Archive for the ‘author interview’ Category

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Interview with Tom Standage

Some excerpts from our interview with Tom Standage, which appeared in October’s State of the Thing.

Tom is the digital editor of The Economist and the author of several works of popular history, including A History of the World in 6 Glasses and The Victorian Internet. Tom’s new book is Writing on the Wall, a history of social media, published this month by Bloomsbury.

Give us the nutshell version of Writing on the Wall, if you would, for those who haven’t yet had a chance to read it.

The basic idea is that social-media environments have existed for centuries, and don’t require digital technology to operate. I describe examples of the use of social media (essentially, media you get from other people) going back to Roman times. It turns out that these ancient social-media systems provoked many of the same arguments and questions that we have about social media today. So history can provide some valuable lessons.

How were the “social media environments” of earlier periods similar to those we’re familiar with today? How were they different?

They were similar in the sense that they were decentralized and created discussion or community as people passed stuff to each other, copied it, recommended it, and commented on it. This was done by distributing letters, pamphlets, poems on slips of paper, and so on. People collectively decided what was important and worth passing on, and what you passed on was also a means of self-expression. Centralized media only emerged in the 19th century with mass-circulation newspapers, followed later by radio and television. So today’s social-media environment is, in many ways, a return to the way things used to be. That said, the main difference is that digital social media is global, instant, and searchable. So the analogy is not perfect. But it is close enough to be interesting and informative.

What was the most surprising thing you learned as you researched for Writing on the Wall?

Probably the most remarkable thing I came across was the Roman wax tablet that looks exactly like an iPad—the size and proportions are the same. It was used as a notebook, to jot down thoughts before committing them to papyrus. There’s one in the Roman museum in Cologne, Germany, and I have a picture of it in my book. It’s a great example of what I try to do in my books, which is to see the past in the present, and the present in the past.

You include in the book a number of examples of criticisms of previous social media environments that bear very strong resemblances to criticisms we hear today. Do you have a couple of favorite examples of these?

My favorite example is the way coffeehouses were criticized in the late 1600s. They were the media-sharing platforms of their day, where people went to read and discuss the latest news and gossip. Critics thought this was just wasting time, and that coffeehouses were “enemies to diligence and industry”. But they turned out to be crucibles of innovation that spawned advances in science and commerce.

For more on Tom’s work, thoughts on social media, and recent favorite reads, check out our full interview.

Labels: author interview, authors

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Interview with Patrick Ness

Some excerpts from our interview with Patrick Ness, which appeared in the October State of the Thing.

Patrick is the author of several books for young adults, including The Knife of Never Letting Go and the Carnegie Medal-winning Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls. His new book, More Than This, was published by Candlewick in September.

I don’t want to ask for a nutshell version of More Than This, since so much depends on the mysteries that the reader has the chance to unpack, but will you give us a sense of how the book begins, at least?

Well, the first line is “Here is the boy, drowning” and he does, unambiguously, die. So where does he wake up on the next page then? Don’t really want to say any more than that, really!

Was there a specific idea or incident that inspired the story?

I always wanted to write a book where someone wakes up and the world is empty. So the next question is why? And that opened up a whole realm of possibilities and other questions, which is what I find exciting. I also wanted to write a book about yearning, about yearning for more than just your own life, because I think that’s such a painful and poignant universal teenage experience. Then I just sort of went from there to see where the story would take me.

What’s your favorite line (or scene) from the book?

I don’t want people to turn to it first! But I’m really proud of the last line. To me, the whole book rests on it and it’s got everything I want the book to be about in it. But read the first 480 pages first, please.

What do you think it is about dystopian writing that works so well for YA/teen audiences?

I’ve always thought it was because dystopias are about a world where society has suddenly collapsed, where the rules are arbitrary and unknowable, where people are divided into groups, and your friends are both beloved and duplicitous. In short, it’s high school. I don’t think teenagers look as dystopia as fiction; they see it as a pretty accurate description of what their current world feels like.

When and where do you do most of your writing? Are there any particular writing habits or practices you’ve found useful?

I work at home and in the London Library. And I do have a few habits—1000 words a day, working to goal rather than time, etc.—but it’s a really important thing that no one can tell you how to write; they can only tell you how they write and that’s an important difference. The things I do may be of no use to you at all, but that’s absolutely fine. As long as you get the writing in, you’re doing it right.

For more on Patrick’s work, favorite books, and what we can expect to see from him next, check out our full interview.

Labels: author interview, authors

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Author interview: Samantha Shannon on “The Bone Season”

Some excerpts from my interview with Samantha Shannon, which appeared in the August State of the Thing newsletter. Samantha is the author of The Bone Season, the first volume in a seven-part series, released just yesterday by Bloomsbury.

Do you recall which part of The Bone Season came to you first? Was there a particular moment that inspired the novel?

I was doing an internship at a literary agency in Seven Dials—a junction in London where seven streets meet—when I had the idea. I imagined a girl having the exact same day at work that I was, but she happened to be clairvoyant.

The Bone Season is set in 2059, but in an alternate world which diverged from our own in 1859. I’d love to hear how you set about developing the universe in which the novel takes place, and the sorts of things you had to consider as you did so.

I wanted my clairvoyant society to be a cross-section of historical types of divination, so I did quite a lot of reading about classical and Renaissance impressions of augury, soothsaying and so on. Scion evolved in my mind as a response to the criminal underworld (whereas in the story itself it’s vice versa), and I did a lot of thinking about how to create a believable world in which clairvoyance is persecuted, and about what the people of Scion might hear, see, feel and think in their everyday lives.

Much of The Bone Season is set in what was once Oxford (where you have, I should note, recently finished your undergraduate career). What was it about Oxford that made it work well as the setting?

Oxford was perfect for The Bone Season. Although it’s a modern place in many respects, there are still vestiges of archaism and tradition, and its spectrum of old buildings, from various centuries, give it an eerie sense of being frozen in time.

Who are some of the authors you particularly admire or who’ve had some influence on your own writing?

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was what first got me interested in dystopian and speculative fiction, alongside Orwell and Wyndham. I specialised in Emily Dickinson at university; her poetry inspired many of the themes I want to explore in later Bone Season books.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I just finished The Gamal, the debut of Irish novelist Ciarán Collins, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the moment I’m reading the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire.

Samantha also talked to me about working with Imaginarium Studios on the film version of The Bone Season, and told me what she’s liked most about the publishing process. Read the rest of our interview.


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Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Author interview: Paul Collins on “Duel with the Devil”

Some excerpts from my interview with Paul Collins, which appeared in the July State of the Thing newsletter. Paul teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University, and is the author of many books, including Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, The Book of William, and more. He’s also NPR’s “literary detective,” and writes for a wide variety of publications. His new book, Duel with the Devil was published in June by Crown.

In Duel with the Devil you tell the story of a gruesome 1799 New York City murder case in which a young woman’s suitor is accused of causing her death. The young man puts together something of a “dream team” of defense lawyers: who were his attorneys, and how did he manage to obtain such impressive counsel?

The defendant, Levi Weeks, managed to get the three best lawyers in NYC: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston. Weeks was a construction foreman, but his brother Ezra Weeks happened to be the most successful developers in the city—and Hamilton and Burr were both clients of his! Hamilton in particular was running up an impressive tab (which he couldn’t pay) having Weeks build him a mansion, so he certainly owed a favor.

I might add that while Livingston’s the least known of the trio, he was no slacker himself: the guy was later appointed to the Supreme Court.

This wasn’t the only time Hamilton and Burr found themselves on the same side of a courtroom, right? What others sorts of cases did they cooperate on?

They usually worked on commercial cases—property disputes, insurance cases over lost ships, that sort of thing. They were often on opposite sides, but not always—in fact, right before this case, they’d wrapped up a monster settlement for a client named Louis Le Guen. Since Aaron Burr was even worse with money than Hamilton, he promptly asked Le Guen for a loan!

You’ve got one of the best titles out there, as NPR’s “literary detective.” I’d love to hear a bit about how you seek out the sorts of fascinating historical stories you like to tell: do you go in search of them, or do they tend to be just things you’ve stumbled across in the course of other research and then decide to follow up on?

Often I’ll just grab random old newspapers and magazines (in libraries or online) and start snooping, but a surprising amount of the time it’s weird, random stuff I find while looking up something else. Chance favors the prepared mind and all that.

On this book in particular, though, a lot of the small and odd details came pretty systematically—namely, I read through nearly every available Manhattan newspaper from 1799 and 1800. That’s not quite as insane as it sounds, because newspapers back then were 4 pages long! Still, it was thousands of pages, but that’s always my favorite part of writing—wandering through those lost-dog notices and molasses shipments and yellow fever quack cures. Probably a whole bunch of other stories will now spin off from that experience.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

The British Library recently reissued Andrew Forrester’s Victorian pulper The Female Detective (1864), which I’d never read before and was fascinated by. As a writer, I really love the premise of Alexandra Horowitz’s new book On Looking—basically, walking around the same NYC neighborhood eleven times with different kinds of experts observing it each time. And as someone fascinated by disastrously bad movies, I’m excited to see Tom Bissell’s upcoming The Disaster Artist, about the making of “The Room.” I was actually with Tom the first time either of us saw it, and…wow. Just…wow.

Also, I’ve just come off a Wodehouse reading jag. After eight or nine of his books in row I felt like I’d consumed an entire sheet cake, but it’s a testament to him that, well, I’m seriously thinking of reading a tenth.

But wait, there’s more! Find out what Paul’s working on now, and about some surprising tidbits he’s found during his researches. Read the rest of our interview.


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Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Author interview: Travis McDade on “Thieves of Book Row”

For the July State of the Thing newsletter, I interviewed Travis McDade about his second book, Thieves of Book Row, published in June by Oxford University Press. Travis is curator of rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he teaches a class called “Rare Books, Crime & Punishment.”

Set the scene for us, if you would, by providing a brief description of what Book Row was like during its heyday. Is there anyplace even comparable today?

Book Row was six blocks of Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue packed with bookstores and personalities. Most of these shops were run by men who had learned the trade at the elbow of other booksellers, so there was a well-earned knowledge of the book business, of lower Manhattan and of other booksellers’ aptitudes. These guys were well-read and hard-nosed. There is a tendency now to look back with the sort of nostalgic, moonlight-and-magnolia gloss we often do with the recent past—and some of that is deserved—but Book Row wasn’t Disneyland. It was a labor of love for many of these guys, but it was definitely a labor. And life in Manhattan in the early 20th century was no picnic.

There are places now that have clusters of bookshops—Hay-on-Wye in the west of England springs to mind—but nothing like Book Row. What made it unique was a combination of these personalities, certain historical economic forces, and the nature of New York City at the time. It couldn’t have existed anywhere else, and it can’t exist now.

The theft ring you write about in Thieves of Book Row was no fly-by-night operation: these guys were organized! Give us a sense of how the operation worked, who was involved, and the impact these thefts had on the book and library world of the time.

Like most cottage industries, it developed organically. It started out as just some guys stealing books and selling them to shops—the classic American story!—and it grew from there. A confluence of events made this theft ring, like Book Row itself, possible. By the second half of the 1920s, there was reliable transportation, a decent economy and a rise in the value of a certain type of books. These books, as it happened, were sitting on the open stacks of libraries all over the American northeast, most librarians not even imagining they were worth the effort to steal. Once, at least, they had been right about that. But by the 1920s, it made good business sense to send men from Manhattan to Worcester, Massachusetts, to steal half a dozen books, if the men could then easily move on and hit Lancaster, Leominster, Gardner, etc. The thieves would get paid a standard rate of $2 per book and the bookstores would sell them for anything from $25 to $1,000.

Just to give an indication of how large the theft ring was, by the time it came to an end, the major problem was not getting the books out of libraries but finding places to store the surplus.

One of the key thefts you focus on in the book is the snatching of a copy of Poe’s Al Araaf from the New York Public Library. What made this particular book such a desirable commodity at the time? And how did that theft turn out for the thieves in the end?

Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems was Poe’s second publication, but the first to use his name. Like much of his early work, because it had not been popular, few copies were saved. This, coupled with the fact that the value of Poe works had been party to an inexorable upward climb for three decades, made it a hot commodity.

I’ve tried to get my head around the “why” of the theft. The question “what were they thinking” is often hard to understand in retrospect, and I confess I can’t be sure what the answer is. The theft from the New York Public Library seems to me a great deal like awaking a slumbering giant. The NYPL employed a man whose sole job was to keep its books safe—a unique position at the time—and had powerful allies in the city. When there were so many other compliant victims out there, why would anyone want to give the NYPL a reason to get involved? Recklessness? Spite? Because it was there? I don’t know, but it spelled doom for the theft ring.

Tell us about the research for this book. What sorts of sources did you find that allowed you to reconstruct this theft ring and its deeds so thoroughly?

This book started out as a small part of a chapter in a larger book, when my only sources were a few newspaper articles and a New York appellate court case. Then I stumbled across a memoir that had a few pages on the theft and, very quickly after that, an article in a book collecting magazine from 1933. Each of these offered their own bits of information, each was written in an entirely different voice and each at different removes from the scene of the crime. Most of my previous research was based on court and law enforcement records—dry, fact-based, close-in-time material. The writing of this book, typified by those first sources, required me to draw on a range of much different sources to create a narrative.

Booksellers’ memoirs—even if they did not mention this crime, or Book Row—were great, adding a certain life to the book. But there were also other types of first-person reporting that was extremely helpful: correspondence, court testimony, depositions, etc. These are more raw than memoir, because they aren’t meant for public consumption, and so offer up little facts that a person would not ordinarily think to include in a more formal record.

I also read a lot of fiction from the time. Most of this was not helpful, except for providing context, but some bits and pieces made it into the story. There is even a little humor in the book, if you look hard enough. For example, I rely on a 1920s article from The New Yorker, at one point, to add levity to a passage; so you can probably guess that what humor exists is bone dry.

For more on Thieves of Book Row, what Travis is reading now, and a bit about what he’s working on next, read the rest of our interview.


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Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

Author interview: Julie Wu on “The Third Son”

For the May State of the Thing newsletter, I had the chance to interview Julie Wu about her debut novel The Third Son (Algonquin Books). Julie studied literature at Harvard and medicine at Columbia, and received a 2012 fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives near Boston.

Can you tell us about the origins of The Third Son? Do you recall which part of the story came to you first?

My first inkling of the main character was in 1989. I was sitting in my parents’ suburban Boston kitchen and suddenly had the image of a little boy on the floor of his parents’ house in Taiwan. It was the first time I’d ever visualized a scene so vividly. I rushed to my typewriter to record the musty smell, the dark floorboards, and the boy’s sadness. Thinking back on it now, I believe that boy was Saburo.

How did the story change during the research and writing process?

In 1989 I tried to make that boy the protagonist of a different book entirely—one set in contemporary suburban America in a Taiwanese-American household. That book stalled when I asked my parents questions for background information and I realized how boring my book was in comparison with their actual lives. I was resistant, though, to the idea of basing a book on my parents’ story.

It was 2002 when I finally sat down to interview my parents in earnest. I was pregnant with my first child and maybe had gained some perspective, as well as an understanding that my opportunities to find out my parents’ stories were finite. My first draft was very much based on their lives, but over the following years I learned that in order to make the story a universally appealing, cohesive, suspenseful, and satisfying work, I would have to feel absolutely free to take liberties with the story, the plot, the characters, etc. Now the book is its own self-contained story. Of course, despite that I made every effort to make sure the book is historically accurate.

The early sections of the book are set in Taiwan during a particularly tumultuous period in its history (which I’d venture to guess many of your American readers probably won’t be familiar with). Can you recommend some further reading on the history of Taiwan that interested readers might turn to?

There’s a classic work by George Kerr called Formosa Betrayed. George Kerr was an American diplomat at the time of the February 28 massacres in 1947, and his account of the events on Taiwan and his colleagues’ efforts to get the American government to intervene are both devastating and eye-opening.

Another interesting account is Peng Ming-Min’s autobiography, A Taste of Freedom: Memoirs of a Formosan Independence Leader, in which he describes his arrest for trying to distribute a manifesto for Taiwanese independence. Peng conceals the details of his dramatic escape to Sweden to protect his friends, but more recently, in the book Fireproof Moth, American missionary Milo Thornberry describes exactly how he and others helped mastermind Peng’s escape. There are museums in Taiwan that document the events of 1947 and the subsequent White Terror. These include the Taipei 228 Museum, the National 228 Museum, Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial Park (a former military court prison) in Taipei, as well as the Green Island Human Rights Memorial Park on Green Island, on the site of the offshore prison where long-term political prisoners were held. The website associated with the Green Island museum is maintained by its designer, Ronald Tsao, and is quite extensive and informative: http://2011greenislanden.wordpress.com.

When and where do you do most of your writing?

I write mostly in my dining room and in the public library. I probably get the most done in the library, because there I’m not distracted by the pantry and the refrigerator, and I’m too embarrassed to sit around just doing Facebook.

Any particular writing tips you’d like to share?

Don’t worry about getting stuff out fast. Make your work the best it can be. Agents and editors are just people like everyone else. If tons of them don’t connect to your work, that means tons of other readers won’t either. If that matters to you, figure out why and fix it.

What’s your library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

My library is a jumble of all kinds of books—high-falutin’ French literature from college that I can’t understand anymore, Taiwanese history books, parenting books and travel guides, medical textbooks, and, of course stacks, and stacks of wonderful novels of all genres, famous and not-so-famous, many of them authored by friends.

For more about Julie’s next project, some of her favorite libraries, and more, read the rest of our interview.


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Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Author interview: Jennifer McVeigh on “The Fever Tree”

Some excerpts from my interview with Jennifer McVeigh, which appeared in the May State of the Thing newsletter. Jennifer studied English literature at Oxford and has worked in the film, television and radio industries. Her debut novel, The Fever Tree, was published by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in April.

Give us, if you would, The Fever Tree in a nutshell, for those who haven’t yet had a chance to read it.

The Fever Tree is a novel about a woman who is forced to leave behind everything she has ever known, and emigrate to South Africa to marry a man she barely knows. It’s a novel about a country in the making, about diamonds and disease, love and redemption.

What part of the novel came to you first?

My husband and I were driving across the hot, dusty plains of Namibia in Southern Africa, when we passed a high wire fence cordoning off a diamond mine. I remember thinking—who were the men who first came here to mine for diamonds? What kind of lives did they lead, without running water or sanitation? And who were the women who came with them? When I came back to England I did some research, and became fascinated with the early days of the diamond rush in South Africa, when men travelled hundreds of miles to the diamond fields with little more than the shirts on their backs, and when fortunes could be won and lost on the luck of uncovering a stone.

What were some of the historical sources you found most interesting and useful as you wrote The Fever Tree?

I drew on a huge range of historical sources. The British Library was particularly useful, and it was there that I poured over guide books to South Africa, written in the 1880s, read Victorian newspapers published on the diamond fields, and discovered the diary which told the story of a smallpox epidemic which raged on the diamond mines—the true story which lies at the heart of the book. But there were other sources. It was in Kimberley, the famous diamond mining town, that I came across a book of old photographs taken on the diamond mines, which made real for me the lives of the men, women and children who camped in tents, in the dust and the filth, on the diamond fields, hoping to make their fortune.

How did your own experiences traveling in southern Africa come into play as you wrote the novel?

When I travelled in South Africa, I was fascinated and unsettled by its dark concoction of pioneer spirit and racism, by the brutality of its urban landscapes—with their sprawling townships which spoke of labour migration and forced evictions—and the astounding beauty and wildness of its countryside. These contradictions, I realised, had their roots in my story—in the discovery of diamonds, when men like Cecil Rhodes, driven by greed, used their political influence to create an economy based on lines of race. The more I learned, the more I was able to make sense of what I had seen in South Africa, and the people and attitudes that confronted me.

When and where do you do most of your writing?

Once the research is out of the way, most of the actual writing is done at home. At my desk, in bed, standing by the toaster. Anywhere where I can catch myself off guard and get words down on paper.

But wait, there’s more! Read the rest of our interview.


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Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Author interview: Colum McCann on “TransAtlantic”

For the May State of the Thing newsletter, I had the chance to interview Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award in fiction for Let the Great World Spin. His new novel, TransAtlantic, will be published on June 4 by Random House.

TransAtlantic opens with three stories of voyages to Ireland: Frederick Douglass in 1845, Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown in 1919, and George Mitchell in 1998. How did you decide on these three, and were there other voyages that you considered using and decided not to?

I suppose that writers must always gravitate towards their obsessions, and one of my obsessions was the idea that Frederick Douglass went to Ireland, a black slave, in 1845, but he was also an author, an orator, an intellectual, a dandy, an abolitionist, a humanitarian, a contrarian. What a story! I was also obsessed with the idea of writing about peace and what it could possibly mean in this day and age, which made George Mitchell a fascinating subject. Alcock and Brown landed in between these narratives, in more sense than one: they almost split the time difference between 1845 and 1998. But these were the only stories I contemplated. They seemed to bridge each other perfectly.  They are—in my imagination at least—braided together. They inform one another.

Give us a sense of how this novel came together, if you would. Where did you begin, and how did you shape the narrative to create the final version of the story?

It began with Douglass. It continued with Mitchell. But it was bridged by Alcock and Brown, which was the section that came easiest to me. But the moment I knew I “had” the novel was when I realised it was much more about the supposedly anonymous corners of human experience. The story belonged to the women. That’s where the truth lay. It is, in a sense, a feminist novel.

The novel’s real main characters, of course, are the women whose stories are at its heart: four generations of women beginning with Lily Duggan. Tell us a bit about them, and are they also based on real characters in part, or are they entirely fictional creations?

They are entirely fictional. And yet they live and breathe for me as much (if not more) than the supposedly “real” characters. It is very much a novel about women and their intersection with history; it’s also a novel that hopefully forces a reader to confront what is “real” and what is not.

You must have done extensive research for this book: what were some of the sources you found particularly useful or compelling?

The further I go along in my career, the more I realise that books belong to others more than to myself. It feels to me that this book was a community effort and the grace of the book (if it has any grace) belongs to others. I am indebted to countless numbers of people. I am aware that this could sound coy, or full with false humility but the fact of the matter is that a writer gets his or her voice from the voices of others. We are indebted to those who have come before us.

In the acknowledgements you mention that George and Heather Mitchell “had the great grace to allow me to try to imagine my way into their world.” I’d love to know more about what you learned from Senator Mitchell and how you worked those details into the story.

George and Heather Mitchell are an amazing couple, an astounding story of love and resilience and decency. They allowed me, at first, to imagine their lives. Then they read the manuscript and were charming enough, and humble enough, to allow me any mistakes. So I wrote the section before I met Senator Mitchell, and then I shaped it to get as close to the truth as I thought I might possibly get. They helped me realise what it was that I wanted to eventually say.

What’s your favorite scene or line from TransAtlantic?

Oh, this is very much a “slice the baby” question. How can one choose? I suppose the last line is very important to me, though I very much like line 247 and line 822 (just kidding!). I am very proud of the Douglass section—that one broke my heart until I felt like I had properly captured him. But this is an impossible question and I’m delighted by its impossibility.

For more from Colum McCann, including some advice on writing, a few of his favorite authors, and what he’s been reading recently, read the rest of our interview.


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Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

April SOTT & Author interviews

The April State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes interviews with authors Tatiana Holway and Marie Brennan.

I talked to Tatiana Holway about her book The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created, published by Oxford University Press this month. Some excerpts:

What a story! It’s hard to imagine a country getting excited about a flowering plant today, but in early Victorian England, just that happened, as you tell us in your book. What was the plant, and why did so many find it so fascinating?

You’re right: most of us these days do tend to think of gardening as just a hobby and flowers as mere decor. For Victorians, though, gardening and flowers were intertwined with almost every aspect of daily life. Add to that the sheer numbers of new flowers that were turning up as Britons explored (and absorbed) more and more parts of the world, and the deluge of information about them that was surging through the ever more widely circulating popular press, and you can see how news of the discovery of a colossal tropical water lily could cause quite a stir. Then add the further fact that the plant was discovered in Britain’s only South American colony—the one where it so happened that Sir Walter Raleigh had gone looking for El Dorado and so much of Britain’s imperial ambition had been formed—and the fact that it was identified as a new genus just when the 18-year-old Princess Victoria happened to become queen—you could say all the forces were in place for a perfect storm. The naming of the flower Victoria regia set it off.

Are you a gardener yourself? If so, what are some of your favorite plants to grow?

Absolutely! After growing up in New York City—”gardenless,” as Victorians might have said—I found myself living in a house with a yard, stuck a trowel in the dirt, and fell head over heels with growing flowers: lilies of the valley, violas, forget-me-nots, daisies, delphiniums, sweet peas, morning glories, poppies, veronicas, daylilies, plantain lilies, lavender, roses, clematis, bell flowers, cone flowers, black-eyed susans, hollyhocks, phlox …

What’s your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

Loads of books on natural history, plus loads on British history, plus loads of Victorian literature and literary criticism. I have a soft spot for 17th-century poetry, so there’s quite a bit of that, and then there’s plenty of contemporary fiction, and pockets of all sorts of other books, too. I can’t live without the OED. That and about a dozen other well-thumbed reference works are on my desk. Naturally, companions to gardens and flowers are there, too.

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

Issues of Punch from the 1850s and ’60s and of The New Yorker from the last few months. Richard Russo’s Straight Man was great fun on a short trip recently. The other day, I started Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale. It’s a nonfiction work, based on a Victorian woman’s diary, and very well written. Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending is definitely on my list. I’m also looking forward to giving the novels of Jeffrey Eugenides a try.

Read the rest of our interview with Tatiana Holway.

I also had the chance to talk with Marie Brennan (LibraryThing member castlen) about her recent book A Natural History of Dragons (Tor).

Do you recall what first gave you the idea to write a novel about Hollywood fame and its effects on both the famous person and those around him?

Tell us about Lady Trent, the narrator/memoirist of A Natural History of Dragons. What’s she like, how does she get interested in dragons, and what can readers expect from her memoir?

She’s a deeply geeky woman who became obsessed with dragons at a young age, when she began collecting sparklings (tiny insect-like draconic creatures) and decided that anything with wings was awesome. Her memoirs chronicle the process by which that enthusiastic girl became first an amateur naturalist, then a professional one, then a rather famous (not to say notorious) one. As she is writing her memoirs in her old age, she doesn’t much care what people think of her anymore, and often has trenchant comments to make both on society and her own youthful errors.

What gave you the idea to pen a novel in this particular narrative form?

It really just fell into place, when I first started chasing the idea. The first-person point of view drifted right away into a retrospective voice, Isabella looking back on her life, and then it seemed obvious to write it as an actual memoir—which is, after all, a very Victorian thing to do. (The book is set in a secondary world, but it’s very much modeled on the real nineteenth century.)

You and your husband have been LibraryThing members since 2006 (http://www.librarything.com/profile/castlen). Tell us about your library: how is it organized? Do you and your husband integrate your books or keep them separate?

We integrated them when we moved in together—and yes, both parts of that were considered Big Steps in our relationship! Back then we marked our books with initials in case of separation, but the books we’ve gotten since then are unmarked. God help us if we ever get a divorce; that could get ugly real fast …

As for organization, fiction is downstairs, with mass-market paperbacks in one bookcase (with very closely-spaced shelves) and hardcovers and trade paperbacks on another. Those, of course, are all alphabetized by author. There are two bookcases with comic books and roleplaying games, and then in my husband’s office, various science and technical books. My office contains the nonfiction part of our library, arranged by subject, along with odds and ends like the travel books, foreign language dictionaries, manga, and so on.

It sounds a bit obsessive, but with more than two thousand books, we’d never find anything if it weren’t organized.

You’ve written about the importance of buying books from physical bookstores: what are some of your favorite bookstores, and why?

I love Borderlands Books in San Francisco. It’s a specialty bookstore, with science fiction and fantasy and horror, and its selection is fabulous. They host a large number of readings and signings and other events, and the staff are very knowledgeable and friendly—basically, it has all the classic virtues of the independent specialty store.

Read the rest of our interview with Marie Brennan.


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Labels: author interview, state of the thing

Monday, February 11th, 2013

February SOTT & Author interviews!

The February State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes interviews with authors Robin Sloan and Christine Sneed.

I talked to Robin Sloan about his book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore , published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October. Some excerpts:

The title of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore came from a tweet, right? Tell us where you got the idea, and how the book developed from the original short story into a full-length novel.

That’s right: the germ of the idea was a tweet from my friend Rachel, way back in 2008, which read, “just misread ’24hr bookdrop’ as ’24hr bookshop’. the disappointment is beyond words.” I read it walking down the street in San Francisco, and it made me smile and wonder: what would a 24-hour bookstore be like, anyway? A few months later, when I sat down to start a new story, the question was still there, so I started to sketch it out. When it was finished, I published that story online, both in Amazon’s Kindle Store and on my website, and it just took off like a rocket—somehow finding an audience much bigger and more vocal than any of my other stories before or since. So, that was a sign that maybe there was something there: some deeper potential, some larger story.

What was your research process like as you wrote this book? Were there sources on the early years of printing that you found particularly useful?

I love Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance, a historian’s look at the publishing business circa 1400-1600. Basically the takeaway is this: it was just as competitive and chaotic as the internet industry is today. Probably more so.

What are some of your favorite libraries and/or bookstores, and why?

I have way too many favorites to list, but I’ll give a shout out to Green Apple Books in San Francisco, which was my neighborhood bookstore when I was first starting Penumbra. And actually, there’s a branch of the San Francisco Public Library around the corner that’s quite lovely, too; it has just as many books in Chinese and Russian as in English. You could do a lot worse than to have these two places as your neighborhood book-acquisition options.

Read the rest of our interview with Robin Sloan.

I also had the chance to talk with Christine Sneed about her recent book Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury).

Do you recall what first gave you the idea to write a novel about Hollywood fame and its effects on both the famous person and those around him?

I remember wondering one day what it would be like to have a famous film actor as your father, especially if you are a young man—what sort of competition and envy would you feel? This is where the idea for the book began, but I’m not sure what triggered it.

You’ve written that Little Known Facts asks of its characters ‘If you could have anything in the world, what would you choose?’ How would you answer that question yourself?

Well, it will sound a little suspect, but it’s nonetheless true: I would help friends and family pay debts, send their children to college, take fancy vacations in the sun. I’d want to be able to take fancy, sunny vacations too and spend more time in France, the country where I studied in college; it remains very close to my heart. I’d also like to see about four movies a week.

Tell us a bit about your writing process: how and when do you do much of your writing? Any particular hints or tips on writing that you’d like to share?

I usually write in the afternoons when I’m not teaching; I do sometimes write at night, but not as often. The writing advice I often give is that you can get a lot done in the interstices—even if you only have 30-45 minutes on a given day, sit down and at least make some notes. A book is written little by little, not in one marathon session.

What’s your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

Some poetry but mostly fiction and nonfiction by American and British writers, and currently on my desk are Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, Achy Obejas’s Ruins, along with Brad Watson’s Aliens in Their Prime, also, Outrageously Offensive Jokes III and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012.

Read the rest of our interview with Christine Sneed.


Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.

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Labels: author interview, state of the thing