Friday, July 25th, 2014

Interview with Maximillian Potter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

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.


Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.

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Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Free movie passes to “The Road” in Detroit and Philadelphia

The folks who are bringing Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to the big screen are inviting LibraryThing members to attend free advance screenings of the new movie.

You can start speculating on the adaptation now, in the Made Into a Movie and Book vs Movie groups. This was one of those books I bought so I could loan out. I can’t wait to find out what the attendees think.

There are two screenings, with limited seating. Tickets will be given out to the first-emailed, first-served.

Philadelphia (downtown)
Sunday, November 15th at 7:30 pm

Detroit area (Novi, MI)
Thursday, November 19th at 7 pm

If you live in either area, and are interested in attending, email Holly Cara Price (hcp@ddanielspr.net). It’s first-come, first serve, so email her ASAP if you’d like to go. Holly will email you instructions on tickets and the theater location.

For the rest of us, the movie will be released November 25th: http://theroad-movie.com/

Here’s the movie synopsis:
From Cormac McCarthy, author of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, comes the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of the beloved, best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, THE ROAD. Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen leads a distinguished cast featuring Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron, Academy Award-winner Robert Duvall, Michael Kenneth Williams, Molly Parker, Guy Pearce and young newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee in this epic post-apocalyptic tale of the survival of a father (Mortensen) and his young son (Smit-McPhee) as they journey across a barren American landscape that has been destroyed by a mysterious cataclysm. THE ROAD boldly imagines a future in which men are pushed to the worst and the best that they are capable of – a future in which a father and his son are sustained by love and an unshakable morality even in the face of total devastation.

Directed by John Hillcoat

Update 11/13/09:

Today in the Wall Street Journal is an incredible, lengthy interview that Cormac McCarthy. The writer spent a record 7 hours with McCarthy talking about the film, the book, and life in general.

Labels: advance screening, Detroit, Michigan, movie event, movies, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Friday, September 18th, 2009

LibraryThing, IndieBound and love

As Tim blogged last night, we needed some help from members to link LibraryThing data on bookstores to IndieBound data. We connected 1,200 automatically, but that left 1,362 that had to be done manually—checking exact names, addresses, sometimes even creating a new “venue” on LibraryThing Local.

Tim posted the plea for help at about 5:30 pm last night. By 11 am this morning, it was entirely done. That’s right, in less than eighteen hours—most of which were in the middle of the night, in the US at least—LibraryThing members completed the task. That’s incredible. Insane. Fantastic.

As Tim tweeted, “IndieBound/LT demonstrates what I believe: Independent bookstores can win online if they engage the community. Love is powerful.” His sentiments were retweeted all over, and the IndieBound folks agreed. (See IndieBoundPaige, mattsupko, SarahABA on Twitter)

LibraryThing members are indeed an incredible community, and love indeed is powerful.* We’re going to add a new helper badge to recognize these folks. Thank you, thank you.

*Anyone who hasn’t seen Clay Shirky’s “The Internet Runs on Love” talk, should (blogged

Labels: bookstore integration, indiebound, love