Dallas author David W. Menefee has written a new book that inspired his publisher enough to submit it for a Pulitzer Prize. It's a long shot, sure. But with his unlikely career, he just might have a chance.
Menefee, who was once a writer for the Dallas Morning News, has made a career of researching and writing biographies. He has written 17 books, three of which he wrote as a ghostwriter. His latest (and the one his publisher submitted tot he Pulitzer folks) is Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story.It's a book that led him to seven years of research. And what he discovered is a fascinating story.
Reid, as Menefee says, "was 'born in a trunk' to an actress mother and a famous playwright father. He barely survived the infamous St. Louis cyclone, and he emerged from the carnage to grow into a popular student, athlete, and early film hero. His looks inspired directors to place him in front of cameras, but his ambitions were to be a writer and director. When director Cecil B. DeMille picked him to appear opposite opera diva Geraldine Farrar in her first films, Wally's aspirations became lost in the dizzying idolatry of worldwide audiences."
The book is an exhaustive biography and filmography which contains more than 200 rare photographs, posters, advertisements, and lobby cards from Reid's career.
We caught up with Menefee to find out more about what he does and how he does it.
Why biographies and why film stars? If I really wanted to make money as a biographer of film subjects, I should focus on Ryan Reynolds and folks like that that are modern and hot. But I like to work on subjects that interest me and others. That narrows it down considerably. Then there's the matter of which ones have materials available. You'd be surprised how [for] many stars from the past how little is out there.
For the subjects I've done, there has been a lot of material and a lot of them have family members who are still alive, like Richard Barthelmess. I chose him because I liked him and his films and many others did as well. His mother donated fifty scrapbooks to the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That simplifies my job. It's all there.
Where did your interest in Wallace Reid come from? I always personally liked him. He was the number three most popular star of that era. He wrote at least 20 films, directed 54, and appeared in 204. All of his films are silent. He never made a sound recording. He was in Birth of a Nation. At the time of his death, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplain were number one and two. Wallace Reid was number 3.
The reason he's probably not as well known [as Pickford and Chaplain] is because so many of his films are lost. Out of 204 movies only a couple a dozen have survived. Isn't that sad? I heard the other day that some of Barbra Streisand's films are already decaying in the vault. Isn't that something? It causes stars who were once internationally known to be forgotten.
What motivates you to complete the level of research required for the kind of books you write? I began with a plan. I had a plan to write 15 or 20 books after I left the newspaper. I would go to the Margaret Herrick Library and do research on 30 to 40 different subjects. I'd come back with suitcases full of Xeroxes, reams of material that went into files. By working that way I amassed great amounts of information. I'd put the word out that I'm working on a subject and here would come these people out of the woodwork with boxes of material. Or family members would appear.
[With the Wallace Reid book], in the eleventh hour, when everything was finished and the book was put together, several family members by way of one family member came to me, and I was able to get something I never thought that I would be able to get: First hand interviews and I got some startling information, things I didn't know. Every book that I've done has been a collective effort. It really takes it up another level and I'm grateful to all of them.
It starts with sifting. You never know what's there till you dig around. I've spent hundreds of hours on fourth floor of Dallas Library downtown, and much of it isn't even cataloged. They don't even know it's there. I found this little index card box of microfiche crammed with interviews. I went to head librarian and asked, "Do you know anything about this?"
There was information there specific to the research I was doing at that time. Most institutions are under-budgeted and understaffed and they just don't have time. That's where people like you and me come in. It's always a delightful surprise when you find a gem.
How did you find out that your book had been submitted for a Pulitzer? My publisher emailed me two weeks ago out of the blue. I was thrilled. You know how every once in a while at the Dallas Observer some particularly good issue comes out? That's what happened with this book. All of my ducks came in a row. Robert Osborne from Turner Classic Movies wanted to write the forward. We had to wait seven months for him to have time to do that. But good things are worth waiting for. It's things like that that really punched it and really made it work. It was above and beyond what we ever expected. It's a good book that had everything you could ever possibly want in a book.
When the publisher saw the final outcome, he said he was going to [submit] it for a Pulitzer. But more than anything else I'm just glad to have it recognized for the excellent piece of work it is.
What were your first thoughts when you read that email? It's kind of like when you step on a rake in the yard that's under a pile of leaves and you not only see stars, you see the entire universe swirling around your head. It's a nice thing to happen. And, you know this, writing is almost like solitary confinement. It's not always nice. It's very lonely and it's a lot of grunt work. There's really not a lot of joy in it. Only a few moments of euphoric happiness and that was one of [those moments]. The other one is when UPS shows up with a big cardboard box with copies of your book.
What would it mean to you to win? I would love to change my name to Pulitzer Prize Winning Author David W. Menefee. It's a nice surname, isn't it?
But I get a lot of joy just when I get an email or someone writes on my Facebook wall that they like something. You probably have the same thing. It just makes your day.
You're extremely prolific. How do you do it? Any advice for young or aspiring writers? That's a wonderful question too. I'm sure of only a few things. The more product you put out there, the more synergy you get. When you only have a few books out, and I've been there, it's kind of like being one duck in the ocean. It's important to always be out there, always be active. You always want to be in the ball game, playing. It's an incredible process to write a book. It's so daunting. So much harder than putting out a daily or weekly newspaper. It takes a monumental effort on the part of the author and a lot of different people who contribute to it. It's so exhausting and it takes so long. But you do need to go further and put more out. This year is more challenging than ever with the economy. The only thing you can do is stay with it.
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If you want to be a writer, then write. You need to get good. We all think we are good but when we look at our early stuff we realize it really isn't. You have to get all of that bad writing out. People come up to me all of the time and say, "I've always wanted to write a book." I say, "Why don't you?" And they have this litany of excuses.
There are 365 days a year. If you wrote one page a day for a year, you would have 365 pages done. Just get it done. I don't get to eat to breakfast until I write one page. It really does make you do it. It doesn't have to be good. You have plenty of time to refine it. What's one page? Like 300 or 350 words. You can do that over your first cup of coffee each day. You can rewrite later when you're lucid.
I'm getting out eleven books this year. Ghostwriting number eleven now. It's been an incredible experience to get out that many. I'm very excited about each one of them because they're all different. I'm putting out a mix of biographies and a mystery novel series and a couple of historic novels and some people have said they're my best work ever. I'm confident that down the road it will be rewarding.
Always be moving forward, even if they're little steps. They all add up to one big whole and that will get you where you want to be.