Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


March 12, 2012

How to Make it in America

Thomas Dunne Books editor Peter Joseph dishes on what it takes to make a celebrity memoir memorable.

Vincent Valk

Steve Guttenberg may have been "the last guy you would pick to be a movie star," as a casting agent once referred to him, but book editor Peter Joseph jumped at the chance to help Guttenberg tell the story of his life. Joseph, an editor at Thomas Dunne Books, has worked on a variety of celebrity and political memoirs in addition to The Guttenberg Bible, including books by William Shatner and former senator Arlen Specter. The Brooklyn resident is also author of the forthcoming Boozy Brunch, a guide to cocktails and daytime drinking coming out in September.

Peter Joseph. Photo by Salma Khalil.
" 'Bland' memoirs happen not because the celebrity's life is dull, but because they've held back in order to avoid offending people."

Peter Joseph. Photo by Salma Khalil.

According to Joseph, a good celebrity memoir needs a) a good celebrity; and b) a good author—which may or may not be the aforementioned good celebrity. If there is a coauthor, he or she must be a "combination of journalist and stylist." The more boring self-chronicles may have worthy subjects, Joseph says, but suffer from memory selective enough to render the book toothless.

In the following interview, which was conducted by email and has been edited for clarity, Joseph discusses what attracted him to The Guttenberg Bible, the differences between political and celebrity memoir, and why Mark Zuckerberg actually is interesting.

Gelf Magazine: Reading about the staleness of celebrity memoirs reminded me of a New Yorker piece on Mark Zuckerberg I read around the time The Social Network was in theaters. The piece, essentially, argued that the movie was heavily fictionalized because the real Zuckerberg is not particularly interesting. It made me wonder: How often is this true for celebrities and other public figures? How much of the celebrity memoir's blandness comes from sanitized image-making, and how much of it comes from writing books about people that just don't have that much to say?

Peter Joseph: I would argue that Mark Zuckerberg is an interesting character. Anyone who has achieved such a fantastic level of wealth becomes a source of fascination and envy. He's no different than Carnegie, Hearst, and Pulitzer, in that respect, though we don't yet have the historical distance to treat him like them yet. He's still affecting our world, after all. So far, Zuckerberg hasn't seemed to want to present a particular image of himself to the public—but that doesn't mean he won't in the future. (By comparison, Steve Jobs didn't start working with Walter Isaacson until he had a reason to start thinking about his legacy.) Whatever Zuckerberg decides to write will probably sell well, at least when it first comes out, because people are curious about his life. Until then, he'll continue to be a good subject for writers, just as he has already been for Jose Antonio Vargas in the New Yorker, Ben Mezrich in The Accidental Billionaires, and Aaron Sorkin in The Social Network.
Similarly, I'd say that any celebrity's life is essentially interesting because it is different from what the rest of us experience. People are curious about how the rich and famous really live. "Bland" memoirs happen not because the celebrity's life is dull, but because they've held back in order to avoid offending people. And in some extreme cases they seem to have forgotten everything, which is disappointing because that means their life was probably really interesting.

Gelf Magazine: What attracted you to The Guttenberg Bible? I mean, aside from the title.

Peter Joseph: It actually wasn't called The Guttenberg Bible when I first received the proposal. The original title was The Last Guy You Would Pick to be a Movie Star, which plays off the first thing Steve ever heard from a film agent. Even in the initial proposal there was a sense of self-awareness that made it stand out. He had observations about Hollywood and the film business that could only have come from a real insider.

Gelf Magazine: Guttenberg actually wrote his memoir himself, which a recent Daily Beast article argues is crucial to there being any chance of a celebrity memoir actually being good. Was this a factor in your decision to take it on?

Peter Joseph: Yes, definitely. He even wrote the proposal himself, which probably wasn't necessary. But it meant that I immediately saw he had a voice and could write well. The details he remembers and the anecdotes that he recalls are probably not what a coauthor would have asked him about or decided to focus on in the narrative. Steve kept a diary ever since he arrived in Hollywood at age 17, and so he had a lot more detail to draw on than most memoirists.

Gelf Magazine: Do you agree with the contention that ghostwritten celebrity memoirs are mostly worthless?

Peter Joseph: No, and I don't say that just because I've worked on some. But a good coauthor makes all the difference. Some might call them ventriloquists, but I don't think that's accurate, because they have to create a literary voice for someone who essentially doesn't have one. They are journalists and stylists all in one, getting good interviews and then transforming those into a credible narrative. For instance—and I mention this book because I wish it was on my list—the journalist Tom Bissell is coauthoring a book with Greg Sestero, who starred in the good-bad film The Room. That book will not just be a great read for fans of Tommy Wiseau, but it also will be exceptionally well-written.

Gelf Magazine: Guttenberg has been in some well-known movies and TV shows, but he's hardly a big star at the moment. Do you think smaller stars and character actors would be better candidates to write more interesting books? I'd imagine they'd be more willing to be candid.

Peter Joseph: There are plenty of smaller stars and character actors trying to sell books, believe me. Not all of them find a publisher. It depends on whether or not they have good stories (and more than one good story) and there are readers out there who want to hear from them. That's harder to be certain of for lesser-known actors than it is for actors with high name recognition such as someone like Steve Guttenberg. Remember that he starred in multiple blockbusters. And he has had a Zelig-like career that put him in the company of a whole variety of actors and filmmakers, so there's plenty of meat to his story.

Gelf Magazine: You've also worked on some political books, including works by former senator Arlen Specter and Robert Byrd. I am probably one of the few people around who cares more about what politicians have to say than what celebrities do, yet most books by politicians seem pretty lame to me. How does working on a political memoir differ from working on a celebrity memoir, and how is it similar?

Peter Joseph: There are two main types of political nonfiction: the memoir and the idea book. (Bill Clinton's My Life is the former and Back to Work the latter.) Of course, you might notice I left out the most common type of political nonfiction: the campaign book. These can be memoir, policy statements, or a blend of both. The good ones—The Audacity of Hope is probably the ideal—remain interesting and worth reading for an idea of what the candidate stands for. The less memorable ones are so careful to avoid alienating any possible voters that they don't have much left of interest.
Probably the worst thing that could happen to a political memoir is to have a wonky, policy-oriented coauthor assigned to the project because really, a memoir by a politician shouldn't be that different from a memoir by any other well-known person. We want to read about their experiences doing something unusual, something that we have only seen from the outside. We want to know how they felt, what they thought, and why they did what they did. From an editorial standpoint, I want to get those personal experiences across to the reader, whether they take place in the Senate chamber or on the studio lot.

Gelf Magazine: You yourself are publishing a book about daytime drinking. Why daytime drinking? What are your favorite cocktails?

Peter Joseph: Consider it a tribute to publishers of yore, perhaps? The era of the three-martini lunch has passed, but I've been interested in cocktails and drinking history for a while. Then a few years ago, after working on Mark Kingwell's Classic Cocktails and visiting New Orleans, I became truly obsessed and started writing about them. I was surprised to find that there hadn't been a book about brunch cocktails, especially since brunch might be the only time when your average person would order a cocktail. And yet there are usually so few drinks to choose from. So I wrote Boozy Brunch to give people some more ideas and options.
I think everyone should try a Martinez (1.25 oz gin, 1.25 oz sweet vermouth, a dash each of bitters and simple syrup, shaken with ice and served up) at least once, and I have a bacon-infused variation in the book that I'm particularly fond of. And the American Flyer (3 oz light rum, 1 tbsp lime juice, 1.2 tsp simple syrup, in a wine glass topped with champagne) really should make a comeback at brunch. Also, if you can find Ting grapefruit soda then you can pair it with vodka for a Caribbean Whippet. That's a great drink.

Front-page image of the Gutenberg Bible courtesy of ThanBook

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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