Nonfiction author James V. Lee is the Senior Editor and owner of Salado Press. For the past year, he’s written monthly essays for the Dallas Morning News. This is the second and final Thursday that we talk to Lee.
GINGER: Do you think everyone has had life experiences worth writing about?
LEE: I think there is an interesting true story in every human being. It's just a question of how much you want to tell. When Surrender Was Not an Option (WSWNAO) covers only sixteen months relating to WWII, but what a dramatic sixteen months! George had a brilliant legal career after WWII, served in the California Assembly, and retired as a judge. None of that is in the book. Conversely, Escape From Korea includes incidents from WWII but focuses on the entire duration of the Korean War.
GINGER: I would think it would be a major shift to go from writing full-length adult books to short essays for the newspaper. In making the change, what did you learn about yourself and your writing?
LEE: I have deep roots in the Bible plus scores of philosophical writers, all of whom have shaped my character to some extent. And I've always had an avid interest in both history and current events. Being a person of strong convictions and a bit opinionated, it was an easy fit, especially since I also taught essay writing for five years.
But opinion pieces get chewed up faster than a TV sitcom series. Over several months of 1958, people woke up in a world of anxiety every morning wondering if the Chinese shelling of the islands of Quemoy and Matsu was going to trigger WWIII. Writers for newspapers, magazines, and TV opined endlessly about that crisis. Today, who besides old geezers like me even know where those islands are located? "Enterprises of great pitch and moment, with this respect their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action." One of the things impressed on me during the last year is that neither my opinion nor anyone else's opinion amounts to much. "This, too, shall pass."
GINGER: Was your editor at the newspaper supportive or a hard task master?
LEE: Michael Landauer, my editor, was quite supportive. Fortunately for both of us, my essays required very little editing, and he was extremely generous in his praise. Writing is a lonely, solitary undertaking requiring discipline and dedication to the final outcome. This is true of all writers, whether they be writers of fiction, non-fiction, essays, or poetry. Agents tend to discourage new talent looking for a publisher. Negative, snide letters to the editor far outweigh those that compliment. The loss of self-esteem can be a real danger for any writer. Having an advocate or sounding board is an asset whose worth cannot be measured.
GINGER: What about when you act as the editor for other people’s books? Are you a nose-to-the-grindstone editor or one who encourages with praise?
LEE: First, express the truth as you understand it. Always praise that which is praiseworthy. Treat all else with dignity, respect, and thoughtful guidance.
GINGER: It’s been said that you are a master at marketing. Any secrets you could share with other authors?
LEE: Recognize that above all else you are a salesman. For many writers, that's a tough truism to accept. But you had to sell your spouse on marrying you, didn't you? For some people that was a tough sale! So any other sale is downhill from there. There is no point in writing unless you have some idea about marketing your work. Second, write a saleable product. Just because you like it doesn't mean there is a market for it. Tread carefully, and do your homework on this point. Third, develop a personality that attracts people. If they're not attracted to you, they won't be attracted to your book. John Kremer has written a book entitled 1001 Ways To Market Your Books. There ought to be some in there that works for you.
Thank you, James, for three weeks of great information. You can find out more about James V. Lee and his books – Nine Years in the Saddle, Escape from Korea and When Surrender Was Not an Option – on his website.
All three parts of this interview has also been presented in my free weekly newsletter for writers, Doing It Write. You can also read Part 1 of my interview with James V. Lee here on this blog.
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