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Dude, Where's My Country?
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I love listening to people's stories about where they were and what they were doing on the morning of 9/11, especially the stories from the ones who, through luck or fate, were allowed to live.
For instance, there's this guy who had just returned the day before from his honeymoon. That night, on September 10, his new bride thought she'd make him her special homemade burrito. The burrito was horrible, like eating tar stripped off the center line of the Major Deegan expressway. But love ignores all of that and what counts is the gesture, not the digestion. He told her how grateful he was and how much he loved her. And he asked for another.
The next morning, September 11, 2001, he's on the subway from Brooklyn to his job on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center. The subway might have been heading to Manhattan, but the burrito was heading south, and I don't mean the Jersey shore. He starts to get sick, real sick, and decides to get off just one stop before the World Trade Center. He runs up the subway stairs in a desperate search for facilities. But this is New York and that was not to be. And thus, on the corner of Park Row and Broadway, he became a poster boy for Depends.
Embarrassed and humiliatedbut feeling much better!he flagged down a gypsy cab and offered him a hundred dollars to take him home ($9 for the ride, and $91 toward the price of a new car).
When the man got home, he ran inside to take a shower and to put on a new set of clothes so he could get back to Manhattan. Coming out of the shower he flipped on the TV and, as he stood there, he watched the plane slam right into the floor where he worked, where he would have been right now had his loving wife not made him that wonderfulthat absolutely perfectly incredible amazing. . . He broke down and began to cry.
My own 9/11 story wasn't so close a call. I was asleep in Santa Monica. The phone rang around 6:30 a.m. and it was my mother-in- law. "New York is under attack!" is what I heard her say through my half-awake ear. I wanted to say, "Yeah so what's new- and it's 6:30 in the morning!"
"New York is at war," she continued. This made no sense other than, again, it always feels like war in New York. "Turn on the TV," she said. And so I did. I woke up my wife and as the television faded on there were the towers, on fire. We tried to call our daughter back home in New York, no luck, then tried to call our friend Joanne (who works near the World Trade Center), no luck, and then we just sat there stunned. We didn't leave the bed or the TV until five that afternoon when we finally found out that our daughter and Joanne were okay.
But a line producer we had just worked with, Bill Weems, was not okay. As the networks started to run a scroll along the bottom of the TV with the names of those who were on the planes, along came Bill's name on that screen. My last memory of him was the two of us horsing around at a funeral home where we were shooting a piece about the tobacco industry. Put two guys with a dark sense of humor around a bunch of undertakers and you've got what we would call nirvana. Three months later he was dead andhow do they say it?"life as we knew it changed forever."
Really? Did it? How has it changed? Is there enough distance from that tragic day to ask that question and find an intelligent answer? Things certainly changed for Bill's wife and his seven-year-old daughter. There's the crime, right there, to have her daddy taken from her at such a young age. And life changed for the loved ones of the other 3,000 who were murdered. They will never lose the sorrow they feel. They are told that they "must move on." Move on to where? Those of us who have lost someone (and I guess that's eventually everyone) know that while life does "move on," the sock in the gut, the sorrow in the heart, will never leave, so ways must be found to embrace it and make it work for you and the living.
Somehow we all work our way through our own personal losses and we get up the next morning and the morning after that and fix the kids' breakfast and do another load of laundry and pay the bills and. . .
Meanwhile, in faraway Washington, D.C., life is changing, too. Taking advantage of our grief, and our fear that "it" may happen again, an appointed president uses the dead of 9/11 as a convenient cover, a justification, for permanently altering our American way of life. Is that why they died, so that George W. Bush can turn the country into Texas? We've already conducted two wars since 9/11, and an upcoming third or a fourth is not all that unlikely. If this is allowed to continue, then all we will have accomplished is to dishonor those 3,000-plus dead. I know Bill Weems didn't die so he could be used as an excuse to bomb innocents overseas. If his death, his life, is to have a greater meaning from this moment forward, it is to make sure that no one else like him will have to lose his or her life in this insane, violent world, a world we now seem hell-bent on running any way we damn well please.
I'm lucky, I guess, that I even get to write these words you are reading. Not just because I get to live in the most wonderfulest country in the whole wide world!, but because after 9/11, my former publisher, Regan Books (a division of HarperCollins which is a division of the News Corp which owns Fox News and it's all owned by Rupert Murdoch), was trying its hardest to make sure my career as an author would come to an early end.
The first 50,000 copies of Stupid White Men came off the printing press the day before 9/11, but when the tragedy struck the next morning, the trucks that would carry them to the nation's bookstores never left the loading dock. The publisher then held the books hostage for five long months-not simply out of good taste and respect (which I might have been able to understand), but out of a desire to censor me and the things I wanted to say. They insisted I rewrite up to 50 percent of the book and that I remove sections that they found offensive to our leader, Mr. Bush.
I refused to change a word. A standoff ensued until a librarian in New Jersey heard me talking about the phone call I had just received from the Murdoch publisher telling me that it looked as if they had no choice, thanks to my stubbornness, but to "pulp" and recycle all 50,000 copies of my book that were gathering dust in a warehouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I also was told by others not to expect much in the way of a book career after this, as word would spread that I was considered "trouble," a royal pain in the ass who wouldn't play ball.
This librarian, Ann Sparanese, a woman I did not know, sent out an e-mail to a list of librarians, telling them that my book was being banned. Her letter shot around the Internet and, within days, letters from angry librarians were flooding Regan Books. I got a call from the Murdoch police.
"What did you tell the librarians?" "Huh? I don't know any librarians." "Yes you do! You told them about what we are doing with your book and now . . . we're getting hate mail from librarians!" "Hmm," I replied, "I guess that's one terrorist group you don't want to mess with."
Fearing there would soon be a crazed mob of wild librarians storming down Fifth Avenue and surrounding the HarperCollins building, refusing to leave until either my book was liberated from the Scranton warehouse or Murdoch himself was drawn and quartered (though I would have settled for making Bill O'Reilly wear his underwear on his head for a week), the News Corp surrendered.
They dumped my book in some bookstores with no advertising, no reviews, and the offer of a three-city tour: Arlington! Denver! Somewhere in New Jersey! In other words, the book was sent to the gallows for a quick and painless death. It's too bad you wouldn't listen to us, one Murdoch operative told me, we were only trying to help you. The country is behind George W. Bush and it is intellectually dishonest of you not to rewrite your book and admit that he has done a good job since 9/11. You are out of touch with the American people, and your book will now suffer as a result of it.
I was so out of touch with my fellow Americans that, within hours after the book's release, it went to number one on Amazon and within five days it had gone to its ninth printing. It's in its fifty-second printing as I write this.
The worst thing to tell a free people in a country that's still mostly free is that they are not allowed to read something. That I was able to be heard-and that my book would go on to be the number-one selling nonfiction hardcover book of the year in the United States-screams volumes about this great country. The people will not be intimidated and they will not be bullied by those in charge. The American people may look like they don't know what's going on half the time, and they may spend too much time picking out different-colored covers for their cell phones, but when push comes to shove, they'll rise to the occasion and be there for what is right.
So here I am now with this new book at none other than AOLTIMEWARNER and Warner Books. I know, I know, when will I learn my lesson? But here's the good news. During the entire time I've been writing this book, AOL has been trying to get rid of Warner Books. Why would a media company want to get rid of its book division? What did Warner Books do to upset the gods of AOL? I figure if AOL wants to dump these guys, they have to be okay. Plus, the other Warner folks in this tangled webWarner Bros. Picturesare the people who distributed my first film, Roger & Me. They were good and decent and they never threatened to "pulp it."
Okay, I'm rationalizing. Six media companies own everything. Break up these monopolies for the good of the country! The free flow of news and information in a democracy must not be in the hands of just a few rich men.
Yet, I have to say, they seem to be behind me here 100 percent. 1000 percent!! Not once have they said I was "trouble." But then, it's not me they really need to worry about. It's the librarians. And you.
Somewhere over Greenland
August 15, 2003