Thursday, October 19, 2006

Earth to California

From James

I need help. I just received the most bizarre rejection this week, and somebody is going to have to explain it to me. Preferably, someone from California.

This weekend I will be speaking at the La Jolla Writer’s conference in California. It is a spectacular three-day event for over 200 published and aspiring authors, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. I’ll admit, however, that I was a little nervous about accepting this gig. Past keynote speakers include Michael Connelly, Joseph Wambaugh, Phillip Margolin, Tess Gerritsen, T. Jefferson Parker, John Lescroart, and the like, and I tend to get a little uptight when the collective sales of my predecessors rival such books as, say, the Bible. This will be my first ever appearance as a keynote speaker in the Golden State, and I was just getting over my jitters when—bam—I got blindsided (Californicated, I think they call it). Well, now I’m just flat out puzzled. Here’s why.

Lately I’ve been speaking to school children about my new young adult novel, Leapholes. It’s been a blast to get in the classrooms and interact with kids who are genuinely enthusiastic about the concept of entering into law books, traveling through time and meeting Rosa Parks, Dred Scott, and other real people who were involved in some of our nation’s most important cases. It’s been such a great experience, in fact, that I decided to take this show on the road with me to California. We booked a signing for tonight (Thursday) at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore. Great folks, and I’m looking forward to it. Then I’m scheduled to talk with a group of fifth graders on Friday morning. Another cool event.

Unfortunately, I must have tempted fate once too often. My first commitment at La Jolla isn’t until Friday evening, so my publicist tried to slate another school appearance for Friday afternoon. We figured we’d contact a smaller private school, thinking that they’d be better able to organize something on such short notice. I’m not pushy about these things. I didn’t ask for an honorarium (most authors do), and the school doesn’t even have to buy my books. I just bring my Power Point presentation into the classroom and we talk about people like Rosa Parks or Dred Scott. I like doing these kinds of things. If you don’t believe me, I can prove it with videotape of me taking school kids on research trips to cool places like crime labs, and I even have some embarrassing photographs of me dressed up like everyone from Rembrandt to Salvador Dali at my own kids’ school.

Well, this was the California school’s response: We think our students are “too privileged” to appreciate the book. And they referred me to a public school.

I’m not going to name the school, because I’m hoping that this reflects the attitude of one person and not an entire institution. Still, I’m laughing now as I’m typing this. I’m from Miami, and as we say over here: “Yo no comprendo.” Put aside for the moment that the first school appearance I have slated upon returning to Miami is a private school of 350 middle-school students—that’s well over $7 million in annual tuition alone sitting in one auditorium. So, can someone who speaks Californian please tell me what the heck this response can possibly mean?

Surely no one is “too privileged” to appreciate Rosa Parks, so that can’t be it. Perhaps they are “too privileged” to appreciate the fact that the boy in Leapholes has to visit his father in prison. But I’m guessing—and surely I’m way out on a limb here—that there must be one or two people “of privilege” in California’s jails. So that can’t be it either. I can only surmise that it must be me—not the book—that they are “too privileged to appreciate.” Could they have feared that this Miami author was actually the dreaded Scar Face, dressed in a white leisure suit and draped in gold chains? Or maybe they thought my name was Jed, not James, and that I planned to roll into the school parking lot with Granny and Jethro on the back of the turnip truck.

Oh, well. It’s going to be a busy weekend at the writers’ conference, and some R & R on Friday afternoon will probably do me some good. I’ll read a book, have drink.

Maybe I’ll even catch a little California sunshine down by the cee-ment pond.

P.S. Sorry I can't participate in the give and take Thursday. It's a travel day. I'm loadin' up the truck and movin' in the general direction of Bever-lee.


  1. James:
    I'm so sorry that that happened to you, but it's such a hoot and something you can dine out on in days, months, years to come. :-D
    For 'Too Privileged', read: too self-centred in their own wealthy little worlds; kids who are going to grow up and do worthy charitable things without having to touch those things in reality - their parents have paid lots of money to keep it that way. And yep, you're probably correct in assuming that the 'person' who answered you, presumes you to be a jumped up 'Jeb' trying to deliver rebellious civil rights doctrine instead of the school's own.
    I worked at Melbourne Girls Grammar School - one of Australia's most prestigious and oldest private girls school for about ten months nearly fifteen years ago: most of the girls were fine, but occasionally you'd get the self important princess who had no moral difficulty in making a scene with the adults running the show.
    I suppose you could try and send a return missive requiring that person to define 'Too Privileged' as you have given your presentation to private school classes at schools even more privileged than theirs. :-D

  2. Or, you could just ignore them and teach them a lesson they'll never understand.
    I don't know what kind of "private" school this was, but I know some of them have crucifixes hanging on the walls, and I'm reminded of that great cartoon in the NEW YORKER (I think) back in the early 60's--a couple of rabbis standing around the Cross observing, "Sure, He was a great teacher, but He just wouldn't publish."
    You are published, and so there's hope.

    Tom, 1000 Oaks

  3. Just the sort of person we need teaching our children, someone with no insight or imagination who probably doesn't even know who Rosa Parks is. The world is full of those people and unfortunately a few of them live in California. If I was your publicist, I'd keep dialing.

  4. "Too privileged" for what?
    To read?
    To learn?
    To enjoy history?

    Lost values. And I write this as I look out my study window at the Harvard-Westlake (private high school) student parking lot where the Mercedes and BMW's are lined up like battleships at Pearl Harbor.

  5. Paul:
    "...And I write this as I look out my study window at the Harvard-Westlake (private high school) student parking lot where the Mercedes and BMW's are lined up like battleships at Pearl Harbor."
    I love this analogy: you must be a writer! :-D

  6. James, as a Californian, I'm at a complete loss to explain this. All I can say is maybe it's SOUTHERN California? Patty and James might know better how to translate, but I bet not.

    HOW HORRIBLE. They don't deserve you. The kids probably do, but that person just sounds like an eejit.

  7. "All I can say is maybe it's SOUTHERN California?"

    Hey, now, don't go dissing the Southland. Berkeley people. Sheesh.

    This is a private school you're talking about, right? "We educate only the Beautiful People, sir. Do not sully our curriculum with your 'History' and your 'Facts'. Go bring education to the Proles, would you?"

  8. That's what happens when you are born with a platinum spoon in your become too privileged to actually learn about the real world.......Truly a sad commentary on that private school and others which surely have the same dogma.

  9. The person who responded sounds like they were pissed off at the students. I wonder waht happened to trigger that cynical response?

  10. Mother of God. What idiots.

    First thought: You mention Dred Scott and Rosa Parks, who both happen to be African American. Could "too privileged" be some weird code for "racist"? (I hope I'm wrong, but I'm one of those pessimists who think that racism is alive and thriving in the good ol' US of A.)

    Second thought: Whoever wrote back to you may not be the real decision maker around programming. In other words, your publicist's query may have just landed on the wrong desk, or in the wrong email in-box.

    Third thought: If I were in your position, and feeling just a bit pissy, I'd forward the email to one of the higher ups at the school, and ask for some clarification. As in, what exactly do they mean by "too privileged", because you speak to a lot of students and can always use constructive feedback. It'd be interesting to see what their response might be, if they bothered.


    Seething in San Francisco (well, Oakland, but San Fran alliterates better ;-)