Friday, June 01, 2007

There's no Mold Growing on This Book

Today, I interviewed Lucy Kavaler, author of “Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles, The Strange Realm of Fungi,” a book recently re-released. Lucy tells us how she was almost turned on by those other kinds of mushrooms and then turned the subjects of mold and fungi into a book so popular that publishers keep reprinting it.

Tell us about yourself
I have been a professional writer since the age of 6 when my mother sent a poem I had composed to a children’s magazine; it was published and I received $1. I’ve been writing ever since. In school, I was often in conflict with English teachers who insisted that I write what I know about. I objected. What I knew was so much less interesting than what I imagined. And that has guided my writing ever since. I have two children, and when the first was born, started free-lancing from home. I was able to use my imagination (and sometimes experience) in creating dramatic stories for true confessions and true romances magazines. However, you write in the first person and get no by-lines, so I realized I must move on.
I met the editor of the Sunday magazine section of a newspaper at a party and began writing non-fiction articles for him. That’s how I was “discovered” by a book publisher who read a series of articles on high society and asked me to expand them into a book. That was the start, and I’ve had 17 books published, among them the biography, “TheAstors, A Family Chronicle of Pomp and Power.” After writing 15 non-fiction books, I turned to fiction with “The Secret Lives of the Edmonts” about the lives of the fabulously wealthy in 1895 New York, and “Heroes and Lovers, An Antarctic Obsession,.” about an all-women’s expedition racing for the South Pole in the golden age of exploration.These three books are also in print and available on, and other on-line booksellers. I’m currently working on my third novel, “In the Company of Evil,” set in the turbulent, corrupt mid-19th century.
I enjoy writing my books, but sometimes the solitary nature of the work gets me down, and I’ve taken part-time jobs as a writer/ editor for magazines in the health field and a non-profit organization. I’m also a human rights activist and try to get writers who have been imprisoned for dissident views released or provided with medical care. I’m currently working on behalf of two writers in China and two in Uzbekistan.

Tell us about your book
The book reveals the little-known kingdom of fungi in all its wonder. It demonstrates this kingdom’s tremendous range from the beginnings of life on earth to the 8,000-year history of beer to the mold that changed medical history to pigs trained to find the prized truffle. The book is not merely about fungi but tells the stories of the unusual people who made the discoveries that changed our world. Everyone of us is affected by fungi, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.

This book is a back in print book. Tell us when it was first published.
“Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles, The Strange Realm of Fungi,” was first published by John Day, a small publisher known for its unusual list of book. It no longer exists by that name, having been bought up by a series of publishers, most recently Harper Collins. (I went from one publisher to the next.) The book was also published as a Signet (New American Library) mass market paperback. It was published in England, with “Molds” spelled “Moulds.” The book was in print for many years, and even afterwards, people kept discovering it in libraries and getting in touch with me. A Cornell professor based an entire course on the book. Amazon was still getting 5-star ratings for orders. And so I turned to the Authors Guild which has created a Backinprint series.

How did you come to be so engaged by fungi?
My fascination with fungi began when I was invited to join a group of writers going to Mexico to partake of the hallucinogenic mushroom and write while under the influence.
I didn’t go – fortunately, because the Mexican authorities threw everyone in jail. Soon I began to find fungi in whatever I read or heard. I saw the vastness of the topic, the wonder of it all and how fungi affected all humans, plants, animals and microbes. No one else had seen fungi in this way, and I felt compelled to present my vision.

How did you convince a publisher that a book on what could be dry material could be successful? Was it the book proposal or the entire manuscript that sold it?
I wasn’t able to convince a publisher that a book on fungi could be successful, but it did sell on the proposal. John Day offered a minimal advance and there was to be a small print order and no publicity. I felt the book had to be written, and went forward. When the bound galleys went to the book reviewers, everything changed. John Day was inundated with phone calls. “Time” magazine sent a photographer to the house and gave it a lead review. The print order was increased, a publicist put on it, a book party and tour scheduled. So you can see why “Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles” has always been close to my heart.

What is the most fascinating fact you have in the book?
I find everything about fungi fascinating, but if I must choose, it is the part fungi played in the origin of life. Were it not for fungi, life on earth would have died out billions of years ago. The process of decay allowed new forms of life to develop and by providing carbon dioxide, made it possible for plant life and ultimately humans to emerge.

How did you turn dry research and interviews with scientists who can be dry and use complex terms into a readable manuscript?
The research was never dry. I did as much first-hand research in person or by phone as possible. I toured a brewery and a winery, spoke with mushroom hunters, interviewed the Harvard professor who encouraged use of LSD, originally fungal. The book gave me the opportunity to speak with Nobel Prize winners and scientists of stature whom I could never otherwise have met. And I have found that people love to be interviewed, to have someone listening to them with rapt attention, and that something interesting can be learned from the person who seems dull at first. I also believe that no topic is dry if you know enough about it so as to be able to find the human element. For instance, my book, “A Matter of Degree” is about the effects of high temperatures on living things. That might seem dull, but I opened with a chapter entitled “Of Murder, Riot and the Heat of Passion.” “Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles” begins with a wheat rust that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Do you think publishers still take chances on manuscripts they think might have little commercial success? In other words, do you think your book would still be published today?
Of course, no one wants to publish a book that is expected to fail. But I think that publishers today would be less likely to think a book with a highly original concept
would be unsuccessful. I am told that publishers are now looking for books with an “edge,” something different that can be promoted. And so, I think it would be easier to sell my book on fungi today.

What advice would you give writers who’ve been rejected because publishers don’t think the subject will sell?
I suggest “repackaging.” By this I mean, give it a new title that sounds enticing, stress the groups of readers who would be likely to buy the book. Open the proposal with an anecdote or quote. And above all, don’t get discouraged too soon. A manuscript may be rejected time and again, and then one publisher buys it and the rest is history. I’ve been told by best-selling authors that they had 25 or more turndowns before success.

Tell us about your best writing time or tell us about some quirky writing habit you’ve developed and how you came about doing it?
When I was first married, we lived pretty far uptown in New York and on summer days, I would take a sandwich, a drink and a notebook and pen and walk across the George Washington Bridge. Then I would walk along the Palisades until I found a place with a particularly beautiful view. That’s where I would stay, writing whatever book was in the works until late afternoon when I would walk back across the Bridge and home to greet my husband. As I remember those days, the sun was always shining, the trees green, the flowers in bloom and the river gleaming in the reflected light. I’ve written in whatever place I’ve found myself – at a desk in the corner of the bedroom with my children vieing for my attention – and it’s been good. But I most like to remember those days on the Palisades when everything seemed possible.


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