a Book Review of Tony Vanderwarker's Memoir Writing with the Master
Well, if you’re an aspiring writer like Tony Vanderwarker, a former big-time advertising executive in Chicago (“Be Like Mike,” was one of his campaigns) and the man offering you the opportunity is one of your good friends, John Grisham, you jump at the chance.
Think of the dollar signs, notions of fame, and best seller lists that would be dancing in your head if John Grisham made the offer to you.
That’s what went through my mind as I read the early chapters of Vanderwarker’s superb memoir Writing With the Master. I was thinking that Vanderwarker, a guy who was already living a pretty charmed life in Charlottesville (the book will make you want to visit the area) was the guy who got publishing’s golden ticket.
I’m purposely calling the book a “memoir” instead of a book on writing because that is what I took away most from this book. Not to discount the lessons I gleaned from the feedback John Grisham provided to his friend, but the parts of the book that most resonated with me were when Vanderwarker was detailing his emotional responses to the feedback he received from Grisham who made the conscious choice to be “brutally honest” throughout the process.
When the book begins, Vanderwarker has already written a handful of non-fiction books that had been rejected by publishers. The books were about his experiences as an “Ad Man” in Chicago and were written in the pre-Jon Hamm/Mad Men era, at a time when publishers didn’t think that audiences would have any interest in what life was like at a major advertising agency. (Side note: there’s one ad agency anecdote in particular about Vanderwarker getting himself into a predicament ten minutes before a presentation to Augustus Busch that is one of the funnier scenes I have read in a while.)
Once enough rejections of his non-fiction work pile up, Vanderwarker decides to try his hand at fiction, perhaps inspired by his friend, with whom he is close enough that their families vacation together in Venice.
One day over lunch Grisham makes Tony an offer, in a seemingly off the cuff manner, to mentor his friend through the process of writing a novel. Vanderwarker immediately accepts (what else was he going to say? That’s okay John but I got this fiction thing covered) and they throw a couple of plot ideas around until Vanderwarker shares with Grisham a potential plot idea that is based on a real-life scenario and has homerun potential.
It’s a great premise, with some very compelling aspects to it including “suicide divers.” Put simply, it sounds like a great Grisham novel, so they agree to pursue the project together.
At this point, Vanderwarker expects that he will be off to the races with the pages almost writing themselves. But that’s not what the his new “master” wants. Grisham is both a huge proponent and adherent to outlining a book in advance, it’s likely one of the tools that allows him to publish a new thriller every year, so he asks Vanderwarker to write an outline.
Vanderwarker is more than happy to do so, as he’s energized the whole time by the excitement of being mentored by his friend. Confident that with a strong endorsement by John Grisham, the book is likely destined for the best seller lists.
Tony starts to plug away, completes the requested outline and presents it to Grisham. But once he does, the relationship changes. Although still good friends, the relationship begins to take on the dynamic of student and master.
It’s at this point, about a third of the way through, when Grisham gives his feedback on Tony’s first draft, that the book becomes very hard to put down. That’s because it becomes much less about Grisham giving writing advice and much more about Vanderwarker’s personal story.
It’s at the point when Tony gets the feedback on his first draft (hint: Grisham tells Tony to “never submit a first draft”) that Vanderwarker has to negotiate a maze of emotional and social minefields if he is going to continue forward under the terms he has accepted.
It’s the moment we all face when trying to do something great. When euphoria and optimism come face-to-face with the fact that the journey is going to be a lot harder, tougher and more uphill than expected. It’s the point where Vanderwarker, like many of Grisham’s own characters, might have wished he turned down what seemed like the “offer of a lifetime” as he realizes writing a book with the master of the legal thriller is going to be a lot harder than he initially imagined.
How Vanderwarker reacts, the feedback he receives, not just from Grisham but also from himself, and the way he works through the full range of human emotion as he revises his novel is what I found most compelling about the book.
Anyone who is a Grisham fan or who aspires to write a book will find Writing with the Master to be a very good read with some valuable insight on the writing process.
But the book is really at its best as the focus turns away from the “Master” and onto the “Student.”
While Vanderwarker may have originally sought out to write a thriller, he ends up “mastering” the art of the memoir, which ends up making this book an excellent read.