Talking with . . .

Gene Stone
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I met Gene Stone (Niger 1974–76) by chance at a party in Thurston Clarke’s (Tunisia 1968) apartment on the upper West Side of New York years and years ago. He was just back from the Peace Corps and working as an editor, and I was trying to write fiction full time. We eyed each other with equal amounts of suspicion. Editors are always (and I know this from being married to one) cautious of “would be writers” they stumble upon at parties, leery that the writer might try to slip them a bulky manuscript along with the canapé. Gene, as I recall after all these years, was friendly and open and willing to help any RPCV. However, this was the only time we met though from time to time I would spot his name in news about book publishers. Then this fall I came across his name again, this time in connection with the publication of an “instant” book entitled The Bush Survival Bible with the subtitle of “250 Ways to Make It Through the Next Four Years Without Misunderestimating the Dangers Ahead, and Other Subliminable Strategeries.” The book has been as high as number five on the New York Times extended paperback advice, how-to and miscellaneous list, and is already in its seventh printing. Seeking advice myself on how to “survive” the election and wanting to learn what happened to him, I got in touch with Gene Stone, and found him still living on the West Side of New York.

    Where were you as a Volunteer, Gene?
    I was in Niger, from 1974–1976, and was assigned to teach English at the just-established University of Niamey. The second year, weirdly, I was co-chairman of the English Department. Sounds impressive, but of course, there were only about 15 students and no buildings.

    What was that like? Niger? Your job? Do you remember fondly anything from ’74 to ’76?
    Those are some pretty big questions, could go on for pages — but I won’t! Mostly I loved my Peace Corps experience. Niger was a warm and hospitable country, the people were unusually open to Americans, and having a job teaching at the university meant that my students were often my age or older. I taught English to them but they taught me a lot of lessons about life that I needed to learn — my students were, for the most part, considerably more mature than I was. Sometimes I look back and feel embarrassed for not having been wiser, which I know they noticed, and I hope they’ve forgiven me.
         I also miss the Peace Corps camaraderie — making friends with people of all types and backgrounds just on the basis of being in the same country. Most of them weren’t people I would ever have met. I still have several close friends from the group and occasionally hear from others — just a few months ago my old friend Dave Campbell called me from Eugene, Oregon, where he is running a small winery called Casablanca. I hadn’t heard from him in twenty years. But the Peace Corps bond is strong enough that you can just pick up a conversation from that long ago and start talking again.
         I miss Niger, too — the people, the desert, the music in the streets, the food in the marche, the political discussions at all hours of the night. I don’t miss the illnesses, though — I once had malaria, parasites, ringworm, and dysentery at the same time, and dropped 30 pounds from my already skinny 160 pound frame. The malaria visited often, six times in two years. Maybe that’s what keeps me from returning.
         This may sound like a recruiting advertisement, but the Peace Corps was the single greatest experience of my life. I recommend it to everyone, and no one I know who has gone has regretted it.

    Let’s talk about your book. Where did you get the idea for The Bush Survival Bible to be published within days of his election?
    The book had an odd history — I didn’t come up with the idea until after the third presidential debate. I then called someone at Random House who put me in touch with Jon Karp, the editorial director; he liked the idea but gave me only five days to write the book, so they could publish it right after the election. And, of course, it was only to be published if Bush won. So although I was a die-hard Kerry supporter, I had to work on the project knowing that it would only come out if Kerry lost. I wrote it. Bush won. The book came out.

    You came up with this idea and sold it to a publisher, but how did you manage to write it so quickly, and how did you get the other writers to contribute to the project?
    I was able to write the book in five days because I have an odd capacity to speed up my mind when needed. However, after I finished, my mind fell into a deep dull slumber from which I do not think I’ve recovered. The writers who were willing to contribute to the book did so mostly because they felt, as I did, that a Bush victory would be a very difficult situation to tolerate, and that we’d all need every bit of help we could get.

    When we met, you were living with Thurston Clarke in his apartment on the upper West Side of New York City. How did you meet up with Thurston?
    When my best friend from high school, Andrea Schweitzer, heard that the Peace Corps had posted me in Niger, she told me about her current boyfriend, Thurston Clarke, who was writing a nonfiction book set there — so she introduced us. (The book was titled The Last Caravan and, I believe, your wife was Thurston’s editor.) Thurston and I became friends overseas and saw each other frequently while I was stationed in Niamey. When I returned to America, still not sure about what I wanted to do with my life, Thurston told me that his last roommate had moved out and invited me to move in. So I did. Thurston also helped me find my first job, as an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace.

    Thurston went to Yale and then into the Peace Corps. What about you?
    I went to Stanford as an English major, then to Harvard for grad school. I got a masters but never finished the Ph.D. That’s when I jointed the Peace Corps. I knew that academia wasn’t the right place for me and I had no other ideas of what to do with my life. I also felt that this might be the only time I could just pick up and do something unusual. I’d like to say that it was also predicated on my desire to help other people, but in reality, at some level, it was probably more about my desire to help myself. I don’t know if I did much to improve Niger, but Niger did me a world of good; I matured more in those two years than in the previous twenty-two.

    What led you into writing full time?
    Well, I was a book editor at Simon and Schuster, Bantam, and Harcourt Brace, then a magazine editor at Esquire, a newspaper editor for the Los Angeles Times — but after I was fired from my last job, as editor-in-chief of a California magazine, I thought: why do I keep editing when I’d rather be writing? So, thanks to having no debts or responsibilities, I made the switch. It was very difficult at first, because as an editor I had developed the skill of writing/editing in other people’s voices. I had no voice of my own. That’s probably what lead me to ghosting — the lack of a prominent voice doesn’t do much for you when writing your own book, but it’s a great help when writing someone else’s.

    Have you ghosted many books?
    I’ve ghosted over 20 books, but I can’t talk about some because I signed confidentiality agreements barring me from disclosing the collaboration. Other projects have included books with Steven Hawking, Gail Evans (the former exec VP of CNN and now, of course, best selling writer), the medical directors of Canyon Ranch, and many others.

    How do you go about “ghosting” a book with another person?
    Each book is different. Some people are controlling and want to be included in every part of the process. Others don’t care as much, and some don’t even read the book once it’s done. Mostly, though, it’s a process of coming up with the right idea, drawing up an outline, writing a proposal, selling it to a publisher, and then doing hours and hours of interviews on tape until we’ve accumulated enough material. Then I usually go off on my own and write the book. When done, I show it to the co-author and we go back and forth and up and down until something approaching a finished manuscript results.

    When you ghost a book, are you hired by the publisher or the subject of the book?
    Ghosted books usually come through an agent. I have worked with several throughout my career. But sometimes they come through word of mouth, where one author refers another to me, sometimes through friends who’ve met someone who wants to write a book but needs help, and sometimes through publishers who have signed up a personality and need a writer.

    What do you find most interesting: the research, writing, or something else?
    Each book is different, some aren’t interesting at all, some are amazing. I once did a book with a political figure who told me rather shocking stories about some of the people in the present administration, but then he got cold feet and decided to keep it all out of the book, and I was left with all this great knowledge that I can’t reveal to anyone. But all in all the best part of the ghosting experience is being able to move into another person’s life for a year, learn more than you ever could think possible about another human being with whom you have no other connection, and then have the option of departing gracefully. Most of the people I work with are truly wonderful people, but a few aren’t. Some end up becoming close friends, and some disappear forever.

    As we try to “guide” RPCVs into writing careers what advice would you give to people trying to get into publishing and writing? I realize we are talking about a lot of different careers within publishing, but based on what you know, what would you suggest to someone who has just come back from two years overseas and wants to work in publishing?
    I try to avoid those questions because I have no answers. But, if I had to, I would say think about other options besides traditional publishing. The latter is waning as the primary source for the written word. The Internet is just beginning, and places like Salon.com and The American Prospect.com etc. are much more exciting and offer more opportunities for those interested in non-book careers. But for someone who is determined to enter book publishing: The best way to do it is to use every contact you can think of, write every person you’ve heard of, and knock on every door you find. There are jobs available all the time, but they tend to go quickly to someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s not fair, but it’s just the way it is. You just need to get one foot in the door, somewhere — and that can mean a small house, a university press, or an academic publisher. Once you’re in, you can start making the contacts to get you where you eventually want to go.

    For those who want to write non-fiction full time, someone like Thurston Clarke or yourself, what advice do you have for them?
    Again, there are no set rules. If you look at the careers of writers like Thurston or me you’ll see few similarities. Many of the most successful writers I know happened onto their careers by accident, and many of the most determined would-be writers I know never got a chance and are still trying to find a way to break in. Sometimes it’s luck — you happen across a great story that no one else knows about; sometimes it’s connections — my break was meeting Thurston in the Peace Corps and his being nice enough to recommend me for a job; sometimes it’s pure hard work — I know one very successful writer who had a more-than-full-time job while he wrote his first book and managed to do both extremely well. But I would say this: for the most part, the people who succeed tend to be those who 1) are most determined to succeed, and 2) have skin thick enough to take all the rejection letters every writer accumulates.

    Have you written or published anything about your Peace Corps experience? Do you have a Peace Corps novel waiting to be written?
    Never written about it, nor do I have a Peace Corps novel in mind. No, the experience was so intense, there’s no way I could ever get down on paper. I don’t know how to write that well.

    Okay, then . . . lets look at it from your editorial experience. Thinking as an editor what advice would you give RPCVs who want to write about their service? Should they just plan on publishing their own book (P.O.D.) or do you think that there is a market still for books written about third world countries?
    One of the first books I published as an editor at Harcourt Brace in 1979 was called Fantastic Invasion by Patrick Marnham. Everyone told me not to do it, but I loved the book, and Marnham is a great writer, so I got permission (and paid almost nothing as an advance), and the book got glowing reviews and is still selling today. So no matter what conventional wisdom tells you, remember that it’s usually wrong. There’s always room for a good book on any subject. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to sell — sometimes it takes incredible strength to deal with rejection after rejection, but if you have faith, and the book is good, it should eventually find a home.
         Also keep in mind that fashions and tastes change, and so does the American fascination with other countries. In the 1980s, you could sell just about any book on Central America, because of the unpleasantness in Nicaragua. In the 1990s, Central and Southern Africa was a popular topic. Now all the media seems to care about is the Middle East. That will change. So what I would say to a journalist: If you can’t sell a book now, don’t give up — wait until the timing is better. Or if you can, restructure your book to give it a news hook; any time you can help the publisher figure out how to get your work publicity, you’ve taken a step forward. The publishing business isn’t pretty, but it does have some basic rules that aren’t hard to learn.

    One final question. What’s next for you?
    I’m waiting for a few ghostwriting projects to get off the ground, but I’m not really sure what I want to do next. And I will probably struggle with a novel this year. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up doing another political book, perhaps under my own name. All in all, however, I have no idea. That’s one of the charms, and the terrors, of being a writer. You just don’t know what’s around the bend.