In this interview, author and former news director Don Miles talks about his latest book, Cinco de Mayo — a date most often misunderstood in the US. Don talks about his inspiration for the book and his struggle in finding the right publisher.
When did you decide to become an author? Do you have another job besides writing?
Believe it or not, I’m supposed to be “retired.” I’ve written all my books so far because there was a problem to be solved in each case and few or no books on how to solve them. As a news director in the late 1960s I got tired of writing memos to my reporters and anchors in radio newsrooms, so I came out with a book called Broadcast News Handbook. As a professor at the University of Florida in the 1970s, I had 65 undergraduates in the newsroom and no style book, so I wrote one for them.
Tell us a bit about your book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Cinco de Mayo means “the fifth of May,” and this latest book was triggered when the principal at an elementary school where I was teaching in Texas told the whole school on the P.A. system that May fifth was Mexican Independence Day. Well, no it’s not – it’s September 16th – so I went to her office to say that, and her attitude was “We’ve always taught it that way, so don’t make trouble.” I looked in libraries, bookstores – all over the place – for a book that would prove her wrong, but there was nothing in print for adults. There are 56 children’s books on the market, and almost all of them have the French army show up and lose the battle, but then when you turn the page it says something like, “Now, here’s how to make a piñata for your classroom party!” That’s when I said to myself, “Somebody’s got to write this book.” So, here we are!
My real inspiration in this case was a smiling young señorita from Mexico City who came up to me in the cafeteria at college and said, “Hi, I’m one of the foreign students. May I sit here?” Well, sure, it’s the cafeteria, right? To make a long story short, we got married and we traveled all over Mexico for more than 40 years. I didn’t have a book in mind for at least the first 35 years, but when I told her what the principal had said to me, we started scouring the stacks of libraries in Texas, Washington-DC, Mexico City, Veracruz, Orizaba, Puebla, – you name it. Yes, I had to write an outline. There was a lot of information in more than 100 books, some of them dating back to the late 18-hundreds, so an outline was the best way to sort it all out. It took me five years to write it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
Writer’s block? Not really. As I said, my motivation has always been, “Somebody’s gotta write this,” so when I commit to the topic, the whole project sort of gains a life of its own, like a runaway train. I’ll admit to you, though, that I wrote a complete novel about Cinco de Mayo before I wrote the non-fiction book that’s been published. As I resumed sending the manuscript for the novel around, a reviewer said that one of my characters was “flat,” meaning that she was just “there” in every scene but didn’t do much. After a few days, I had her kidnapped by a serial killer, but that’s as close as I’ve ever come to writer’s block. Even then, the delay was because I was busy with other stuff and had deliberately set the manuscript aside.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
My advice would be, “Keep your day job.” I was rejected by 44 agents over more than a year of sending out queries for the novel, but when one of them wrote on the rejection slip, “I’d like to see a non-fiction version of this,” I immediately got in touch with him and he took me on. Even he couldn’t find me a traditional publisher, though, so I finally laid out my own money and went with a subsidy publisher. At least we were talking about a real book, not just an idea or a manuscript. I’m about ready to upgrade from there, and I’ll have two editions in Spanish coming out in ’09, with maps and charts and a lot of nice color graphics.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
I have one of the best publicists in the business, and together we’ve spent the past year researching that very question. I told a panel at “Book Expo America” in New York last summer that my best responses were coming from libraries, museums and the field of education, but I said that Barnes & Noble, Borders and the other major book stores were not putting it on their shelves. One of the panel members told me how to solve the problem. He said, “Just change the title to The Secret Diary of Anna Nicole Smith!” Oh, sure. On the other hand, I addressed a faculty gathering at the University of Texas on May 4th, the night before Cinco de Mayo, and the very next day I sold 19 books at Book People, the state’s largest independent bookstore, a few blocks away. Unless you’re already famous, you’re going to be in a “learning process” when the book comes out. You have to be flexible and patient.
What is your favorite book of all time? Why?
Oh, I’d have to say Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson. He’s a mountain-climber, and when he failed to make it to the top of one of the world’s toughest peaks known as “K-2,” he wound up in a little village in Pakistan. They were extremely poor, but since they had treated him with such warmth and kindness, he promised that he would come back and build a school for them. Well, this is way up in the Karakoram mountains, where the Taliban got its start. This is the story of how he not only went back and built a school, but in the next ten years he built 55 of them. It’s a really fine example of Americans at their best, and a relief from all the “negatives” we hear in the news lately.
Do you have a website or blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
I’m so glad you asked! It’s only a website right now, but I hope to add a blog within the year. It’s simply Don Miles.
Do you have another book in the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’m expecting to have the two Spanish editions out sometime next year – one for students taking Spanish and the other for Latin America. Then, there’s the novel which has been on the back burner for a few years, which will come out in both English and Spanish, and I’m going to be in Mexico a number of times before this year is out – recording some DVD’s – for a documentary, for some visuals that Spanish and History teachers can use, for promotional purposes, and some of my friends and family members are mulling over the possibility of a movie. We’ll see. It’s fun dreaming about it.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
Oh, just that a very supportive family has been the foundation of everything I’ve achieved. My wife – that señorita I told you about – became a United States citizen and earned a bachelor's, a master's and a P-H-D, and taught at several universities. The book is dedicated to her. She died in 2006, but lived long enough not only to see both our daughter and son graduate from college and get married, but to see our daughter become a helicopter pilot and our son work at the White House.
Our daughter is now retired from the military, and our son is now the National Security Council Director for Canada and Mexico. I’m very proud of each of them, and very grateful for the enabling role that all of them have played in my life. I might not have ever written a book without them.
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here.
You’re very welcome! Thanks for having me.