When you get comments back from your editor it is likely that every line will have some kind of correction, comment or suggestion. One of my favorite edits was “Eric, you think you’re being funny here. Well, you’re not.” I can’t decide whether you have to have very high self-esteem to be a writer or very low self-esteem. You have to accommodate so much criticism that you either have to have a big ego to have such faith in yourself or believe you’re a loser worthy of such constant savagery.
I had the pleasure to interview Eric Dezenhall. Eric is the author of 10 books including the new Best of Enemies: The Last Great Spy Story of the Cold War (with Gus Russo) about the true — and dangerous — friendship between the CIA’s Jack Platt and the KGB’s Gennady Vasilenko. The book reveals for the first time how Platt personally brought back the secret file that proved the FBI’s Robert Hanssen was the second deadly “mole” in US intelligence, a triumph that landed Vasilenko in a Russian prison falsely accused of spying for the Americans.
Eric told me the 5 things he wished he knew before he began as an author.
Thank you so much for joining us, Eric. Can you tell us the 5 things you wish someone told you before you became an author?
- The people you interview secretly hope the book will be about them and is thinking about who will play them in the movie. I write non-fiction and fiction. I’ve found that people who you interview open the book with huge expectations about how they’ll be portrayed, and sometimes you have to deal with hurt feelings. Even if you don’t speak to friends and acquaintances about the book they may tend to personalize what they read. I was stunned when a childhood friend thanked me for making a romantic interest in one of my novels about her. Truth is that I just made the character up but didn’t want to say anything hurtful. And don’t get me started on the people who think my fictional alter ego is actually me. I’ve killed fewer people in real life than my alter-ego has in my books.
- You never know where a book may lead. Being an author opens up doors and gives you a seriousness you might not have had otherwise. Interesting people want to talk to you and tell you fascinating things. You get private tours of museums and historic places that aren’t open to the public. I had no idea when I began talking to the principal spies in Best of Enemies that Robert De Niro had played a role in trying to save the KGB man in my book while he was in prison. Getting to know one of my artistic heroes and speak with him about his role in the caper was a high point of the research for this book. Something similar happened when I was writing the historical novel The Devil Himself about the Mafia’s collaboration with the US Navy during World War II. I was speaking with my friend Cynthia Duncan, Meyer and Teddy Lansky’s granddaughter, and she shared with me Meyer’s diary which I wrote about. She also told me she thought there was a government report proving that Meyer and Lucky Luciano conspired with the Navy to guard the ports around New York. I was able to locate the long-hidden document and share it with Meyer’s family. One thing leads to another.
- When you get comments back from your editor it is likely that every line will have some kind of correction, comment or suggestion. One of my favorite edits was “Eric, you think you’re being funny here. Well, you’re not.” I can’t decide whether you have to have very high self-esteem to be a writer or very low self-esteem. You have to accommodate so much criticism that you either have to have a big ego to have such faith in yourself or believe you’re a loser worthy of such constant savagery.
- The world will not care about your book nearly as much as you will. Be prepared to walk into lots of empty rooms. You have to be self-deluded to write a book. If you didn’t think people would read what you write, you would never do it. I’m not one of those people who believes that writing a book and just sticking a manuscript in a drawer for your own self-betterment is rewarding. I want people to read my books. I have to admit that it has stung in the past to run into an old friend who has no idea I’ve become an author. You want to say “I’ve been hammering away all these years and you didn’t know?!” If you’ve found a nice following, enough to get another book contract, you’ve won.
- One of the best pieces of advice I DID get was someone asking me, “Do you want to be a writer or do you want to be known as a writer?” A lot of people, regardless of what they admit, want to be known as writers but they don’t really like to write. If writing isn’t either a compulsion or a labor of love the endeavor won’t be worth it. When I talk to people who want to write, I can see in their eyes that they’re picturing themselves on Oprah or at a red carpet premiere. That’s human and understandable. But if you don’t feel the natural drive to write I don’t know how you’ll ever finish a book. I’ve met hundreds of people who say “I have a great story to tell” when, in fact, what they have are experiences and feelings. These things are fine — all of our experiences and feelings are a big deal to us — but it doesn’t mean there’s a book there. I am writing something every day. It’s often not worth much, but that drive is there. No drive, no book.
Thank you so much for these great insights!
Originally published at medium.com