Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Q&A with authors Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark

Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for the book, and how did you decide on the terms to include?

A: As seasoned political journalists and authors – and friends – we realized we had similar styles and approaches to book-writing. We played around with various topics, and settled on something related to political rhetoric. We refined the idea to a dictionary/reference book type of guide.

Deciding what terms to include was one of the toughest challenges in writing the book. We wanted to present an original idea with each definition, which was hard regarding some of the well-known terms like foreign policy Hawk or Pork (the Capitol Hill, not bacon, variety). We’re confident we were able to do this in a humorous and informative way, but it took some thinking.  

Some of the terms also came from our interview subjects. Former Congressman Martin Frost of Texas, who held several Democratic leadership roles during his 1979-95 tenure, mentioned Minimum High Regard. It’s a euphemism used by an older generation of members who want to avoid directly insulting a colleague, while still making their displeasure at an opposing idea know.

Q: Who do you see as the readership for this book?

A: We’re hoping to get our ideas across to people who are interested in politics, but don’t necessarily work in it professionally or follow it obsessively (though we think those folks will like the book, as well).

In addition to the familiar phrases, we introduce some new ones that may initially cause some head-scratching. That includes Overton Window (the range of “acceptable” political opinions) and Dead Cat Bounce (temporary recovery from sagging poll numbers in a political campaign).

We figured readers who had previously scooped up Safire’s Political Dictionary or Mark Leibovich’s This Town would be interested in Dog Whistles. Though of course we’re not trying to copy the work of anybody else, but present our ideas in a new and original format.

Academic courses are also a target for us in the book. Dog Whistles could work well in a college course on political communication, or a range of other topics. We wrote the book to appeal to both political and academic audiences.

Q: What are some of your favorite terms that you describe in the book?

A: Overton Window is high on the list, particularly because it sounds like it would fit in a Star Trek episode.

Our favorite, though, has to be My Good Friend. C-SPAN viewers will find the phrase familiar to floor debate in the House and Senate, when partisans go after each other with verbal gusto, while using the goodwill-tinged phrase.

Among House members it’s particularly disingenuous. In a chamber of 435 members it’s unlikely any lawmaker is going to have that many real friends. In fact, many don’t even know the names of more than a few dozen colleagues, as we’ve learned in our Capitol Hill reporting over the years.

Another phrase we came to like in the writing process is “We need to have a conversation about …” It’s a favorite expression of President Barack Obama’s, though by no means limited to him, as explained in Dog Whistles.

It signifies that a politician wants people to slow down and listen to their version of something controversial; in Obama’s case, it has come following Edward Snowden’s revelations of domestic spying, gun control after the Newtown slayings, or legalizing marijuana after voters in Colorado and Washington state chose to do so.

Q: How did the two of you divide up the work, and what was the collaboration process like?

A: We came up with an initial list of words and phrases and simply split them in half. Inevitably, though, some of these got cut, while many more got added.

We would write up a batch of definitions – usually seven or eight at a time – and then send to the other for review. Often one of us pointed out shortcomings in the write-ups, like being too obvious or familiar. Or, they were too obscure for a reader who doesn’t deal with these matters each day.

Another challenge was fitting the definitions into relatively equal-sized chapters. Some entries were longer than others. We worked together to move around definitions to different chapters, which often meant adding on new material.

Valuable editing help also came from Jeff Greenfield, who wrote the book foreword. He’s an Emmy Award-winning political commentator and acclaimed author. In sending him the manuscript so he could write the review, he also found factual issues to clarify, and offered a few – but key – suggestions on writing style.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Chuck is updating Almanac of American Politics profiles on National Journal's website. David is busy with his day job, as editor-in-chief of Silicon Valley-based Politix. David is spending an extended period of time in Washington, D.C., this fall for book promotion, from Sept. 12 through Oct. 10. That begins with the official book launch at Politics and Prose on Sept. 13.

David’s also working on his next book proposal idea.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We’re confident Dog Whistles will appeal to readers of all political persuasions. We wrote it in a non-partisan manner, as we’ve approached our careers. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous interview with David Mark, please click here.

Aug. 27

Aug. 27, 1871: Writer Theodore Dreiser born.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Q&A with writer Kelly Cherry

Kelly Cherry's most recent book is a story collection, A Kind of Dream. Her many other books include My Life and Dr. Joyce Brothers, Augusta Played, The Society of Friends, and We Can Still Be Friends. She has served as Poet Laureate of Virginia, and is the Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She lives in Virginia.

Q: A Kind of Dream is the third in a trilogy. Did you know when you started writing about your character Nina that you'd write more books about her and her friends and family?

A: I didn't, Deborah. I wrote the second book because many readers did not understand that Tavy, the child Nina adopts, was meant to be "the child within" Nina. ("The child within" was a common notion and phrase in the eighties and nineties.) Since everyone thought she was real, I decided to proceed as if she were. Next thing I knew, she had a daughter herself.

Q: Did your feelings about these characters change as you wrote about them over a period of many years?

A: Yes and no. I wanted to treat all the characters with respect and--clarity. Each has his or her ambitions, likes and dislikes, problems, ways of expressing himself or herself. Each is, I trust, distinct. If my feelings about them changed, it was because they changed--they grew up, they learned, they experienced, they traveled, they faced death. It was not easy to let them go. For a little while I thought about continuing the stories with Callie's life and BB's new child, but it really was time to let them go.  

Q: Why did you choose to write A Kind of Dream as linked stories rather than as a novel?

A: Linked stories allow the writer to focus on the characters and themes and dismiss transitions. The writer Joyce Cary, who wrote two trilogies of novels, used to write his scenes for each book and put them in manila envelopes; then he'd go back and stick in the transitions. It's also the case that linked stories offer a simple way to show various points of view, which can get quite complicated within a single novel.

Q: You've written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Do you have a preference?

A: I love them all! They offer different satisfactions. Fiction can take a writer way, way, away from herself. It involves her in a world similar to but importantly different from her own. That is exciting. Conversations occur that she never expected to hear. She goes to places she's never been, like Mongolia. She gets to know people she's never met. She discovers what they feel, what they think. That's a joy.

Nonfiction offers the writer an opportunity to approach the world logically. She writes a paragraph, then another paragraph, and the progression is straightforward and sensible. Even the strangest nonfiction proceeds step by step. As someone who did grad work in philosophy, I find nonfiction calming, no matter how personal or fantastic the material may be, because the process is always clarifying.

As for poetry, well, it's the conjunction of music and meaning, which means it is sublime. Poetry is what the world remembers, regardless of how many or how few people read it. Poetry is what we turn to when we can find no other words. It is hard, hard work but it takes one inside itself; to concentrate on a poem is to exist outside of time. There are no clocks, no calendars, no anything except the poem. Self is lost--or shall we say, self is free. To be free of one's self is a kind of heaven.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've always worked on several manuscripts at a time; this permits me to put some on the back burner, where they can crystallize in the subconscious, while others are nearing completion. At the moment I am completing a book-length poem. Two other poetry manuscripts are more or less finished, and I have begun yet another. A Kelly Cherry Reader is forthcoming, perhaps this fall; it includes stories, excerpts from novels, essays, and poems. And a collection of (unlinked) stories, titled Twelve Women in a Country Called America, is due out from Press 53 in March 2015.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For years I have had in mind a list of books I wanted to write. I hope I'll be able to get to all of them. Good, bad, or mediocre, they are my ideas, and I am obligated to realize them. It's a bonus that writing is so much fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 26

Aug. 26, 1904: Writer Christopher Isherwood born.