Duck stamps, tacos, coffees and other single-subject obsessions

Despite a diverse range of topics -- Mexican food, the coca plant, the world’s most complicated watch and the federal duck stamp art program -- the authors participating in Saturday’s Festival of Books panel discussion “A Singular Passion” all described similar experiences when it came to writing an entire book on a single, seemingly niche topic.

Among them were the “a ha” moments when it first became apparent that the topic they were researching, writing or talking about deserved a deeper treatment. For Gustavo Arelleno, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” it was over a plate of Haitian fried dough in Manhattan.

“I realized that no one had done a substantial history of Mexican food in the U.S.,” Arellano said. “I went back to my hotel room and started looking on the Internet, and all I found was lies and half-truths ... like the story that the margarita was named after Rita Hayworth. That was when I decided I needed to write a book. That led to three years of traveling around the country eating tacos.”


For Martin J. Smith, whose latest book is titled “The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest,” the moment came during a bike ride with a friend who told him about artists who competed to have their artwork grace a duck hunting permit stamp.


“It’s the only art contest run by the federal government,” Smith said. “And the line that did it for me was: ‘The Hautman brothers are the New York Yankees of the federal duck stamp program.’”

Another through line for many of the books was the focus each work had on a pair of men to tell the story.


In addition to Smith and the aforementioned Hautman brothers, there was Ricardo Cortes’ heavily illustrated book “A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola.” It drew on the on the archived correspondence between 1930s-era drug czar Harry J. Anslinger and a Coca-Cola executive named Ralph Hayes to explore the notion of Prohibition in the U.S. (specifically as it regarded the soft-drink maker’s access to the coca plant).

And Stacy Perman focused on the competition between wealthy watch collectors Henry Graves and James Ward Packard to build an extraordinary timepiece in “A Grand Complication.”

As panel moderator Deborah Vankin pointed out, though all of the books ostensibly focused on a single niche topic, each author was able to use the subject as a springboard for a wider discussion, whether it be ethnic cuisine’s contributions to America (Arellano) a history of man’s advances in timekeeping (Perman), the U.S. government’s Prohibition policies (Cortes) or the same government’s wildlife conservation efforts (Smith).

The panel also touched on what appeared to be the biggest challenge for a writer pursuing his or her singular passion: knowing “when to say when.”

Arellano said that for him, it’s only the prospect of a looming deadline -- and the paycheck that follows -- that signals an end. “When I latch on, I’m like a leech,” he told the crowd. “And I won’t finish the story until it’s dry of blood.”

“I spent way too much time on the book,” Cortes admitted. “Something like six years of research. In the end, my book ‘Go the ... to Sleep’ started to take off and that was opening a lot of doors for me, so I just had to distance myself from it and get it finished.”

Perman said her book had a natural arc. “The watch that was built ended up selling for $11 million at auction -- which set a record,” she said. “I let the story tell me when it was done.”

Smith said the prospect of disappearing down the research-and-writing rabbit hole is a very real one for someone given no time or deadline constraints. “That’s why I chose a story with a natural arc,” he said. “There were quirky characters and enormous stakes, and it ends in a competition. I knew there would be a natural cutoff.”