(What We Had Hoped Would Be) A Brief Conversation with Allan Fallow, Book Editor of AARP The Magazine
1. You worked as a senior editor at National Geographic Books from 1999 to 2002. What were some of your favorite titles?
It was a thrill to edit David Mamet—he wrote a book called South of the Northeast Kingdom (about his corner of Vermont) for our “National Geographic Directions” series—but I’m bitter to this day that he never cursed me out, Glengarry Glen Ross-style, for any change I suggested. In fact he wrote what may be a validating note (depending on how you decipher his red-crayon scribbles) on one of the first manuscript pages. David Brill’s Desire & Ice was fun to edit because he makes you feel like you’re climbing Denali right alongside him. And Tom Miller is another favorite author of mine—you haven’t laughed until you’ve read his story “The Revenge of the Saguaro” from Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink, also in that same NGS series. (Cinco Puntos Press republished the book under that story title in March 2010, but—spoiler alert—the cover art gives away the ending.)
2) Did they unshackle you from the keyboard long enough to travel anywhere?
I did get to ride the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park [Utah] with photographer Pete McBride and Outside magazine’s literary (now features) editor, Elizabeth Hightower. Then Nat Geo let me write an account of the experience, even though (or possibly because) it entailed a lot of wilderness nudity (apparently you are not allowed to wear a bathing suit in either the Green or Colorado Rivers), for a book we published called Adventure America. (Hey, I never said we excelled at titling our offerings there…)
3) How long have you been with AARP?
Since 2003, when I started as a freelancer on the AARP Bulletin. Then Hugh Delehanty let me work on books for a while—I was the managing editor of AARP Books, partnered with Sterling, from 2003 to 2009. Since then I’ve worked as the book—books?—editor for AARP The Magazine, which is rewarding because our readership still takes a lively interest in such artifacts.
4) Is AARP changing its outreach to members and other readers?
We reach out on what I’ve been taught to say are multiple platforms: Viva, the AARP Bulletin, AARP The Magazine, and aarp.org. (If pressed, I can even convincingly deploy the term “platform-agnostic.”) And of course we are all about the social media, baby.
5) Oh, right. I heard you are up to something like 208 followers on Twitter. Is it true, as you tweeted on March 20, 2011, that you slap coffee cups from the hands of unsuspecting but cell-phone-addled pedestrians who step into your path as you try biking home through Old Town Alexandria?
It hasn’t actually happened yet, but I’ve been sorely tempted. Who hasn’t wondered just how far they could throw someone else’s digital device? If you ask me, the iPhone threatens humankind’s continued existence more than any other clear and present danger, and you can quote me on that. Oh, wait—you just did.
6) I heard about you taking on Knopf publicity—something about a bet that the woman on the cover of J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine was not reclining on a Down East beach at all, but rather Huntington Beach near L.A.?
Yeah, I still have uòvo on my face from that one, because the cover photo turned out to have been shot in Italy—guess my globetrotting skills need brushing up. But then it emerged that a sweet story was involved: The (Italian) photographer wound up marrying the young (Swedish) woman in the bathing suit. They never would have let her into the Green River dressed that formally, though.
7) You’ve written book reviews for Smithsonian and Air&Space magazines, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Washington Times, and even The Residential Specialist. Any blown calls you care to divulge? Any reviews you’re particularly proud of?
In retrospect, yeah, it may have been a mistake to write that The Corrections “subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” My favorite reviews are some of my first, because the possibility of discovering—hell, of publishing—quirky books was so much stronger then. I’m thinking back to A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald or Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess by Fred Waitzkin. And amid our current plague of celebrittleness, I found Diane Keaton refreshingly robust, as I natter on about here.
8) Book readers everywhere want to know: Do you normally start your day with Froot Loops?
I find your query “Outrageous!” But thank you for being one of the 19 viewers of “The Fallow Report” videos on aarp.org. And though “backpack journalism” died out after my first few efforts, don’t let that stop you from watching “Don’t Call Me ‘Boomer.'”
9) You are a dedicated cycling commuter; what kind of bike were you riding when you broke your hand this year? And—related question—have you ever considered remedial lessons?
That was my old standby—a steel-frame Bridgestone RB-2 road bike with way too many miles on its chain rings. I rode off a curb (deliberately), came out of my clip-ins, and did a face plant in front of the Jefferson Memorial. Pretty spectacular—but happily not captured on YouTube (possibly the last human experience to have evaded documentation). I do not recommend using your fifth metacarpal as a shock absorber. I have since stopped using Eggbeater pedals, though, and my younger son has loaned (CK: lent?) me his sweet ride, a Specialized Tarmac Pro. It must weigh half as much.
10) The Young Lions Awards will be announced soon. Who do you have your money on?
The AARP HR rep who is monitoring this exchange just hissed in my ear, “Ask those bastards why they’re not asking you to predict the winner of this year’s Grizzled Geezers Awards!” So I feel duty-bound to point out I just hacked the website of the New York Public Library and changed the selection criteria to read “The New York Public Library Old Dudes Fiction Award is a $100,000 prize awarded each autumn to a writer age 50 or older for a novel or a collection of short stories, and frankly at their age we encourage them to explore the latter.” On a non-institutional level, though, I find it a criminal affront to humanity that Jonathan Tropper hasn’t won more awards for This Is Where I Leave You. That novel restores the original-but-now-degraded meaning of LOL.