I’m a freelance writer for the alcoholic beverage industry in my free time, and work as a market analyst for a large telecommunications provider (“Can you hear me now?”). I went to a military college called VMI, then served four years in the U.S. Army in Germany. And I have a piece of Berlin Wall! After I left the Army, I moved to Washington, DC for graduate school and have stayed. I live in Arlington, Virginia. The Prohibition Hangover is my first book.
1. Tell us about your latest book.
The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet is about how American culture shifted towards alcohol after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. How did the United States shift over these past 75+ years from a country where abstinence was once the ideal, to one where two-thirds of adults now drink? Today alcohol is considered an important part of most social occasions. It’s also a nearly $200 billion industry that accounts for several million jobs. There is a detailed book website at http://www.prohibitionhangover.com.
2. How did you get started as a writer?
I’ve written since I was a kid, and contributed occasionally to my college newspaper. But I didn’t get serious about writing as a potential vocation until the WorldCom meltdown in 2002 (yes, that WorldCom). I was an employee at the company at the time, and began thinking what else I could do if I were laid off.
I’ve dabbled in screenwriting for awhile as a hobby, and hope to return to that someday. I mostly write period pieces (e.g. historic), as I’m a history nerd.
I had a moment of epiphany at Christmas 2003 when I noticed how differently three generations – my grandmother, mom, and myself – approached a bottle of wine. My grandmother got a little uppity about the fact that I had brought wine, which my mom and I shared. The light bulb went on: I realized that she came from a generation that stigmatized alcohol (she was born in 1913 and lived through Prohibition), but the stigma had largely fallen away by my mom’s generation. That epiphany launched me on more than four years of travel, research and interviews to write this book. I’ve been like a bulldog with a bone pursuing this story ever since.
3. What does a typical day look like for you?
I have a day job as an analyst, so most days are busy doing telecom-related work. I have to squeeze in writing whenever I can – sometimes during work breaks or evenings, but most often by dedicated Saturdays to writing. That’s the one day of the week I deliberately don’t schedule anything (except an occasional yoga class) so I can concentrate on writing. I usually find I’m productive for four to six hours, and after that, your mind gets tired of thinking.
4. Describe your desk/workspace.
I do all my writing from the home office, which doubles as the guest bedroom. Most days of the week I have two laptops up and running: a Dell for the day job, and my Apple for my writing. I can easily bounce between them. Of course I have wi-fi so I’m always connected (and a BlackBerry for when I’m not). I live in a high rise in Arlington, Virginia, surrounded by construction. It’s fun to look out the window and watch all the activity whenever I need a break. I usually have Radio Paradise, my favorite Internet radio station, running in the background on my Mac.
5. Favorite books (especially for writers)
I don’t often read fiction – I’m definitely a nonfiction kinda guy. That said, I’ve read A Confederacy of Dunces over and over again. It’s my kind of humor. Darkly subversive, ironic, and hysterically funny. The book took the Pulitzer for Fiction. I’ve often wondered why Hollywood hasn’t made this into a movie, especially after New Orleans took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
6. Tell us 3 interesting/crazy things about you
1. I watch very little television (my eight years in military college and the U.S. Army were completely without a TV, so it broke me of the habit of channel surfing). If I turn the TV on, it’s almost always to watch a Netflix movie. Or an adult cartoon show like The Simpsons, Family Guy, or South Park. And gosh, I miss Beavis and Butt-Head.
2. I live three miles from the Pentagon, and heard the plane hit the building on 9/11. It was a stunning, 70-degree day, and I had all the windows open.
3. I stood on the Mall with 1.8 million other people to witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States. That was inspiring.
7. Favorite quote
My favorite quote is from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.”
Thoreau did his two-year experiment in self-reliance, living in a small house he built on Walden Pond, a mile from Concord, Massachusetts. He peeled back his life to the very core to see what was fundamental to living, separating need from want. I find Thoreau’s conclusion to live simply a constant reminder to focus on the things that matter most, and not to become encumbered by too many things. Appreciate what you have, enjoy what you have, love your friends and community. Don’t always strive for a bigger house or larger car or vacation house – all these things do is distract you from the better things that have far more value.
8. Best and worst part of being a writer
The best part of being a writer is the chance to explore a question in depth. You go deep down the rabbit hold to find the answer. Sometimes I feel like the knight in The Seventh Seal who is looking for knowledge about god. I find it’s a wonderful intellectual challenge, one that stretches the mind.
The worst (or rather, the most difficult) part is trying to balance a day job while pursuing writing as a full-time gig. But it’s nice to have the paycheck for now.
9. Advice for other writers
All told, the publishing process for The Prohibition Hangover took nearly six years – more time than most of us spend at college. If you’re a young person, you’ll think that amount of time is endless. If you’re older, you realize that’s not so long, and it’s better to bring a quality product to market rather than rush into something half-baked. Remember that it took Truman Capote five years to research and write his masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
Realize the value of waiting. Waiting is a spiritual exercise. It reminds that you are not in control of the universe. Waiting is very difficult in our hectic culture – we all know people who will text you again if you haven’t responded to their text within two minutes! You have to realize that a book is going to take as long as it takes.
Just remember that the Israelites wandered forty years in the Wilderness before venturing into the Promised Land. Not all those who wander are lost: your time of wandering will shape and prepare you for your own Promised Land as an author. Julia Child and Michael Cunningham each took ten years to publish their first books. You need to go through the process – it’s healthy, and it will make you a far better writer. But it requires something in short supply these days: patience and perseverance.
10. Tell us a story about your writing experience.
I had a wonderful literary agent who tried his best for four months to sell The Prohibition Hangover. We ran into an unexpected issue: publishers were saying no because they expected a crowded field of books around the 75th anniversary of Repeal on December 5, 2008. I had been using this date as a hook, but my agent told me to tone it down. We tried repositioning it as a business book, and tied it in with the longevity of Fast Food Nation, pointing out that this would be a relevant book for years to come.
After four months, he realized the book wouldn’t sell, and so he released me from our contract. We’re still friends. What was bewildering was that there were no other books published around the anniversary of Repeal – they didn’t exist! All the publishers had turned down the book in the mistaken assumption that someone else was publishing about Repeal.
I shifted my search to academic presses, and soon found a wonderful reception at Rutgers University Press (Rutgers has one of the largest alcohol studies programs in the world). I’m delighted to work with Rutgers. The editing support has been great, and I have nothing but good things to say about the people I’ve worked with there – but above all my editor, Doreen Valentine.
Where can people buy your book?
The Prohibition Hangover is available nationwide on September 1, 2009. It can be ordered at any of the major online booksellers, as well as at the Rutgers University Press website. You can find links to all of these at http://www.prohibitionhangover.com/buy.html.
I have a Facebook group for The Prohibition Hangover. It’s at http://ww.facebook.com/group.php?gid=127586225340. I administer the group, and keep my readers informed of news and events. Plus it’s a Web 2.0 interface, so readers can leave comments and interact with one another and me.