A story stranger than fiction
He even has to be coaxed into writing the thing.
These unconventional circumstances, while seemingly born from fiction, are the facts that gave flight to "Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird" (Grove/Atlantic, $24), Great Barrington author Andrew Blechman's debut work.
But even zanier than all of the above is the story of the book's birth, which was conceived in a cozy Vermont bed and breakfast by someone Blechman, 37, had never heard of.
It was winter 2003, and Catherine Drayton, a literary agent from Australia, was spent after a day skiing Okemo's snowy slopes.
A good read would ease her into a slumber, she thought, as she pulled a Smithsonian magazine from a pile of glossy publications next to her bed.
It was an outdated issue more than a year old but it would do.
Drayton flipped the pages and happened upon an article by Blechman, a colorful narrative that guided her through the wacky and competitive world of New York City pigeon racing, where owners breed and train pigeons on rooftops for big-time bragging rights and five-figure purses.
She loved the story. She loved the writing. She couldn't sleep.
"I'm always looking for good stories and new talent," said Drayton, during a recent telephone call from her home in Australia. "I thought, 'This guy is an amazing talent. I want him to write a book.'
"I just thought he had this great ability to find the extraordinary people and open up a whole world I didn't know existed."
Drayton contacted Smithsonian the next day to get Blechman's contact information. She wrote him a letter proposing he write a book about pigeon racing.
'Been there, done that'
At first, he was cold to the idea. In fact, he didn't even respond to Drayton's letter for six weeks.
"I'd been there, done that," he said. "I had already written the pigeon racing piece. And I really didn't have any desires to write a book."
At the time, Blechman was knee-deep in his new business, Stellar Pasta Co., a venture he launched with local Jeremy Stanton. It was the furthest thing from a life of letters, but that was his plan.
After coming out of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1993, Blechman quickly jumped from the Norwich (Conn.) Bulletin to the Los Angeles Times, the fourth largest newspaper in the country. He also had stints at the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee and the Des Moines (Iowa) Register.
But daily journalism was starting to feel suffocating.
"It got to be a grind; quantity over quality," he said. "I wanted to write the long-format features."
Eventually, Blechman, who was originally from Princeton, N.J., moved to New York and started freelancing. He wrote for the New York Times, Newsday, Smithsonian and ABC.
Then Sept. 11 hit.
|» Author to speak|
What: Great Barrington author Andrew Blechman will speak about his debut work, "Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World's Most Revered and Reviled Bird."
When: 7 tonight.
Where: Stockbridge Book Sellers.
The windows had been open, and the apartment was filled with soot.
By January 2002, he was living in Great Barrington. He chose the area because his parents had summered here; he enjoyed the mix of culture and landscape.
He put freelancing on the back burner, because "it's a tough way to make a living."
"I always knew I'd go back to it," he said.
He joined with Stanton to start the pasta company, which, he said, enjoyed a successful stint.
"I wanted to try something totally different," he said. "I'm a foodie, but the old profession came calling."
That's when Drayton's letter arrived. After much back and forth between the two, Blechman agreed to do a single-subject, non-fiction book about pigeons as a whole.
The pigeon racing would be "the spine of the book," he said.
Blechman spent six months researching the pigeon, Columba livia, better known as the rock dove.
He gained entry into a Pennsylvannia gun club, where members hired a poacher to steal New York City pigeons so hunters could kill them in a spree. The only stipulation was that he had to shoot.
"I'm a lousy shot, so the birds did fine," Blechman said.
He attended a dinner in the British House of Parliament honoring the pigeons (now stuffed) who carried messages during World War II.
He attempted with no avail to speak with Mike Tyson, a pigeon zealot who at 10 years old beat up a bully who twisted a pigeon's neck.
He interviewed New Yorkers who take injured pigeons into their home and nurse them to health.
He ate pigeon, and even attended a pigeon beauty pageant. He even met the Queen's royal pigeon handler; Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is a pigeon racing fan herself.
"I came across some wacky stuff, some great subcultures," he said. "I infiltrated the pigeon world on every level. Basically, I'm a tour guide."
His wife, Erika, 45, and daughter, Lillie, 2, got to learn more about pigeons than they ever imagined.
Did you know that a pigeon delivered news of Napolean's defeat?
Did you know that the pigeon is the world's oldest domesticated bird?
Did you know Charles Darwin used pigeons to support his theory of evolution?
"He actually changed my opinions on pigeons," Erika said. "The more I read, the more I think I respected the pigeons. They're really a global bird."
Blechman completed the 256-page book in one year. He was paid $70,000 after Grove outbid several other companies for the rights to the book. A little more than 20,000 copies are being printed and the publicity blitz has already begun.
In addition to speaking at Stockbridge Book Sellers tonight, Blechman will be appearing on the CBS Sunday Morning show and the Bob Edwards Show on XM Satellite Radio. He also is speaking at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
He has since left the pasta business, but has already begun to work on a new piece about age-restricted communities. It has two working titles, "Golf Cart Nation" or "Geratopia."
When he thinks about how the pigeon book practically fell into his lap, he speaks with reverence.
"If it wasn't for Catherine, I might still be making pasta," he said. "It's a honor to write a book, honestly. I always saw myself as a magazine writer, not a book writer. But she convinced me I could do it.
"If I did my job well, then I have entertained my readers."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.