Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Mark Di Vincenzo

Product Details  I have an addiction. The first step in addressing any addictive problem is admitting it, right? What’s more, it is an addiction shared by most every person in our country, if not most of the industrialized world.
  Facts, trivia, lists of the best or worst… Made worse by my almost eidentic memory, I absorb vast, random bits of data knowing it will quite possibly never be used, let alone mentioned. But on the off chance you need a list of characters from Homer’s works or why hot water for your shower lasts longer in summer than winter, I’m your man! It’s why I’m fun at parties (Ok, fun might be a stretch…) and why my phone rings at odd hours with friends wanting to know the answer to a question. If you’re ever on CashCab and you have me on speed dial, start counting the money.
  My guest today is an enabler of the fact obsessed. Which means I’m in interview heaven and now know when to actually get the cable company on the phone. My guest should be up for the Nobel Peace Prize for that fun fact alone!    
  Mark Di Vincenzo balances his talent as a writer, with the savvy to know what interests the marketplace. His writing style is that of a friendly conversation, not just a list of useful facts. His background in journalism serves him well, as does his incredible wife who urges him onward to new and unique listing horizons.
  First a bit about Mark from his Amazon page:
   As a journalist with nearly a quarter century of experience, I've exposed abuses and been described as a writer who makes the complicated seem simple.

    During a two-year stint as a reporter on the two-person state desk of a small daily newspaper along the southern shores of Lake Erie, I was the first reporter in Ohio to write about the state's first AIDS victim and about one of the first Ohioans diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.

    From there, I moved to Virginia, to work for the Daily Press, a 100,000-plus-circulation newspaper. As a reporter there, I exposed wrongs, such as rampant abuses at public mental hospitals and decades of neglect by the agencies that monitor the environment. Newspapers from coast to coast, from The Washington Post to the Spokane (Washington) Review, published many of my stories, regardless of their length. (The Post jumped one of my stories three times, from page 1 to page 4 to page 5 to page 6 - a rarity even at a newspaper not afraid to publish lengthy stories.)

    I've landed interviews with many VIPs, including Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson, Strom Thurmond and others, including Soviet generals and European royalty.

<b></b>   And I've won numerous awards, competing against reporters from The Washington Post, The Washington Times and The Associated Press, among others. In 1999, the Virginia Press Association created an award for the best news writing portfolio in the state - the closest thing Virginia had to a reporter-of-the-year award. I won it that year and then again in 2000. The next year I beat out reporters from The Charlotte Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to win the Southern Environmental Law Center's first-place journalism award. In 2001, I became the Daily Press' metro editor, shepherding and editing my reporters' award-winning stories and directing coverage of the newspaper's urban and suburban areas.

   Over the years, I supplemented my newspaper work and honed my long-form writing skills by doing magazine cover stories.

   During the summer of 2007, I left daily journalism to pursue book projects and long-form journalism and to start Business Writers Group, http://www.businesswritersgroup.com, a corporate writing and public relations company.

   Born and reared in Cleveland, I'm a first generation American who graduated with honors from Bowling Green State University. I live in Newport News,a shipyard town in coastal Virginia that produced William Styron, Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey, with my wife, Jayne, and daughters Olivia and Sophia. My oldest daughter, Rosie, attends Oklahoma University.”

  I’m very pleased to welcome Mark Di Vincenzo to The Novel Road

Image of "Mark Di Vincenzo"Me:  Your book, Buy Ketchup in May, Fly at Noon, is a New York Times bestseller. I found it almost addictive, going from one “best time” to the next. Your research must have been enlightening, as well as fun. How did you pick topics?
Mark: Thanks for the kudos, Doug.  I really appreciate it. My wife, who came up with the idea for the book, initially gave me a list of topics, but I suppose I came up with the vast majority of them. How? I'm not sure how to answer this succinctly, but I'll try. A lot of people who know I worked in daily journalism for a very long time will ask me, "Which skill from journalism has helped you most as an author -- reporting or writing?" I tell them knowing how to report and write have helped me a lot, but what helps me the most as an author is having good news judgment. Sorry to throw a jargony term at you, but good news judgment simply is knowing what large numbers of people will find interesting and will want to read. One thing you do every day as a daily journalist is try to come up with good story ideas. You want to do that because the best story ideas end up as front-page stories, and it's human nature to want your stories to appear on A-1 rather than A-17 or B-12. After 24 years of trying to figuring out which story ideas will appeal to the most people, you get good at it. That skill -- knowing what readers will find interesting -- translated nicely to this book. Usually before I researched a topic, I asked myself, "Will the housewife in Des Moines or the auto mechanic in Jacksonville care about this?" If the answer was yes, it made the cut. If the answer was no, it usually didn't.
        
Me: You sight many researched topics. Were the subjects of the research for Doctoral candidates? Government? Private industry?
Mark: I'm glad you asked me about this. I'm a journalist, so I'm a generalist. I know a little bit about a lot of things. Readers should know that none of the information in this book came from me -- from my little brain. I figured to give the book more credibility, the information needed to come from experts in their fields. Fortunately, I'm very comfortable asking people questions, so if I was trying to find out the best time of day to buy bread, I interviewed bakers. If I wanted to know the best day of the week to work out, I interviewed trainers and gym managers. During the year or so I researched the book, I can't think of a time when someone didn't want to talk with me. They were happy to share their secrets with me. They wanted the masses to know what they know. That was a nice surprise because as a journalist, I can't tell you how often a potential source hung up on me or screamed at me. I also came across a lot of information for the book by reading -- everything from newspapers and magazines to academic journals and books.
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Me: Does the future hold a Di Vincenzo clock or calendar on the horizon? I can imagine people piling into stores at 10am or the cable company being deluged with calls at 8am because their MDV clock alarms went off.
Mark: Great ideas, Doug! I'll be sure to steal them. Actually, we were talking with a publisher about doing a calendar, but that fell through for some reason. The alarm clock idea is very cool.

Me: You traced the original idea for your book to a lady who absolutely cracks me up. Her sleep deprived drive to provide you with a literary “honey do” list. By your book, I can see that groaning and pulling a pillow over your head didn’t work?
Mark: No, that never works. My wife, Jayne, comes up with great ideas on a daily basis, often, it seems, at three or four in the morning. I'm a heavy sleeper, but sometimes I'll hear her tripping over a clothes basket as she searches for a legal pad to write down her ideas. This book was no exception. Her idea came in the middle of the night in the summer of 2007. I was writing another, very different book at the time, and she suggested I write about the best times to do things. I thought it was a great idea and expanded it to the best times to do things, buy things and go places. The subtitle of the book is A Guide to the Best Time to Buy This, Do That and Go There.

Michele Wolson
in the jungle
Me: Talk about your agent and why you two are the perfect match?
Mark: Michelle Wolfson is a very smart, hard working lady who seems to know every editor at every publishing company based in New York City. I haven't given this a lot of thought, but if we're the perfect match, it's because she's very busy, and I'm very busy, and we respect each other's time. Neither of us are needy. We're both low maintenance, and I like working with people like that. I should say that Kate Nintzel, my editor at HarperCollins, and Joseph Papa, the publicist, are the same way. We all try to get out of everyone's way and let everyone do their jobs.

Me: The uniqueness of your book must have made for an interesting book proposal. Talk about the key phrases from it you felt help sell the project.
Mark: It was crazy seeing my query letter posted on the Internet three months before the book was published. It was highlighted on a blog called Guide to Literary Agents. Here's the first paragraph of my query letter:
   "Have you ever wanted to know the best day of the week to buy groceries or go out to dinner? Have you ever wondered about the best time of day to send an email or ask for a raise?  What about the best time of day to schedule a surgery or a haircut? What’s the best day of the week to avoid lines at the Louvre? What’s the best day of the month to make an offer on a house? What’s the best time of day to ask someone out on a date?"
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   I guess this letter worked because a lot of people want to know the answers to these questions. As I look back on it, I suppose the Louvre question could come across as a bit elitist, but the others are pretty down to earth. I began to think this letter would work after I saw the first wave of rejection letters from agents. They were complimentary, and a couple of them even said it was a great idea, but they passed. Then Michelle called and said, "Hey, do you have an agent yet?"
    
Me: You get to have lunch with any author, from throughout literary history or present. Who would it be and why?
Mark: Like anyone, I'd pick a great writer, but I wouldn't want to have lunch with an arrogant snob, no matter how talented he is, or was. I might pick Steinbeck, whose work I love. I read that he was so humble he thought just about everything he wrote sucked. Humility is a great trait. I've come to discover that the Bible is full of great writers. David, the most prolific Psalmist, would be great company.
 
Me: Give me a two sentence “hook” for your next book: “Your Pinkie Is More Powerful Than Your Thumb”.

Mark: I'm working on my elevator speech for that book, which is coming out on March 1. I'll try it out on you:
Your Pinkie is a book of hundreds of surprising facts from current events that will make you want to put it down dozens of times to email, text or call your friends to tell them what you just read. The book answers questions, such as: Why are hospitals so worried about neckties? What's the most common word used by death-row inmates during their last-words speeches? What's the most anyone ever paid for lunch? Why should you compare apples and oranges? The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, but what creature still refuses to cross the border? If you're a soccer goaltender trying to stop a penalty kick, which way should you dive -- left or right?
    
Go to fullsize imageMe: Given the nature of “Buy Ketchup in May, Fly at Noon,” and the endless list of possible subjects to address, how did you know when to stop and say this is enough?
Mark: One of the agents who passed on the book said she didn't think there was enough material out there to make a book out of it. I thought that was crazy because this book could have been 600 pages long, but from the start, I only wanted it to include the best of the best stuff I compiled. I didn't want readers to have to search for interesting material. I wanted there to be at least one great nugget on each page. This goes back to news judgment, I suppose. I did a lot of pruning and editing, and I guess the book is better because it's a lot shorter than it could be. After the book took off, I was asked to do a second edition, but I passed because I wanted to move on and because I thought a second edition with all new material would be like a lousy movie sequel.
  
Me: Your day job as the President of The Business Writers Group and your packed resume as a journalist gives you the ability to take your writing in any number of directions. Do you have a dream project in the back of your mind?
Mark: Business Writers Group handles projects as small as résumés and press releases and as large as business plans and ghost-written books. The success of Buy Ketchup In May has caused a lot of people to call us about doing books. I typically assign a writer to do the book and then I edit it and present it to the client. I'd love a client to come to me with a book I wanted to write -- one that I didn't want to hand off to one of my writers. Business Writers Group aside, I'm working on a third book that I can't discuss yet. I'm very excited about that book, but it's not a dream project. I've always wanted to write a biography because I love reading great biographies. I'm searching for a fascinating subject whose life has yet to be chronicled, or chronicled well. 
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I’d like to thank Mark Di Vincenzo for doing this interview. Now I just have to last till  “Your Pinkie Is More Powerful Than Your Thumb” hits the shelves in March. Maybe Mark can slide me a few excerpts to get me by… Just a few, I mean its not like I have a problem or anything…
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