News

October 21, 2008

Relentless Determination Pays Off

Author Peter Krass ’87 describes journey from Lafayette student to biographer

The lyrics from a Talking Heads tune, “Once in a Lifetime,” have resonated strongly with me over the years; specifically, the line, “And you may ask yourself, well…how did I get here?” Here for me is a dozen-plus years of making a living as an author and lecturer, a dream job.
Back in 1980, when that song was released, I was a high school sophomore with no ideas concerning a future career. When I arrived at Lafayette in the fall of 1982, I was just as clueless. That first semester I found out pretty damn quick what I didn’t want to be: an engineer. While struggling through classes that involved mathematical formulas I couldn’t figure out on my fingers, there was an adrenaline-fueled outlet (in addition to the sundry intoxicants we ingested with relish in those days) that kept me sane: writing. Regardless, I still shunned the humanities and switched my major to economics and business. My academic career was hardly stellar: I dropped out for a semester; was kicked out for a semester; briefly attended two other schools, and then graduated in five years. (Yep, I kept coming back to Lafayette because I knew it was ultimately the right fit for me.)

Before this disintegrates into a trashy tell-all, I want to clarify that I only bring these events up to point out that alcohol-fueled mishaps, diversions, and adventures can be good for the soul in certain respects. More importantly, one of the great aspects about Lafayette in the mid-1980s was that no one was holding our hands. We were on our own, testing boundaries, negotiating our way through life, learning to land on our feet. In contrast, today, while there are many more educational opportunities, there is more social control from administrators and parents alike.

So, how did I get here? A piece of good luck had something to do with it, along with relentless determination. I was passionate about writing – I knew that from my days at Lafayette – but first came a NYC marketing job with Dun & Bradstreet, along with a massive commute of 1 hour, 45 minutes, a house, and a baby (I married my college sweetheart, Diana Mas ’86). Then came the bit of luck in the form of a leather-clad nanny from East Germany with a nose ring and a penchant for tattoo parlors. Don’t worry, she loved our son and took great care of him, but one night she simply disappeared.

This event is what analysts like to call an inflection point: a moment of pivotal change. Actually, it was more like a punch in the face, i.e., get your priorities straight. I became a househusband and went back to school at night, eventually earning a master’s in English literature. At the grand old age of 30 it was time to relentlessly pursue that career in writing I had dreamed about. It was time to take the same kind of risks I learned to take at Lafayette, to push the boundaries.

For a male of my experience, the easiest entry into the publishing world was via a business book. I played the game and created the Business Wisdom series, a multi-volume collection of essays by the legends of business. The six books did great, but I viewed them as part of my apprenticeship. I had a bigger game in mind and the patience paid off when I signed a contract to write a full biography on Andrew Carnegie, the ruthless steel baron and pioneering philanthropist.

In picking a topic, like anything worth pursuing in life, you have to be emotionally connected to it — have passion for it. My great-grandfather worked in a Carnegie mill and my family is from Pittsburgh (Carnegie’s turf), so I had the connection. A biographer also needs a subject who is complex, multi-dimensional, and even a little crazy, which Carnegie was. You need drama, too, a strong narrative, which his rags-to-riches life provides. And then there is the marketing factor – the subject has to sell, like any product. Yes, unfortunately, to make a living at writing, you have to think pragmatically in terms of sales. Fortunately, Andrew Carnegie continues to capture our imagination with many of his libraries still standing and therefore Carnegie sold very well.

In contrast, my favorite book that I wrote, Portrait of War, about U.S. combat artists in World War I, has sold the worst by far – a bomb, so to speak. The reason: No one really cares about World War I as it is overshadowed by WWII, Vietnam, and the Civil War.

My next biography was on Jack Daniel, the whiskey baron from Lynchburg, Tenn. He has the name recognition, too, but also another aspect biographers relish: the opportunity to do original research. I spent weeks in Tennessee discovering the truth about this legend – only my facts didn’t agree with the “facts” perpetuated by the Jack Daniel’s corporate marketing machine. It was an opportunity to stir up some controversy (and sell books, of course), which I did by contacting the Associated Press and kindly explaining how the company had twisted myth into outright lies. The resulting AP article was published by dozens and dozens of newspapers across the U.S.

A book on Mark Twain’s business misadventures (Ignorance, Confidence & Filthy Rich Friends) is my latest, and this project provided an opportunity to fuse my love of Mark Twain with my business background. I had learned from the World War I project noted above that I had best not stray too far from my area of knowledge. The latter lesson seems simple enough, but it’s a mistake many people make. While there have been a zillion books about Twain, this one was an opportunity to explore his business dealings (which were many) in more depth. Ten, twenty, or fifty years from now books on Twain will still sell as we Americans tend to be nostalgic and can’t get enough of these icons.

In terms of the writing process, at first blush, it may not seem that a degree in economics and business would help much. However, my Lafayette education trained my mind to think critically, to analyze relationships, and to see patterns in life – all essential when writing a 600-page biography. And hey, as long as you sound intelligent, there are always copy editors to fix punctuation.

The bottom line for me is that we can’t forget to be the progressive risk-takers we were in our youth even if we have two kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. You have to have the confidence that the education you received will see you through successfully. It’s great when you have good reason to sing with Talking Heads front man David Byrne:

And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
My god!…what have I done?

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