So this is a new column, intended to shed light on Burnsiders who've made the leap into paid writing. We're facetiously calling this column "Burnside Sells Out".
Ariele Gentiles has been with Burnside from the very beginning, when she was still living in Waco, Texas. A couple years ago, she moved to Portland, and she and I worked together with the folks at Relief Journal to put out The Ankeny Briefcase. Ariele is all sorts of talented, and there have been countless times I've envied her creativity and knack for prose.
And Ariele just finished writing a book.
Barack Obama: An American Story was co-written with Bob Carlton and is being published by Zondervan/Youth Specialties. We had some questions for Ariele.
Burnside: How did you get involved in this project?
Ariele Gentiles: A friend of my dad’s, Bob Carlton (with whom I co-wrote the book) knows some people at Youth Specialties, and approached me with the idea of collaborating on the project on a Tuesday evening. By Wednesday morning, I was on a conference call with Bob and Jay Howver, a publisher at YS. We just jumped right in.
BWC: Take us through the process of writing Barack Obama: An American Story.
Ariele: It was a pretty intense process because we had to turn in a manuscript fairly quickly. Because it was a co-writing project, we began with a biographical outline and divided up the chapters. Then we began combing source materials, newspaper articles, anything that could help us find the essence of the man’s story—that was my primary objective and concern while writing. How do we frame this as Story? I would read read read and then sit with it all rattling around in my brain for a while, trying to find the common threads in his life’s tapestry. Because the book is going out through the Youth Specialties division of Zondervan, we had a reading level aim of 10th or 11th grade, so it was really important to distill and synthesize everything in such a way that it remains interesting and readable to high school kids.
BWC: Who came up with that title?
Ariele: Ha, I think it was the Youth Specialties guys. Our original title was The Urgency of Now, in reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s passionate call for people to get involved in their communities for positive change in the United States. Obama has echoed King’s words and continues this effort of calling Americans to action.
BWC: The book's publisher, Zondervan, received some flak (we were no exception) for their lightning fast release of Sarah Palin's biography A New Kind of Leader. Was writing this book so quickly a concern for you and Bob?
Ariele: Haha...it was certainly a concern for me. I was skimming through the flak as I was attempting to pull together our book. But as I understand it, our book was commissioned partly in response to the Palin biography, and once behind our Obama bio, YS and Zondervan wanted a release date that would correlate with or hit shelves shortly after Hilley's.
At a certain point, though, it was necessary to push it aside and do the very best work I could in the time allowed. It involved some harrowing 20 hour days...I became just another piece of furniture at my neighborhood coffee house...but I'm happy with how it turned out, and hope that it will allow students and adults to get to know this man running for no small office, challenge some minds, as well as inspire. Ultimately I couldn't allow doubts and concerns about public perception of the publishing house to erode my own confidence and jeopardize such an incredible opportunity to simply tell a story.
BWC: In researching Barack Obama, did anything surprise you?
Ariele: I had a very basic knowledge of Obama before I began the project. His biracial background, his community organizing experience, the 2004 DNC address, etc, and I of course learned much much more about these things and others, but what I was most taken with were his years in New York City at Columbia. By all accounts, he spent a great deal of time in the library and studying, but he also read Saint Augustine and Nietzsche and Graham Greene (one of my favorite authors), and sometimes wandered alone into churches on restless Sunday mornings.
Knowing these things...immersion in great books of faith and philosophy, self-reflection, soul-searching...sort of made him more real to me. More human. It was something with which I, and I think many others, could fully relate.
BWC: Has your opinion of Barack Obama changed at all?
Ariele: If anything, I think I like him more. I have no illusions about him being the new American Messiah, he is as flawed and human as the rest of us. I also don’t agree with him on every policy and issue, but he seems bright...very bright and methodical and wise about many things. And he genuinely seems to care about people, to understand the importance of individuals and families coming together with the people on their street, the people in their neighborhoods, leading up to the national level. He has written and spoken about the beauty of everyday lives. All the policy, public speeches and legislation seems to stem from that understanding. I like that.
BWC: You know Obama is secretly a Muslim, right?
Ariele: I heard he is really an avatar of Shiva the Destroyer. So...who knows, man.