Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Here's my bio, a live radio interview, and a review of Nose. (Also a link for for the ebook and on-demand editions of The Big Easy, Memphis Afternoons, World's End and The Kingdom in the Country)

                                                                 James Conaway
                                                             Photo by Peter Menzell

     I’m a former Wallace Stegner writing fellow at Stanford University and an Alicia Patterson journalism fellow, and the author of three novels, The Big Easy, World’s End, and the just-released Nose.
After I left Stanford I had a new wife and a newer baby and badly needed a job. The Times-Picayune dangled one: general assignments reporter. I grabbed it although I never took a journalism course and didn’t know New Orleans. I arrived alone right ahead of Hurricane Betsy, drank too much Dixie beer the night before I was to report for work, and woke up surrounded by downed trees and streets full of glass. I got to the old Picayune building two hours before anyone. When the city editor arrived he asked who I was and then, because I was the only person available, told me, “Go out and write a story about the effects of the storm on New Orleans.”
     It wasn’t a very good story but it was printed on page one, with a byline, because no other reporters had showed up. For the next two weeks I worked 14-hour days, learning more than I ever would have in J-school, and thereby became indentured to a great profession that would later inspire and inform my fiction.
     I’m also the author of nine books of nonfiction including the best-selling, Napa: The Story of an American Eden. Frank Prial writing in the New York Times said I was "a reporter with a Saroyan-like sense of humor and a Balzac-like eye for detail," which made me very happy. That book has been in print continually since 1990 and people still tell me they enjoy and learn from it.
Napa’s sequel appeared in 2002. The Far Side of Eden: Old Land, New Money and the Battle for Napa Valley was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and described in the New York Times Book Review as "an important story, emblematic of our time."
     My other books include the memoir, Memphis Afternoons, about growing up in Memphis in the Fifties, and The Kingdom in the Country. It’s a personal journey through the public lands of the American West described by Wallace Stegner as "a very lively book... He got into places and activities that most westerners never even get close to," and by novelist Jim Harrison as "a wonderful and well-considered evocation of the New West."
     Of my history of the Smithsonian Institution, Evan S. Connell wrote, "Nobody will attempt to one-up Conaway for a long time because he, like his subject, has gathered all things relevant." I’m also the author of America's Library: A History of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000, published by Yale University Press.
     For four years I was the editor of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I took up oil painting around that time, some of it inspired by travel. Those paintings reflected landscapes, structures, and artifacts affected by accelerated change, what had developed as an on-going theme in my writing. One series was inspired by photographs of western landscapes I took from the windows of airplanes, done in both the conventional manner and by moving paint on the canvas to capture the mystery of land viewed from 35,000 feet.
Painting was another way to reflect the land and the rapidly altering face of our natural and cultural worlds.
    My next book, Vanishing America: In Search of Our Elusive Landscapes, was a collection of travel essays about lost culture and landscape. Lehrer wrote that it represented my “journalistic and insightful best,” and I agree. Writer Tracy Kidder kindly described it as “an enthralling, lovely tribute to a lot of what is precious in America.”
    My new novel, Nose, from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), is about the winegrowing culture of northern California and described by the publisher as “Bonfire of the Vanities meets Sideways.” Jim Lehrer calls it “the novel for all seasons—and readers... a love(s) story, an under-all-the-soil good and evil saga plus a marvelous tour through and about the world of winemaking. And Jim Conaway’s prose is as gorgeous as some of the Northern California scenes he describes.”
     I’ve written for lots of magazines over the years, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, Gourmet, Smithsonian and Nat Geographic Traveler. I won first place in a North American Travel Writers Association competition for my series, “Walk into America,” that appeared in Traveler, and I’ve taught creative non-fiction at the University of Pittsburgh and at Johns Hopkins and George Mason universities.
     I still contribute tor Geographic’s travel blog, Intelligent Travel, as well as my own I’m working on a prequel to Nose, about the explosion in the popularity of previously little-known California wine, the beautiful countryside of northern California that produces it, and the rise of a young British critic, Clyde Craven-Jones.
     Meanwhile my wife, Penny, a caterer, and I divide our time between Washington, D.C., and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with frequent trips to California. Our mutual hobbies are cooking, travel (our children live in the Midwest and on the West Coast), hiking, and some fly fishing.

      From Jeff Schechtman's radio show, "Specific Gravity"

Fiction Chronicle: A Consummately Pleasing Taste of Napa

A lively satire of California's "Enotopia" and the local passion that has become big business.

By SAM SACKS in the Wall Street Journal

    Set in Northern California, James Conaway's "Nose" (Thomas Dunne, 326 pages, $24.99) introduces the transplanted British wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones, whose magazine, "Craven-Jones on Wine," has the power to make or break "reputations, vintages, business deals, marriages, even lives." Imperious and obese, he sees himself "as the rightful successor to noblemen of old, preserving that most august expression of culture against the onslaught of the vine louse and the wine blogger." His olfactory sense is so keen that an uncapped magic marker can irreparably disturb a tasting.
    Craven-Jones is just one character in the besotted rogue's gallery that populates the California subculture Mr. Conaway dubs "Enotopia." Other figures include the downsized journalist turned muckraking wine blogger Les Breeden; the feuding Hutt family, which owns the high-end label Copernicus and is struggling to stay afloat; the iconoclastic Cotton Harrell, an innovator of organic viniculture; and a host of noisily opinionated amateur wine connoisseurs (in any other setting they'd be called drunks).
    The lively plot concerns the search for the maker of an unmarked bottle of Cabernet to which Craven-Jones has awarded the highest possible score. But the mystery is a genial MacGuffin. Mr. Conaway's real interest is in giving a loving, lightly critical portrayal of a region where wine has grown from a local passion to a cutthroat big business. "God, what an incestuous world it had become, and what a wonderful one," Craven-Jones thinks at a soirée for Copernicus's annual grape harvest. "Twenty years ago there would have been real farmers here, ruddy-faced men not in tuxedos but in lumpy jackets and their friendly wives enjoying a party, companionable and full of advice for newcomers. Today, the burnished complexions all belonged to golfers and mountain scramblers."
    To borrow from the wine critics, "Nose" offers a burst of hearty comic notes and finishes with a lingering penumbra of bittersweet nostalgia.     

To order my latest novel, Nose, click on:  
My first novel, The Big Easy (Houghton Mifflin) is available now in ebook form, as is my memoir, Memphis Afternoons (Houghton). Very soon my travelogue about the American west, The Kingdom in the Countryand my second novel, World's End (William Morrow), will also be available. Go now to: 
On-demand new editions of The Big Easy and Memphis Afternoons will also soon be available.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hey Jim-

    Great to meet you at WBC! Thanks for signing my Napa book.
    I have the audio of your speech but no email to send a link.
    Please send it to me at marikane (at)


  3. Hello Jim,

    We met at Rams Gate signing.
    I have a small winery in Pt. Reyes Sta.
    I am reading "Nose" with much enthusiasm.
    Would it be possible to get a dozen copies of your book, signed
    for our tasting room? Also for my employees?

    Steve Doughty

  4. Good morning James,

    we met at the #WBC13 in Penticton... just read your first chapter of "Terroir"; brilliant work sir. When you're in BC next, I'ld love the chance to share a glass or three of grapejuice and talk shop...

    yours sincerely,
    Kristof Gillese