In this 5 On interview, James C. Moore (@moorethink) discusses journalistic vs. creative writing, finding time to write when time is hard to come by, and what being a New York Times best-selling author doesn’t mean.
James C. Moore is an Emmy-winning former television news correspondent and the co-author of the bestselling Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential. His second book, Bush’s War for Reelection, included his groundbreaking ten year investigation into the president’s National Guard record. He has been writing and reporting from Texas for the past 25 years on the rise of Rove and Bush and has traveled extensively on every presidential campaign since 1976. He is also the author of The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power. His political columns and insights have been published in leading newspapers and periodicals around the globe. Moore is also an award winning documentary film producer. His current book project, When Horses Could Fly: A Memoir of the American Dream, is a narrative examining the hopes and dreams of southerners in the aftermath of World War II.
5 Questions on Writing
CHRIS JANE: With a background in journalism, you were—and are—writing a lot of nonfiction, but you’ve also written two novels: The Rembrandt Bomb and In the Time of Man. What skills did you have to turn on or off when shifting into writing fiction?
JAMES C. MOORE: I don’t think you have to turn on or off any particular skills. Journalists and novelists are not different creatures; we are both observers of the human condition. The fun of writing fiction is to take a thought you’ve heard in non-fiction or daily life and turn it into a great quote or a piece of dialogue. But fiction enables greater freedom. As a reporter, I could not imagine the scene on the other side of the mountain. I had to cross the divide and go see what was taking place. A novelist can simply imagine and create what they hope is transpiring in that lovely valley with wildflowers growing in the meadow and trout rising in the stream. I actually prefer fiction to journalism.
I like Hemingway’s notion that good fiction is truer than the truth. I think he was right. Basic journalism doesn’t allow much for conjecture while that is the entire purpose of literature. I enjoy imagining what the world might be instead of being constrained to writing about what actually is. In fact, that can even be debilitating to a writer. Gertrude Stein told Hemingway to quit journalism because he was wasting his energies and life force on something that was not as important as his fiction. He took her advice. But his experiences as a reporter were essential to his great works like For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. I suppose that means there is great value to both types of writing.
Which came first: a desire to go into journalism, or a desire to write fiction?
I’ve never thought of being anything other than a novelist. I don’t remember a time in my life when I was not a story teller. Old friends of mine, who have heard a few of my yarns too many times, have taken to numbering my narratives. “Oh yeah, Jim, tell us number 48. That one’s excellent.” It’s actually not quite that bad. But I am like most fiction writers because I like the idea of conceiving a narrative and then executing. There isn’t much that is more fulfilling than dreaming up characters, giving them life, making them believable, and putting them in situations to see what they will do. A nicely plotted narrative is an exciting thing, not just to the reader but also to the author.
Journalism was a way to make a living until I could earn money writing fiction. I’ve never really gotten to that point. I do many things to earn a living. But to be successful as a writer a person has to be completely devoted to their art. Look at the lives of V.S. Naipaul and Jim Harrison or any other writer who has succeeded. They went without or found a benefactor or spouse to support them until they made it.
Describe the process of taking ten years of investigative reporting and turning it into a book. Were you surrounded by notepads you had to somehow find a way to organize, or were you able to rely on memory while writing much of Bush’s War for Reelection?
This was the book that brought about George Bush’s troubles over the National Guard. I was a TV correspondent when he was running against Ann Richards and I was a panelist on their only live TV debate. I asked Bush how he got into the Guard during the Vietnam era. I had tried in my home town and was told it was a three year wait. Bush just walked up and was able to sign up for a pilot’s commission. We all know that was nonsense. Houston at that time was full of pilots home from Vietnam who wanted to keep their certificates current yet taxpayers were spending a million dollars to train Bush to fly.
My reporting process was always to keep files. It’s how I wrote Bush’s Brain, as well. I knew when I met Karl Rove in the late ’70s that he was likely to be a player in Texas politics and I just started collecting string on him. When I was traveling on the Bush press plane in 2000 and reporters were talking about how they were going to get a publishing contract on a Bush book, I knew he was the least compelling character in that campaign. I’d built a huge file on Rove and his shenanigans and went back to it and put together a proposal that led to that book, which was a New York Times best seller. I’ve always thought it was a bit odd that I went from notes and useless documents and clippings to a book that was on that list.
But to finally answer your question: I organize my research documents and files and then outline a book with a certain structure, which is also how I produced my documentaries and TV news reports. I look through all of that material for most important points and then start interviewing anyone relevant to the topic or the narrative. When I have enough interviews, I begin writing the first part of the book because I have made a point of doing those interviews first. As I write, I continue the interviews for the next parts of the book. I think this approach enables a writer to produce a book in shorter timelines. I’ve done non-fiction political books that included up to 100 interviews and finished a draft of 100,000 words in six months.
You spend a lot of time on your motorcycle, you’re a TV commentator, you write articles for several different websites— including your own—and you have a tech start-up company. Somehow, you’re also writing When Horses Could Fly. When and how do you squeeze in the time?
Writing is as much of a need as anything else in my life. Cormac McCarthy once was asked about the process of writing and the struggle. His only advice about writing was, “If you don’t have to, don’t.” I think some of us have to. I used to be a serious marathoner and I considered that sport to be the same kind of discipline as writing. When I was training 100 miles a week for a race, I would remove the decision-making process from my running. Every day, I decided, always included certain things: work, eating, sleeping, reading, friends, family. I had to include my running because if I left it to a decision of time, it was easy to decide against it, no matter how much I loved to run.
The same approach is essential to writing. It is a discipline. Do it every day. Make it a thing like eating, sleeping, and all of your other daily functions. When I have a book contract, I get up early and write before people start bothering me with my other work. For my columns and blogs, I tend to get ideas randomly while spending hours on my bicycle in the hill country or riding the motorcycle. Alone time and endorphins are essential for me.
What inspired When Horses Could Fly?
I think there is this unproved notion that America is a perfect mechanism for success. That’s why I am writing When Horses Could Fly. I want to explore that idea, and do it through the lens of my parents’ experience. We are pretty much indoctrinated in this country that all you have to do is work really hard and you can achieve anything you want. As much as we all want to believe that X amount of effort will always yield Y amount of results, it just isn’t true. People fail no matter who hard they try, or how long they try. And we tend, as Americans, to blame them and not our economy or our culture. Can’t be America’s fault, can it?
Of course it can, and it often is. I grew up in the ’50s and came of age in the ’60s and was fortunate that I was living in our country at a time when there was a progressive attitude toward helping the less fortunate. My father was a laborer and my mother was a waitress in a burger joint and there were six kids in an 800 square foot house. There was no money for health care or college, and barely sufficient money for food. Ma brought us home leftovers from the restaurant on a daily basis, where she was paid 55 cents an hour plus nickel and dime tips.
But fortunately, I lived in a country where there had been a political and cultural decision that my future mattered because it was connected to the country’s future. We ended up with government food and health care and I got government grants to get a college education. In an odd way, my country valued my future as much as it did that of George W. Bush, and 40 years later I would find myself sitting on a jet plane bound for New Hampshire and questioning him about why he thought he should be president of the United States. I think that’s how America is supposed to work.
But we are now at a place where we are against each other, too few people have too much money, and failure is a disgrace that we want to turn our heads away from rather than learn from. Our big decision as a society is whom do we help and how much. We never used to ask that question. We just helped. We are all going down the same road together but some of us end up in the ditch. We have to decide whether we are going to offer a hand up to those who are in the ditch in spite of their efforts or if we are simply going to turn away and leave them behind. I think the latter course of action is patently wrong for any culture. The great tragedy of America is that we always find the money we need for weapons with almost no debate but we have to argue about food and health care for poor children. We are doomed as a nation if we cannot get past this.
So, I’m taking my book back to the ’50s, to look at my parents’ struggle. My dad came home from the war to Mississippi with his immigrant bride and tried to make a go of things as a sharecropper because he loved the south and the land and growing things. All my Ma knew about America was what she saw in the movie Gone with the Wind, and when my dad showed up in a uniform looking like Clark Gable, she thought she was going to America to sip mint juleps on a porch at a big plantation. Instead, she ended up in a sharecropper’s shack with no electricity or running water, an outdoor toilet, and sheets hung for privacy between beds. They held on for almost five years trying to make a living until they gave up and went north to work in the car factories. Like a lot of southern families that made that move (which is still the greatest transmigration in U.S. history), the rest of their lives were a struggle of constant work and very little happiness.
I want to understand that in the context of who we are as Americans, and I also want to honor their efforts.
5 on Publishing
People who dream of having “NYT best-selling author” in front of their names have certain ideas about what that would mean or feel like. Many probably expect it would mean a lot of money (at least enough to quit the day job) and having no trouble finding a publisher for future work. How do expectations and reality match up?
This is the most hilarious part of having a book that is viewed as successful. Being a NYT bestselling author does not mean a lot of money or an end to the day job, unless you’ve come up with a character like Jack Reacher. Remember, the rankings are based upon the number of books sold in one week. If the most popular book in America only sold 100 copies and you sold 75, you could be the second most popular book in the nation. But I like to tell people Karl Rove paid for my daughter’s college. With out of state tuition for Michigan State University, however, that’s not quite true.
But Brain led to the National Guard book and that led to The Architect and that teed me up for Adios Mofo, the Rick Perry book. The advances kept getting bigger after Brain, but fell off the table for the Perry political book. But things happen as a result of books. I got hired by MSNBC to be a political commentator and did some paid speaking gigs, and the initial book tour was wonderful for Brain, everything from the Today Show to National Public Radio and newspaper features. And in the latest twist, Dan Rather’s producer Mary Mapes, who followed my work on the National Guard reporting, wrote a book about Rather getting blown out of CBS when he reported the Guard story. Her book is being turned into a movie, which is filming in Australia starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchette. There is also a Jim Moore character in the film and an Australian character is playing me. It’s called Truth and will be out late this year. And no, I am not making any money on any of that.
Was self-publishing your fiction a first choice or a last resort?
I thought that by being marginally successful as a non-fiction author I might have an edge with publishers and agents to try my hand at fiction. I was wrong. Since Bush’s Brain made it onto the NYT bestseller lists for several weeks, when I wrote agents about my fiction I was able to put “Query from NYT Bestselling Author” in the subject line, and that tends to guarantee your email will get read. But doesn’t get you published.
Fiction is judged differently, and involves more risk for the publisher. With non-fiction, they get from the author an outline, a marketing analysis, sample chapters, author’s qualifications, and they can make an educated judgment on the book’s prospects because they have a lot of data points. Fiction is more subjective as to whether it will find readers. It’s almost impossible to know who will like a story, or how much it will be liked. The best fiction editors have far more misses than hits.
So, I got my science fiction novel read but not bought. The feedback was that it was a very compelling story line but weak character development. If I accepted that, then it was certainly not the case in my thriller novel, The Rembrandt Bomb. There are two very strong and developed characters in the male and female protagonists. But that changed nothing, even though the plot, I felt, is far better than the sci-fi. No publisher was interested. In fact, I never even got anyone to read the thriller.
Self-publishing was the only option, though I only did eBook. I haven’t messed with print on demand. Self-publishing is pretty easy but relatively tedious and I don’t like spending my time on such things since I have to make a living outside of my writing.
My novels haven’t sold very well at all. Of course, I’m lazy on the self-promotion. And there’s always the chance they just aren’t that good.
How did your professional background contribute to the success you had finding publishers for your nonfiction books? Did it help you substantially, or were there surprises?
Authors writing non-fiction need expertise in their subject matter or their odds of getting published are reduced. When I first proposed the Bush and Rove book, I had been traveling on presidential campaigns since Jimmy Carter’s when I was a young radio reporter in 1976, and had attended all of the political conventions during those presidential election years. I think that experience, combined with an Emmy and other significant reporting awards, made it possible for me to get a serious look as a first time author. But you still have to write a great proposal and pitch the story in a manner that excites an acquisition editor.
I didn’t find any real surprises in this process beyond the fact that even publishing is political. One of the publishers that had rejected my proposal suddenly got interested in Rove after Bush led Republican wins during midterm elections, and that editor sent a note to a friend of mine asking if he would be interested in writing a book about Rove and calling it Bush’s Brain. He’d never have known the title had he not read my proposal. My friend turned him down but some other writers wrote a quick clip book about Rove under a different title for that particular publisher and it made it to the market place before Brain.
What were the self-publishing pros and cons you experienced upon releasing your novels?
I think self-publishing is quite exciting. But I’d rather get an advance from a publisher so that they are invested in me and are compelled to promote my books when they are finished so they can earn back their advance. But self-publishing offers opportunities that would not otherwise exist for most writers. However, an author has to be dedicated to daily marketing of their work. We tend, as writers, to hope the world will find our work and be well pleased.
As a friend of mine says, “Everything is a marketing problem.” And he’s right. You have to learn to promote yourself and good writers are not good sales people, though they must acquire that skill, especially if they are intending to self-publish. Use social media regularly, post chapters of your book, send emails to local and national media, write columns that show off your expertise, and become a carnival barker when all you want to do is return to your lonely garret and construct another lovely sentence. That’s just not enough. And if you aren’t willing to do that, you might as well leave it alone. You won’t sell much.
What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned about publishing or the publishing industry that might be useful to those just entering?
I think writers entering the publishing world need to understand that they are very likely to simply end up as mid list authors and that the people in the front office are not likely to invest greatly in your work. I learned to be realistic and understand that each book stands on its own merit and if the proposal isn’t sharp and convincing, you won’t get a decent advance or even an offer to publish.
Money cannot be a motivation for writing. Writing is its own motivation. In my years as a competitive distance runner one of the great coaches posed and answered a question about milers. He said, “Why do milers run? To run is reason enough.” I think writers need a similar mindset. Your book may very well be the greatest writing since Donna Tartt and the money will flow, but the odds are greater that you will get a modest advance and earn modest royalties. And if you do, you are one of the luckiest writers in America. And if you don’t, and you don’t find satisfaction in the beauty of our language and the construction of a fine sentence and the rendering of a beautiful idea, you are not a writer in the first instance and ought to spend your life’s energies in another endeavor.
I was once at a party with a few writer friends and one of the people they were talking to said, “I just know I have a book inside of me.” After a pause, one of the authors turned to him and said, “I think you might want to give consideration to the possibility that your book should remain inside of you.” And he walked off. Might not be an original thought but writing is a need for certain people. And if you are interested more in the money than the story, consider software sales instead.
Thank you, Jim.