After beginning my working life as a journalist, I took a mere four-decade detour in the book publishing business and have now come full circle in my meandering career by becoming a columnist for several Southwestern newspapers.
When my college journalism professor spotted one of my earliest columns in the Houston Chronicle, he wrote me a message that simply read: “What took you so long?”
My life in the writing business began in the fall of 1972, when I walked through the doors of the Boston publishing house, Houghton Mifflin. I had arrived there to begin my career as a publisher’s representative in the Southwest.
Houghton Mifflin was founded in 1832, and the venerable old firm was so steeped in the roots of American literary history, it had ties to authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David Thoreau, J.R.R. Tolkien and Rachael Carson. The photos of famous authors adorning the hallway walls in the creaky headquarters at 2 Park Street offered my first glimpse into the glorious history of the company I had joined.
I would later write stories in my retirement about those years spent in the publishing and bookselling world.
As field representatives, we often played the role of “literary valet,” as we escorted our authors on their whirlwind promotional book tours. I later wrote stories about my time spent with best-selling author Pat Conroy during his tours for several of his early novels, “The Great Santini” and “The Prince of Tides.” I wrote about acclaimed children’s book authors like Lois Lowry, Chris Van Allsburg, David Macaulay and Bill Peet, as well as culinary stars Helen Corbitt, Jacques Pepin, Ruth Reichl and Wolfgang Puck.
Although I worked with many talented writers during the years with Houghton Mifflin, it was Pat Conroy who forever endeared himself to all of us with his passion for books and his love of the written word. A strong bond was formed in our first meeting 50 years ago and continued long after he left Houghton in 1988 to join his editor at Doubleday. Pat’s generosity of spirit was legendary. His successes became our successes. He made us feel like we were the reason his books had become bestsellers. Our special bond with Pat was memorialized after his untimely death in 2016, with a commemorative plaque that honors our abiding friendship, and is now on display at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, South Carolina.
I attempted in these essays to stir some publishing memories of days past, and to relate stories of the people who had been instrumental in providing such a rich and rewarding life in books. I profiled some early influences in my career like David McHam, my college journalism professor at Baylor University, who continues to send me those encouraging notes all these years later. I’ve written about Larry McMurtry, an author who provided inspiration in my early growth as a reader and lover of books.
I worked with authors and booksellers throughout the Southwest and witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes in the bookselling landscape. Those stories of the sometimes-painful evolution in the world of bookselling included the heartbreaking closing of two of our favorite local bookstores, Dutton’s Brentwood Books and Village Books, across the street from where I live.
I’ve attempted to capture a publishing era graced by a certain manner of old-fashioned courtliness, which may have now been lost forever. This was an era defined by the closely interconnected relationships between authors, editors and staff members who collectively delivered the finished book to the marketplace.
I was incredibly fortunate to have been involved in a golden era of publishing and having the opportunity to experience a charmed literary life inside the hallowed halls of a house with such historic beginnings.
I was born and raised in Texas, but once I got a whiff of that cool Pacific breeze many years ago, I knew that I had safely arrived “home” in Southern California. However, I am also quite conscious of my Texas roots and have written about some of that history in recent years. It seems there is a desire for every generation to find reconciliation with its past, and by reexamining those formative years, it can help bring a clearer understanding of who we have become.
I’ve written for the Houston Chronicle, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Waco Tribune-Herald, where I first worked during my years as a Baylor journalism student. I have also contributed to our local weekly papers, The Palisadian Post and the Palisades News, as well as for noted Los Angeles writer Lionel Rolfe, and his literary website, Boryana Books.
I offered tributes to two local writers with whom I built strong friendships and who influenced my life in dramatic fashion. My late pal Ben Masselink, whom I shared an office complex with in my hometown of Pacific Palisades, became a dear and trusted friend.
Another talented local writer, Josh Greenfeld, became an advisor and mentor to me, although he was probably unaware that he ever played that role. Ben died in 2000, and Josh in 2018, and I still miss both of these fine men.
And finally, I must salute the person who has made the writing life so enjoyable for me—my editor, neighbor and friend, Bill Bruns. He was a respected newspaper editor and magazine writer during his long journalism career, and also authored 14 books. His “edits” always make us writers look better than we really are. He’s got a sharp mind and keen eye for detail that improves our stories immeasurably.
In retirement, I’ve had the good fortune to reclaim my writing life which has made this journey even sweeter, as it has allowed me to connect with my community, and reconnect with many former classmates, fellow writers and publishing friends across the country.
All in all, the columns I’ve written are not uniquely a cohesive group of stories, but hopefully, there are a few common threads that run throughout each of them, as I’ve tried to weave a connection to time and place, our culture, our various influences, and perhaps foremost—the legacy of genuine friendship.
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns have appeared in several Southwestern newspapers, and was cited by the California Newspaper Publishing Association for column writing awards in 2016 and 2017. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.