Archive for the ‘authors’ Category

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Interview with Tom Standage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview, authors

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Interview with Patrick Ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview, authors

Wednesday, 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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Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing

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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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

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

January 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.

We had a whole host of author interviews this month:

I talked to Shalom Auslander about his first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, out this month from Riverhead Books.

Which of these characters came to you first? Which was the most fun to create?

Kugel, the main character, came first; I liked the idea of a character whose tragic flaw was hope, the very thing we’re supposed to never give up or go without. And yet here was a person, it seemed, whose hope was getting him hurt, who might be better off if he gave up and just accepted things as they are, i.e. crappy. Mother, though, was the most fun to create. She is eternally hopeless and finds glory in suffering and pain in joy; I was given birth to by people just like that. Also, she moans about being in the Holocaust, which she never was, and that makes me laugh.

Read the rest of our interview with Shalom Auslander.

I also talked to Theodora Goss about her latest book, The Thorn and the Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story, published this month by Quirk Books. You may want to watch the book trailer to get a sense of the book’s interesting design.

How did you come up with the idea to have the book designed this way, as a “two-sided love story”? Can you describe the design process bit for us?

I actually didn’t come up with the idea of the two-sided design myself. My wonderful editor, Stephen Segal, came up with it and called me to ask if I could write a story that would fit the format. It was quite a challenge! We didn’t want a story that would simply have two sides to it—that wouldn’t really be using the format. We wanted a story that could only be told in this way, that would use the format as part of the reading experience. And I think when you read the book, you’ll find that it does. You can only understand the story, particularly the conclusion, by reading both sides.

But I was the one who decided that it should be a love story (after all, what other kind of story is so particularly two-sided?), and who came up with the story of Brendan and Evelyn. And after I had come up with it, the basic plot and the characters, then the characters started talking to me, as they do anytime you write a story. They started telling me what they wanted to say and do.

I should also mention the wonderful artist, Scott McKowen, who captured the feel of the story so perfectly. I can’t think of a better way to present this book than the way Scott has presented it, with the gorgeous slipcase and the illustrations inside. I think in the end, the book was a collaborative effort between the three of us. And once it’s read, the readers will become a part of the collaboration as well, because this story isn’t just on the pages. In a sense, it exists between the two sides, and that’s the story the readers will have to put together themselves.

Read the rest of our interview with Theodora Goss.

My third interview this month was with Susan Goodman, the H. Brown Fletcher Chair of Humanities at the University of Delaware, and the author of Republic of Words: The Atlantic Monthly and Its Writers, 1857-1925, recently published by the University Press of New England.

The Atlantic Monthly’s founders laid out quite an ambitious goal for themselves in 1857, “to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” How did they manage to make a success of their magazine when so many similar ventures did not last?

As the country’s most intellectual and literary city, Boston brought together men and women who from the beginning of the magazine made it a powerful voice in American politics as well as the arts. Its success depended on a loyal group of contributors, informed and curious readers, often intent on self-improvement, and good management. Luck also played a part. The first issue, for example, contained Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Brahma”, which provoked a craze of parodies and made readers eager for the next issue.

Read the rest of our interview with Susan Goodman.

I also chatted with Jay Wexler about his new book The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of Its Most Curious Provisions, published by Beacon Press.

You write in the introduction that you first got the idea for writing a book about the Constitution’s “odd clauses” while you were working in the Office of Legal Counsel for the Clinton administration. Do you recall a particularly odd question the OLC was called upon to advise on while you were there?

There were all sorts of odd questions, but the one I spent most of my time on had to do with whether the President had the authority to create a national monument in the middle of the ocean. President Clinton was interested in creating a giant national monument in Hawaii to protect coral reefs, but it’s not immediately clear that the relevant statute giving the President the authority to create monuments (it’s called the Antiquities Act) gives him the authority to make monuments in the ocean. The question required a good bit of statutory analysis as well as analysis of the proper scope of the so-called “Property Clause” of Article IV of the Constitution. The legal opinion that came out of all that work is here. As it turned out, it was President Bush, not Clinton, who ultimately made the Hawaii monument.

Read the rest of our interview with Jay Wexler.

And, last but not least, we have an interview with Susan Cain. Her first book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, published this month by Crown.

You describe in your opening chapters the rise of what you call the Extrovert Ideal. Give us the nutshell version: what is this, and how did it come to be such a powerful force in American culture?

The Extrovert Ideal says that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. Our schools, workplaces, and religious institutions are designed for extroverts, and many introverts believe that there is something wrong with them and that they should try to “pass” as extroverts. The bias against introversion leads to a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.

In my book, I trace how we shifted from a “Culture of Character” into a “Culture of Personality” at the turn of the 20th century. Big business, the media, the self-help industry, and advertising all went through radical changes that had the effect of glamorizing bold and entertaining personality styles. I also tell the surprising life story of Dale Carnegie, who morphed from shy, awkward farm boy into bestselling author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, and is a fascinating example of this cultural transformation.

And I talk about why the Culture of Personality is not a great model for the 21st century.

Read the rest of our interview with Susan Cain.

Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.

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Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Author Interview: Anthony Horowitz

We’ve got a special mid-month author interview with Anthony Horowitz, the author of the popular Alex Rider series of books as well as several popular UK television series and mini-series, including “Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders,” and “Poirot.” Anthony’s latest work is The House of Silk, a new Sherlock Holmes adventure published last month by Mulholland Books.

You’ve written that you “paused for at least half a second” before agreeing to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel. What made you hesitate, and how did you
overcome the hesitation?

I had two concerns. The first was that, with so much Sherlock Holmes around—the Robert Downey Jr. films and the very successful TV series on BBC—I might be seen as jumping on a bandwagon. Also, I have my doubts about this rash of prequels, sequels and add-ons that are appearing. Are they just a cynical way to sell books? I agreed only because I love Sherlock Holmes and couldn’t resist the idea of moving into 221b Baker Street for a short while. I knew I could write a good book. I knew I would enjoy writing it. In short, I couldn’t resist it.

What sort of research or preparation did you do before you started writing?

I began by re-reading the entire canon, which didn’t take long. There are only 56 short stories and four novellas. I have to say that it was great to have an excuse to immerse myself once again in Sherlock Holmes. I then read a couple of books about nineteenth century London which helped me decide on some of the locations. The plot for The House of Silk came very quickly. I actually started writing it a week after I signed the contract … the prologue and chapter one, anyway. That was how I found my voice.

Did you find any aspect of writing The House of Silk particularly challenging (or particularly easy)?

The biggest challenge was to stretch the very elegant but fragile structures of the original Doyle novels to the 95,000 words demanded by my editors. I overcame this by effectively writing two short novels‐The Man in the Flat Cap and The House of Silk‐and intertwining them. I never use the word “easy” about writing but I have to say that I loved writing the book and that an awful lot of it seemed to fall into my lap. It took four months‐half the time of an Alex Rider novel.

What do you think it is about Holmes and Watson that makes them such wonderfully lasting characters?

It’s their interdependence. Doyle’s genius was to create a character who is cold, aloof, irritating, an occasional drug addict, a man who never reads fiction and knows nothing about philosophy or politics … and to partner him with a warm, affable, civilized, intelligent and totally loyal doctor. We read the books for the atmosphere and for the mysteries but above all because this is the greatest friendship in literature.

Do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes story? If so, which, and why?

My favourite story is “The Dying Detective” (which takes place three days before The House of Silk begins). It’s a chamber piece. There’s no detection and no actual crime. But it’s a great duel of wits with a memorable villain and a startling denouement.

Read the full interview.

Labels: author interview, authors

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Big “other authors” changes

We’ve just pushed some rather major changes to how LibraryThing displays authors, as well as other contributors to a work, like translators, editors, etc. This functionality has been around for a few months for members of the Board for Extreme Thing Advances, but we’ve improved it and released it. We thank them very much for helping us get it right!

LibraryThing has long allowed you to edit and add multiple authors and their “roles” within their catalogs, the so-called “book level.” Now, work pages also include an “Other authors” module with a link to “Add/edit other authors.” Clicking that link will open up a lightbox where you can add, edit, confirm or reject other author entries for that work, assign the various authors to the correct roles, and mark whether they apply to the entire work or to only some editions. By popular request we have also opened up the “primary author” to editing, so you can now edit them, and their roles.

Some examples:

Other authors who apply to all editions of the work will show up at the top of the work page, like A Passion for Books, where Ray Bradbury wrote the foreword. Authors who contributed to some editions will show up in the “Other authors” section, linked from the top of the page: an example is Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X, showing Alexander O. Smith as the translator.

We’ve also added the ability to edit the name and add a role for the “primary” (ie., “lead”) author of a work, something much-requested during the BETA test of this feature. There’s no real need to do this for single-author books, but for some types of works it’ll be useful. Examples:

There will, of course, be debate on the issue of main and secondary authors. Generally speaking, co-author or co-editor status falls under the “main author” setting, while most other roles would count as “secondary author.” Obviously there will be exceptions to this, such as a book of photography or artwork where the artist rises to the level of “main author”.

This concept of “other authors” is live across the site, but it will take a while to play out how it should appear everywhere. But we wanted to get it out there and let you all have a go.

Come talk about the feature here, or report bugs here.

The changes prompted but do not require a change to how book/work pages show their book- and work-level data. This question is being discussed here.

Labels: authors, new feature, new features

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

September 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.

Our author interviews this month:

I talked to acclaimed historical fiction author Sharon Kay Penman about her latest novel, Lionheart, a rich tale of Richard I and the Third Crusade. Find how about her research process, favorite historical sources, and how she feels about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Asked which of the characters from Lionheart she’d most like to spend a day with, Sharon replied “I’d like to hang around with Richard’s nephew, Henri of Champagne. I’d also like to spend a few hours with Richard’s sister, Joanna, and his queen, Berengaria, and if there was still time to spare, I’d be happy to visit with Saladin’s brother, al-Malik al-Adil, whom I found even more interesting than his more famous sibling. Oh, and Richard, of course, provided that he was in camp at the time and not out fighting Saracens; I’d want to see if my fictional Richard and the real Richard were compatible.”

Read the full interview with Sharon Kay Penman.

I also chatted with Charles Frazier, whose third novel, Nightwoods is out next week from Random House (and is already garnering favorable reviews on LT, including one from me; I had a difficult time putting it down).

I asked Charles “Are there any lines or scenes in the book of which you are especially fond?,” and very much liked his response. He wrote “I kind of like the way the first three sentences set up the main characters and suggest something about the tone and style of the book: ‘Luce’s new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent. She learned early that it wasn’t smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens. Later she’d find feathers, a scaled yellow foot with its toes clinched.'”

Read the full interview with Charles Frazier.

And we have a fun third interview for September: Lisa Carey talked to author/illustrator Chris Van Dusen about his work and his latest work King Hugo’s Huge Ego. Lisa introduced the interview this way: “Chris is one of our favorite local children’s authors. Liam, our five year old, loved The Circus Ship so much that he memorized it and set it to a song, then sang the whole thing for Chris at the Maine Festival of the Book. After the event, Liam told me he wanted to be just like Chris Van Dusen when he grew up. I said that sounded like a great idea. Living on the coast of Maine, drawing every day, writing books, sounds like paradise. I hope he lets us live with him!”

Read Lisa’s full interview with Chris Van Dusen.

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Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Recommendations for groups and authors! (but help needed)

I’ve added two new types of “recommendations”—”characteristic works” for member groups and “read-alikes” for author pages. We need your help improving the latter.

Groups recommendations. The group recommendations are on the new and developing “Group Zeitgeist” pages. Each group Zeitgeist includes two lists:

  • Most-held works. Shows the top books held by group members, with no weighting or adjustment–that is, Harry Potter often wins.
  • Characteristic works. Shows the top books, weighted the way recommendations are weighted–that is, it shows works held by group-members in unusual amounts.

“Characteristic works” works quite well. Librarians who LibraryThing lists Taylor’s Introduction to Cataloging and Classification, Library: An Unquiet History and even AACR2. Christianity‘s list starts with Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Cthulhu Mythos with The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, Medieval Europe with The Civilization of the Middle Ages, etc.

Author read-alikes. The new “author read-alike” uses much the same algorithm, but the results are not always as good. For example, C. S. Lewis recommends George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton and Madeleine L’Engle–good–but also Laura Ingalls Wilder–read by some of the same people who read Narnia, but not otherwise similar.

To help us improve the algorithm, we’re showing four different versions of the algorithm, and asking members to rate them with stars. Knowing both what authors fail and which version of the algorithm is better will help us develop a better algorithm. Keep in mind that we make recommendations to be interesting and entertaining, so a certain amount of weirdness is acceptable if it also produces something inspired.

So far, only about 2,200 authors have been calculated. You can see a list of the authors here, with your authors shown in bold.

Labels: authors, recommendations