Saturday, November 28, 2009

READ THIS BOOK: An Uncommon History of Common Things

An Uncommon History of Common Things is one of those books you can't put down because of the wealth of fascinating information. A wonderful compendium of everything from how pajamas began to the origins of indoor plumbing, it's been called "witty and enlightening" by Library Journal and People made it one of their hot gift picks.

Bethanne Patrick, one of the authors, is one of those people you want to be your friend for life. Warm and funny, she's every author's best friend because of her fierce love for the written word and her incredible support.

Where did the inspired idea for the book come from?

I can't claim credit for the idea; that came from my delightful National Geographic colleagues Susan Blair and Susan Tyler Hitchcock. Susan Blair is a developmental editor at NG, and Susan Hitchcock was a project editor who is now the Editorial Director for Reference Books. They both loved a book whose title I can't specifically recall: Panatti's History of Everyday Objects? They came to me as a freelance writer with an idea and a one-page outline.

How did you go about choosing what items to write about? And how did you do the research?

I developed the chapters and outline, and then Susan Hitchcock and I went through a long process choosing all of the items. We wanted to find things that are still common today, used around the world, and that had great stories to go along with them.

Obviously this took a great deal of research. I'll confess that I started out on the Internet...but there was no way to stay there! I had to get back to BOOKS and many times primary source materials. National Geographic has a rigorous reference process and an even more rigorous fact-checking process. But I'd like to say that there are great materials online: e.g., the New York Times archives has clips that were useful in tracking down "pink for girls, blue for boys," and I found a couple of amazing e-texts of history books for the salt-extraction industry in the U.S.

I loved the sidebars—that the bread slicer was almost banned in WWII (which shows how much people loved it) and that canned goods started with Napoleon, rather than with housewives in the fifties. I also thought the Chinese invented pasta. (it was the Arabs.) What I love about the book is that it makes you look at the world differently. Things that were once as familiar as peanut butter, boxer shorts and breakfast foods take on new significance and meaning, which is so wonderful and lots of fun. Which origin for an item particularly surprised you and why?

Thank you so much, because the sidebars and the timelines were a tremendous amount of work. As you note, sometimes we had to look hard past commonly accepted knowledge (e.g., the Chinese invented pasta) to find first uses of things. I think the biggest surprise was how table napkins came to be -- the Spartan "apomagdalie" were bits of bread dough that people used to wipe grease off of their fingers! Makes complete sense, but who knew?

The photos are as glorious as the text. Did you have input on the design at all?

Our photo editor, Chip (gotta check his surname!), is, like all NG photo specialists, absolutely first rate. The general look of the book was not in my domain, and I didn't need to help Chip much -- but he did consult with me on more obscure items, and we worked closely together on those difficult sidebars (as did my hardworking editor Susan Straight!). I think he had fun, however, with the shoe sidebar.

You worked with another writer, John Thompson, who authored or coauthored Dakotas, National Geographic Almanac of American History, and more. What was it like working with another person? How did you keep the continuity of the tone and the writing?

John and I never worked together! I'm willing to tell you this because our editors could not believe how similar our diction and tone were considering we've never even met. He made life easy for all of us, because he's such a professional and such a fine writer.

You do everything, Bethanne! You interview authors on The Book Studio on WETA, you're the beloved Book Maven at large, a journalist, you do twitter book tours and you write. So how do you manage to juggle all the things that you do?

You're so kind...I'm also a wife, mother to two, and I'm working on a memoir called Broken. I mention those things so that everyone will know that it's possible to realize your dreams. I've failed at so many things (and some of them quite recently!), but I've also been fortunate to succeed at others and to keep moving...I'm a late bloomer, and although I've said this before, my fellow Smith College alumna Julia Child is my role model. She didn't start teaching cooking classes until she was nearly 40, and she didn't get her WGBH TV show until she was 50. So by the "Child clock," I'm actually ahead of the game with my WETA Internet show!

At my college graduation, Beverly Sills told us that "you can have it all, but not at the same time." That was advice I really needed, since unlike most of my friends, I turned down the job in NY publishing I'd been offered and got married. Years later, I'm not only working in publishing -- I'm still married. The message is not to be a child bride; it's to trust your heart and never lose your passion.

Finally, I couldn't juggle anything at all without the support of many. I tell The Book Studio team all the time that "It takes a village to get Bethanne camera ready" and that does not just refer to my wonderful hair and makeup artist Lorna Basse! I've met, befriended, and worked with great people. However, those who weren't so great? Sometimes they taught me the most, or gave me contacts that led to career breakthroughs.

What ‘s next for you?

The aforementioned memoir, which I'm working on with my fantastic new agents, Rob Weisbach and Erin Cox. We're also working on all kinds of new features and opportunities for The Book Studio (soon our booklists will be featured on the "Masterpiece" web site, starting with the new production of "Emma" in January). I continue to be interested in keeping book reviewing relevant. Right now I'm running for the board of the National Book Critics Circle; I may not be elected, but I believe that criticism can and must remain viable in this new-media world.

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?

I don't think there are any you didn't ask me...hmmmm...well, you didn't ask me about my favorite books or my greatest influences as a writer (which are questions we ask on The Book Studio!), so I'll tell you! I don't think I'll ever get tired of "To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf, because I believe that Lily Briscoe's "Can't paint, can't write" dilemma (and her confused jealousy of Mrs. Ramsay's boeuf en daube) are still issues that affect modern women. When I need inspiration for writing, I re-read some of John Cheever's short stories or Joan Didion's essays. Funny, since I don't write short stories or essays per se -- but I return again and again to writing that really stays with me, not writing that is like anything I do.


Clea Simon said...

What fun! I've really enjoyed your blog posts, too,Bethanne.

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