Freelance journalist Becky Oberg had considered pursuing a book project based on her reporting about U.S. military deserters for NUVO, an Indianapolis alt-weekly. But she had no idea that Carlo DeVito, publisher and founder of Chamberlain Bros., an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., would contact her with an offer. As Oberg tells it, she was under the impression that “in the publishing world, a reputable publishing house does not call up an unknown, unagented, first-time author and say, ‘Hey, will you write this book for us?'” But that’s almost exactly what happened. “So of course I said yes,” she says. The result was a deal to co-author a book titled Freedom Underground.
DeVito maintains he had no qualms about working with a first-time author. If a story is compelling enough, he seizes the opportunity. Oberg’s reporting “struck a chord” with many of his editors, he says. Her piece in NUVO chronicles the journey of Army Private Brandon David Hughey’s journey across the border into Canada on what has been coined as a new sort of “underground railroad.” Oberg accompanied anti-war activist Carl Rising-Moore, co-author of the book, when he drove Hughey from Indianapolis to Canada, and she produced a preliminary narrative that reads like a series of detailed journal entries. The story, a version of which also appears in the book, is what drew DeVito’s attention. “Becky had done a very nice job of relating the piece [and] keeping you involved,” he explains.
Released in August, Oberg’s book expands on a revolutionary form of anti-war activism practiced by Rising-Moore’s Freedom Underground. The organization dedicates its efforts to helping suicidal soldiers escape deployment to Iraq by aiding their escape to Canada — a country that is known to be sympathetic to political refugees such as conscientious objectors. “Basically, I hung out with [Carl] a lot over a couple of months to see how the network worked and to see basically what he did — what was motivating him and what was motivating some of the people who were deserting.”
In addition to revealing the inner workings of Rising-Moore’s radical network, the book also includes scathing details about President Bush’s military service record and explores the magnitude of the U.S. military presence across the globe.
Alt-weeklies often mined for book projects
Writers for the alternative press are certainly no strangers to the book-publishing world. In the past six months alone, reporters and columnists whose work regularly appears in AAN member papers have published at least four books. And three more are expected to be available in stores by the end of next month. DeVito, whose division is just six months old, says he has two additional projects by alt-weekly writers in the works, though contractual agreements prohibit him from revealing any details.
Books written by alt-weekly writers vary greatly in topic. Creative Loafing columnist and NPR commentator Hollis Gillespie has penned a comically sardonic autobiographical work titled Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood (Regan Books), which takes readers on a series of wacky journeys as she attempts to become a homeowner. Village Voice staffer Jennifer Gonnerman relied on meticulous, in-depth reporting to write Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which follows the imprisonment and release of a convicted felon sentenced under the harsh New York Rockefeller Drug Laws.
DeVito, whose Manhattan office overflows with alternative weeklies from across the country, says he’s constantly trolling the newspapers in search of potential projects. He also spends time looking for leads on the Web. “We’re always looking for a good story and a new point of view, and that’s what a lot of these papers express,” he says. According to DeVito, the content and writing style of alt-weekly reporting is especially attractive. “The voice and the opinions that [writers] are able to put into their pieces and the kinds of stories that they’re covering is what makes them so valuable.” What’s more, he adds, the papers often cover stories that you don’t see in the mainstream press.
When weighing whether a news item can be tailored into a book, DeVito says it’s the story that’s most important. “When you’re looking at truly good writing, it pulls you in but also speaks to experiences that either you have felt or have some passion about,” he says. Less important, he says, is whether a story has national relevance similar to that found in Oberg’s book.
Journalists writing books face no easy task
For reporters, a book might seem to guarantee newly gained respect and prestige in the writing world and beyond. But the process of putting together a manuscript that exceeds by hundreds of pages the length of the work journalists typically produce proves to be far less glamorous. Oberg says she temporarily halted her work for NUVO to focus on completing her book draft. “My editors were really flexible about the situation,” she says. “I didn’t have anything run for a long time.”
For Richard Lord, whose book American Nightmare: Predatory Lending and the Foreclosure of the American Dream (Common Courage Press) will hit shelves Oct. 1, finding the time was a little more complicated. Giving up much-needed income to complete his first manuscript was not an option. Amidst fulfilling his obligations as a part-time staff writer at Pittsburgh City Paper and freelance writer for other publications, he whittled away at a manuscript borne by three years of reporting on predatory lending. “It was essentially nights and weekends — a stolen day here and there — when I didn’t have a deadline for my regular jobs,” he explains in a phone interview. Lord says he also took at least one week off from work during the eight-month process.
Of putting together his book, Lord says he became a quick study on the level of work that would be involved. Retooling the more than 70,000 words of reporting he’d done over the years for City Paper in what he describes as “a real cut and paste extravaganza” wouldn’t be enough. “I quickly learned that making a book is a ton different than stringing together a bunch of cover stories,” he explains, “I really had to hone my thesis. … I really had to do a lot more reporting, a lot of extra research, and a lot of extra interviewing.”
Books published, writers return to the alt-weekly fold
For many reporters, completing a book means making their way back to the news desk. It also means doing a little publicity. Oberg, whose book has only been available for a couple of weeks, recently took part in her first promotion — held in New York City while the Republican National Convention was also in town. She’s hoping to do additional book signings closer to home.
And while the main benefits of a published work fall mainly on its author, DeVito says papers also have something to gain. “Any time a book comes out of a newspaper [story], I think that’s a credit boost to that reporter and to the newspaper that said to the reporter, ‘Go follow that story.'”
Jim Walker, news and photo editor at NUVO, agrees, though he says any increase in recognition for the paper would be at a grassroots level. He doesn’t anticipate widespread, mainstream media attention or dramatic swells in readership. “It’s a great thing to have a story that started in the paper turned into a book with a national publisher. It doesn’t happen every day.”
Oberg, who jokingly describes her book as “the story that will not die,” says she’s closing the chapter of reporting on the subject. She does hope, however, that her book will have an impact on political decision-makers, “One of my hopes about this book is that politicians are going to realize just how bad this Iraq situation is getting and reconsider what they’re doing.” Unsure of what her next bold step will be, she’s happily returned to reporting for NUVO. “Even if I hadn’t been published, there is the [question of], ‘Gee, what do I do now, how do I top this story?’ This is probably my best work,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I considered going over to Iraq, but my family quickly shut that down.”
Joy Howard is a freelance writer living in Amherst, Mass. A 2003 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism, she has written for Boston’s Weekly Dig, Cleveland Free Times and the San AANtonio Convention Daily.