Interview with John Blumenthal

Interview by Bob Williams

John Blumenthal was born in Middletown, New York, to parents that he describes as “certifiable neurotics who unknowingly gave him most of his best material.” He graduated from Tufts University. His writing experience has been varied and he has emerged as a notable author of comic novels.

Bob Williams: In another context you helped me with an article that explored publishing in non-traditional ways. Could you provide advice or comments on these alternatives?

John Blumenthal: Self-publishing was a last resort for me. I had five books published in the 1980s by mainstream publishers, then stopped writing books and wrote for TV and the movies. In 1999, I decided to write a novel called What’s Wrong with Dorfman? My agent sent it to about twenty publishers and it was rejected everywhere because it was considered a “midlist” book, but the rejection letters were so sweet and laudatory, I decided to self-publish. My aim was to sell about 5,000 copies, get some good reviews and thereby attract a mainstream publisher. It worked. I sold 4,000 copies, got on the BookSense list, and amassed a bunch of excellent reviews in some fairly well respected publications. St. Martin’s Press bought the book in 2002 and re-published it in 2003. St. Martin’s Press is also publishing my new novel Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour.

My advice for anyone considering self-publishing is this: forget vanity presses, subsidy publishing and e-books, they’re a waste of time. Print up some PODs [publish on demand] and try to get them reviewed by the early print review publications – Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal and Booklist. If you get any good reviews, join Amazon’s Advantage Program. If you’ve got the money, do a small print run of maybe 500 books. Promote like crazy on the Internet. To be successful, be prepared to spend a lot of time promoting yourself. And send the book everywhere you can possibly think of. Most of my expenses were from postage.

I made about $24,000 on the self-published version of the book, but I put every cent into promotion and mailings. Anybody interested in learning more can read an article I wrote for RebeccasReads.com called ‘My Adventures in Self-Publishing.’

BW: You have written many short pieces for various publications. Will any of these be collected into a book?

JB: I don’t think that will happen. The pieces are mostly spoofs or parodies and are no longer timely.

BW: On the Amazon website none of your books prior to What’s Wrong with Dorfman? and Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour are in print (only nine copies left of The Hollywood Handbook). Will any or, I hope, all of these books be reissued?

JB: If one of my novels is a huge success, it’s possible that some of the out-of-print titles will be re-published, but I’m not holding my breath.

BW: Your autobiography (http://www.johnblumenthal.com/author.html) is an amusing sketch of your life. Your varied experiences as a writer for Esquire and Playboy, a free-lance writer for magazines, television and movies are extremely varied. Although your heroes have background as writers, will you ever use more of your own experience in a novel?

JB: Actually, I was on the editorial staff at both Playboy and Esquire. Currently none of this figures in any of my current work, although I may use it one day. Who knows? If I write a novel about a magazine editor, I’m sure I’ll get most of it from my experiences.

BW: What will your next novel be about?

JB: I’m working on a comic novel that’s also historical and follows a family from 1904 to the present. It’s requiring a fair amount of research and I hate research. Beyond that, I don’t particularly like to get into details. I’m never sure at the start how it will turn out. I may abandon it after ten chapters. So far, it seems to be going quite well.

BW: Is it too early to talk about its publication date?

JB: Yes. My agent hasn’t even seen it, let alone my editor. I’m hoping, if it sells, that it will be released sometime in 2006.

BW: Your work is very individual but are there any writers that you regard as influences?

JB: Sure. Vonnegut, Heller, Philip Roth, John Irving to name a few.

BW: And what authors do you read for enjoyment?

JB: Vonnegut, Heller, Roth and Irving. I also loved Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. It truly deserved the Pulitzer.

BW: Has the publication of Dorfman and Fillmore relieved you of other chores?

JB: If you mean do I still feed the dog and take the garbage out, the answer is I still have to do those things.

BW: I love your answer but I had in mind extra work like teaching and so forth.

JB: No, I don’t teach or anything of that sort. I’ve always lived on my writing fees. Presently I’m still receiving residuals from a hit movie I wrote called Blue Streak that Columbia Pictures released in 1999. It made about $150,000,000 worldwide. And of course I get advances for the novels.

BW: You struggled successfully against the limitations – to use no harsher term – of publishers. Has this struggle affected your relationship to writing?

JB: Not at all. I still write what I like to write and hope my publisher will like it enough to publish. The great thing about writing books as opposed to screenplays is that nobody rewrites your novels. My last movie, Blue Streak, was rewritten by fourteen screenwriters before it finally hit the screen in 1999. That’s one of the reasons I stopped writing scripts. I love the freedom of novel writing.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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