Archive for the ‘author interview’ Category

Monday, June 20th, 2022

An Interview with Delia Owens

LibraryThing is very pleased to sit down this month with wildlife scientist and bestselling author Delia Owens, whose novel, Where the Crawdads Sing, has recently been made into a film that will be released this coming July 15th by SONY Pictures. Although Ms. Owens has previously co-authored a number of memoirs about her years working with wildlife in Africa, Where the Crawdads Sing is her fictional debut. Set in the coastal marsh of North Carolina, the book, which spent 32 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, is an exploration of poverty and familial abandonment, a tribute to the beauty and power of the natural world, and a murder mystery complete with courtroom drama. Now, with the movie due out next month, we asked her a few questions about her book, the movie, and her own reading.

Where the Crawdads Sing evokes a powerful sense of place, and contains many vivid depictions of the natural world. Do you feel that visual imagery is an important part of your storytelling process, and did you have any specific images in mind, before starting to set it down?

I did visualize this story set in this particular environment in the marsh. I did play it out in my mind how it would unfold, and I think it was a good environment. It was lush and yet it was a challenge to survive there, but it was possible. It was very real that you could survive there and so it was the perfect environment for that. I just could see it vividly in my mind because I knew it and I wanted the reader to see it. I wanted the reader to be able to smell the sea, and to see the still waters versus the rough waters in the sea. And I wanted the reader to experience the marsh.

Your story is set in North Carolina marshland. How well do you feel the film captures the landscape of the tale?

In Where the Crawdads Sing the marsh, the environment in which it was shot and where I wrote it, is a character itself. The marsh is a character itself. A very important character in the book and the marsh represents mother nature. Mother nature is very nurturing but she’s also very tough. I was thrilled that when they produced the movie, the marsh feels like a character in the movie as well as in the book. It is always there, the marsh is there, the beautiful scenery is there. And what surprised me when I saw the movie was that all this beauty is there and yet the mystery and the drama is thundering through the background. I don’t know of a better word than pounding or thundering. The storyline is pounding behind this beauty.

This is the first of your books to be adapted as a movie. What has been your favorite part of the process?

First of all, it’s a dream come true for most authors. Not everyone wishes for this, but it is a great honor, and it has been so much fun. I was able to go to the movie set. First of all, they flew me to LA and we sat around talking about the book with these wonderful people and all these women, the director, Reese Witherspoon, the people from Sony. I mean it was just so much fun to do this and work with these women and these women work hard. It’s not the three-martini lunch sort of situation. We stayed for like eight hours around this big board table and worked on the script. They invited me to make comments on the script several times. They sent me drafts of the script and it has been the connection with all the players that has meant a lot to me. It really has. To see these people so dedicated to this project, to be so in love with the story and true to the story. The movie has stayed very true to the story, which means a lot to me.

Tell us about your library—bibliographic and filmographic. What books and movies are in your own personal collection?

All my college textbooks, which I’m sure everyone would find very boring, but I have all of them because they still mean a lot to me. I still refer to them. I love novels, like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, that build up a certain character. I love character driven stories. I love stories that play out in very memorable environments like A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher. As far as movies, I love Babette’s Feast, the story told by Karen Blixen. I don’t like action films; I like films that show characters and places and how they relate.

Labels: author interview, interview

Friday, December 3rd, 2021

An Interview with Scholar Anna Faktorovich

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with author, academic and publisher Anna Faktorovich to discuss her fascinating new project, which attempts to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the authorship of many literary texts from the British Renaissance. From the works of William Shakespeare to Christopher Marlowe, these texts have been analyzed using the computational-linguistic method she invented—one incorporating a combination of 27 different tests—as well as being subjected to structural, biographical and other attribution approaches. Dr. Faktorovich concludes that all of the tested 284 works from between 1560 to 1650 were authored by six ghostwriters. The results of this massive study have been published in Re-Attribution of the British Renaissance Corpus, while a number of the texts themselves have been translated for the first time and released as part of her British Renaissance Re-Attribution and Modernization Series, published by Anaphora Literary Press.

Your project seeks to reshape our understanding of a key period in British literature. How did you get the idea for it?

This series would not have been possible without the previous two decades of research I undertook on surrounding topics. My PhD dissertation and my first scholarly book, Rebellion as Genre in the Novels of Scott, Dickens and Stevenson, explored the concept of formulas and structure of literature. Then, my second book, The Formulas of Popular Fiction, dissected the range, history and methodology of the formulas that modern readers are familiar with. Then I digressed from the standard topics covered in scholarly books to explore via my own publishing company more complex social questions such as the difference between mega-corporate capitalism and Radical Agrarian Economics. I also explored why the publishing industry has a bias that prefers lighter and more low-brow literature from female writers, while preferring denser fiction from male writers in Gender Bias in Mystery and Romance Novel Publishing. While writing this book, I realized that romances, mysteries and male and female voices had quantitatively different linguistic measurements.

None of these titles, “self-published” with my Anaphora Literary Press, received any recognition, so the next book I researched was The History of British and American Author-Publishers and Satirical 18th Century British Novels, which explained that the best British/American authors (Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Benjamin Franklin, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Alice Walker) self-published their best works. Then, I decided to attempt to return to traditional scholarly publishing by writing about the foundations of British satire in the eighteenth century, but as I began my research, I came across studies that questioned the authorship of texts assigned to Daniel Defoe. I designed a few linguistic measurement experiments to test these authorship questions and immediately discovered that some of “Defoe’s” novels were obviously mis-attributed and were actually ghostwritten by Robert Paltock. I made several other re-attributions of texts from the 18th century across fourteen essays, but before I edited these for publication as a book, I was asked by Editor Robert Hauptman, who published one of these essays in his Journal of Information Ethics, if I could prove the accuracy of my method by applying it to a uniquely complex period to re-attribute—the British Renaissance.

There were around sixty authors that had been previously proposed by scholars as the “true” Shakespeare, so I adjusted the computational-linguistic author-attribution method I had used for the 18th century to be more easily applicable to a much larger corpus of texts. The attribution process was indeed extremely difficult because I kept finding similar texts that matched only six linguistic signatures, so it became apparent that there were only six ghostwriters working across this period. The identity of these ghostwriters remained a mystery, until I expanded the study to 104 different bylines and over 200 different texts. Only one of these six ghostwriters (Ben Jonson) is familiar to modern literature researchers, while the rest remain obscure, despite their obvious significance in their own day (Josuah Sylvester was an official Court Poet, William Byrd was granted a music/poetry publishing monopoly by Elizabeth I, and Richard Verstegan held control over an exile Catholic publishing monopoly). When these six ghostwriters’ biographies were compared to all of the other biographies in their linguistic groups, it became clear that only they were alive long enough and had access to have written these clusters of texts.

While the evidence I was gathering, in the form of documentary records, handwriting, forensic accounting, and various other forms of proof was overwhelming, scholarly journals kept saying that I needed more proof. So I decided to add to the 698-page scholarly study, or Re-Attribution of the British Renaissance Corpus (Volumes 1-2), a full series of translations from Early Modern English into Modern English of previously untranslated plays, poetry, non-fiction and other genres (Volumes 3-14), with around fourteen more volumes forthcoming. These translations are accompanied by annotations, introductions and primary sources that add thousands of pieces of evidence that confirm the re-attributions made in the central study. This was a gradual process of digging into the research, and addressing new evidence and new questions as they came up.

How does this newly invented “computational-linguistic method” of textual analysis work? Can you give us an example?

Here is a simple set of steps anybody can take to apply my method.

1. Find a group of texts (there should be at least 20 texts by a few different bylines) from a given period that are connected to an authorial mystery you want to solve, and save them as plain documents.

2. Open free publicly-accessible websites—www.analyzemywriting.com, www.online-utility.org, or http://liwc.wpengine.com—and download the WordSmith program.

3. Enter each of the texts separately into each of these platforms and record the data for several linguistic tests into a spreadsheet. For the Renaissance corpus I used 27 tests for punctuation, lexical density, parts of speech, passive voice, characters and syllables per word, psychological word-choice, and patterns of the top-6 words and letters. The tests for top-6 words and letters require additional steps, so you can skip these in favor of other simple single-number tests available on these platforms. Your first column should be the titles of all texts in the group, and the top row should be the names of the different tests applied to them. You will want to create duplicates of this raw data in separate tabs in the spreadsheet, with one sheet for each text in the group.

4. In the spreadsheet, organize the numbers for each of the tests from-smallest-to-largest, and mark only the texts that are with 17-18% of the compared text on this spectrum. For example, if you are only testing 20 texts, you can select 2 texts just above and 2 more just below your compared-against text’s value and change their numbers to 1, while changing all of the other numbers to 0; the 1 means the texts are similar, while the 0 means they are different.

5. When you have changed the entire sheet’s data into 0s and 1s, create a last column and automatically add up the Sum for each row.

6. Evaluate your results to determine what number in the sum column means two texts are by the same author, or if they were written by two or more authors, or if they were written by different authors. A smaller corpus can still have a few texts with extremely high numbers of matches to each other, if all of the other texts were written by different authors. And a large corpus might have fewer matches, but to a very large quantity of texts that all share a single underlying author. You will have to create a cut-off point for the number of matches that separate similar from divergent texts in your chosen group.

You can see the raw data and calculations I derived for the Re-Attribution series HERE. One of the tables I added to this GitHub site is “Koppel Experiment Reviewed – Data Tables.” This was a small experiment I ran for a second article I wrote for the Journal of Information Ethics, in which I discredit the findings and methodology applied in Moshe Koppel, Jonathan Schler and Elisheva Bonchek-Dokow’s 2007 article, Measuring Differentiability: Unmasking Pseudonymous Authors.” As you can see from the data, my findings are tragic from my perspective, as I am a fan of all of these great writers that I would not have thought were capable of being implicated in ghostwriting. For example, the data indicates only two linguistic signatures between the three Bronte sisters, suggesting it is likely the initial assignment of these texts to only two male brothers was more accurate than the current belief three women wrote them. This conclusion did not shock me as much as it would have a couple of years ago. I had initially hoped previous scholars who guessed “Emilia Bassano” could have been the true author behind “Shakespeare” were correct, but the data proved that “Bassano”, as well as several other ostensible female groundbreakers like “Mary Sidney” and “Lady Mary Wroth,” were not actually writers, but either hired ghostwriters or were mis-attributed with credits. You really have to read Volumes 1-2 to understand how overwhelming the evidence is for these conclusions, as reading this summary alone could not possibly convince anybody that the history with which they are familiar is entirely incorrect.

There have been challenges made in the past to the authorship of some of these works—in William Shakespeare’s case especially. What does your approach bring to the ongoing discussion that is new and convincing?

The approximately 60 previous bylines that have been proposed by scholars as alternative “true” authors behind the “Shakespeare” byline matches my finding that only six ghostwriters wrote all of the tested texts from this century. With only six authorial styles in this mix, it has been very easy for scholars to find linguistic, structural, thematic and other similarities between any cluster of randomly selected texts by two given bylines or between a questionable text and a text by another byline. While scholars in this field have made the current attributions seem rational, a close examination of all past re-attributions betrays nonsensical chaos. For example, A Yorkshire Tragedy was bylined as “Written by W. Shakspeare”, but it is currently attributed to “Thomas Middleton” in Roger Holdsworth’s analysis in the The New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion. Another absurd string of past re-attributions I found was for the short poem, “Funeral Elegy by W. S.” (1612), which was first attributed to “Shakespeare” by Donald W. Foster, before it was re-assigned to “Davies” by Brian Vickers and then to “Ford” with equal certainty. My study re-attributes this “Elegy” to Gabriel Harvey, the Cambridge rhetoric professor.

William Percy has never been previously proposed as a potential underlying author behind the “William Shakespeare” pseudonym. I started my study by researching all previous articles, books and the like that suggested alternative “Shakespeares” and this list included many obscure names such as Alexander, Armin, Aylett and Daniel, popular bylines such as Bacon and Fletcher, and aristocrats such as Dyer, and even Queen Elizabeth. There are a mere 70 titles in WorldCat attributed to William Percy as an author versus the 81,521 titles attributed to “Shakespeare”. The translations of Percy’s self-attributed 5 plays and sonnet collection that I executed in Volumes 3-8 have never been attempted before, so modern scholars have not even had access to these to allow them to realize their similarity with “Shakespeare” in structure, storylines, as well as in linguistics. I only came across Percy’s name when I considered nearly all of the bylines used across this century that could have approximately fit with the timeline of these publications. Percy’s sonnet collection (the only book he published under his own byline) happened to have been digitized in Early English Books Online, and this invited me to dig up his buried in the archives plays.

The 284 texts I tested comprise the largest corpus of Renaissance work ever subjected to computational-linguistic analysis. My combination of 27 different tests is thousands of times more accurate than the standard method in this field, which only tests the frequency of common words. The point that swayed me beyond all doubt towards Percy was when I learned about the £2,400 loan William and his brother Henry Percy (Earl of Northumberland) took out from Arthur Medleycote (London merchant tailor) in 1593, just before the granting of the theater duopoly by Elizabeth I in 1594. This documented proof, without any corresponding record of what else William could have spent this sum on, firmly establishes that William re-invested this sum in troupe-development and theater-building in London, under pseudonyms such as “Shakespeare”. The currently accepted mythologic belief that “Shakespeare” was a real person who was a theater investor and manager was largely started by Nicholas Rowe, in his 1709 Some Account of the Life of Mr. William Shakespear. Rowe absurdly claimed that Sir William Davenant had started the gossip that Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, gave Shakespeare £1,000 “to set him up in his career.” It is absurd to believe that any aristocrat would have gifted this astronomic sum to any actor without a record in his accounts of this irrationally generous gift. There are similar irrefutable pieces of proof in every line and paragraph of my series.

You also seek to modernize and reintroduce the works to the public. Why is this important?

As I mentioned, none of William Percy’s plays or poetry, or the plays I am re-attributing to him in this part of the series, have ever been translated into accessible Modern English before. In the middle of my computational study, it became clear that the “Shakespeare” plays and poetry translated into Modern English registered as a separate linguistic signature from these same texts in their original spelling. In other words, editors have made such heavy changes to the canon of “Shakespeare” texts that this resulting style is a distinct linguistic signature or author. Modern readers and scholars alike intuitively believe in “Shakespeare’s” superiority and distinction from the bulk of other British Renaissance bylines such as “Robert Armin”, or anonymous plays such as Look Around You, because they are used to reading the understandable and polished modern versions of “Shakespeare”. This is also why when computational-linguists have tested plays such as the anonymous True Chronicle History of King Leir (1605), they have concluded that it was written by a different author than the modernized version of King Lear (1608). When I compared the original-spelling Lear to Leir, they had some near-identical linguistic measurements and were obviously both written by William Percy. Leir was the first experiment that Percy very heavily re-wrote in the second polished Lear edition under the “Shakespeare” byline.

All of the texts I included in this series have unique significance to literary history. For example, Look Around You was the first part of the myth-starting Robin Hood trilogy that previous critics have missed. And while the second quarto of “Shakespeare’s” Hamlet has been repeatedly re-translated, the first quarto that I translated in this series (Hamlet: The First Quarto) has never been translated in full before. It appears to have been intentionally censored by academia as “bad” because it (unlike the later versions) clearly points to Hamlet deflowering Ofelia and pretending to be mad to hide his homosexual relationship with Horatio (who threatens to kill himself for Hamlet). There is more literary and historical value in each of this series’ texts than in any of the canonical “Shakespeare” plays. It is impossible for even a seasoned scholar to read any of these texts in their old-spelling originals, not only because the meaning of most words has changed, but also because Percy also uses multiple languages (Latin, French, Italian), makes up words (which have been claimed to be nonsense by most scholars, when they have clear meanings when their parts are isolated), and uses allusions and quotes from obscure sources that need to be digested in annotations to be grasped. Some of these texts were never published or staged, and those that were printed were mostly only printed in as few as one or two copies. Thus, these Renaissance plays have never been introduced to the public before.

Tell us about your library. What’s on your own shelves?

My shelves are full with around 500 physical books, most of which I received for free from academic publishers in exchange for reviewing them in my Pennsylvania Literary Journal. You can see the latest of these reviews HERE. Some of them I received as free exam copies from publishers, when I have taught these textbooks in my college classes. I used to buy books back in college and graduate school, but I have moved so frequently in those years that I have donated most of them. The only paid-for books I now have are Anaphora titles by myself and other writers.

What have you been reading lately?

In addition to the hundred or so books I read annually, in order to review them in PLJ, I read thousands of other books for my research projects. When I am teaching in universities or live near an academic library, I check out the maximum-allowed pile of books every couple of weeks. But across the last four years I have conducted my research remotely by accessing free books on Google, Project Gutenberg and various other platforms. I also use LookInside features to find evidence in newer books, or request some relevant new titles for review before reusing them in my research. I also have access to research articles on TexShare. Most of the books I needed for the translation series were published during the Renaissance and have been digitized to be freely available. On an average day of translation research, I probably check 100 different sources to write a single page of annotations, and the series has 2,500 pages so far. It would have been impossible for me to check out a quarter-of-a-million books from even the biggest library, and most of the contemporary books are rare single-copies that are in closed collections. The names of the specific texts I have been reading are thus cited in the annotations; I will not attempt to insert a bibliography here to name them.

Labels: author interview, interview

Friday, October 22nd, 2021

An Interview with Novelist Priyanka Champaneri

LibraryThing is very pleased to sit down this month with author Priyanka Champaneri, whose debut novel, The City of Good Death, won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing in 2018 and is shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2021 First Novel Prize. Set in the Indian city of Banaras, it follows the story of a man who works at one of the city’s death hostels, where the dying come for a “good death”⁠—one that will release them from the cycle of reincarnation.

Your book is set in a locale you have never visited, and addresses a very specific set of cultural and religious practices. How did the idea for this story come to you?

I’d grown up in a Hindu household and had a distant understanding of Banaras and its importance within the religion, but my interest wasn’t really piqued until after college, when a friend sent me a link to a Reuters article titled “Check In and Die in Two Weeks, or Get Out.” That article was my introduction to the city’s death hostels, and I was immediately intrigued. In hindsight, I now realize the attraction was likely hooking into the different parts of my identity. The part that had grown up surrounded by Hindu philosophy understood the practical need for a death hostel, but the part that was born, raised, and educated in the United States could also view the hostels from a Western perspective, one that might see such places as utterly unique or even alien.

There were so many layers right there that instantly caught at my interest, but I didn’t do anything about it immediately. At that point, I hadn’t yet entered graduate school, and I wasn’t really writing much of anything in a focused way. But the idea of setting a story in a death hostel stayed with me once I began my MFA program at George Mason University, always humming in the back of my mind as something I might one day use. I began to read about Banaras to satisfy my curiosity about the city, and the initial reading sent me down a wonderful rabbit hole of research. I started looking for more visual resources as well, books of photography, films and documentaries, YouTube videos uploaded by travelers walking through the city’s narrow alleys. I wasn’t doing any of this in an intentional way, and writing a book still seemed like an impossible thing. Beyond my limited confidence in my abilities as a writer—both then and now—I was also hesitant because, as you mention, I had never visited this city. I was intensely wary of writing about a place that I had no firsthand experience with, particularly one as important and iconic as Banaras.

But while I was contending with my anxieties and fears, all the research I was doing just piled up in my brain, and I started seeing scenes, hearing characters, feeling something grow within my imagination. I had thought quite a bit about the things I felt I didn’t know, but I hadn’t realized the richness of what I did know—the visuals I’d stored away from my travels to India, the stories I’d grown up hearing my father tell me about his childhood in a Gujarati village, the extensive home library of Indian fairytales and Hindu philosophy that I had access to when I was growing up. All of that came together and informed the book that would become The City of Good Death.

You describe yourself as a “slow writer,” taking over a decade to craft and publish your first book. What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking your time, and what has the publishing process been like for you?

It’s really hard to say there are any advantages to being slow—I certainly wish I was faster. One contributing factor to my slow pace is I work a full-time day job, and my writing time is limited to weekends and evenings. But the biggest reason I take so long is because I can only write organically—I’ve tried to write using outlines, but I just get bored and my motivation quickly dries up. Working blind, with no real notion of where the story is going, keeps the work interesting for me, because I find things out page by page much as a reader hopefully discovers things. But it’s also painfully slow, because what the reader doesn’t see are all the wrong turns and dead ends I’ve found myself in, where I had to work myself back out and start over.

I spend a lot of time thinking rather than writing, especially when I get to a crux point in the plot where a character has to react, or something major happens—for days, weeks, even months I will turn over possibilities in my head. My goal is to stay true to what the character would do while also avoiding all outcomes a reader might expect. There’s a Pixar infographic I once saw where the writers talked about their storymaking process. They say that first they think of what might happen in a situation, and then they discard the idea; they go for the second solution and discard that idea—on and on for about five iterations, until finally the one they land on is the least obvious and the most surprising.

I really took that advice to heart, because creating surprise in plot is so rare and hard to do. I would mentally cycle through scenarios—”What if this happens? Or what if this happens?”—basically storyboarding the scene in my imagination, and when I got to an idea I thought might work, I sat down and wrote it. Even then, it very often didn’t work. It was a constant trial-and-error process of trying to get to the most authentic action for the character, and the most surprising resolution for the plot.

The publishing process has been both eye-opening and humbling for me. I tried to get this book published the traditional way—e.g. finding an agent, submitting the book to editors at any of the major U.S. publishers, and going from there. While it worked out with the agent portion—Leigh Feldman has been a fantastic ally and collaborator during the entire process—it didn’t work out with the publishers. We submitted the book for about two years, covering all the major, minor, and independent presses in the United States, as well as some in the United Kingdom and in India, and while we received really lovely responses, no one was willing to acquire the book.

After revising and submitting and still receiving no interest, Leigh and I had a conversation about me shelving the book and moving on with my writing life to work on something new. A few months later, I submitted the book to the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Winning the prize was the only thing that saved the book from a life of being confined to the hard drive of my computer.

Nothing about the book changed between the version submitted to publishers and the version submitted to the contest. What changed was the willingness to give an unknown writer and an unknown story—one told with a lens that is unfamiliar to many in the Western world—a chance at a wider audience. And for that I am profoundly grateful and very aware of how fortunate I am, and how everything that has subsequently come my way—every event, every encounter with a reader, every interview (like this one!)—is a gift. Because it could have gone very differently.

Did writing this book change or influence your own views on the subject of death? What is a “good death” for Priyanka Champaneri?

The entire process of writing and revising this book took about 10 years, so it’s difficult to pinpoint whether the person I am today, and the views I have now, are a place that I was guided towards because of the book, or because it was the inevitable result of time passing and my getting older. I actually think the book just sharpened things for me. Whenever I’m feeling out of balance emotionally, I often don’t know why—but I can usually write my way to understanding the reason. Similarly, I think writing this book forced me to pull out what I’d thought about over the years—the principles I’d tried to live my life by, the conclusions I’d come to, the questions that still occupied me—and really examine them for what they were. And that process was one that probably did more to solidify my perspective, rather than shape.

I’m too superstitious to go into detail about what a good death means for me—but I will say that I believe a good death hinges on whether a person feels they led a good life. And that means different things to different people. Much of my spiritual philosophy centers around duty and a balancing of scales, so I try to live ensuring that I fulfill all my obligations to the people and things I share my life with.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while researching the book?

I love this question—no one has asked me this! I have two things that really struck me in my reading that have stayed with me. One is associated with the reason Banaras is said to have this effect of ending the cycle of reincarnation for those who die there—it’s said that time simply does not exist in the city. And without time, you accrue neither good nor bad karma—your scales are always balanced, no matter your actions.

This was something I really ran with when writing The City of Good Death, which gives no obvious clue as to when the story is taking place. I didn’t want to be tied to any specific historical event, and I also wanted to create something that seemed like it could have happened 200 years ago or be happening now, because that echoes my experiences of traveling in India. You could be getting a lecture from a child on the street about coding, then turn the corner and stumble on a weaver working his loom in the same way his ancestors would have done generations before.

The other interesting find is a story I came across in my research. Banaras is said to be the city of Shiva—the Hindu trinity’s God of Destruction. And when a person dies in Banaras, it’s said that Shiva is the one to whisper the words the soul will need for safe passage out of the cycle of reincarnation and on to liberation. I could immediately see that image in my head, and I was desperate to write my own version. I didn’t always know where the book was headed as I was writing it, but I did know I wanted a character to have an experience with that moment, so it was something to keep me motivated as I worked on the book.

Tell us about your library. What’s on your own shelves?

You can trace the years of my reading life through my bookshelves. Phase 1 is filled with fairy tales—especially the entire Rainbow Fairy Book series edited by Andrew Lang—as well as all of Roald Dahl, Dick King-Smith, the Anne of Green Gables series, and the entire Amar Chitra Katha oeuvre of comic book adaptations of The Mahabharata and other Hindu epics and mythology.

The next phase comprises all the big, capacious novels that I love to get lost in—A Suitable Boy, A House for Mr. Biswas, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Midnight’s Children, Our Mutual Friend, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the entire Harry Potter series.

And in my current phase, I’m just indiscriminately reading everything, so there are art books, photography books, fairy tale retellings, essays, poetry, slim introspective novellas alongside colorful and fast-paced graphic novels. I no longer care about genre or form or even subject matter. My only goal as a reader is to experience a perspective that is new to me, and always, always, be engulfed by story.

What have you been reading lately, and what would you recommend to other readers?

Umma’s Table by Yeon-Sik Hong (translated by Janet Hong) is probably the best graphic novel I’ve read all year. It’s the story of a Korean man’s struggle to find balance between nurturing the world he’s created with his wife, young son, career, and new home with the obligation he has to his elderly parents and all the complexities of his relationship with them.

I’ve also read several Japanese YA/middle-grade books in translation that have just bowled me over—there is such a depth and frankness to them that I haven’t seen before in the genre from Western writers. My favorites so far are Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki and Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba.

And one more—I recently read Cicada by Shaun Tan, a picture book that just made my head explode, it was so incredibly good!

Labels: author interview, interview

Thursday, March 4th, 2021

National Grammar Day Interview with Martha Brockenbrough

author photo of martha brockenbrough

Martha Brockenbrough (Photo by Emerald England)

March 4th is National Grammar Day. Established by author Martha Brockenbrough, the day was designated as a holiday in 2008. To celebrate, Meg sat down (virtually) with Brockenbrough to talk about grammar in our world today.

Let’s start with the basics: how do you define grammar and why do you think it’s important?

Oh, this could be a very long answer. Let me start with something fun: grammar and grimoire share an ancestor. A grimoire is a magician’s manual for invoking demons and you could say that grammar can often be the same. What they have in common is magic. There is the good magic that helps us say what we mean to say and understand what is meant by the author. And then there is the bad magic that uses grammar to exclude, humiliate, and subjugate. Grammar is understanding how our language works, how it has evolved, and what can be accomplished by respecting conventions and what can be accomplished by breaking them. The more we know, the more powerfully and humanely we can practice this wonderful art.

You established National Grammar Day in 2008 with the goal of making grammar fun and lively for your students. How has grammar, or the study of grammar, changed in the last thirteen years?

I’m no longer teaching high school students, although I have one at home. I think for some, the study of grammar has changed in some of the good ways that society has changed. We are better now at recognizing white supremacy and the marginalization of certain forms of English. Language has always been a political weapon. English follows a lot of Latin “rules” for this exact reason. Latin was viewed as a superior language, and we were clawing our way upward in modeling certain English rules—e.g. “don’t split infinitives”—on Latin, where an infinitive is a single word and can’t be split.

cover of unpresidented

In America, we just got rid of a president who was incredibly sloppy with language. When his subordinates tweeted under his name, they even copied his irregular spelling and capitalization. I’m being judgmental here. I called him sloppy. But as the parent of a child with dyslexia, I recognize that he might also have this very common learning disability. So my judgment might be unfair even as he played the role of a populist, and part of that role is rejecting the appearance of being conventionally educated. This was, I suppose, his evil genius. He could be born with a golden spoon in his mouth and convince people without his privilege that he understood them.

Part of arming ourselves against future demagogues is, I think, in not using education and knowledge as a cudgel to beat anyone down, but rather, to insist that it is both a gift and a birthright for everyone. I believe in building windows and doors, not walls. If it were easy, we would have done this long ago. And maybe I wouldn’t be so judgmental about the disgraced, twice-impeached, former president’s language. But I do think that’s what we might all work toward.

A lot of our members are at home helping their kids or grandkids with school because of the pandemic. What do you hope adults will convey to young people about grammar?

The best way to learn how language works is to read a lot. When you read, you encounter a much wider vocabulary than you do when conversing, watching TV, or listening to the radio. You also internalize patterns of language that have met a certain threshold of excellence. Everyone ought to read like crazy, and most libraries are still making this possible.

Meanwhile, I think we might do less conveying and more listening. I’m always learning new things about the evolving language from my kids. It was news to me that terminal punctuation on texts conveyed anger to them. To me, it meant I was being careful and consistent. All sorts of new vocabulary comes from young people, and it doesn’t hurt us to learn it and understand it. I do confess to taking delight in using things incorrectly, just to rile my kids a bit. But now it’s a running gag. They stan it. Or something like that.

I still do convey certain things to my daughters, who are now 17 and 20. The language we use in public—on social media and in school—is a lot like the clothes we wear. There are expectations and conventions. There are also power dynamics. A person who is hiring people for a job has power over the applicants, and that’s why we scrutinize our resumes and dress strategically for interviews. That’s a different situation from hanging out with friends (wearing masks, staying six feet apart). Navigating the world is easier when you understand conventions, dynamics, and codes, some of which probably ought to dismantled, but that can be hard to do from the outside.

In addition to being a grammar champion, you write fiction and narrative nonfiction. How does your understanding of grammar impact your creative writing?

I’m reading a most wonderful book right now: A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders, which is a close examination of Russian short stories and how he teaches them. Here we are, reading translations of work, and translating them again through the eyes of Saunders, who is a white man of a certain age with certain experiences. Look at what language can do. Look at what stories can do. They can cross continents. They can travel through time. They can be funneled through the filter of another language twice—and still mean something to the reader. I’m paraphrasing, but one thing Saunders says is that he tries to write sentences that make the reader want to read the next one.

That is a very specific vision of how stories work. If you’ve ever studied storytelling, you no doubt know there are graphs that show us how stories work. That there are “beats.” Narrative structures. Big-picture things that suggest that the shape of the story is more important than its cellular structure.

What Saunders is talking about, I think, is partly the power of grammar. When you encounter a sentence that is right for the story—the right words in the right order with the right rhythm for the emotional moment—you want to know what happens next. This is a way of tying the big picture elements to the very smallest, the way our bodies emerge from our unique double helixes of DNA.

All of which is to say that when I am telling a story, I make the best use I can of every tool possible. Grammar—conventional, unconventional, character-specific—is vital.

Tell us about your home library.

I love books. I have many. Too many. It is badly organized, though it wasn’t always that way. It makes it hard to find specific things but easy to be surprised by treasure. It is a mix of books for young readers and books for grownups, mostly fiction for the former and nonfiction for the latter. On the project list this year are more built-in bookshelves, and we just secured some reclaimed fir for the purpose. I’m giddy with excitement.

 

cover of unpresidented

Tell us what you’re reading right now.

I just finished David Sedaris’s essay collection, The Best of Me. I’ve been reading him my entire adult life. I’ve seen him live. I’ve read some of these essays before, and this collection felt a bit like a reckoning about family, what is funny, and what fractures us. I am reading A Question of Freedom by Reginald Dwayne Betts, which is his memoir about coming of age in prison. And then there’s the Saunders book. I don’t generally read so many books by men, but sometimes it happens. I just finished the page proofs of my next novel, Into the Bloodred Woods, which is based on the idea that everything you’ve ever read in fairytales is a lie.

 

About Martha Brockenbrough:

Martha Brockenbrough is the author of two books for adults and numerous books for young readers, including YA fiction and nonfiction, picture books, and a forthcoming chapter book series. Her next book, Into the Bloodred Woods, will be released by Scholastic in November. Visit her website to learn more about her and her books.

Labels: author interview, authors, holiday

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

Author Interview: Anne Helen Petersen on Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation

headshot of Anne Helen Petersen

In the past several months, we have been interviewing people in the book world with interesting perspectives on current events. This month KJ talked with Anne Helen Petersen, author of the new book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Ms. Petersen is a former academic & professor, now culture writer with two previous non-fiction books and a long tenure writing cultural and political analysis at Buzzfeed. She currently writes “Culture Study,” a newsletter through Substack.

What brought you to the subject of specifically Millennial burnout? Do you think the stressors of COVID-19 have exacerbated or intensified feelings of burnout in this or any generation?

It’s pretty straightforward: I’m a millennial, and I’d been burnt out for years — but didn’t understand what I was experiencing as burnout, because I’d always thought that burning out meant hitting a wall and, like, collapsing. I prided myself on being able to just keep doing the work, no matter my exhaustion and stress. When I finally figured out what was going on, it was only because I was able to expand the definition to describe a feeling that I think so many in our generation feels — the result of great instability/precarity and the feeling of needing to work all the time to counteract it.

COVID has only exacerbated and amplified existing burnout. Everyone I know who was exhausted before the pandemic now feels like they’re barely holding it together — especially parents. I think that before COVID, many had become pretty adept at ignoring some of the larger structural brokenness in society and trying to patch some of the holes in the social safety net. Now there’s no more pretense: something’s very broken, and we have to get pissed off enough to fix it.

In a recent newsletter on your Substack, you examined how the vocational awe affects the essential workers it venerates, specifically in the context of librarians. Earlier this year, we talked with Callan Bignoli, a librarian-activist for front-line workers amidst the stuttered re-opening of libraries. Can you speak to how vocational awe, librarians, and burnout meet?

The short answer to this question is that vocational awe creates an aura of do-goodness around a job that does two pretty crappy things. First, it makes it so that the vocation as a whole becomes reticent to self-critique: it’s so essential, so good, so venerated in society, that there’s not much room to figure out what’s maybe not so good (and causing burnout!) within it. Fobazi Ettarh’s seminal piece does an excellent job of pointing to how vocational awe amongst librarians has allowed the profession to just stick with the status quo of maintaining implicit whiteness (and white standards of behavior, of learning, of speech, whatever) within library-related and librarian-related spaces.

But then it also allows people outside of the profession to dismiss very real demands, on the part of librarians, for things like adequate funding, health care, and support for dealing with the myriad jobs that each librarian is now tasked with performing. If you ask for more, it’s somehow viewed as indicative of a lack of passion, or a lack of appropriate awe for the job. This mindset is preposterous and yet truly ubiquitous.

Much of your work—in print and at your former time at Buzzfeed—has dealt with gender. Did you find a similar focus when researching and writing your newest book?

I think a large percentage (but certainly not all!) of my readership are women, and speaking VERY broadly, women are more willing to elaborate on some of their feelings about various issues. They’re also super angry about persistent inequalities in domestic labor, and I think that really comes through in the millennial parenting chapter. But in general: I’m a feminist, my work is feminist, and I think it’s absolutely necessary to keep drawing attention to the insidious ways that patriarchy makes life (for men and women) more miserable than it needs to be.

How is your personal library organized?

It is a very complex and very sophisticated mix of general subject area and aesthetic. All of my Penguin Classics live together, for example, and all of my academic texts from my PhD. But then, I’ll admit, there are areas that are all relatively new fiction with blue and green dust jackets. It pleases me!

What are some books you’ve read lately that you would recommend?

A few books that have pulled me out of my Covid-related difficulties with reading: Miriam Toews’ Irma Voth, Diane Cook’s The New WildernessBrit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Niall William’s This is Happiness.

Anne Helen Petersen can be found on Substack, Twitter, and of course her author page here on LibraryThing.

Browse all of our interviews here

 

 

Labels: author interview, interview, Uncategorized

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020

Author Interview: Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager on The Writer’s Library

Tim interviewed Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager, authors of The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives. Nancy Pearl is, of course, the Seattle librarian, author of numerous books, action-figure model, and regular contributor on NPR. Jeff Schwager is a writer, editor, producer, playwright—and book lover.

If there is a “LibraryThing book,” The Writer’s Library is it! LibraryThing members may or may not be interested in a given book, but we are always interested in books! The Writer’s Library is, essentially, a whole book going deep on author’s reading history, personal libraries and recommendations. I loved it. I hope you enjoy the interview!

TIM: What sorts of books did you read as children?

NANCY: I grew up in a home that we’d now call dysfunctional, but to me, back when I was a kid, it was just not an easy place to be, so I spent all my time at my local public library – the Parkman branch of the Detroit Public Library system. Miss Frances Whitehead was the children’s librarian, my librarian, and she fed my insatiable need to escape through books. I read, when she met me at about age 8 or 9, only horse and dog books, but she soon expanded my reading into books like The Hobbit, Mary Poppins, The Wind in the Willows, all the Rosemary Sutcliff books, and all of the Newbery Award titles. Of course, I continued reading all the horse and dog books too. It was because Miss Whitehead saved me from total despair that I became a children’s librarian, because, at age 10, I wanted to do for other kids exactly what she did for me: gave me the world of books.

JEFF: From an early age I remember loving mysteries. I read Two Minute Mysteries and Encyclopedia Brown, followed by all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot books.

TIM: Was there a book that made the turn for you into adult reading?

Nancy Pearl

NANCY: The first book I ever checked out from the adult section of the library was Gone with the Wind, and I loved it. Another adult novel I checked out early on was called The Headland, by Carol Ryrie Brink. I remember taking it from the bookshelf because I was familiar with the author, from having read Caddie Woodlawn and Family Grandstand, and all her other books.

JEFF: For me it was a paperback of short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald called Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. I started on a rainy afternoon in high school with the story “Winter Dreams,” which is a sort-of early version of The Great Gatsby about idealized and therefore doomed first love. What hit me, other than the heroine, who was a composite of every girl I lusted after in high school, and the hero, who was almost as pathetic as I was, was the beauty of the writing, the amazing musical flow of the sentences. That’s still the thing I respond to most fervently in my reading. 

TIM: You’re both fine writers in different genres. Do you have any advice for other writers?

NANCY: Whenever I’m asked this question, I’m reminded of what Ernest Gaines once said in a talk at the Seattle Public Library when he was asked the same question: “I have eight words of advice: read read read read write write write write.” It’s hard for me to imagine how someone can be a great—or even good—writer without being a reader. And I think that comes through in the interviews in The Writer’s Library. I know when I wrote my first (and probably last) novel, George & Lizzie, I knew exactly what kind of novel it would be, because I was writing it for myself and I knew what kind of books I loved.

TIM: Can you tell me about your personal libraries? Are you collectors, hoarders, or something else?

NANCY: I am not a collector, but there are books that I keep just because I loved them at one time. I have many novels that I read as a young teen (mostly purchased at library book sales), which I will probably never re-read, but that I can’t bear not to have in my personal library. My favorite writer from those years is Mary Stolz. She wrote books for both teens and younger children, but I only love the teen ones. I have re-read some of her teen novels and they actually hold up quite well. Of course they’re long out of print, but if you can find In a Mirror or Second Nature, I’d highly recommend both of them. Other than those teen novels (other than Stolz I have books by Anne Emery, Rosamund du Jardin, and Lenora Mattingly Weber), I’ve kept a lot of my favorite novels and a few nonfiction titles.

JEFF: I am a collector and a hoarder–meaning I have some books I cherish and many, many more that I just can’t bear to part with because I might, just maybe, want to look at them someday. As a collector, I focus on specific authors I love, including Chekhov, Philip Roth, Denis Johnson, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, and John O’Hara (all dead white men), as well as modern signed first editions (a more diverse lot, including my favorite living writer, Alice Munro, who is a master of compression and manages to get the depth of a novel into each of her short stories), pulp paperbacks, old Random House plays, slipcased editions… the list goes on and on, as does my library, which has taken over my fairly large house like a monster from a ’50s sci-fi movie. 

TIM: I loved hearing authors talk about books as objects, such as Jonathan Lethem collecting books for their cover designers. Do you have books you treasure as objects per se?

NANCY: No, not really – for me it’s always what the books say, what that means to me, rather than as a valuable object.

Jeff Schwager

JEFF: I love books with slipcases, like Folio Society and Limited Edition Club books, as well as clean old books, which have such a wonderful smell. I love beautiful dust jackets–the best ever is the one for the first edition of John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. I love deckle edged pages. I have some beautiful illustrated Limited Edition Club editions of Isaac Bashevis Singer books—The Magician of Lublin, Satan in Goray, and some short stories–that evoke the shtetls of my ancestors, that I love. Of modern books, I love the design of Dave Eggers‘ McSweeney’s Books–check out Samuel Johnson is Indignant by Lydia Davis and Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, to name two, which are such beautiful literary artifacts. 

TIM: How did you pick the authors you wanted to interview? Did you fight over who would get to do them?

NANCY: We started out by each making a list of the authors we wanted to interview and discovered, to our relief, that there was some overlap (T.C. Boyle, Charles Johnson, Michael Chabon, Louise Erdrich, Donna Tartt). Then we each had authors who we were passionate about but that the other person wasn’t as enthusiastic about. I won’t say it actually came to fisticuffs, but I believe that voices were raised in the ensuing discussions. And we ended with, I think, a wonderfully diverse collection of writers, so, as Ma says in Little House in the Big Woods, “all’s well that ends well.”

TIM: My favorite interview was with Laila Lalami, an author I have not read but will now. You probably can’t say which was your favorite, but how about one you loved?

NANCY: For me, each interview is special in its own particularly lovely way. I think that’s because we didn’t have a list of questions that we asked each writer—we began each interview by me asking a general sort of question about reading as children, or growing up in a reading family, but after that, we let the interview basically go where the writer took it. I loved the interview with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman because we talked so much about children’s books. I loved the interview with Luis Urrea because of the way his childhood reading was determined by the circumstances of his parents’ marriage. I loved the interview with Madeline Miller because she and I felt the same way about John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. I loved the interview with Jenny Egan because of her story about reading Rebecca. I loved the interview with Amor Towles because he also read a series of mysteries in publication order. I loved the interview with Jane Hirschfield because I love poetry, which she talked about with such precision. I loved the interview with Laila Lalami because I learned so much about the experience of colonialism. I loved the interview with Russell Banks because of the story of his 4th grade teacher and Brazil. And so on.

JEFF: I loved them all of course, but one that stands out was T.C. Boyle, who lives in Montecito, down the street from Oprah Winfrey, in the first house Frank Lloyd Wright built in California. I was really eager to see his home, which was gorgeous, and to talk again to Tom (as he is casually known), whom I had first interviewed when I was a young journalistic pup thirty years ago. He is as funny as his funniest short stories, and also as thoughtful as his most serious novels, including my favorites, World’s End and Drop City.

TIM: In her lovely foreword, Susan Orlean recounts how the dementia and death of her mother was, in a way, the death of a library. More literally, dismantling my parents’ library, which encoded so much of their lives, was a second loss. What will happen to your library—however defined—when you die? 

NANCY: I hope my daughters will look inside all the books and find the ones that are autographed and keep or sell those (especially a book of poetry by Stephen Spender and a beat-up copy of Langston HughesMontage of a Dream Deferred both of which are signed to me personally). Other than that, I’m trying not to care too much about them.

JEFF: I’m leaving mine to Nancy—she walks 5-8 miles a day while I obsess over MSNBC 24/7, so I’m sure she will outlive me!

TIM: I could imagine a series of these books. Would you consider doing another? Anyone you wish you could interview?

NANCY: I’d love to do another collection, so we could talk to more poets, more writers at the beginning of their careers, more science fiction/fantasy writers, more nonfiction writers. But one of the things that makes The Writer’s Library special, I think, is that we’re with the authors in person, mostly in their homes. I don’t want to do a series of Zoom interviews – I don’t think it would be the same.

JEFF: There are so many writers I’d love to interview! If I could interview one living literary writer it would be Alice Munro, but we were told last time she was retired and not doing any more interviews. Otherwise, more poets definitely, and writers in genres we didn’t get to this time, like mystery and sci-fi/fantasy writers and playwrights. Also, I love literate songwriters—especially Bruce Springsteen, whose autobiography was wonderful and who is so well read, and whose songs show the influence of his reading. Call us, Bruce! And the Obamas, whose memoirs are as thoughtful as they are. I can’t wait for his new book. If you’re reading this Barack and Michelle, let us know–we will go anywhere, anytime, anyplace to talk to you!

Labels: author interview, authors, interview

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Interview with Brad Stone

Brad Stone, Silicon Valley journalist and best-selling author of The Everything Store, is known for his incisive stories on companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and even Costco. His new book, The Upstarts takes a look at two of the biggest players in Silicon Valley today: Uber and Airbnb—how they began, and how they’re changing things.

Brad was kind enough to chat with LibraryThing founder Tim about his latest work.

Startup founders are used to crafting descriptions of their company of variable length, from a full deck, to an “elevator pitch,” or just a few insistent words. So… what’s this book you wrote?

Haha. The elevator pitches and the self-styled mythologies are often quite different than the chaotic reality. I talked to absolutely everyone who was there at the founding and gestation of both Uber and Airbnb to piece together the dramatic, often conflict-ridden first eight years at both companies. The tales are messy, fun, and awfully instructive about how to do business in the modern age.

Whom did you write it for?

For anyone interested in business, technology startups, or simply what it took to build globe-spanning juggernauts that have remade how we travel between and within cities.

After covering Amazon, I’m guessing you cast around a bit for the next company or companies to cover. What drew you to the stories of Airbnb and Uber?

The drama of their respective rises. Unlike the tech companies of the past, these startups had to fight battles in every city they entered. The founders had to be politicians, in a way that previous tech CEOs never did. So there was a nice parallel between the two companies, while their skyrocketing valuations and the impact they were having on cities demanded attention. I feel like the story of Silicon Valley goes in eight- to ten-year cycles, and these two companies have undeniably emerged as the enduring franchises of this last cycle.

Honestly, I almost abandoned the book early on—I disliked the companies, the founders, and aspects of their “sharing economy” so much. I didn’t and I’m glad—it’s gripping and I learned a lot. Your account is no hagiography. Did you like your subjects?

I’m impressed by what they accomplished and am a customer of both companies. I’ve stayed in lovely Airbnbs in Paris, South Africa, Brooklyn and elsewhere and met great hosts in all those places. I take Uber and Lyft around San Francisco and frequently when I travel. Do I like the founders? It’s not really my job to like or dislike them. I’m curious about the companies they have built and how they run them.

Your previous book, The Everything Store, chronicled the rise of Amazon. Amazon, and Uber/Airbnb represent two distinct waves in technology startups, with perhaps another, social wave—Facebook, Twitter and, in its small way, LibraryThing, in between. What distinguishes the companies you’ve researched, and their founders. And what unites them?

No one sits in the same category as Amazon. It’s defied all the expectations and allegations of its critics and expanded into an empire that delights customers and frustrates competitors. The founders of Uber and Airbnb are in a way disciples of Jeff Bezos. They are trying to emulate his bold bets on new initiatives, and Uber, I think, has tried to capture its culture of productive friction. But they both still have work to do.

» Read our full interview here!

Labels: author interview

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Q&A with David Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Q&A with Mallory Ortberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did! It was enormously fun.

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Interview with Gregory Maguire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview