Welcome to the three hundred and fortieth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction author Ted Vestal. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ted. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Ted: I am Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Oklahoma State University, where I taught courses on constitutional law, human rights, and world politics for over twenty years. I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with my wife Patricia, an avid Shakespearean and painter who once taught art at the Creative Arts Center of Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa. I have always loved reading good literature, so perhaps I was drawn by that experience to enjoy writing. Several university professors were demanding and inspiring as I improved my ability to express myself in writing. At what is now the University of North Texas, I was fortunate to have studied American literature with a leading American Studies scholar, Martin Shockley, who encouraged me to submit a short story to the college literary magazine, which published it.
At Yale Law School I had a seminar with Fred Rodell, who had just published Nine Men, a history of the U.S. Supreme Court written for a general audience (and without footnotes!). Fred taught courses on writing about legal subjects for non-lawyers, which demanded clarity and high readability, characteristic of his prose in magazines such as Fortune which he preferred to be published in rather than in law journals. He asked no less in the written work of his seminarians. When I pursued a Ph.D. at Stanford, the writing of serious essays was de rigor in all courses. My dissertation committee was composed of three very successful writing professors, one of whom, historian Don Feherenbacher, was to win two Pulitzer Prizes. They offered stringent criticism of my book-length analysis of the Warren Court and Civil Liberties. When I eventually sought to get the work published, my manuscript demanded little vetting from the publisher. In my subsequent career in the academy, I was subject to the clichéd requirement of publishing or perishing, and I chose the existential path of writing myriad articles and a few books that interested me. All were aimed at a general, popular audience.
Morgen: My goodness, what a career. What genre do you generally write?
Ted: Almost all of my work has been serious non-fiction. After taking a delightful play-writing course in San Francisco with a screenwriter known as “the Neil Simon of pre-war Austria,” I took a stab at writing a drama and a screenplay about an attempted coup in Ethiopia in 1960. Neither enjoyed much success, although an Ethiopian friend produced a feature film in Amharic that covered some of the same ground.
Morgen: I wrote the beginning (102 pages) of a TV script for Script Frenzy in April 2010 but found the process of that format too ‘bitty’ but loved the story so converted it into the beginning of a novel. What have you had published to-date?
Ted: Praeger has published four of my books: International Education: Its History and Promise for Today (1994); Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War African State (1999); The Eisenhower Court and Civil Liberties (2002); and The Lion of Judah in the New World: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa (2011). I’ve also had seven large monographs published by universities or government entities. Having enjoyed a career in the academy, I’ve had over 200 articles, book chapters, and book reviews published a variety of fora. All were written for a general audience with every effort made to avoid dry, jargon-filled academic prose. I enjoyed writing about subjects I knew something about, places I had lived (Ethiopia, India, and Japan), and sometimes, things that sounded intriguing.
Morgen: They say write what you know and I guess that’s never more true with non-fiction. I’ve never killed anyone so I have to make that up. Have you had any rejections?
Ted: Finding the right publisher for what you have written is challenging. Before Praeger published my International Education book, I wasted over two years being strung along by university presses that liked the work but hemmed and hawed about whether it was right for them. Finally, I sent a manuscript to Praeger and literally by return mail, I had an enthusiastic acceptance of the work for publication. I learned that if a publisher doesn’t make an offer within a few weeks of receiving the manuscript, it is better to wish them well and move on to another business that may have better ears and eyes. Patience is a virtue up to a point. One of my favourite rejections was from the local newspaper, The Tulsa World. When the great famine of 1984 was devastating Ethiopia, I kept reading reports about a country and a people that I did not recognize (although I thought I knew something about that nation). I decided it would be appropriate to have a report written by someone who had lived in Ethiopia for a couple of years, spoke the principal language fairly well, and had travelled to all of the nation’s provinces. I wrote an article that was rejected by The Tulsa World as not being suitable for their paper. Immediately, I sent the same article, “Ethiopia’s Famine: A Crises of Many Dimensions,” to London, to the Royal Institute for International Relations. By return mail, I received word that the Royal Institute would publish the work in its journal The World Today and paid me for it! From time to time, I still see the former newspaper editor who rejected my work and thank him for contributing to my success as an Ethiopianist.
Morgen: It must be thrilling to have such quick responses and rejections, after all are just the right thing but for the wrong person. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Ted: I don’t have an agent. Some I’ve tried to contact have never answered inquiries. One might be nice to have, but I don’t think an agent is vital. Good fortune seems more important.
Morgen: And perseverance, which is sounds like you have plenty of. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ted: All my Praeger books are available as eBooks. I was not involved in the process. I read paper, although I bought my wife a Nook that she enjoys using.
Morgen: I bought a Kindle earlier this year and although I don’t use it every day, it goes everywhere with me (which is the cool thing about them). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ted: Prager is great with sales to libraries and universities but makes no effort to market its books to bookstores or to the general public. The publisher will print flyers for conferences or special events where I’m a speaker, but generally, I have to do my own marketing. I now have a publicist trying to make my “brand” better known.
Morgen: I have a handful of book tour organisers in regular contact and that seems to be a good way to get your name out. Most of the authors do contact me directly and even those with large publishers behind them do their own marketing, it’s just the way things are now… but then it means you get direct contact with readers which is great. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Ted: U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, protagonists in two of my books, are my favourite subjects. They were actually friends and played hosts to each other at the Imperial Palace in Addis Ababa and at the Supreme Court Building in Washington. James Earl Jones should be the voice of Earl Warren, but he doesn’t look very Scandinavian. I always thought Sammy Davis, Jr., would make a wonderful Haile Selassie, but alas, he never had the opportunity.
Morgen: Being with a publisher, did you have any say in the titles / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Ted: The title of my International Education book was decided on by the publisher. The other three were my title choices. Until my fourth Praeger book, the covers were plain Jane, a single color with the author and title and little else on the front and spine. When my Eisenhower Court book was displayed at the Supreme Court Bookstore, it was placed between new books with brightly colored covers by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor. Their “busy” covers made mine look dignified and classy.
My Lion of Judah had four covers to choose from, and the publisher and I agreed on the one selected: a photo of Haile Selassie in his first New York City ticker-tape parade. I find an illustrated cover much more inviting for a reader or a bookstore gazer, so I believe a cover does help in judging a book.
Morgen: I don’t buy a book for the cover but it certainly draws me in. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Ted: I’m putting finishing touches on a book of photographs, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia Through the Eyes of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Photographer and artist Hoyt Smith, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, who served with me in Ethiopia in the mid-1960s, has the finest collection of photographs of that fascinating country that I have ever seen. I have written the narrative and captions to accompany the almost 150 photographs of the book. It is being sent to the publisher this week.
This month, a classic book on Ethiopia, Haile Selassie’s Government (1969) by British author Christopher Clapham will be reissued as a paperback by Tsehai (Los Angeles). The main revision of the book is my “Afterword”, a major chapter that traces the life of Haile Selassie from 1969 until his death in 1975. My next big project will be a revised version of Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War African State to mark the current regime’s being in power for 20 years.
Morgen: It’s all go for you, isn’t it. Do you manage to write every day? I’m not sure how relevant it is to non-fiction, but do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Ted: Thanks to the internet, I write every day. The trick is to make this opportunity for written expression just as clear and precise as though it were appearing in print. Procrastination is my worst writer’s block.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ted: I do much editing while I’m writing. When I finally decide a work is finished, there is not much additional editing to be done.
Morgen: You sound very knowledgeable on your subjects, do you have to do much research?
Ted: All my books have been based on as thorough research as I’ve been able to carry out. Fortunately, my work has taken me to many of the world’s great libraries. Access to these jewels has always been easy.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ted: I did a wonderful piece on the non-fiction of British novelist Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet). It was returned to me by a Canadian journal editor with suggestions for resubmission, but I left shortly afterwards to live in Japan and never got back to my passion for India. Scott taught for two years in Tulsa near the end of his life and actually learned of his having been awarded the Booker Prize while in a local hospital. His papers are in Special Collections at the University of Tulsa.
Morgen: So there’s hope for it, maybe. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Ted: I like working at my own speed, although the solitude required can be dispiriting.
Morgen: I love being on my own (although I have the company of my dog) but get to chat to so many people online that I don’t feel ‘alone’. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ted: Write about what you know. Stay with it until you have a finished product. Don’t be discouraged if first efforts to get it published don’t pan out. Keep trying!
Morgen: Absolutely, the perseverance. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Ted: I think Ben Franklin, Gandhi, and Dorothy Parker would be great dinner company. I’d cook cold Cambodian fish soup, injera and wat (from Ethiopia), unagi sushi, and the bread pudding from Délice de France (used to be in San Francisco). Gandhi might not get much to eat from that menu. Did you mention servants to help cook and clean up?
Morgen: You could have those. Maybe Mr Fanklin would bring some. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Ted: Annicia, the Buddhist word for the ever-changing nature of life.
Morgen: Doesn’t it just. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Ted: I’ve been involved in making a series of documentary films about Americans working in Ethiopia during the time of Haile Selassie. The producer is Ethiopian film-maker Mel Tewahade, and the first of four films, “Point Four”, just had its premier in Washington, DC, last month. Rather than writing scripts we’re mainly interviewing people who were involved in the action. During the past decade, I wrote over a hundred expert witness affidavits in political asylum cases of Ethiopians and Eritreans seeking to escape tyranny and human rights abuses.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Ted: I still enjoy singing. Earlier I sang in opera choruses in productions with e.g., Maria Callas, Jon Vickers, Samuel Ramey, Jerome Hines, Stephanie Blythe, et al., directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Lotfi Mansouri, et al. Today I perform short public programs of arias from opera and oratorios, art songs, and lieder. I am also the slave of a beautiful pug princess who bosses me unmercifully.
Morgen: My singing scares horses, so best left for the shower. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Ted: A book I found very helpful is Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published [Paperback] by Susan Rabiner. She suggests several “how to” ideas that were useful to me in getting my last book published. I tried to get Susan to be my agent, but she thought our interests too disparate.
Morgen: That’s a shame. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ted: I’m on GoodReads, but I haven’t found it of value. I’m trying some new ones, but my time with them has been too short to make a judgment about their value.
Morgen: I’m still undecided about GoodReads. I’m trying to get all my books listed as by me (some are duplicated as someone’s listed them as by MorgAn Bailey (a common mistake)) but the reviews have been pretty poor compared with high ratings on other sites (which is a shame, but some people just don’t ‘get’ my style of writing – one reviewer read April’s Fool and looked forward to my other writing but later read Feeding the Father (with others in between) and it put her off me for life! ). What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Ted: Books and journalism as we know them now will doubtlessly change with technological advances. More and more writing will be on some form of electronic transmission. I don’t like the idea of great things disappearing, but there’s not much that can be done to impede the inevitable. I’m sure excellent writing in our magnificent English language will continue and be appreciated regardless of the means of communicating.
Morgen: Almost everyone I’ve spoken to will still read paper books so they may decrease but bookshelves will look pretty silly without them. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Ted: Having the right, appreciative audience for serious non-fiction is challenging. Many readers who are political scientists, lawyers, or area studies specialists have little background in literature and sometimes do not comprehend what an author is trying to say. Shortly after my Ethiopia: A Post-Cold-War African State was published, it was wonderful and rare to get an unsolicited note of praise from a political science professor (who also is a poet) about one’s “clarity of thought, graced surprisingly with references to A.E. Houseman, T.S. Eliot, and Matthew Arnold…” She and her students got it! Too often readers pigeonhole books by title: a volume with “Haile Selassie” in the title must be for Ethiopian readers but not Americans. An author can write in his preface about the book being “written primarily for an American audience,” but it’s difficult to get such a group to read the preface—much less the rest of the book. How to draw the right cadre of readers into the web of interest in a new book is vexing. How do you do it?
Morgen: <laughs> I’m still trying to find out. Is there anything else you’d like to ask me?
Ted: How do you maintain such high quality writing in your website given the tremendous volume of responses you must get daily? Your industry and dedication are much admired.
Morgen: <blushes> Thank you, Ted. I’ve been a secretary since I left school 20-<coughs> years ago, so I guess I’m organised (with the help of a nerdy Word table matrix). I just love writing and everything (pretty much) about it so having that passion helps. Thank you, again, for being here today.
I then invited Ted to include an extract of her / his writing and this is from ‘The Lion of Judah in the New World’:
Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, was an iconic figure of the 20th Century who came to embody the majesty of the African continent and its people in the mind of many Americans. Starting at least with his coronation as Ethiopia’s King of Kings in 1930 and continuing through the velvet revolution that overthrew him in 1974, the Emperor was a well-known celebrity in the United States. In the years following World War II, Haile Selassie cultivated his nation’s friendship with the United States, and, starting in 1954, he came to Washington on six state visits, the most of any reigning foreign head of state in the 20th Century, and also traveled to many other destinations in North America.
His fame as an international celebrity was well earned. He won it the old fashioned way: by significant accomplishments. Wartime always produces new heroes, and before and during World War II, Haile Selassie was elevated into high visibility by being among the first to stand up to the European dictators who were shortly to wreak such worldwide havoc and subsequently to champion an international order to prevent similar malevolence from threatening weaker nations again. At the League of Nations, the little king created, in image and in word, a composition of rich emotional eloquence. The Haile Selassie we see in the old newsreels is the one who registered on the national conscience and created a place for himself in the American heart that remained thereafter.
Author Ted Vestal has been called a “Renaissance Man”, although he prefers the titles “Guptu-era Gent” or “Sensei.” In a career in International Education in both government service and the academy, he travelled the world in the cause of improving knowledge and understanding among people. He served as a Peace Corps executive in Washington and Ethiopia. In India, he was Resident Director of New York’s Educational Resources Center in New Delhi and was Director of OSU-Kyoto in Japan. A prolific writer and lecturer, Ted has been a professor, dean, and president of institutions of higher education. His writing is informed by 30 years of university teaching in fields ranging from comparative religions to civil liberties and civil rights. A consultant to the Transitional Government of Ethiopia and an international election observer, Vestal testified in 1994 before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives on “Ethiopia: The Challenges Ahead”.
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If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
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