Leonard Mlodinow on Publishing’s Vagaries of Chance

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Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, The Drunkard’s Walk is about the surprising and misunderstood role that randomness plays in people’s fate, and, as Mlodinow himself observes, “Those who study randomness—or write books for Pantheon about it—are not immune to its effects.” He reports on some of the odd twists that have befallen other researchers into randomness: The 16th-century scholar Gerolamo Cardano, who couldn’t find a publisher for his Book on Games of Chance, made a fortune as a doctor based on a recommendation to one patient that didn’t really work; Blaise Pascal’s breakthroughs in probability theory emerged from a gambling habit he developed on what was supposed to be a restful retreat in Paris; Adolphe Quetelet went to Paris to study astronomy but got sidetracked into statistics and made his reputation in that newly developing field; Edward Norton Lorenz’s elaboration of the butterfly effect was the result of an attempted computational shortcut resulting in massive errors. “These lives might be outliers,” Mlodinow says. “Or they could be archetypes.” In the meantime, what’s going to happen to his book? The only thing he knows is that we just don’t know.

Now that I have finished this book, it is time for me to stare randomness in the face myself, to adjust my thinking and my expectations according to the principles I have espoused. Will this book succeed? Like most books, it was a labor of love. But all I can control are the words, and now that those words are almost completed Pantheon is focusing on what they can make happen, formulating the very plans that, through some chain of events, eventually led you to read this. These days a publishing plan represents an effort so thoroughly thought out and researched that even if you are only interested in this volume because you thought The Drunkard’s Walk would be a self-help book, the marketing department has probably accounted for you in one way or another. And so as I prepare to relinquish my offspring to their earnest efforts, I must confront the tendency to believe that they are in control, and later another tendency to judge my work on the basis of how many people cared to read it, or what might be said (or worse, not said) about it.

But I didn’t just write the book, I read it. (At least a dozen times). So before I take my publisher’s early excitement over the manuscript too seriously, I remind myself that this is the industry that rejected George Orwell’s Animal Farm, because “it is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.;” turned down Isaac Bashevis Singer because “it’s Poland and the rich Jews again;” and dumped a young Tony Hillerman, imploring him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.” One book in the 1950s was repeatedly rejected by publishers who responded to the manuscript with criticism such as “very dull,” “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions,” and “even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject [World War II] was timely, I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.”

That book, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, has since sold 30 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books in history. And John Kennedy Toole, after his many rejections, lost hope of ever getting his novel published and committed suicide. His mother, however, persevered, and eleven years later A Confederacy of Dunces was published, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and sold 1.5 million copies.

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21 May 2008 | guest authors |

Janis Hallowell on Giving Fiction Life (and Fiction Giving Life)

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Janis Hallowell’s She Was comes at an interesting moment—not only has former SLA member Sara Jane Olson, one of the real-world starting points from which the novel takes its own imaginative trajectory, been back in the news this year when she was briefly paroled and then hastily re-imprisoned, we’ve actually had a bumper crop of novels about radicals on the run this season; see Peter Carey’s My Illegal Self and Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions. In this essay, Hallowell explains how a work of fiction can start with something real, then teach its author about imagination’s power to inspire compassion.

She Was has been called ambitious. It felt ambitious to write. But as happens with ambitious projects, I learned a thing or two. Writing She Was, I got to redefine my interpretation of “writing what you know.”

The main story—18 year old student radical Lucy Johansson protests the Vietnam war by setting a bomb at Columbia University that kills a man after which she goes underground for 34 years—is one that was inspired by the lives of several real women, and similar stories had already been written. That’s pretty intimidating, but nobody had written about a student radical fugitive who is arrested during the Iraq War era. The chance to explore the correlation between the Iraq era and the Vietnam era through a story that naturally brought the two together was irresistible.

Because I was only fourteen in 1971 when the catalyzing event took place, the story required me to write about things I don’t know first hand, yet there are millions of people alive who do. Also pretty intimidating. As the book took form and the historical aspects gained importance I imagined my in-box clogged with emails pointing out what I’d gotten wrong in the timeline. I imagined reviewers accusing me of being unqualified to write about something I hadn’t lived through. But I chose to stay with the project because I felt strongly that since Vietnam was the formative trauma of the baby boom generation and generations since, and the chickens from that time were coming home to roost in this decade, I had to join the conversation.

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20 May 2008 | guest authors |

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