Thursday, July 18, 2002

In search of the perfect read

Published in the Current

Clint Willis lived in different worlds as a kid, moving between his home in southern Louisiana and the settings of the books he read.

“I was a real bookworm growing up,” he said.

Now, living in Cape Elizabeth and working in Portland, he brings his experience as a voracious reader to the writing business. “I’ve always been as much of a reader as a writer,” Willis said.

He started as a journalist in New York City after college and covered financial markets for Money Magazine and other major publications for a decade or so, before deciding to start a family with his wife, Jennifer.

With two boys, they moved to Cape Elizabeth. “It just seemed like it would be a great place to raise a family,” Willis said. He started freelancing for magazines after the move, but found an approach different from the traditional solo freelancer.

He had experience working in what he called “team journalism,” with researchers, editors and reporters collaborating on stories. “I sort of applied that model in my work,” he said, hiring aspiring journalists right out of college and teaching them to be reporters while they helped him with his assignments.

The business, aptly named The Writing Company, also undertook contract jobs for business newsletters and other corporate publications.

Now the company, which Willis sees more as a teacher-student relationship, has alumni freelancing for business and technology publications and attending business school. One even wrote a novel.

Most of the work was financial journalism in the beginning, for clients like Forbes, Worth and Money, but his interests drew him to outdoors magazines like Outside and Men’s Journal.

“I’ve always been interested in mountain climbing,” Willis said.

In 1997, he published the first of what would become a long series of adventure-inspired anthologies. The book, called “Epic,” was a collection of harrowing mountaineering experiences. It kicked off a series called “Adrenaline Books,” now with over 30 books, mostly anthologies. Over 500,000 copies of the books are in print.

He and his staff, most notably Cape Elizabeth native Nat May and Nate Hardcastle, put the anthologies together, choosing from a wide range of stories and authors, assembling them to be riveting reads.

“A lot of the books that I’ve done have come out of stuff that I’m interested in,” Willis said. The series reflects his wide-ranging interests and curiosity, covering polar exploration, firefighting, Mafia insiders, the writings of the Dalai Lama and collections of writing about Jesus, meditation and gangs, among others.

The art of the anthology is what gets Willis truly fired up. He doesn’t want his anthologies to be catch-all books comprehensively covering a subject from all angles and including writing by all known experts, destined to sit on shelves for occasional reference.

Instead, Willis tries to make them enjoyable reading. “No one’s really realized the potential of anthologies,” he said. “An anthology could be just a great read.”

He doesn’t even try to make his collections representative or complete.

Instead, he chooses pieces that are strongly written and stand on their own merits as stories.

Sometimes he finds the one great piece created by a mediocre writer, or resurrects stories long forgotten. Other times he grabs a magazine article and puts it into a book, taking it from a periodical to a permanently published format.

“I’m just going to find the best reading experience,” Willis said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there that people don’t read anymore.”