Welcome to the five hundred and thirty-ninth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction & travel author Tony Cappasso. 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, Tony. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
I started writing for publication nearly 30 years ago. I began my writing career as a freelance reporter for a newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, where I was living at the time. For the first year or so, I was a food writer. After that, the newspaper started a health and fitness section. The editor of that section asked me if I was willing to contribute to it, and the rest, as they say, was history. The rest of my career was writing about health and medicine.
I wrote for newspapers, websites, newsletters and magazines. I left newspapering in 2002 to return to New York, where I was born, because of an illness in my family. I tried getting back to the newspaper business in 2005 but by then the newspaper industry was in free fall and I could not find a job for love nor money.
Morgen: What a shame. It does seem to be the way the industry is going, with more opportunities online but you’re still writing which is the important thing. 🙂 You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Tony: I first discovered a yen to do travel writing in 1998, when I spent a month touring the United Kingdom, which, incidentally, I loved. I kept a sort of journal of my trip by emailing my co-workers at the paper. They really enjoyed my emails and this planted the idea of writing about travel.
I took another trip, this time to Canada, and did the same thing; sent emails to my fellows at the paper.
I spent the whole month in Toronto, and the newspaper’s publisher so enjoyed my tales of that city that he asked me to write them up in article form. I did so, and the article was quite a hit with readers.
What really sealed the deal for me as a travel writer was my Italy trip. I toured that country for a month in 2004 and wrote such a large number of emails to my family and friends that, when I got back to the U.S., I realized I had the makings of a book. Eating Dante: A Culinary Adventure was my first travel book. It is available for Kindle on Amazon.com.
Morgen: So you have that book (I love the title), what have you had published to-date?
Tony: In 2010, I bought a clapped out old recreational vehicle that I nicknamed “the Duck”, because of the large image of a mallard on the front of the vehicle, and drove it from Maine to Florida on US Route 1. Route 1 is perhaps the most historic highway in the U.S. Its origins date back to the Colonial period in our history (before that bit of unpleasantness with George III). It was our first mail route and went through many of the original thirteen colonies, where it was in places named “The King’s Highway.”
No less a luminary than Benjamin Franklin, appointed post master general by King George, mapped out the road between New York City and Boston, Massachusetts, and established the first postal service and set postal rates by weight instead of by the mile, which had been the practice up until then.
I kept a blog while traveling (www.americashighwayusroute1.com), took nearly 600 photos, and then spent the next year turning blog into book.
The end result was my second ebook, America’s Highway: A Journal of Discovery Along US Route 1. It’s available now through Amazon.com, on Google Play, and through Barnes & Noble on their Nook.
Morgen: Google Play? Ooh, that’s a new one on me (note to self: investigate Google Play :)). You’re self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Tony: When I finished Eating Dante, I spent an entire year flogging the book to literary agents. Unsuccessfully, I might add. I found the whole experience so disheartening that it took me five years to work up the nerve to attempt another book.
After I had finished writing America’s Highway, I had similarly poor results with literary agents but I wised up and only wasted four months on supplicating them. When I learned of Amazon’s Kindle publishing program, I said “to hell with literary agents” and published the book there.
Morgen: Most of us who have self-published have been unsuccessful with finding an agent (I only tried just over a dozen). So both your books are available as eBooks, do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Tony: I do not at the moment own a dedicated device such as a Nook or a Kindle but I have an ereader in my laptop, so it’s about 50-50 ebook to paper.
Morgen: I had a couple of Kindles (and an Elonex before that) but when I bought an iPad I sold my remaining Kindle (Touch) because I prefer the two-page view on the iPad. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Tony: You know, I go back and forth about covers and their importance. I have a friend who was a graphic artist and she did both covers for me. I was very happy with the results. The covers are I think very clean and tell the book browser exactly what the books are about. That’s all I ask of a cover.
Morgen: I’d love to get into graphic design so I can make my covers more fancy although the draft one I’ve created for this year’s NaNoWriMo novel took me about 20 minutes (photo from http://morguefile.com then I played around with it in Picasa), and I’m pretty pleased with it, as a draft. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Tony: I was approached by an editor at a Maine publishing house to submit a proposal for a book on the history of US Route 1 in that state, going back to 1900. So, now I am hunting up old photos of the road to include in the proposal.
Morgen: What fun, and having the internet must make that so much easier. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Tony: I’ll answer the second question first. No, I have never suffered from writer’s block. I think that’s because I was a news and feature story writer for so many years.
When one writes for a newspaper, one cannot go to one’s editor and say, “sorry, boss, I’m just not feeling it today.” Had I ever done so, I would have been shot dead on the spot.
Plus, all my writing has been non-fiction, and the subject being covered usually suggests an approach to the writing. This is especially so for travel writing, as the trip is the story.
When I was on the road writing emails or sending material to my blog, I of course wrote every day or at the least every other day. When I was writing the books themselves, I tried to write a minimum of 1500 words every day. I would start off the next day’s writing by pruning the previous day’s effort of excess words, and then write the next 1500 words. So the end product of each day’s effort was usually around 800 words.
Morgen: The NaNo word count is 1,667 a day so you’re doing pretty much a raw novel a month. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Tony: I started out each day’s writing with editing the previous day’s work. Being a reporter for so many years taught me that all writing benefits from editing. I paid someone to copy edit my books.
Morgen: Good plan. There should always be a second pair of eyes. Do you have to do much research?
Tony: Yes. For my Italy book, I spent a solid year reading about that country, its agriculture and its cuisine. I read guide books to get an idea of the places I wanted to see. I did not read any travel narratives on Italy because I was afraid that I would inadvertently use something in my book that was from another writer’s work.
For my Route 1 book, I read a similar book written by writers during the Great Depression. They were paid by the Works Progress Administration to write a series of books about American highways.
Since the book was written so long ago and as the road had changed so much, I wasn’t worried about the plagiarism issue.
Morgen: What an interesting time to read about. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Tony: No. As I was paid to write, everything I’ve written was published.
Morgen: That would a good incentive. I like to think that I can go back to my earlier (fiction) stories and see where I went wrong (although not submitting them anywhere didn’t help). Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Tony: If my proposal for the book on the history of Route 1 in Maine is approved, that will be my first ever commissioned work.
Morgen: Fingers crossed for you. Maybe you could come back and do a guest blog on that topic. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Morgen: That’s terrible. Thankfully you did again. Do you enter any non-fiction competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Tony: I don’t enter competitions, partly because I don’t know of any for non-fiction writers, and partly because I don’t need validation that I know how to write. I was paid to write for 30 years.
Morgen: I have a few listed on my competitions page but you’re right, there don’t seem to be many. We talked earlier about your hunt for an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Tony: In a perfect world, I would still prefer to have had my books picked up by an agent and sold to a publishing house. This is not, regrettably, a perfect world. If I were still in my 20s or 30s or even 40s, I could see searching for an agent for years until I found someone who recognized my work as marketable. I am, however, going to be 65 on my next birthday and simply do not have the time for that.
Morgen: Novelist Mary Wesley didn’t have her first book accepted (presumably through an agent) until she was 70. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Tony: As I am self-published, I perforce do all my own marketing. I use all the social networking tools that I can. I’ve sold nearly 450 copies of my book so far, which is in my opinion neither a little nor a lot.
Morgen: Sounds good to me. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Tony: One of the things that I learned early on in my reporting career was that I enjoyed all the aspects of writing. I love researching a subject and finding out things that no else has discovered. And unlike what I hear so many writers say, that they hate editing, I don’t.
Morgen: I say that research and editing are my least favourite (the creating is my favourite) but having the internet and great first readers make those tasks much more simple. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Tony: First, read. If you aspire to write fiction, read fiction, with an eye to analyzing the authors’ use of point of view and pacing and character development. If non-fiction is your preference, read extensively in the area that you want to write about. I read travel literature starting with Pliny the elder and worked my way to Mark Twain (I just finished rereading Innocents Abroad) to Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson. Sometimes, people you wouldn’t immediately think of as travel writers will surprise you. Read Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars as a piece of travel writing – heavily armed, hostile travel writing to be sure but travel writing nonetheless – and you get a whole new perspective.
Second, write. I’m a little sceptical of the “you have to write every day” dictum but once you start writing, keep at it.
Three, join a writing group. This may take a bit of doing because as a writer you want to be with others who are serious about writing. You may have to try several groups before you find the one that is right for you. Letting other writers critique your work is, in my opinion, invaluable. I’d stay away from online writing groups. When people don’t have to look you in the eye while critiquing your work, their comments can become very harsh and not at all constructive.
Morgen: I’ve been doing these interviews for around 18 months and one of the questions I’ve had since the beginning is ‘do you write every day?’ and so many would say they do while I didn’t so when I was coming to the end of the 2012 http://StoryADay.org project, I wanted to keep going because I was actually writing (it’s all too easy for the days to lapse with nothing done) so I created my 5pm fiction blog slot. Having to post something every day (whether people read them or not) is great motivation. 🙂 I’ve taken a break from it for November (because of NaNoWriMo) and December (so I can get a few eBook projects online if not done during November) and have promised to bring the 5pm fiction back in January. Because it’s on the blog that I will, I will. 🙂 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)?
Tony: Mark Twain, because he wrote fiction and non-fiction equally well; Paul Theroux because his travel writing is so literary and because he has been everywhere; and Bill Bryson because he’s funny as hell. Read ‘Notes from a Small Island’, about his travels in the UK. I bought an audio book version and listened to it in my rental car as I drove around England. It had me in stiches. I would never, ever, feed guests takeaway food. I would start with baby octopus marinated in lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and red pepper flakes, followed by risotto Milanese and oso buco. I would finish with a selection of Italian cheeses and fruit. Wine would flow in quantities, to loosen their tongues. Then I’d shut up and listen.
Morgen: <laughs> Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Tony: Yes, how did you get the idea to do this remarkable service for writers?
Morgen: 🙂 The short answer is that I’d started this blog because I’d been told it was a good idea (my http://morgenbailey.com website was barely ticking over with one or two hits a day, it now gets 10-20 times that despite being a static site pointing to this one) then within a couple of months I was invited to be interviewed and I really enjoyed it. Also I was doing audio interviews (in person or via Skype) and this was so much easier that it started (and took off) from there. Thank you, Tony.
I then invited Tony to include an extract of his writing…
A few miles later, I turned right onto Maine route 11 and got another surprise. Two immature moose sat on their haunches in the roadway. A third, larger moose stood in the road next to them. I slowed to a crawl and finally stopped about 20 yards away and shut down the engine. All three animals gazed placidly at me, clearly having no intention of moving.
I got my camera and debated with myself whether to get out of the Duck to shoot some pictures.
This was the first time I’d ever seen moose. I wanted to take pictures of them from as close as possible. On the other hand, this could have been, hell, probably was, a mother with two calves. How would she respond to my walking toward her offspring?
Recalling stories of people being stomped or gored for getting too close to moose I thought it over. I didn’t know how fast moose could run. I was reasonably certain it was faster than I could run.
I pictured the headline: Foolhardy traveler dies in tragic moose-related incident.
As this internal monologue was taking place, the mother moose strolled across the road and disappeared into the woods. Her offspring followed. The dense woods soon swallowed them up. I never did get the pictures. I started the Duck and drove off.
…and a synopsis…
In its 350-year history, what became US Route 1 went from walking path to wagon trail, from post road to America’s first interstate highway.
Benjamin Franklin measured the road mile by mile. During the Revolution, George Washington led an army along it. Much of the Civil War in the East was fought along the road or near it.
America’s Highway is the story of my three-month trip down US Route 1. My journey begins on the border with Canada in northern Maine. It ends 2,373 miles later in Key West, Florida.
Until I-95 opened in the late 1950s, Route 1 was the ribbon of highway connecting the great cities of the Eastern Seaboard. The road flowed through New York City and Philadelphia, through Baltimore and Washington, D.C., out of Richmond and into the Deep South.
The book describes the landscapes of the road, the communities through which it passes and the people I meet as I drive through 12 of the 13 original colonies plus the District of Columbia and Florida.
In many of the urban spaces through which it passes, Route 1 has been expanded almost into a mini-interstate. But in others it is still the same, two-lane, rural road that went past farms and through forests in its earliest days.
Tony Cappasso was a writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He wrote more than 2,000 articles for newspapers, magazines, newsletters and the Web. America’s Highway is his second travel book. He kept a travel blog online during his trip. It can be viewed at www.americashighwayusroute1.com.
Update from Tony, January 2013: I have started a blog on the food scene here in southeast New Hampshire and southern Maine. It is called thefoodieplace.com and I am just now beginning to load feature stories, short items and news on to it. In the immediate future I plan to add a calendar so people can check on their mobiles to find out what entertainment is on at various venues.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
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.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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