AUTHOR PROFILES 2006:
Two years ago, Loretta Hall gave us a striking book -- Underground Buildings: More than Meets the Eye -- that defined and nearly perfected an architectural genre. The only thing missing is an innovative, low-budget PR campaign, which appears at the climax of this transcript -- and that's where you could go if, as a writer/author, you're looking for marketing clarity as opposed to biography or design. Meanwhile, in keeping with the "whole life" nature of the Author Profiles, we're starting with the Who...
Loretta Hall, During her First 44 Years
On her parents, schooling, and math teacher experience...
GREGORSKY: A web bio still out there from five years ago has you saying: "I wrote my first freelance articles for Home Office Computing and Today's Family, both national magazines." That was 1990.
HALL: Boy, you've done your homework [laughter].
GREGORSKY: What were the topics? And how did it feel to make that leap?
HALL: Well -- I was cautious about the idea of trying to be a writer. It didn't seem very practical. First I incorporated a business to do technical word-processing. I had software that could produce equations, which was not widely available [in the late ‘80s].
GREGORSKY: I'm thinking numerator and denominator. You mean something beyond that, as in: Software that calculates?
HALL: Just to be able to write them! Writing a large integral sign, for example.
GREGORSKY: So, simply being able to display the symbols digitally.
HALL: Yeah. But I didn't get enough clients. Research papers for graduate students -- things like that. So, with a good computer, and time on my hands, why not try writing? I took a continuing-ed course at UNM on how to write and sell magazine articles. Then I started sending query letters. Those two [you referred to] got accepted very close to the same time. The one for Home Office Computing was about how to select a cell phone -- of course they were those big ol' clunky --
HALL: Yeah. The technology was really cool -- but I couldn't afford one. Well, they didn't have to know I wasn't actually going to buy one. And Home Office Computing had not published on that topic. The one for Today's Family was how to raise a child with a learning disorder. Our oldest daughter, the one that's adopted, had some learning disorders; it presented quite a few challenges when she was growing up. I think the title of the article was "Living in the Land of the Learning-Disabled."
GREGORSKY: Do you remember what the pay was for those first two pieces?
HALL: It was $10 for Today's Family. And the Home Office Computing was $700 -- that was a better market.
GREGORSKY: Yet you weren't in it -- I mean, you wanted to earn some money, but it wasn't a survival move, and you didn't have revenue targets.
GREGORSKY: Which meant you had some freedom to do the trial and error and grow incrementally.
She had been covering semi-technical topics for Southwest Contractor magazine -- "some engineering types of things" -- when her husband happened to bring home ASCE News, a newsletter for civil engineers. That issue carried a classified ad looking for writers to produce chapters for a book. The editor was Neil Schlager, and Hall ended up contributing three chapters to his 1994 book, which weighed in at a whopping 695 pages. The title: When Technology Fails (not to be confused with a 2001 book of the same name). Publisher was Thomson Gale, ISBN 0810389088.
GREGORSKY: Did you get royalties?
HALL: No. That was a work for hire. I had to research three different structures that had failed; figure out the cause of the failure; and then express that to a non-technical audience. This was probably the first writing project I really enjoyed.
GREGORSKY: Your first solo book consisted of 75 profiles of Americans with Arab ancestry. How did you get a publisher for that?
HALL: I didn't -- the publisher found me. Starting with When Technology Fails, I did quite a bit of work for what used to be called Gale Research. One editor in one department there would talk to another editor in another department, and say, "This gal can write, and she's dependable" and whatever. So I did all sorts of multicultural things for them -- chapters in The Encyclopedia of Multicultural America; chapters in Native-American Tribes --
GREGORSKY: But how did you get [into that realm] from construction and/or technical writing?
HALL: Because the editor for When Technology Fails [Neil Schlager] passed along my name to the other editors. One of them called me up and said, "We have this project -- a four-volume set on Arab Americans, and would you be interested?" They already had a writer for one of the volumes. Again, it was a work for hire, which I know a lot of writers look down their nose at; but, to me, it was a good paycheck [and] an interesting kind of challenge. They have a whole line of books -- four-volume sets -- about different ethnic groups; and so this was the Arab American set.
Anyway, I told them I would do the biographies book. Given the timeframe they had, I couldn't do it all, so I got my daughter Bridget to be the other co-author. She majored in history in Georgetown and is now a newspaper journalist in Florida. Bridget wrote half of the entries and I wrote the other half. She did more of the musicians and politicians; I did more of the scientists, teachers and writers.
Gale Research also planned a "voices" volume, but the writer backed out, and Hall signed on to write that one as well. In the end, she was co-author of Arab American Biographies and sole author of Arab American Voices. More info on this set can be found on of the Gale website. For the "voices," Hall conducted a few interviews, but "Gale basically wanted us to just use other published sources." The writing and research for the three volumes occurred in just 15 months. "It was pretty intense," she recalls.
The Construction of Underground Buildings
GREGORSKY: You've explained your technical orientation, and obviously the interest in math was there 40 years ago. But how far back can your trace the interest in buildings and construction?
HALL: [Pause] I guess I would say that the interest in how things operate and how you build things goes way back to my childhood. My dad did a lot of that -- and I liked to help. In terms of buildings themselves? About the same time I was starting to do When Technology Fails -- [though] that was more of a "structures" thing as opposed to architecture. But the [latter interest] has gradually grown since then -- and mostly because of my interest in the underground buildings.
GREGORSKY: Now, in all of these different professional situations -- finding magazine and book publishers -- it sounds like you never had an agent.
HALL: Nope. I tried to get an agent [for Underground Buildings]. The publishing companies that I initially targeted were ones that have big architecture lines -- so I thought an agent would help with that. I met one at a SouthWest Writers conference -- she's terrific, and if I needed an agent on some other topic area, I would work with her.
But I sent her my query, and she didn't have any contacts at all [that would work] for this type of book. And really, a lot of the publishing companies that do books like this are willing to work without an agent. It's not like a novel. Some of the big publishing companies won't even look at a manuscript or a proposal unless it's "agented."
GREGORSKY: When did the Construction Writers Association come in?
HALL: I joined them about 10 years ago, and they were a fairly new organization. I was doing a lot of work for magazines like Southwest Contractor and Construction Equipment Distribution, and joining that organization would help me make other contacts.
GREGORSKY: They have a-- so clean and clear; the colors are marvelous. And they handle your e-mail, right?
HALL: Yeah. And that was absolutely invaluable when I was doing the underground-buildings book.
GREGORSKY: Contacts are good, but a willing publisher is great. Without an agent to tell you XYZ, how did you go about finding the latter?
HALL: I read two or three books on how to write a non-fiction book proposal; actually took an online class for a few months on [how to do that] -- and I wrote the proposal. With one sample chapter and everything else, it was about 50 pages long. The first round of sending them out got only one or two expressions of interest -- "yep, this is nice, but we can't use it right now."
The second time around, I only sent a query letter, and said: "Would you like to see the proposal?" And that's what Quill Driver Books and one other publisher responded to.
GREGORSKY: Who became your key contact at?
HALL: Steve Mettee.
GREGORSKY: So, beating the bushes to find a publisher for Underground Buildings -- 18 months total before Quill reacted, or how long would you say?
HALL: With writing the proposal and everything, yeah -- probably about that.
GREGORSKY: You don't let things get to you, right? You're definitely a Type-B person?
HALL: I guess that's fair to say. When something does get to me, it just motivates me to find a way to get around it.
"You Move as a Unit with the Surrounding Earth"
GREGORSKY: Of course, this is an Author Profile, not a summary of your best-known book. Besides, the book is so concise and comprehensive it's hard to add anything to it here -- I recommend it to almost anyone who is trying to rethink any aspect of "design." All I've got are some oddball or sidebar-type questions, aimed at satisfying my own curiosity as well as dramatizing the unorthodox nature of this subject.
GREGORSKY: A powerful argument for building underground is cutting the costs from outdoor temperature extremes. Page 89 says that "75% of the energy loss from a typical one-story building occurs through the roof." Does that mean one should never accept an apartment rental on the top floor? Or is energy "loss" different from energy use?
HALL: Energy loss is different from energy use. And yes, unless the roof is very well insulated, and has a reflective covering rather than a dark roof, you're probably losing some of the electricity you're paying for.
GREGORSKY: So, all other things being equal, if it's a four-story apartment, the people on the upper floor could really get shafted.
HALL: [Laughter] I hadn't really thought of it that way, but it makes sense.
GREGORSKY: Another quirky question -- if a house is truly underground, does that mean the mail "box" could in effect be a mail chute?
HALL: [Laughter] That's a good one -- I like that!
GREGORSKY: You could have a mailbox that looks and opens up like a normal one, but the piece of wood [holding it up] would be a large-diameter pipe, leading to an oversized in-box on your desk.
HALL: [Laughter] There you go. Of course, you see [from the photos in the book] that most of the houses really aren't recessed completely in the ground.
GREGORSKY: Understood. Now a couple of definitions. Being in construction and architecture, you guys have your own code, and certain items are not in the book's index. From page 61 -- what is a "glass brick"?
HALL: Very much what it sounds like. You see them in some buildings, where they have what appears to be a window. But you can't see through it. It's a block, probably about that thick. It may be hollow in the middle, but it's formed of two glass pieces fused together.
GREGORSKY: How are they joined? With some kind of adhesive?
HALL: Some sort of adhesive, yes. I don't know what it is. Turns out that, on the web, the term "glass block" is more common -- http://www.glassblockproducts.com
GREGORSKY: Another dumb question -- what is a "berm"?
HALL: Earth -- dirt -- that is piled up, sloped up, against the wall of the building. So, if this is the wall of the building, the slope comes up here, and is "grassed over" or whatever.
GREGORSKY: Is a berm always dirt? Never an angular board or a two-by-four?
HALL: No, all I've seen used for it is dirt. And it makes a nice landscaping.
GREGORSKY: Okay, here's something far more fundamental. One argument your book makes is counterintuitive to me. All the other plusses [about building beneath the surface] -- savings on heat and air-conditioning; no vandalism when a school's outer walls are mostly up against dirt; being safe beneath the reach of a tornado -- I never thought about, but once you spelled them out, it was like "oh yeah, of course." The one I have trouble with is earthquakes. I would think that, being in the ground, as it goes about its quaking, is actually more dangerous.
HALL: If you're on a fault-line, all bets are off, okay? But if you're not on the fault-line, basically, you move with the surrounding earth. It doesn't damage your structure. You move as a unit with the surrounding earth. Whereas if you're in an above-ground building, the earth moves [while] inertia keeps your building not wanting to move, as a unit with the ground.
GREGORSKY: I see.
HALL: So the building shakes, and sustains damage.
GREGORSKY: Do we have any good test cases?
HALL: San Francisco has significant underground buildings, including the Moscone Convention Center, which is their Red Cross Emergency Operations Center. That's the alternative site for the Mayor to go to in an emergency -- it's their secure site.
GREGORSKY: And you did mention the 1994 [Loma Prieta] quake. So that was a pretty good laboratory test, right there.
For a marvelous boil-down using the "top 10 reasons" mode, see
Underground Wells and His No-Stress Holiday
GREGORSKY: Very early in the book, on page viii, you say you "tend to be claustrophobic." How should we take your use of that word?
HALL: Feeling uncomfortable in closed spaces. And that was one of things that made me feel interested in the topic to begin with. I've had some varied experiences in visiting some of these buildings. The Smithsonian Galleries that I wrote about -- I feel claustrophobic in those, especially the Sackler Gallery, because of the way it's designed. I feel kind of freaked out -- being down in there.
GREGORSKY: See, that could be a spin-off magazine article and help you sell more books. Send a query to Psychology Today, and confess: "I've always felt this way. So how did I deal with it? I wrote a book about it!"
HALL: [Laughter] The other interesting one that relates to the feeling of claustrophobia is in Minneapolis -- the Civil and Mineral Engineering Building. This thing is seven stories deep. And the two bottom stories are separated from the upper ones by a 35-foot layer of limestone. So there's two "shafts" that go down -- and you're really deep. By the time I got to the bottom layers, I was having to remind myself: This is cool, it's been here for a long time [laughter].
GREGORSKY: Can you describe the likely source of the strange feeling?
HALL: It wasn't so much what it looked like or felt like in there, it was more just the idea that I knew I was that deep. And from where I was, there was only one way out that I knew how to get to. At the same time, I didn't feel that bad, because I knew it was really sturdy. I didn't feel there was danger of any "collapse" or anything.
GREGORSKY: You can tell me more accurately, but I would guess something like 75 different sites are profiled in the book.
HALL: About a hundred, actually. But some are not given extensive coverage.
GREGORSKY: Well, several sites are referred while not having a photo, but [let's just say] the book has dozens and dozens of sites, and examples.
GREGORSKY: How many of those did you actually get to go to?
HALL: Between a fourth and a third.
GREGORSKY: And you absorbed those travel costs?
HALL: I got an advance for the book, and I used that for travel expenses.
GREGORSKY: How about the store of foreign-owned gold ingots warehoused beneath lower Manhattan. You write: "Inside the vault are 125 rooms of varying sizes, each assigned to a depositor" or a set of small depositors, to secure stacks of gold bars. Did you get in there? [Laughter]
HALL: No, that was just [a case of reading] whatever I could read on the topic, and putting together the account from that.
GREGORSKY: In this 2004 book, the closest thing to a guru, North Star, or "founding father" is architect.
HALL: When I first started reading about him, I had doubts. The more I read, the more enchanted I became -- he's a great guy. Just great.
GREGORSKY: Visiting his website, I encounter a committed radical with a rollicking (and non-nasty) sense of humor. An unusual mix.
GREGORSKY: Is Malcolm in his seventies now?
HALL: Oh, at least. But it was funny because -- writing this book really made me grow. Approaching certain people or groups can be intimidating. And when I started working on the book, it became obvious that I would have to talk with some big-name folks. I really had to force myself to make those phone calls.
GREGORSKY: Yep, it can be hard to do.
HALL: I wanted to talk to Malcolm Wells -- and kept putting it off [laughter]. He had created this thing called "Underground America Day."
For years, Hall's site quoted Wells: "On May 14th each year hundreds of millions of people all across this great land will do absolutely nothing about the national holiday I declared in 1974, and that's the way it should be. It's a holiday free of holiday obligations... But if you're the partying type, here are some of the ways in which you can observe the big day: Dig a hole and put your house in it. Cover it up... Touch a basement wall... Draw a set of plans for an above-ground building — but don't build it."
HALL: So, a couple of years ago, I called him -- on May 14th.
HALL: And he was delighted to hear that I was doing this book. I was planning a trip to New Jersey [for family reasons], and wanted to see his underground office complex -- his original one. Of course, he's not in New Jersey anymore. But I couldn't find out exactly where it was -- that was one of the reasons I called him. He gave me the information, told me how to get there. It was still some sort of office.
The Deepest Book Still Needs Marketing Boosters
GREGORSKY: In marketing terms, I think it was a stroke of genius to list all of those private builders, architects and hoteliers on pages 210-212. Had this been an academic book, you could never have gotten away with setting the stage for cross-marketing. That gave every one of those folks an extra reason to use your book as a promotional item. Yes?
HALL: I would hope so, but I don't know that it's really happening. One company has done that, and they only have one project in the book. But they did end up turning into a whole new market for my writing. I had contacted them when [putting together the book] to ask for illustration material, and they were very cooperative. When the book came out, I sent this company's publicist a note. She went out and bought a copy of it, loved it, and bought other copies to distribute within their firm. And then she said: "Do you want to do some writing for us?"
GREGORSKY: Which company is this?
HALL: DMJM. So I've done a lot of work for them over the past couple of years.
GREGORSKY: What kind of work?
HALL: Basically, writing articles for trade journals -- professional journals. In fact I've done a fair amount of ghost-writing for them -- six articles for Civil Engineering magazine [during 2005]. But those didn't have my name on ‘em. I interview the engineers extensively, write the articles, they approve it, and their name goes on it. But I get paid pretty well [smiling].
GREGORSKY: There's a lot to be said for trading off the by-line for a nice check.
GREGORSKY: Has your publisher pressed you to get any kind of detailed feedback on the book?
GREGORSKY: Are you curious about how people are using it or liking it?
HALL: No, not really. I think I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in terms of getting the information out there, presenting it in a way to make people stop and think about this concept they normally would have a knee-jerk reaction to. Now they can give it a more thoughtful appraisal.
GREGORSKY: What's the most surprising reaction -- thematic, from a given audience, or just some individual -- that you have gotten to this book?
HALL: [Pause] I can't say I've had anything of that sort. I mean, the people who've admitted to me that they've read the book all seem to like it.
GREGORSKY: Do you ask them why they liked it?
HALL: No, not usually. If it's somebody I'm talking to face to face, they'll usually say something [specific]. If the comment comes in through my website, a general "this is terrific," [their reasons won't be] specific.
GREGORSKY: Has there been something beyond a review or a blurb in a major architectural magazine? I'm talking about a profile that began with the book, but went on to say "here's who this person is, and here's how she did it."
HALL: Do you want to write one? Please? [laughter]
GREGORSKY: Well [laughter], we're producing it now! On the other hand, my website is no "Architectural Digest dot-com."
GREGORSKY: Does Quill have a PR department that would phone Architectural Digest and pitch that kind of story or interview?
HALL: They have a small publicity department. I could suggest it.
GREGORSKY: It wouldn't hurt.
HALL: You're getting me stirred up again. I still love the topic, I'm proud of the book -- but I'm languishing on what to do with it right now.
GREGORSKY: Okay, I'll keep thinking on it, and write some of these up. Maybe I'll send the message to Architectural Digest, explain that I'm an independent editor, and in the process came across somebody "that you guys ought to be covering."
So Then What Happened?