Night at the Museum

We attend the first annual Writer's Trust Balsillie Prize evening

Welcome to the 126th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

The first annual Writers’ Trust Balsillie Prize for Public Policy award ceremony was held Tuesday night at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. As book prizes go, it was a small affair, appropriate to what we hope are the waning days of COVID-19.

I counted about two dozen people in the room. Jim Balsillie (that’s him speaking above), who contributed $3 million to the prize. Charlie Foran and Catherine Clark (she’s at the very end of the table), representing the Writers’ Trust, the non-profit organization administering the prize. The four nominees and their spouses/guests. Three judges. And about a dozen randoms, including me.

The Gardiner, our national museum of ceramics, is an elegant little building directly across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum. We dined on the third floor, everyone around a long table.

The format was unusual and enjoyable. The meal was four courses. During each course, a nominee was briefly interviewed, after which guests were permitted to ask questions.

Up first was a roasted squash salad: griddled Halloumi cheese, apple butter, spaghetti squash, fennel, endive, pea shoots, caramelized shallot vinaigrette, dried cherries, pumpkin seed brittle, and pecorino. Dan Breznitz spoke about Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World. He cordially trashed the Canadian business establishment for failing to innovate, create jobs, and lift wages.

I gave Breznitz low odds of winning. His is an intelligent, important book, but not a brisk read, and the organizers and judges of the Balsillie Prize have been quite vocal about the importance of “style” and wanting to reach broader audiences with public policy books. They distance themselves from the Donner Prize, another award for public policy (one with which I was involved for many years), which they maintain celebrates dry, academic books.

Up next was Burrata Pomodora: rigatoni pasta in a San Marzano sauce with burrata cheese, sunflower pesto, Grana Padano, basil, parsley, and preserved chili. Gregor Craigie, author of On Borrowed Time: North America’s Next Big Quake, scared the crap out of guests by explaining how earthquake threats are not limited to west coast cities such as Victoria where, he says, two-thirds of the buildings are likely to collapse when the big one inevitably hits. Toronto, New York, and other major cities are also frighteningly vulnerable, and given that seismologists are still finding new geological faults all the time, there’s really nowhere that’s safe. Of all the books on the evening, his generated the most discussion, and we didn’t even get around to its implications for real estate valuations.

The third course was a choice of salmon with green pea puree, squash gnocchi, season vegetables, fennel leek sauce, and heirloom slaw; sous vide beef with sunchoke puree, seasonal veg, demi-glace, heirloom slaw, crispy onions; or charred cauliflower steak with pasilla citrus agave, succotash, garlic greens, pumpkin seed romesco, avocado salsa verde, heirloom slaw, and puffed brown rice.

I’m not a fan of green peas, nor pasilla citrus agave, so I went with the beef, even though I couldn’t remember what sous vide meant. I think it was a mistake. The beef was fine, but the salmon looked excellent. I didn’t eat much anyway; it was close to 9 pm by then.

André Picard spoke about Neglected No More: The Urgent Need to Improve the Lives of Canada’s Elders in the Wake of a Pandemic. He surprised me in a number of ways, starting with his genuine compassion for the politicians and bureaucrats who have to deal with eldercare and patience with the corporate entities that build and operate the facilities in which so many people died during COVID. He argued that individuals and their families need to do a better job of preparing for their eventual declines, that it can’t be left entirely to the state to look after everyone—a brave message in these times. He also noted that our long-term care facilities are an outgrowth of the penal system, which I didn’t know, although it explains how those places look and smell.

The final course was Chocolate XO Cake: dense chocolate cake, chocolate coconut ganache, chocolate crunch, yuzu gel, and strawberries. I didn’t touch it but christ it looked good.

Jody Wilson-Raybould (next to Balsillie in the picture at the top) was interviewed about “Indian” in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power. She discussed the concentration of power in the prime minister’s office and the difficulty of independent action by members of parliament and cabinet ministers. I asked her if there was ever a time that MPs or cabinet members were tempted to stand up to the PMO and reclaim some of their autonomy and, if not, why not. She pointed to a few minor instances of her fellow elected Liberals speaking out or voting against the party line and then offered herself, having been turfed from the party for attempting to do her job properly and withstand pressure from the PMO, as the “why not.”

Fair enough. There are no rewards for integrity or courage in the current party system. It still baffles me, though, that a half-dozen like-minded cabinet ministers couldn’t stand firm and quietly negotiate better terms with the PMO. At least get permission to hire their own senior staff. Highly unlikely they’d all get tossed out of the party, especially if their demands are reasonable.

An interesting thing happened during Wilson-Raybould’s talk. Another of the randoms at table was the criminal defense lawyer and author Marie Heinen (far left on the photo at top). She was easily the best dressed and most charismatic presence in the room, and she hardly said a word all night except, presumably, to those sitting next to her at dinner. Her poise is impressive. Notwithstanding her slight stature, she has a way of creating space around herself. She always looks cool, controlled, slightly bored, as though nothing is moving fast or interestingly enough. She doesn’t miss anything, though. When the former journalist Michael Cooke was pressing Wilson-Raybould to break cabinet confidentialities, Heinen immediately leaned forward and interrupted with a firm “no” that landed Cooke back in his chair. She then added with a smirk to Wilson-Raybould, “I’ve got your back, Jody.”

Heinen’s Nothing But the Truth: A Memoir was released last fall and continues to enjoy strong sales. It’s on my list.

My seat wasn’t close to Heinen. Nor was it close to Balsillie, which, too, was disappointing. I was curious to see if he’d figure out that I used to run Maclean’s and raise with me the 2009 cover story we published about his failed efforts to land an NHL franchise. He was apparently upset about it at the time, and the higher-ups at Rogers were apoplectic, Blackberry (pre-collapse) being an important device manufacturer and a major partner of ours. But it really does make him look badass, in a good way, no?

Absent Heinen and Balsillie, I made do with my old friend David Skok (below, apparently wondering what I’m up to). David is neither mesmerizing nor rich, but he’s reliably interesting. (He is the founder and publisher of The Logic, to which you may want to subscribe if you’re interested in Canadian business and the innovation economy. It does outstanding work and it’s on sale at the moment—in a big way.)

With the four courses out of the way, David and I looked over the list of nominees and figured that either earthquakes or eldercare would win. Nothing against Wilson-Raybould’s book, but it seemed more memoir than public policy. I was all in for Picard, and Charlie Foran told me that most people in the room agreed that he would take home the $60,000 prize.

It went to Dan Breznitz (below) for Innovation in Real Places. I had my iPhone camera on Picard (further below) so I was slow to the winner’s reaction and both pictures are a bit fuzzy. That’s Wilson-Raybould’s assistant, to the right of Picard, looking across the table at her boss.

Breznitz made a little speech, we said our goodnights, and went home. All in all, a nice evening. Sutherland House wishes the award the very best and congratulates the Writer’s Trust and Jim Balsillie on a successful launch.

Taking a bath on Cuomo

The New Yorker this week published a good piece on how the now-disgraced former governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, played dirty with his publisher and the public while landing a lucrative book contract.

Penguin Random House contacted Cuomo’s agent about writing a book on March 19, 2020, about three weeks after the first COVID-19 case landed in New York. Cuomo was a TV darling in the early days of the pandemic. On July 1, his agent got back to Penguin Random House to say he’d written 70,000 words and he was ready to make a deal. How did a governor of America’s hardest-hit pandemic state produce a fat manuscript in three months flat? It appears he had his staff and a ghostwriter author the book for him, in violation of state ethics prohibitions against the use of any state resources or personnel to produce the book.

Meanwhile, Cuomo’s office was churning out doctored statistics to make his pandemic policies, particularly around nursing homes, look better than they deserved.

July 8, Cuomo’s book went to auction. Penguin Random House kicked things off with a $750,000 offer and wound up winning with a bid of $5.1-million. It was a triumph for Cuomo, and not his first in the publishing world: about seven years ago, he took HarperCollins for a $700,000 advance on what the New Republic called an “overlong… cliché-ridden, and hopelessly dull” memoir, All Things Possible. That one sold 4,000 copies in hardcover, a number that would warrant an advance of maybe $10,000.

Several weeks after the auction, Cuomo was asked by the media if he got a lot of money to write the book. “Well,” he replied. “Only if I sell a lot of copies.” Which is not how it works. Advances are non-returnable, and he’d banked $3.1 of the $5.1 before publication. The rest of Cuomo’s advance was spread out over two more years, presumably for tax purposes.

Weeks after the grandly titled American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic was released in October 2020, Cuomo was hit with the first of a long series of sexual harassment allegations. He was forced to resign in August 2021. By then, it had also emerged that Cuomo’s office had covered up roughly half of the fatalities among state nursing home residents during the pandemic.

American Crisis managed to sell at least ten times more copies than Cuomo’s previous book, which is progress, I suppose, but still a nightmare for his publisher. A sale of 50,000 copies might warrant a solid six-figure advance. But $5.1 million? Disastrous.

The New York Times is also following the Cuomo story. It notes that Penguin Random House insists on personal conduct clauses in all its book contracts to protect the firm in the event that an author’s reputation implodes: “Penguin Random House has said it requires conduct clauses in all its contracts to avoid the implication that it trusts certain authors more than others. Those agreements generally don’t allow for it to claw payments back from authors.”

I’m not sure about that last part. It may be true that every contract has a conduct clause, but they are negotiated with agents. Some of the clauses set a high bar for conduct; others offer a lot of wiggle room, covering only “sustained, ongoing conduct… that is materially inconsistent with the Author’s general conduct at the time of this Agreement which materially diminishes the sales potential of the Work to the intended audience due to sustained widespread public condemnation of the Author.” You can see at least a dozen possible lines of defense in there. And the remedies differ, too. Some contracts are quite clear that a conduct breach by an author would cost him his advance; others are not.

Penguin Random House doesn’t discuss its contractual affairs publicly so we don’t know the details of Cuomo’s deal. Regardless, the former governor is already up to his ears in legal troubles: he’s under criminal investigation for both the sexual misconduct and his pandemic sleight-of-hand. Should his publisher want a piece of him, it will be standing in a long line.

Dussmann das KulturKaufhaus

We received a letter from our friend Nigel Beale, who hasn’t let a pandemic interrupt his literary tourism. “I was at Dussmann's the other day,” he writes in reference to the massive German bookstore/cafe. “Next time you're in Berlin you have to go! I don't know exactly what it was, the lighting probably... both natural and man-made [above]. Gave the place a kind of magical allure. I had to buy something. Better selection of English titles than pretty well any store I've ever seen, save for Foyles perhaps. And maybe McNally Jackson. I couldn't find the McGurl book [Mark McGurl’s Everything and Less, which we wrote about last week]. An assistant took me straight to it. Plus I came across a book about twentieth-century poetry that I didn't even know existed, written in 2019 by my friend John Burnside. Bloody amazing.”

Nigel also found what he calls “truly mind-blowing” evidence of Margaret Atwood's popularity in Europe:

Old Peggy seems to be doing pretty well over here, too. Notwithstanding the best efforts of various parties to have her canceled, she turned up on a Canadian stamp this week, same catchphrase:

Finally, we have a new edition to our Newsletter Roll this week. Gayla Gray writes SoNovelicious, which covers books, reading, writing, and bookstores. You can find her here. This installment of her newsletter has a good list of literary podcasts.

Good luck Gayla, and welcome to the roll.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Gayla Gray’s SoNovelicious: Books, reading, writing, and bookstores.

Esoterica Magazine: Literature and popular culture.

Benjamin Errett’s Get Wit Quick, literature and other fun stuff

Jeet Heer’s The Time of Monsters: political culture and cultural politics

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations



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