Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ken Budd on Agents, Publicity, and Writing About Those You Love

Meet Ken Budd, everyone! He's the author of The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. The memoir chronicles travel, volunteering, and the death of Budd's father.

Over the past few days, I've had the chance to chat with Budd - we covered agents, publicists, publishers, and the question every creative non-fiction writer wants to ask: To what extent can we write about the people we love?

In a New York Times opinion piece published in 2013, Budd writes:

"I wrote a memoir in the aftermath of my father’s death, and while the book was many things — a search for meaning, a travelogue, the story of my adventures as a global volunteer — it was largely a book about Dad. I was measuring my life against his, telling his stories, making him the ghostly muse in my midlife crisis, and I wondered if I, too, was doing some kind of wrong."

He adds, "My father never asked to be on display. And what we as memoirists choose to display — what we insist is essential to display — is an easy source of conflict. Dad grew up poor, never went to college, yet reached upper management with high-tech firms on both coasts. I wrote about this. It defined him. It fueled his drive and ambition. It defined me. I always felt like the lite beer to his stout ale."

It was a privelege to get to know Budd, whose answers to my questions were honest and useful. He agreed to let me share some of his insights with you, my dear readers. May Budd's words bring hope and inspiration to writers everywhere!

How did you get the idea for the book?
I was about a third of the way through my journey when I thought… this might be a book. I had volunteered in New Orleans and then Costa Rica. At the time I was working at AARP The Magazine. The then-travel editor had assigned a story on volunteer travel that wasn’t working out and I said, “Tell you what: I’ll write about my experiences in Costa Rica. If you want to run it, fine. If not, no big deal.” The ensuing article got a nice response and after that I wrote a book proposal. I sought an agent and got turned down four or five times before finding the right person.

Wasn't it hard to get an agent? First I mailed my proposal to an agent here in DC. I had a slight connection: a colleague of mine had assigned an article to one of this agent's clients. I mailed the proposal and got no response - not even a form rejection letter. After that, I decided I needed connections. A travel writer I know was nice enough to introduce me to his agent. She passed, but recommended to me three agents she knew. They all passed as well. I think they saw potential in what I was pitching, but they were all older, established agents who weren't willing to invest themselves in my idea. They did, however, provide feedback on the proposal when I asked them, which helped me to strengthen the pitch. I'd reached a dead end when an agent pitched me a story at AARP. I said, "Hey, would you be interested in looking at this?" She did, and she was the right person. She was younger than the other agents I'd spoken with and she invested herself in the project. So if you want an agent, I'd suggest making connnections with other writers and asking if they'll make introductions.

How did the shape of the book change after you got an agent? I had originally proposed the book as more of a travel memoir. My agent convinced me that the real story was the fatherhood issues: the sudden death of my father and my struggle to accept that I would never be a father myself. She was right, so I revised the proposal and wrote a sample chapter. We got offers from [two large publishing houses]. After that, I volunteered in four more countries. So my editor made a leap of faith. She bought the book based in part on the sample chapter, but there was no guarantee that the rest of my travels would be memorable.

What did you do to promote the book? Everyone I knew who'd written a book said I would need to hire a publicist, and that's what I did. I got some publicity help from [my publisher] for the first month when the book came out, but publishers today just don't have the money for much beyond that. The publicity firm got me on 50+ radio shows along with some print and online interviews, and I wrote some byline pieces. If I had it to do over again, I'd hire a publicist long before the book came out, rather than after.

How was the book received with your family and friends? Was anyone hurt or put out? [A friend of mine] said, "I have a friend who wrote a memoir. It was a really beautiful book. None of his family will talk to him anymore, but the book was terrific." So that worried me. When you're writing, it's such as isolated process that you're not really thinking about the work being published and someone actually reading it. When my editor read the first draft, she said, "It's good - it's so honest." And I thought... Honest!? Oh shit! Honest isn't good!

What are you working on now? Most of my writing is still tied to the book, even though it came out three years ago. Most recently I wrote an online piece for National Geographic about criticism of volutourism. My primary focus, however, has been on developing a digital TV project tied loosely to the book. I did a fair amount of TV when I was at AARP, and the publicist I hired suggested that TV should be the next step. So I developed a TV proposal, and six months ago I signed a co-production agreement with a producer I'd met. The show would be a 12-episode series; each episode would focus on a different location and a particular quirky, giving-back project. We shot a three-minute trailer and developed an outline of episodes. After talking with some agents, we've decided to pursue it as a web-based series. We can maintain more control and build an audience, which could possibly lead to a network deal down the road. By this fall we'll be working with a company that will try to sell sponsorships.


In his NYTimes piece, Budd writes:

"If you’re gonna do something, do it right. That’s the approach I took in writing the memoir. And yet I discovered something curious once the book was released: even though it’s my story on the page, readers see it through the prisms of their own lives. For all of a memoir’s exhibitionism, your tale is interpreted by readers to suit their own needs, their own experiences, their own journey. It’s a type of literary scavenging: they keep what serves them and reuse it for new purposes.

But it is still your story. And in telling mine, I grew closer to Dad. He became not more dead, as Lewis warned, but something entirely different. He became more real."


Thank you to the lovely and talented Tara Lakowski, who introduced me to Budd. Lakowski's story collection, Bystanders, will be published by the Santa Fe Writers Project next year.

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