Can Art Really Be Dead?

First-time novelist David Gersh’s name is as large as the title on his about-to-be-released novel, “Art Is Dead” (Durban House, $19.95). “It was not my idea,” he pleads. “I would never have put my name as big as the title. It was the publisher,” he said, “who feels chain bookstores want covers like this.”

The book is further described as “A Jonathan Benjamin Franklin mystery.” “[The protagonist] is a lineal descendant of Benjamin Franklin, who happens to be my only hero in life,” David says, smiling. “Jonathan Benjamin Franklin,” he continues, “is a professor at Harvard Law School with all kinds of insecurities and strengths that characterize anybody tolerably smart. But, occasionally, because of his relationship [with the original Benjamin Franklin], he does hark back to some of the things that Franklin said, which I find just fascinating. That is part of the fun of the book.” David, a Montecito resident, attended Harvard Law School, but claims the experience had nothing to do with his ability to write fiction.

“Art Is Dead” has been pre-released solely for sale in Montecito and Santa Barbara and David has arranged a book signing at Tecolote BookShop for Saturday, November 18, from 3 pm to 4:30 pm. Gersh says there will be “wine and cheese,” and since he is a noted wine aficionado, we expect that what he chooses to serve will be good.

David and his wife, Stella (who passed away recently), bought their Montecito home in 1996. The house was originally purchased as a weekend retreat, David explains, but it became what he describes as “a typical Montecito story: we began coming up on Saturdays, then moved it back to Friday morning, then Thursday night. When we got to Wednesdays, we began to figure it was a little stupid,” so they moved here permanently in 2000, “when I commenced my recovery from being a lawyer,” he says in his straight-faced but chipper way.

The book plot idea has been rattling around in his head for about 10 years. “Hopefully,” Gersh suggests, “it is a fun look at the art world.” This particular book is about the New York gallery scene.

The following short interview was also conducted on my patio:

Q. We know you as a wine aficionado; would you also call yourself an art aficionado?

A. No, I don’t think so. I love art and collect some artwork, but I’m certainly not an art aficionado, nor am I an expert in art or art appreciation.

Where does the book’s action take place?

The events take place primarily in New York City, because that is the center of the art world.

This is genre fiction; what genre would you place it in?

This is a comic mystery.

What would be some examples of comic mysteries?

I think one of the best examples of humorous mystery writers is Donald Westlake. He is the grand master of them. Lawrence Block and Carl Hiassen write humorous mysteries.

So, where does your book fit in?

I like to both amuse and deal with puzzles, and this particular mystery I would describe as a modern English cozy. There’s not a lot of blood and guts in it, though there is obviously a death, but the real question is how it was done. It is a locked-room mystery. It’s a murder that no one could have pulled off. Hopefully it is fun and a good companion.

You are a brand-new writer, no background, no history of writing, and no name. How do you break through?

I wish I knew. New authors have absolutely no edge in negotiating a contract, unless you are one of those people who have publishers clamoring for your book, and I’m not one of those people. It’s hard enough to get an agent; a good agent will get four hundred submissions a week, so if you don’t want to go on the slush pile, you have to go on in with something that will catch their attention. Even with an agent, it took enormous effort to sell the book. My wife, Stella, who [was] a superb agent herself (not a literary agent though), really sold the book. When we were having trouble and had been rejected by several publishers, Sheldon McArthur, co-owner of the big Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles, was very nice. We had seen him at the book expo, and saw him here in Santa Barbara. He asked to read it, but also asked how many rejections I’d received. I told him ‘five or six,’ and then he asked, ‘Have they been good rejections?’

I said, ‘Huh?’

He said, ‘Have they been supportive?’

I said, ‘Actually, they have been.’

He told me it was very important to understand the kind of rejections one receives. That was a very encouraging thing.

If you hadn’t found an agent, and your agent hadn’t found a publisher, would you have explored other options?

Self-publishing is a viable option these days. Amazon.com will feature anything with a Library of Congress number on it. If enough people buy the book on Amazon.com, publishers will look at those books. It’s kind of an alternative way of getting their attention. So, the point is not to self-publish, but to self-publish in a way that attracts a major publisher. Unless, of course, you really establish yourself as a self-publisher; then, you make a lot more money!

Now that you’ve been published, what comes next, a book tour?

My book is too small for the publisher to do a book tour. Regardless, you’ve got to do the marketing yourself. I have hired an Internet marketer and I’m probably going to hire somebody to set up a national series of radio interviews in the areas of dogs, and wine, and mysteries, and all of the things that are important in the book.

I do plan on having a book signing at Harvard Coop, however.

Does anything in the book take place locally?

Only to the extent that the winery is in Santa Ynez Valley.

What’s next for author David L. Gersh?

My latest fiction attempt is called “Desperate Shopgirls.”

Anything else you want to say about “Art Is Dead”?

Yes. There are some great first lines in literature, and I believe my first line will wipe all those out.

And, the first line is?

“It was the dog that did it.”

Faces in the Crowd

We don’t have space for everything Laguna Blanca sophomore Spencer Klavan wrote about playwright James Still’s “And Then They Came for Me,” playing at the school’s theatre in Hope Ranch, but we thank him (and credit him) for the following info:

“Anne Frank’s tale,” Spencer tells us, “is coming to Laguna Blanca School in a way it has never been seen or heard before. This is the story that Laguna’s drama instructor Peter McCorkle, along with his cast of sixteen students, are setting out to tell.

“And Then They Came for Me is not just another heartfelt stage drama. It is a multimedia experience, complete with video footage of Eva Geiringer Schloss, Anne’s good friend, and Helmuth Siberberg, her crush and love interest, as they are today. As Eva and Helmuth (whose name has since been changed to Ed) tell their stories, their youthful counterparts emerge on stage and round out the action. The performance is augmented with a sad musical score, played softly over the actors’ words in the background.

“The cast includes sophomore Melissa Schmitt as Eva, and sophomore Mitchell Bogatz as Ed. Junior Kameron Tarlow plays Eva’s sensitive, talented, and ill-fated brother, Heinz, while Spencer Klavan and junior Joanna Bourrain portray her parents. Juniors Christina Handley and Felicia Palmer appear as Ed’s mother and father. And performing as Anne is sophomore Melina Hayum, who debuted in last year’s musical tragedy, Blood Brothers.

“Both Kameron Tarlow and senior Caroline Reitman will double as actors and technicians, making their jobs a full-time endeavor. Assisting them will be Laguna Blanca’s Theater Two class, lead once again by Mr. McCorkle.

“At 7 pm on November 15, the Spaulding Auditorium doors will open and you can catch the show through November 18 at 7 pm or attend a 2 pm matinee on Sunday, November 19. Tickets are $10 at the door. For more information, call 805-687-2461.”

New Look at Big Sky

If you missed Mercury’s transit across the Sun recently and didn’t get up to the Carroll Observatory on Westmont campus to peer through the 50-plus-year-old 16-inch Newtonian telescope, more and bigger opportunities are coming. Westmont’s new and considerably larger 24-inch F/8 Cassegrain telescope is scheduled to arrive by the end of this month (November). Campus astronomers have been eagerly anticipating the telescope’s installation; a team has been working on the lens in New Mexico for much longer than planned. When it is ready for use, we’re told, it will be the most powerful telescope between L.A. and San Francisco.

A $300,000 W.M. Keck Foundation grant, $90,000 from the James L. Stamps Foundation and other monies have been combined to complete what is a $635,000 project to replace the telescope.

The observatory is open to the public every third Friday of the month (December 15 should be the first night the new unit will be operational). Members of the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, which holds its monthly meetings here, will be on hand to help amateur astronomers gaze at infinity.

Intelligent Chick Lit

Author Claire LaZebnik describes “Knitting Under The Influence,” her latest literary effort, as “chick lit… but for the more intelligent reader.” Her first novel, “Same As It Never Was” (St. Martin’s Press) was made into a TV movie called “Hello Sister, Good-bye Life.”

“Second novels are famously hard to sell,” Claire says during a quiet moment at the home of Lynn and Bob Koegel in Montecito, which had been turned into a reading salon by some 50 or more guests who’d been invited to meet the author. Claire and Lynn co-authored the non-fiction “Overcoming Autism,” which has become a must read in the field.

Her son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2 ½ and Claire began working with Lynn Koegel when he was 5. “He’s really doing great,” Claire says of her son, who is now in the ninth grade and attends “a regular high school.” The LaZebniks live in Pacific Palisades.

The plot revolves around three women in their late 20s who meet once a week to knit together. “It’s not your grandmother’s knitting circle,” Claire laughs, “they’re knitting bikinis, tank tops, and other [things]. There’s a lot of teasing and a lot of fun,” Claire continues, “and each of them has her own story,” including a romance.

Since early September, Target has given “Knitting” its own display in a special section of its stores set aside for new authors; Target has classified “Knitting Under The Influence” as a “Breakout Book.” It has been there since early September.

“It’s a really tough thing to have a title out there these days,” Ms LaZebnik says, and reveals that it is really up to new authors to promote their books (reference David Gersh’s “Art Is Dead” at the beginning of the column!) she’s been working what she calls “the knitting angle.” She goes to L.A. area knitting stores to read from her book and to sell copies, but hopes to broaden the scope of her readings.

Although fiction is Claire’s “first love,” her writing career has included non-fiction essays for Vogue, GQ, Cosmopolitan, and other magazines under the name of Claire Scovell. If by the time you read this, “Knitting Under The Influence” is no longer being featured at Targets, you can e-mail Ms LaZebnik at writemenow@aol.com to find out where to buy a copy, but try Tecolote or Chaucer’s first, then Borders.