Tuesday, April 22, 2008

[Interview] Don Miles

Donald W. Miles has a Bachelors in Education from the State University of New York at New Paltz and a Masters in Journalism and Communications from the University of Florida.

He has worked as a news director for radio stations in New York City, Connecticut, Florida, Nebraska and Texas. He has also served on the Board of Directors for Florida’s A.P. Broadcasters and has judged broadcast news contests for UPI Rhode Island.

In addition to this, Miles has taught at the Universities of Florida and Nebraska, at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and at elementary schools in New York, Connecticut and Texas.

His books include Broadcast News Handbook (H.W. Sams & Co, 1975); Broadcast Newswriting Stylebook (University of Florida, 1977) and Cinco de Mayo: What is Everybody Celebrating? (iUniverse, 2006).

In this interview, Don Miles talks about his writing.

When did you start writing?

I wrote a small booklet entitled The Little King when I was in second grade. My uncle was an artist for Disney, so he provided the illustrations. There was only one copy, but I was very proud of it.

In third grade, I came out with a weekly mimeographed newspaper for a couple of months, but a competitor whose dad owned a printing company came out with a very slick product which eventually put me out of business.

When did you decide to become a published writer?

I had been a radio news director for a number of years in the 1960’s and early 70’s, and I found myself writing memos to the staff at each station about what we should -- or should not -- be doing on the air and in the newsroom. In New York City, it became necessary to fire a newscaster, and I found myself at arbitration hearings having to define exactly what makes a good broadcast journalist. There were few or no books published on such a topic at that time, so I decided that somebody had to write one. I appointed myself as that somebody.

I had saved many of the memos I had been writing over a number of years, and I had made notes after each session of the hearing about the firing, so I organized them into an outline and just kept adding thoughts and examples as they occurred to me.

How would you describe the writing you are doing now?

It’s totally different!

My current books are about Mexican history -- a far cry from anything having to do with broadcast news. I have one edition out in English, with a Spanish edition for students and a bilingual coffee table edition with maps and photographs to follow within the next couple of years. I also have written a novel based on the nonfiction history of Mexico in the 1860’s. That will also come out in both English and Spanish within the next few years.

Who is your target audience and what motivated you to write for this audience?

My target audience is school teachers and principals who should know better! Next to them, I’m getting very positive responses from universities, museums and libraries.

What triggered this book was a school principal who was wrong and didn’t want to admit it, much less correct her mistake. Mexican Independence Day is September 16th, but she came on the P.A. system on May 5th and said, “This is Mexican Independence Day, boys and girls. It’s just like our Fourth of July.” When I went to her office to correct that, she told me, “Well that’s the way we’ve always taught it, so don’t make trouble.”

I looked in libraries and bookstores everywhere to find a book that would prove her wrong. There were 56 children’s books on the market, but nothing at the adult level. In the children’s books, most of them have the French army show up and lose the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Then, you turn the page, and it says something like, “Now, here’s how to make a piñata for your classroom party!” There’s nothing about why the French were there, what they wanted, or what happened next. That’s when I said to myself, “Somebody’s got to write this book!”

In the writing that you are doing, who influenced you most?

In the fall of 1961, a lovely, smiling señorita approached my table in the cafeteria at college and said, “Hi. I’m one of the foreign students. May I sit here?”

Well, of course. It was the cafeteria, right?

She sat down and said, “I’m from Mexico City, and my name is Señorita Profesora Magdalena Minerva Gonzalez Angulo Amozurrutia.”

I replied: “Hi. I’m Don Miles.”

We both thought that was kind of funny, and we started hanging out together. As the school year came to a close, we got married by a justice of the peace near the campus, and twice more in Mexico City -- one for the civil authorities and another at the church where her uncle was the pastor.

For 44 years, we visited Mexico often, traveling as family. We raised a daughter and a son who are now both married college graduates with families of their own. My wife Minerva became a U.S. citizen and earned a Bachelors, a Masters and a Ph.D. She taught at the University of Nebraska, St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and Texas State University in San Marcos.

Minerva suddenly came down with Lymphoma on New Year’s Day of 2006. Many complications developed over the next few months, and she died on May 28 of that year. She was not only the greatest influence on my book, but on my entire life. I will always be grateful for the time that I was privileged to share with her.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My personal experiences have included many years of writing radio news stories “on the run,” with a deadline often just seconds away. At times, I was forced to gather my thoughts while I was already speaking “live” on the air -- without writing anything -- as a story unfolded before my eyes. That’s a lot like play-by-play sports announcing. In both situations, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. You just do it -- now!

The other crucial experiences to writing all of my current Mexican history books include 44 years of marriage to an outstanding and supportive spouse who grew up in Mexico and traveled with me all over that country. We also spent untold hours in the stacks of libraries in both the U.S. and Mexico to be sure that we were getting the facts straight.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concerns are about getting a publisher who can handle not only Spanish-language translations of my book, but of one who can also handle, promote and sell a bilingual coffee table edition with color photos and maps plus English and Spanish editions of a novel.

I deal with these concerns with a high degree of patience. It’s like waiting in a very long line, but unless you’re already famous you can’t “cut in.” I’ve been working with two translators and three translation editors on the Spanish editions, and with an award-winning designer on a new cover for the entire five-book series. Just researching and writing a book isn’t good enough anymore. There’s a lot of hand-holding involved. You practically have to become the publisher to see it in print and selling.

Do you write everyday?

I would like to write every day, but I’m in a stage now where getting the five books published and on the market is the top priority. Both the nonfiction book and the novel have been written and are being translated into Spanish. I’ve got to get them off my desk before I can go back to writing.

When I was writing, there was really no set pattern to it. My wife was still alive, and our time together came first. The writing was just a hobby, not a paycheck. Very often I would write for two or three hours in the evening, and stop when it was bedtime. There were no deadlines, so it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed every minute of it, and the comments from reviewers tell me that this is reflected in the writing.

What is your latest book about?

Cinco de Mayo: What is Everybody Celebrating?
is the real story behind the holiday which has become so popular in the United States that it’s celebrated here more than in Mexico.

It tells how fleeing conservatives emptied the Mexican treasury in a civil war that took place there in 1858-60, and how the incoming liberal government was unable to meet its debts. The emperor of France -- Napoleon III -- decided that this would be a great opportunity to take over Mexico and then help the American Confederates win their own civil war against the United States.

The Mexicans were just as surprised as the French that they won the upset victory on May 5, 1862, but Napoleon III sent wave after wave of reinforcements and occupied Mexico City within the following year. It took five years to get the last French soldier out of Mexico, and then several months to finally capture and execute Maximilian, the puppet “emperor” whom they had installed. My book describes the five-year struggle, including the effects it had upon the United States.

The U.S. celebrations now include all Hispanics -- not just Mexicans -- and they occur on May fifth, a more convenient time for teachers to celebrate with their children near the end of the school year. The American festivities also attract eager participation and sponsorship from most of the major beer companies. Ask participants what they’re celebrating, and most will just say, our heritage.

How long did it take you to write the book?

It took me five years.

It was published in November of 2006 by iUniverse, a publisher in Lincoln, Nebraska.

I sent a query letter about my novel to more than 40 agents over a year’s time. Almost all of them either rejected it outright or didn’t answer at all. One agent wrote on the rejection slip that he’d like to see a nonfiction version of the topic. I wrote one, and he took me on. After a year of approaching more than 30 publishers, he threw in the towel.

At that point, I was tired of filling out questionnaires as though it were just an idea for a book, much less a manuscript. I wanted to see a real book on the table, so that we could raise the level of discussion.

That process has worked. Reviewers, academicians and educators love the book. That’s something I’ll eventually be able to take to the bank. When I mentioned to a seminar at Book Expo America in New York last summer that I would like to see it sell better in mainstream bookstores, one panelist suggested that I change the title to The Secret Diary of Anna Nicole Smith. Oh, sure. Now that we have the great reviews and have better identified the target market, I’m optimistic about the future success of all five books in the series.

Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Everything with the vanity publisher -- iUniverse -- had to be done online, and with an intermediary “receptionist” person at the other end. I never got to talk directly with an editor or cover designer. Many of my instructions were misunderstood or totally ignored. It was like standing in a long line at McDonald’s, asking for “no cheese” with your hamburger, and getting the cheese anyway. They wanted to charge me for correcting some of their mistakes, after I had paid them hundreds of dollars to do the proofreading and indexing.

The advantage is that now we’re talking about a real book, not a manuscript. I’m dealing with all the negatives by putting that process behind me and moving on.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

I have really enjoyed breaking new ground on this topic. Almost all of the books about Cinco de Mayo and the French intervention had been written in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and -- except for children’s books -- almost all of them were out of print. The reactions I get from readers is “Wow! I never knew that!” That’s because there hasn’t been a book about this topic in decades.

The rejections from mainstream publishers were absolutely silly. Many of them wrote vague letters saying something like, “not much is known about this topic, and that’s why we don’t want to know about it, either!” It feels good to get past these self-appointed gatekeepers. Given the right market -- and effective marketing -- I’m sure all of my Cinco de Mayo books will succeed.

What sets the book apart from other things you’ve written?

I had the advantage of traveling in Mexico with my family and as an insider. It reflects the warmth and the wonderful heritage that my late wife has not only given to our daughter and son, but to me as well. This is something that can never be captured by research alone.

In what ways is it similar?

All of the books fill a need. The need back in the 1960’s was for good books about the rapidly growing field of broadcast journalism and news writing style. The current Cinco de Mayo series is to recapture the details and the accuracy of an important era in Mexican history which otherwise would fade away for lack of attention.

What will your next book be about?

The next two books will be a Spanish-language edition for students and a bilingual coffee table edition of the current book, with maps, charts and color photographs.

Following those, my novel about Cinco de Mayo is based on a fictional family in Veracruz which owns stagecoach and freight lines between the port of Veracruz and the capital of Mexico City. They have a contract to run secure mail service for the United States embassy, and while they run their wagons and coaches by day, they are guerilla fighters against the French by night. The novel has already been written and rewritten, and will come out in both English and Spanish around 2010.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

It has been a cumulative achievement, actually. First, it was several years of writing news on radio stations in upstate New York, Connecticut, and finally New York City. Then, it was writing a handbook on news coverage and a stylebook on how to write it. I used both of those books to teach news writing at the college level. Finally, when I won “Best Newscast” and my news team from Lincoln won more Associated Press awards than all of the other stations in Nebraska combined, I thought to myself, “I must be doing something right!”

It wasn’t very hard to get from there to just writing -- with no deadlines and no pressure -- something I really enjoyed. As I’ve already mentioned, the most valuable motivator all along was my wife -- that señorita from Mexico City who first met me in the cafeteria at college. When you ask me “how did I get there?” if it were not for her, I wouldn’t even be close to where I am now.

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