November 21, 2016
Anatomy of a crash
by Dennis Johnson
In a diner on Montaulk Highway on Long Island on Saturday morning, where my wife and I have driven out from Brooklyn to take my 91-year-old mother out for breakfast, we can’t help but overhear two burly, bearded white guys at the neighboring table. At a glance they look like the typical middle-aged guys out here, who dress like slobs (but with jewelry in the summer) and drive super-sized SUVs which, for the last year or two, have all sported a Trump/Pence bumper sticker … or two ….
Suffice it to say it’s no longer the upbeat Kennedy-crazed land of my youth. In fact, in the run-up to the election we’ve seen nothing but Trump fanaticism out here: Card tables set up by zealots at the supermarket—not a politics-free zone, as it turns out—recruiting donations for the supposed billionaire who was going to finance himself but didn’t; a pumped-up man pacing beside the intersection thrusting a huge “Hillary Is A Liar” sign at passing cars while screaming his red-faced head off for Trump; yard signs everywhere, never for Hillary; and those bumper stickers just everywhere too …
Which is to say, I’m immediately suspicious of these two guys, even though one of them has a beautiful baby in his lap. The baby has caught my mother’s eye and Mom’s smiling like a seraph. I’m thinking that baby’s fucked.
Like me, the two guys are looking at the TV hanging over the bar and they’re muttering. We can’t hear the announcer but the costumes of the figures and the shaky camera work give it away — it’s the cast of Hamilton, captured on a cell phone camera, lecturing Mike Pence. Valerie and I had just heard about this incident on the car radio driving out, and it’s something I’d immediately come to consider a glorious moment in the just-beginning resistance movement … but we’ve learned to be cautious out here in Trump country, so I’m on alert regarding the two lumpkins at the next table. Valerie and I look at each other and I realize we’re both actually tense as hell. We may have to bolt, which is hard to do with a 91-year-old woman.
At first, we can’t really catch the sense of what they’re saying — they heard about the Hamilton incident, too, clearly, and have recognized the silent images on the television, but we can’t immediately tell if their comments (“Incredible!”) are pro-Trump or not. Then we hear one of them—the one with the baby—over the clatter: “This guy runs his entire campaign based on insults and he wants an apology when someone he insulted speaks up for themselves?” His companion gives a hopeless snort and they both stare into their coffees like they were empty jiggers of whiskey.
Valerie puts her napkin down abruptly and gets up and goes over to them, apologizes, says her heart swelled to hear them, just to hear them. One of the guys gets up and hugs her, just like that. I go over too and some bashful macho handshaking occurs.
We’re all sputtering in relief, there in a corner of the diner where no one can really see us. Turns out the two guys are school teachers, worried sick. What’s more, they’re involved in their union and upset at how many of their colleagues just voted against their own interests. Meanwhile I can tell my mother is growing nervous as hell about talking politics with strangers—she lived through the 30s and 40s and knows things can get dark fast. Then one of the guys—the one without the baby—finally says, “Jesus, what are we gonna do now?”
We’re all looking at each other and there’s suddenly a lot going on in my chest. There’s the relief of meeting kindred spirits at the beginning of a long, dark passage. There’s the sinking recognition that uh-oh, we’re not over-reacting—they’re as afraid as we are. And there’s a blast of hopefulness—maybe one of them has an idea. It adds up to a moment of paralysis in which I take in the baby, whom I realize will never know the wonderful feeling I’ve known my entire life—the feeling that It can’t happen here; my wife, a spawn of the “international banking” cabal the new president has said is behind it all; my achingly frail mother, currently in a desperate effort to survive in a threadbare healthcare system that Trump has sworn not only not to improve, but to simply annihilate …
As a retired fiction writer I have an innate fear of melodrama but it only took me a moment—a moment I have every morning, post-election—to realize this rush of worry is actual drama, and so I said all I could think of. “We’re going to fight.” Everybody nodded. I could tell no one, me included, knew how in the hell we’re going to do this, we just know we are.
It’s a moment of awkward solidarity, but solidarity nonetheless.
And as we parted I suspected we all had the same hopeful weird feeling that, in the dark days ahead, we would recognize other sentients in Trump’s America, now and then, by some cautious high-sign. A fleeting glimpse of occasional Valeries, throwing down their napkins …
So here we are, and now we know: It can happen here, little baby, because it has.
And the school teacher’s question is the question of the moment for those of us devastated by the takeover of our country by a textbook fascist: What are we going to do now?
Let me suggest, simply, that we all do what we can with what we have. What Valerie and I have is a publishing company, and what we’ve decided to do most immediately is to make a book. We had the title first: What We Do Now.
Which is to say that for the last week or so I’ve been contacting lots of prominent progressives, begging them for a short essay on exactly that—in whatever their field of expertise is, what can people do to somehow move forward, to keep heart, to not give up?
My idea is to get the book in bookstores for the inauguration. We want to give people a chance to greet that grim day with a sense of community, purpose, and forward motion—and galvanizing them for the long four years ahead wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
I’ve had some quick, energizing acceptances to my first round of pleas: Paul Krugman, Sherman Alexie, George Saunders, George Lakoff, Urvashi Vaid, Allan Lichtman, John R. MacArthur, Dave Eggers … Valerie spent Saturday night working our connections until she got Gloria Steinem Sunday morning …
But no response yet from Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Nor to the multiple emails to the organizers of Black Lives Matter. Anthony Romero, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, is busier than ever in the wake of this crisis, and unsure if he’s going to have the time. Likewise, no doubt, for Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood, who hasn’t responded to our query yet either.
And what does it mean, beyond that, to crash a book? The normal pre-publication cycle for a book in America is about 18 months. What happens when you try to get a book out in less than two months? How does your sales team get the word out to booksellers? How do you get 18 months’ worth of marketing done in that time? How do you print and ship the book in time?
Even before you get to that, how do you simply gather the materials and prep them for printing in such a short amount of time?
Valerie and I gave the news to our art director Marina Drukman just last Friday, for example. She’ll have to design the cover in about a week. I told her I want all the names on the cover but we don’t have all the names yet. She’s going to have to design around that.
Our managing editor Wah-Ming Chang, with an assist from office manager Simon Reichley, will have to spur the copyeditors and proofers to have the text ready to go about a week after the cover’s done. That means editors Taylor Sperry and Ryan Harrington have to be done editing the core text by Friday—the day after Thanksgiving.
Meanwhile our publicity team, Julia Fleischaker and Kait Howard, are trying to coordinate a battle plan with the marketing team of Chad Felix and Ian Dreiblat whereby they accomplish in less than two months what they normally have a year to pull off.
In short, it’s not easy, and maybe even not do-able. There are reasons the big houses just don’t crash books like this. But we’ve done it before, and more than once. And as this project gets underway, I can see the team is slowly rousing from the near-coma we’ve all been in since election day. As people like Gloria Steinem and Paul Krugman join the effort, you can see spirits rising. We’re doing something …
I’ll document the effort here over the next few weeks, as we make a mad dash to get the book done, printed, and shipping to stores before election day.
Keep your fingers crossed. And let me know if you know how to reach the founders of Black Lives Matter.
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives