Rewards of a writing life

By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2007

First and foremost, authors want to sell their books. But if fame comes with fortune, that’s not so bad, either.

Andrew Clements of Westboro will learn Thursday whether he has captured a coveted Edgar Award for his young adult mystery, “Room One.”

Debby Applegate has capped 20 years of hard work with a Pulitzer Prize for her biography, “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.”

Applegate spent time researching at the American Antiquarian Society.

She makes a triumphant return tonight.

Debby Applegate

“There were definitely times when I thought, `This is a bigger risk than I meant to be taking’” Debby Applegate said of her book, “The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher.”

“You put in a year, two years, three years, and it doesn’t go well you say, `All right.’

“Twenty years, it’s another matter.”

Applegate, who researched and wrote about Beecher for her senior thesis at Amherst College and her doctoral dissertation at Yale, thought that after the book was completed, she’d be relieved. Instead, she felt depressed.

“I went to a therapist and asked, `Why am I not happy?’ she said. “I was anxious, wondering, `Is it going to go well?’”

Applegate’s biography was published in June, and things immediately went well, with critical praise, hefty sales and several prestigious awards.

But the 39-year-old historian got the ultimate answer last week when she learned she had won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

In a telephone interview from her home in New Haven, Applegate acknowledged pride in capturing one of the most coveted honors in the worlds of literature and journalism. Then she quickly turned to parsing why her book was chosen.

“Half of it is just good luck,” Applegate asserted. “The timing is very good. Had it come out four years ago, I don’t think the climate was ready for it. The religious right intersection with politics is very important now.”

Born in 1813 in Litchfield, Conn., Beecher, a minister, turned away from the fire-and-brimstone of Puritan-style Protestantism. Instead, he preached a gospel of love and healing, becoming one of the founders of modern American Christianity. He was a witty, charismatic speaker, drawing tens of thousands of people to his sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.

Beecher’s sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the famous anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” A reformer, Beecher, too, crusaded against slavery. He also promoted women’s suffrage and Darwinism. He injected himself into politics as a founder of the Republican Party, and played a role in the rise of the entertainment industry and the tabloid press.

Beecher’s life took a sharp turn in 1872, when he was accused of adultery with one of his most devout parishioners. The husband brought charges, and Beecher’s sensational trial garnered headlines across the country. Applegate writes that Beecher survived, “but his reputation and his causes – from women’s rights to progressive evangelicalism – suffered devastating setbacks that echo to this day.”

Beecher brings to mind former President Bill Clinton, raising the question: How could someone risk so much for a sexual peccadillo?

“There are those driven to greatness by principle,” Applegate reflected. “Then there are those who are drawn to greatness like a moth to a flame because that’s where the attention, approbation and approval are. Those are the ones who are the best at it, but they are the ones most drawn into temptation.”

In Applegate’s view, Beecher’s charm and irreverence helped win over the Pulitzer judges. “He’s got a Mick Jagger quality,” she noted.

Applegate’s research took her from the archives of Ivory Tower institutions to the musty records of small-town historical societies. The digging was fun, she said. The writing, which took seven years, was tough going.

Applegate often recoiled at Beecher’s behavior. She related the time he was accused of something akin to date rape. “His response is, `Well it wasn’t like that. I think she wasn’t a virgin anyway.’”

“On every page, I would think, `What a jerk,’” Applegate said. “But you can’t convey that all the time. When you write about religion and politics, it’s a hot button issue. Writing about religion held me to a higher standard and probably improved the book and me.”

Midway through her first draft, Applegate realized serious revisions were in order. She knew she wanted to write a page-turner, but she had no idea how to do it. She devoured novels, a thriller and a mystery. She studied William Noble’s writing guide, “Conflict, Action, Suspense.” She ended up writing a psychological mystery.

Applegate pointed out that Beecher had substantial connections to Central Massachusetts. He taught in Hopkinton and was the first speaker at Mechanics Hall in Worcester when it opened in 1857. His shrewish wife, Eunice, grew up in West Sutton. Beecher’s celebrity and wandering eye put a strain on the marriage.

Applegate, who comes across as light-hearted and humorous, said she is often asked what lessons she learned from her work on Beecher.

“I would say this: Do not marry the first girl who pays attention to you. If you do feel you must marry the first person you meet, try not to run around on her. If you must, don’t write things down.

“If Henry and all the interested parties had not written their love, contrition and cover-up letters, there is no way I would have been able to write the book,” she said, laughing.

Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements does not describe himself as a mystery writer, per se. On the other hand, he says, every good book has an element of mystery to it.

“You ought to be asking yourself, `What happens next?’” Clements said. “You’ve got to want to turn the page.”

Clements recalled his 2002 book, “Things Not Seen.” On the first page, a normal 15-year-old boy wakes up to discover he has become invisible. The balance of the story, Clements said, examines how the teenager became invisible, how he might be able to regain his physical form, and the effect such an experience would have on a person’s life.

Because of his ability to inject elements of mystery into all of his work, Clements has caught the attention of those who specialize in the genre. His 2006 novel, “Room One: A Mystery or Two” (Simon & Schuster, $15.95), has been nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for a 2007 Edgar Award in the “Best Juvenile” category. Clements, who is 57, noted that it is the first of his books to have the word “mystery” in the title.

The Edgars honor the best in mystery fiction, nonfiction, television and film published or produced in the previous calendar year. The award winners will be announced Thursday in New York City.

“It’s a great honor, and I’m looking forward to going to the awards banquet,” Clements said by telephone from his home in Westboro.

“Room One” (Simon & Schuster, $15.95) is about Ted Hammond, a sixth-grade boy who loves a good mystery. As the sole sixth-grader in his one-room schoolhouse in a small Nebraska town, Ted has had the time to hone his deductive reasoning abilities by carefully solving every literary mystery he has come across. He thinks of himself as a detective.

While delivering newspapers one day, Ted spies a face in the window of an abandoned house and soon applies his skills to a real-life puzzle. As the story unfolds, Clements uses multi-dimensional characters to convey an underlying message about responsibility and individual courage.

Clements started his writing career by doing a favor for his boss at a small publishing house that produced picture books for children. The company had illustrators but no writers. The boss asked Clements to write a story. “I said I’d give it a try,” he recalled. That was 1985; four years later he penned “Big Al,” which is still in print, with close to a million copies in circulation.

Within a few years, Clements had moved on to young adult novels. “Frindle,” his best-known book, was published in 1996. It sold more than 2 million copies, and Simon & Schuster started offering Clements contracts. He made the leap to full-time author.

At first, he wrote in a basement office in his home, but that location became untenable.

“My wife and I have four sons,” Clements explained. “Seven years ago, we gave one of our sons a drum set for Christmas. My basement office ended up being seven feet away, through a thin wall, from the new drum set.”

By February, the writer was building a small studio in the back yard. “The shell of it was brought in by a shed company, and I insulated it and brought in pine paneling, a woodstove, a skylight and an air conditioner,” he said. “It’s 10 by 12.” He writes there year-round, often completing the last chapters of a book at 3 or 4 in the morning.

Clements, who was raised in New Jersey, taught school in Illinois for seven years before entering publishing. Most of his stories are set in and around schools; he continues to call on his teaching experiences as he develops characters and plots.

“Your school experiences stay with you all your life,” Clements said. School, he reflected, “is a huge part of everyone’s life. I have found it an inexhaustible source and a wonderful place to focus my attention.”

Fine writing, Clements said, requires the time to work and rework each sentence. He recalled that when he penned “Things Not Seen,” the first in a trilogy that includes “Things Hoped For” and “Things That Are,” Simon & Schuster turned it down. Clements submitted it to an editor he admired at Penguin Putnam, who told him it needed a good deal of work. “She asked, `Are you willing?’ I said, `Of course. I’m always willing to work.’ She sent a long, long list of changes.”

“Small adjustments make the difference between writing that is OK and writing that is really, really good,” Clements observed. “Unless you spend the time, you will never figure out what the small adjustments should be. The secret ingredient is time.”

At this point, with more than 15 books to his credit, Clements has turned his writing into what he describes as “a little cottage industry.” As successful as he has been, he couldn’t be more pleased about his nomination for the Edgar.

“In certain circles I am fairly well known, but to be nominated for a national award like this certainly has made my name a little more common in a wider circle,” Clements said.