Monday, September 13, 2010

Writer Profile: Nan K. Chase

I met Nan Chase more than two decades ago, shortly after I’d moved to Boone, N.C., to run one of the Winston-Salem Journal’s Northwest bureaus. Nan, who worked for the local Watauga Democrat, invited me over to her house for lunch, a short walk from my downtown office. I was amazed that she could converse freely with me while she ate and ground food in a hand-cranked gizmo and fed it to her baby, propped contentedly on one knee. She had a big, old house with a garden, and a husband and three kids—comforts I sorely lacked in my tiny rented apartment.  That hour gave me a vision of what my life could be, and perhaps initiated my eventual departure from my lonely life as a solo reporter. We kept in touch over the years, a main point of connection being a very small magazine (which I edited and Nan, for some reason, admired). Nan wrote a short piece about AVSM for the Washington Post Magazine and later started appearing on its pages under the pseudonym “Anita Menendez.”

I’ve always enjoyed reading Nan’s journalistic work, from her opinion pieces in N.C. dailies to travel pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and the ease with which she has tackled a variety of subjects, from furniture to football, gardening to the Jewish Sabbath. Nan has authored two books in recent years: Asheville: A History, and Eat Your Yard! and co-authored another, Bark House Style: Sustainable Designs from Nature. For more on Nan, see her web site for Eat Your Yard! 

We spoke recently at a Chinese restaurant in Maryland, a conversation that continued via email.

Why did you decide to study journalism and/or what led you to be a writer? Did you write as a kid?

It turns out that my father's side of the family has had many writers or storytellers through the years. For instance, I have a second cousin (never met him) who is an entertainment writer at the Orange County Register, and there are several other reporters in the family. My father is a wonderful writer; he provided the "big picture" perspective for my writing, while my mother was the grammarian. Together they provided me a perfect writer's education.

I got a lot of encouragement in high school from teachers who said I was a good writer. They said, “Don't stop writing.” So I didn't. I was very shy in high school and college, but did write for the high school paper. In college I pursued a double major: economics and journalism. I was terrified of the thought of conducting an interview, and somehow got through college without doing that. Then, when I had a newspaper job in Boone, N.C., all that reticence disappeared. I am a voracious reader, and ultimately that is necessary for a writer.

Would you say you’ve experienced a creative Renaissance since your kids left your house? You have published three books since they left!

No. That’s because I really feel I did my most honest and important work very early on, when they were quite young and I was still in my 20s and 30s, with “nothing to lose” in a small Southern town yet. I’m sure it’s true for many writers that their most powerful work comes right out at the beginning (and the rest of the career is workmanship). At the same time, once my children, and my husband and I, were established in the community, I had a natural tendency to pull back into less threatening, ”lighter” topics.

Now, it is true that I have written three books (co-author of one of them) in short order. I had never, ever thought of doing a book, before about 2005. It happened that my youngest child was 20 years old and didn’t need me in any way for transportation, etc. And so I did have the long stretches of time necessary for book research and writing. I did have the time not to cook or do many household chores. Early on, while I was writing essays and articles, and the children were young, I managed to create great quality time a few minutes or hours at a time.

Now time is a pressure in another way: one can only count on so many years of productive work capacity, and it just doesn’t last forever. So I suddenly have a brain full of book ideas and have to decide where to turn next.

Why did Asheville intrigue you as a subject?

My husband, Saul, and I found that we were spending all our weekends in Asheville, having fun, enjoying the architecture, the music and theater, the restaurants, even the shopping. So we bought a small condo as a weekend home (one benefit of cutting one’s children loose economically upon college graduation). After taking a walk in the beautiful Riverside Cemetery we stopped at Malaprops bookstore, where I asked for a book that would tell me why Asheville looks so distinctive, and why the downtown was enjoying a commercial and cultural renaissance after so many years of decay. The clerk said, “There isn’t one.” Shazzam! Instant topic.

I did not have a big assignment then, and in fact realized that it was time to take a leap. After all, my children were all leaving home, striking out in new directions, and that inspired me to push myself as well. The scholarly publisher McFarland gave me a contract, and I spent a solid nine months doing enough research so I could start with Word One.

What prompted your book about edible landscape—did your move to Asheville have something to do with it? Or was it because you had been gardening for years at your home in Boone?

The funny thing about books is that they take on their own trajectory. Even before the Asheville book was published, a public relations client of mine, Chris McCurry, approached me about writing a book on bark architecture (which became Bark House Style). That’s a specialty topic for sure, but a compelling environmental story. Chris had done all the research and was also pulling together all the photos, and really just needed a writer to put together the story. She also had a publisher in mind: Gibbs Smith. So, on her request, I wrote them; we got a contract, wrote the book, and then I was under contractual obligation to give Gibbs Smith right of first refusal on my next “project.”

Hmmm, needed a project. I looked around my yard, at that time 2/3 acre of all sorts of fruit trees and so forth placed within a fine landscape design, and realized that I had 25 years of gardening experience and a topic I felt strongly about—edible landscape design—to go with it.

Did you conceive the layout of Eat Your Yard!, or did your publisher provide designers to work with you?

Gibbs Smith, the publisher, worked magic. I supplied a plain manuscript of the book, along with photo images and captions, and they created a beautiful, lush, colorful object. The publisher also suggested all the boxed information on growing tips, etc., and that was a good addition.

The author is part of a large team, I have found, and it is wonderful to let go and let the design experts do their thing. At a certain point the author is brought back in to check things for accuracy and readability. The interesting thing to me is that the publisher also picks the title. They called me one day and said, “Here’s the title we’ve chosen. 'Eat Your Yard!' Hope you like it.” And that turned out to be a good thing too. It’s much more fun and marketable than the title I had (which is too boring to even say.)

How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have a work plan, and do you set a deadline for yourself? When you are writing a book, are you able to do other projects, or do you try to focus only on the book?

Writing a book doesn’t take very long. It’s the research, and the editing process at the publishing house, and the time lag for marketing that all take a long time. My background is in newspaper reporting, so I love, love, love a deadline, the shorter the better. All three of my books had deadlines for delivery of a manuscript, and that works.

The Asheville book took about two and a half years of solid work, start to finish, and there was not much in the way of marketing afterwards; at the same time, one has to make “space” for a work in progress to set up, and so I was doing a full load of public relations work for clients and a tiny bit of magazine work sandwiched in between. The bark architecture book was all done in the space of a year, but only working on it a couple of weeks a month, while I did other paying work.

I wanted Eat Your Yard! to really make it commercially, and that takes actually more time in publicity than in creating the work. In a way I had already done 25 years of research, so it was a matter of writing the roughly 30 essays and supplying the recipes, and that took about four months. There were a few months overlapping that for getting the photo illustrations in order. And I had to do all the boxed information in the space of a few days!

After I turned in all the parts of the book there was a two-year gap until publication; during that time I wrote a short book for a private client, a sort of corporate history. So now I understand why books are out of date as soon as they are published. On the other hand, I had a lot of time to get stories planned about the release of the book, and to arrange personal appearances, and that has been fun.

What’s your favorite part about writing a book—the research, the work itself, or the finished product?

I love the writing above all. Just the writing, rereading and editing over and over, and then writing more. It is a physical pleasure, very tingly. My favorite writing overall had to be doing travel stories for the Washington Post: the storytelling, the sense of place and atmosphere. As a newspaper reporter I loved investigating new things that no one had discovered or put together before, and I love that also about books. The learning they require.

I also like opening the new book and smelling it, feeling the smooth pages.

Tell me about your book tours. Do you enjoy promoting your books and meeting readers? Do you do anything other than reading and signing books to promote your books?

A book tour sounds glamorous, but it’s interesting to see how mundane it is to do “readings” and “signings.” Driving to a shopping center, seeing whether or not anyone will show up. It could be soul crushing, and in strictly economic terms it is a money-losing process. Except….it is real and important to visit bookstores, meet the staff, forge a relationship and know what certain bookstore owners need for their readers; to meet the readers through the bookstores. I feel very optimistic about the health of independent bookstores (and I have been in some really lively big box stores too) and have become a better book store patron myself. There are some wonderful bookstores sprinkled all over the country, and it has been really fun to do the long-distance travel and show up somewhere completely new.

It is too easy, as a writer, to become isolated in one’s office, in front of a screen. So getting out on any kind of “book tour,” including talks at garden clubs and universities, is important, at least to me. I need to know there are readers.

This year, during the spring, Saul and I took a long trip to the Deep South, combining exploration with a couple of scheduled book events. Awesome! So this summer I made a couple of book event dates—for radio, television, cooking school demo, and bookstore readings—in San Francisco, in order to get a West Coast presence, and that experience turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. Saul and I drove the whole way—6,600 miles in all—off of the interstate highways, and made a point of only visiting places we hadn’t seen before. So the time in San Francisco was nearly all business—preparing for events—but the trip out and back was a fantastic relaxation.

If you don’t mind my asking, how much do you make per book? Is it a percentage, or a set dollar amount?

I’m not going to say, because every book for every author is probably a little bit different. Let’s just say that I’m keeping to my usual 10 cents an hour lifetime average! And the book tour is all on my dime.

Authors tend to make less than people think—it may be $1 per $20 cover price. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to create enough works in the pipeline to always have something coming in. And having books out makes it much easier to get assignments for other, better paying work, such as journalism, custom publishing, business writing, and so forth. Teaching, lecturing. Those pay cash flow, but books are much less steady.

Readers should know that when they buy books, a greater percentage of the cover price reaches the author if the books are purchased at an independent neighborhood bookstore or directly from the publisher, than if the reader pays “bargain” price online or with a big-box store.

In trying to find stories about and by you on the Internet, I kept stumbling into a character named "Nan Chase," a gossip columnist played by Madeline Kahn in "Welcome Back, Kotter.” Does it bother you that when people google your name, they often get that occurrence?

Funny you should ask that. I was so suspicious—of what, I don't know—when I learned about the Nan Chase character on TV, that I called the network and asked how they got the name. I never did get an answer, but, loving Madeline Kahn, how could I be upset? I think it's funny that she and I share space on google. I use "Nan K. Chase" professionally now, partly to differentiate myself from that character, but also so any high school friends (pre-marriage) might figure out that I am the former Nan Koltnow.

How did you manage to rear three children and work as a news reporter? Was your primary intent during that time to be a mom? Or, do you think you gave writing/work and children equal attention?

Saul and I had decided early on that the best thing for our children was to have a stay-at-home mom. I have never worked full-time outside, as it turns out. And I never thought of working at all, until the moment my first child was born (I was 24), and I realized that life is short and I’d better get busy. I fit all the writing into spare moments of the day or night, and it worked very well. There is a lot of down time with young children. So there seemed to be time for everything, as long as I could multi-task at home instead of going out to work.

Eventually I got a part-time job as a newspaper reporter, mostly in the hours the kids were in school (two mornings, and later, three mornings a week), and with the youngest I had a babysitter come in for those hours, and I was home by noon. Later, that child went to nursery school, and I worked in those hours. My goal was to be home sitting on the front steps when the kids got off the school bus. They mostly weren’t aware of my “working.” I also taught college for a lot of years, again, part-time, and mostly when they were in school or when my husband was home in the evening. I’m a believer in just being around for kids, not necessarily creating quality time, so we had a lot of fun doing random, small-town things on Main Street.

Did you freelance for other publications while a reporter for the Watauga Democrat?

I wrote for anyone I could find to pay for something, and sometime scavenged stories. If someone was killed in our town from out of town, I also called the out of town paper to see if they wanted a story. My family used my freelance earnings for our travel money, so there was an incentive to market things.

How did you first make contacts at the Washington Post and the New York Times?

My hometown is pretty much Washington, D.C., and the Post was my local paper. On approaching the Post editorial page editor (with some ideas), I learned that the paper wanted writers from “outside the Beltway.” Perfect. I wrote three pieces for the op-ed pages then branched out to news, features, and travel. Eventually the relationship with the Post withered, and in the last couple of years I have found that it is fairly easy, at least as an established writer, to approach the New York Times. It has to be a strong story, obviously, but they are always looking for the next day’s content.

Most publications have writers guidelines posted online, and do all their business online. I work to find the best editor to approach, and that may take an hour of research, but mostly, writing freelance is about the strength of the story idea. And timing; be sure you are not pitching a story that has just run in that publication!

How did you start teaching journalism classes?

The local college, Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C., was always looking to the Watauga Democrat newspaper staff for possible teachers in the communications department: news writing, feature writing, etc. So I got in that way, but fell in love with teaching college age students. I was hired by several other departments there to teach other topics: business writing, media criticism. I taught freelance writing as a subject, which was fun. I loved all the classroom time as an antidote to the solitude of writing by myself.

What do you think will happen to print newspapers in the next ten years? What would you like to see happen?

I can see now why the print newspaper may need to evolve out of its present form, especially the big city daily. A year ago I would have been very worried, but in traveling around the small towns of America this year, I am stoked. That’s because every little town has a print newspaper that made it through the recession. I think news will become more and more local, atomized, and stay profitable in some way. It’s very exciting to see news turn back to the community. But I put a good spin on nearly everything!

1 comment:

Judy Geary said...

Wow. I've been acquainted with Nan since our children were small, but she has had so many adventures I wasn't aware of. Thank you for a great interview.