EPISODE 17: Taking Care of Business
Nothing makes you feel like a bigger jerk than to overhear your son parroting your own hang-ups. Not long ago, I had one of those Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" moments when Nicholas told a friend, "Yeah, I'm exhausted from staying up all night trying to finish my two books." He's seven. He can barely write a paragraph. When had he turned into Nicky Deadline?
I should have seen this coming. Normally, my work ethic mimics that of an Edwardian gentleman or a three-toed sloth, but this past summer was an unusually busy time for me as a book editor. All those nights in the office must have got Nicholas thinking that the only way to get the undivided attention of his book-editor dad was to, well, write a book.
"Ah, Dad, I'd like to come to your office and meet with your boss," said Nicholas early one morning as he tossed a three-ring binder onto my head while I lay in bed still half asleep. He then started flipping through his drawings of all 44 US presidents. Each rendering was accompanied with a few hand-lettered facts. A particularly freaky one of Barack Obama caught my attention: Obama's eyes were glowing like the Green Lantern's magic lamp.
Normally, my work ethic mimics that of an Edwardian gentleman or a three-toed sloth, but this past summer was an unusually busy time
"What's up with Barack's eyes?" I asked.
"They are green because the economy isn't doing well," Nicholas replied. I'm not sure I followed the young illustrator's logic. "So what do you think about next Wednesday? I'll come in and talk to your boss? What do you call your boss again?" Nicholas asked.
"Your publisher," he said rolling the word around his tongue to see how it tasted. "And what do you call the money you pay a writer?"
"What kind of advance do you think I could get? How much money?"
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
I'm sure there are plenty of dads who would be thrilled to have a seven year old keen to follow in their career path, but not me. I've always hoped that our children would run further and faster than their parents, so I've never set out to transform Nicholas into an acolyte. His nascent skill set - an ability to memorise facts, a great eye for design and a firm moral compass - could take him many places far from the literary realm. He could be arguing cases in front of the Supreme Court or running a chain of boutique hotels.
All I hope is that we end up having some shared interests and a few ironclad rituals that will be able to withstand the maelstrom of his adolescence. When he's grown, I hope he goes off into the world, has his share of adventures but comes home to New York to settle down.
When it comes to fathers and sons, I have always envied the way that Singin' in the Rain lyricist Adolph Green spent his last night on earth. His son Adam, who is Vogue's theatre critic, came over for a Martini and some take-in from Shun Lee (a Chinese restaurant that Nicholas and I coincidentally both love). Over Grand Marnier prawns and corn soup, father and son swapped dirty jokes and debated the merits of classical composers. Adam kissed his father goodnight before he headed home. Less than an hour later, Adolph Green died in his sleep at the age of 87.
So when Nicholas confronted me with his work in progress, I felt I needed to both encourage his efforts but also remind him that his dad is not some workaholic who has forgotten how to have fun. On a slow day, my son came to the office with two binders - for a meeting.
As our dumplings and Grand Marnier shrimp hit the table, I raised my Martini to Nicholas and he clinked back with his water
My boss could not have been kinder, and Nicholas could not have been more polished. He had originally wanted to wear a blazer and tie, but I explained that authors often adopt more casual looks, so he donned a lime green polo shirt, navy V-neck, cords and vintage royal blue New Balance sneakers. When my assistant informed us, "Mr Wolff is ready to see you," Nicholas strode down the hall and put his wares on the table. Thankfully, Mr Wolff is the father of three grown children, so he knows the terrain.
During most pitch meetings the writer remains on one side of the desk, and the editor on the other, but Nicholas walked around and got right next to my boss where he began to talk him through the American presidency. "So why did you put a picture of The Constitution here?" asked my boss. "Why is it next to James Madison?"
"That's because James Madison wrote it," said Nicholas without missing a beat - a claim that is not totally accurate, but the kid was rolling.
"Well, what would you like to do with this book? I'm interested."
"I think you should publish it and my Dad should edit it," he responded and then Nicholas broke one of the cardinal mistakes in sales. He kept talking after he had the order. This was the moment for him to take the deal and get out of my boss' hair, but he kept flipping pages and appeared to have no interest in stopping until we had heard his spiel on Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and "the page I've left blank in case Mitt Romney wins". Finally, I put an affectionate hand on Nicholas' shoulder and steered him out.
Later that week Nicholas and I went out for a father-son dinner to Shun Lee West to celebrate his "deal". (His "deal" means that I will be self-publishing his book with a limited first print for family members as Christmas presents.) Shun Lee is not the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. In fact, with its tuxedo-clad waiters, black booths and white papier-mâché dragons, it is something of a time capsule. For me it is comforting to knock back some dim sum in a place you once ate with your parents. As our dumplings and Grand Marnier shrimp hit the table, I raised my Martini to Nicholas and he clinked back with his water.
"Cheers to you, Dad," he said and then noticed my odd-shaped glass with the lemon rind floating in it. "How come you have two waters? Can I have a second water? One that comes in that funny glass?"
"Sure," I replied. "At your first book party. Or when you turn 21. Whichever comes first."
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