Friday, November 18, 2011

At Large in the Groves of Academe

As I probably mentioned to you about four thousand times, I won a prize, or The Edge of Ruin did, from the New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance, for the best historical novel of 2010 about New Jersey. A few weeks ago I went to New Brunswick to accept the prize and appear on a panel along with the other award winners, all real historians, in the Pane room of the Alexander Library at Rutgers.

Harold and I showed up at the Alexander Library a little early. I asked the information lady where the Pain room was. She thought for a moment and said, "Ah. The Pah-Nay room. It's that way." And so it was. I posed with a bust of Dante while we waited for the others.

The panel went well. Librarian Chad Leinaweaver introduced us, and we spoke for awhile about our work, Michael Adelberg, Joseph G. Bilby and me. The audience consisted almost entirely of members of the Alliance, all of them real historians, many of them distinguished college professors. In the middle of the first row sat a stern-looking man who fixed me with a gimlet eye as I rambled on about what a pill Thomas Edison was considered to be by the independent film makers of the early twentieth century. Turned out he was the foremost Edison scholar in the universe, Professor Paul Israel. He is the keeper of Edison's papers, a huge hoard.

Yikes. When I was first working on that book and folks in the publishing world urged me to say nasty things about the god-like Edison as a way to get attention, I had a sneaking feeling that i might run into one of his adherents somewhere down the line. I little knew how soon, or how great an adherent.

He came and spoke with me after the talk. I'm happy to say he didn't bawl me out for being mean to Edison, but mildly disagreed with my assertion that the early peep-shows were men's entertainment, and then tried to excuse the elephant. I hadn't mentioned the elephant, actually, although it's often on people's minds. Edison had the creature electrocuted on camera. The elephant was a rogue elephant; it had killed a guy; the demonstration had nothing to do with the struggle with George Westinghouse over alternating vs direct current, because by the time they juiced the elephant that fight had been settled.

That's what he said. I have no reason to doubt him. And, hey, he bought my book. I thought he was charming.

Kate Gallison


  1. Kate, how did the historians respond to the notion that you were writing a novel, not a history book? I am always amazed that people sometimes forget that littled word on the back cover: "Fiction"

  2. They knew it was fiction-- actually the point of the award was that I had set it in New Jersey, and was bathing a little-recognized corner of New Jersey history in the myopic glow of my regard, however inaccurately, and also, it was to be hoped, showing off the Garden State to the non-historian mystery readers out there. In fact they were very kind to me.