I’d worked with Liz Sullivan before. She’s an executive editor at Harper Collins, the person who handles the art books. Four years ago when I wanted to edit a collection of essays based around the photography of my friend Melissa Ann Pinney, I went to Liz. She was tough and exacting and in possession of a flawless sense of design. What we wound up with is TWO, a truly gorgeous piece of work. After we were finished, Liz and I stayed friends. These days we mostly talk about our dogs, though sometimes the conversation veers towards chocolate.
About a year ago, Liz sent me an email saying she wanted to run an idea past me and did I have time to talk? Of course. She said she wanted to do a book about Nashville, mostly photos, some text, that would portray the city’s growth and enormous popularity. “I’m not asking you to do it,” she said. “I know you won’t do it. I just want to know if you think it would sell.”
Not only did I know it would sell, I knew exactly the book she was looking for. I knew this because people come into Parnassus every single day looking for a book about Nashville that isn’t about the past but is about the city’s vibrant present, our explosive NOW. It would be a book for people moving to town and leaving town, a book for all those visiting bachelorettes and wedding parties, a book for the newbies as well as the long time residents, the insiders and the tourists. We’ve actually sat around in staff meetings at Parnassus and wondered why no one had come up with such a book, one that was gorgeous and surprising with plenty of white space in case people wanted to be able to have all their Nashville friends write messages in it: a Nashville book that could, in a pinch, be a sort of yearbook.
I got so excited just thinking about how great it would be to have this book to sell at the store that I told Liz I’d do it, even though she hadn’t asked me to do it. “I’ll write the text and the captions, and I’ll ask Jon Meacham to do the introduction. I want one photographer for the whole book, no archival pictures. I’ll ask Heidi Ross.”
“Heidi who?” Liz said.
Liz has never been to Nashville.
I met Heidi at the store. She’s a successful photographer who, in an attempt to take a break from the solitary work of the camera and computer screen, came to work at Parnassus for awhile a few years ago. I told Liz that Heidi’s sensibility and artistry were perfect for this project, plus I really like her. She’s someone I’d want to do a book with.
“If you’re going to write the text and you can get Jon Meacham to do the intro, then we need to have a big name photographer too, don’t you think?” Liz said.
This conversation wasn’t turning out the way either of us had imagined.
I said no. We came as a set. It was Ann and Jon and Heidi, take it or leave it. It was a pretty strong declaration considering that I’d been thinking about this project for all of 10 minutes and I certainly hadn’t asked Jon or Heidi anything. Liz agreed to look at Heidi’s work, and after that she never looked back. I made two phone calls and got Jon and Heidi on board. We had a book project.
Heidi and I spent a lot of time talking about images we felt needed to be included in the book, but the more Heidi worked, the more the lists we made fell away. This was not a comprehensive record of the city, this was how the city feels, and the more pictures I saw, the more I realized this was specifically Heidi’s Nashville. Her city was younger than mine, quirkier, hipper, more filled with art. Seeing my city through Heidi’s lens made me fall in love with it in new ways. She was forever challenging herself, changing, rethinking, going out for another shoot. Jon and I both did our part, but this was Heidi’s book.
It was also Liz’s book. It’s a very different dynamic when the editor is the person who comes up with the idea. She was so hands-on that at times we felt like she was going to strangle us, or I was going to strangle her. She cut out pictures we loved and asked for more. Sometimes she was right, and sometimes she was dead wrong.
“You have a picture of the football stadium and the baseball field,” she said.
I almost got on a plane. “We CANNOT have a book about Nashville and not include the Predators!” I screamed. It was my job to fight with my pal Liz. Heidi is a brilliant photographer but she doesn’t fight. I argued on behalf of the picture of the polar bear throwing snowballs and the Whitland Fourth of July.
“You don’t need the Fourth of July,” Liz said.
Of course we did. I’ve been Ann Patchett for a long time now, and for the most part, people in publishing give me my own way. Not Liz. We went around and around over the tiniest things (she made me rewrite the photo captions) and then we’d laugh and talk about dogs again. She drove me crazy and I grew to love her even more because she cared so much and always wanted something better. When we got the final layout pages, Heidi and I were speechless. This book, which I thought would be really good, turned out to be straight-up magic. There wasn’t one comma, one margin, and certainly not one color choice that Liz hadn’t put her whole heart and soul into. Heidi and Jon and I (and Heidi especially) each did our part, but it was Liz who made those parts into an amazing book. Here it is:
Nashville: Scenes from the New American South will be published on November 13 of this year. I know that’s a long way off, but if you want to pre-order your copies, you’ll get a first edition signed by Ann Patchett, Jon Meacham and Heidi Ross. That’s something you’re never going to find on Amazon. You could take care of all of your holiday shopping needs right now, in April. How easy is that?
And while I still have your attention, let me recommend one more book, Iris Apfel: Accidental Icon. I throw this in for a couple of reasons: I love Iris Apfel who, at 96, is still rocking the world with her outrageous style and smarts. It’s a great book for Mother’s Day (I’ve already bought copies for my mother and mother-in-law). Iris is beloved by women of every age. I’ve seen little girls poring over the pictures in this book. It’s sort of like having Fancy Nancy as a grandmother. But I really want you to come in and look at the way this book is made: take a peak under the jacket, admire the layouts and the color choices, notice how the font choices make you feel. Liz Sullivan did this book — an endeavor that took her three years! Her particular brand of genius is on every page.
Oh, e-books, there are things about us humans you’ll never understand. Sometimes we need something gorgeous to hold in our hands.
Here’s to the future! -Ann
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(We’ll show you more from Nashville: Scenes from the New American South in the fall when the pub date gets closer. For now, pre-orders are open! All books purchased from Parnassus will be signed by Ann Patchett, Heidi Ross, and Jon Meacham.)