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Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Would Willy Loman Do Today?


Death of a Salesman debuted on Broadway in 1949.  The play, written by Arthur Miller, won a Tony and a Pulitzer.  It tells the tragic tale of the aging, fading salesman, Willy Loman, who never lived up to his dreams nor quite fulfilled the optimism he’d imbue others with is a character that still lives today. 

I saw him in the latest Broadway incarnation, played. He exhaustively by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and left feeling so many emotions and thoughts.  But the one that resonates with me is how a salesman goes out and leads with a smile and shined pair of shoes.  More than anything, the act of selling is about personality and confidence—style over substance -- or so he said.

The play covers a lot of ground, including family dynamics and the influence of a father’s words—and acts—on a child’s life.  It’s about the pressures of just scraping by until one concludes he’s worth more dead than alive.  It’s about the coldness of the working world and how our aging workers are dumped into the streets once their performance declines.  It’s about whether character and talent and brains count as much as one’s looks, jokes, and athleticism.    

The play can be hard to watch—lots of screaming and dialogue about regret, lost moments, and broken dreams.  One can leave the theater depressed at how sad life can be, or leave feeling good that their life doesn’t resemble what plagues this shattered family.

The words of Willy Loman, however, echo in my mind.  At times one can embrace his wild pontifications of hopes, optimism and success.  He can see a path to the penthouse even when he’s living in the basement.  He can see a sale even when what he sells doesn’t exist.  He can see the sun even when the darkest storm is upon him.  But this blinding confidence and enthusiasm can exhaust himself and certainly those around him.  He builds others up to believe they are somebody, even when they don’t have the necessary tools or convictions to complete the deal.  His belief that he can accomplish whatever he puts his mind to can be a burden, a weight so great that it can crush him from within.

Today’s salesman is everywhere.  From retail sale to wholesale, from service industries like advertising, marketing and public relations, to small businesses and start-up entrepreneurs.  Our country produces and manufactures little—but we sell a lot.  Even when you don’t have a job in sales, you’re selling.  Whether you sell with your smile, your humor, or ideas -- whether you sell by the number of Facebook likes and Twitter followers you amass, you sell.  And the practice of selling can be lonesome, tiring, and humbling.  You’re only as valued as your latest sale.  The memory is short when it comes to counting up sales.

I sell every day.  I still enjoy it but I also see that the key to selling rests with me first selling myself.  If you get out of bed and don’t feel that eagerness, that enthusiasm to sell, the day becomes an unwalkable mountain.  But when you rise out of your sleep with an urgency and eagerness in your step, you can fly beyond the clouds.

Selling is about momentum.  It works both ways.  Too many no’s in a row can lead to more of them.  Get a yes or two under your belt and suddenly you ride a wave.  It’s a streaky art.

Willy was right that one could benefit from things like smiling, laughing and turning business relationships into friendships.  He was right that confidence and enthusiasm arrive way before anything that warrants such feelings.  But he was wrong to think you could ignore the skills, knowledge or substance of things.  The complete sales person has to present an entire package, not just pretty wrapping paper.  He talked a good game but often fell short, both morally and substantively.

As you promote your book to the media and sell it to others, learn from Willy Loman.  Having an attractive cover, catchy title, and timely book can win people over—but what’s in the book still counts more than anything else.  We may seem like a nation that values appearances but in the end something real has to support the illusion or we’ll just be chasing a dream – not living one.      

Interview With Autography Co-Founder Thomas Waters

1.      What exactly is www.autography.com? That’s the website for a cutting edge digital marketing firm.  As more and more of our lives revolve around our digital presence, Autography is facilitating meaningful relationships between artists and fans.  Just as sales of ebooks have overtaken hardcover and paperback sales, we developed a means for writers to autograph ebooks in the same way they do for printed books.  In fact, authors can do both – sign ebook and print copies at book signings, giving their fans what they want, but still delight them with the unexpected.

2.      What inspired you to create this?  I had written an ebook entitled “Prior To The Snap” as a companion to a traditionally published book.  But the ebook took on a life of it’s own, becoming very popular with troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The USO invited me to join a tour of college football coaches going to the Middle East.  But unlike the coaches, who would sign footballs or jerseys, there was nothing for me to sign.  I complained about it to Robert who immediately set about shutting me up by figuring out how to do it.  With the (then new) Apple iPad, I spent 10 days and 20,000 miles in the Middle East, autographing copies for troops.  When I got back we talked to some other writers – guys like Jim Swain, Joe Konrath, and Michael Connelly – and they urged (threatened) us to make this a service available to all writers.  We founded Autography a few weeks later.

3.      Where do you see the future for ebooks? I think like music, digital will be the default format.  There will always be a demand for physical books – I don’t think anybody really doubts that.  But I think the majority of them will be purchased and read on a screen rather than a page. The screens are with us everywhere we go – and just as we’ve been filling the holes in our day with music, we are now increasingly doing it with books.  We will read more, consumer more, and purchase more as a result of this shift.  It won’t be without challenges and stumbles (for everyone) but at the end of it we’ll wonder how we ever used to do things differently.

4.      Why is an author’s signature valuable to the reader? I think it’s the author’s time and attention that’s important.  The signature, the personalized greeting, the picture of the artist and fan together on the page to be autographed – is simply a permanent token of that time.  For that brief period – sometimes only seconds – that author’s entire world is the fan standing in front of them.  Their publisher, their books, the tour they may be on – all of that goes away while they are extending a hand (or even a hug) giving that fan a smile and a simple ‘thank you’ - that means the world to a fan who may have enjoyed an escape into the world that author created.  The author is God for the worlds they create, and a fan asks for an autograph because they want to be part of that world.

5.      Where is book publishing heading, overall? The competition for readers is getting crazy.  Publishers are making huge investments on self-published unknowns as well entrenched authors strike out into self-publishing.  You have to wonder if they are running into each other, one coming in as the other leaves, in the turnstiles of the big New York publishers.  The volume of material available is simply stunning.  It’s making the art of discovering writers/books/stories a real challenge.  

6.      Any advice to authors looking to market themselves? Understand that that’s EXACTLY what you will have to do.  Writing the best book in the world is not enough – you’ve got to be able to put your business hat on as well.  You must know how social media works to connect with readers.  You must have a stage presence to do author events – even if you only get a half dozen attendees.  If you only get three people, you MUST bust your butt and give those three people the best author event they’ve ever attended.  You have to make them believe, because if you don’t, the next writer will.


Interview With Political Cartoon Author Dean Turnbloom

1.      Dean, how did you go about selecting the cartoons that you included in prize winning political cartoons: 2012 Edition (Pelican Publishing)? It was actually quite simple. All I had to do was to wait until the major prizes for political cartoons were awarded, and then beg, cajole, grovel and beg (did I say that already?) the major talents who won those awards for their permission and cooperation to display their work in my book. Remember, they receive no compensation. I’m constantly humbled by their generosity.

2.      What makes for a good political cartoon? One of my all-time favorite political cartoonists, Mike Ramirez, once told me it was important to have something to say about an event or idea and not just celebrate it. I think that is key. Anyone can witicize some political event or situation, but the best cartoons go further. More than providing a comic headline, cartoons should, in my opinion, provide commentary, to point out the foibles and the folly of serious topics in a unique and unusual way.

3.      What are some of the topics covered by the book? Some of the obvious topics are the war in Afghanistan, Health Care, Global Warming, Haiti, etc. Of course there are the throwback “Blame Bush First” type of cartoons, but truly they run the gamut of the social fabric over the last year.

4.      Is the current presidential primary race great fodder for political cartoonists? Why? Every election is a treasure trove of people and ideas to lampoon. Of course, many in the media tend to back certain horses rather than trying to find the humor in the process itself. If you pick up ten newspapers on any particular day and flip to the political cartoons you’ll more than likely find great commonality in the subject matter chosen. These are usually the low-hanging fruit of the political day. I always gravitate to the outliers that pick up on an idea missed by their colleagues, that have something important to say.

5.      What should a good political cartoon do to the reader?  Should it make them laugh or cry?  Change their views? A good political cartoon, a really good one, should cause the reader to look at an idea in an unexpected way, a way in which the reader wouldn’t normally think about. Whether they agree or not, they at least for one moment realize a new perspective. That is a good political cartoon.

6.      Is it sometimes hard to see the humor in pathetic leaders, corrupt politicians, and poor policy initiatives?  Finding the humor in pathetic leaders, corrupt politicians, and poor political decisions is woefully easy. But it’s the kind of humor that has a little sting to it. The truly unfortunate thing is the abundance of material and that is no joke.

7.      Your own political cartoons have been published in papers such as USA Today.  What approach do you take to practicing your craft? I  haven’t cartooned for some time now, but when I was active, I tried to put into my work some of the things I’ve mentioned in this interview. I also tried to learn from other cartoonists, particularly technique. I was fortunate enough to have several heavyweights in the business take enough time to give me encouragement and advice. I’ve mentioned Mike Ramirez, but there was also Steve Breen, Tony Auth, and Paul Conrad. Too often, though, as I look back I find that I fell into the trap of seizing the low-hanging fruit. It’s so tempting. Occasionally, I’d like to think I struck gold, using humor to point out a perspective that was unique and that couldn’t help but take the reader by surprise and make him think. A cartoon that does that is truly a Prizewinning Political Cartoon.


Interview With Author Donald Jeffires

1.      What is your latest book about?  The Unreals is my only published work thus far. It's a surrealistic look at a sheletered young man's search for his missing grandfather, who was a conspiracy enthusiast. Various conspiracy theories, extreme political and social rants, and obscure cultural references contribute to what I hope is an original and funny story. Readers have compared it to A Confederacy of Dunces, The Wizard of Oz, 1984 and Alice In Wonderland. It's kind of like an adult fairy tale, for political extremists and conspiracy theorists. I try to set a "Twilight Zone" atmosphere in all my writing. I think I succeeded here, in that the normal rules of time and space don't always apply, and the reader is unsure about the reality of any given situation.  

2.      What inspired you to write it? Years of obsessing over the JFK assassination and other conspiratorial topics. I combined my love of conspiracies with my affinity for unexplained phenomena. Charles Fort was the first writer to tabulate incidents that science couldn't explain; The Unreals is full of foreteana and he is mentioned often. Another writer who deeply influenced me is Ambrose Bierce, who is also referenced in my novel. Finally, my love of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time had an impact on some elements of the plot, and clearly was the inspiration for the time-traveling cornfield my characters experiment with.

3.      What are the rewards and challenges of writing fiction? I write both fiction and non-fiction, but I think fiction is more rewarding and more challenging. If you have a strong imagination, it's a great thrill to just let it go, no punches pulled, no holds barred. I like to toy with wild and unconventional notions. My characters invariably are different than the ones you usually find in mainstream fiction. You'll never see me use a protagonist who's a high powered New York lawyer or Los Angeles executive. I like creating the outcasts, the downtrodden, the anonymous "riff raff" you seldom see on television or the movies. But I also like characters who are really "off the wall," full of odd quirks and idiosyncrasies. I think all the characters in The Unreals managed to fall into both these categories.  

4.      Where do you see the book publishing industry heading? I think the big publishers, like the old television networks, are losing their hold on the industry. Smaller publishers in general, print on demand in particular, and even self-publishing, are taking over the market. In general, this is a good thing. Sure, there will be some subpar books out there that Random House would never have touched, but in my view much of the most popular fiction today is predictable and unmemorable. I can't envision anyone reading many of the present day best sellers 100 years from now. The last great, popular writer was probably Kurt Vonnegut, in my opinion.

5.      What advice would you offer a struggling writer? Don't give up. Keep pursuing your dreams. It took me a very long time to get The Unreals published, and I'm having a hard time getting my second novel published as well. But if you have confidence in your ability to create characters, plot out an interesting tale, and have found your "voice" on paper, don't let anyone tell you can't do it. Believe in yourself, and others will believe in you.  

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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