Jonathan Coleman’s most recent book, Long Way to Go: Black and White in America, has been called “a classic” (Morris Dees, Southern Poverty Law Center), “history and journalism at its best” (Andrew Hacker, author of Two Nations) and received front-page reviews in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and the Chicago Tribune. In addition, Mr. Coleman traveled to 20 cities in the fall of 1997, taking part in symposiums that centered around the book and the subject of race, and he served as an adviser to President Clinton’s Initiative on Race as well as an adviser on racial unity to Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign. (All of Mr. Coleman’s research related to Long Way to Go can be found at the Golda Meir Library of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.)
Mr. Coleman was born in 1951 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1973.
The following year, he worked in London for The New Review, a literary magazine. From 1975 to 1981, he worked in book publishing, first at Alfred A. Knopf and later as a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Simon and Schuster. Among the books he edited were Peter Taylor’s In the Miro District, Robert Lindsey’s The Falcon and the Snowman, David S. Broder’s Changing of the Guard, Elizabeth Drew’s Senator, William S. Cohen’s Roll Call, Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory and Arabia, Shiva Naipaul’s North of South and Journey to Nowhere, and Donald Johanson’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind. In 1980, in a piece about publishing, he was profiled in Time magazine as one of the best editors in the field.
From 1981 to 1983, he worked at CBS News, where he initially began to investigate the story that led to his first book, At Mother’s Request. Published in 1985, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and made the New York Times bestseller list in both hardcover and paperback. Favorably compared by the critics to such books as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, it was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award. (All of Coleman’s research related to At Mother’s Request is with the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.) In 1987, a miniseries based on his book aired on CBS, and he made a cameo appearance.
In the fall of 1989, his second work of nonfiction, Exit the Rainmaker, was a featured selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and was praised by Time (“Striking”), The New York Times Book Review (“Fascinating”) and The Los Angeles Times Book Review (“A fascinating symbolic statement of the American psyche”). In addition, he wrote a profile of Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Civil Rights Memorial, for Time. In 1990, when Exit the Rainmaker was published in paperback, it became a New York Times bestseller.
In 1991, Coleman wrote a piece on Little League that was subsequently cited for Special Mention in Best American Sports Writing 1992.
Mr. Coleman is a member of PEN and is included in Who’s Who’s in America and Contemporary Authors. He has written forthe New York Times Book Review, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post Book World, the Chicago Tribune, the Texas Observer, among other publications. He taught creative nonfiction writing at the University of Virginia from 1986 to 1993, and has lectured at a number of other universities as well as at Chautauqua, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta, and the Milwaukee Public Library. Over the course of his career, he has been interviewed on most of the major television and radio shows, including Today, Oprah, Good Morning America, Vanished, 48 Hours, and All Things Considered, and has been profiled in many major newspapers.
Mr. Coleman lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is currently at work on a book for Simon and Schuster about Angus Cameron, the renowned book editor (and “true Renaissance man”) who was blacklisted in the 1950s.
At Mother’s Request: A True Story of Money, Murder and Betrayal (Atheneum,1985; Pocket Books, 1986; currently out-of-print). This story_which I first reported on for CBS News and was later made into a miniseries, in which I had a cameo as myself_concerned the 1978 murder of a Utah millionaire by his 17-year-old grandson, a murder plotted by the boy’s own mother (daughter of the victim).
Exit the Rainmaker (Atheneum, 1989; Dell, 1990; InPrint.com, 1999). This story_again first reported by me on CBS News–dealt with the voluntary disappearance of Jay Carsey, a 47-year-old Maryland college president and pillar of the community, and the impact his act had on the people who left behind.
Long Way to Go: Black and White in America (Atlantic, 1997; Atlantic trade paper, 1998). This book, seven years in work, looked at race in America through the window of Milwaukee.
Untitled on Angus Cameron (Simon and Schuster, 2003). Cameron was a famous book editor and “Renaissance man” who was blacklisted during the 1950s. I first met him in 1975, when I began in book publishing at Knopf, and the book will be informed by that personal connection, a book that will include a little-known (if at all) connection between Marilyn Monroe and W.E.B. DuBois and the redoutable Canadian outlaws Didge Smith and Broomie Dougal. (At 93, Cameron is still very much alive.)
What my closest friends know, and I am willing to reveal, is this: had I been able to become a successful back-up singer for a Motown-type group, I never would have become a book editor, or a broadcast journalist, or a nonfiction author and teacher. Very few people, I would venture to say, have seen the original Temptations as many times as I have; somewhere I still have the ticket stubs to prove it. One of the greatest nights of my life was attending the WIBG spectacular in Philadelphia on a Friday in October of 1967. Knowing this about me is to know where I truly live.
I used to write a great deal of poetry, still love to read it, and would single out Rilke, Auden, Yannis Ritsos, and Ian Hamilton as my favorite poets.
In fiction, Scott Spencer’s Endless Love is the only book that ever kept me housebound for days. I love John Cheever, loved Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, all of Ann Beattie’s work (even if she weren’t one of my closest friends and my daughter’s godmother), and think Lisa Zeidner’s Layover was very overlooked. And I have recently discovered Sebald: he is amazing.
In nonfiction, my influences have been Gay Talese, Tony Lukas, John McPhee, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion. Jonathan Raban is one of our great living writers. Shiva Naipaul died too young. Almost everything Nicholas Lemann writes is suffused with brilliance. All of them do their work with tremendous care and I will always admire and deeply respect that. I strive to do the same in mine. As long as people and the situations they find themselves in continue to hold my attention, I will continue to try and figure out the meaning of it all, always trying to shed light.