another friend who writes for both the trade and educational markets noted, “Many folks think work for hire is selling out.”
It’s true, when I first stepped into the sunshine with my shiny new MFA degree in writing for children and young adults, I didn’t have much respect for the type of library-market titles Red Line has since hired me to produce. For one thing, I’d spent years reviewing such books for The Horn Book Guide. The Guide, as you probably know, reviews a much greater quantity of titles than The Horn Book Magazine. While the Magazine, in general, publishes recommendations, the Guide reviews it all — the good, the bad, the intermittently coherent. How well I remember those days of regularly receiving hulking boxes of books from the Guide. The initial discovery of a UPS delivery on my porch felt like Christmas! Then I’d slice open the box, and there it would be: the coal. I’m talking about, say, five books in a hypothetical series called Countries Beginning with S, along with a note from the Guide editor instructing me to “please write one review for these five books.” So I’d scowl at Sri Lanka, smirk at Sierra Leone, determining from the outset that what I’d find between the covers warranted a bunch of other S words — slapdash and superficial and subpar. The S word, in short.
But recently I happened upon this quote from poet Czesław Miłosz: “When the Japanese poet Basho advised a poet describing a pine to learn from the pine, he wanted to say that contemplation of a thing — a reverent and pious approach to it — is a pre requisite of true art.” In other words, said the haiku master, show a little respect. Thinking back on my Guide reviewing days, I realize now that my dismissive attitude wasn’t doing anyone any favors. How could I possibly judge those books fairly through a veil of condescension? Not that I’d necessarily place educational series nonfiction in the lofty-sounding category of “true art.” But joining the ranks of work-for-hire writers has humbled me. I have looked more carefully at the pine and learned a thing or two.
First and foremost, I’ve gained an appreciation for the level of craft and effort it takes to put together one of these books and to do it well. I’ve learned that to produce a substantive, informative, entertaining, thoroughly researched narrative within the often-frustrating constraints of whirlwind deadlines and curriculum criteria — for example, a friend told me she wasn’t allowed to use the word haunting, even in describing a melody, because ghosts don’t fly with school boards in Texas — is really, really hard, but also, if you can accomplish it, enormously satisfying.
So far all of my assignments from Red Line have been in the area of middle-school nonfiction. For the first one, I flung myself into the fetid partisan swamp of the Bush v. Gore case to write a volume in ABDO Publishing’s Landmark Supreme Court Cases series. Every day for two months I rolled my little suitcase full of library books about the 2000 presidential election to a neighborhood coffee shop and got to work. (A sample of the giddy, exhausted e-mails I sent to friends during this period: “Don’t worry, Gore is pulling ahead! I think he’s going to win this time!”)
Next I swooped over to the Twittersphere to write about the company’s cofounder Jack Dorsey for another ABDO series, Technology Pioneers. Working on it (yes, the book is longer than 140 characters) gave me insight into how things in the real world spark advances in the virtual one. It’s safe to say there would be no Twitter if Jack Dorsey hadn’t been a kid who played with maps.
But back to my latest opus. In her e-mail on February 17th, Melissa offered a last-minute project, one that had recently materialized. She needed someone to write a middle-school biography in ABDO’s Lives Cut Short series.
As I read Melissa’s message, the subject of the proposed biography was smiling up at me from my People magazine cover. Was it coincidence or fate? I decided to go with the latter. I wrote back immediately to say that of course I wanted to write about Whitney Houston.
My response beat out another author’s by less than a minute.
However, I soon learned that this was not the easy territory of writing for a Pop Star Princesses series. And I was not the first Whitney biographer to learn such a lesson. In 1996, Kevin Ammons, the ex-boyfriend of Houston’s publicist, came out with the unauthorized Good Girl, Bad Girl: An Insider’s Biography of Whitney Houston. Not long after Houston’s death, Ammons’s coauthor, Nancy Bacon, described the unsettling package she’d received from someone while working on the book. “I opened it up, and it was a snake. It didn’t smell—it had obviously been sent to me alive. [Whitney] told Kevin I was like a snake in the grass because I was writing bad things about her.”
Of course I didn’t have to worry about reptiles special-delivered from the grave. Nonetheless, Houston, we had a problem. When I accepted the assignment, my attitude toward the damaged diva was less than respectful. I viewed her in the way I used to view library market nonfiction — as kind of a joke. Unlike the other two “serious” projects, here was easy money! Take a nostalgia trip back to the 1980s, watch a few episodes of Being Bobby Brown on YouTube, tell the familiar fallen-angel tale—how hard could it be?
Meanwhile, peeking out from behind a pine tree, Basho frowned, and shook his head.
Because friends kept asking if I was nervous about handling the sensitive material — i.e., the story of the singer’s descent into drug abuse and ultimately tragic end — I figured that would be the biggest challenge. And would I address the rumors about Houston’s possible lesbian relationship with her longtime friend Robyn Crawford? (To answer that question, no; Houston asserted in numerous interviews — and I agree — that even if the rumors were true, it was none of anyone’s beeswax.) What didn’t concern me enough, I don’t think, was whether I’d be able to get beyond my own preconceptions, whether I could get close enough to my subject to portray her as a complicated person instead of just a punch line.
Red Line requires its authors to submit an outline, first chapter, and working bibliography for approval before going ahead with projects. Normally I’m not the plan-ahead type, but being forced to do this prep work has proven lifesaving when, in the middle of a manuscript, I would feel overwhelmed by the amount of work left to do. Rather than fearfully watching the sand slip through the hourglass, I’d click on my outline for reassurance. An outline says: see, no need to fret, you’ve thought this thing through already. You said you were going to do this, so all you have to do is do it. Piece of cake.
I seriously don’t know how anyone managed to write these books before the Internet. To all you Stone Age work-for-hire nonfiction authors, pounding rocks together and consulting the oracle of the card catalogue, we pampered Googlers bow down! Back in the old days, for instance, it would have taken me countless microfiche-tangled hours to access all the magazine interviews I cited in my bibliography.
Now a labor-unintensive click takes me to a list of links compiled by fans on www.classicwhitney.com. A few more clicks, and suddenly there Whitney is: the energetic young star-on-the-rise profiled in People Weekly in 1985; the woman “under the microscope” (her metaphor for fame) setting the record straight in Ebony in 1991 about the five-and-a-half-carat rock on her finger from beau Eddie Murphy; the feisty goddess speaking directly to her legion of gay worshippers for the first time in Out magazine in 2000. (The Out interviewer claimed to have “glimpsed the real Houston” — and he liked what he saw — when he told her he believed she was straight and she responded, “It’s not for you to believe me. I don’t give a s— if you believe me or not.”) The internet worked as my portal into Houston’s heart and mind, or at least the portions of them she chose to share with the press.
As I kept reading and ferreting out articles, as I tuned in to the broadcast of her star-studded but surprisingly (to me) intimate and moving funeral at Newark, New Jersey’s, New Hope Baptist Church, as I scanned the sections on “Nippy” (Houston’s childhood nickname) in the autobiography of her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, the layers gradually peeled away. Early media images portrayed a squeaky-clean pop princess who wanted nothing more scandalous than to dance with somebody who loved her. Later she became infamous for her “crack is whack” persona (crack being the one drug she famously told Diane Sawyer in 2002 that she would never do because she was too rich for it). However, I found, as I wrote in the book, “a real person, a girl from New Jersey who had strengths as well as weaknesses, just like anybody.”
And it all started on that winter night when I settled onto my couch with my white wine and realized that my guilt-free People magazine pleasure had a new name: research.
From the September/October 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Art by Devon Johnson