Rooting for a Friend

Posted: February 5, 2011 in Jim Ehmann, The Whole Works

“Rooting for a Friend” By Jim Ehmann

One of my best and oldest friends is an extremely accomplished writer. His experience is as a journalist. Writing and editing for several different major newspapers, he has received top writing awards from The Chicago Tribune among others. Faced with the uncertain future of the newspaper business, my friend enrolled in an MFA writing program as a step towards opening a new career path.

One result of his Masters program was the completion of his first book-length project. He acquired a genuine agent and has been seeking a publisher for a while. I asked for an opportunity to read the book and he was kind enough to send me a draft.

Although his writing is unquestionably beautiful and professional, the agent told him there is a significant problem with the book. It is quite difficult to classify the book for marketing purposes. The subtitle – at least on the version I have – includes the phrase “A Memoir…”.  I have no experience reading memoirs, but looking at any bestseller list from the past few years informs me that memoirs are very hot stuff. I read an article months ago about the most famous circle of local Portland writers, and when asked what they were working on now nearly every one of them said they were in some stage of completing a memoir. Anyway, after reading my friends book I can see where it might be an awkward fit in that category.

His book has an unusual structure. Probably at least three-fourths of the book’s word content actually directly concerns a certain famous historical figure. My friend tells how his own recent life became entwined with this figure, literally and metaphorically. He did a huge amount of research on this person. One goal of the book seems to be about documenting a new or previously little-known angle on this person’s life. A great deal of history is presented. He adds substantial speculation about his subject’s innermost thoughts and personality based on his thorough research, including imagined conversations. He artfully finds ways of weaving his own story in and out of this history.

So is the book a memoir about my friend’s life? I think many people would more likely see it as an alternate biography of the famous person, but it is clearly not just that. The book is complex in many wonderful ways, in ways I could never have conceived or executed. In the end – not surprising to me – my friend elevates the book to a universal level, making a powerful statement for us all.

But how do you sell it to a publisher? It is obviously too personal to be on the biography shelves, but has so much historical detail that it might not be what memoir readers expect. More than anything, it is great writing, a work of art. Art and business often do not get along. I am hoping someone will give my friend a chance, and that many people can read his book and decide the meaning for themselves.

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