Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Our friend, Paul Kozlowski

Paul Kozlowski, adding spark at Book Expo America
On June 26th, we received the shocking news that our long time book industry colleague Paul Kozlowski had died the day before. PK, as most of us knew him, was well respected in the book industry and responsible for helping to sell many of the terrific books that have gone on to become classics in the last 35 years. Both of us called him boss, but we also knew him beyond that role. PK was a fan of this blog (weirdly, since he was a professional and possessed discerning taste) and he made a point of dining with us when he came to Austin for South by Southwest. We worked and joked and provoked each other; PK was a thoughtful guy who liked to challenge notions and push buttons to see what would shake out. He was the guy who would ask why things were done a certain way and push people to work harder and work smarter. He wasn't afraid of conflict. PK also served as a philosopher of the book business, contemplating the direction industry trends veered. Most of all, though, PK was a man dedicated to books. We never gathered in the same space without some discussion of great books. To that end, we've decided that a fitting way to honor our friend and colleague's memory would be to write about the books he shared with us.


Keep in mind that everything I am going to write is about a man who once laid me off from Random House. Letting me go was a job that fell to him because I didn’t wait and get a more humane face-to-face lay off from my direct manager. What can I say, I was a troublemaker.

Paul Kozlowski had a few impressive job titles in his career: Director of Marketing, Vice President of Field Sales (this is when that jerk fired me!), and Associate Publisher. Great titles, but he often referred to himself simply as a bookseller. He didn’t do it to be humble; it was a straight up brag and I like to think that I’ve brought that attitude with me.  I can sell books by the way, but PK was a master.

I can think of no better way to honor PK than to write about a few books that he recommended to me over the years. A couple of these are on his blog where he listed about twenty of his favorite backlist (book industry term for the opposite of a new release) titles, and do take a look at his list. It will give you an idea of how varied his interests were and you will also notice that all the books are by women, something he didn’t even notice until the list was almost complete.

As I began thinking about the books PK recommended that I particularly loved, I could recall the place that he and I originally talked about them.

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

PK sold me on this book many years ago while we were having a drink across the street from BookPeople here in Austin. I had just returned from a trip to that took me through the deserts of West Texas and into Arizona. PK asked why I loved the desert and I reminded PK that the motto of this city is ‘Keep Austin Weird’ and that was fine, but if you really want to find weird you go to the desert, which is why I love it.  He launched into a pitch of Joy Williams (who I hadn’t read, which I was mildly scolded for) particularly his love for The Quick and the Dead and its three misfits, motherless adolescent girls who go looking for and find trouble in the desert.  This book is, for many reasons, perfect.

The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte

PK passionately pitched this book when we were driving on I-40 in Amarillo, Texas, and trust me, it’s hard to be passionate about anything in Amarillo. Retired war photographer Andrés Faulques is living in an ancient tower on the coast of Spain. He spends his days painting a war mural along the walls of his home that would represent centuries and centuries of war. It's more of an attempt to rid himself of the memories of war, particularly of watching his lover and fellow war photographer killed in front of him, than an artistic venture.  One day a Croatian stranger finds him, asks if he is the famous war photographer, and when Andrés answers in the affirmative the stranger reveals that has come to kill him. The stranger carries with him the photograph of himself, which had appeared on dozens of magazines; it is in fact the photograph that has made Andrés famous. The stranger’s life has been ruined because he is now the face of war, and of defeat. This is a slow novel, bits and pieces revealed over time. This book is in my top 50 favorite books.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

I talked with PK about this book while driving him to the airport over a decade ago. I hadn’t lived in Austin that long, but I definitely lived here long enough to know how to get to the airport without getting lost, or at least going in the opposite direction. Unfortunately going in the opposite direction of the airport is exactly what I was doing.  I don’t know what question I asked him in an effort to divert his attention (as you would do to a child) so I could turn around and head east toward the airport, but whatever I asked led to the discussion of The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. PK talked and wrote about open spaces (or lack thereof) quite a bit; he wouldn’t agree but I think he was sort of meant to live in the Southwest. I like to picture him with a cowboy hat on.  In The Solace of Open Spaces, Ehrlich writes about how, after the death of a close friend, she was wandering from place to place, state to state; she had no real home. She finally settles in Wyoming and begins to heal. I would compare her writing to Joan Didion or Gail Caldwell, gorgeous and powerful.

And just so you know, as PK was getting out of the car he said, “Thanks for the scenic route to the airport.” 


PK was involved in hiring me as a sales rep at Random House, but the first time I met him was actually when I worked at BookPeople. He flew to Austin to meet with the buyers and introduce our new rep, as Random House had shuffled their sales force significantly and they wanted to reassure the store that we were still an important account. Oddly enough, the meeting was triggered by Gianna having been laid off. He was in the room when I first interviewed for a Random House job several years later, when I was passed over so that RH could rehire Gianna. I was disappointed that I didn't get the job then (and of course they hired me a year later), but I always respected PK.  

It's worth noting: I do not like cocktail hours or dinners or social occasions. That said, if PK asked me to hang out and have a drink or dinner, I went. I found him engaging, sometimes infuriating, sometimes farcical, but always interesting. He was a student of human behavior, a viewpoint he brought to the books he read and loved. And know this: PK was always thinking about and working on books. He was a bookseller.

The Liar's Club by Mary Karr

It's no secret that I'm a fan of this book. I think Mary Karr is the finest memoirist writing, and she holds a special place in my author pantheon because we share a home territory in East Texas. When I read The Liar's Club in college, it offered both glimpses of where I'd come from and hope for where I could go. When PK and I first sat down for cocktails, it was at a bookseller forum hosted by Random House at their warehouse facility in Westminster, Maryland. In a hotel lobby we sat and talked for several hours (along with several other booksellers from around the country) and I realized how much he respected me and/or how drunk he was when he leaned over to another bookseller and pointed at me and slurred "This one, this one is one of our people." It was a significant moment for me because I was self-conscious about being the youngest person in the room by about 20 years and the new kid in the group. When he heard I was from East Texas, PK launched into a long description of the genius of Mary Karr and how she redefined an entire genre. The Liar's Club was a seminal moment in book publishing.

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Gianna's right: PK belonged in the West. He seemed to have a special fondness for the spaces and people. One of the books we worked on together, when he was Associate Publisher at Other Press and I one of the sales reps tasked with building buzz for Other Press's titles (which is still part of my job). PK shows up with this book and tells me that I have to read it and that the author will tear up the world. Or, in PK terminology, "this cat will tear up the book world." I don't know if I'll ever be called a "cat" again; he loved to called his buddies and colleagues "cats." Bonnie Nadzam was young, hugely talented, and she'd written a novel that challenged notions of propriety and desire in a manner that Lolita did and still does. It's a novel about a girl and older man taking a road trip from her hometown to his cabin in the Rocky Mountains. It's a novel that questions the girl's agency in the journey; was she abducted? Did she know what she was doing? Was she in control? It's a great read with lots of room for discussion, and Bonnie Nadzam won the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize for best first novel for Lamb.

A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev

The location: North By Northwest, a restaurant. The participants: Liz, Gianna, our boss Valerie, and PK, who was Valerie's boss (and therefore ours too). The time frame: 2007, about a month after I started working for Random House. PK came to Texas to visit accounts and we went to dinner. PK and Valerie sat on one side of the booth. Gianna and I sat on the other side. I had consumed about four Diet Cokes because I love my Diet Coke and I tend to drink more at dinners when I'm a bit anxious. PK had gone from being a work associate I saw occasionally to a guy who judged my work performance. I happened to start with Random House on the first day of the big sales conference in March when fall titles are discussed, and I had little time to settle into the role of sales rep. PK was adamant that reps read and love books; it seems like a no-brainer, but if booksellers are anything, they are adept at talking knowledgeably about books they've never read. PK asked me how much I'd read and I told him that I'd read excerpts of most everything I would be selling as well as a handful of full manuscripts, and that I felt pretty good about the list except for this book called A Pigeon and a Boy. I don't remember what I said I thought it was about, but obviously I wasn't even close to correct. As Valerie and Gianna and I watched, PK proceeded to expound for fifteen minutes about this book, at one point lurching across the table and pointing at me and saying "IT'S ABOUT LOVE." Gianna was trying to keep from laughing at the scene and Valerie didn't make eye contact with us. Under the table, Gianna grabbed my leg, an expression of "Can you believe this is happening?" even as PK kept talking about the book. He was so passionate and so, well, intoxicated. It was a moment none of us has forgotten and a story we tell. A Pigeon and a Boy? It's about love. That's what you need to know.

PK kept a blog, PK in the Terrarium, which offers a glimpse into this man and his world. When longtime Knopf editor Ash Green died, PK wrote a lovely tribute to Ash, calling him "the quintessential Book Man." From his blog:
For Ash, and for those he inspired by example, making a book was a labor of love and an act of faith. A labor of love because there was no other way for a man like him to live. He authored his life, it was his art. An act of faith because he believed in a writer's ability to achieve clarity if given intelligent and sympathetic criticism. He also believed in a future for books -- including the books that he labored over, attending to every jot. His was the bedrock faith of every genuine publisher -- books are valuable because people will continue to turn to them for instruction and delight as long as human culture lasts, regardless of format. He was one of that singular tribe who knew how to withstand the onslaught of the technocrats and money men so he could continue to do good work. Ash's books took time -- he made them so they would last. He cared for them and their authors. For him, a book was the nexus of a lasting relationship.
To us, PK was that quintessential Book Man who loved books and understood their value. He spent his life among books and the people who created and read them. We will miss him.  


  1. Thanks for this posting, true to Paul's life — great photo too. You're right — "It's about love. That's what you need to know." Let's hold that message in our hearts, make it the standard in our lives for Paul's sake and ours.

  2. A passion and love so few of us can find