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The Story of Writing Where the Light is Dim: Fourth Anniversary


It is difficult for me to believe it, but I started writing a blog on my website four years ago this month. This posting marks my 103rd entry. My first posting was on July 25, 2011. At the time I began, I promised that I would provide an update on my recent activities and achievements every July—a kind of report card or checkup, if you will. Accordingly, I posted updates on July 27, 2012, July 29, 2013, and July 30, 2014. This posting serves as my July 2015 update.

My writing career continues to progress at a comfortable pace. True, I will never quit my day job — book sales are robust, but not that robust — but my writing remains a source of enormous satisfaction. I have learned through all the trials and tribulations that I must write things that I want to read and please myself first and foremost. Sure, I would love to capture a large audience — as well as the adulation and financial rewards that accompany success — but I have to write the books that are inside of me. If the rest follows, terrific! If not, the writing is enough to sustain me.

As usual, I have several projects in various stages of completion. Let’s discuss each one in turn.

The Safety of the Kingdom

On August 18, 2015, Carrel Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, will publish my ninth book, The Safety of the Kingdom: Government Responses to Subversive Threats. I posted blogs about the content of the book on February 13, February 27, and March 16 of this year. As the publisher notes on its website, “In The Safety of the Kingdom, J. Michael Martinez takes up the question of how the United States government has responded to terrorist attacks and, in the absence of an attack, the fear of foreign and subversive elements that may harm the nation. In some cases, the government ‘overreaction’ led to a series of abuses that amplified the severity of the original threat. Rather than selecting every instance of government reaction to threats, Martinez examines representative cases, from the Alien and Sedition Acts in the eighteenth century to the post-9/11 ‘war on terror.’”

In my July 2014 blog, I estimated that the book would appear early in 2016, but I was fortunate enough to find an editor, Niels Aaboe, at Skyhorse/Carrel who placed the project on a fast track. I was about 10 days late in delivering the manuscript, but Niels and his crackerjack team nonetheless pulled out all the stops to make sure that the book was released on an expedited schedule. The whole process from manuscript delivery until publication will have been less than six months. In the publishing world, that is blitzkrieg speed. Thanks to the folks at Carrel/Skyhorse for making the experience an absolute delight!

A Long Dark Night

In addition to The Safety of the Kingdom, I have another manuscript in the late stages of completion. It is now titled A Long Dark Night: Race in America from Jim Crow to World War II. When I set out to research and write the book, I called it Trouble Done Bore Me Down: The Politics of Race in America, 1880s-1940s. The work was designed as a sequel to my study of race relations from the 1830s through the 1880s, Coming For to Carry Me Home: Race in America from Abolitionism to Jim Crow, published in December 2011.

This project took a somewhat tortuous path from inception to publication. In May 2013, I queried Andrew Berzanskis, an acquisitions editor at the academic press Lynne Rienner Publishers, to see if LRP was interested in acquiring the manuscript. I have never worked with Lynne Rienner, but the press enjoys a stellar reputation in the scholarly world. I was up for a new experience with a new publisher.

After some back and forth via email and on the telephone, Andrew sent me an enthusiastic letter in September 2013 saying that the press was definitely interested in the project. Lynne Rienner typically does not enter into author contracts, but they send letters expressing interest. I was all set!

From September 2013, when I received Andrew's letter, until I submitted the manuscript at the end of March 2015, Andrew checked in with me periodically. He would call and email from time-to-time — never in an irritating way, but as a means of ensuring that I was still on track and making satisfactory progress. He was the nicest editor I had ever worked with during my career as an author. I was feeling high.

Unfortunately, troubles began as soon as I submitted the manuscript. I had promised to produce a book of around 110,000 words, which is typical of the books I write. I found as I worked through the research, however, that much needed to be said that I had not anticipated. By the time I completed my work, the manuscript was approximately 162,000 words. That’s considerably off the mark from what I had promised. It is one thing to deviate 10,000 words either way from what was promised (100,000-120,000 words would be acceptable), but I had written myself into a whole world of hurt.

In addition, I write “between” books. I call them “between” books because they tend to be between general trade books and academic books. Editors frequently tell me that my book is too scholarly in style and substance to appeal to a general reader and yet too “chatty” and anecdote-driven to appeal to the serious scholar. I fall between the two categories. Because Lynn Rienner caters to the serious scholar, my massive “between” book created problems.

In both cases, I only had myself to blame.

Andrew told me that he wanted to mull over my situation and discuss it with his boss, the founder of the press, Lynne Rienner herself. He would get back to me in a few days with a final decision. I knew he was being nice. He had encouraged me to write the book and now, with manuscript in hand, he had to find a gentle way of saying, “thanks, but no thanks.” This kind of thing happened to me with the manuscript of Coming for to Carry Me Home. In a July 2011 blog, I discussed the shabby treatment I received from my editor at the University Press of Florida before the press unceremoniously dropped me back in December 2010.

Having seen the handwriting on the wall, I resolved to search for a replacement press. Because Rowman & Littlefield has published so many of my previous books, including my previous study on race, I approached the old familiar press. R & L saved me when the University Press of Florida dropped Coming for the Carry Me Home. Maybe the press would save me again.

Things happened quickly from that point. On April 2, 2015, Andrew notified me that Lynne Rienner “would not be a good fit” for my book. He was as pleasant and thoughtful as he could be — he even offered to put me in touch with an editor he had worked with previously at the West Virginia University Press — but a nice “no” is still a “no.” Andrew was not nearly as condescending or insulting as the editor at the University Press of Florida was when my previous manuscript on race was rejected, but the result was the same.

Within a few hours of speaking with Andrew, I sent an email to Jon Sisk and Natalie Mandziuk, editors at Roman & Littlefield, asking if he wanted to review my book on race. Within minutes after I sent the email, Sisk responded and asked me to send him the manuscript. I did so. On June 24, 2015, he responded with a contract. He wanted one change, however: The title. Thus, he proposed and I accepted A Long Dark Night: Race in America from Jim Crow to World War II.

I have fought with publishers about titles previously. In about half the cases, I acquiesce and go with the title that the publisher’s marketing department deems to be suitable. If I passionately hate the title, I will stand firm. In most cases, however, the new title suits me fine. A Long Dark Night doesn’t light my fire, but it’s not horrible, either.

I don’t usually go to the mat unless it’s a fight worth having and I am reasonably sure I can win. Stephen King and David McCullough have the clout to dictate terms to their publishers. Mike Martinez does not. As Dirty Harry says, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”

Environmental Sustainability and American Public Administration

With The Safety of the Kingdom about to hit the streets in a few weeks and A Long Dark Night slated for publication early in 2016, I find myself with one book project in the works. Lexington Books sent me a contract to publish my second book on the environment — tentatively titled Environmental Sustainability and American Public Administration: Past, Present, and Future — either late in 2016 or early 2017. It depends on when I finish writing it. I am in the early stages, with the final manuscript due in August 2016. I would like to deliver the manuscript a few months earlier than that. We’ll see how it goes.

In some ways, this work will be a companion to my 2013 book American Environmentalism: Philosophy, History, and Public Policy. That work was a fairly comprehensive review of the environmental movement in the United States. According to the publisher’s website: “The book delves into key normative concepts that undergird American perspectives on nature by providing an overview of philosophical concepts found in the western intellectual tradition, the presuppositions inherent in neoclassical economics, and anthropocentric (human-centered) and biocentric (earth-centered) positions on sustainability. It traces the evolution of attitudes about nature from the time of the Ancient Greeks through Europeans in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the American Founders, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and up to the present. Building on this foundation, the author examines the political landscape as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), industry leaders, and government officials struggle to balance industrial development with environmental concerns.”

Environmental Sustainability and American Public Administration: Past, Present, and Future will be a much more focused book. Instead of tackling the subject broadly, the book will examine the ways in which federal executive branch agencies have addressed environmental issues. Stay tuned for a more in-depth discussion of the book as I get closer to completing the project.

Of Bloody Deeds and Death

In the meantime, even as I work on my environmental sustainability book, I have pitched a new proposal to Skyhorse. I have long been interested in political violence, especially political assassinations and attempts. I decided it would be fun and instructive to write on this subject.

Let me say a word about how I choose my subjects. When I turned 50 back in December 2012, I realized that I had a finite number of years in which to strut my stuff. Such a realization — hardly earth-shaking, I know, but an epiphany when a person who still feels young at heart stares at his aging mug in a mirror — focused my perspective.

Here are my four rules for picking a subject:

1. I have to love the subject matter. If I am going to spend two or three years (my average cycle) researching and writing a book, I had better love what I am doing. With only x number of years left on the planet and with the realization that I won’t get rich writing, the compensation is that I love the stuff I am exploring. If it’s an excruciatingly dull subject, why bother?

2. I need to be reasonably sure I can get it published. Nothing guarantees your work will be published, but over time a writer learns how to game the system a bit. I know editors and presses as well as their specialties, and I know what kinds of things they handle. Writing is fun, but having an outlet for the book when it is completed is crucial.

3. I always write a book proposal before I produce a full-length manuscript so that I can address Nos. 1 and 2. If I find that I cannot complete the proposal because I am too bored with it (or cannot find enough research material) or if I cannot sell a publisher on the concept, at least I have wasted a couple of months writing the proposal rather than a couple of years writing the book. A good proposal often leads to a publication contract. Nothing helps a writer stay motivated to write than knowing that he or she has a signed book contract in hand. Of course, even having a signed book contract is no guarantee — think of my awful experience with the University Press of Florida, as I mentioned — but most of the time a contract is a prime motivator.

4. I have to make sure that I can handle the subject matter. I have limited research and travel funds. I night enjoy writing a book on, say, Thomas Jefferson’s life in Paris during the 1780s, but I would need the funds to travel to France as well as research assistance to translate key documents and explore French archives. I don’t have institutional support for my scholarly activities. I would have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to produce such a book. It simply is not practical for me to take on a project that I don’t have the time or resources to complete.

A few months ago, as I considered these four rules, I realized that I could write a book on political assassinations. Such a subject meets all four requirements. Accordingly, I produced a book proposal in the spring of 2015. Skyhorse has published many works on assassinations, especially the JFK episode, and so it appeared to be a natural place to begin. I sent my proposal to my Skyhorse editor, Niels Aaboe, in June 10, 2015. I hope to have a publication decision in September or October 2015.

Here is my angle: Throughout its long, storied history, the United States has earned a reputation as a violent society. Denizens of other nations sometimes look upon Americans as reckless cowboys owing to a “Wild West,” cavalier attitude about violence, especially episodes involving guns. As part of this less-than-hallowed tradition, public figures have fallen prey to many an assassin’s bullet. In an effort to understand the ramifications of these incidents, I would like to write a book that examines the history of violence perpetrated against American leaders.

Nine American Presidents — Andrew Jackson in 1835, Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James A. Garfield in 1881, William McKinley in 1901, Harry S. Truman in 1950, John F. Kennedy in 1963, Richard Nixon in 1974, Gerald Ford twice in 1975, and Ronald Reagan in 1981 — have been the targets of assassins. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was also a target shortly before he was sworn into office in 1933. Moreover, three presidential candidates — Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and George Wallace in 1972 — were shot by assailants. Roosevelt and Wallace survived, but Robert Kennedy did not. In addition to presidents and candidates for the presidency, eight governors, seven U.S. senators, nine U.S. House members, eleven mayors, seventeen state legislators, and eleven judges have been victims of political violence. No other nation with a population of over 50 million people has witnessed as many political assassinations or attempts.

Naturally, these violent episodes trigger a series of important questions. First, why has the United States — a country constructed on a bedrock of the rule of law and firmly committed to due process — been so susceptible to political violence? Attacks on public figures were rare in colonial America. When violence occurred, it usually resulted from riots by mobs or from duels such as the famous incident between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. The first attack on a major political figure did not occur until an assassin attempted to shoot President Andrew Jackson in 1835.

The rarity of political violence early in the history of the republic raises several additional questions. Why did violence against political figures increase during the nineteenth century? Did the nation’s culture or politics change and, if so, how? Did political violence increase during the twentieth century and, if so, why? What, if anything, can be done to reduce or eliminate such attacks? This book will address these questions by examining 25 instances of violence against elected officials and public figures in American history.

The working title I have assigned to this book is Of Bloody Deeds and Death: 25 Political Assassinations (and Attempts) That Changed American History. I hope to have a positive answer from Skyhorse soon so that I can start my research sometime during the fall of 2015. I will have an update on the project for my July 2016 report card.

In the meantime, I may write where the light is dim, but I am making the best of the situation.


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