A Chat with Clay Risen on Writing, Politics, and Bipartisan Bourbon

Clay Risen Interview - Bill of the Century

We here at Signature are dedicated to keeping loyal readers abreast of all that’s new and worth a look in the world of biography and memoir, with detours to classic titles from the past. What we haven’t discussed much is what it’s like in the years of an author after their book is published. When a baby comes into the world, every day begets a parental tableau vivant, a recapping of the daily events, the highs and lows, the joys and struggles, and the occasional deep dive into what it all means. When an author gives up their baby, it comes out, ideally to great fanfare, and then...what?

New York Times op-ed editor and hooch authority Clay Risen just spent a year promoting his book The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act in all sorts of ways. Upon the April 21 release of the paperback version, he spoke to Signature about the book’s first year of life, ignoring Amazon rankings, dueling dinosaur movies, and bipartisan bourbon.

Signature: Now that it's been a year, how do you feel about the book?

Clay Risen: I continue to be astounded by the process of just writing and publishing a book. I enjoy researching and writing immensely, but the idea that anyone would want to spend the money to print them is still a bit baffling. I’ve written or edited four books, and it’s still an eerie thrill to see one of them out in public, or just to know they’re there.

SIG: How have the sales been and are they something you think about a lot? Do you check your Amazon ranking and such?

CR: I learned a while ago not to look at reviews, or Amazon page ranks, or sales -- I don’t ask my publisher, and I've asked them not to tell me how the book is doing. Publishing a book is like raising a child, and like an overbearing parent, you know your book will never do as well as you want it to. So I choose to ignore it.

SIG: Were any changes made between the hardback and paperback editions?

CR: Not many. A few minuscule but significant -- to me -- fact and copy edits, but there wasn't much I wanted to change. I knew that if I dug too far into it, I would want to change everything and drive me and my editor mad.

SIG: Did you reread either version of The Bill of the Century post-publication? Do you nitpick at it or move on?

CR: No. There’s no point. I’ll read it again some day, but I already know everything in there. I’d rather read someone else’s writing, and learn something.

SIG: Your previous book, A Nation on Fire (about the immediate aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination), is great but it didn't find a large audience. Is there any rhyme or reason as to why?

CR: It’s funny -- I actually think A Nation on Fire is a better book than The Bill of the Century. The latter was a story waiting to be told, and it more or less fell into place. With A Nation on Fire, the stories were there, but there were so many different ones, and so many ways to tell them. And no one had ever done even a modicum of work on the topic, aside for the hunt for James Earl Ray, which I decided to leave aside.

So it’s still a little painful to think that the book did so poorly. It was a combination of things. It dropped in January 2009 -- the immediate post-holiday period is always a bad time to introduce anything, especially a book, but that year was particularly bad, as the recession was still deepening. Book reviews were shutting down, stores were closing, publishers were cutting back -- it was a bad time to be a writer. And my publisher, Wiley, didn't do much at all -- they didn't tour me, they didn't get much media promotion. I don’t blame them per se; it was their call, and it probably made sense to not waste resources on a book that, let’s face it, probably wasn't going to be a bestseller, no matter what.

SIG: Did you take a new approach, or do anything different, in getting The Bill of the Century into the public eye?

CR: This time around, I was lucky to have a more active publisher, Bloomsbury, and a phenomenal in-house publicist, Summer Smith. But I also went in with the mindset that the Lord helps those who help themselves. I built my own website, lined up freelance pieces, worked my connections to get media and speaking gigs, and so on. I probably could have done much more, but I think it all added up.

SIG: You had the "Dante's Peak"/"Volcano," "Prefontaine"/"Without Limits," "Capote/Infamous" thing happen where another book about the Civil Rights Act -- An Idea Whose Time Has Come by Todd Purdum -- was released at the same time, and were even reviewed together in the New York Times. Did you feel a sense of competition? Or was it the more people are talking about the anniversary the better? Did you talk to Purdum at all?

CR: You forgot "Jurassic Park/Carnosaur," a matchup that also pitted Laura Dern against her mom, Diane Ladd. So sad.

I think it helped, ultimately, to have two books on the subject come out at the anniversary. Todd and I did email a few times, and we did a couple of interviews together -- not by design, but by invitation. By mutual agreement, there wasn’t much point in collaboration, so we went our own ways. If nothing else, it was interesting to read how someone else dealt with the same material. There were points of overlap in our books, but also many points of difference, which was fun to see.

SIG: Did you notice any uptick in interest after your book got a positive Times review?

CR: I have no idea. I imagine there was a bump, but I’d have to look at the numbers to know. Which, like I said, I won’t do.

SIG: I've heard from multiple authors that the novelty of book tours wears off quickly because it's the same thing every night, did you enjoy it?

CR: I had a nice tour experience. I didn't do many conventional events at the beginning, which is where the drag is -- flying to Chicago to sit in front of fifteen people to sell three books will suck your heart dry. Instead I did a lot of invited events, speaking on campuses, to legal societies, at museums, that sort of thing. I was lucky to publish a book in a year when a number of different groups in various places wanted to hear about it. It was immense fun going to cities I’d never visited, like Springfield, Ill. or San Diego, and talking to rooms filled with people who were sincerely interested in what I had to say.

SIG: Thanks to you, I got to sit in Thurgood Marshall's desk at New York City's NAACP office, what were your historical highlights of the last year as it were?

CR: That was a great night -- speaking to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was a signal honor, and a bit overwhelming. But otherwise: I went out to Omaha to speak at the University of Nebraska. The event itself was fun, and the people were wonderful. But the best part was, the night before I spoke, after I got in, I went out for dinner by myself and fell in with a group of guys at the tail end of a wake. They invited me to tag along, and we had a grand night, ending up in some dive bar in who knows what part of town. I mention that because these sorts of trips stop being fun when they start to feel like a job. So the fact that I could go somewhere and serendipitously have a great time, with perfect strangers -- that’s what life’s all about, right?

SIG: You've also done a number of panels, what's the key to a successful discussion with multiple voices?

CR: It’s all a performance -- playing off one another. To be honest, I don’t like panels all that much. I prefer the one-man show to the ensemble. It’s not because I’m greedy, I don’t think. It’s more because I’m not a good enough performer to work in a group -- I need to own the stage to feel comfortable.

SIG: Over the last year, you also did a lot of events for the American Whiskey guide, did you ever get the topics confused and/or find crossover between booze and the Civil Rights Act?

CR: Not really. American whiskey is all about American history, and so there is some crossover there. I kept hoping I would find some fun little kernel that brought the two topics together, but they exist in their own silos, mentally, for me.

SIG: You did a fair amount of television, from discussing the book on the Tavis Smiley show to talking about police brutality on MSNBC, do you enjoy doing TV and does being a go-to talking head interest you?

CR: I enjoy doing TV, sure. It’s an adrenaline rush. I thought I would be more intimidated, or anxious about it, than I actually am. I used to be a pretty nervous person, when I was much younger, but I think experiences like these forced me to confront those nerves, make them back down. I’m not all that keen on being a talking head, though. I’m honored to be asked to come talk about one thing or the other, but most of the time I think, there are easily five people I know, who have more expertise on a given topic than I do.

SIG: Did the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, or other markers such as the film "Selma," help your book?

CR: Absolutely. The movie came a bit late in the cycle, but I would have never gotten to do the events I did, or gotten the reviews I did, were it not for the 50th anniversary.

SIG: One thing that always amazes me is that you write books, hold down a full-time job, and have two young kids. How the hell do you do that?

CR: I have no idea. I have a long-suffering and very helpful wife. Also, I have a high tolerance for alcohol and a low tolerance for caffeine -- which is to say, give me a snifter of whiskey and a cup of coffee at 10 pm and I’m good for three hours of work, regardless of what came before it that day.

SIG: What's next? And do you think you'll keep writing about the civil rights era?

CR: I’ll keep writing about politics, for sure. Civil rights is a vitally important topic, but at the risk of immodesty, I think of myself more as a historian of politics, who happened to be writing about civil rights and race relations a few times.

And I’ll keep writing about the 1960s. Aside from being an incredibly important point in our recent history, it’s also the one that came right before my own entry into this world, and I get a kick out of researching material that in subtle but distinct ways has a resonance with my own early memories. For example, Hippie culture was still around, in its last gasps, when I was a kid. Johnson and Kennedy and Nixon were gone from politics, but they were still relevant, people still talked about them, and made jokes on TV about them. I didn’t get the jokes, but I was around to hear them, and doing research in that era is to illuminate the deepest, faintest memories of my childhood, memories that are themselves echoes of an even earlier time.

SIG: Lastly, can't whiskey help solve America's entrenched partisan divide? You and I have certainly hashed out a lot of important stuff over it...

CR: It worked in the past, for sure. Many of the divisive issues regarding the Civil Rights Act were hashed out over long evenings of bourbon in the back room of Everett Dirksen’s Senate office. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who represented the Justice Department at those negotiations, said he about destroyed his liver during those weeks. But I wonder how many politicians these days would risk cracking open a bottle with someone from the other party. Things are so stuffy, and there are so many risks that someone might find out, as if it were the worst thing in the world to have a drink with a colleague. But then some people say Chris Christie took himself out of the running for president just by shaking Obama’s hand. Imagine if people knew they had done shots of Jim Beam together?