Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Race to Write a Book About a Race

Today, I interview Geoff Williams, author of, "C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America." Geoff tells us about writing a book on an historical event when all of the characters are dead, researching, finding an agent and marketing.

Tell us about yourself.
Well, I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was nine, when my fourth-grade teacher started assigning us bonus essays. We could write stories, fiction or nonfiction, and receive extra credit, and when I started writing every night, I started to think, “Hey, I’m not doing this for the extra credit—I’m doing this because I enjoy it.” So I thought I’d wind up writing my first book before I was out of elementary school, and that I’d spend the rest of my life churning out a few books a year. Of course, it didn’t exactly work out that way, but I have been a writer for most of my professional life, save a few odd jobs right out of college. Not that it was easy. I started out writing for really obscure magazines in the beginning. They paid all right, but they aren’t national names. Anyway, primarily I’m a magazine writer. I’ve written for newspapers—I was a part-time features reporter at the Cincinnati Post, and I’ve done some corporate writing, but most of my income has come from writing for various consumer, business and trade magazines. I’ve been writing for Entrepreneur for 10 years and BabyTalk for five, and both of those have been a wonderful experience, but I’m also proud that I’ve managed to get into LIFE, Ladies’ Home Journal, National Geographic Kids and various other publications. And I’m extremely gratified that last year, when I was 36, “only” 27 years after I decided I wanted to be an author, I finally achieved my goal of writing a book and having it published. Or I should say, writing a book that is sold in bookstores across the country. I had written two books before this, but they were works for hire—like a corporate history of a hospital—and they were never meant to be sold in bookstores.

Tell us about your book, "C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America"
It’s the story of an actual foot race that happened in 1928, where 199 men attempted to run from Los Angeles to New York City, in pursuit of a $25,000 prize. That was the money allotted for the first place winner, although C.C. Pyle, the sports agent who organized the race, was also offering $10,000 to the second place winner, $5,000 to the third and downward to the tenth place winner who received $1,000 for his efforts. Not a bad piece of change, back then. And so the book is about all of the experiences these guys go through, running this race, which was even more difficult than it sounds. They ran from one town to another designated community, bedding down for the night, and then they’d get up and run again. They averaged around 35 miles a day, every day, for 84 days, so imagine running a Boston Marathon, back-to-back, daily for almost three months. I can’t imagine that. I can’t even imagine running one marathon successfully.

How did you go from writing business articles for Entrepreneur to writing this book (did you approach an agent/publisher or did they approach you)?
I thought it made sense to try and write a business book, and that’s what I thought I would do. But when I wound up learning about the Bunion Derby in a reference book, I was just floored. I kept thinking, “Why hasn’t anyone written about this yet?” As it turned out, someone had, but back in 1980, and the book hadn’t made a huge splash. So I thought I’d try doing it. But it took several years to actually go ahead and do it. At the time when I learned about the Bunion Derby, I didn’t have an agent, and so I just started researching about the race, and then several months into that—it’s hard to remember exactly when—I read something on the Internet about a PBS documentary coming out about the Bunion Derby. And then I thought, “Well, that’s that. This film is going to come out and steal all the oxygen, and I won’t be able to write the book.” It turned out to be a small, though very well done, film, however, and so at some point, I started to realize that the Bunion Derby wasn’t exactly a household name. As for securing an agent, here’s how it happened: I was mowing my lawn one late afternoon on a Friday, thinking about the Bunion Derby book that I wanted to write, and suddenly I had this epiphany. The book would never get published if I didn’t actively seek out an agent. Daydreaming about writing a book wasn’t cutting it. And so that night, I looked for an agent, wrote a terrific one, and had a reply the following Monday, and a few days later, I had a contract.
I love telling the story that way, because it suddenly sounds so easy, but 1) I had been writing professionally for over 10 years, and I know that gave me some credibility. 2) I didn’t just write an agent blindly. I pored through business books that PR agents had sent me over the years, and I looked in the acknowledgements pages where authors would thank their agents. Then I googled the names of those agents and read up on them and finally found one who seemed to have a lot of the same interests as me. And she seemed like someone who was successful and could help my career, because I figured I had gone down enough dead ends, and I really wanted to find an agent who was experienced, and yet I didn’t want to find an agent who was too successful, where their career was about over, and he or she wouldn’t have time for me and who might see me as this little bothersome gnat. (Like all writers, my self-confidence is a bit shaky at times.)

Marketing is such a huge factor for book authors these days, publishers seem to want you to do all the leg work for them. Who is your target market for the book and how did you determine that?
Well, you’re right for sure, that authors have to do most, if not all, of the leg work. I wish I had known that from the beginning. I might have saved some time. I did know that authors needed to be involved, and I was happy to be—but I quickly learned that the author pretty much does it all, unless, I imagine, they’re big leaguers like Stephen King or John Grisham. Fortunately, I canvassed a lot of book critics and sports columnists at newspapers and managed to get some really nice write-ups and reviews in various papers like The Washington Post, The Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Oklahoman. And, of course, plenty of book editors ignored me, and I had no luck pitching the few TV shows that I tried. For instance, my email, in which I suggested I challenge Stephen Colbert to a foot race, went unanswered.
But in my mind, my target audience is simply anyone who likes history. I’m not a runner myself, but I loved the story of this race, and all of the history of the 1920s endurance competitions that swirled around it. And I always figured, I’m a fan of the movie “Rocky” but have never watched a full boxing match in my life. I love the movie “Breaking Away,” but have never participated in an organized bicycle race. Why shouldn’t non-running readers enjoy a story about a bunch of guys who enter a contest, hoping to win a fortune and change their lives forever? That said, a lot of people in the running community have embraced the book, and I’m so grateful for that. But then it was obvious from the beginning that marathon runners would probably be interested in this book.

I'm sure many of the key players in your story are deceased. How did you conduct your research for the book?
Everyone, sadly, is deceased. There was one runner alive when I began the book in earnest, after Rodale gave me the go-ahead to write the book, but I didn’t know that and learned about his death one month after the fact. He was in his late 90s, though, and from what I understand, probably not in the position to talk much about the race. The widow of one of the runners was also alive when I was researching the book, and I did have a short phone conversation with her, and that was personally exciting for me. But as far as the research, I just decided that I would do everything I could that was feasibly possible. Since I’m not a millionaire as Harry Gunn, one of the participants of the race, I couldn’t retrace the steps of the race and go to every library along the Bunion Derby route, but believe me, it crossed my mind a few hundred times. Still, I contracted every descendant of every writer I could find. I searched for friends and family of all four of C.C. Pyle’s wives and was pretty successful there. I combed through what I’m sure was over a thousand newspaper articles. Maybe it was 10,000. Probably not, but it sure felt like it. Since the race went for 84 days across the country, virtually every community that the race went through covered it. I even checked with college newspapers, which yielded a few anecdotes. I went through court records, tracking down information on the various lawsuits that Pyle was embroiled in, and going through his marriage and divorce records. I traveled to Champaign, Illinois, about half a day’s drive, which is where Pyle lived at one time. I drove out to Delaware, Ohio, where Pyle grew up, and I flew to Oklahoma where one of the main runners was from and spent a few days there. I just tried to play detective and use every journalist’s trick in the book to learn everything I could about the race—or everything that I could in the time frame that I had to write the book, which was about two years.

Did you learn anything new or revealing?
I wanted to write the book simply because I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea what running across the country would have been like. Now would be difficult enough, but in 1928, 80 years ago, sneakers were in their infancy. Even roads were primitive compared to now. Many roads were dirt or gravel, and there was no interstate. Route 66 was just a couple years old, and that the race followed that famous trail just added to the mystique of the story for me. And I just kept picturing what it must have been like to run day after day, hoping to win this money, and seeing the countryside slowly change from the California deserts to the lush greenery of New York state. I was lucky, I realize now, because I really fell in love with this story, and that’s useful when you wind up spending years working on a project like this. I really didn’t want it to end, and I still don’t. I’d love to write a sequel, and believe me, the material is there for one, but unless this book really, really, really takes off, I doubt that’s going to happen. As for learning anything new or revealing, I think so. Everything was new to me. Everything will be new to anyone who knows nothing about the Bunion Derby, but this story was out there. It was kind of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, but all the pieces were scattered across the country, and so I had to go out and find them. That’s the analogy I usually go with. I hope that makes sense.

Indexing is a challenge for me. How did you keep track of the characters in your book for indexing later?
You know, I was really lucky, in that way, because Rodale did the indexing, or maybe they hired someone to do it, although I think there’s actually software out there, that will index books. Don’t quote me on that. So I didn’t have to worry about that. But I did do two works-for-hire books, a biography of a local businessman and the corporate history of a hospital, and I had to do the indexes for those. Not fun. But I don’t recommend keeping track of the characters for an index. It spoils the enjoyment of writing the book, and you’ll never know what pages the characters will be on until the book is formatted.

Dividing time between magazine - or immediate paying clients - and book projects is a challenge for a lot of authors. How did you accomplish this?
Um, I didn’t. I’m continually broke and am carrying a lot of debt. I manage to pay my bills, usually, and get by, but it’s extremely hard to support a family by being a freelance writer and author. But that said, I was broke and in debt before I wrote this book, and it’s extremely hard to juggle multiple magazine articles, so I’m not sure it’s any harder to add a book to the mix, and at one point, I was working on “C.C. Pyle” and the hospital corporate history that I mentioned, which was an extremely complicated book to write. Still, I tried to compartmentalize things as much as I could by writing “C.C. Pyle” in the evenings and weekends, although I would often try to spend 1-2 work days a week on the book, and sometimes more than that.

Do you have an assistant? If so, what functions do they do for you? If not, would you like to have one and what would they do?
Boy, I’d love to have an assistant, but I never have had one, and I’m envious of the freelance writers who do. I’d have my mythical assistant do just about everything but the writing and the research. I do enjoy interviewing, once I’m doing it, but taking notes, scheduling the interview, transcribing, that’s not a lot of fun, and so I’d have an assistant do that. There are a lot of little tasks like that, that aren’t fun about my job, but really I love everything about being an author, even the arduous task of marketing the book, and everything about freelance writing, except waiting for that paycheck to arrive.

What's next for you?
I have a book proposal out there, which has been rejected by quite a few publishing houses, though one or two editors are considering it. But I’m hearing the same thing about this book topic that I did with the Bunion Derby. Editors are saying that it’s a fascinating story, but nobody’s ever heard of this. I kind of thought that was the point of so many nonfiction narratives, you know? To write a compelling tale of some slice of history that was deeply relevant to an era but that we’ve all forgotten about now. So if I keep getting feedback like that, I’m starting to think that my next book is going to have to be about something or someone everyone’s heard of, like Abraham Lincoln, the Titanic or the Beatles.


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