Meeting My Giants

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In his last post, Joel Chasnoff, author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir, wrote about the battle over his book cover. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.jewish_authors_blog2.jpg

Even before I signed the contract to write The 188th Crybaby Brigade, I turned to other authors for advice.

The first writer I met was Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End. Joshua had grown up in Niles, not far from where I grew up in Evanston. I’d played little league with his best childhood friend, Grant. It was at a birthday party for a mutual friend that Grant introduced us.

Despite the fact that he’d just sold a novel that would go on to become a New York Times bestseller and shortlisted for the National Book Award, Joshua was completely down to earth and, better yet, generous with his time. then_we_came_to_an_end.jpgHe read the sample chapter of my book proposal and then, a week later, took me for coffee and gave an extensive critique. He then offered to introduce me to his literary agent, if I needed one. (I did not, as it turned out.) Over the next few years, I’d email him questions about everything from what to expect during the editing process to publicity strategy. He always answered back.

Then, in January 2006, I saw an ad in the Times about an upcoming event at the 92nd Street Y with, among others, Dave Eggers.

Every writer has that one other writer whom he or she emulates almost to the point of obsession. For me, that other writer is Eggers.

I first came across Eggers in the fall of 2003, when I happened to notice his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Shattering Genius, on the front table at a Barnes and Noble in Buffalo.heartbreaking_work.jpg

I picked up the book, examined the amateur-looking cover. I flipped through the first few pages and saw a list of metaphors (and their explanations) contained in the book and an Acknowledgments section that thanked, in turn, the employees of NASA and the U.S. Postal system.

From that moment, I was hooked. I sat in an easy chair and read half the book right there in the store. Then I paid for it, finished it that night, and started to reread it the next morning.

After his reading at the 92nd Street Y, I stood in the signing line for upwards of an hour. When my turn finally came, I handed him a book and a white envelope with a letter in it. “I wrote you a note,” I mumbled, nervous, like a kid meeting his favorite baseball player.

“Cool!” Eggers said.

For two weeks, I checked the mailbox with anticipation.

No note.

Then, somehow, I forgot about it. Until one day, I opened the mailbox and found a letter with a San Francisco postmark, addressed to me in my own handwriting. (I’d enclosed an SASE).

I tore open the envelope. Inside was the letter I’d written to Dave, with his handwritten comments scrawled next to each question.

Eggers offered incredible advice. On my need for an extension from the publisher: “Totally normal. Good to have deadlines, but don’t release it ‘til it’s ready. You can never un-publish.”

On how to know when the book was finished: “Have a group of 5-6 readers outside of your S&S editor. Get these readers committed to reading/helping you make the book as good as it can be. They should be friends/relations who like you, care about what you publish. They can screen for dangerous passages.”

Truth be told, the best part of Eggers’ letter was not any one piece of advice, but simply that he’d written back.

Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah: A Memoir is available in bookstores now. Visit Chasnoff’s official website: http://joelchasnoff.com/.

Posted on February 10, 2010

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