California Literary Review

A Conversation with Author and McSweeney’s Editor Paul Collins

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July 31st, 2009 at 11:01 am

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Paul Collins

Paul Collins
[Photo by Kenneth Ulappa]

CLR INTERVIEW: Paul Collins is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. He teaches creative nonfiction and magazine writing at Portland State University, edits the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney’s Books, and regularly appears on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” as their literary detective on odd and forgotten old books. His previous books include Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change the World, Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey Into the Lost History of Autism, and The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine. His new book is The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered The World.

The Book of William by Paul Collins
The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World
by Paul Collins
Bloomsbury USA, 256 pp.

Do you think Shakespeare had any sense that he was doing something lasting with his plays?

I don’t know if he did.

’Cause it was only his poems that were published in his lifetime.

Yeah, and he didn’t even really want the poems published, so … [laughs]. I don’t think he did, to be honest. Because there was no precedent for it, at that time. Certainly not for anything written in English. People read classical authors for hundreds of years earlier, but European authors, not so much. Let me put it this way: I don’t know if it would have surprised him that his work would have been published after he died; if nothing else, by pirates or someone just enterprising enough to put out new editions of the plays. I don’t think there’s any way he could have known that people would be reading it hundreds of years later, ’cause there would literally be no reason for someone to think that back then. There is now; someone can write something now and think, ah, people will be reading my work in hundreds of years, but that just didn’t happen back then, to anyone writing in English.

I was kind of surprised that you said “Midsummer Night’s Dream” just didn’t get produced for a number of years after his death. Do you have any sense of why? As I recall, it’s the only play of his that has no literary antecedents. Editors haven’t found an earlier story that he borrowed.

Yeah, it’s very weird. And it’s hard to account for the changes of fashion, in that way. I don’t really know why it was that in the 1620s it was basically considered an abandoned play. It was a derelict play at that point. But that happens.

You know, what people enjoy in later periods says as much about them as it does about the period it came from. For whatever reason, people just didn’t find anything that valuable in it at the time. I often think of The Great Gatsby, which didn’t do particularly well after it came out. It didn’t go into additional printings or anything like that, either. Scribner’s had copies of it sitting around in their warehouse for decades after it came out, because they couldn’t get rid of it. And at some point in the late 30s or 40s, they had a huge warehouse fire that destroyed the remaining copies, and that’s how they finally got rid of The Great Gatsby, was with a fire!

You mentioned the pieces that went into the First Folio: actors’ cuts, possibly prompt books. Does any of that exist anymore, have they found any of that raw material?

There are some copies of stuff that is not in Shakespeare’s hand, that are still around—prompt books and that kind of thing. So a few of those have turned up.

And did prompt books actually have the full play script, as opposed to the pieces that the actors got?

Well, it’s a really mixed bag, because the prompt books are mostly focused, as much as anything, on the stage directions, and on really being able to cue up the actors. So it’s not a perfect match, in terms of what it tends to emphasize. I think most scholars tend to trust the First Folio more than anything else, not because of the materials that went into it, in terms of what papers did they have on hand, but because it was [the actors] Heminge and Condell. Because it’s the only two people that were directly involved in the productions, that have ever taken part in pulling together an edition of Shakespeare’s works, and so it’s their presence as much as any identifiable set of documents that made the Folio so important to scholars. They’re all we have in terms of eyewitness editing.

When it comes to doing the book tour and interviewing, you’re already working on other stuff; does it ever feel like being asked to extol the virtues of an old girlfriend when you’re dating somebody else?

Well, kind of, yeah. Pretty much as soon as I finish one book, I start on another. It takes at least 8 or 9 months from the time the manuscript’s in ’til the book actually comes out. With my first book, Banvard’s Folly, the book came out and I did an interview for it, and I was totally at sea. It probably wasn’t that obvious for anyone else listening to the interview, but it was really uncomfortable for me because the interviewer had had a much more recent experience of the book than I had. It wasn’t like I’d forgotten everything, but I really did not feel my sharpest. What I realized was that, when a book is coming out, usually a week before the publicity starts, I have to sit down and reread the book. And that’s always kind of a strange experience. I’ll find typos and other things I want to fix. I see the same word repeated three times on a page, that kind of thing, and I’ll just go, oh man, why didn’t I see that?

Are you far enough away from it that you kind of fall in love with it and the subject again?

Umm … kind of. Actually, that takes a few years. I think this is actually not unusual for other writers I’ve talked to: that you almost have to alienate yourself from your own work before you can appreciate it again. I’ve had the experience of a few years passing, and then picking up one of my older books, and reading it and actually getting kind of absorbed: Oh, this isn’t bad! But it’s sort of like I’m too close to it initially. And not exactly sick of the subject, but I’m done with the subject. Right now, I’m in the middle of studying crime in the 1890s in New York. That’s pretty far away from the First Folios. And it is kind of like singing the praises of an old girlfriend, because then you’re on a tour and people want to ask you all about Tom Paine or about Shakespeare or about whatever. Probably the one time that that hasn’t happened was the book I did on autism, since that’s an ongoing thing in my life. I still get asked to come and talk about that book at autism conferences and stuff, and I’m always happy to do that.

I want to ask you a more off-the-wall question. I was thinking the other day about how God and Christianity inspired — and to some extent, its apparatus commissioned — works by composers especially, in centuries past. It made me wonder: Do you think people write books for different reasons now than they did two hundred, three hundred years ago?

Well, I think so. I think there’s a couple things behind that. I think a lot of the reasons are still the same, too, but the process is different than it was a few hundred years ago. For one thing, people didn’t make a living off of writing books back then. Shakespeare didn’t make a living off his writing. He made a living off performance. Which is why in a way the manuscripts were not that important to him: he moved on to the next show, basically.

Was there a period where he was only doing his stuff, or did his company do other people’s plays, too?

I don’t know, to tell you the truth. I know that Heminge and Condell both acted in plays by Ben Jonson and by Beaumont and Fletcher. So I would presume actually that it was their company that did that. I don’t know why they would be wandering over to someone else’s company to do that. Also, it’s pretty hard on Shakespeare for him to be the sole [laughs] … “come on, speed it up, speed it up, we got a show comin’ up—pump out another one!”

For him, the money was in the performance of this stuff. And for most authors, really, up until … Washington Irving usually gets cited as the first professional author. Sometimes, some people will say Cooper was the first. There were people who made a living off of hackwork—pounding out reference guides and stuff like that—but in terms of a modern conception of an author, someone that puts out some magisterial work every two to five years, and goes around and talks about it, and that’s how they somehow derive their living, Irving was basically the first. And it actually wasn’t really until the mid 1800s, with the rise of railroad distribution, high speed presses, all that kind of stuff, that people really could make a go of it and really in a serious way actually become professional authors. So before that, people really weren’t doing it for the money, as much.

That’s roughly about the time professional composers like Beethoven could finally free-lance.

Right, right. Certainly in the case of writing, a lot of it’s connected with technology: there just wasn’t the technology to make a living off of it. And then there was. And so, I think just necessarily because of that, people’s motives—not only people’s motives, but the kind of books they can write—are different now. Like, when I went to my publisher on this, I went with the idea for the book, but I hadn’t gone to Japan yet, and I hadn’t gone to the British Library. I’d spent enough time in London at the British Library to know where to go, but I hadn’t done any of that traveling yet; and I wasn’t going to until I knew that I had a book contract, because it’s very expensive!

In the old days you wouldn’t have had that: you wouldn’t have had a publisher advancing you a bunch of money to then go and write a book like that. So, if a book like that got written at all, a couple of hundred years ago, it would have been because someone was taking that trip anyway. And as an afterthought almost, they would write about it. And not necessarily with any expectation of making any more money off of it. I guess depending on how one looks at it, it’s made books more professional, in both the good and bad senses of the word.

How is it bad?

In the bad sense, it’s made them more mercenary. But in another sense, it’s made them, you know, far more rigorous and professionally done, basically. Especially things like history.

So what’s happening with print-on-demand these days? Are the quote, “publishers” making more out-of-print titles available? Are people buying them?

In theory, yeah. I don’t think that print-on-demand is going to be all that meaningful in terms of back catalog. And that’s what you usually hear people talk about: “Oh, you’ll be able to get some book that was out of print; now it’s in print.” And that’s a misunderstanding of the way the market usually works. The big advantage of print-on-demand is for new books. Because if you look at royalty statements, or BookScan numbers, what happens is (I think very few people realize this), that there’s a season for a book. There’s a two- or three-month window during which it gets promoted very heavily and it’s kept in stock on shelves, and when someone is liable to be doing interviews or on the radio, etc., etc.

And once that 60 to 90 days ends, the book goes off a cliff. If you actually look at book sales, there are a handful of books—like, you could count them on your fingers—every year, that continue to sell and sell and sell. But the vast majority of books that come out, they bloom and then they die. Literally 90 to 95 percent of all sales are made during that period. And it’s not because the books aren’t available, it’s just because people’s attention is shifted. And the interviews are with the new season of authors.

Having print-on-demand doesn’t change that at all. People aren’t going to suddenly think, hey, that book I heard about on the radio eight months ago, I want to get it now! People just don’t think that way. They hear something on the radio today and they go out and get it. And so print-on-demand is great for publishers in that they don’t have to gamble with how many books they put out initially. Once they’ve perfected the quality of the print, it’ll make things vastly more efficient for publishers and much less of a gamble.

You know what print-on-demand will kill are the chains. Because chains exist really on the basis of two things: on excess inventory and the returns system. This was actually something that came out in the Thirties—

There must be some impulse buying, too.

Well, yeah, but it’s not as books, usually. They have lots of tchochkes and crap, basically. And they’ll probably continue doing fine off of those, but … what happened was in the Thirties and Forties, because of the Depression, publishers started this returns system where, if a book didn’t sell, you could return it to the publisher for credit on other titles. And the evil genius of Barnes & Noble and Borders, and Waldenbooks before them, was to figure out that if you had some start-up money, if you had shareholders staking money to you, you could wallpaper your stores with other people’s books … and if it didn’t sell, it didn’t matter. It just didn’t matter, because you could return them for credit to get more of their books. So it created these behemoths that would just crush any other bookstore nearby. But over the long term it hasn’t been good for publishers, ’cause now they owe enormous amounts of credit to these chains.

Probably shortened the selling season, too.

Well, it has, actually and (this is probably more than you want to know about this stuff, but) there was a [Supreme Court] legal decision in 1979, Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, that in effect changed the way that inventory is counted among one’s assets. The practical effect of the ruling was to make it in the store’s interest to clear its stuff out at the end of the year. So now there’s an active disincentive, in tax terms, for a store to keep back stock around.

This is what William F. Buckley and Harlan Ellison responded to by buying up all their old copies so they could sell them themselves.

Exactly. Exactly. Because the practical effect of it is that the stores will keep stuff around for a couple, you know, two or three months and then it’s gone. And they didn’t used to do that; they used to have at least some back copies of books around for years.

You know what print-on-demand will change? It will kill the remainder market. ’Cause remainders exist entirely as a product of overruns. You won’t have any overruns anymore. Also, actually, not coincidentally, chain stores—Barnes & Noble, Borders—did a land office business in remainders. And so, you know, their whole reason for being would evaporate. I think they’ll just go into something else. But as far as a bookstore presence, it would have the practical effect of killing the chains.

Do you think there’ll be less ignominy in being out of print? Since they’ll be scanned and available somewhere?

I think so. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, though, because it used to be that when your book went out of print, most book contracts have a reversion clause that if your book’s out of print, you can go to the publisher and say, “put the book back into print within six months, or the rights revert to me.” And if they didn’t put it back into print, you could then get the rights back and turn around and go sell it to some other publisher. It could be reissued in a nice new shiny edition. Ideally! … if another publisher actually wanted it. Now, if a publisher wants to be kind of evil about it (and some of them are), an author will go to them and say, put my book back into print or the rights will revert to me, and they will print a copy; they’ll do a print-on-demand copy.

Oh, wow.

Amazon will have like five copies or something. So for all practical purposes, the book is still out of print. There’s no new cover, there’s no publicity for it; it just has a nominal physical presence, somewhere in a warehouse. And so really, it kind of dicks over the author, ’cause they have no way of ever relaunching the book. And it allows the publisher to sit on it until they feel like they can make more money off of it. And I know authors that that’s happened to, where the publisher’s done that. So that’s the dark side of print-on-demand. [Laughs.] It keeps books from being revived, actually. It means you can buy a single copy of them, but it means that you’re not going to actually see them being rediscovered and like brought out in a nice new edition.

Unless there’s that one-in-a-million critic who happens across that copy.

Exactly. Or unless someone makes a movie out of it. Which is also kind of a one-in-a-million thing.

So, you mentioned exploring crime in the 1890s now—is that the center of the new project, or is that one of the many tangents?

No, that’s definitely the center of it. I’m actually looking at a case from the 1890s that was sort of the beginning of yellow journalism, of Hearst and Pulitzer sensationalizing crime. It’s a fairly gruesome case, but in its own way it’s a very ordinary one. What happened to it was sort of the beginning of modern TV journalism, which is this idea of 24/7 coverage, where you just take some poor schmuck that’s gotten involved in whatever scandal or crime or whatever—that in one sense has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else, and is actually of no real interest to anyone outside of their home town—and just blowing it up and covering it nonstop. You know, last week, when all the networks were doing Michael Jackson all the time: that was Hearst. He invented that, basically.

In the 1890s the Hearst reporters were known as “the Wrecking Crew.” Any time there was a really big story, all the staff would empty out of the Morning Journal, which was Hearst’s paper in New York, and they would just flood it. Any sensible paper would send a reporter over, and Hearst would send like twenty, and artists to draw the scene. And the thing is, they clearly engaged in a lot of exaggeration or just flat-out fabrication in the process, but they also probably got a lot of material that nobody else got that was in fact true. So the big challenge is figuring out which is which.

It was a kind of creating demand – creating the market for what you do, right?

Yeah, to the point where people almost accuse Hearst of starting the Spanish-American War as a way to sell newspapers. Which is not entirely true, but it’s not entirely false, either. He really did create demand, basically. And he understood that people would get caught up in what were essentially trivialities. Because up to that point, newspapers had been these very sober-looking documents that listed, you know, city meetings.

He realized that people had a craving for narrative, basically. And a lot of news doesn’t present much of a narrative, or at least not a very interesting one. People really have a desire for the kind of closure and the kind of format that fiction gives them. Which is why, any time you hear of somebody faking something in nonfiction, nobody ever fakes it to make it more boring. You know? Nobody ever fakes less closure in a story; it’s always in the direction of the fictive. It’s always to make it look more like a novel.

When Sixpence House came out, you know, part of the book is that my wife and I are trying to buy a house in this charming old town in Wales, and at the end of the book we don’t and we come back to the U.S. A lot of people really seemed to like the book, but at least a few people really seemed to resent that it didn’t have—

You bait-and-switched ’em.

Yeah, that it didn’t have the ending they wanted! And I was sort of like: this is a memoir. It’s like … gee, I’m sorry my life didn’t turn out the way you wanted! They really wanted the ending they would get from a novel. And you know, it’s just sort of funny, but I also understand it: people are conditioned to expect certain types of storylines or certain narrative arts, and real life doesn’t have that necessarily.

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