Austin Washington is the great-nephew of George Washington. He earned his masters and did post-graduate research focusing on colonial American history, and is a writer, musician, entrepreneur and global traveler. He returns to an old Virginia family home whenever he can.Austin’s first book takes a common criticism of his academic writing – “You’re not writing a newspaper editorial, you know!” – and turns it into a virtue, taking a subject dry and dusty in other’s hands and giving it life. He has lived abroad much of his life, most recently in Russia, and visits friends from Sicily to Turkey to Bangladesh and beyond. His earliest influences as a writer were Saki, Salinger, and St. Exupery, although in more recent years he has got beyond the S’s. As for historians, he is partial to the iconoclast Gibbon, who wrote history to change the future.
His latest book is the nonfiction/history book, The Education of George Washington.
Q: Welcome to Beyond the Books, Austin. Can we start out by telling us whether you are published for the first time or are you multi-published?
Well, I’ve been in a few academic journals and things like that, before.
At the same time I’d always had great success talking to large groups of people, as well as on TV. I still remember a girl with red hair screaming my name, and then, presumably because of shyness, running away. I only saw her from the back, but didn’t know anyone with red hair. Someone later told me it was because she’d seen my speak somewhere, and had a kind of Justin Bieber reaction. Beyond that, I got asked on television, flown around the world, was given rooms in 5 star hotels, and I even won an award.
So, I asked myself, why not do the same thing I do when I speak, when I write? Why be boring?
When I thought back, I remembered that, when I was only fifteen, the editor of The New Yorker, the head editor – the Editor – wrote me about something I’d written that he was considering using. Eventually he decided not to use it. Still, the memory of that made me realise I might be able to transfer the reaction I got speaking, to writing – and, if I get really good, maybe I’ll make someone scream again.
So, this is the first book I’ve published, although I think something like twenty million people have heard my words, by this point, mostly through TV and radio.
Q: When you were published for the first time, which route did you go – mainstream, small press, vanity published or self-published and why or how did you choose this route?
Well, George Washington believed very strongly in something he referred to as “Providence”, which is a kind of personal, intelligent, destiny. Nothing good has ever happened in my life when I have tried, in the way your question implies. I have tried to try, but it doesn’t work for me, anymore than it seemed to have worked for George Washington.
I was published as the result of a series of coincidences and flukes so unlikely that I would never put them in any book of fiction. This is the same reason I could never write an autobiography. My life is too unlikely for fiction, no one would believe me.
My publisher puts out about 40 books a year, and gets about 1/3 on the NY Times bestseller list. I have no idea what classification that puts them in.
Q: How long did it take you to get published once you signed the contract?
Despite what I said about writing the way I spoke, which might make it sound easy, my brief academic career had killed some of the spark that my editor and I wanted me to bring to the job. The first draft was a turgid, academic, and as dense as beef jerky.
The second draft was just too darned fun.
With the third draft, I think, I got it just about right.
It’s kind of funny that I genuinely felt as if I were inspired by a kind of cosmic force when I wrote the third draft – I was able to focus enough to write some of it while staying by the beach in Turkey one summer, with three girls, two French and one Turkish. How is that even possible? Surely divine inspiration.
I realised though, in retrospect, I was not inspired by a cosmic muse, but by several years of work on the book, with earlier drafts lodged deep in my subconscious mind, now percolating to the surface in what turned out, finally, to be the prose my editors were waiting for.
Thank God for work!
Q: How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?
That question implies a lot that I just don’t agree with, or certainly doesn’t apply to me. I mean, I have these impressive academic degrees and could easily have got a job on Wall Street, trading discounted hog future debenture monetized swap option widgets on the Albanian Stock Exchange, and have retired to a yacht in Monaco, in the time it took to write this book. So I don’t consider it a great victory, and certainly can’t afford the sort of champagne to celebrate with that I, in this alternative life I now contemplate, would have stocked my yacht with.
George Washington felt the call of duty, as I did with this book. What did I do to celebrate when the book hit the shelves? I started talking on the radio about it. I just shifted gears. But the song remained the same. Spreading the newly found wisdom that George Washington got from his guide to greatness, lost in his papers for two centuries, to as many people as are ready to read about it. Not many, perhaps. Maybe you?
Q: What was the first thing you did as for as promotion when you were published for the first time?
Again, I don’t like that word. I did lots of radio interviews, but I really hate thinking of this in commercial ways, which the word “promotion” implies.
There is something so low about our society that even I, a purported author, cannot think of a word for it, in that our media regularly reports on “box office grosses” of movies, without mentioning artistic merit, and wouldn’t know how to report an important thought if it struck them in the head. I don’t like to think I have anything to do with that world.
Still, you gotta do what you gotta do, and I do like to have fun, and have spoken, in joyful and happy ways, about the most superficial aspects of my book. The weird thing is, my book is written in such a “fun” way that radio interviewers, who generally are relying solely on press releases, although a few might have glanced through the book, assume The Education of George Washington is as light and airy as a Twinkie. I succumbed, I admit, to playing their game, quite a bit.
But in the later interviews I think I more successfully slipped in a few words of wisdom, amidst the bang and clamber. I should be clear here – I’m not claiming that I have such great wisdom, that is worth passing on – however, the wisdom that helped George Washington, conveyed in The Education of George Washington, is truly powerful, though obviously it’s not for everyone.
Q: Since you’ve been published, how have you grown as a writer and now a published author?
Spending several years to come up with fewer than 300 completed pages cannot do anything but help you grow as a writer.
To be honest, I felt sorry for my editor sitting in a room all day reading manuscripts. So I would slip a few over-the-top things into each chapter, knowing she would delete them, just to amuse her. Without exception, the things I was most certain she would cut would, instead, be quoted in return emails, accompanied by lavish praise. And of course she would keep them in the final manuscript.
Through this I learned to see readers as people, each of whom might like to be amused even as they, perhaps, gain wisdom, and are taken on an adventure, during their morning commute, or while lying on the beach. The most valuable thing about writing, to me, then, is the interaction, oddly enough.
Shakespeare, y’know, was a great writer because, I think, he was writing in the middle of a hectic life producing plays, writing specific parts for specific actors, while simultaneously being immersed in the life of London. J. D. Salinger, on the other hand, seemed to lose a lot when he began to believe that writing was a solitary endeavor.
For me, at least, the more engaged I am in life, the better I write.
Q: What has surprised or amazed you about the publishing industry as a whole?
That is an excellent question, with no easy answer. I guess, ultimately, what surprised me most is that my publisher spent so much money getting this thing out – I mean, just the editor’s time must have cost a fortune – and yet they seem so completely uninterested letting people know about it. I find the whole process somewhat inscrutable, so far.
But I’m still learning.
Q: What is the most rewarding thing about being a published author?
The free hookers, definitely.
Q: Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?
I think you should dream of having an editor with whom you are aligned to create something great. Beyond that, it’s nice to have a team with whom to do things, to be part of a collaborative effort, although there are probably other ways to go about that. I don’t think there are any easy answers in life, though, and I’m not certain something magical happens when you sign a contract. It’s just a specific organisational structure to accomplish things, some of which, most notoriously publicity, I’ve heard, almost always have to be done independently, anyway.
It’s not like they have a cauldron of publishing sauce which they drip on your forehead, or lather on your book, and voila, Henry James. But, honestly, I don’t really know the way things work, yet, so I’m not the person to ask.