Author Q&A: Garrett Peck, “The Prohibition Hangover”

Garrett Peck is the author of The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet, recently released by Rutgers University Press. A freelance writer for the alcoholic beverage industry and public speaker on alcohol issues, Peck also leads a “Temperance Tour” of Prohibition-related sites in Washington, DCsomething he started in his quest to build his platform. Peck speaks with Write On! about his process from that first lightbulb through research and writing to getting published.

peck

How did The Prohibition Hangover come about?
I had this moment of epiphany at Christmas 2003. … I was at my grandmother’s house in Scottsdale, and had brought a really nice bottle of Burgundy to share with Christmas dinner. Three generations sat at the table: my grandmother, my mom, and me. When I opened the wine, my grandmother got a bit snooty about the fact that she didn’t drink; my mom and I are social drinkers, and we both collect wine.

My grandmother (born in 1913) was part of a generation that stigmatized alcohol use. Those values of temperance weren’t passed on; hence both my mom and I drink. I thought, “Wow, that’s quite a shift in society!” We went from a country that stigmatized alcohol to the extent that we changed the Constitution (and then changed it back after Prohibition turned out to be a disaster), and here we are today where two-thirds of adults drink. The stigma against alcohol is largely gone.

At that moment, the idea came to me, and I knew I wanted to write about it.

How did you develop a specialty in writing about beverages?
My specialty in writing about alcoholic beverages came about as I began trying to sell the book. I had researched and written large portions of it already, but kept being told that I lacked a “platform” (qualifications or marketability) to publish a book in the field. So I set about doing a lot of freelance work, writing articles and honing my journalism skills largely for trade publications like Beverage Media, Sant√©, and Nightclub & Bar. Trade pubs are a great place to start—they tend to rely more on freelance work, and you can build a relationship with an editor. Soon you’ll have a stack of articles under your belt, a bunch of contacts in the industry, and a growing platform that will make you more attractive to publishers.

Why this topic? This format?
I wanted to try something that no one else had ever done, which was to explore how Americans became a drinking nation again in the 76 years after Prohibition. The last really seminal work on Americans and alcohol was published in 1979 by William Rorabaugh. It was called The Alcoholic Republic, and it explored the roots of the temperance movement in the early 1800s. But the period after Repeal was completely unchartered waters! And that’s where I dove in.

While I do have a short chronology at the beginning of the book to tell how we got into the mess of Prohibition – and how we got out of it nearly 14 years laterI quickly realized that the story needed to be told thematically, rather than chronologically. Each chapter is a standalone theme. For example, I address how the craft beer market has come bubbling up, why Sideways is the best movie about wine ever made, what churches say about alcohol today, and I capped it all with a chapter on underage drinking, which is part of a huge national discussion right now. Ultimately I concluded that the US should lower the drinking age to 18 as a way to combat binge drinking among young adults. I suspect this will be controversial.

What was your process for writing it?
The book took nearly six years to publish. I have a day job as a telecommunications analyst, so I did a lot of my writing and research on weekends, evenings, and vacations. Saturday became my dedicated writing day. The book has hundreds of interviews with people from all sides of the alcohol spectrum, and that took a long time to do all those interviews. But it is these differing viewpoints that make up the heart of the book.

How did you go about getting it published?
I did the publishing process completely backward. I wrote the book first, then tried to sell it, then tried to build my platform. I don’t recommend that to writers! On the other hand, it didn’t kill me, and I learned a lot about how the publishing process works. Plus it gave me more time to build up my platform.

As I began shopping the book around, I signed on with an agent in the Midwest. He tried for four months to sell the book, but despite tremendous efforts, he couldn’t sell it. We were positioning it around the 75th anniversary of Repeal last December 5, and the publishers kept saying that bigger names were coming out with books about the anniversary of Repeal, and I just couldn’t compete. He eventually released me from my contract. The sad thing was that there wasn’t a single book published about Americans and alcohol around the Repeal Day anniversary. The publishing industry had bought its own myth!

Just a month after my agent and I parted, I discovered Rutgers University Press, which jumped on the book. Rutgers has the Center of Alcohol Studies, one of the largest alcohol studies programs in the country, and it fit right in with what they wanted to publish. They acquired the book in March 2008, and my editor, Doreen Valentine, then put it through peer review, editing, copyediting, and manuscript preparation. The quality control was outstanding. All told, the process with Rutgers took about 17 months.

By the way, I’ve published an “On Publishing” essay on my book website, designed to help first-time authors navigate the publishing process.

How did you keep track of all your research?
Much of what I wrote derives from interviews. I usually record these in longhand (I don’t have the patience to transcribe a recording). I then type these up and back them up, keeping both the original written interview, as well as the Word documents on my hard drive.

As for topics and people to interview, I’m a list maker, so I made a long list of areas to research. It was pretty easy finding people to interview: once you’ve found a subject matter expert, simply call them up or e-mail them. Almost everyone is flattered to be interviewed. They get to state their point of view and make their case. I only had two people turn me down among the hundreds that I asked.

What was favorite part of the writing process? The greatest challenge?
My favorite part of the process was in being able to explore the topic of Americans and alcohol in depth. You can really dive deep. In a magazine article, you have to keep things short and pithyjust soundbitesas you may only have 500 to 1,000 words to tell a story. But in a book, you have 100,000 words. You have an infinite number of ways of organizing your material, and you’re constantly problem solving. It’s like working on a really fun puzzle. I can’t wait to start working on my next book ideas.

The greatest challenge was selling the book. It seemed like 40 percent of the time I spent since conceiving the book-idea was trying to find an agent and publisher. The next book shouldn’t take as long.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I probably would have skipped trying to find an agent for my first book, and gone to small/independent/university presses first. That would have saved me one or two years, and I ended up there anyway with Rutgers. Large publishers are looking for the sure thing with a big national audience. As a first-time author, it’s hard to demonstrate anything until you’ve published your first book. But independents are much more willing to give you that lucky break.

Any additional advice for writers?
Be persistent and keep trying. Remember that Julia Child and Michael Cunningham each took ten years to get their first books published. The process is going to take as long as it takes. If you can zen out about that, and just keep plugging away at your craft, you will eventually succeed.

It’s tough to get your first book published. The publishing industry is selling fewer books, and so they are scrutinizing everything to make sure there is a market, and they’re only acquiring books that will actually sell. You need to demonstrate marketabilitythat readers will actually buy your book, that your platform is sound, that you understand the fundamentals of how the publishing business works.

PH

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