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Writing Biography, with Bob Andelman, author of Will Eisner: A Spirited Life

With Bob Andelman, Author of Will Eisner: A Spirited Life




August 13, 2006

The Writing Show (WS): What makes a biography special? Is it enough that the subject has lived an interesting or famous life? This week, we visit with Bob Andelman, author of Will Eisner, a Spirited Life, who tackles these questions and more. It’s a long interview, but Bob was so fascinating that I insisted he keep talking. I would have kept him longer, but I started to feel guilty. Please join us and see why I couldn’t stop.

Welcome to the Writing Show, where writing is always the story. I’m your host, WS: B. Today my guest is Bob Andelman, author of Will Eisner, a Spirited Life. Bob Andelman is the author or co-author of several bestselling biographical, business, management, and sports books, including Will Eisner, a Spirited Life, The Profit Zone, Built From Scratch, Mean Business, and five others. He has also written hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories for a vast array of publications ranging from Redbook and the St. Petersburg Times to Gallery. Andelman, whose home town is North Brunswick, New Jersey, has lived in the Tampa Bay area since 1982. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Film Studies with a minor in American Literature from the University of Florida. He and his wife Mimi, a news features editor at the St. Petersburg Times for almost thirty years, have been married since 1988, have a daughter Rachel, and two dogs, Scout and Chase. Welcome to the Writing Show, Bob. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

Bob Andelman (BA): Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. I appreciate your interest.

WS: Let’s talk about your fantastic book, Will Eisner, a Spirited Life, and the writing of biography. This book took me inside a whole world that I actually am ashamed to admit I knew nothing about. So if you could just start by telling us, who was Will Eisner?

BA: Will was one of the fathers of the American comic book. He had a seventy-year career that started about 1936, 1937. He started barely out of high school, started drawing comics. He was doing comics in high school. He was doing them when he got out of high school. His first real job was working on a comic magazine patterned after some British comics, and at the time, it was called Wow, What a Magazine. He was doing comics for that. It didn’t last very long, but he partnered up with the man who was the editor at the time, a fellow named Jerry Iger. Iger had thirteen years on him, but Will had all the talent. Iger had the business sense, but Will had the talent, and after the magazine folded, they started a studio that became legendary. Basically, they produced comics kind of the way Ford produced automobiles. Will figured out a production line. He created under five different assumed names, and they, at one point or another, employed a lot of folks who went on and became extremely famous in the comics world: Bob Kane, who later created Batman; Jack Kirby, who later created Captain America and co-created the Fantastic Four and the X-Men; and Jules Feiffer twenty years later who became a Pulitzer Prize winner. So Will was there at the beginning. He was so early that he actually was a publisher or a producer of comics who turned down Superman.

WS: Turned down Superman.

BA: The guys who created Superman, Siegel and Shuster, were making the rounds with this character, and everyone in town, everyone in New York rejected it. They were a couple of kids from Cleveland, and everybody rejected it. Will was one of those who said, “You know, you guys, you have some good ideas, but you really ought to go back to the Cleveland Art Institute and refine your technique and your story-telling.” Little did he know. So he really goes back to the beginning of comics.

Two other things, quickly, a couple of things that kind of mark him in comics. Around 1940, he left Jerry Iger and went on his own and created a character called The Spirit. Not a lot of people today necessarily know The Spirit, but it was a ground-breaking character in 1940, 1941 because it was the comic book that was distributed as an insert in Sunday newspapers, kind of the way we get a TV guide in our newspaper today on Sunday. The newspaper publishers had gone to him and said, “We’re kind of worried about this new thing, this comic book, that they are going to take away our audience. So we thought if we created a comic book and distributed it in the newspapers, we could draw more people.” So he created this character. It was very different than anything that had ever appeared and pretty much since then. It was different in style. It was different in story-telling. It was very literate for its time, and that character endured for another ten or twelve years.

The last major thing I would say, and I am babbling here, but the last major thing is in 1978, many years later–this man had many acts to his career–in 1978, he put out a book called A Contract with God, which while it wasn’t the first graphic novel as we now know them, it was the book that got attention for that genre and created basically the whole genre of graphic novels that we know today. So that’s kind of who Will Eisner was in a very long, very bloated nutshell.

WS: Just curious. Why is it that he seems to have such a low profile among the general public?

BA: Well, he never had a character that broke really huge. He didn’t create Superman or Batman or Jughead or Archie, for that matter. Interesting thing about the Spirit. Because it was carried in newspapers–it was carried in about twenty newspapers at its height–and five million copies of that went out every Sunday, so you would think that’s a lot of people. But it was only in twenty newspapers, and if you think about the hundreds of newspapers that there are, if you were a boy or a girl who lived in a community with a newspaper in the 1940s or early 1950s that carried the Spirit, you knew and loved the Spirit. But if you didn’t live in a community that had that feature, you never heard of it. So it was loved in the areas where it was, but it never really broke out.

The Spirit was a detective. He was the detective named Denny Colt who everyone thought died investigating a crime, and when he realized that he hadn’t died but that everybody thought that he had died, he thought it would be a great way to fight crime, and he named himself the Spirit. Only a few people knew who he was. It was a very clever thing. The story-telling was great. The art was incredible. However, it never really reached a major audience.

Over the decades he kept reappearing every few years. He had a major return in the early ‘70s, and they called it the underground Spirit. It was published by an underground comics publisher, and mostly a lot of hippies and anti-establishment people thought that the Spirit was kind of cool. It never really caught on in a big way except with creative people. The people who created comics, comic strips, comic books, movies, television, magazines, all huge fans of Will Eisner’s work and of the Spirit, but it just never got that mass audience that a Superman or a Spiderman did.

WS: But, it sounds like maybe the Spirit is finally going to become known because….. da da da dah….

BA: Big movie. This past week, there was a big announcement that a fellow named Frank Miller, who is responsible for bringing Batman into the modern age and giving Batman some credibility as kind of the dark knight, as he called it, and who also created “Sin City,” it was announced recently that he will be spearheading a movie. He will write and direct the movie based on the Spirit, and that has people both very excited and very alarmed, but it will probably put the Spirit in front of millions of people who have never seen the comic book and hopefully introduce them to Will’s work.

WS: And sell lots of copies of your book.

BA: And that.

WS: Why are people alarmed about the movie? Are they worried it might not turn out the way it should?

BA: I think any time you have a character that has sixty-five years of history, people see it their own way. Frank Miller basically said that this would be kind of a darker character than people expect, and because the Spirit is definitely a lighter character and kind of humorous at times, there are some people that are concerned. On the other hand, Will Eisner was one of Frank Miller’s big heroes, and they were close, and so most people are assuming it will be a very true and respectful version of the character.

WS: And when will that movie be out? Have they announced any kind of date?

BA: Yeah, they expect to start production in spring of 2007 and have it out in spring of 2008.

WS: Can’t wait.

BA: Yeah, I’m excited.

WS: Just out of curiosity, I know the answer to this, but just for our listeners, is there any relationship between Will Eisner and Michael Eisner, the head of Disney?

BA: Yes and no. Directly, no. However, Will got a call–I don’t know, about ten or so years ago from, no, he got a letter, I’m sorry. He got a letter from a fellow named Robert Iger, who at the time was the president of ABC television and who worked under a guy named Michael Eisner, who was running Disney, CEO of Disney. And he sent a letter to Eisner, and he said, “I just read this profile of you in the Los Angeles Times, and I guess that you worked with my great-uncle, Jerry Iger.” Eisner thought that was hysterical, and he called him up, and the two of them had a nice conversation, and they found it very amusing that sixty years apart, there was another Eisner and Iger working in entertainment.

Will loved to tell stories about Jerry Iger. Jerry had a lot of personal traits that were not the best, but they make for good storytelling. When I did the book, I followed up with Robert Iger and also with his father, Arthur Iger, because I thought, “Let’s get some balance to these stories about Jerry Iger. Surely he could not be this guy that everyone described, this womanizer, this cheap guy, and all this kind of stuff.” Well, they basically reinforced Will’s stories. They said, “Yeah, it’s all pretty much all true.”

WS: But the Igers are, were related. There is a family connection there. But the Eisners, there’s no family connection that anybody is aware of, is that right?

BA: Right. There is no connection between Michael and Will. The connection is between Will Eisner and Robert Iger and that Will worked with Robert Iger’s great uncle, Jerry. Yeah, everyone asks. Everyone asks. As a matter of fact, if you do a search for Will Eisner, you generally bring up an awful lot of stories about Michael Eisner, because there were so many stories over the years that would start off with either the sentence or the headline, Will Eisner resigned.

WS: How did you come to write this biography, Bob?

BA: I had had conversations with a former agent who was also interested in comics, as I was, and we actually thought it would be fun to do a biography or an autobiography with Stan Lee, who is the head of Marvel Comics, or has been, and created Spiderman and Fantastic Four, the X-Men, all these kinds of characters. We tried to track that down, and we didn’t get very far with it.

And then I switched agents. My old agent called me up and said, “Hey, I know someone you should talk to. She represents both journalists and comic book people, and you two would probably hit it off. Her name is Judy Hanson. I called her up, and we spent two hours talking. It turns out that her agency, Kitchen and Hanson, represented Will Eisner and the estate of Al Capp, who created “Li’l Abner,” the estate of Harvey Kurtzman, who created Mad Magazine and “Little Annie Fannie” for Playboy, and all these other great artists. And she said, “We have been trying to talk Will Eisner into doing an autobiography for years, and maybe you are the right person to get it done.”

So she introduced me to her partner, Denis Kitchen, who is a former underground comics publisher in the ‘60s and ‘70s who had since become Eisner’s agent–his art agent and also his literary agent. And he interviewed me, and I guess he decided that maybe I was the right guy. So I went down, and I met with Will, and we kind of hit it off, and so the idea was to do an autobiography. My experience over the years has been that my name on a book doesn’t sell a lot of copies, but me writing a book with somebody’s else’s name on it, that tends to do okay. So the idea was to have it be Will’s book; it would be an autobiography as told to or with Bob Andelman.

Well, we got a few months into the proposal, and I turned over a draft to Will, and I don’t know, it was about fifty or sixty pages, and he called me up, and he said, “I’m really sorry, Bob, this isn’t going to work.” I was just crestfallen. I said, “Why? Why not?” He said, “This is too much work.” He said, “If I start writing this book, I am not going to get any of my own books done, so the only way we could do this is if you want to do it as a biography.”

The other thing, it’s interesting, is that under the original arrangement, we would split the royalties, the revenue from the book, and basically what he said was that he didn’t want to have to be responsible for writing his own book. So he said, “Look, I don’t want any money from it. You take whatever it generates, and I will cooperate with you, and I will do whatever you need. I just don’t want to have to write it.” I said, okay. So that’s how I got the book.

WS: How much did you know about the subject before you started it?

BA: That’s embarrassing.

WS: No, it’s not. You don’t have to know anything.

BA: Well, it’s funny. When I was a teen in the early ‘70s, I had seen some of the reprints of the Spirit that came out, and I thought, “This is pretty neat.” And then it kind of disappeared, and that was really my whole exposure to him.

But oddly, I met his old partner at comic book conventions in the ‘70s and had a bit of a correspondence with Jerry Iger, so I actually knew Jerry Iger long before I ever met Will Eisner. I had some familiarity but not a lot, and part of the reason, as I understand it, that they wanted to go with me as the writer was that I had some familiarity with comic books, but more importantly, I had credibility as a journalist, and I would not treat the biography or the autobiography, either way, as just kind of a suck-up, bowing at the knees of a great artist: that it would be a real story, that it would have good and bad, and it would really take you through his life.

And I learned. I immersed myself for two and a half years into his life and his work, and I interviewed about seventy-five people who were either friends or family or worked with him over the years or scholarly people. So I think by the end, I may not have started with the same understanding and appreciation of his work and his career that someone else might have, but by the end, you can be pretty sure I was pretty much an expert.

WS: Maybe you were a little more neutral, as well.

BA: I think so. Yeah, I think that’s what they liked that I brought to the table. And I also did not–and I say this I think on the very first page of the book–that it’s a story of his life and how he lived it. It’s not an appraisal of his art and the quality of his work. I just went in to tell his story, which I think is what a biography should be, a person’s life story. There are plenty of other people out there who can appraise his art and tell you that he could draw this line well or his shadowing was this. That wasn’t really my goal. I just wanted to tell his life story and make it interesting.

WS: I want to talk in a few minutes a little bit more about what biographies should be, but I would like to ask you first a little bit more about the writing of the book. You mentioned that you interviewed about seventy or seventy-five people. Is that where you started? How did you get started once you got the “job?”

BA: I started really with Will. I would go down to south Florida and spend two to three days with him at a time every couple of weeks and just run the tape recorder. He would keep drawing. Nothing would stop him from drawing. He was working constantly, so I would just stick the tape recorder under his nose, and I would ask questions, and he would tell me stories, and I would ask him about something. One of the things people constantly remark on is they can’t believe that I got him to tell me the story of how he lost his virginity, which, yeah, I am kind of surprised at that myself, actually. But you know, he was very open about stuff, and really, we started there, where I would get with him in person, and then once we had a comfort factor, we switched to primarily telephone interviews. I would interview him once or twice a week by phone for an hour, an hour and a half at a time. Once I felt a little more comfortable, I started calling… He basically gave me his address and phone book and said, call anybody you want. So that’s what I did.

WS: Oh, that was lucky.

BA: Yeah. I just started calling. I started with the names I recognized, and then I worked my way through the names I didn’t recognize, people who were family and friends. Most people got a call from me. There were a few, of course, that didn’t. You kind of reach a point where you have more than enough information to write even a life story, but that was pretty much it.

And then I would still go down and see him periodically. It’s funny, the first or second time that I went down, I stayed in a hotel, but after that, he and his wife insisted that I stay with them in their home, which, of course, that opens up another whole aspect. You really see a person when you are with them before they go to sleep, when you are with them when they wake up in the morning. There is not a lot of phoniness there when you are in somebody’s kitchen having breakfast with them.

WS: You must have done non-interview research, as well. What sort of non-interview research did you do?

BA: There were a couple of aspects to that. The first is that Will was a genuine packrat. He kept everything, all of his work. He kept newspaper stories, clips, letters, correspondence, and he had a great deal of it in his studio in south Florida. And again, he did as he did with everything, he just pointed me to it. He said, “Look, I am not going to walk you through the files, you help yourself. You go through anything you want, copy anything you want, use any material that you want. I have no secrets from you. Whatever you want.” So I had a wealth there, but also, I think in the early ‘80s, he donated his archives and everything else to the Cartoon Art Library at Ohio State University. It’s not a public kind of library. You have to go there as a researcher to get in and see things, and they bring them out to you a file at a time. So he helped me get permission to go there, and I spent three days in Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State University going through his files there, and that’s where I got a lot of the rare pictures and artwork that is in the book. They also made an exception. They let me bring a scanner in, and I was able to scan a lot of things, so that was another aspect of it. Then finally, his agent, Denis Kitchen, who lives up in Massachusetts, invited me to come up and pick his brain and go through his files as well. So those were the three main points. I came away with several hundred pages of photocopied documents from the Ohio State University, just piles and piles and piles of stuff.

WS: Well, that brings up one of many questions, actually, it brings up several questions, but let me start with this one: how did you organize all of this stuff?

BA: Fortunately, this was my ninth published book, and I think I have done two others that never quite made it into print, so I have a lot of experience at organizing notes and clips. You organize it a little differently according to each person. In Will’s case, I organized according to topics and according to years and periods of time, and it actually, the way I organized, it wound up helping to suggest how the book itself should be organized. It sort of followed the same sort of logic.

A little more time-consuming was the transcriptions of all the audio tapes with both Will and people that I interviewed. I still haven’t quite mastered a really great way of doing that. I will talk about technique. I will get all the interviews, the transcription, and then I will print them out on paper, and I will mark in the margins what the topic of this is or the topic of that is, and then I will literally cut and paste. I will cut up the pieces of paper, and I will put them in piles according to topic, because a lot of the interviews that I did were fairly stream of consciousness. I wouldn’t necessarily have a list of questions for someone. I pride myself on being a pretty good listener. I am doing a lot of talking today, but I pride myself on being a pretty good listener, and so I will try to ask questions based on what someone has just said in addition to the things that I know I want to ask them about. But then when I get the transcript back, there is not a linear thought pattern, so that’s a little messy.

WS: So you actually clipped parts of the transcripts and put them under different topics, is that how you did it?

BA: Yeah. This drives my wife nuts, but I will take over the kitchen table, and I will mark little notes and say, “Okay, this is about the Spirit,” or “This is about Will in the Army,” or “This is about his wife or children or what have you.” And then as I go through the transcripts and I have something about that subject, I cut it, and I put it in that pile. So it’s not the best. It has worked for me, but when it’s time to take those piles and then find the transcripts on the computer and copy them into a file, so then I create an electronic file of all the transcription notes of the same subject. Am I confusing you on this? I don’t think I am explaining it as well as…

WS: Only slightly. I think I pretty much get it. Obviously, you must have duplicated information, in a way. Not duplicated information, but you are using the same file over and over again in different ways and taking pieces….

BA: And sometimes there literally is duplicated information because Will has maybe told the same story at different times, or maybe his wife has told the story, or maybe a friend has told the story, and what starts to happen is it becomes like a bouillabaisse. If I only heard the story once, well, it’s a little flat. But then if the same person tells it again, they remember another detail. Or maybe his wife tells the same story, and there is a lot more detail, there is more color. Or maybe a friend of the family tells the story, then you get a couple of things. You get extra detail, but you also get confirmation that you are getting the story correct. So in that regard, there is a method to the madness, kind of a reinforcement of where I am going with it.

WS: What happens if people tell you contradictory things?

BA: I get a massive headache. Well, then I have to go back to the source, and that only happened three or four times, which is really amazing, because when we started the book, Will was 85 and in really good health, and his mind was just so sharp. There were only three or four incidents that he told me about that I wound up questioning in some way, either his memory of them or the way he wanted me to hear them. And over time, I have narrowed it down to–I think there is only really one story that he told me that I still have some questions about that I am still not sure he told me either the whole story or that he remembered it correctly. But I haven’t been able to find anybody to this day who can tell me this particular story and find two people that agree on it. So it may not have been Will at all. It may have just been, I don’t know–time changed people’s perspectives on it or what have you–but generally it wasn’t too hard to get something confirmed, in this case because Will’s wife, whom he had been married to for 53 years, could help with a lot of stories. So much has been written about the man that there are a lot of ways to confirm information. And as I say, he was a packrat, so he kept his letters, he kept papers, he kept old drafts. There was quite a paper trail.

WS: How many topics would you say you ended up with?

BA: Oh, that’s a great question. I think the book has twenty-five or twenty-six chapters. I probably [have] five to ten from that as topics or either combined them with others or just dropped them. I don’t know, thirty or thirty-five, probably.

WS: So when you were sorting, you had thirty or thirty-five categories, would that be right?

BA: Yeah, I think that would probably be about right. Sometimes, I would combine. You realize that there is a connection between this and this and combine them. What pained me is there are a couple of chapters in the book that are technically probably too short. They are only like nine or ten pages, but I just felt they needed to stand on their own.

WS: Did you confine whatever was under a topic to one area of the book, or did you use pieces of topics throughout the book?

BA: That’s a good question. One of the complaints I have heard from some people, not many, but some people found that the book was not linear in its storytelling. It bounced around a little bit, and some people found that confusing. I felt there were four major aspects to the man’s life, and I built the story around those as opposed to starting, “Will Eisner was born in 1917” and then go on from there and then on the last page, “Will Eisner died on January 3, 2005.” I was more interested in grouping the information according to what made sense.

For example, the first couple chapters are about his early days in comic books. I didn’t start with his early days as a kid. I sort of did, but where I pick up is he is about sixteen or seventeen, and his dad is looking for ways to help him with his career. We don’t start with him very, very young. We start with him already on the verge of breaking into the art business, and then the second… You know, it’s funny, I don’t have the book in front of me….

WS: Can I just interrupt you for a second and just say something?

BA: Sure. Of course.

WS: I think starting there is a wonderful idea because you get the reader right into the action. He’s just on the verge of doing something that is going to influence the rest of his life, and you just pull them in rather than he’s a little tiny baby and his first steps across the room or something, so I think that was a great choice.

BA: Well, that works for some books, I think. I have read enough biography where these biographers–and they always impress me when they do this to a degree–they start with, let’s say they are doing Mozart. Maybe they start with Mozart’s grandfather and how he was a cobbler and made shoes or something, and they take you through the grandfather and the father, and finally the great Mozart is born. Well, in the case of Will Eisner, the majority of the people who were going to be interested in him were going to first want to know about the early days of comic books, and I thought, “I need to satisfy them right up front to get them into the book,” because the second part of the book I then stop–and this is where I got some criticism–I stop right there after he has created a lot of comics but before he has gotten to his character, the Spirit, and I stop, and I introduce his family and a little of his background and tell you about his mother and his father and how his mother drove him crazy and didn’t want him to be an artist and how his father was a frustrated artist all of his life. And then I introduced his wife, and I talked a little about his hard work with his children. Then we come back to his career again, and we start off talking about the early days of comic books and how he was there at the beginning, and I knew people would want to get into that. But then I want you to know that he was a real flesh and blood person, too, which is why I switch back to talking about family in the second part of the book, because very little is known about him. For a guy who did hundreds, maybe thousands of interviews over the course of his life and his career, he really didn’t give away a lot of information until it came time to do this book. Not a lot was known about him personally.

WS: That worked for me, actually, the way you got into his… as I said, he was on the brink of his career, and then you went back to his childhood. I mean, I found that that worked, personally.

BA: I appreciate that.

WS: When you approached people to talk about Will Eisner, did you meet any resistance, or did everybody say, “Yeah, great, let’s talk about him?”

BA: I was very lucky, because Will didn’t have a lot of enemies, and everyone that I spoke to for the most part had good things to say or wanted to talk about him. There were three people that I had thought to interview for the book and was not successful. I think those are… if I could tell you about those for a minute, and they are all recognizable names to a certain crowd, I guess.

Frank Miller, who we talked about earlier who was going to direct the movie based on Will’s character, the Spirit… When I started working on the book, he and Will got together for a weekend to do a conversation that would be in the book. The book just came out this past year. It’s called Eisner-Miller, and the idea was to take… There was a book done thirty years ago where Orson Welles sat down with–oh, I am going to draw a blank now–a French director. And they sat down, and they had this artist on artist conversation, and it was just back and forth. And you really got into their heads. The idea was to take this classic master of comics, Eisner, and put him together with a modern-day master, Frank Miller. And they talked, and they talked, but unfortunately, the way it was set up, Will needed to do a little homework on Frank’s work. Will didn’t do that. So when they sat down, Frank, of course, had a lifetime of knowing Will’s work, and Will didn’t really know much about Frank’s work, and within an hour, he had insulted Frank and hurt Frank’s feelings, and it kind of cast a pall over the weekend. Well, when it came time for me to try to interview Frank about Will, Frank wasn’t speaking to Will, so I couldn’t get him on the phone. I couldn’t get him to respond to email, I couldn’t get him on the phone, which was unfortunate, but I understood. I mean, Will had kind of hurt his feelings, and I don’t know, I trust that they resolved all of this before Will passed, but I don’t know. So that was one.

There is another fellow named Art Spiegelman, who was, again, another fan of Will’s, but something happened in their relationship near the end, and Spiegelman wouldn’t return my calls. I couldn’t talk to him.

And the third one was the best story, was really the best story, because I actually did talk to this guy briefly, the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

WS: Oh yes. A real character.

BA: Huge, a real character and just a self-professed, the number one Will Eisner fan in the whole world. Will had said, “I am friendly with Harlan, go ahead and give him a call.” I didn’t know when I placed the call what a character that Harlan was, so I call him up, I have his home line, I call him, I explain what I am doing, and he says, “Yeah, yeah, I will talk about Will. I would love to.” So we set up a time, and I thought, “Okay, great.”

Well, unfortunately, we were supposed to talk on a Monday, and the previous Friday, Will’s brother Pete passed away. I think this was in December of 2003, so I called Harlan I think on Friday, whatever the weekend passage of time was, I called him, and I said, “Listen, I am going to need to reschedule the interview. Will’s brother Pete died, and I have to go down for the funeral, so I won’t be here to do the interview.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, no problem. Why don’t you give me a call in a month or so, after the holidays.” So that’s what I did. We were coming up on Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s, so I waited, and in mid to late January, I called him back expecting to be welcomed and to just pick up where we left off. “Oh, my God. Why does everybody think I have all this free time? You know, you expect me to give up my time for free and just talk to you for free?” “Well, yeah, isn’t that kind of the idea of the interview, Harlan, to get some information from you?” “Look, I don’t have time for this,” and he starts screaming at me, and I thought, “Wow, what on earth did I possibly do to this guy?” Well, then, I heard that Harlan is pretty much like that with everybody.

But the end note to all this was that after Will passed away in January of 2005, there was a memorial service held in New York in April 2005, and who should be one of the speakers that comes up, Harlan Ellison. And I thought, “This will be interesting.” And he got up, and he gave one of the greatest eulogies I have ever heard from anybody. It was foul-mouthed, it was full of four-letter words and invective, and it was funny as all get-out. I think this was the same week that the Pope had died, and Harlan looks around….. his comments are actually online, they are posted, but he said something to the effect that, “In Rome, people are lined up miles long to go by and see the body of the Pope. You know what? They should be lined up miles long here to see the body of this pope. This is the man they should be lined up to see. This is a great man.” And he goes on and on, and he talked about how his home had a whole room devoted to Will Eisner, and he had glass built into a wall like was in the Spirit comics. Anyway, to me, the best stories in this book were the ones for the interviews that I didn’t get.

WS: Those are great stories. Yeah, I didn’t know about those from the book. That’s interesting.

BA: Well, you know, you don’t want to embarrass anybody.

WS: And, of course, you don’t want to use everything, which brings me to another question, and that is, how did you decide what to use and what not to use?

BA: Well, let’s see. I started with the stuff that wouldn’t get me sued. No….

WS: I am going to ask you about that later, actually.

BA: I tried to go with the best material. I mean, really, the stuff that made the most interesting reading, the stories that no one had heard before, the things that gave you more insight into what made him the man that he was, the artist that he was. Those are kind of the ways the decisions were made.

WS: Just out of curiosity, I was going to ask you this later, but did you worry about being sued?

BA: No, not really. There was one chapter in the book…. Will had a young woman who had helped him in the ‘70s organize his life, and she later became his art agent. I had been told that she might be a little tricky to deal with, and he, well, Will didn’t have anything really bad to say with her, but they had split at some point, and they were no longer speaking. Someone else had told me a lot of stories about her that were extremely, shall we say, colorful, and I hemmed, and I hawed, and finally, as I was getting down to the end of it, I did something that I rarely do. I contacted her, and I said, “Look, I would like you to read this chapter because I don’t want there to be a problem later, and I don’t want you to be upset with me. It’s a book about Will and not about you, and if you have problems with things here, let’s fix them now.” And it was a good idea in that she did have a lot of problems with things that were in there. There were things more about her personal life that really were not necessarily relative to Will, and there were also some errors, and unfortunately, she got overwrought, and she made all the corrections. But then she also posted the chapter to her own Web site.

WS: Before it was published?

BA: Before it was published. It was the strangest thing I had ever experienced in terms of publishing because it really went against my grain to send somebody a chapter before it was published, but I needed a higher level of comfort with it than I had. But then if she was so upset about it, why would she publish online the chapter that I wrote with her corrections but with the errors in place where people could read them? I thought that was very strange. Maybe I am the only person on earth who knows that every Web page is archived somewhere, and you can always go back and call up pretty much anything that has ever been published on the Web through Google and other things–there is the Wayback Machine, and you can find pretty much anything. So I thought that was a very strange thing to do, and I had told her all along that I would make whatever corrections needed to be made, and I did. That was the only one that I worried about being sued for, but I felt like I was on pretty good ground, and then once I made the changes that she had pointed out, I wasn’t worried about it.

Now, there was one other incident. There is an artist, a very famous artist named Drew Friedman, who has done work over the years for (inaudible) Spy magazine, National Lampoon. I think he has done stuff for the Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly. He had been a student of Will’s, and Will had some pretty nasty things to say about him. As a matter of fact, he was about the only person that Will had anything bad to say about, and I was so shocked to hear Will say anything bad about anybody that I contacted Drew, and I sent him an email. I tracked him down through some mutual acquaintances, and I said, “I am doing this book on Will. “ I didn’t get into exactly what was in the material, but I said, “Hey, I am doing this story on Will, I would like to interview you about your time as a student.” And he wrote back, and he said, “Thanks for thinking of me, but that was a really long time ago, and I really don’t have anything to say about Will, and good luck with your book.” And I thought, “Oh well, at least I gave him the opportunity.”

So the book comes out, and it was out about two months, and in February I am out of town, and I get this email from Drew Friedman, who is very upset about some things that are in the book. And I wrote back to him, and I said, “You know, I am sorry that you are so upset, and I understand it,” and I said, “But if you recall, I gave you the opportunity to be interviewed for the book, and I would have asked you about these things.” And that calmed it down, because he realized that I knew there was going to be a problem and I tried to head it off, but eventually it was resolved. Two long answers to a very short question, I guess.

WS: When you invited him to be interviewed, did you tell him up front that there was going to be something that he might want to respond to, or did you just say, “Can I interview you?”

BA: Yeah, I just said, “Can I interview you?” I didn’t want to put in an email the material that I had. I wanted to get him on the phone and talk to him about it. You are contacting someone you don’t know, someone who is in the public eye, and the first contact, as far as I was concerned, was not the place to bring up stuff that was incendiary in any way. And I assumed that since everyone else wanted to be interviewed that he would want to be interviewed (doesn’t make sense, but that’s what you said), but he didn’t, and he was very dismissive of it. And I thought, “Well, maybe there are some hard feelings on both parts,” but he just didn’t want to be interviewed.

WS: When he said he didn’t want to, did it occur to you maybe then to mention that there might be some things he would want to respond to? I am just wondering, because it’s a sticky thing. How do you handle that?

BA: Well, yeah, in retrospect, I probably should have gone back to him and said, “Look, Will said some things that you should respond to.” But at the time, I can only report what I did at the time. At the time I invited him to be interviewed, I described the book, I talked about all the different people who were being interviewed in the book sharing their stories, and he made it quite clear that he didn’t have anything to share and didn’t care to talk about Will. So I just let it go at that, and when he and I spoke earlier this year, he didn’t say, “You should have told me exactly what he had to say.” He just said, “I should have responded to you and been willing to talk then.” So I think he understood that I…. Like I say, I am contacting someone I don’t know about someone that they know and expecting that they will just freely want to talk, and he cut me off so cold that I just thought, “Well, there’s not much more that I can do here.”

WS: What happens if you have already spoken to someone and then someone later says something about that person, about the first person? Would you go back to them and say, “So-and-so said this, what do you have to say about it?

BA: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. My background is largely a journalist background, and you can’t let anything go. You can’t just publish it unchallenged. You have to at least make an attempt to square it. And I will say in the case of Drew Friedman, going back to that, I did speak with someone else who backed up what Will had said, and I told Drew that at the time when I talked to him, so it wasn’t just one man’s point of view. I had someone else who supported what Will had told me. So yeah, I wasn’t completely just going on the basis of something that Will had said. You have to be careful, there are people’s careers, and there are lives involved, and it’s nice to have a juicy anecdote, but you really have to be responsible about how you handle those things.

WS: Why is it that journalists don’t want to show what they have written to people before it is published?

BA: One reason, I think, is that if I am writing a story about you, and I have spent time with you, and I have spent time with other people, and I feel reasonably confident of the facts, and I have been thorough, if I show you the story, chances are you are going to have second thoughts about something you told me, or you are going to decide you want it reworded because it doesn’t put you in the best light, perhaps, or you are just going to say, “Oh, my God, I don’t want to be in the newspaper,” or “I don’t want to be in the magazine.” So, from my perspective, that’s part of it. And then there’s just the kind of journalistic tradition, you just don’t show the work before it gets published.

WS: I always wonder, particularly in interviews that you see on television with Barbara Walters and people like that, they get people to say the most amazing things. And you really wonder, do those people realize there are millions of people now watching them or reading what they are saying? It’s such an intimate feeling when you are talking to the interviewer, but how does that work? Do you have any thoughts about that?

BA: Well, yeah, I do have a little insight into that, because, I don’t work in television, but I am in people’s homes all the time. I am talking to them. It’s one on one. They are telling you things–you are looking them in the eye–and they are telling you things that they wouldn’t stand up on a stage and tell people, you wouldn’t tell an audience. But it’s one on one, and you establish a rapport, and they tell you things. They tell you things because they are proud or they are regretful or whatever the reason may be. And I think what happens on TV, there is another element on TV that everybody wants to be a TV star. That’s why we have all these stupid reality shows, and people go up there and say things to the camera that they would never say even in a room of dear friends. Everybody wants to be famous, everybody wants their fifteen minutes of fame, and as a result, they wind up telling you things.

In my case, I don’t know. What my wife will say is that there are two reasons that people talk to me: one is that I am a pretty good listener, and people want to talk when someone is going to listen; and the other thing is, she thinks I am in the wrong business. She thinks I should be a therapist because for some reason people like to open up and tell me things that they would never reveal to anyone else. I don’t know what it is. I have heard the wildest, craziest things, both working on stories and not working on stories. Maybe I just have a friendly face or I just look perfectly harmless. I don’t know what it is, but people tell me stuff that even my eyes just go wide, I can’t believe the things that people say.

WS: That’s a good quality to have in your business, I would say.

BA: Well, it has worked for me, yeah.

WS: Did you back up your research in case of disaster?

BA: Oh, that’s a good question. All the electronic stuff, yes. For example, when I do interviews, I send the tapes off to a woman in Georgia who has been transcribing my stuff for about ten years, and she emails me the stuff. I usually leave the tapes with her while I am working on the book so that they are not physically here, so if the worst happened, she has the transcripts and the tapes at her house. And then I will do all the electronic stuff, all the transcripts and chapters that I have worked on, I periodically burn onto a CD or two CDs, and I will usually put one in a safe deposit box, and then I will also copy it over to a second hard drive just in case my drive goes down. Now, do I do it every day? Am I religious about it? No. Unfortunately, I will usually get caught up and back up like a month at a time. I wish I was better at it, but you have so many things tugging at you in a given day, that I am afraid that I don’t back up as thoroughly [as I should]. And then the newspaper clips and copies of that kind of stuff, I don’t worry about that so much because I know where I can always find it if something would happen to it.

WS: Just out of curiosity, when you were getting the tapes transcribed and traveling and everything, did you have to pay for all that yourself, or did your publisher pay for that?

BA: Well, when I started the book–here’s a sad fact of writing life–when I started on the book, Will’s agents who represented me for this particular book, they were convinced that this was going to be a huge book and draw a big advance because there was a great growing appreciation for Will and he was in the twilight of his career and his life and all that kind of stuff. And unfortunately, it didn’t pan out that way. Meanwhile, by this point, I am like nine months or a year into the work, so I have been building some expenses and travel expenses and research expenses that I am figuring I will net back once we sell the book. Normally, I wouldn’t do it that way again, but everyone was so confident, and we wound up selling it to a smaller publisher in the end for a very small advance, plus they agreed to reimburse a certain amount of prior expenses, so it didn’t work out as well as it should have.

WS: Well, that’s not uncommon, actually, but I was curious about it.

BA: No, I know. Yeah. Fortunately, I am fairly frugal. I have done enough books, I am fairly frugal in terms of my expenses and keeping them down, and I am still getting the job done. If I have to go and stay at a hotel, I am not going to stay at the Ritz Carlton. Because I am a “writer,” that doesn’t hold any water. I am going to go and get the job done. I have a very good deal with my transcriber. I try to keep her with steady work, so we keep the rate at a reasonable amount. Yeah, I didn’t get rich off of this book, but I will tell you what. You didn’t ask, but I will tell you anyway. I have done a lot of books, I have done a lot of books with CEOs. That tends to be my stock and trade is that I do a lot of books with heads of companies and help them tell their story. But what I have always wanted to do is to write a straight out and out biography. So even when this book did not draw the kind of advance that was hoped for, I still thought it was a great opportunity for me in terms of my career to write a real biography and throw down the gauntlet and say, “Look at this. I can write a biography.”

It took three times as long as I thought it would, but I kind of looked at it as an investment in myself and in my career that it was worth the time and the money to prove that I could do it and maybe put myself in a position to do more of that kind of work. It has been a fabulous experience from top to bottom. There were some bumps along the way, but I got to meet a great man, I got to spend a tremendous amount of time with him at the end of his life and his career, and I wouldn’t trade any of that for anything. I got to meet people who knew him and worked with him and made some wonderful contacts. I learned a lot. He went to bat for me several times with people, showed a tremendous loyalty and support that I hadn’t experienced a lot over the years, and so all in all, it was worth its weight in gold.

WS: And so you probably didn’t experience what I have heard many biographers do which is that they end up not liking their subjects after spending so much time either with them or learning about them.

BA: No. I have nothing but love and respect for Will. You reach a point where your objectivity goes a little by the board because you are so engrossed in someone’s life. You may love them, or you may hate them, and I have nothing but good things to say about him personally. He was open with me, warts and all. There weren’t a lot of warts, so I guess that wasn’t such a big issue, but yeah, I came away with a very healthy admiration and (inaudible – words garbled here) I wish I had spent another year with (inaudible – garbled again) greatest treat on earth, I think.

WS: I would like to talk a little more about the writing of the book–your style and the actual writing part rather than the research part. Your very first sentence in the book just grabs people, certainly grabbed me, “Sam Eisner was impressed the first time he saw his sixteen-year-old son Billy’s byline – ‘by William Eisner’ – on an original comic strip in his DeWitt Clinton High School newspaper, The Clintonian, in 1933.” And aside from the fact that that is information-packed, it really is a grabber. Why did you decide to start the book this way?

BA: You know, it’s funny, I appreciate that you liked it. I am still kind of undecided if that was the best way to open the book or not. I wanted something that set the scene. I have always read and been told through the years that you are opening a book, you are going to give someone 80 to100,000 words to read, and you want those first couple of words to really set the scene and really let them know the kind of book that you are going to write. In a lot of ways, the story of Will Eisner is the story of Will and his dad and Will and his mom, and it just seemed the right place to start. It gave you a little taste. And Will’s life was all about the byline. I mean, his signature in certain circles is as famous as and looks a lot like Walt Disney’s signature, so to start off with something about his byline seemed appropriate, I guess.

WS: You have included quite a bit of dialogue in your narrative, and I know some of it comes from transcripts, but some of it is obviously, well, if you don’t mind my saying so, made up. Why did you decide to do that?

BA: Well, it’s not so much made up as it’s recounted. It’s two things. First of all, I like to use conversation and dialogue whether I am doing a book like this or a magazine article, for that matter. I just think it’s easier to read, and I think it helps keep you moving through the text. Will actually was very good at recounting conversations. He would say, “This one said this, and this one said that, and I said this, and he said this,” and so it really wasn’t too hard to put together what the conversation was like. As a matter of fact, I thought it was pretty easy for me to do it because I was dealing with someone who–my subject was still alive, and a lot of people that we wrote about were still alive–so it wasn’t difficult.

I wonder about someone who does a biography of someone in the 17th or 18th Century. I wonder where that comes from. I don’t know how you source stuff like that, but in this case, for example, there is a conversation in there on the telephone where Will is talking to his publisher on the Spirit, and they are creating the character basically on the phone. It was a conversation that was crystal clear in his mind. He remembered it as if it happened yesterday. So it wasn’t that tough, but there are no absolutely invented conversations in there. They all come from someone recounting a conversation and hopefully someone else confirming it, whether it be… Oh, Busy Arnold was the name I was trying to think of, whether it be the conversation that Will had with Busy Arnold on the telephone as he is creating and sketching the Spirit for the first time, or another example would be later in the book. Actually I think it’s earlier in the book.

Will is on the phone with the woman he will eventually marry, Ann. And she is working at Paramount Pictures in New York, and she is calling him all upset because the bosses at Paramount are furious because he just did a take-off in the Spirit on one of their new movies, and he just ripped them apart. And she is all upset because they are going to sue that guy. “Who is this guy Eisner? We are going to sue him, we are going to sue him.” And again, they both remembered the conversation, and they both told it to me separately, and it matched up so beautifully that it was very easy to put that conversation together and to have it in the book.

WS: I can’t imagine remembering conversations like that. I guess I have a different kind of mind.

You did something amazing, and that is that you write scenes that integrate dialogue, background, and current narrative. For example, on the very first page you do this. You describe the young Will Eisner’s first meeting with cartoonist Ham Fisher who created “Joe Palooka,” and in that description, you not only come up with a scene that is very cinematic, but also, you manage to describe Ham Fisher’s ongoing feud with Al Capp, who created “Li’l Abner.” You get so much in there, and I am just wondering how you do that?

BA: Oh, well, that part. Paula, I made all that stuff up. It’s not true, none of it. No, I’m just kidding. It was all Will. It was entirely Will Eisner. His memory of detail, specific detail, was so good. A lot of his books were first person or they were autobiographical, and the same kind of detail and recall that he had in his books he was able to lend to me in telling his story. There was just such a wealth of detail that he recalled about things.

There is a chapter about the creation of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. Chabon had gone and interviewed Eisner trying to recapture what it was like to have a comic book studio and office in the 1940s, and he asked him just an incredible number of questions about what it was like, did the guys smoke in the office, what did they smoke, did they open the windows when they smoked to let the smoke go out, what did they have for lunch, did you go out for lunch, did you stay in, did you have it ordered in, what numbers would you have to dial, like what was Murray Hill 7, what did that mean, just on and on and on. And Will could answer those questions. He had that detail. And so I would like to take more credit for being clever and creative and resourceful, but the reality is that Will and also Ann Eisner, his wife, just had incredible recall of detail.

WS: So you are saying that he brought all those elements together when he was talking to you. It’s not just a question of detail, it was a question of explaining things in the middle of the narrative, giving background as…

BA: Yeah.

WS: Well, okay, but I still think you did a great job of it. The other thing is, it’s interesting that you should say it came from him, because he had a cinematic mind.

BA: Absolutely.

WS: And it’s coming through in the way you wrote the book, so that’s just amazing.

BA: Well, thank you. Absolutely he saw things very visually and at different angles. In his work, one of the things he was known for is different angles and things, and there are some people who will argue whether Will Eisner influenced Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” or Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” influenced Will Eisner. It was about the same time that they both kind of burst on the scene, and there are a lot of overlapping elements. The detail was great.

This is interesting. One of the agents on this book had wanted me to do all sorts of research and write about what the era of the (inaudible – footage?) and all this stuff, and I thought about it, and I said, “You know, I am not going to do that.” I said, “First of all, Cavalier and Clay had just come out, which captured that era beautifully, and I felt like anyone who was going to read the Eisner book had probably read that anyway and didn’t need me doing a second-hand job on recreating the era. But I also felt that Will had so much detail about the things he was involved in and was so colorful and helped really recreate the scenes and the moods that that was more important. I have read biographies where they tell you everything that happened in 1959. “Eisenhower did this and this,” because they want to set the scene, and they want to put everything that happened in perspective relative to their subject. You know what? I just think that’s more than you need from me. From me, you need to know about this guy and his life and the details of that, and the other stuff is just kind of superfluous to me.

WS: Yes, but you do work it in, and that brings me to my next question. You work it in obliquely. For example, you paint this picture in very few words. On page 32, you say “He made the rounds with his big black portfolio and was turned down over and over again. In New York City, that is a lot of rejection. Then, as now, there were more agencies in Manhattan than in any other city in the world.” Now, that….

BA: Okay, I wrote that part.

WS: I know you did, and what that does is, it gives me a picture. I can just see this kid on the pavement with his portfolio getting tired, going up and down these steps of these brownstones, or okay, some other–I am not that much of an authority on New York–but going up and down the steps and getting the brush-off in all these various offices. So you did work it in, and it does have a period feel, even though you don’t say, “Well, in 1940, this was how it was and blah, blah, blah.”

BA: Well, we have all seen the old great black and white movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s. You can just picture that happening in the movies, and so yeah, okay. I will admit there was a little bit of writing going on.

WS: There was a lot of writing going on.

Here’s a topic I would like to talk about. You foreshadow. On page 50, you said “It was one of those fateful calls that less fortunate people never receive or don’t recognize the opportunity it presents until years later.” So you are foreshadowing, because you are saying “one of those fateful calls,” so you are setting this up so that people know that it was important. But you are also doing more than that. What is it that you are doing in that one very important sentence?

BA: Well, I think it was about, we all have opportunities that come to us, and some people see them, and some people don’t. Will was a guy–and it is a recurring theme in the book–Will always recognized opportunity. Maybe not that minute, but he never turned it away, either. He had a lot of opportunity and had a lot of ideas, and he made things happen in his life. I don’t know if that answers your question.

WS: It does. And you are getting that across so beautifully and so subtlely. I love that.

You reprint some letters in your book, and I am wondering if you had to get permission to do that.

BA: It’s a little bit of a gray area. I think most of the letters, well, there are two types of letters. There are letters from Will to his family and children, and those I had his permission for. And then there are excerpts of letters from Busy Arnold, who has been gone probably for thirty or forty years now. They are in the Library. I don’t know what the exact law governing those is. I didn’t have a problem with reprinting them, and I guess the lawyers from the publishers didn’t either. I am sure they would have stopped me if they had felt there was going to be any problem with them. I certainly felt that they added a great deal, because there was stuff in there… A lot of it was just stuff that made me laugh.

Busy Arnold, who was Will’s partner and publisher of the Spirit, would just write letters. You know, this was the pre-Internet era–he wrote hand-written letters or typed letters to Will almost every day commenting on something. And it was back in that era where you didn’t really worry about hurting people’s feelings. My favorite comment was a little hand-written note, and I have used this in presentations that I have given on Will, a little hand-written note at the bottom of a typed letter, and he wrote, “The art on Lady Luck (which was one of the features in the Spirit, in the back of the Spirit) the art on Lady Luck was awful, not even comic book quality.” And I just thought that was so funny.

WS: Let’s talk a little bit about the genre of biography. What makes a good biography?

BA: I think the subject has to be someone that you are either interested in, you are already interested in, or someone that you could be interested in, meaning you are interested in some aspect of their life or something that they did or something that they accomplished. And then, as a writer, of course, I like to think that it has to be written in an engaging way. If it’s dry like paint on the wall, people may tell you that it’s well-written, but you are just not going to force yourself to read it. In my point of view, what I like to read, I think biography has to be as much a page-turner as any good novel. There has to be a little drama, it has to be colorful, it has to just keep you going and make you want to know what happened next, even though it doesn’t have the same kind of plot. It has to keep propelling you and making you want to read more and more.

WS: Is there anything you should never do when you are writing a biography?

BA: Lie. Make things up. No.

Maybe I haven’t done enough of them. I don’t think so. I think the basic, the same rules apply as when you write anything else. You adhere to the facts, you make it interesting to read, don’t take liberty with the facts. I think that’s pretty much it. I think those are kind of the golden rules.

WS: You have some opinion in your story, though, and obviously it works, so how do you feel about putting opinion…. I mean, you met your subject, and you interviewed a lot of people who had similar things to say about him, and then you sort of put that in occasionally as opinion.

BA: Well, let me put it in a little perspective. One of my favorite writers is a guy named Nick Tosches, and he has written a lot of music biography. He did Hellfire, which is the biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, and he did a book called Country, which is about the early days of country music, and he did . I just love the attitude that he brings to his writing. It is very informed writing. He has heavily researched. Ad what I got out of that is that after a certain point, where he has become an expert on what he has written about, he feels comfortable occasionally dropping in an opinion or a view or a point of view. Sometimes I think it’s maybe less an opinion than just kind of a point of view or a little bit of attitude, and I don’t have a problem with that. I think that may set one writer and one writing style apart from another.

WS: On page 63, you have a quote, “Life is not what one lived but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” What is this quote, and did it affect your writing of this story?

BA: No. I mean, it was Michael Chabon. No, I don’t think it really affected me so much. I thought it was really interesting, but I think it was more Michael pointing out something that was more of interest to him and used in his book as opposed to how it affected me in this particular book.

WS: What was the most fun part of writing this book for you, and when I say writing, I include the whole process?

BA: You mean besides just being done?

WS: Why do all authors say that?

BA: You know what they say, it’s always easier to have written than to write.

I think the interviewing is probably the most fun, because I am just kicked back, and I enjoy it. I don’t even like to think of it as interviewing in the formal sense. I like to think I am making conversation with people. That’s always fun.

But I had some really good experiences with people. There is a writer that I interviewed for this book. His name is Neil Gaiman, who has had a lot of success in the last ten years and [is] a very busy guy. I think today he’s probably involved in three film adaptations of his work, and he is probably writing another novel, and he is writing comics, and he is doing all kinds of stuff. I wanted to talk to him about one very narrow thing related to Will Eisner because they were friends, and so I had arranged to interview him by phone and talked to him one afternoon. And we talked for, gosh, thirty or forty minutes, and we were only supposed to talk about twenty minutes. At one point, his assistant came on and said, “Bob, Neil’s got to take this other call. He has a conference with an editor.” I said, “Hey, no problem, we have already talked twice as long as I thought we would, it has been great, and I appreciate it, and please tell him I said thank you.” She said, “Oh, he’s not done.” I said, “Excuse me?” She said, “Well, he wants to know if you could call him back tonight at 9:30 after the kids to go sleep, because he has more stuff to talk about.” I said, “That’s wonderful, but I don’t have any more questions. I don’t know what else to ask him about.” And she said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. He’ll do all the talking.”

So I called him back–and he is just a wonderful guy–and I called him back, and he talked, I don’t know, another forty minutes, maybe an hour. He just had all this stuff he wanted to get off his chest about Will because Will had been so good to him. I just love that story. That’s another story I tell when I do presentations, because it was just an example… That door would never have opened for me if I wasn’t writing about Will Eisner. There are just people that I interviewed for the book and people that I talked to, wonderful people, and a lot of people that I have admired and respected their work who I would never have gotten to talk to. If I just had a question as one writer to another, these guys wouldn’t talk to me. They are not going to drop what they are doing, but because I am calling and I am working on the biography of the great Will Eisner, oh my God, the doors that opened, and I enjoyed that part of the book a great deal. I hope I have another subject in the future where that kind of things happens.

I think that was a lot of fun, and I enjoy the writing part, as well. Literally, I love to sit down at the computer and write. As a matter of fact, last night, my daughter and I were talking–I have a nine-year-old–and she is always giving me a hard time because I work so much, and I said, “But you know what the difference is, Rach? The difference is, I love what I do.” I said, “When I sit down at the computer to write,” or as my wife calls it, “type,” “I don’t feel like I am working. I am having a great time, because I really enjoy it.” And I said, “You need to find something in your life that makes you feel that satisfied.”

WS: What about the dark side? Was there anything that gave you a lot of trouble?

BA: I don’t think so. I had some trouble with the publishing company, but that doesn’t really count for much. No, not really. I am not someone who has ever had to deal with writer’s block or any of that kind of thing. I guess it exists for other people. I have never encountered it, so I don’t know. People say, “How do you sit down and write all the time?” I said, “Well, if I don’t write, my family is hungry.” So there is always a very good excuse, there is always something pushing me to keep doing it. So, no, I don’t think there are any dark side issues at all here.

WS: Would you just read a little bit for us?

BA: I could do that. All right, here’s a little excerpt from A Spirited Life:

Eisner’s general practice was to write a graphic novel in ‘dummy’ form, which is the rendering of the book in rough pencil, with the dialogue in place. Once he completed The Contract with God dummy in 1977, he thought about where he might sell it. He didn’t want to approach a comic book house, because he felt that his potential readers long ago had stopped going to comic book stores and were now going into book stores. Eisner called Oscar Dystel, then president of Bantam Books, and pitched the concept. Dystel not only knew Eisner but was said to be a fan of his work on “The Spirit.” Dystel remembered him, but he was a busy man, as publishers usually are, and he was impatient. He wanted to know what it was that Eisner had, exactly. Eisner looked down at the dummy, and an instinct told him, “Don’t tell Dystel it’s a comic book, or he will hang up on you.” So Eisner thought for a moment and said, ”It’s a graphic novel.” “Oh,” Dystel said, “that sounds interesting. I’ve never heard of that before.” At Dystel’s invitation, Eisner brought the dummy up to his office. Dystel looked at the dummy, looked at Eisner in disbelief, and then looked back at the dummy. Then Dystel shook his head. “Call it what you will,” he said sadly, “but this is still a comic book! We don’t sell comic books at Bantam. I’m surprised at you, Will. Go find a small publisher.” So much for hitting the big time.

WS: That is a great passage. That is a wonderful passage. Thank you for that.

BA: Thank you.

WS: You are marketing this book in a very interesting way or multiple ways. Can you just tell us a little bit about what you are doing?

BA: Sure. The first thing I would tell you is that this is my ninth published book, and having been around the bend a few times, what I have learned is that after the book has been out for about a week, unless it becomes a major best-seller and everyone in the world is talking about it, publishers tend to lose interest, and then they move on. So if you don’t approach the publication of your own book with an attitude that you have to be involved, you may not fail, but you are not going to succeed the way you want to.

And so I have for years taken an active hand in being involved with the book, and for me, that includes I will make phone calls. I am not shy about it. I will make phone calls. I will send out post cards. In recent years, I have created an email list of people interested in either my work or, in this case, interested in Will Eisner, and I will send them a note that the book is out or send them a note that something is happening relative to Eisner.

I created a Web site a year and a half before the book even came out. I secured the name and started posting information about Will and his career and his projects–photos that I would take, things like that–and that’s all been very helpful. Once reviews started coming out for the book, I would publish the reviews on that Web site. When I was appearing anywhere, I did two things. I would promote the appearance if I was going to speak or read from the book. I would put the logo of the store or the museum where I was going to appear along with the date and time, and then after I appeared there, I would always be sure to get a photo. So there would be a second part of the Web site where you could see photos from where I had appeared. And what those things did was, on the front end, that accomplishes promotion for whoever was kind enough to invite [me] to their place of business or their institution, and on the back end, it shows what the scene was like wherever I spoke and lets other people who might be thinking of inviting me as a speaker to see that I actually showed up, for one thing.

And then what I am doing more recently was kind of a big experiment on my part. I have been running into a lot of people since the book came out who had more stories to tell about Eisner or people who I just didn’t have enough time to get their stories into the book. And I thought it might be fun as kind of a value-added thing to start an interview series and post these additional interviews on the Web. It’s kind of a low-expense thing for me. I just do it as a question and answer on the phone. I have it transcribed, and then I post it and add photos and other art. It’s kind of like if you didn’t read the book but you had some interest, then you might come across these interviews and think, “Wow, this is kind of interesting. Oh, there’s a whole book that goes with this? Gee, I would like to read that.” Or if you read the book and you still have an appetite for more Eisner, we are expanding the material on Eisner in the interview series. And the funny thing is–and I did not plan this, I swear to God I didn’t plan this–the interviews have gone over really, really well, and one of the foreign publishers first asked me if he could include the new interviews as an appendix to one of the foreign editions of the book. And then I have so many readers who have enjoyed the interviews and have been asking if these interviews would be collected as a companion guide to the original book that we are actually talking about it now.

WS: That’s wonderful.

BA: Yeah. It was not intended that way, but it looks like it may have that effect.

WS: Oh, that’s a great story. Where can people find these interviews on the Web?

BA: They are at or they can just go to and there is a link from there.

WS: And you also have a mailing list. I know, because I am on it, and every so often, you announce the debut of another one of these interviews.

BA: Yeah. The interviews. I post a new one every Monday. People can sign up for the mailing list and get updates, and then also, through the wonders of the modern Web, if you have an RSS reader, a real simple syndication reader, you can click on the page for that, and it will automatically tell you every week when the site updates.

WS: Is there anything that you would like to add, Bob, that I haven’t asked you about? And believe it or not, in all this time, which is probably the longest interview I have done, I haven’t even asked you all the questions I wrote down.

BA: I think the only thing you didn’t ask me was how I lost my virginity, and I am going to save that for another time.

WS: When I am on TV and I am doing a Barbara Walters-type show, I will ask you about that.

Bob, thank you so much for being with us on The Writing Show today. This has been so fascinating. And as I said, it’s the longest interview I have done, and I just couldn’t stop. I’m glad that you had the time. I wish you the best of luck with Will Eisner: A Spirited Life, and I just know when that movie comes out that you are going to sell billions more copies than you already have.

BA: That would be very nice, but Paula, I enjoyed it. I can’t believe I talked as much as I did, and I enjoyed every minute, and thank you so much. It was a lot of fun.