Archive for the ‘author interview’ Category

Friday, January 4th, 2013

December SOTT & Author Interviews

December’s 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 Simon Garfield and Douglas Hunter.

I talked to Simon Garfileld about his new book On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks , published by Gotham Books last month. Some excerpts:

I’m going to begin by asking you the first question I asked Ken Jennings when I talked to him about his book Maphead: so what is it about maps, anyway? Why are so many people so fascinated by them?

Maps have helped define what makes us human. Maps were one of the earliest forms of communication, almost certainly existing before language and speech. I’m inclined to agree with Richard Dawkins when he suggests that our ability to draw maps—to show fellow hunters where the juicy elk were—was a key factor in expanding the size of our brains, enabling the leap from apes to homo-sapiens. Beyond all this, maps are frequently beautiful artifacts, telling the best stories in a direct way. The idea of the book was to retell the best of these stories. And occasionally, of course, maps just help us get from A to B.

What first got you interested in maps, and when?

I first got hooked as a boy travelling on the London Underground at the age of 10. The famous Harry Beck tube map—now copied all over the world—was in every carriage and platform. I didn’t realize its significance (geographically it’s incredibly inaccurate, but as a diagram it’s a great piece of information engineering), but I was entranced by the names on it and its possibilities. The prospect of travelling to the end of any of the lines—Amersham at the end of the Metropolitan line, say—seemed as exotic and far away as Antarctica. I’ve collected tube maps ever since, and now framed copies line my hallway at home.

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

Two books I’ve loved of late: Walking Home by Simon Armitage, a funny account of a soggy walk across the Pennine Way from Derbyshire to Scotland, reading poetry at some unlikely venues en route to pay his way. And an oldie but goodie: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, the classic epistolary account of a tough American lady’s relationship with a London bookshop and its staff (and its books).

Read the rest of our interview with Simon Garfield.

I also had the chance to talk with Douglas Hunter about his recent book The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery (Palgrave Macmillan).

Christopher Columbus is, of course, a household name, but John Cabot may not be known to many readers. Who was this man, and what did he do?

John Cabot (as he was known in England) was a Venetian citizen who persuaded England’s Henry VII in 1496 to grant him some fairly generous rights to prove a westward route across the Atlantic to Asia’s riches. His first try in 1496 was a failure, but his second voyage in 1497 made the first known landfall since the Vikings somewhere in northeastern North America, probably in southern Labrador or the coast of Newfoundland. At the time, Columbus hadn’t moved beyond Caribbean islands in his own discovery efforts.

Cabot was a bit of an odd duck. He wasn’t a seasoned mariner. He was a hide trader who dabbled in property renovation and fled creditors in Venice in the 1480s for Spain. Reinventing himself as a marine construction engineer, Cabot pitched the king, Fernando, on an artificial harbor scheme for Valencia in 1491-92. Fernando and Cabot couldn’t line up the money for that project, and Cabot next surfaced in the historical record in 1494 in Seville, the headquarters of the Columbus scheme, overseeing an important bridge project. But Cabot appears not to have done any work on it, and by December 1494 he was essentially being run out of town by displeased nobles. Reinvented himself yet again, Cabot surfaced at the court of Henry VII in England, in January 1946, with his Asia voyage scheme. And so this considerable rival to Columbus emerged from within Columbus’s own milieu.

You suggest that Cabot may have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493. Lay out the evidence for us, and explain what this finding might mean for our understanding of the history of exploration (or for Cabot and Columbus themselves).

What’s really puzzling about Cabot’s career is how he managed to persuade Henry VII to grant him such generous rights for an Asia voyage in 1496 when he had no apparent track record as an expert mariner, let alone as an exploration promoter.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that English mariners out of Bristol already may have reached the New World, perhaps earlier than 1470. Cabot could have tapped into this lost knowledge in proposing his voyage to Henry VII. But if that awareness was circulating, why didn’t Henry give the job and its many privileges to an Englishman? Henry was a shrewd and tight-fisted ruler. Something about Cabot’s pitch persuaded him that this Venetian deserved the rights handed over to him.

There is more to this than I can explain here, but the most compelling case Cabot could have made for the rights he secured was that he had already been to Asia, and so he knew how to get there. Cabot was a bit of a confidence man. I think either he claimed something he hadn’t done, or he had actually already had been to Asia, or the New World, rather, with Columbus. There are a couple bits of circumstantial evidence to support the distinct possibility that Cabot had been on the second Columbus voyage, which departed Spain in September 1493.

One of the bits of evidence I use is a really opaque letter written by the Spanish monarchs to their ambassador in London in early 1496. I engaged the help of an academic expert in early Spanish, and the letter seems to refer to Cabot as “the one from the Indies.” Anyone interested in the tough slogging of historical translation should visit my website, follow the link for this book, and read the essay about “lo de las yndias.”

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

As I’m in the middle of doctoral studies, not surprisingly my shelves are groaning with works of history. My main doctoral fields, Canadian history and Aboriginal history, account for a lot of what’s at hand. There are also a couple shelves full of works dedicated to exploration. A lot of those are reference books, from the Hakluyt Society and Repertorium Columbianum for example, with annotated transcriptions of key sources. I do read for pleasure, both fiction and nonfiction, though.

Read the rest of our interview with Douglas Hunter.


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Labels: author interview, state of the thing

Monday, November 26th, 2012

November SOTT & author interviews

This month’s 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 a reminder about SantaThing (signups continue through November 29, so head right over to the SantaThing page to join the fun!), as well as author interviews with Jon Ronson, Nancy Marie Brown, Jon Meacham, and Christopher Bonanos.

I talked to Jon Ronson about his new book Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, just out from Riverhead. Some excerpts:

For those who haven’t had a chance to read it yet, give us the nutshell version of Lost at Sea. What’s the thread that ties these twenty-two short pieces together?

These are funny, sad stories about people lost at sea, trying to make their way through the world. Sometimes they reach for crazy ideas to get them through, sometimes horrifying ideas, sometimes silly ideas, sometimes even inspiring ideas. I see this as an empathetic book about people spiraling out of control.

They sometimes feel like adventure stories. I get into some dangerous scrapes. Other times they feel like mystery stories: there are actual mysteries that need solving. Sometimes the mystery is, Why does this person believe this crazy stuff? Or, Why does this person act in this baffling way?

There’s a Christmas-themed town in Alaska where every day is Christmas and the kids have to be Santa’s elves. A bunch of them were recently arrested for being in the final stages of plotting a school shooting. There’s a real-life superhero who dresses in a supersuit of his making and breaks up gangs of armed crack dealers in the dead of night. I went along with him. It was terrifying. There’s a billionaire filtering her money into creating a robot version of her real-life partner that she’s convinced is about to burst into spontaneous life. I interviewed the robot. And so on.

How much follow-up do you do on your stories? Do you keep in touch with folks you’ve profiled? Once you’ve finished writing, do you move on to other projects?

I like to keep in touch—I’m never happier than when people from my stories appreciate how they’ve been portrayed. That doesn’t always happen. I’ve stayed in touch with maybe half the people in my books. Just today I corresponded with two of them: Phoenix Jones, the real-life superhero, and Mike Coriam, the father of Rebecca Coriam. Hers is the title story of the collection. Rebecca was a young woman who worked on the Disney Wonder, a cruise ship. She went missing on it one day—she just vanished. The Coriams have had no luck trying to find out what happened. They feel they’re hitting a brick wall. I went on a cruise on the ship to learn what I could.

If you could interview or profile one person you haven’t had the chance to talk to, who would it be? What would you want to ask?

Right now—and this is unusual for me, because I’m not so interested in writing about famous people—David Bowie. He seems to have retreated from the world. He’s barely been seen for six years. I would love to know why, and would like to ask him to reflect on his life.

Read the rest of our interview with Jon Ronson.

I also had the chance to talk with Nancy Marie Brown about her new book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macillan). A few teasers:

What were some of your favorite books as a child?

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien are probably first on that list. I also loved C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy. I’ve had a very pretty edition of Tennyson’s poems since sixth grade—but I’m afraid I like it more for its fake leather binding and slipcase than because the poems resonate. In high school I discovered Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (probably in Tolkien’s translation), and that was my entry into studying medieval literature.

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

My whole house is a library—my husband, Charles Fergus, is also a writer—so it depends which floor you are on. The basement holds our general fiction, poetry, fantasy, and science fiction collections. In my husband’s office is mostly nature and science. Upstairs is the general nonfiction collection and a small collection of children’s books and young adult novels, which I’m studying to learn how to write one. My office is taken over by Icelandic literature (both modern and medieval, in English and Icelandic) and books about Scandinavia, Vikings, folklore, medieval literature and scholarship, and travel (mostly to Iceland and northern Europe).

Read the rest of our interview with Nancy Marie Brown.

My third interview for November was with Jon Meacham, about his new biography Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, out this month from Random House.

As part of your research process, you spent a night in Jefferson’s bedroom at Monticello. Can you tell us about that experience? What insights did you gain from being there that helped you understand the man better?

I was struck by the play of light in his rooms. The sun strikes his chambers first, and he always woke at first light—a sign of his constant engagement with the
world, and of his endless energy.

You write in the Epilogue about Jefferson’s legacy, and about how he has, over time, “provided inspiration for radically different understandings of government and culture.” What is it about the Founders in general, and perhaps Jefferson in particular, which has lent itself to such wide-ranging interpretations? What do you see as some of the most common misconceptions of Jefferson’s philosophy or positions today?

Jefferson represents the best of us and the worst of us—our highest aspirations and our most disappointing failures. It’s easy, then, to find ourselves in a kind of
conversation with him as we look to the past for inspiration and for instruction. I think the most stubborn misconception about him is that he was solely a man of ideas. My view is that he was at once a philosopher and a political realist.

If you had the chance to interview Jefferson, but could only ask a single question, what would it be?

What is your greatest regret?

Read the rest of our interview with Jon Meacham.

Last but not least, I was able to chat with Christopher Bonanos about his book Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton Architectural Press).

How did this book come about? What first got you interested in the story of Polaroid?

I was always a Polaroid shooter, from my teenage years, when I got a secondhand camera. (A Model 900, from 1959, marked $5, bargained down to $3.) And when Polaroid film was discontinued for good in 2008, I wrote a little magazine story that led me to the story of the company’s rise and fall and rebirth, and Land and his extraordinary invention. You find a good story with an amazing central character, and if you’re a writer, you start to think “that’s a book.”

Tell us about your research process: what sources did you find most useful? What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Polaroid’s archive contains a few million documents and photos, and during the company’s bankruptcy, the whole pile went to Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. The person in charge of it, a librarian named Tim Mahoney, is going to spend his whole career on this one collection, it looks like, and the first tranche of it came open to researchers around the end of 2009. So in January 2010, I started logging a lot of time there. Also, the company’s museum collection (prototypes and such) went to the MIT Museum, where I also did quite a bit of digging. And then a lot of the extraordinarily smart people Land hired are still around, and I spoke to lots of them.

Surprising things I learned: Polaroid kept everything. EVERYTHING. In the company’s early days, Land had been involved in a patent dispute, and after that, each idea was disclosed, signed, witnessed, and dated. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like those files when you’re trying to figure out how an invention got off the ground.

Another big surprise: Land made a point of hiring woman scientists, which was highly unusual back then. He was friends with an art-history professor at Smith College who would recommend his smartest students, and Land would scoop them up every year. A lot of them were, as you’d expect, art-history majors, and he’d send them off for some chemistry classes and build his own scientists that way. It was an end run around the usual pool of graduating talent, and it also made those women extremely loyal. A lot of them stayed at Polaroid for decades.

You’re something of a Polaroid enthusiast yourself, I understand? How long have you been using Polaroid cameras? Are you still using them today?

I started shooting as a kid, though that camera is no longer useful: it uses a film format that’s out of production. But I do carry another camera (Model 180, for the cultists) with me every day, and I try to shoot my son at least two or three times a week. I’ve been keeping an album since he was born, and I have to assume he’s one of the very last kids who will be documented that way. (I take plenty of digital photos of him, too, of course.)

Read the rest of our interview with Christopher Bonanos.


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Thursday, October 25th, 2012

October Author Interviews!

This month’s 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 author interviews with David Quammen, Rachel Hartman, Karen Engelmann, and Jaime Manrique, plus some activity ideas from the co-authors of Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun.

I had the great pleasure of talking to David Quammen about his new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic (W.W. Norton & Company). Some excerpts:

Before we get too far, can you give us the nutshell explanation of zoonosis and spillover, for those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book? What sorts of diseases are we talking about here?

Zoonosis is an animal infection transmissible to humans. It can be a virus, a bacterium, a protozoan, a number of other infectious bugs. It doesn’t necessarily cause disease in humans, but if it does cause symptoms once it gets into humans, then we call it a zoonotic disease. Spillover is the label for the moment when any sort of an infectious pathogen passes from one species into another, but we particularly think of it in terms of animal infections passing into humans.

That includes a whole rogue’s list of the best-known diseases, and also some little-known things: it includes 60% of the infectious diseases that we know, under the strict definition of zoonosis. That runs from West Nile and hantavirus, Lyme Disease, all the influenzas, Ebola, Marburg, a couple of exotic little-known things called Nipah virus from Bangladesh, and Hendra virus from Australia. Also SARS, which came out of southern China, and of course HIV, the AIDS pandemic, also began with a zoonotic spillover.

Was there a particular author who inspired you as a writer?

There’s one author who influenced me hugely, by far my largest literary influence and it’s probably going to seem counter-intuitive, but that’s William Faulkner. I started as a fiction writer, and before I was a fiction writer I was a fiction reader. I started reading Faulkner when I was a freshman in college, and became obsessed with him (like a lot of people do because he’s such a great writer). I did my graduate work on structure in Faulkner’s novels, and then I started my writing career publishing novels myself. I discovered that I wasn’t really meant to be a novelist and I turned into a non-fiction writer. But even now, when I spend six years or eight years researching a non-fiction subject, a big sprawling topic like zoonotic diseases or island biogeography, and then the time comes to put that together into a 500-page book, or a 600-page book, what I learned from closely, closely examining and pondering the structure of Faulkner’s novels serves me very, very well.

Read the rest of our interview with David Quammen.

I also had the chance to talk with Rachel Hartman about her first fantasy novel Seraphina (Random House). A few teasers:

Your dragons are quite different from those created by other authors; tell us a bit about them, and how you came up with the idea to portray them as you have.

My dragons can take human form, but they rigidly suppress their human emotions, which they find distastefully overwhelming and undragonlike. They’ve been called “scaly Vulcans” by some reviewers: not a perfect analogy, but close enough to give the right idea.

The idea of dragons struggling with being human came to me a few years ago when I learned about a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder. Our brains filter out sensory information so we aren’t overwhelmed by it, and different people’s filters work differently well. It occurred to me that dragons in dragon form would be accustomed to one set of senses: excellent eyesight and smell, indifferent hearing, poor touch and taste. What would it be like to go from those senses to ours, to taste sweetness for the first time or feel with our sensitive skin? From contemplating their senses, it wasn’t much of a stretch to start thinking about emotions. Would dragons in their natural state even have emotions? In my conception, it’s not that they don’t have them at all but that they’re very reflexive and physical. “Fight or flight” is as close as they get to anger and fear, but surely the softer emotions are a messy mammalian thing, for parent-child bonding and social cohesion.

We aren’t born knowing what to do with emotions; I’ve learned this from raising a child. How well are dragons going to be able to cope? They would need some rules for how to keep themselves from being overwhelmed. In my world, they’ve taken a pretty repressive—draconian, even—approach to maintaining their essential dragon-ness. Dragons who “lose” themselves to emotion are sent home and lobotomized. It’s harsh, but they think it’s necessary.

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

I have a large collection of books on various Medieval subjects: architecture, costume, musical instruments, military history, women’s history, material culture. The jewel of my collection is a three-volume work, The Plan of St. Gall, about a Medieval monastery that was designed but never built. I also have a lot of graphic novels, shelves of classical Greek (which I studied for four years in college), and all my favourite fiction. My husband’s books overlap with mine, so there’s philosophy, science, and many books in Irish.

Read the rest of our interview with Rachel Hartman.

My third interview for October was with Karen Engelmann. We talked about her really enjoyable debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo (Ecco):

Folding fans and the “language of fans” play a key role in the plot. Is this a particular passion of yours? Of all the fans you describe so vividly in the story, do you have a favorite?

My mother gets the credit for inspiring the folding fans. She had a modest collection, but they were magical to me, especially as a child. Much later, I visited an exhibition of rare fans in a museum in Sweden, and was taken by their beauty, mystery and opulence. When I decided to write a novel set in late 18th-century Europe that had female characters in central roles, I knew folding fans would play an important part. Women used every available means at their disposal to survive in the man’s world of the period, and the use of folding fans as a means of communication was an aspect too delicious to ignore. Of the fans in the book, I would want to possess the Chinese Princess, the fan that Mrs. Sparrow throws on the table as a bet in the card game against The Uzanne. The Princess is a child’s fan made of pierced ivory, so she is small and sturdy enough to carry around in my purse, and has a red silk tassel for some added pizzazz.

What was your research process like for the book? You lived in Sweden for a time, right? Any particularly useful sources you’d recommend to your readers?

Living in Sweden for nine years gave me the sensory information, the language skills, and the interest in Swedish history that inspired the novel. The actual research was challenging, since the best material on Gustav and Stockholm is written in Swedish and so required more time and concentration. I have two good friends who provided invaluable help, sending stacks of books (including a Swedish dictionary that must weigh 15 pounds). There is a bibliography on my website for interested readers (both Swedish and English sources) and I would love to see the Swedish volumes translated into English. One cautionary note for writers: the amount of available material can be overwhelming. If you are fascinated by a topic, it can be hard to know when to stop and the story and characters never emerge. Plus, writers want to stuff everything they’ve learned into the narrative and this can kill the story. About 100 pages of my manuscript were cut and most of it was factoids. Listen to your editors!

Read the rest of our interview with Karen Engelmann.

I was very pleased to be able to chat with Jaime Manrique about his latest novel, Cervantes Street (Akashic Books), a biographical novel about Miguel de Cervantes.

Do you recall how the idea for this book originated, or which part came to you first?

One afternoon, about 15 years ago, I was in bed with the flu and in a cable channel I saw a program about Cervantes. Although I had read Don Quixote a couple of times over the years, I knew very little about its author—other than he had lost the use of his left arm fighting in the Battle of Lepanto. When I found out about his captivity in Algiers for five and half years, that later in life he had been in jail twice, that in his 20s he fled Madrid because he wounded a man in a tavern brawl, and the punishment was exile for ten years and the lost of his right hand, I was blown away. It was a life that only a writer of adventure stories could have made up. At that moment, I determined to learn more about this man—about whom little else is known, anyway.

Most folks probably know Cervantes for Don Quixote; tell us about his other works, and which of them would you recommend to contemporary readers?

Unlike Shakespeare who wrote many great plays, Cervantes wrote only one great novel. His other full-length novels are kind of unreadable; his verse is undistinguished. However, the plays that survive are interesting and have splendid moments and beautiful language, and the short ones are marvelous comic inventions. Among the Exemplary Novels are a couple of dazzling jewels. I’m very fond of the Colloquium of the Dogs—which though a bit long-winded is a marvelously unique and inspired short novel.

Read the rest of our interview with Jaime Manrique.

And last but not least, there’s a neat book out this month from Bloomsbury, Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun. I asked the co-authors, Elizabeth Foy Larsen and Joshua Glenn, to share the activities from the book which their families have enjoyed.

Elizabeth recommends:

Yarn bombing: My kids and I used yarn that was sitting in my knitting bag to create a brightly striped rectangle that we turned into a legwarmer for a banister in a particularly grey part of our hometown. To make it even more fun, we waited until it was well past bedtime and dressed up in dark clothes and headlamps to install it. A creative way to add a pop of color to industrial landscapes.

Explode things: Everyone has tried the Diet Coke and Mentos experiment. My kids and I went one step better by chewing a Mento until it was soft enough to cram in the cap of a one liter bottle. Then we put the cap back on, turned the bottle upside down, and threw it onto the street. Then we ran like heck in the other direction while the bottle rocketed more than 25 yards down the street. Watch on YouTube.

Cigar box guitar: A cigar store gave my husband and kids a wooden cigar box with a gorgeous label. They worked together to build a four-string guitar that he uses to play Rolling Stones songs. A challenging but fun activity that is both useful and beautiful to look at. See video of the guitar in action.

And from Josh:

Making LED graffiti: Taking inspiration from the Graffiti Research Lab (a guerrilla street-art outfit), I rounded up a bag of 10mm diffused superbright LEDs, a fistful of 3V lithium batteries, and a stack of disc-shaped rare earth magnets, and handed it all over to my sons and their three girl cousins. They taped these together, thus creating beautiful “glowies” and—even better—”throwies.” Check them out!

Misusing the Foursquare app: The location-based social networking Foursquare is intended for use by 20-somethings interested in friend-finding and nightlife-bragging. But my family enjoys using it to transform our city—and everywhere else—into a game. It’s an app that doesn’t just ask you to stare at a screen; instead, it encourages you to discover new places … some hiding in plain sight.

See more videos and photos from Unbored at www.unbored.net, or download a PDF of these selected activities. Thanks to Elizabeth and Josh for sharing some of their favorite ideas from the book!


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Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

August Author Interviews: Stott and Thomason

This month’s 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 author interviews with Rebecca Stott and Dustin Thomason.

I talked to Rebecca Stott about her latest book, Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, published by Spiegel & Grau. Some excerpts:

Tell us about Darwin’s Ghosts—how did the idea for the book come about, and how did you select which subjects to profile?

When I wrote Darwin and the Barnacle back in 2003 I was struck once again by the dangerousness of the work Darwin was doing. I knew there had been others who had entertained ideas about the evolution of species before him and I became curious about the risks they might have undertaken. I started with Darwin’s own list of his predecessors—there were 38 men on Darwin’s list—and began to assemble as many more names as I could find. My book begins with Aristotle, even though Darwin was mistaken to call him an evolutionist, because the questions he was asking and the empirical methods he used would shape the long history of evolution in important ways. My aim was to try to understand these people as human beings not just as vehicles for ideas. I wanted to know what vexed them, what woke them up at night, what drove them.

What was it that persuaded Darwin to add his “Historical Sketch” to the third edition of Origin (and to expand it in the fourth edition)? Was there any contemporary reaction to the essay itself (distinct from reaction to the book as a whole)?

There was a kind of protocol in Darwin’s time that if you published a groundbreaking book of science you would begin by paying tribute to all the thinkers who had walked that path before you. Darwin failed to do this with Origin partly because he was rushed into print and partly because he was unsure just who his predecessors were. In 1860, when he was chastised for not including such a preface, he resolved to write one. The project took him six years to complete and was a source of enormous anxiety to him; he was never quite sure who had said or written what and when. Because he kept finding new people the historical sketch was always to some degree a work-in-progress.

You write in the preface about growing up in a household where the Darwin entry was literally razored out of the encyclopedia. Do you think that contributed to your interest in Darwin and his ideas?

Undoubtedly—as far as one can know about these things. I was a curious child, and I remember the intense frisson of curiosity I felt about Darwin and his ideas, because they were regarded with such derision and horror by all the important men in the religious community I lived in. Prohibition acts in mysterious ways.

Which of Darwin’s predecessors were you most surprised to learn about as you researched for this book?

Probably the eighteenth-century French intellectual Diderot. I lingered longer over that chapter than any of the others. I think I fell in love with him a little. Diderot was intellectually restless, a rule-breaker, a risk-taker, clearly also fascinating and charismatic in conversation. I think he might well be the most original thinker I have encountered. Because he was forced to hide his ideas—he was under surveillance from the Paris police—he developed a series of rhetorical strategies for evading responsibility often by using devices from the theatre. The results are often surreal and highly inventive.

Read the rest of our interview with Rebecca Stott.

I had the chance to talk with Dustin Thomason about his new thriller 12.21, published by The Dial Press.

Do you recall what first made you think about combining prions and Mayan prophecies for the plot of 12.21?

That was actually what brought the entire book together for me and is one of the key secrets of the book! The connection is deeply rooted in the culture of the ancient Maya, and closely connected to the original way that prions were discovered. But to really find out, you’ll have to read on …

Your book features a fictional Mayan codex, but there are a few of these that actually exist. Tell us about the codices and their importance in our understanding of Mayan civilization and culture.

Four ancient Maya books still exist of the thousands of screen-folded codices that probably once filled the royal libraries. You can find images of several of them online and see the wondrous work of the ancient scribes that served as the jumping off point for the codex in 12.21. The scribes were meticulous bookkeepers, and in these codices they kept close records of rituals and astronomical matters, all dated according to the all-important cyclical calendars responsible for the 2012 phenomenon. Amazing naked-eye astronomers, many Maya books were almanacs that tracked the movement of Mars and Venus, solstices and equinox, as well constellations eerily similar to our own zodiac. Over the last century, Mayanists have been able to use these four remaining books—named the Dresden, Madrid, Paris and Grolier codices—to bring the most advanced civilization in the pre-Columbian new world back to life.

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

A very eclectic mix. On the fiction side, you’d see Stephen King and Michael Crichton and Richard Russo, plus Dan Brown and Dickens and Philip Roth and Delillo and Lehane and Michael Cunningham, to name a few. Many shelves I’m looking at now are taken up by books about the ancient Maya, some of them out of print. In order to write in the voice of a ninth century scribe, I had to immerse myself in most everything that’s been written about them. You’d also find dozens of medical textbooks, and a weird assortment of other things on random topics that most people would find absurd. As I glance higher, I see And the Band Played On sandwiched between The Professional Handbook of the Donkey and The White Album. Plus, for Christmas every year, my father used to give us The World Almanac, so there’s almost two entire shelves taken up by those alone.

Which books have you read recently that you enjoyed?

Michael Olson’s Strange Flesh recently enchanted me with its weird and wonderful mix of hacker noir and depraved hearts, and I just finished William Landay’s Defending Jacob, which sucks you in with its compelling voice from page one and takes you on a ride of twists and turns as good as any since Presumed Innocent. I also just went to the Middle East for the first time, and while I was there I read Exodus, which seemed as fresh now as it must have to readers fifty years ago.

Read the rest of our interview with Dustin Thomason.


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Thursday, July 26th, 2012

July Author Interviews!

This month’s 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 author interviews with Francine Mathews and Russell A. Potter.

I talked to Francine Mathews about her latest book, Jack 1939, just published by Riverhead. Some excerpts:

You’ve previously written, as Stephanie Barron, a series of books featuring Jane Austen as a private detective. In Jack 1939, you turn instead to a young John Kennedy. Do you recall what first gave you the idea of using Kennedy as your protagonist?

Oddly enough, it was a glimpse of a photograph from the summer of 1937, when Jack was twenty years old and traveling with his best friend through Europe. He was standing on a street in Germany—possibly Nuremberg, possibly Cologne—wearing mismatched clothes he clearly hadn’t changed in days: baggy flannels, a T-shirt, a crumpled check jacket with sagging pockets. His hair was a mess, and he was thin as a rail, all cheekbones and chin, but his mouth was wide open in raucous laughter, and he was juggling for the camera. He looked like some crazed street busker—carefree, joyous, young. And I thought, My God, he was just a kid once. I wanted to know who that kid was.

When I realized he’d taken off half his junior year to travel alone through Europe just as Hitler was about to invade Poland, I had to use it.

What benefits do you see in deploying historical characters as fictional detectives/secret agents? On the flip side, are there disadvantages to this?

Most of my books are about people who actually lived—not just Jane Austen, but Allen Dulles and Virginia Woolf and Queen Victoria. As a writer, I’m caught by the “what if” moments in the known record. The gaps. The blank weeks in a well-documented life. For me, they’re tantalizing opportunities. I can fill those gaps with fiction and create an alternative reality. As a guide, I’ve got a famous person who’s already intriguing—readers are willing to follow Jane Austen or Queen Victoria or Jack Kennedy anywhere they choose to go.

The drawback as a writer, of course, is that the historical record has its limits. Virginia Woolf went for a walk on March 28, 1941, and her body was found twenty days later. I suggest in The White Garden that she was alive for most of that time. But her body was pulled from the river in the end, and the fictional story was forced to address that.

Read the rest of our interview with Francine Mathews.

I had the chance to talk with Russell Potter about PYG: The Memoirs of Toby, a Learned Pig, published in the UK by Canongate and the US/Canada by Penguin.

Where did you get the idea for PYG? Can you tell us a bit about the historical precedents for Toby?

I first read about the “Learned pig”—an act in which the animal spelled out answers to audience questions using pasteboard cards—many years ago in the pages of Richard Altick’s magisterial volume The Shows of London. Some time later, perusing Ricky Jay’s delightful compendium of curiosities, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, I was surprised to discover how many such pigs there had been in the 1780s, with several living claimants vying for attention with automaton versions of the same act. Jay also mentioned that the proprietor of one of these pigs had gone so far as to issue an “autobiography” of Toby—for so all pigs seemed to be named—which gave a punning account of his “life and opinions.” It occurred to me then that, should there be a pig who had learned not only his letters, but gained through them the ability to express his own feelings, how much richer and more varied a tale might be told from his viewpoint as an animal exhibited as a “Freak of Nature,” and so PYG was born.

The book is beautifully designed; what was the process like for choosing the images, font and other elements of the text?

I love the design as well, though in part it was simply the result of a series of fortuitous accidents. I’d always conceived of it as a book which would emulate in its form the conventions of a late-18th century novel, and when the designer at Canongate suggested Caslon Antique I was delighted. Originally, I’d wanted to use the same woodcut of a learned pig that appeared in Ricky Jay’s book, but since that volume was about to be republished, Jay asked us to not to copy that design. I set out to locate an image from the period, and in the wonderful Osborn collection of early children’s books at the Toronto Public Library, I found the Darton volume with the image of a learned pig. I’d already given all the chapters three-letter names, so it seemed natural to use this image and have the titles spelled out with the cards—I made a rough mockup in Photoshop and sent it to the designer, who did the rest.

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

Most of my collection is online at LibraryThing (here), so interested parties can have a virtual “browse” of my shelves any time they like. I have a few books from each century—including a little duodecimo edition of Johnson’s Rasselas just that the one Toby has in the novel—and collect mainly literary fiction by my favorite authors, particularly Ursula K. LeGuin and Steven Millhauser. In my non-fiction incarnation, I’ve worked extensively on the history of Arctic exploration, and so that makes up the biggest single section of my collection. Among my most prized volumes is an 1820 edition of Sir William Edward Parry’s account of his first Arctic expedition, printed in Philadelphia by Abraham Small, one of the earliest US editions of a work of polar exploration.

Read the rest of our interview with Russell Potter.


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Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

June Author Interviews!

This month’s 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 author interviews with Dan Rather, Alex Grecian, Catherine Fletcher, Kathy Hepinstall, and Joy Kiser.

I talked to Dan Rather about his new memoir, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, recently published by Grand Central. Some excerpts:

If you could interview (or re-interview) one person today, and you only got to ask one question, who would you interview and what would you ask?

I would love to know what the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. would think of the fact that the United States elected an African American president. I would also want to know what parts of his vision for our country remain yet to be fulfilled.

What are your thoughts on the 2012 presidential campaign? Have you been surprised by any of the twists and turns so far, and do you have any predictions about how things will progress over the next few months?

I often say that those who live by the crystal ball learn to eat broken glass. I don’t really know where this election will end up, other than it will almost certainly be close. As for twists and turns, I think that the only people really focusing on that now are an insular press corps and political activists. We’re still in the early innings, but the game has definitely begun. The real question is what will all this money pouring into the process mean for whoever is elected.

Where do you get your news these days? What are the sources you feel most comfortable trusting?

I get my news from many sources. I go online, but I also still love the feel of an old-fashioned newspaper in my hand. I find myself less distracted, and I process what I read more. I have also heard this from many people I talk to, even those raised in the digital age.

Read the rest of our interview with Dan Rather.

I had the chance to talk with Alex Grecian about The Yard, published by Putnam and a very popular March Early Reviewers selection.

For those who might not have yet had the chance to read The Yard, give us just a short introduction to the book, if you would.

Jack the Ripper has done his nasty work and disappeared. The citizens of London are terrified and they don’t trust their police anymore. The homicide rate is at an all-time high and police morale is at an all-time low, when Walter Day, the newest detective at Scotland Yard, is assigned to catch a cop-killer. Overwhelmed, Day turns for help to an eccentric doctor named Kingsley who is well on his way to becoming the first forensics scientist in England.

What first interested you about the post-Jack the Ripper period in London police
history?

The actual Ripper murders have been talked about to death (so to speak). Jack the Ripper’s fascinating, of course, but I don’t feel like there’s much left to say on the subject. At least, not by me. But the impact he left on the people around him had to have been enormous. Something that devastating and that frightening doesn’t happen in a vacuum. He didn’t kill those five women, and then disappear and life went back to normal for everyone. He permanently changed London—and the world—and that is fertile ground for an entire series of stories.

This is your first prose novel. What was your favorite part of the writing process?
And which part did you like the least?

I had originally intended to write this as a graphic novel and already had some interest from comic book publishers. I’m more comfortable writing prose than I am writing comic books, but it was still a huge gamble to write it as a novel. In the end, I’m very glad I did, but I didn’t know what would happen as I was working my way through the book. It was a little scary.

Read the rest of our interview with Alex Grecian.

I also talked with Catherine Fletcher about her first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (published in the UK as Our Man in Rome), released last month by Palgrave Macmillan

Tell us about “our man in Rome.” In a nutshell, who was Gregorio Casali, and what did he do?

Gregorio Casali was Henry VIII’s resident ambassador at the papal court in Rome throughout the six years of negotiations over Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He came from an upwardly-mobile Italian family whose sons made their way in life through military and diplomatic service to foreign princes. He was the man who did the ‘fixing’ for Henry in Rome: from entertaining cardinals to bribing secretaries, from intercepting letters to kidnapping enemy agents.

Do you recall what first interested you in Tudor diplomacy generally, and in Gregorio Casali specifically?

I had been on holiday to Florence and had got interested in Renaissance Italy. Shortly afterwards I was reading the classic biography of Henry VIII by J. J. Scarisbrick. He mentioned the role of the Casali family in Henry’s divorce negotiations, and I was intrigued by how an Italian family could have got involved in something we in England often think of as a very English bit of history.

I also asked Catherine what books she’s read and enjoyed recently.

I’m reading Thomas Penn’s Winter King at the moment—it’s a marvelous take on Henry VII, a Tudor monarch we often don’t hear much about. And I recently finished Iain Pears’ historical novel Stone’s Fall—an absolutely brilliant murder mystery.

Read the rest of our interview with Catherine Fletcher.

I chatted with Kathy Hepinstall about her fourth novel, Blue Asylum, just out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I asked about some of her fairly unorthodox outreach efforts:

I read through your author blog to prepare for this interview (and I have to say it’s one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time). Did you really bury a copy of your novel for Oprah and then provide directions to the buried novel in the local paper? … also, has Oprah retrieved her book yet?

Ah, thank you. And, yes I actually did bury a copy of my novel for her and then took out an ad with a map in her local paper, The Montecito Journal. Oprah did not retrieve the book, although someone did steal her shovel. So I took out another ad, this time hiding the book in a safe by the side of the road with a sign pointing to it that said “Oprah’s Book.” Non-Oprahs of Montecito were instructed, on their honor, not the memorize the combination to the safe included in the ad. Someone heisted the book, the safe and the sign. What can I say? Montecito apparently is swarming with thieves.

You’ve done some other, shall we say, unconventional things to promote Blue Asylum. Describe a few of those, if you would, and tell us about any responses you’ve gotten.

Let’s see, some ad students in Eugene came up with the great idea themselves to write letters from the characters and include them with the galleys that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sent to the independent bookstores.

I commissioned someone to bake a box of delectables and send it to Books-a-Million with the idea that this was a bribe from the inmates of Sanibel Island to get them out of the asylum. They are getting that soon. Also, we have a web site called whoscrazier.com. You can put any celebrity you want in there, virtually, and hear an audiotape in their own voice that demonstrates why they should be in an insane asylum. And, of course, the Oprah ads. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been very open to my ideas, and have some very imaginative ones of their own. Who knows what will work in what way, but I inscribed the latest book (in the safe) to Oprah with the words: “If you never get this book, I still believe in magic.”

Read the rest of our interview with Kathy Hepinstall.

Finally, I the chance to interview Joy Kiser about America’s Other Audubon, published by Princeton Architectural Press. The book is an an introduction and partial reprint of a rare book of ornithological artwork. A few snippets:

What first got you interested in Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio? What attracted you to the book, and what surprised you the most as you researched its history?

When I walked into the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio to begin my new position as assistant librarian, volume one of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was exhibited in a Plexiglas display case at the foot of the stairway that led to the library on the second floor. A label, about three inches high by five inches wide, succinctly explained that the book was the accomplishment of the Jones family of Ohio: the daughter, Genevieve, had conceived of the idea and had begun drawing and painting the illustrations with the assistance of a childhood friend; the son, Howard, had collected the nests and eggs; the father, Nelson, had paid the publishing costs; and after Genevieve died, the mother, Virginia, and the rest of the family spent eight years completing the work as a memorial to Genevieve.

Do you have a couple favorite plates that you’d like to mention?

Plate 2, the Wood Thrush; and Plate 17, the Catbird. I am partial to the American Robin and its stunning blue eggs. That was one of the first birds I learned to identify and interact with in my father’s orchard. It was much more exciting to find blue eggs (like a piece of the summer sky) in a nest than the white eggs with brown spots that the House Sparrows laid.

The first image I saw from Gennie’s book was the Wood Thrush nest with blue eggs reminiscent to the Robin’s but from a bird I have never seen or heard in person. And I am especially fond of Virginia’s composition for the Catbird nest.

America’s Other Audubon is a beautiful book itself: can you tell us a bit about the design and editing process?

Several years ago (2004), The Smithsonian Institution Libraries created a web exhibit that featured an essay about Gennie’s book and included scans of 30 of the color plates and for the very first time people searching the internet from any place in the world had access to some of the book’s illustrations. It was on that website that Acquisitions Editor, Sara Bader, from Princeton Architectural Press discovered Gennie’s art work and realized what a wonderful book it would make. Fortunately, her publisher had faith in her vision and agreed to publish the Jones family’s story and all of the art work from the original book. And the Smithsonian Institution contributed high resolution scans from one of their copies of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of the Birds of Ohio.

The difficult part for me was to have to see the field notes reduced to so few words.

Read the rest of our interview with Joy Kiser.


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Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

May Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online. It includes author interviews with Hilary Mantel, Naomi Novik, Jonathan Gottschall, and Melissa Coleman.

I talked to Hilary Mantel about her new book Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, published this month by Henry Holt.

Originally, you’ve said, you planned just “one enormous book” on Thomas Cromwell, but now we’re looking at a trilogy. When did you realize first that his story needed two books, and now three?

I think that fiction, even historical fiction, is inherently unpredictable. You know what the story is, but you don’t know until you tell it where its power is located, where
you will place the focus and how you need to shape it. I did originally imagine there would be just one book, but as I began to tell the story of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, I realized that it needed to be played out properly, that it couldn’t be hurried: that it was, in fact, the climax of a book, not an episode in a book. At that point, I decided that Wolf Hall would end with More’s death, and the royal party heading for the house named in the title. With Bring up the Bodies, the process of discovery was virtually the same, though it still caught me unawares. I came to write the end of the Boleyns, and realized that I already had a book; the buildup to that tragedy is so stealthy, the climax so horrifying, that I thought the reader would want to pause, close the book, take a breath.

So the whole project reshaped itself for a second time, and very swiftly; in each case, the process of realization took a split second; and the second after that, it seemed obvious. To some readers it might sound as if my method of work is very disorganized. I’d prefer to think of it as an organic, evolving process: sudden discoveries and sudden demands breeding changes of tactics. I like to gather my material, think for a long time, but make the business of writing itself as spontaneous and flexible as possible. If I can I like to take myself by surprise.

What was it about Thomas Cromwell that initially drew you to him as a way to write about the Tudor period?

It appealed to me because his character had never been explored properly in fiction or drama. Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith and brewer, and this stratified, hierarchical society, he rose to become the king’s right-hand man and eventually Earl of Essex; you have to ask, how did he do it? Luck? Calculation? Both, surely, but what combination of the two? And what drove him? When you worked for Henry VIII, the stakes were so high. One slip and you were dead. I wanted to try to work out what combination of ambition and idealism motivated Cromwell. In what ways was he typical of his time, and in what ways unique? And as I was asking myself, as I always do when I write I historical fiction, how did this man’s life feel, from the inside?

When you stand in Cromwell’s shoes, familiar events are defamiliarised. The story, which is irresistible in itself, comes up fresh and new.

Read the rest of our interview with Hilary Mantel.

I also talked to Naomi Novik, the author of the fascinating Temeraire fantasy series. The latest volume, Crucible of Gold, was published in March by Del Rey. Some excerpts:

On your website, you offer a few “deleted scenes” from the Temeraire books, and you note there “I tend to write fast and revise heavily, and I cut liberally.” Tell us a bit more about your writing process: when do you do most of your writing? Where? Do you compose in longhand, or use a computer?

I have no rules other than that I tend to change my rules fairly often. Each book has worked differently. My life has changed quite a lot over the course of writing the series—I have a new baby now, so I write from 9:30 to 4:30 because that’s when I have child care. My natural state of writing is really more writing from 11 in the morning to 3 a.m.; that’s my intuitive style. I do generally like to work at a fairly fast pace—when it’s flowing I’m getting two to three thousand words a day. I still like to get the skeleton down and then polish it. My single biggest trick for when I need to focus and get productivity is to go somewhere where there isn’t internet, so I’ll go to a café with a laptop and just write there. It’s actually getting increasingly hard to avoid the internet, though. I don’t really write longhand unless I get stuck; if I get stuck, then what I do is grab a journal and start writing some longhand, and that loosens things up a bit. Once I’ve started, I like so much having the freedom to revise heavily and save different versions that I always really want to be on the computer.

Anything you’d like to tell us about the next Temeraire volume (the eighth)? Have you selected a title yet? Any hint of where Laurence and Temeraire might be off to next?

My working title for it is “Luck and Palaces,” and I suppose I can give a hint, which is that that is from a translation of poems by Wisława Szymborska, and the line is about the city of Kyoto. So that’s my little hint. The other clue I will give is that it’s the year 1812.

Read the rest of our interview with Naomi Novik.

I had the chance to talk with Jonathan Gottschall about The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If you can give us the nutshell version, what is it about stories (whether it be fiction, or drama, or televised sports, or dreams, or computer games) that makes us as humans so attracted to them, and gives them such a powerful hold over us?

Homo sapiens is this weird sort of primate that lives inside stories, and we don’t know why for certain. I cover several competing ideas in the book, but they all break down into two big categories. 1) We like stories because they have hidden evolutionary benefits. 2) The mind isn’t designed for story, it has a glitch that makes it vulnerable to story. In the latter view, fiction is like porn—a mere pleasure technology that we’ve invented to titillate the pleasure circuits of the brain. I argue that story addiction is mainly good for us: story is a whetstone for the mind, and it acts as a kind of social glue—helping to bind individuals together into functioning societies.

It was an experience with a song that prompted you to write this book, as you note in the opening pages. Tell us about that moment, and do you see significant differences in the way humans are affected by stories in different media (print, song, video, &c.), or does the impact tend to be similar?

One day, I was driving down the highway and happened to hear the country music artist Chuck Wicks singing “Stealing Cinderella”—a song about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it, I was blind from tears, and I had to veer off on the road to get control of myself and to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there on the side of the road feeling sheepish and wondering, “What just happened?” I wrote the book to try to answer that question. How can stories—the fake struggles of fake people—have such incredible power over us? Why are we storytelling animals?

And yes, different forms of storytelling affect us in different ways. Most popular songs are stories set to music, and they evoke powerful emotion. The same goes for films. People respond so intensely and authentically to film, that when psychologists want to study an emotion, like sadness, they subject people to clips from tear-jerkers like “Old Yeller” or “Love Story”.

Read the rest of our interview with Jonathan Gottschall.

Last but not least, Lisa Carey interviewed Melissa Coleman about her book This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, now out in paperback.

What made you decide to write this memoir? Was it something you always intended to write about?

Somehow I managed to avoid writing, and talking much, about my childhood for many years, fearing, I think, that I was responsible for some of the tragic things that happened. However, with the birth of my children, the past began urging me to make peace. I also found myself wanting to celebrate the beauty and connection to nature in my childhood, and the amazing effort made by my father, Eliot Coleman, and others, to lay the foundations for today’s organic food revolution.

How much research was involved to bring such rich detail to the parts that occurred before you were old enough to remember it? You have your mother’s journals. Did your parents help you otherwise in the process of telling this story?

I began with my own scraps of memories, images from photos, and family stories, but I needed to do a lot of research to fill in the blanks. There was my mother’s journal, numerous news articles about us, books by the Nearings and others, and I tracked down and interviewed many of the apprentices and people who visited us during the 1970s. It was only with the help of all these people, especially my parents, that I was able to tell this story.

Was this a difficult book to write? Or was it liberating?

Both! It’s incredibly difficult to dig into painful events in the past, but also very rewarding to let them go and find the beauty beneath. The liberation that came was something like what comes from making compost. You put all these scraps of things into a pile and let them settle and soon enough they turn into black gold, as my father calls compost, the rich soil in which new life can grow.

Read the rest of Lisa’s interview with Melissa Coleman.


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Thursday, April 26th, 2012

April Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online. It includes a reminder about our Edible Books Contest and more!

For one of our author interviews this month, I talked to Elizabeth Little about her new book Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, published this month by Walker & Company.

What was the most enjoyable moment in researching Trip of the Tongue? The worst?

My most enjoyable moment was, without a doubt, my first evening in Neah Bay, a tiny town on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I had just spent the past few days with friends in Tacoma, and I was loathe to leave their hospitality for what sounded like an uncomfortably rustic accommodation in the middle of nowhere. But then I discovered that I was staying in a cozy little cabin a stone’s throw away from this windswept gem of beach. That evening I walked along the sand in my bare feet as the sun set. Then I returned to my cabin to drink hot chocolate and read about language. A near-perfect evening.

My least enjoyable moment, on the other hand, was surely when I was in northern Maine, when I got caught in a snowstorm and had to battle all-day morning sickness. There’s a very good reason why that section didn’t make it into the book.

How did you end up deciding which particular languages to highlight in the book? Were there some that just barely didn’t make the cut that you’d like to tell us about?

The languages that made it into the book were those that really challenged my own assumptions about the history of language—or language itself—in the United States. I spent some time in San Francisco, for instance, but my background in Chinese language and culture made for a less than compelling narrative thread. It was a lot of “Oh, yes, I remember reading about that.” (Looking back on things now, I wish I had tried to look at Chinese language and culture in Old West frontier towns. Although that should probably be a book of its own.)

Some other sections had to be set aside because they led me down a very different path than the one I was trying to travel. The chapter that got cut at the very last minute was a chapter that looked at the impact of technological change—very particularly in transportation and manufacturing—on language communities in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. I loved my time in each of those cities – in Baltimore I met the loveliest and most helpful docent and historian at the city’s Jewish museum; in Cleveland I gorged on paprikash and learned about Hungarian girl scouts; and in Detroit I went to the Ford Rouge Factory, which turned out to be one of my favorite activities on the entire trip. Unfortunately, when I found myself compiling economic paper after economic paper for research purposes, I had to acknowledge that my focus was starting to drift.

In the final chapter of your book, you note that Trip of the Tongue didn’t end up being the book you thought it would be. How did you originally envision it, and how did your travels and experiences change the book into what it is?

At the beginning I envisioned that the book would be more of a romp: road-tripping high jinks with some linguistic data thrown in. What I ended up with, though, is something more like a meditation. On language, on discrimination, on my own preconceived notions. I first got an inkling of this in South Carolina, where I went to learn about Gullah. My very first day in Charleston, I learned about these spikes (called chevaux-de-frise) that some city residents put on their fences in the nineteenth century to protect themselves in the event of a slave rebellion. It was at that point that the desire to write anything resembling a romp died a swift death. The history of race and language and culture in the United States isn’t exactly rich in comedy. (Though I certainly tried to find it where I could.)

But I’m glad that I ended up somewhere very different than I’d intended. Because it’s not much of a journey of discovery if you only learn things you already knew.

Read the rest of our interview with Elizabeth Little.

I also talked to Diana Preston, the author of The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-1842, published earlier this year by Walker & Company.

For those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, give us a thumbnail synopsis of the First Anglo-Afghan War: how did the conflict come about, how long did it last, and what was the result?

The First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838-42 is one of Britain’s most notorious military catastrophes. The genesis of the war was British suspicion that imperialist and expansionist Russia was planning to advance through Afghanistan to invade India, Britain’s richest and most prized colonial possession. The Afghans resented the British presence, and the invasion was politically controversial at home. Barely two years after the British had occupied Kabul thousands of British and Indian troops, officials and their dependents suddenly found themselves besieged. A disastrous retreat to India under constant attack by the Afghan hill tribes left only one Briton and several Indian soldiers alive. When the news of the disaster reached Britain, it was greeted with anger and the British sent an army of retribution to punish the Afghans. Soon afterwards, the British withdrew from Afghanistan with their puppet king already murdered, allowing Dost Mohammed, who had surrendered to the British and been exiled by them, to return. The entire enterprise was a disaster that soured British-Afghan relations for many years.

How did you come to be interested in the conflict, and how long was the research process for The Dark Defile?

I’ve been interested in the conflict for a long time and in particular in some of the characters but the more I began delving into the sources the more I realized it is something of a cautionary tale. The Duke of Wellington (the conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo and a former Prime Minister) predicted at the time—accurately as it turned out—that “The consequence of crossing the Indus once, to settle a government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march into that country.” (British forces entered Afghanistan twice more over the subsequent 80 years, before doing so again as part of the current NATO-led force.) I became increasingly intrigued not only by what actually happened and the many vivid personal stories but also by the wider political and strategic issues surrounding the campaign.

Subsequent research in the UK and northern India took about two years.

I was struck by Lady Florentia Sale, whose diary of the war you draw on frequently in the book. Tell us how Lady Sale ended up in the middle of the conflict, and about her diary which recounts so vividly the events she witnessed.

Plain-speaking, fifty-year-old Florentia Sale arrived in Kabul to join her husband, a senior British officer nicknamed “Fighting Bob”. She devoted her early months to planting a flower garden but when the Afghans rose up she found herself trapped in Kabul without her husband who had left with his regiment for India. She commented acidly on subsequent British military incompetence and diplomatic vacillation, writing, “it appears a very strange circumstance that troops were not immediately sent into the city to quell the [rising] … but we seem to sit quietly with our hands folded and look on … General Elphinstone vacillates on every point. His own judgment appears to be good but he is swayed by the last speaker …”

She survived the early days of the British retreat, caring with her pregnant daughter for her dying son-in-law, a wounded British officer. She was then taken hostage by the Afghans. Her clear-eyed, unsentimental, occasionally humorous diary provides a detailed account of events, both previously in Kabul and then in her captivity and—unlike some of the other eyewitness accounts written with an eye to publication—rings true to the core. She describes how, as she and the other prisoners were bundled away by their Afghan captors, they passed naked starving people left behind by the retreating British column who were surviving “by feeding on their dead comrades.” She also wrote that she and the other prisoners quickly became verminous—”very few of us … are not covered with crawlers”—and learned to distinguish between lice which they called “infantry” and fleas which were “light cavalry”. She lived to be eventually reunited with her husband.

Read the rest of our interview with Diana Preston.


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Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

March Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online.

I forgot to include in SOTT a very neat interview our friends at Random House passed along: Jennifer Egan, the author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, did a Q&A with Dan Barden about his new book, The Next Right Thing. You can read the interview here, and thanks to Random House for sharing it with us!

For our author interviews this month, I talked to Lauren Groff about her new book Arcadia, published this month by Hyperion and Voice.

Like your first novel, Arcadia is set in upstate New York, where you grew up (as did I). How do you think the area has shaped the things and people you write about?

I find that I can only write about places after I’ve been absent from them for a while. I’ve lived in Florida for six years, now, which only makes me love upstate New York more. I grew up there, and it seems that when I want to write through or about a childlike sense of wonder, I reach for the place I remember as a child. Also, I miss the lilacs and the icicles and the rolling hills and the cold lakes in the summer, and this sense of loss makes me long to return there when I sit down to work in my hot and humid studio.

You’ve set one section of Arcadia in the future, 2018 specifically. Did you find writing scenes in the future any different from writing scenes set in the past, or in the present?

It was strangely exhilarating to write scenes set in the very near future: it wasn’t as pure an imaginative leap as writing a hundred years in the future would be, and it required research and thought into where we are in the world right now. It was as if I had a photograph of the present, and my job was to paint beyond the bounds of the frame.

Tied up in Arcadia is the fascinating and elusive idea of utopian communities: did you find yourself doing much research into historical views or depictions of this topic as you wrote? If so, was there a particular source that you enjoyed or found most useful?

There are many books about both philosophical utopias and real-life attempted ones on my shelves. I find the utopian urge to be a deeply American one: in fact, in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were over forty utopian intentional communities created (and lost) in America. The two that were among the most successful, and therefore the most devastating when they collapsed, were Oneida in central New York in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century community called The Farm in Tennessee. I visited both places for overnight stays and loved them both.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you make
it a reality?

I’ve always been passionate about books, but to become a creator of the things I loved most in the world seemed impossibly difficult, and possibly even narcissistic, when I was little. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know that they were normal people and not gilded demi-angels selected by the gods. It began to dawn on me that I could do this, too, when I took a writing class in college, taught by a real, live novelist. After I graduated, I made my poor parents suffer a little because I declared that I was going to be a writer, and I did many terrible jobs for a few years to be able to teach myself how to write fiction. Then I went to graduate school, which gave me two years in which I wrote as much as I possibly could, and learned a great deal.

Read the rest of our interview with Lauren Groff.

I also talked to Taras Grescoe, the editor of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, coming soon from Times Books.

Tell us a bit about how the idea for this book came about, and how long you spent making all the trips it took to research the different cities you profile. What was your best experience (transportation related or otherwise) while researching the book? Your worst?

For the last decade, I’ve been thinking about writing a book-length examination of how cars changed our lives, and how car-centered thinking has transformed our cities. But I didn’t want to contribute another angry screed against the evil motorcar to the literature. There are so many people thinking differently about transportation, and so many amazing initiatives happening in cities around the world, that I figured I could combine a little righteous anger and a lot of hope and optimism in the same book—which is why I detail how we got into the mess of sprawl and congestion, and how a lot of committed people are finding ways to get us out of it.

As much as I loved riding funiculars, rattly old subways, and high-speed trains in Asia, Europe, and South America, the best experience was meeting people around the world who are committed to making their cities better places to live for themselves and their families—a lot of those people have become friends. The worst part: when I was looking at sprawled and congested cities like Phoenix and Moscow, being stuck in endless traffic. Hours I spend in a car always feel like hours I’ll never get back.

You write that Straphanger is, “in part, the story of a bad idea: the notion that our metropolises should be shaped by the needs of cars, rather than people.” How and when did this idea take hold, and can you tell us a few of the ways this bad idea has manifested itself?

Streets in North American cities belonged to the people of those cities until at least the ’20s. Kids played in them, pedestrians crossed them at will, streetcars and horsecars and cable cars used them, bike-riders enjoyed them, vendors sold food from carts. They were anarchic, and alive. Though Americans accepted the new technology of the automobile, and it became ever more affordable thanks to Ford’s mass production, it took a concerted effort on the part of automobile industry lobby groups to manufacture the concept of the “jaywalker” and convert city streets into speedways for cars. At first, police resisted, citizens resisted: tens of thousands of kids were slaughtered by Chevrolets and Fords, and there were giant demonstrations against “death drivers” in almost every major city in the 1920s. A great portrayal of the process in action is Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, published in 1918. (Tarkington was clearly ambivalent about the coming of the automobile to the city, but he brilliantly portrays the way that new technology unstitched so much of what old walkable cities used to be.) Later, technocrats like Robert Moses in New York City consolidated power and streamlined the process of building cities for cars, rather than people. Car culture really did its job well: now nobody finds it strange that so much precious public space—the streets of Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto—should be occupied by two tons of privately-owned of plastic, fiberglass, and metal.

Read the rest of our interview with Taras Grescoe.

I also had a chance to chat with Natalie Dykstra, the author of Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life, published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Do you recall what first interested you about the life of Clover Adams?

I vividly remember the moment I got interested. I was still in graduate school, working on my dissertation about how nineteenth-century women represented themselves in letters and diaries, when I read a five-page scene in Blanche Wiesen Cook’s brilliant first volume of her biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Cook describes how Mrs. Roosevelt would go every week to Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., to sit in front of the seated bronze statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that marked Clover’s grave. She found comfort there in the months after her discovery of her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer. But why? I became fascinated by the woman who fascinated Mrs. Roosevelt.

You write in the prologue “Clover’s life has remained half-illumined, a reflection of how others viewed her but not how she saw herself.” But, you argue, her photographs “invite the viewer to stand not on this side of her suicide, but on the other, the one she lived on.” For those who might have not have yet had the chance to see Clover’s photographs, what is it about them that’s so compelling? Do you have any particular favorites?

Clover’s photographs, when I first saw them, struck me as interesting and extraordinarily beautiful. Packed with a lived life. There are photographs of friends, of the seashore, of her dogs perched at chairs around a table as if “at tea.” There are carefully composed photographs of her women friends that have great clarity and style and portraits of children that confer an enormous dignity. She got down on the same level as the children to take their photographs, so the viewer sees them eye to eye. And she was meticulous about the sequence in which she put her photographs in the albums, one image per page. I suppose some of my favorites include her gothic-like picture of her summer home, Pitch Pine Hill, on Boston’s North Shore; her portrait of Elizabeth Bliss Bancroft, wife the historian George Bancroft; and her portrait of three women standing on rocks at the seashore, with two of the women turned away from her camera.

Read the rest of our interview with Natalie Dykstra.


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Friday, February 24th, 2012

February Author Interviews: Matthew Pearl and Leah Price

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online.

For our author interviews this month, I talked to Matthew Pearl about his new book The Technologists, published this week by Random House. The novel focuses on the early years of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as students in its first graduating class face down a mysterious force bent on destroying their school and their city.

Which part of The Technologists came to you first?

The first scene I envisioned was one that appears early in the novel, when a group of the original MIT students are bullied by a Harvard crew team as both groups row the Charles River. It’s still an important scene for me when I think about the book and especially the main character. The early MIT students were ultimate underdogs and this moment captures that, plus introduces the Boston backdrop.

Your previous books have put major literary characters at the center of the action; what made you decide to use college students this time around?

For many if not most people, college is a formative and unique experience in their lives. Different from any time before or after. “The best four years of your life”? Maybe, though probably not. But certainly among the most interesting. I really loved releasing my characters into that context.

Did you find it easier to write using fictional protagonists rather than historical characters?

The Technologists has a mix of fictional and historical characters. The central protagonist, Marcus Mansfield, is fictional, though based on my research into many of the original MIT students. It’s hard to say what ends up making writing “easier,” at least for me, because the long process of writing the novel inevitably complicates every task. Still, I can’t deny there’s a liberating quality when working with fictional characters after spending time on historical figures with more established profiles!

Read the rest of our interview with Matthew Pearl.

I also talked to Leah Price, the editor of Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, published late last year by Yale University Press. The book includes interviews with thirteen contemporary writers about their libraries, plus some wonderful pictures of their books.

Were there any responses to the interview questions that surprised you?

I was surprised—even touched—by how intimate some of the answers were.  Questions about a writer’s relation to his books somehow yielded answers about a writer’s relation to his father, his lovers, even his exes. Junot Diaz told me that “When I was still with my ex, I drove back and forth between New York and Cambridge seven to eight times a month, and that’s how I got into audiobooks. I liked reading to my ex. Never read to anyone else. Never had anyone read to me, really.” Just as poignantly, Lev Grossman pointed to a bookshelf custom-built for the apartment he used to share with his ex-wife. “Funny how libraries retain ghostly impressions of the past,” he reflected: “those bookshelves retain the dimensions of those old rooms, not of the rooms they’re currently in, so they’re slightly ill-fitting.” Both writers think of books as something shared with other people, or tainted by memories of the people with whom they were once shared – which helps makes sense, in a way, of the success of LibraryThing in building social relationships via books and circulating books by forging virtual networks.

I also asked Leah to tell us about her personal library and how she organizes her own books (and she sent along a picture of her shelves, too):

I alphabetize my books by author, because I’m the kind of obsessive-compulsive who also alphabetizes the spices and color-codes the socks. My books are divided between home and office, but paradoxically the ones that are most on display, in my office on campus, are the least revealing, because when I’m at work I rarely have time to read anything longer than an e-mail or a memo, and so that’s where I keep the books that I don’t have any intention of rereading.

At home, we segregate the cookbooks (though, inconsistently, I have a beautiful 1880s edition of Mrs Beeton’s Household Manual filed under B, because I don’t have any intention of cooking suet pudding), and there are a few straggler sections dating back to the days before my library started to flirt with my partner’s. When we moved in together he started pulling books out of boxes and plopping them down on the shelves without regard to which were mine and which were his. I panicked, because I had assumed that we wouldn’t interfile our books, just as blithely as he had assumed that we would. A family therapist would probably add interfiling to the list of things to negotiate in advance: blended families are nothing to merged libraries. Now that our books are promiscuously mingled, we’re getting married next month, but that feels like a formality compared to the day when we steeled ourselves to put duplicates out on the curb. Once you’ve ditched somebody’s copy of Middlemarch, you might as well have signed up for a covenant marriage.

Read the rest of our interview with Leah Price.


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Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing