Monday, June 07, 2010

My Barbecue Book!

One thing I learned over the past few years is that if you are hard at work writing a book, the last thing you should do is tell anyone what you’re up to. Especially if writing isn’t your fulltime job and you either don’t have a publisher yet or have secured a contract but it's with an academic press. The wheels turn slowly in the world of scholarly peer-reviewed publishing, and it can be a long and circuitous process from initial proposal and sample chapters through initial peer review, finishing the manuscript, final peer review, and then making the final revisions and securing the photo permissions and formatting the endnotes . . . and did I mention page proofs and indexing?

A few years ago I made the mistake of telling a co-worker or two that, in my spare time, I was working on a book about barbecue. Once that cat was out of the bag it wasn’t going back in. Before long, half the company would open casual conversations with me by saying, “So I hear you’re writing a book about barbecue!”

I can’t blame them. Writing a book on barbecue is a little less common a hobby than, say, playing golf. The first few times someone asked me about the book I was pleased—even secretly delighted--and I’d talk a little bit about what I was writing about and how I was doing the research. And, inevitably, they’d ask the obvious question: “So when’s it coming out?”

“Um . . . I’m not sure yet.”

Let’s face it: any schlub can be writing a book. All you have to do is sit down at a computer or in a comfy chair with a legal pad and knock out a few sentences every month or two. Most of us probably know somebody who, if they only spent as much time putting real words down on paper as they did talking about the book they were aspiring to write, they would out-produce Stephen King. Having spent the better part of the ‘90s in a graduate English program, I dare say I’ve met enough of such people to last me a lifetime. The last thing I wanted was to become one.

Before long it wasn’t even fun to talk about the book. When things weren’t going so well—when I hadn’t been able to write more than a hundred decent words in a week, or when I was waiting to hear back from editors or outside reviewers and things seemed completely up in the air—having to talk about the book was downright excruciating.

But now I think it’s finally safe to say that I am no longer writing a barbecue book but rather that I have written a barbecue book. The physical copies are not quite on bookstore shelves yet, but I’ve made my final reviews of the proofs, finished the index, and turned it all back into the press. You can pre-order it on Amazon, and that’s got to count as some sort of a solid milestone.

So now I can say it: I’ve written a book about barbecue! It’s entitled, Barbecue: the History of an American Institution, and it’s being published by the University of Alabama Press in September. You can learn much more about it here, and I’ll post more about it in the future (including some good stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor). But, here’s the quick summary, addressing the most common questions I’ve had to field in the past whenever someone learned I was writing a book on barbecue:
  • It’s a straight narrative history of barbecue in America from the 17th Century up until today
  • More than half the story occurs before 1900, and it’s a story that’s never been fully told before.
  • Yes, it does contain recipes, but mostly really old ones (like early Brunswick Stew and burgoo recipes)
  • Yes, it does talk about restaurants in different parts of the country and different regional styles, but only in the interest of telling the history and not as a comprehensive guidebook
  • It does have endnotes, but it’s a really fun book nevertheless
And, most important of all, it’s a finished book. Phew.

(In case you’re curious, I do have a follow up project or two in the works, and I’m actually writing real words on them fairly regularly. But that’s all I’m saying!)

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