Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Michael Merschel is an editor at the Dallas Morning News. He's also written plays, contributed to A Prairie Home Companion. and composed an out-of-office reply that appeared in the New York Times and on NPR. Although he was featured on Humans of New York, he lives in Texas with his wife and three kids.
A familiar name is making book news instead of writing it at the Dallas Morning News. Michael Merschel, the newspaper’s books editor, debuted his first novel this spring. Revenge of the Star Survivors depicts middle-grades angst with a gentle wryness for young and older readers alike, and Merschel took time last week to visit with us via email about writing, books, book reviews, and more.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where were you born, Michael, and where did you grow up?
MICHAEL MERSCHEL: I was born in California but we moved to Colorado when I was in preschool, then Louisiana when I was in first grade, then back to Colorado when I was in seventh grade. All of which might have had something to do with why I wrote a book about being a new kid.
I see that you were one of the editors of the student newspaper at the well-respected William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas in the 1980s. When did you first become attracted to journalism and newspapers?
I did have an unremarkable tenure as editorial editor at the excellent University Daily Kansan (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk).
I fell in love with the idea of being a writer in about fourth grade and fell in love with journalism soon after. I was on my junior high newspaper staff in eighth grade, but because I was the new kid in town, I was stuck with the one job nobody else wanted, which was sports reporter. You can imagine what a great match that was — scrawny new kid covering the world of jocks.
But I ended up having fun with it — and made some friends because of my writing. I even won my junior high’s Junior Pulitzer Prize. Got my name on a plaque that I thought guaranteed me immortality. But when I went back to visit a couple of years later, the plaque was gone. I have kept writing anyway.
What was your first journalism job out of college?
I was a copy editor/assistant city editor/substitute editorial editor at The Trentonian, a tabloid newspaper in Trenton, N.J. It was quite a leap, going from the serious and sober style of journalism they drilled into us at KU to a world where a story about a large stray dog could be turned into a banner headline, ‘PET’ WOLF ESCAPES. Not to mention the saga of the SEVERED HUMAN HEAD FOUND ON GOLF COURSE. I lasted about nine months and found a happier newspaper home in Virginia.
What brought you to the Dallas Morning News? And what sorts of editing and writing responsibilities have you had there?
The waters. I came here for my health.
(That’s for all the Casablanca fans out there.)
Honestly, I came here because I wanted to do great journalism at one of the best newspapers in the country. I’ve been a copy editor, assistant national editor, Sunday features editor and, for about a decade now, an assistant Arts & Life editor/books editor. I've been able to work with some of the best writers and editors around. They have taught me a lot, and put up with a lot of bad jokes, and I am extremely grateful.
Most of our readers know you as the books editor of the DMN. What does a book editor do?
As you know, most of the work in covering books and authors involves deciding which tweed jacket to wear, and I spend a lot of time cleaning out my pipe before settling into a comfortable chair to either read or pontificate or simply look studious.
Actually, for me, the job involves a lot of listening. When I started out as books editor, I had no actual background in publishing, and I was replacing people who really knew their stuff. So I spent a lot of time asking critics and other smart readers, “What are you excited about?” And then figuring out how to cover that. I had a lot of help — people in publishing tend to be pretty kind. Which is another thing I am grateful for.
For the most part, I try to match books and authors with critics who will care about and relate to what is being written. I occasionally write a review, if I think I’m a good match for the book, or assign myself an interview. I enjoy that part of the job a lot — I’ve been able to meet a few literary heroes that way. (Although I'm always aware that I am not there because I am special but because I am representing all of my readers — and I do my best to help them share in the excitement.)
Anyhow, it’s an amazing responsibility, and after all this time I still feel humbled by it. Luckily, 90 percent of the job some days is answering email and pushing books around on a cart. Which is humbling in itself.
When did you decide that you wanted to be an author yourself?
I think it was during third grade. I struggled with long division, and you could not go to recess until you finished all your problems. I vowed I would never have a job that required me to do math.
In retrospect, that was a terrible idea.
Actually, I have always loved reading, and I really did know early on that I wanted to be a writer of some kind. For a lot of years, my focus was on journalism, because that was a way to get paid to work with words, which has always seemed like an astonishing thing to me.
The desire to write a book was always there, though. I was held hostage by an old joke, “Inside every journalist is a novel, and in most cases, it’s best that it stay there.”
What were the key milestones in getting Revenge of the Star Survivors published?
I tell the story that the book was born on the day my oldest daughter entered seventh grade. I’d had a rough transition when I was a seventh grader, because we moved in the middle of the year. When I set foot in her school for her orientation night, hearing the sounds of lockers being slammed and smelling the smells of the gym and seeing what I thought were mean girls coming after me, it brought back all kinds of memories of feeling like an alien in a strange world. And I said to myself, “That's an idea, and an emotion, that I can work with.”
I set out to write a lousy novel — figuring that I might be able to edit into something worth sharing with friends. I wrote a lousy first draft, edited it, got some positive feedback from friends, edited it some more, sent it to an agent, waited six months, was elated when she accepted me as a client, took her advice and edited some more before we sent it to publishers, was rejected, edited some more, resubmitted, was rejected, and then Holiday House said, “Could we?” Said, “Sure!”
Was matched with a wonderful editor at Holiday House. And then the real editing began.
It’s actually been a really pleasant path. Because all those editors made me look so much better than I deserve.
For our readers not familiar with Revenge of the Star Survivors, would you tell us about the book?
Revenge of the Star Survivors is the story of Clark Sherman, a bookish boy who arrives at a new school in the middle of his eighth-grade year and is immediately accosted by a bully, rejected by a computer, targeted by the principal, and attacked by the front door. He copes the only way he knows how — by imagining he is an interstellar explorer like the characters of his favorite sci-fi TV show, Star Survivors. The book is told in a series of log entries, wherein he describes the alien world he is desperately trying to understand.
I’ve described it as Space: 1999 as if written by Judy Blume, but I like the summary from a stranger on Twitter who said, “It's like the book Wonder had a child with a Star Trek or Star Wars book.”
(Note that in no way do I think I write as well as Judy Blume. I’m just saying — it’s a book that tries to be honest about being a teenager, in the way that hers are.)
Has the process of working to get your own book published changed your perspective in how you cover books?
Absolutely. But maybe not in the way most people think.
I’ve always seen books — even the ones that get critical reviews — as the end product of many hundreds of hours of human effort. And as such, I have always tried to respect them.
I have a clearer idea now of just how many people are actually involved in creating a book now. My book — which is a relatively simple creation, as books go — is the result of not just my writing, but of several volunteer readers; my agent and her assistant; my editor and her bosses at Holiday House; a couple of extra readers who copyedited and asked additional questions; a guy in Canada whom I have never met, who designed the cover; and a publicity team. And that was just to get the book out the door. The reason people are reading it is that booksellers and librarians and reviewers and friends and more have gotten behind it. It’s really amazing to watch. As an author, I get to have my name on the cover, but there’s a whole army behind that name.
The process of writing has also changed the way I see fiction. It’s been strange to see how seeds of reality (say, the fact that I was an awkward, Star Trek–loving kid in a new school) can sprout into something entirely fictional (to my knowledge, there were no secret passages at my junior high, and nobody practiced strategic regurgitation) that also feels very real to me. Clark and his friends live in the same part of my brain as some real-life friends of mine. They have never met, but I think they would all get along.
Put another way, it used to bug me when an author spoke about loving his characters and treating them as if they were more than just words on a page. It seems entirely normal to me now.
Will there be additional books featuring the Clark Sherman?
I intend to keep writing. And I’ve said that if the masses demand more of Clark, who am I to say no?
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“In this entertaining and empathic debut, an intrepid hero searches for intelligent life in the most dangerous place of all: middle school.” —Publishers Weekly
“Readers will find themselves rooting for Clark, Les, and Ricki.” —Kirkus Reviews
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