November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Writing Blue Highways




William Least Heat-Moon’s Story

of How a Book Happened

by John Smelcer

In 1978, William Least Heat-Moon began a 14,000 miles, 38-state, multi-year journey in his van named Ghost Dancing. WBH coverHe took only lesser-traveled back roads, those indicated in blue on road maps. Along the way, he met people from all walks of life. As the miles accumulated, the idea for a book began to take root. The manuscript traveled its own journey toward publication. When Blue Highways finally came out in 1982, it spent 42 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The following excerpt is from Heat-Moon’s just-released Writing Blue Highways (University of Missouri Press, 2014), in which the author tells the story of how his masterpiece “happened.” In this chapter aptly titled, “The Secret Society Begins to Emerge,” the publisher (Atlantic Monthly Press) has been whittling down the length of the ponderous manuscript. Unexpectedly, the editor, Peter Davison, calls to deliver the devastating news that that they can’t include any of the photographs in the book due to escalating printing costs. As a photojournalist, Heat-Moon understood the importance of the images and how much the book’s success depended on them.

Although our paths had crossed a couple times in the past two decades, it wasn’t until after I moved to Missouri in the summer of 2013 that Heat-Moon and I struck up a friendship, having occasional lunch in Columbia while discussing current writing projects, and even doing a book signing together. Blue Highways has long been one of my favorite books; I’ve taught it several times alongside Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. If it’s one of yours and you want to learn more about the book’s backstory, or if you are a writer who wants to learn about another writer’s struggles to get his book published, read Writing Blue Highways.

– John Smelcer

From Chapter IX:

One afternoon Peter Davison phoned to say the price of the book would be $13.50. A couple of days later he called
again to say it would have to be $15.95. “There’s an invisible seventeen-dollar barrier these days,” he said, “and we can’t let it go higher than that.” The next week it did, and he phoned to take up the issue a third time. “Somebody here seriously underestimated the length of your manuscript. It’s pushing two hundred thousand words. The ink on your pages weighs more than the paper.”

My condensations and dumped widows had worked — perhaps too well. That was the good news. Then came the bad, the ugly: “The photographs are driving the price of the book too high. I’m sorry to tell you this, but we’re going to have to leave them out. After all, the Atlantic proved they aren’t necessary.”

I’d humbugged experienced word-editors on the length of the book, and now the piper wanted his pay. A long silence before I could speak. Please don’t do that. “We have to,” he said. “The public’s not going to pay seventeen dollars for this book. I know the decision upsets you, but there’s no other choice.” I thought before I answered. There is another choice. “Which is?” I’ll withdraw the manuscript. The conversation had become strained. “You’re making a mistake,” he said. “A big, serious mistake.” Click, line dead. Well, boys, there you have it.

That evening Lucy was unhappy: “After four years, you find an editor to believe in your book, and then in one phone call Mister Big-Time-Author casts him aside before the book even exists? Have you lost your mind? I wondered the same thing and tossed the issue around, but I couldn’t see things as just a matter of money. The pictures of thirty-seven people, two cats, and one dog were integral and critical: A photograph can go where words cannot.

The incentive for the journey began with an urge to make environmental portraits of authentic habitants of the American backcountry. In the beginning was not the word but the image; when the book was without form, and void, there were photographs — “light-writing” — and the pictures gave off energy and sustained the journey when little else did. And on the road, the growing album gave purpose to mileage and promised a seed-bed for something larger as a gallery grew into a garden.

Those faces became prima facie evidence requiring more than just captions or notes; they demanded voice so they could attest to their lives, and even when words began rising to make affirming images subservient, to eliminate them was errantly wrong. Origins, seeds, and inceptive impulses belonged to the work as much as did their results: Blue Highways began not with a typewriter but with a camera.
When I went to bed that night, I told Lucy removing the photographs would be a death stroke to the book, and she said, “Saying no to a yes is also a death stroke.”

A ringing phone pulled me awake the next morning. It was Davison whose hello was a grudging “You win.” His fast turnabout removed any chance I would have to talk myself out of a sound principle.
My medieval notion about the Great Wheel — and one other thing — had me ready for the next rotation… My “next” was the Book of the Month Club turning down Blue Highways after two readers said they saw no significant audience for a story about “some guy in a truck going nowhere.”

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