Thursday, June 01, 2006


Author’s website address:

Published books by the Author: 16, primarily language, social issues, media/journalism

Books in Process: 3 (1 social issues novel, 1 critique of the Bush/Cheney Administration, 1 university textbook about magazine editing and production)

Welcome Walter.


1. When and why did you begin writing?
I always seemed to have a "knack" for writing. I was a sports correspondent for a local daily while in high school; in college, I took courses that required term papers—I’d usually do poorly on tests, but quite well on the essays and term papers. I had planned to become a physician, but soon drifted into social work—it was the ‘60s, and I saw social work as a way to "save the world." (My A.B. is in sociology.) But, I realized my abilities, like that of many activists, could better be used in journalism. Thus, this idealist eventually started working for a newspaper, and then evolved.

2. What inspired you to write your first book?
I was in grad school, and it seemed like a good thing to do. Actually, it just seemed to fall into place, developing out of a paper for one of the classes. The first book was an annotated bibliography of American Black English. It was something that needed to be done. I was interested in language and culture studies, and this gave me a greater insight into a culture and its people—as well as the racism and ignorance. The book was quickly picked up by an academic press and became a standard reference work. My second book, Black English and the Mass Media, looked at the portrayal of Black language in the media, and revealed that journalists and teachers often spoke and wrote with little knowledge of people and language. This book was both a historical and contemporary look at language in a social setting. This book also was picked up by a university press, had high critical praise, and became one of the company’s "best sellers." It didn’t take me long to realize that books have a longer lifespan than newspaper and magazine articles. But, I still wrote for newspapers and magazines. That’s where my journalistic soul is.

3. How did you approach writing your first book?
It was purely an academic exercise. No great bolts of lightning. No unusual wisdom. It was tedious and meticulous, done long before there were PCs and databases for the average scholar. It also gave me a real "feel" for hard copy and libraries. The Interlibrary Loan department was swamped by my requests—and I learned a lot about libraries. It’s hard for me to explain to a 20-year-old bright student that all knowledge isn’t available by the Internet, that some comes from actually feeling the hard copy of the article—smelling the dust, reading the type in the way it was originally presented, etc. Persons who can work in libraries, I believe, have a better love of history and, thus, can better understand the present.

4. Who or what influenced your writing?
My journalistic "hero" is Horace Greeley, an editor/publisher who believed in the people. He was probably the most influential editor in America before and during the Civil War. It was he who pushed Lincoln into eventually delivering the Emancipation Proclamation. Greeley, who was pro-worker, also was founder of the first newspaper union, believed women should have the vote, and gave his employees a share of his newspaper. He became great not only because he was a great publisher, but because he was a great person. Among other writers, I admire Lafcadio Hearn; most of the muckrakers of the 1890s-1910s, including Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stanard Baker, publisher S.S. McClure; James Thurber, Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Breslin, Art Buchwald, Tom Paxton, Tom Lehrer, Aaron Sorkin, and many MANY others. Ironically, I don’t read many books, so the ones I do read tend to be by persons who are expert in short-form journalism, who can take that ability and transform it (whether music or printed words) into either a collection of great columns or excellent narrative, or a great play. Journalists aren’t confined to one medium—we should be able to write for all media, depending upon our subject and what we want to say.

5. Why do you continue to write?
It’s what I do best. (It may be the only thing, other than teaching, I truly enjoy.) I get mentally stimulated by it. AND, most important, I believe I can make a difference and help people with the kind of writing I do. That’s why I focus on social issues, when I realize I can make money from genre writing. – Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m a pretty good teacher, so I can combine teaching and writing. – Besides, it also feeds my ego; my name gets outside of my home town, and I get to hear from people from throughout the country and (sometimes) other countries. Thanks to the Internet (and the fact my columns appear on many I-net sites), I get a lot of feedback; this helps me better understand people and their concerns.

6. What do you hope to accomplish through your writing?
Because I am a social issues journalist, I hope to make people more aware of society, of the issues in society, and what can be done to improve our society. Although many of my columns and books focus upon government, many also look at people, many of whom are part of the underclass or invisible society that are not reported upon by the more "establishment" media. I report good news and bad news; and, although I readily acknowledge I am a liberal, I am fiercely independent, even to the point of not being afraid to attack the news media when I think there’s an overwhelming incompetence or blind spot in their coverage. Some of my most stinging satire has been against the media.

7. What has been your experience as a published writer?
I have spent a LOT of time trying to answer this question. Alas, because I’ve been a writer for four decades, my experiences are so vast, so different, so – idiosyncratic – that it’s hard to answer this one question, without writing a three-volume autobiographical diary that not even I would want to read. Fortunately, writing, and my relationship with readers, editors, and others in the industry changes every day, so it keeps me fresh and alert. Some days I am ecstatic, some days depressed, some days furious, other days blissful. It even changes by the hour.

8. How do you promote your book(s)?
With the major and minor publishers now focused more than ever upon "bottom line profits," and realizing they can make money only if they don’t have to spend money on us mid-list authors, it’s up to us to promote our books. Every one of my books has a 40-60 page promo/marketing plan. This includes a wide range of possibilities. However, the best promotion I find is contacts through my own mail list and hope they keep spreading the word to their friends and acquaintances. I also hammer newspapers (whose reviewers often turn up their arrogant noses at us low-life authors who don’t reach NYTimes lists and, thus, toss us into the trash bin). Thus, I deal with real reporters and editors for feature and news articles; I’m more successful with this. I also do a lot of radio interviews. I contact people (sometimes 2-3 times before they call back). I find some publications (RTIR, e.g.) more effective than others in making radio producers aware of my stuff. It’s not unusual for me to do a couple of phone interviews a day when book is in promo-stage. I don’t do TV. I just have a better body for radio. TV would boost sales, but TV has deteriorated to a point that many interviewers are unprepared, that they want "hot topics" and "hot celebrities," especially the ones who have a fan club, publicist, and posse—but are published solely because of that, not because they can write. I send out a lot of postcards. I use VistaPrint and other low-cost companies since cost is minimal. (Fortunately, I am also strong at graphic design, so I save money in that area.) In all of my bills, I send a bookmark or postcard. After all, these companies send us a lot of junk mail, I see no reason why I can’t return that favor. (I especially like the self-stamped envelopes credit card companies and others send to get us to fall for one of their offerings; it’s a win situation for me—I send info, they pay for the postage.). I do a LOT of public speaking, and make sure the audience has something to take with them—postcards, magnets, bookmarks, etc. I often do bookstore signings, but these are never as lucrative as they should be in sales. BUT, the key is to meet people, find out what they’re thinking, talk about them—and your book. They MAY remember later. ALSO, a key to a good bookstore signing is to make sure you talk with the clerks. If you can hype them on the book, they may later recommend it to a customer.

9. What advice would you like to share with other writers?
WRITE! Write some more. And then edit. Edit tightly. Ask yourself "would a reader like this phrase? Can I make this sentence tighter and more dramatic? Does it need a better rhythm and flow? Is this passage necessary? Does it contribute to an understanding of the story? Is there something missing?" In non-fiction, I believe that research and investigation may be 80% of writing, the actual writing is about 20%--and, just for kicks, figure 100% on the business end and promotion. In fiction, writers who don’t do their research are quickly found out. Assume every reader knows more about the facts than you do. You don’t want a reader to say, "That’s just not true; that doesn’t make sense." It diminishes the credibility. Alas, far too many writers churn out garbage, published by presses that have cut back on costs by cutting back on decent editors and copyeditors or work them far too much to be effective. Books WILL have errors (maybe a misspelled word, a fact that isn’t a fact, etc.) but the purpose of good writing is to make the reader NOT have bumps by stopping and saying, "That’s just not right."

10. Any other comments you would like to add?
The rise of POD publishing, allowing the effective emergency of small publishers and self-publishers, has allowed writers to get their views spread. But, the trade-off is that there is so much junk out there, and the design and promotion are often abysmal, that it seems that bad writing drives out good writing. Certainly, it’s become a problem since book reviewers (although they’ll vigorously deny it to your face!) and some major book review magazines tend to look at a publisher’s imprint and promo package and tend to discount that which doesn’t "seem" to be major, before even reading a couple of pages. As far as book reviewers—and I realize I could be tightening the noose on my literary future—I agree with James Michener, who said that if these people could write, they wouldn’t be book reviewers. The industry has also tended to feature authors who have little to say, but say it anyhow—just because publishers can publicize just about anything. If I were to capitalize on this unfortunate trend, I might title my next book, How to Bake Dietetic Pornographic Cookies With Britney Spears While Being Your Own Best Friend.

Thanks Walter, that's a great title and closing.

Interviewer: Kaye Trout - June 1, 2006 - Copyright