Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why Backmatter Matters

Recently Sandra Jordan I finished a non-fiction book The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr Eccentric Genius to be published in September, 2013. It is the story of an American maverick, an artist/ceramicist, whose body of work was hidden away in crates on his sons’ property in Biloxi, Mississippi, until he was rediscovered fifty years after his death in 1918. When we attended the ALA conference several years ago in New Orleans, we decided to visit the rebuilt Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi. The buildings had been leveled by Katrina. It was designed by Frank Gehry, an architect, whose life and work we featured in our book Frank O. Gehry Outside In. We were somewhat familiar with George Ohr, now considered one of America’s greatest potters, but the hardhat tour in Biloxi convinced us that Ohr would be the subject of our next book. A flamboyant character, whose quirky, abstract pots didn’t fit in with conventional tastes, George always believed his work was “Unequaled, unrivaled and undisputed.” Sandra and I had a wonderful time researching and putting this book together, as we loved his art pottery and his wild personality. I will talk more about George as we get closer to pub date.

One of the biggest challenges we faced putting this book together was not only digging up vintage photographs of George and the South at the turn of the century, but also making sure that our young readers could place him in the context of his times. That, along with interviews and extensive research required numerous chapter notes, which is what I’d like to talk about today - the (sometimes dreaded) backmatter that all good non-fiction books must include: a bibliography, chapter notes, permissions for artworks and photographs, even a glossary or an index, and more, depending on the subject, the age group and the author’s decision about pertinent information that doesn’t work in the text. For example in Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring (with Sandra Jordan and illustrations by Brian Floca), we wrote short bios of Martha Graham, Isamu Noguchi and Aaron Copland for the back matter, as the collaboration on the dance was the subject of the book, which is non-fiction but not a biography.

Here are the questions we ask when we’re writing chapter notes:

1. If it is a quote, where did we get it? The source with page numbers. Document this immediately, so you’re not frantically trying to find it later. (Yes we have been guilty of the last minute scramble.)

2. If there are several sides to the story and telling them all in the text is unnecessary, which one do we use? e.g. Andy Warhol and Vincent Van Gogh: There were multiple versions of many episodes in their lives. We chose the versions from by best sources and/or seemed most believable to us. Put the other(s) in the chapter notes.

3. What is the form? We’ve discovered working with a number of different publishers that the forms for the footnotes and permissions vary from place to place, copy editor to copy editor. So we use the form from the last book we did with that publisher and let the copy editor do his/her job. Beware when the publisher farms it out to a temp, if the official copy editor is on sick leave or a vacation. When he/she returns to the office, the form can change drastically and much retyping by the author ensues.

4. What about a information that enhances the story but would be too much of an intrusion into the text? The back matter is a great place to add fuller historical/ anecdotal material that complicates the text or makes it longer than we wanted it to be. We try to balance, to add the extra information we want to share with readers, while not weighing down the backmatter and limitations of space. We love those extra glimpses and hope our readers, both children and adults, will too. Here is an example from The Mad Potter.

In the text we write about the Civil War and how it affected Biloxi, when George Ohr was a child. We did not take for granted that the young reader knows much about the Civil War. We added some historical facts in the chapter notes.

5. Finally do we list the sources of every scrap of information in the book? We use our own judgment on this but try very hard to give credit to primary and secondary sources, either from interviews or in a book or article. Facts, such as dates, names, places, and quoted material, are footnoted. And we always double check factual material.

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