Author Jacob Tomsky on Reading, Writing and Panties with Logos
by Holley Dey @2013 OnTapBlog all rights reserved
His former co-workers may not have read the book, but they’re plenty proud of Tomsky’s success. “There’s our number one best selling author!” beamed the bellman at the front. When Jake explained that nah, hotel tell-all Heads in Beds only reached number six on the New York Times bestsellers list, the reply was immediate and emphatic, “Well, you’re number one here.”
That’s right, and book critics have been remarkably kind as well. Positive reviews appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post. Jacob has been interviewed on television shows including Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper and Katie Couric, and by radio based comedy team Opie and Anthony, among others. The paperback edition of his brisk selling debut will be released at the end of July.
Frankly, it seems that the only people critical of Heads in Beds are hotel industry higher-ups, and their reaction is not wholly unexpected. They accuse Jake of misrepresenting hotel staff as well as the relationship between staff and management. He is denounced for encouraging thievery by offering tips on how to raid the minibar or avoid premium movie charges. On industry website ehotelier.com, one writer sniped that the Internal Revenue Service should read the book, then audit Mr. Tomsky’s returns for tip reporting accuracy. Really? Seriously? The reviewer must be unaware of the IRS’ full schedule of conservatives to audit; Jake has a generally more liberal outlook.
He continues close friendships with staff at the “Bellevue” hotel; is recently returned from a rollicking Atlantic City weekend with some of those buddies. After ten years in hospitality, at the front desk and on the line, Jake has a solid understanding of the rewards and challenges of a career in the hotel industry. His goals for Heads in Beds were not only to entertain, but also to humanize the staff, “….to make people think about hotel workers.” “They’re not machines; I want readers to see the bellman, the front desk agent and the maid, and know what they go through.” If his book incites a larger discussion on the hotel business model, “I would be proud to start that.”
Anyone who has worked in a service industry knows that the work is hard, and often undercompensated. Guests can be demanding, the work frustrating and the days boring. Boredom had set in the day some two and a half years ago that front desk agent Jacob Tomsky printed out a short story to read during his shift. The bellman in the corner saw him do it. “Hey, what are you reading? Give it to me when you’re done.” The next time Jake printed out two stories; he read one, the bellman read the other in the lobby corner. A third employee overheard the discussion that followed, and soon had copies to read. That was the genesis of “Short Story Thursdays.” Each week Jake selected short stories for staff to read and enjoy. The stories were distributed on Thursdays, because that was payday. Every Thursday, you got your paycheck and a short story. By the time the new author quit his front desk job, fifteen to twenty hotel workers were reading every week; accountants, telephone operators, bellmen and more were counted among the group.
Membership in Short Story Thursdays, or SST, now numbers nearly 2,000 and is steadily growing via word of mouth. The stories are classics, “no garbage”, Jacob promises, and are carefully selected. Each story now arrives by email between 7 and 7:30 a.m. on Thursday mornings and is accompanied by a humorous, sometimes educational and occasionally (very) spicy introduction by the thirty-something Mr. Tomsky. There is no formal discussion of the stories, but some of the members meet on Thursday afternoons at a certain Brooklyn bar where “copies of the current week’s story will be sitting on the bar and SST members will be sitting drunk at the bar.”
Why is SST successful? Jake believes that people want literature in their lives, but that technology and lifestyle changes make traditional book clubs a difficult choice. A short story a week is a small commitment, one that can be satisfied with a smart phone on the bus or train commuting to work. He hopes that membership will continue to grow, that someday two hundred thousand people across the globe will read the same short story on Thursday morning. He’d like to involve college students. He’s thought of introducing the concept to prison populations as a form of structured entertainment.
On the day that novelist Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia) posted a link to Short Story Thursdays on her Facebook page, membership jumped by almost 500 readers. This is the same Liz Gilbert who read an advance copy of Heads in Beds and concluded, “I love this book. Keep an eye on this writer. I’m telling you, he’s a star.”
He’s a star several years in the making. Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality is Jacob’s fourth, but first published book. He previously wrote three novels; none was as readily saleable as the hotel exposé. Originally, he had envisioned a coffee table book, something lighthearted and fun. For example, there might be pictures of fictional hotel guests and the reader would be asked to match the picture to the tip that guest would leave. Credit Tomsky’s agent for recognizing that Heads in Beds needed to be a memoir. The pair worked on the book proposal and chapter summary for six months; it sold immediately.
Jake then had an advance and eight months to write the first draft of the book. He finished in only five months, but subsequently did nine self-edits, looking for ways to make the content funnier, or more moving, or more honest. The book editor received the author’s personal ninth draft, and was suitably impressed. “There’s not a dead sentence in the book,” he said, “including the ones we’re going to have to lop off!” Detailed notes were returned to the author; the rewrite was completed in a month and a book was born.
Before publication there was already talk about the next step. Hour long television drama? TV sitcom? Currently, discussions are focused on the possibility of a television reality/travel show that would find Jacob in various cities around the world offering insight into local area hospitality and service. While that prospect continues to percolate in the background, Jake is thinking about his next book. There is renewed commercial interest in his first novel, and editor feedback is pending. The Impossibility of Disappearing is a story about families and 21st century disconnection. When his father falls ill, the protagonist makes an ill-fated attempt to reestablish ties with family and friends.
Jake is also intent on continuing to develop and expand Short Story Thursdays. He hopes to be awarded grant funding for the now non-profit organization, enough to support a small salary and to purchase copyright licenses toward the distribution of newer stories. While he could solicit donations from readers, he prefers that the short stories and his labor are offered at no cost to members. He envisions us all in SST shirts and caps, although one reader has lobbied instead for logo panties. Hmmm.
The SST founder is a literacy advocate; he wants us all to read, and believes that we’re at a good starting point. Take Twitter, for example. It’s only 140 characters, but a tweet is all about words. It’s like a haiku, explains Jake, thoughts within a framework. Who can entertain us, make us laugh within this limited frame? He often laughs himself when he scrolls through the Twitter stream. When all 140 characters are used, “you’re like OMG, that tweet is SO big. 140, I can’t read all that!” That’s one reason that Jake feels Short Story Thursdays is perfect for this time and this generation. It’s quick, easy, small and youthful.
Speaking of Twitter, I scrolled through Jacob Tomsky’s tweets the other day. One surprised me. “Haven’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature yet.” Bad day at the office, I suspect. Truth is, the likelihood of a Nobel Prize for any young, aspiring author is very, very low. A worthy goal, certainly, but I think more noble is the act of encouraging and facilitating literacy among others. If, Jacob Tomsky, you are the reason and the stimulus for hundreds of thousands of people to read every week, then you will have earned the Noble Prize. Go for it.
Follow @JacobTomsky on twitter
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Send an email to join Short Story Thursdays: firstname.lastname@example.org