Archive for the ‘author interview’ Category

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Q&A with David Mitchell

David Mitchell—award-winning author of Man Booker Prize shortlist nominees Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream—is known for his complex narratives, spanning decades of time and generations of characters, frequently with a hint of the paranormal. Mitchell holds an M.A. in Comparative literature from the University of Kent. In addition to his own novels, he also translated the memoirThe Reason I Jump into English from the original Japanese.

Slade House is Mitchell’s seventh novel (out October 27th, from Random House), and is our pick for November’s One LibraryThing, One Book group read (starting November 9th). On the heels of last year’s The Bone Clocks, Mitchell’s latest is a sharp riff on the haunted house story, with its own rules and surprises.

David was kind enough to chat with LibraryThing staffer Loranne about haunted houses, Twitter, and his latest work.

Slade House fits within the broader world you created in The Bone Clocks, while also being a self-contained haunted house story. What spooky tales are personal favorites/did you draw on for your inspiration?

The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs sets the gold standard, for me. Lordy lordy it’s good. Stylistically polished, philosophically attentive and with its cosmology and present time-line in perfect balance, it’s no accident that this English short story from 1902 appears in so many anthologies of the supernatural. Poe casts a long shadow from an earlier era, but you read him more for sound, colour and flavour than to be outwitted; ditto H.P. Lovecraft.

For the longest successful single-narrative haunted house story that doesn’t develop into horror, I’d go back to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, which is both a flawless novella and an exploration of the genre: are the ghosts parapsychological or psychiatric in origin? M.R. James’ dreamlike stories beguile more than they frighten a modern readership, but stories like his often-anthologised “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You My Lad” persist in the memory for decades. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House prefigures an evolutionary jump in the 1970s with cinematic American novels by Stephen King and his generation. King often confounds the Ghosts + Gore = Horror equation, and I don’t see how it’s possible not to be influenced by The Shining, once you’ve read it. (Kubrick’s film is justly famous, but differs from King’s fine novel in several key points.)

The last influence I’ll refer to here is an American book whose title and author I’ve forgotten: it was one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from the early 1980s which my local library in Malvern stocked—they were hugely popular, and the resourceful librarian had to reinforce the spines and covers with adhesive clear plastic. The book I’m thinking of was set in a witch’s house, and one of its plot-lines ended up with you dropping a tea-pot and smashing it on the floor. You said, “I’m sorry, I’ll pay for it,” and the witch replied, “Oh but you will”: and no matter how many fragments of porcelain you picked up, you could never finish—nor could never stop bending down to pick up more. Sisyphean and dark or what?!

Interviewer’s note: I was a huge Choose Your Own Adventure fan as a kid myself, and now I’m dying to know which one this is! Any LibraryThingers out there have a guess?

I think part of why the haunted house story resonates so well is that many of us recall a strange house that others automatically avoided (for reasons supernatural or not) from our childhoods. Is there a “haunted house” that you remember from when you were growing up?

Cool question. There’s a totemic quality about childhood, meaning that pre-adulthood endows you with an ability to award sentience to inanimate objects. That stain on the wall is a melting face; that swirl of grain and knots in the pine wardrobe is a Cyclops bent over in laughter; those creaks in the nooks and crannies of the night are—obviously—the footsteps of the orc made out of chewing gum you were dreaming about just now. My point is that kids experience every house as potentially haunted, even the small post-war, cookie-cutter mass-constructed houses that me and pretty much everyone I knew in my childhood lived in.

Since you ask for one specific house, though, I’ll offer up a bungalow owned by one of my mum’s friends on the English coastal town of Bognor Regis. Mum took me on a visit there around 1980, when I was eleven. The trip wasn’t a great idea. My mum’s friend’s malign mother also lived in the bungalow and she disliked children. Also resident was a grandfather clock, and in my perception, it and the old woman were somehow one and the same. The clock watched the long hallway and its rhythmic ‘thunk-click, thunk-click, thunk-click’ was like a wood-and-bronze cardio-pulmonary system. One morning I stopped the pendulum with my hand. The silence was thunderous and I grew scared that I’d killed the clock. I tried to set the pendulum swinging again, but instead of a calm and even rhythm like before, the pendulum swung irregularly and drunkenly, and any further remedial measures just made things worse. In fiction, of course, I’d then discover the corpse of the unpleasant old woman: in reality, I did what any honest and conscientious Sunday School boy would do: flee the scene of the crime and deny all knowledge. Three times, before the cock crowed.

The structure of Slade House is similar to that of The Bone Clocks: each section follows the perspective a different character than the one before, skipping ahead at nine-year intervals. What was your favorite section or scene to write and why?

I like Nathan in 1979 because in it I’m setting up the story and because the boy is such a square peg in a round hole. I like Gordon the cop in 1988 because Nathan set up expectations which I can now confound. I like Sally in 1997 because of her insecurities and the fast succession of house party scenes allows me to (try to) get a bit David Lynch-esque. I like Freya in 2006 because through her I can explore the origin stories of Slade House. I like the fifth and final section, because I get to occupy the body of the novel’s antagonist, and it’s always fulfilling to endow characters with the requisite three dimensions. So really, I liked writing all of the sections: if you’re not enjoying it, it’s usually because you’ve taken a wrong turn, so you need to backtrack and work out how to fix it. Then you enjoy it again.

You’ve explored Twitter as a storytelling medium more than most—Slade House having evolved out of The Right Sort, and now with the companion piece of @I_Bombadil. What’s it like writing a story for Twitter vs. working on a novel?

Working on a novel is like describing a landscape over which you are floating in a slow-drifting balloon, with powerful binoculars, on a bright afternoon with perfect weather conditions. Working on Twitter fiction is like describing a landscape of tunnels and gorges you are glimpsing through the fogged-up window of a bullet-train. Twitter fiction also demands short names: have a name as long as ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ and you may as well knock off early and go home.

»For more from David, check out our full interview here!

Labels: author interview

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Q&A with Mallory Ortberg

Some excerpts from our interview with Mallory Ortberg, which initially appeared in October’s State of the Thing newsletter.

Mallory Ortberg has written for Gawker, New York Magazine, The Hairpin, and The Atlantic. She is also—along with partner in crime/editing Nicole Cliffe—the co-creator of The Toast, a general-interest website geared toward women. Since its debut in July 2013, The Toast has developed quite a cult following.

Mallory’s first book, Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters (out November 4, 2014) is the next step in the popular Texts From series featured on The Toast. It is also a riot.

Loranne caught up with Mallory this month to talk about her work.

Your book is essentially what it says on the tin, but, in case anyone is unclear on the subject, could you tell the audience at home what Texts from Jane Eyre is all about, in a nutshell?

Sure. It is… it is slightly less gimmicky than it sounds, I think, because it’s really very specific jokes about very specific literary characters. The premise, you know, is pretty much “WHAT IF CELL PHONES BUT THE PAST,” but the phones aren’t really the point, the point is all the horrifically selfish behavior exhibited by some of our favorite protagonists throughout the Western canon. It’s jokes about books.

As someone who is hailed as the Queen of the Internet (or at least a very specific subset of the Internet) right now, why did you decide to turn Texts from Jane Eyre into a book? Was there a particular story or character the served as a jumping-off point?

Oh gosh, to be quite honest, I decided to turn it into a book because someone offered me money to do it. I mean, I don’t think the offer would have been made if the series didn’t seem viable, but basically someone said “I think this would make a good book and here is some money to prove it,” and I said “Thank you,” and wrote enough words to earn that money. Otherwise I’d probably just have kept on doing it for free on the internet, like a chump.

It started as just Texts From Scarlett O’Hara, but then I found myself thinking about so many other literary characters, and I didn’t want to stop. By Little Women, I think, I’d realized that this was something a lot of people were having fun with, not just me, and that it was the sort of thing that could go on for a long time.

You can see Mallory talk more about the beginnings of the Texts From series—and her inspiration for the book—here.

You seem to have a deep and abiding love for the source materials in a lot of Texts from Jane Eyre. Who were your favorite and/or least favorite characters to write text sessions for?

I DO. Oh, Lord, do I ever. I have no unfavorites in the book, any unfavorites were speedily culled from earlier drafts, but I think Jo March and Mr. Rochester have to rank pretty high. Maybe William Blake. The really creepy ones, who yell a lot, they’re quite dear to my heart.

See Mallory talk about Emily Dickinson and her other favorite characters to write about here.

Were there any planned characters or authors you wanted to include in this book that just didn’t work out?

Yes, but I don’t remember many of them. It was pretty clear, pretty quickly, what concepts weren’t going to work, and we ditched them early on. I think Faulkner fell by the wayside, as did Dante. I couldn’t always find the right hook for the characters.

In the process of writing Texts from Jane Eyre, did you go back and re-read any of the classics you used for inspiration?

I did! It was enormously fun.

I’m a huge fan of your work on The Toast, and—please don’t take this the wrong way—while Texts from Jane Eyre has its distinctly weird moments (William Blake is a personal favorite), it isn’t quite so out of nowhere as some of your other work. Where do pieces like “Erotica Written by an Alien Pretending Not to Be Horrified by the Human Body” come from?

THE ALIEN IS ME. Oh man, the alien is me. I find the entire world to be out of nowhere, and horrifying, and creepy as all hell. I mean, everything in that piece is true, you know? We use our mouths for breathing AND eating AND intimacy? Sometimes for more than one of those functions at the same time? We act like it’s normal because we’re used to it, but good Lord, that’s just bad planning. We put bits of ourselves into other people for prolonged periods of time, and that’s what sex is! It’s great, you know, and it’s perfectly normal, but if you stop to think about it for more than a few minutes, it can really throw you for a loop.

» For more from Mallory, check out our full interview here!

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Interview with Gregory Maguire

Some excerpts from our interview with author Gregory Maguire, which initially appeared in September’s State of the Thing.

Prolific American author Gregory Maguire is best known for his adept reimaginings of classic children’s tales, like Snow White, Cinderella, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. His latest work, Egg & Spoon follows the adventures of a princess and a peasant girl—along with a host of interesting and absurd companions—in their home country of early 20th century Russia.

Maguire’s passion for children’s literature extends beyond writing, into teaching, as well as co-founding Children’s Literature New England, a nonprofit devoted to promoting awareness of the significance of literature in children’s lives.

Loranne caught up with Gregory this month to talk writing, reading, and witches, particularly Baba Yaga, who appears in Egg & Spoon (released earlier this month).

For readers who haven’t had a chance to read Egg & Spoon yet, can you give us the nutshell version of the story?

Egg & Spoon—imagining a high-concept spin such as they parody in skits about Hollywood—is The Prince and the Pauper, except with girls, meets Frozen, except everything is melting instead of freezing.

This book has stories nested within each other, much like the iconic, and, here, ubiquitous matryoshka dolls. Why did you choose to structure the narrative that way?

One instance of maturation, I think, is when the innocent untried soul comes to appreciate other ways of being, other peoples’ needs. Nesting stories one inside the other is a way of making sure that the characters have to grate against one another, often uncomfortably, as they accommodate themselves to ways of being that are foreign, unsavory, or just weird. This is part of how children grow up (and part of why reading about situations other than those you know perfectly well already is such a joy and offers such benefit).

Your Baba Yaga is full of anachronism, whimsy, and life. I read that you were a big fan of the Baba Yaga stories that were published in Jack and Jill magazine when you were younger. What other sources did you draw upon in conjuring such a vivid and timeless character?

A friend who read the book recently said that Baba Yaga reminded her of Phyllis Diller. I am glad I didn’t think of that myself… Though your question puts me in mind of other grotesquely egocentric characters. I shall restrain myself only to characters in literature, not in the political sphere… Baba Yaga, as I see her now that you ask, is a little bit of Vicki Lawrence’s Mama in those Carol Burnett skits; and a little bit of Barbra Streisand being Dolly Levi; and maybe Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles; and certainly Miss Piggy. But this is a review of influences after the fact: the witch just spoke herself to me with wit, with lacerating antagonism and iconoclasm, and with the loopy disassociatedness of someone on the edge of a mild mental disorder.

Many adult readers know you as the man who brought The Wicked Witch of the West to life, and now you’ve given us a Baba Yaga who is many things, including relatable. What is it about witches that draws you to them as characters?

I mostly love the fact that because of their power and their insularity, witches don’t have to answer to anyone nor to fashion their behavior to suit the proprieties of their neighbors. I myself am hopelessly accommodating. This makes writing about witches both therapeutic and inspirational to me. The next time I get another request to give to a good cause I’ve already paupered myself over, I can think, “What would Baba Yaga do?” and behave accordingly. And then make plans to go into the Witness Protection Program.

Egg & Spoon is narrated by Brother Uri, an imprisoned monk who sees events unfold through the eyes of birds. Who or what inspired Brother Uri’s character?

Another friend who just read the book pointed out that “Uri” is the way you pronounce the final two syllables of the name “Gregory.” Brother Uri is selfish, myopic, anarchic, but his intentions are good. I myself have worn glasses since I was six.

The book is full of axiomatic statements that, I felt, really rang true—”That’s the beginning of heroism, the decision to try,” “Liberty is costly, but so glamorous,” for example. Are these based on things you believe, or are they more the product of the nature of the story?

What a good question! Axioms like the ones you mention—they all come from Brother Uri—are dependent on the story for their resonance. And yet, as the story itself and its meaning derive from me, I suppose you could make the case that these statements are things I do believe in, or I wouldn’t have conceived of the plot points that would make those statements ring true.

»For more from Gregory, check out our full interview here!

Labels: author interview

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Interview with Ann Leckie

Some excerpts from our interview with author Ann Leckie, which initially appeared in September’s State of the Thing.

St. Louis, Missouri native Ann Leckie is a woman who’s worn many hats over time, among them that of waitress, receptionist, and recording engineer. She began writing short fiction a number of years ago, but it is was with her 2013 debut novel, Ancillary Justice, that she added award-winning author to that list. In August 2014, it became the first novel ever to win the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Loranne caught up with Ann this month to talk about the fascinating world she’s created, and new developments in the second installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword (out October 7, 2014).

For our readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read Ancillary Sword, or its predecessor Ancillary Justice, can you give us the story in a nutshell?

Basically, the main character is the last remnant of a starship that’s been destroyed. She spends most of Ancillary Justice looking for revenge on the person who destroyed her, and in Ancillary Sword she is beginning to deal with the fallout of that revenge—including the very unexpected fact that she survived it.

Where did the Imperial Radch trilogy begin for you? What inspired this world?

I’m not sure there was a single thing. I spent a lot of time just playing with things, putting them together in different ways and seeing what they made, and eventually the world resulted from that process. Ancillaries—and the basic outlines of Justice of Toren’s fate—were pretty early in that process, though.

These are such fascinating books in terms of exploring identity and the self. In Ancillary Justice, we met protagonist Breq Mianaai (the solitary individual), One Esk (the single body as part of a whole military unit), and Justice of Toren (the ship itself) in all three incarnations. These latter two identities having been destroyed, it’s clear that, in Ancillary Sword, Breq is still grieving this massive loss. How did you find Breq continuing to grow as both a character and an individual in this novel?

Breq never did think she would survive the events of Ancillary Justice. I think for the twenty years leading up, it was as though she was walking on a broken leg. It didn’t matter much if it hurt, or if it got fixed, or if the injury got worse as she went along, because she had one thing to do and once she did it that would be it for her.

But having actually survived, and finding herself with a ship, and its crew, not to mention Seivarden’s clear loyalty to her, she has to find a way to navigate actually living a life, with people she isn’t just passing by on her way to some other ultimate goal.

Everyone in the Radch empire uses feminine pronouns to refer to other individuals. It’s a cultural distinction for the Radch: while it is clear that individuals present as one or the other of a gender binary, everyone is “she.” I read in another interview that you hadn’t originally planned this as you began writing Ancillary Justice. What led you to this decision, and did it present any challenges during the writing process? Did it change the way you viewed your own characters?

A number of things led me to my decision to use “she” for everyone. But basically, I had tried to write in this universe using all “he” and was really unsatisfied with the result. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that what I disliked was the way it reinforced the idea of a masculine default, and did nothing at all to make the world seem gender-neutral or uncaring about gender. It just made it sound like a world full of men, and how is that different from a zillion other science fiction stories?

Some time during the process of drafting Ancillary Justice I read Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which features people who are ungendered, for whom she had decided to use the pronoun “he.” Later she wrote fiction set on the same world using “she” and the effect is quite different. That solidified in my mind my reasons for preferring “she” for Ancillary Justice.

It certainly did change how I viewed the characters. I had begun the very first draft assigning gender to characters and using “he” and “she” as appropriate. So characters from very early in the process were in fact assigned a gender—but as I rewrote them using “she” and as I got farther into the book, their gender and the way I visualized them began to slip around a bit in my mind, which I thought was interesting.

What was your favorite scene or character to write in Ancillary Sword?

Oh, gosh, that’s hard to say. There are several scenes that were high points during my writing, and many of them would be serious spoilers. Certainly I enjoyed writing Tisarwat, particularly the scene in Chapter 3, you know, that one. And Translator Dlique is a definite favorite of mine, she was very fun to write. And I definitely very much enjoyed writing the scene where, as you say, the chaos gets turned up to 11.

But very often, in general, I enjoy writing stress and mayhem. I remember while I was at Clarion West (which is a six week writers workshop in Seattle, you’re supposed to at least try to turn in a story a week, which is awfully fast paced for me) I was working on something particularly difficult and getting close to deadline, and I had gotten up early to try to get some work done. I came down to breakfast and everyone said, “Ann, you’re in such a good mood and it’s so early!” And I said, happily, “Oh, I just dismembered my protagonist!” And of course they were all writers so they understood exactly what I meant. (I eventually sold that story to Electric Velocipede, and it was reprinted recently by Tor.com, “Night’s Slow Poison,” and I’m still quite fond of that scene!) So with that in mind, you can probably pick out my favorite bits without my even naming them.

»For more from Ann, check out our full interview here!

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Q&A with Andy Weir

Some excerpts from our interview with author Andy Weir, which initially appeared in August’s State of the Thing.

Andy Weir has spent the bulk of his career up to this point as a software engineer. The success of his debut novel, The Martian has been the result of a remarkable journey, and is very much deserved. It’s little wonder that the author identifies as a “lifelong space nerd.”

Tim caught up with Andy this month to talk science, space, writing, and more science!

Tell us what your novel is all about.

It’s about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars (the rest of his crew thought he was dead). Now he has to survive with the equipment he has on-hand.

The Martian has both a great narrative and an engrossing focus on scientific and practical specificities. What drove what?

Definitely the science drove the plot. The problems he faced were real issues someone in that situation would face, and his solutions had to solve them. So those problems, and their solutions, are what moved the plot along.

The science is real, right?

As best as I could make it, yes. I put a lot of effort into scientific accuracy. I did a ton of research and math to work everything out. I’m sure I made some mistakes, but for the most part, the science is solid.

I gather you even wrote an orbital mechanics program to figure out certain details in the novel. I have to ask, are you insane?

Haha, maybe. But I wanted everything to fit right. So I wanted to know how long it would take to get there with a constantly accelerating ship and what path they’d take.

As I said, before, it’s a page turner. Did you have any models for the narrative?

I didn’t really have any model, per se. The story is very linear. Each problem needs a solution, and usually the solution causes the next problem. All I had to do was have Mark narrate the situation with a smart-ass tone of voice.

The Martian had an unusual path to publication—free, then self-published and finally picked up by a major publisher. What does that tell us about your book, or about publishing in general?

It’s pretty cool. It means any schmoe can break into the writing world on their own. Self-publishing an electronic edition of your book costs you nothing, and if people like it, you’ll do well.

»For more from Andy, check out our full interview here.

Labels: author interview

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Interview with Maximillian Potter

Some excerpts from our interview with Maximillian Potter, which initially appeared in July’s State of the Thing.

Maximillian Potter is the senior media advisor for the governor of Colorado. He is also an award-winning journalist, and the former executive editor of 5280: Denver’s Magazine. His first book, Shadows in the Vineyard, detailing the events surrounding an attempt to poison one of the world’s greatest wineries, is out this month.

We have 10 copies of Shadows in the Vineyard available through Early Reviewers this month. Go here to request one!

Loranne caught up with Maximillian this month to discuss the crime, the writing process, and, of course, wine.

For those who have yet to read Shadows in the Vineyard, could you give us the nutshell version of the book?

The narrative engine of the book is the story of an unprecedented crime that was committed against the most highly regarded and storied winery in the world, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Located in the heart of France’s Burgundy region, the DRC (in wine-speak) produces seven of the world’s finest and—go figure—most expensive wines, including La Tâche, Richebourg, and arguably the most coveted wine on the planet, Romanée-Conti, which, in the unlikely event you could find it available for purchase, is likely selling for north of $10,000. The French government regards the DRC as something of a national landmark. Think of the winery as something akin to America’s Liberty Bell, only it produces wine.

In January 2010, the co-owner of the Domaine, Monsieur Aubert de Villaine, received a note informing him that a small piece of his winery’s most prestigious vineyard, Romanée-Conti, had been poisoned and most of the rest of the vines in that parcel would be killed unless De Villaine paid a one million euro ransom. A substantial part of the book deals with the criminal investigation, the investigators, the sting operation that caught the bad guys, and the unlikely and tragic end of the investigation. But the crime is only a piece of the book.

For the crime to be fully appreciated, the reader must understand Burgundy. So the criminal investigation becomes a way to explore the characters, culture and history of region. To go with a viticulture metaphor, I think of the crime as the main vine trunk and the subplots as the shoots of the vine. We come to know the incredible history of wine in Burgundy, which begins with bands of holy men on the run; then the Prince de Conti—the James Bond of pre-revolutionary France; and of course, the De Villaine family, which co-owns the Domaine, and the tensions that nearly pulled apart their winery and the disciplined tenderness that held it together.

Shadows is about about a crime, wine, family, obsession and love.

You first brought this story of wine, intrigue, and sabotage to the public in a Vanity Fair piece in 2011. What drew you to this particular story, so much that you decided to expand it into a book? What was the most challenging part of bringing the tale to life in a longer format?

I sensed there was a book to be written not long after I first arrived in Burgundy to report the Vanity Fair story. I’d been doing magazine stories for the better part of 20 years and this was one of the three times in all of that time when I’d felt that there was so much rich material it ached for a book. In this case, I first started thinking of a book during my very first meeting with Monsieur Aubert de Villaine. Before I’d met Aubert, in my mind’s eye, I pictured him as a soft-palmed, ascot-wearing French aristocrat who charged way too much for a bottle of wine and probably had whatever happened to his vines coming. Within hours of talking with him, I began to realize how ignorant my image of him had been.

While many vinegrowers, or vignerons, refer to their vines as their enfants, for Aubert, these vines were indeed his children. What’s more, they are his legacy, handed down through generations, and these vines are entangled with French history. The Domaine, as Monsieur de Villaine puts it, is something much bigger than any one person or vintage.

Even in the face of the attack on this sacred trust, his demeanor remained unwaveringly kind and gentle. When I learned of what he had decided to do, or rather not do, to the bad guys when they were apprehended, well, I was stunned by his mercy and forgiveness. Aubert once told me, “The world could use more hugs.” The world could use more people like Monsieur de Villaine. So meeting him was a moment.

Other factors that got me thinking a book that needed to be written were the remarkable history of the Burgundy region, the jealousies and intrigue interwoven throughout the the region and the history of the Domaine itself. When I discovered that the Prince de Conti—after whom the winery and its celebrated vineyard is named—may very well have almost trigged the French Revolution decades before it occurred, that struck me as irresistible.

The hardest thing about expanding what started as a magazine piece into the book format was having to leave so many stories and so many great characters out of the book. …Sigh.

The neat thing about Shadows—especially for wine novices like myself—is that you bring a large dose of historical context into the tale, showing us how the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti came to be, and developed into the revered vineyard it is. Was it difficult to strike a balance between providing that context and maintaining focus on the ongoing story?

Well, thanks and I’m glad you liked it. While I found myself with many options when it came to great characters and magnificent historical subplots, yes, it was difficult to find what I hope is a compelling structure that strikes the right balance of historical context and true crime. I wanted to satiate oenophiles, but also captivate wine novices.

For me, when it comes to writing, structure is close to everything—if that’s wrong, it’s all wrong. Perhaps giving myself too much credit, I consider myself a pretty average human, especially when it comes to curiosity and attention span; in determining the structure, I considered what it was about Burgundy that I had found so compelling and I went with that as my guiding strategy. As I began writing the book, I found myself saying to friends that the crime was what first drew me to Burgundy, but the poetry of the place was what kept me coming back. The thing was, once I was into reporting the crime, in Burgundy talking with Aubert and so many other Burgundians, I came to learn that, My gosh, the crime really is not the most interesting thing about this region and the people who cherish and cultivate it; there’s so much more. And so, I tried to structure the book accordingly.

Before all of this, I didn’t care much about wine, didn’t care much about France. I wouldn’t have been much interested in a book about either. (Happens a lot when you write for general interest magazines, by the way.) I certainly wasn’t one to pick up a book about wine. I wrote the book for people like me. Ultimately, I guess, I wrote the book primarily thinking of people who haven’t yet discovered wine but who should. I hope Shadows will be something that readers remember, the people and stories, and that those memories will enhance the flavor and enjoyment of their next glass of burgundy, or maybe inspire them to try their first burgundy.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned as you researched for Shadows in the Vineyard?

Gosh, so much. In terms of reported material, the story of the Prince de Conti was the most stunning to me. Such a remarkable character. He personifies that old nonfiction writers truism that fact really can be stranger (and so much more awesome) than fiction.

On a more existential level, I was struck by the fact that everyone I met in Burgundy and who loved Burgundy, who worked in wine and believed in the magic of the terroir of the place—everyone of them was broken. In some way, each of these Burgundy believers was—is—broken, or maybe a better way of saying it has died a little at some point because of tragedy. (Who among us isn’t like that, I guess.) Yet, in Burgundy, they find the promise of starting over, of the rebirth, of the hope, that comes in every new vintage. Burgundians are aware of this. That’s pretty awesome. At least, I think so.

»For more from Maximillian, read our full interview here.

Labels: author interview

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Interview with Matthew Thomas

Some excerpts from our interview with author Matthew Thomas, which initially appeared in July’s State of the Thing.

Matthew Thomas‘s debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, has been a decade in the making, and is set for release—at last—August 19th, 2014. The novel chronicles the life and stories of the Leary family, Irish-American immigrants making their way in New York City.

Matthew—born in the Bronx and raised in Queens—has spent the bulk of that decade as an English teacher at Xavier High School in New York City. He holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago, and studied with Alice McDermott at Johns Hopkins University. He and his wife currently live in New Jersey, with their twins.

We’ve got 25 copies of We Are Not Ourselves available through Early Reviewers this month. Go here to request one!

LibraryThing staffer KJ Gormley caught up with Matthew to discuss We Are Not Ourselves.

I could frame your book as everything from “immigrant story” to “big American Dream novel”: In your own words, can you briefly sum up what you think We Are Not Ourselves is about?

It’s the story of Eileen Tumulty growing up in post-World War II Queens as the only daughter of Irish immigrants and deciding from an early age that she wants a better life than the one she knows. The book chronicles her journey toward that life and the obstacles she encounters on the way, especially in her marriage to her beloved husband Ed Leary. The second half is the story of how Eileen and Ed handle adversity together.

I tried, through telling the story of this one family, to tell some of the story of the middle class in America—their hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments, and quiet achievements over the course of the twentieth century. I wanted to explore the enduring appeal of the American Dream and examine its viability in an environment that is squeezing out the middle class. In the end, I wanted to see what residual deposits might be left in the spirit when a person achieves that elusive dream at any cost.

The novel is told through the interchanging points of view of Eileen Leary and her son, Connell. Why did you choose these view-points and not that of Ed Leary, the husband and father in the family at the heart of the book?

I wanted the reader to feel palpably the absence of Ed’s point of view, and I hoped to provoke the reader to thought by leaving it out. In omitting such a focal character’s point of view, I wanted to capture some of the essence of Ed’s own isolating experience of dealing with the calamity that befalls him. There is a sense in which those on the other side of Alzheimer’s, even the closest of family members, find the experience of the sufferer inscrutable, almost ineffable. And from a dramatic perspective, I was interested in telling the story of how each of the people closest to Ed, including extended family and friends, responds to Ed’s disease in his or her own way. Ed became a fulcrum around which all the characters revolved, and his illness became a backdrop for a series of character studies and explorations into human nature. I tried to take my cues from the characters themselves in presenting a range of possible reactions that might capture the manifold ways people handle bad news.

The Leary family is composed of first-generation Irish-Americans and their son. Why did you choose this particular immigrant subculture rather than any other?

The Irish-American community is the one from which I emerged, so it was the one I could write about with the most immediate authority. I tried to capture some of the truth of the lived experience of a people in a particular place and time—a tribe, a dominant culture, a subculture, whatever you choose to call it—as best as I understood them. But one thing I found was that focusing on one culture offers the writer a prism through which to view many cultures. Even within this one culture, Irish-Americans in the New York area, there are countless subcultures.

The Irish who live in Rockaway are not the same as those who live in Long Beach, or on Staten Island, or in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, or in Yonkers, or in Bronxville. And yet they share so many commonalities that they can reasonably be spoken of in the aggregate. I’m interested in the overlaps that lend universality to experiences, because there is something hopeful in thinking of universalities, and I’m also interested in the textures that make experiences distinct. Jackson Heights was a great backdrop for exploring both, as it gathers in one place people from every corner of the globe. On the other hand, I had no particular ambition to write an Irish-American novel, but was writing a novel, period, which happened to focus on Irish-American protagonists. I was thrilled to hear from a Greek reader that he’d seen his father in Big Mike, and from a Montenegran one that he’d seen his grandfather.

This book is refreshing in its frank discussions of money, at least in the character’s heads. Why do you think it was important to leave calculations of pensions and home equity loans in your novel?

I think it makes a book more realistic for there to be discussions of money in it—budgets, plans. This is the stuff of real life. It’s what the overwhelming majority of people have to deal with on a daily basis. Not to write about the routine details of people’s sometimes difficult financial circumstances is to avoid writing about a crucial aspect of everyday contemporary experience. And money is the last taboo in American life, so frank discussions of money, as long as they don’t delve into the most obscure minutiae and leave the reader behind, can create a frisson in the reader perhaps even more potent than the one created when a writer trains the lens on a character’s bedroom and intimate life.

What was your favorite scene to write?

My favorite scene to write was Eileen saying goodbye to Sergei, the live-in nurse she has gotten close to over the course of the book. It was a scene that unfolded for me in a relatively automatic way after all the work I’d put into constructing that arc of the story, and I just tried to race to get it down as it presented itself to me.

One of the underlying plots of Connell’s relationship to his father, Ed, is through their shared love of baseball. Why do you think baseball keeps turning up in books that are at some level about the American Dream?

I think part of why baseball has long been fodder for American fiction writers, apart from the novelistic feel of a season or the short story feel of an individual game, is that it does indeed bring people together in a common conversation. For years, baseball was a point of entry into American culture for immigrants who found they could share a language with established Americans in the joys and tribulations of fandom. And it was a primer for many males in the performance of the rituals of masculinity, beginning with stickball or little league or the catch with dad, and continuing, the idea went, into one’s relationship with one’s own child. Baseball fandom became a signifier of one’s willingness to assume certain ratified, prescribed male roles. And affections for teams were tribal, and epic in scope. If a girl’s father was a Yankees fan, then she was a Yankees fan. That bone-deep identification is fertile territory for fiction, because it activates the most basic impulse of storytelling. This is who I am—a Yankees fan.

»For more from Matthew, read our full interview here.

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Author Interview: Alexi Zentner

Some excerpts from our interview with author Alexi Zentner, which initially appeared in May’s State of the Thing.

Alexi Zentner is an Assistant Professor at Binghamton University, and a faculty member in the Sierra Nevada College low residency MFA program. His first novel, Touch, published in 2011, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and The Center for Fiction’s Flahery-Dunnan First Novel Prize, among other accolades.

Zentner is dual citizen of the United States and Canada, currently based in Ithaca, NY. Set on a small, fictional island off the coast of Maine, his second novel, The Lobster Kings, is a nod to Shakespeare’s King Lear, and is out this month.

We’ve got 15 copies of The Lobster Kings available through Early Reviewers this month! Click here to request one!

LibraryThing staffer KJ Gormley caught up with Alexi earlier this month to discuss The Lobster Kings.

Although Shakespeare is definitely a cultural touchstone and enjoying a renewed popularity right now, can you familiarize us with the general theme and plot of King Lear, as you see it?

The brutally condensed version is that King Lear has decided to retire and to split his kingdom into thirds, because he has three daughters. He tells his daughters that flattery will get them the biggest slices of the kingdom. The eldest two daughters, Goneril and Regan, outdo themselves in professing how much they love the old man, but Cordelia, the youngest, refuses to play the game. She says she loves him exactly as much as a daughter is supposed to love her father. King Lear, who is not exactly at the height of his powers, is enraged, and gives her nothing. Because this is a tragedy, it’s all downhill from there.

The rest of the play is Goneril and Regan, with the help of Edmund, who is a bastard both literally and figuratively, plotting against Lear, and then Lear going mad and wandering alone on the heath. It’s more complicated than that, of course, and Cordelia, the true daughter, the daughter who tells the truth, tries to help her father, and, like pretty much everybody else in the play, is punished for it.

In Cordelia Kings you have created a strong yet entirely relatable protagonist. Why did you choose to tell the novel from her point of view?

One of the questions I’m getting often is, “Why did [you] chose to write such a strong female voice?” And the honest answer is, “Why not?” It never occurred to me not to. My default voice doesn’t have to be male. Why can’t my version of the great American novel, whatever the hell that is, feature a strong woman’s voice? There is no female voice just like there is no male voice. There are just singular voices. I can’t write women—nobody can—but I can write a singular woman. I can write the heck out of Cordelia. And that’s the thing: the novel really is about Cordelia’s voice.

It’s a particularly appealing voice to me, because I’m trying to raise the kind of strong, capable girls that grow up to be women like Cordelia, women who can say, I don’t care if this has always been a man’s job, I can do it too. And honestly, I just love Cordelia. She’s funny and smart and determined to show her father that she can live up to her family legacy, and she was a pleasure to spend an entire book with.

To what extent did you follow the plot of King Lear in writing The Lobster Kings, and to what extent did you go sail your own ship?

I love King Lear, and one of my strongest memories from university is studying the play. I was in London for the semester, and my professor was going blind. He’d committed to memorizing the complete works of Shakespeare because he couldn’t stand the idea of not having Shakespeare available to him. And when we got to the end of the play, when Lear comes back on stage carrying his daughter’s body in his arms, it was all my professor could do not to burst into tears. The play was so alive for him, and because of that, it became alive to me.

But I didn’t want to retell Lear. I think any person who is at all familiar with King Lear will see the ways in which I departed from Shakespeare. I took the play as a place from which I could set sail. The Lobster Kings is a riff on Lear much more than just a reworking. The inspiration is clear—my narrator is named Cordelia, after all—but I wanted to create something new. I like to say that all literature is in conversation with all of the literature that came before, and Shakespeare was one of the first voices in the room. My goal wasn’t to parrot back his words but to move the conversation forward.

Setting aside Shakespeare for a moment, this book is also drenched in sea mythology and fishing superstitions. How do you see these influencing the narrative?

I like to call what I’m doing mythical realism, as opposed to magical realism, which is so rooted in specific cultures, because I’m really trying to use our myths and our landscape. Of course, some of those myths have travelled from other countries The Lobster Kings leans on a number of Irish and Scottish myths, but they are seen through a North American lens.

For Cordelia, Loosewood Island is alive with the history of her family, and it’s a history that has been profoundly influenced by myth and superstition. The first member of the Kings family, Brumfitt Kings, had his bride delivered to him as a gift from the sea. For her dowry, the Kings family was given the blessing of the bounty of the sea. But every blessing comes with a curse. Cordelia is alive to the understanding that there was a time when, if a map said, “there be dragons,” the belief was that, well, there be dragons. Myths are just stories that have passed from families to entire cultures, and the myths and superstitions in The Lobster Kings are really the story of the Kings family.

What was your favorite scene to write?

I’m really proud of my first novel, Touch, and the people who loved it are almost evangelical about it, but it is definitely a quieter book. I say a literary novel is a novel where who the characters are matters as much as what happens to them, and in The Lobster Kings, the “what happens” matters a lot. There’s guns and drugs and action, and there is a scene at the very end of the book where, well, let’s just say that something happens. That was fun to write.

Read our full interview here.

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Author Interview: Ian Doescher

Some excerpts from our interview with author Ian Doescher, which appeared in March’s State of the Thing.

Ian Doescher is currently the Creative Director at Pivot Group LLC in Portland, OR. He has B.A. in Music, a Master of Divinity, and a Ph.D. in Ethics. His first book was the New York Times best seller, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, released in July 2013, and its sequel, The Empire Striketh Back is out this month from Quirk Books.

We’ve got 15 copies of Ian’s latest, The Empire Striketh Back available this month through Early Reviewers! Click here to request one!

Ian was kind enough to chat with me about the Bard, the Empire, and what we can expect to see from him next!

While it’s generally safe to assume that everybody and their kid brother knows the gist of the original Star Wars trilogy at this point, some of our readers may not be so familiar. What is the original trilogy about, in your mind?

Overall, I would say it’s the tale of how a group of rebels overthrew a mighty, power-hungry Empire. Within that, it’s the story of a man who has a transformation from innocence to pain to evil to redemption (Darth Vader), and other young people who are learning what destiny has in store for them (Luke, Leia, Han). Along the way we get to meet some interesting and hilarious characters. There’s my elevator pitch for the series!

You said in an earlier interview at Giant Freakin Robot that you’ve seen Star Wars 40–50 times at this point. How many times did you watch Episode V while writing this book?

It wasn’t so much a matter of watching it over and over as it was a matter of watching little bits at a time. I would watch a little snippet of the movie—a few seconds—to remind myself of the dialogue, then look at the script online if needed. After that, I would translate the lines into iambic pentameter, see if I could add any references or give a character an aside or soliloquy, and then move on. So I watched the movie once, very, very slowly.

After the success of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope, was it easier or harder to write The Empire Striketh Back? What was the hardest part of writing it?

It definitely was easier to write The Empire Striketh Back, if only because at this point iambic pentameter is much easier to write since I’ve had so much practice. I now have this strange (and useless) ability to recognize iambic pentameter when I hear it in normal everyday conversation, in a movie, and so on. The hardest part about writing Empire was that I had roughly half the time to write it than I did for Verily, A New Hope.

As you were writing the book, did you envision what it would be like for your work to be performed on the stage?

Yes, much more with Empire than with Verily, A New Hope. With the first book, I wasn’t really imagining it as something that would ever be performed or something people would want to perform. But after hearing from theater groups around the world who want to perform the first book, staging was very much on my mind the second time around. Consequently, I think I made better use of what you would actually find in an Elizabethan stage — a balcony, the overall breadth of the stage, etc.

You hinted in the afterword that Han and Leia’s dynamic turned toward being similar to that of Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. Did you model Darth Vader off of any particular Shakespearean character(s)? You did a great job of giving him more depth than we see on the screen in the original movie.

I don’t know that Darth Vader is necessarily modeled after a particular character, but he’s definitely a sweeping tragic figure along the lines of King Lear or Othello—someone who is driven by external forces to push away those he loves, only to find out at the end of his life how wrong he was. I think the six-movie Star Wars story could easily be called The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker.

In this book, we finally meet Yoda, and you had a very interesting way of dealing with his idiosyncratic speech patterns (Yoda speaks strictly in haiku). How did you come up with this idea, and was it harder to write Yoda’s lines than any of the other characters?

After the first book, many people said to me, “They all sound like Yoda now!” I knew I had my work cut out for the second book in terms of what to do with Yoda. None of my three original ideas—using modern speech, using his lines verbatim, or using even more antiquated speech (something like Chaucer)—really moved me. I was jogging one morning—always a good time to think—when the idea of haiku came to mind, and instantly felt right. Luckily, Quirk Books and Lucasfilm agreed! I don’t know that it was harder to write Yoda’s lines, just a different way of checking my work (5-7-5 syllable pattern instead of iambic pentameter).

Read our full interview here.

Labels: author interview

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