Archive for the ‘author interview’ Category

Tuesday, May 7th, 2024

Author Interview: Eileen Garvin

Eileen Garvin

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with author Eileen Garvin, whose 2021 novel, The Music of the Bees, was a national bestseller, receiving accolades from the Christian Science Monitor, People Magazine, LibraryReads, IndieNext, and many more. Garvin made her debut in 2010 with her memoir, How to Be a Sister: A Love Story with a Twist of Autism, and her essays have been published in The Oregonian, PsychologyToday.com, and Creative Non-Fiction Magazine, and featured on the Mom’s Don’t Have Time to Read Books podcast. Her second novel, Crow Talk, which addresses themes of friendship, hope and healing, all while set in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, was published by Dutton at the end of April.

The natural world plays an important role in Crow Talk, which features three people who have withdrawn to a rural retreat in order to nurse their wounds. What role does nature play in your story, and why did you choose the specific setting you did?

In Crow Talk, nature is meant to be a healing source for my three main characters—Frankie, Anne, and Aiden. I chose to set the story at June Lake—a fictional place—because I’ve always personally drawn solace from the natural world. When I was a child, our family lake cabin was a place of respite for all of us. As an adult I continue to be comforted and energized by woods, water, mountains, and trails. I believe nature is a powerful force.

How did the idea for your story come to you? You’re an amateur beekeeper, which must in some way have influenced the story you told in The Music of the Bees. Do you have a similar connection to crows, or to other corvine species?

Yes, my own beekeeping helped me write The Music of the Bees. While writing the book, I knew early on that my characters would get to know each other through beekeeping. I completed my Master Beekeeper Apprentice certification while I was revising the novel. I don’t have any similar hands-on experience with crows or other birds, but I’m an avid birdwatcher. I love watching the birds in my yard and in the woods around town. I also love to listen to birds and can often more easily identify them through their songs and calls than how they look. This is especially fun during migration, when an old favorite arrives in town, like the varied thrush and the robin.

The idea for Crow Talk came to me during the pandemic. All the trails in my hometown were
shut down and I was longing for the woods. I was able to make a trip back to the family place I mentioned earlier. When I arrived, I felt such relief at being alone and outside under the trees. That’s when I first got this idea—what if I took three wounded people and put them in a setting like the one I loved so much? How might the natural beauty of that place help them connect and heal?

What makes crows and other corvids so special? Did you have to do any research for that aspect of the story, and if so, what is the most interesting thing you learned?

Crows and other corvids are so smart and so interesting! While researching this book, I learned many things. For example, crows can recognize human faces. This means they recall those who have helped them as well as people who have not been so nice—for years! I learned that crows love to play and have been documented doing things like surfing the air on pieces of wood, sliding on snow, and riding an updraft just for fun. They use tools and are incredibly mischievous—teasing dogs and stealing things like windshield wiper blade, cigarettes, lit candles from shrines, cups of coffee. I loved reading about how they care for sick and injured family members too. The books of corvid expert John M. Marzluff were hugely helpful. So were books by Sy Montgomery, Helen MacDonald, and Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

One of your characters is an Irish musician. Are you fond of traditional Irish music? Do you have any favorite performers or pieces of music? (full disclosure: some of my own favorites in this vein include Altan, The Bothy Band, Karan Casey, and the sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird)

Yes, I’m a big fan of traditional Irish music as well as Celtic music in general. I grew up listening to the Thistle and Shamrock and singing older ballads—Irish, Scottish, and English. My great-grandparents were Irish immigrants and everyone in my family sings, though none of us has formal training. Big fan of Altan (Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh—what a voice!), and I love Kevin Burke’s fiddle playing. I think he plays with The Bothy Band sometimes.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Is there a particular way you work, a specific spot where you like to write? Do you have the story mapped out in your mind before you begin?

Since I wrote my first book, my process has been fairly consistent. I have small office in the (darkest, coldest) corner of the house. I get up early, make coffee, and start working on whatever project I have underway. Any new writing happens in these first hours. I can revise and answer emails later, but the creative stuff happens early or not at all.

I write all the way through a first draft and never have the story mapped out before I start. When I wrote my memoir, I had loads of old memories and stories, but no sense of how they would hang together. When I wrote my first novel, the opening sentence just came to me when I was in the car one day. With Crow Talk, I got the idea for the setting first—a remote alpine lake—and then the characters came along. It’s been different each time and always a leap of faith.

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

My shelves are a mix of poetry, memoir, fiction, and children’s books. I collect fairytales and children’s books—usually those that involve magical animals. I also have a collection of old novels that were my grandmother’s—Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, Frances Hodgson Burnett. I cringe now to think how’d I drag those lovely old books up into the woods to read when I was a kid! But I also love that the family culture was “Read! Read everything, anywhere, all the time!”

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

Some recent favorites include the memoir by Scottish comedian Fern Brady called Strong Female Character (featuring her adult diagnosis with autism), James by Percival Everett (a reimagining of The Adventures Huckleberry Finn from Jim’s point of view), and Poetry Unbound: 50 Poems to Open Your World by Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama (in which he introduces the poems of others in a similar way that he employs on his wonderful podcast Poetry Unbound).

Labels: author interview, interview

Friday, April 5th, 2024

Author Interview: Chad Corrie

Chad Corrie

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with author Chad Corrie, whose published work ranges across a variety of genres and forms, from comic books and graphic novels to fantasy fiction. His epic fantasy series for adults, The Wizard King Trilogy, was published in 2020 and 2021 by Dark Horse Comics, which also published The Shadow Regent in 2023, as well as his recent graphic novel, Sons of Ashgard: Ill Met in Elmgard, a 2023 Foreword Indie Award finalist in the Graphic Novel & Comics category. As the Sparrow Flies, the first in Corrie’s new young adult dystopian series, Sojourners’ Saga, is due out from Dark Horse in May.

Set in a dying world, As the Sparrow Flies is a dystopian fantasy with a twist, featuring two young protagonists who must find a way to survive or escape their world, rather than save it. Is this important? Were you simply interested in writing a survival story, or was there a deeper message there, about how the individual might respond to harsh circumstances and apocalyptic events?

A major impetus for Sojourners’ Saga was the desire to do something new. At the time I started writing the series I was working on finishing up more epic fantasy tales with these massive story universes and there was an appeal to actually having a series where the world was dying and things were bleak—a near complete opposite of what I was doing with this other work at the time. Person vs. nature also wasn’t a story type I’d yet explored, further sweetening the pot.

And it would be fair to say I was intrigued with the idea of seeing how I’d be able to write something more survival-based in general. It wasn’t so much an initial theme or concept that drove me to it, just the idea of exploring something different. The idea of fleeing the danger rather than trying to correct it was also something different and a bit of a challenge to myself, I guess, to see what was possible.

Dystopian fiction has become very popular over the last few decades. Why do you think that is? Does it offer something to readers that other kinds of fiction do not?

Dystopian fiction has indeed had a long history from 1984 and Brave New World—and even before that with some of the pulp speculative fiction from the early 20th century, etc. Recent years have seen something different in terms of the intended audience for many of these tales—that is many of the dystopian tales from the last couple decades having a definite YA bent or focus.

This allows for the theme of the younger generation rising up to combat/correct the corruption/failure of the previous generation(s) as well as the classic coming of age tale in a world/place that is far from ideal. The fact that these newer tales were written initially by Gen X authors who already had some skepticism to things and didn’t trust authority or authority figures in general, probably only aided their creation. Add in various challenges from concerns over climate, fear of having less/being worse off than the previous generation, etc. and it only adds more fuel to the fire.

And while I’m Gen X myself, this wasn’t the sort of path I ended up going for Sojourners’ Saga. As you said, the protagonists know they can’t save their world and so have to find alternatives to survival, which end up taking them down very different paths, which soon enough will cause problems and internal crises of belief in said ideas and ideals, not to mention issues and challenges with remaining population groups.

As to what dystopian fiction offers the reader, oddly enough it’s hope. As no matter how bad something is portrayed in a story we can usually step back and say, “maybe we don’t have things as bad as some think, as it could be much worse than this…” And, in most cases (but not all) there’s a silver lining to those dark dystopian clouds. The heroes triumph, the world is improved, etc. And in that, I suppose, it can inspire the reader to not give up hope and look for ways to make the world a brighter place—at least in their own sphere of influence.

What was the inspiration for your book? Did it start with a story idea, a character, or something else altogether?

I usually get “scenes” or “flavors” that inspire me to write a story. Often I’ll view something in my mind’s eye that’s really just like watching a movie. The whole scene will play out and serve as either the foundation or inspiration for some tale. Other times I’ll get ideas for different flavors of a story that would make an interesting mix. Perhaps something like Vikings mixed with anthropomorphic squirrels, which led to the the creation of the Sons of Ashgard graphic novel, for example.

With the Sojourners’ Saga series the desire mainly was to do something different than what I had been doing before, which as I previously mentioned, was more epic fantasy fare. Going from a massively epic setting to something more apocalyptic and human-centric was also a first for me. I was curious to explore a story and world that only had humans as the main population, rather than a roster of varied beings and beasts.

It was only later as I was in the midst of the process that I finally understood the story was supposed to be YA, which was also a few steps removed from what I had been doing before. This would later inform more of how things would be organized by chapter and POV, and actually was an interesting learning experience that forced me to think and re-think things through in ways I might not have if I was writing a more strictly adult story.

This book is a departure for you, in terms of the intended audience and the story type. Were there challenges, or things you particularly enjoyed about writing for a young adult audience? Was there anything different about your writing and storytelling process, in light of the fact that this world was less magical, less fantastic, than some of the others of which you have written?

Obviously, I can’t speak to everyone who writes YA, but for myself I had to consider just what was the best way to convey something that made sense to a younger character’s mind who may or may not have all the additional reference and context that older people would from years of lived experience.

As I said previously, it really had me stopping and considering things in some new ways, and ultimately had me going through and re-writing whole chapters and scenes as I came to better understand Elliott and Sarah, our two main protagonists. Additionally it allowed me to have some fun with the older characters and scenes with more nuance and other elements that older readers will notice: subtle ways things are said, how they come across to the younger character(s), etc.

As far as challenges to the world building, the biggest challenge was in realizing that I’d still have to craft a pretty detailed history and culture for various people even if the world—and the populous by extension—is crumbling around them. I had foolishly thought in the beginning that because things are going to be on their last legs, as it were, it wasn’t really important to get too much into the history and background of things. But I didn’t get too far into the process before realizing I’d been mistaken.

I had to take some time off writing to build the world—crafting things that most folks won’t ever see or know—so I’d have a solid foundation upon which to rest the story. So no matter how much I had tried to get around it the present, it turns out, is very much predicated on the past. That said, I did manage to get in some of that history and background in each of the books in the way of appendices readers can explore if they’re seeking more context and background to certain aspects of the world and/or story.

It was refreshing to get something more “low fantasy” in the mix too. In some ways it made for some more interesting stories as you can’t just have them zap something with a spell or laser to save the day. There’s a level of grit and reality that permeates the narrative space I found intriguing and added some interesting parameters and feeling to the tale.

As the Sparrow Flies is the first in a trilogy. Can you give us any hints about what’s coming next, in the Sojourners’ Saga?

First off, the entire series has been written. I tend to write the whole series of a work before I submit it to publishers. That way we all know what we’re getting into and it allows me a chance to go back and better align the tale so it flows smoothly from beginning to end. Having it finished also helps with readers, many of whom can be leery about approaching a new series. If they know it’s finished from the get go it’s less of a risk in giving it their consideration.

In the two remaining novels (each to be released in May over the next two years) Sarah and Elliott will come to face their beliefs about themselves and what they previously held so dear while also trying to stay alive long enough to reach some perceived better place for them as both their personal worlds along with the planet unravel around them.

There will be action, exploration of more of the world and its history, as well as a bonding between these two unlikely persons who come to see more of the truth that has so long eluded them and others of the world all these years. And, ultimately, there will be some interesting answers and developments that unfold—for both reader and characters alike.

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

Not as much as there used to be. Since I’m always working on something—world building, writing, etc.—I haven’t read as much for pleasure as I used to, usually focusing on more non-fiction topics tied to business or writing or other areas I’m seeking to explore for creating worlds, making websites, or something else I’m engaged in at the present.

That said, some recent titles I’ve been able to squeeze in are the new Calvin and Hobbes collection that came out last year, picking up some of the latest Conan comics—Conan the Barbarian Vol. 1, Conan the Barbarian Vol. 2, Conan the Barbarian by Jim Zub Vol. 1—from Marvel before they went to Titan Comics for their new editions, Blood of the Serpent by S.M. Stirling, and the two latest Dragonlance novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Dragons of Deceit, Dragons of Fate). Next on my TBR pile is Winter’s Song: A Hymn to the North by T.D. Mishchke, which talks about winters in the Midwest.

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

While I think those with a fantasy-bent to their reading preferences might enjoy the above-mentioned titles, over the years I’ve found myself revisiting some of Robert E. Howard’s writing on occasion. In particular, I’ve rather enjoyed exploring his other characters outside of Conan such as El Borak, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, and Kull.

Now granted, these stories might not be everyone’s cup of tea and some are better than others, but two tales really have stood out to me over the years for different reasons: The Screaming Skull of Silence and The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune.

Both are Kull stories and are rather short, but just have something that inspired me in various ways with my own writing and world building, I guess. But they also, I now realize, are rather part of a dystopian flavor that permeate a good deal of Howard’s work—especially with his Kull stories, which feature a character who was literally ruling over an empire and people in decline. So, in a way, I guess you could argue that these stories (with many others over the years) helped provide some of the initial ideas and atmosphere for Sojourners’ Saga, bringing us neatly full circle to where we started with this interview…

Labels: author interview, interview

Monday, February 5th, 2024

Author Interview: Kristin Hannah

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with bestselling author Kristin Hannah, who has had twenty-four novels published from 1991 through 2021. Trained as a lawyer, she practiced law in Seattle for a time before devoting herself to writing full time. Her best-selling book, The Nightingale (2015) has sold more than 4.5 million copies globally, and has been translated into 45 languages, while her 2008 Firefly Lane was adapted in a popular 2021 Netflix series of the same name. Hannah’s twenty-fifth novel, The Women, which chronicles the lives of women coming of age during the 1960s, is due out from Macmillan this month.

Your new book follows the story of a young woman who joins the Army Nurse Corps, and follows her brother to Vietnam. How did the story first come to you? Did it start with the character of Frankie, or was it the idea of a woman living through these events that came first?

This is actually a book I have wanted to write for more than twenty years. I grew up during the Vietnam era, and even though I was in elementary school, the war cast a huge shadow across my life. A very close girlfriend’s father was a pilot who served and was shot down and was Missing In Action. In those days, we wore silver prisoner of war bracelets that commemorated a missing serviceman. The idea was to wear the bracelet until he came home. Well, my friend’s father never did come home and I wore that bracelet for years, and was reminded of him and his service and war each day. I was a young teenager when the war ended, and I remembered how the veterans were treated when they returned home after their service. It was a shameful time in America and that, too, cast a long shadow. For years, I wanted to write about the turbulence and chaos and division of the times, but it wasn’t until the pandemic, when I was on lockdown in Seattle, confined to my home essentially, and watching our nurses and doctors serving on the front lines of the pandemic, becoming exhausted amid the political division of the time that it all came together for me. That’s when I knew I was ready to write about the women who served in the war and were forgotten at home.

The 1960s was a time of great change and social upheaval, and has been written about extensively, as has the war. What does The Women bring to the table? Do you feel it offers a new perspective, and if so, why is that important?

Honestly, for years and years, the Vietnam War was kind of a taboo subject. The American mood seemed to be that when the war finally ended, no one wanted to talk about it, so I actually think there are a lot of stories out there that need to be told. I hope The Women will encourage other stories. And yes, the novel adds an important element to the war narrative—its the story of the women who served and how they dealt with that service when they came home. It’s about their lost and forgotten service. The nurses who served in Vietnam were tough, resilient, courageous. Their story is one to be remembered.

Tell us a little bit about your process, writing the book. Did you have to do a great deal of research? What are some of the most interesting things you learned about the period? Was there anything you found particularly difficult to write about?

I love doing a deep, deep dive into a time and place, and certainly this time in America and in Vietnam were a daunting task to try and understand. That’s one of the reasons that I focused on my character of Frankie McGrath; I was able to tell a big, epic story in a very intimate way. The most difficult part of this book, in the writing, was the fear I felt that veterans of the war would be reading it, and the seriousness of my ambition to do right by them, to tell their story in an honest, accurate, and unflinching way. I am proud to say that the word of mouth on the book from Vietnam veterans has been the highlight of my long career. I am so proud to shine a light on their service.

Your story centers female friendship, even as it depicts characters whose wartime experiences are suppressed and disregarded, in part because they are women. What is it about this tension, between the private and public lives of women, that makes for such a powerful story?

We are lucky to be living in a time when forgotten and marginalized stories are being celebrated. I think when it comes to women’s stories, it’s just important to put us back in the historical narrative. All too often our service and courage and grit have been overlooked by the people who wrote the history books and taught the classes. I want to ensure that the women coming of age now, and their daughters and sons, will know and appreciate the importance of women’s roles in history. And yes, The Women definitely is a novel that highlights female friendship. For years, we have seen and read about men’s friendships that are forged in the fire of battle, and women are no different. So many women keep up those friendships, lean on them, for the whole of their lives, and I love to show that. The beating heart of The Women, for all it’s wartime drama and peacetime conflict, is really the friendship of the female combat vets.

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

Like any book lover, my house is crowded with books on shelves. They are everywhere! I have fiction shelves and non fiction shelves galore. But I do have some enduring favorites that I always recommend: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez; The Witching Hour by Anne Rice; and The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.

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

Well, at the moment, I am trying to come up with a new idea, which is surprisingly difficult to do. Following The Women will not be easy. My favorite recent reads are: The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, All the Colors of the Dark, Demon Copperhead, and The Good Left Undone. Also, there are several Vietnam nurse memoirs that I read in researching The Women that I think are amazing: Healing Wounds: A Vietnam War Combat Nurse’s 10-Year Fight to Win Women a Place of Honor in Washington, D.C. by Diane Carlson Evans; American Daughter Gone to War: On the Front Lines With an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Winnie Smith; and Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam by Linda Van Devanter.

Labels: author interview, interview

Thursday, November 9th, 2023

An Interview with Liam Graham

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with economist, philosopher and physicist Liam Graham, an active member on our site—find him at thalassa_thalassa—since 2012. After earning a BA in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge and an MA in Social and Political Thought at the University of Warwick, he completed a PhD in Economics at Birkbeck College, London, going on to spend most of the next fifteen years teaching in the economics department of University College London. Leaving academia in 2018, he has returned to his first love, attempting to answer a question that has been with him since his teenage years: do we need more than physics to understand the world? His research in this area has resulted in the publication of his debut book, Molecular Storms: The Physics of Stars, Cells and the Origin of Life, released this month by Springer International.

OK, let’s start at the beginning. No, not the Big Bang, the beginning of your book! What exactly is a molecular storm, and how can an understanding of how it works aid us in considering larger questions about the nature of time, and our place in the universe?

This story starts right down at the bottom, where the small molecules that make up gases and liquids are in constant motion. To larger objects, this motion is a ferocious bombardment made up of trillions of impacts per second. Scaled up to human dimensions, it would be like a 40,000km/h wind blowing from constantly changing directions. This is the molecular storm. It drives pretty much everything that happens at a molecular level: chemical reactions; flows from hot to cold; winds blowing from high pressure to low pressure; the vortex in your bathtub; what goes on in living cells and hence what goes on inside you.

To understand the wider implications, let’s take a system where the storm isn’t important. To do so, we need to step out of our everyday experience, which is a sign in itself of how dominant the storm is. So tune your ear to the music of the spheres and picture planets orbiting a star. Now, if someone played you a video of the solar system, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was running forwards or backwards. In either direction, you would see the planets calmly pursuing their elliptical orbits. In other words, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether the film showed past moving toward future or future to past. In this idealised world, there is no arrow of time.

Then turn to a system driven by the storm, such as a gas expanding as a tap is opened or our old friend Humpty Dumpty. If you saw a video of these, you could immediately tell whether it was running backwards or forwards. Gases do not spontaneously contract and pour themselves into a tap. The molecules that make up the ground do not conspire in their movements to make Humpty Dumpty leap up and put himself together again. The arrow of time is a result of the molecular storm.

The study of the molecular storm is called thermodynamics. Everyone I spoke to, whether specialists or non-specialists, said this term is so intimidating that I should keep it off the cover of the book. I took the advice, but one of my aims is to show that in fact thermodynamics is by far the most useful part of physics.

There is some discussion on how many laws of thermodynamics there are, but the poet Allen Ginsberg summarised three of them as “you can’t win, you always lose, you can’t leave the game” (though he apparently lifted this from earlier sources). The second law says that disorder always increases: “you always lose”. It was described by one eminent physicist as the supreme law of nature and it can seem like the organising principle of the universe. But the second law itself is a result of the molecular storm.

Let’s turn to humanity’s place in nature. If you throw a pair of dice for long enough, you’ll see every possible outcome. In the same way, the endless bombardment of the storm constantly shakes systems up and so drives them to explore the possibilities open to them. For reasons that are poorly understood, this seems to mean that systems settle into states which dissipate energy at faster and faster rates. Stars dissipate energy faster than the dust clouds from which they formed. Planets dissipate energy faster than stars. Life is the most recent of these states. A back of the envelope calculation shows that per kilogram a human dissipates 7000 times as much energy as the sun. The one-kilogram laptop I am using to write this dissipates 30 times more energy than a kilogram of me.

This suggests a radically materialist meaning of life. While we talk of evolution and survival of the fittest, progress and technological development, free will or consciousness, these are all just metaphors. The underlying process is simply a random search – driven by the storm – for systems which dissipate energy at faster rates. We are its latest product. If you find this bleak, read Sartre and you’ll see that instead it is liberating.

In the introduction to your book you discuss randomness on the molecular level, and the way in which molecular movement seeks patterns and creates what is, to the human eye, order. Is this contradictory? How can randomness create order?

To start off, we’ve got to be careful with the terminology. Our intuitive ideas of order are, like our intuitive ideas about everything, poor approximations to the physics. The formal concept is entropy, but I can’t go into that in depth here. Instead, I’ll carry on using “order” and “disorder”, but in scare quotes.

The second law tells us you can create “order” in one system as long as you create more “disorder” elsewhere. It’s not so much “you always lose” but “the universe always loses; you can win at its expense”. How does this happen, how does randomness create “order”? The key point is that the storm drives systems to explore the possibilities open to them. Sometimes the system will stumble over an “ordered” structure which is stable. Let’s look at some examples.

Soon after the Big Bang, the universe was a roughly uniform cloud of radiation and particles. This looks to a human eye like a state of maximum “disorder”. Yet now the universe is full of “order” everywhere from galaxies to stars to solar systems to planets to the myriad of structures on planetary surfaces (including you). The change from initial to current state is driven by the molecular storm, along with much interesting physics along the way. However, the move from “disorder’ to “order” is only apparent. Gravity – which our intuition is definitely not built to understand – means that clumped matter is actually more “disordered” than diffuse matter. The “disorder” of the universe as a whole has constantly increased since its beginning.

As another example, let’s think about how evolution might kick off. Take a bunch of chemicals being constantly driven by the storm to explore different reactions. If one of these reactions gives a molecule that can reproduce itself, it will come to dominate the mix as it outcompetes other reactions. Then another storm-driven random change might lead to a molecule that reproduces faster, more reliably or using a wider range of components and this will outcompete the original one. More random changes will lead to further improvements. The rest, as they say, is history. Random changes driven by the storm lead ultimately to life.

Finally, remember the story of Sisyphus doomed to forever push a boulder up a hill (I’ve borrowed this analogy from Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos by Peter M. Hoffmann, also on LibraryThing as yapete). If we reduced him to a small enough scale, the molecular storm would push his nano-boulder sometimes up and sometimes down the hill. All Sisyphus then has to do is to wait until there is a random push upwards and slip a wedge under the boulder to stop it rolling back. Then he waits until another impact pushes the boulder upwards and again moves the wedge. If he continues doing this, the boulder will roll up the hill powered by the storm. All Sisyphus has to do is select the impacts that push the boulder upwards – most of the physical effort is taken out of his punishment. Directional, “ordered” motion is driven by random impacts. It turns out that some of the most important processes in living cells rely on an analogous method of selecting fluctuations from the storm.

All of these examples create “order” at the expense of “disorder” elsewhere: as a star forms, it increases disorder in the surrounding cloud of dust; as chemical evolution starts, disorder is increased in the environment and Sisyphus increases disorder via the information processing necessary to work out when to move the ratchet. These processes – and everything driven by the storm – hasten the universe towards its final state of maximum “disorder”.

In your career as an economist, your focus has been on macroeconomics, and the mathematical study of complex systems. What insights has your economic work provided in the scientific field, and vice versa?

The main thing I learnt is how fundamentally different the two fields are. A basic requirement for science is the possibility of repeated experiments. We can let an apple drop from a tree again and again. To understand its motion, we can vary its weight, the wind speed or the density of the air. We can even make an “apple” of antimatter and see whether it falls up or down.

Macroeconomics is very different. There is effectively no possibility of experiments. I’d have loved to be able to phone up a friend at the Bank of England and ask them to hike interest rates to 20% to create an almighty recession and help calibrate my model. Thankfully, I couldn’t. But even if I could, it wouldn’t tell me much since the structure of the economy and the policy framework are constantly changing. The same change in policy might have a very different effect 20 years ago or 20 years hence. This means that natural experiments are not much use either: the high inflation of the 1970s has little directly to tell us about the high inflation of today. Macroeconomists are faced with a sequence of one-offs rather than the repeated experiments which are a precondition for scientific
knowledge.

What’s worse is that macroeconomic data is extremely limited. There’s not even a century of good quality data and it is often only measured once every quarter, giving at most 400 data points. By contrast, in 2018 the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva generated over a thousand trillion data points. It’s hard to do good science with small datasets.

But that’s not all. Atoms just go about doing their atomic thing governed by laws unchanging across time or space. But the economy is made up of the decisions of people. And people change the way they make decision depending on what’s happening in the economy. So the one-off nature of the economy penetrates to the heart of the decisions which constitutes it. This is a fascinating area which I started to work on before deciding it was far too difficult.

Your book attempts to answer some deep and longstanding philosophical questions, questions that humanity has grappled with for ages, using physics. Are there philosophical questions science can’t answer, and if so, what are they?

Scientific explanations are only descriptions of the world. If you take a child’s approach of responding “Why?” to every answer, at some point a scientist will have to say, “I don’t know” or “If it wasn’t this way, there’d be no possibility of creatures with the capacity to ask why”. From then on, metaphysics takes over.

Philosophy gets left with the unanswerable questions. For the last few hundred years, science has been reducing the scope of such questions, but some will always remain. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why this set of elementary particles? Why four forces? Why these values for the fundamental constants? Physics particularly struggles with these questions because there is no possibility of repeated experiments. As far as we are concerned, the universe is a one-off and will remain so. Even if our universe is one of many, we are unlikely ever to be able to observe the others. Of course, it may be that the answers to some of these questions will drop out of the maths of some future theory. But then you would still be left with the fascinating question of why maths describes the physical world.

As a long-time LibraryThing member—profile page: thalassa_thalassa—tell us a little bit about how you use the site, and what you particularly enjoy about it.

Rarely a day goes by when I don’t visit the site several times. I use it to organise my library and my research with an ever-growing set of tags. When I finish a book I record the date straight away and usually write a few sentences with my impressions (if I didn’t, I’d forget what I read last week). Deciding what to read next is a constant challenge and I have a long wishlist and another tangle of tags to help. For the past decade or so, I’ve bought mostly ebooks and I use LibraryThing to keep track of them. I dream of (and one day might write) an extension which would allow me to click on a title in LibraryThing and open the ebook from the cloud.

I love glancing through other people’s libraries. From time to time, I message users to ask them for recommendations and this has led to some fascinating exchanges. And I do like all the data, though I’ve stopped looking at the author-by-gender chart as it is going to take me decades to make the balance more reasonable.

Intellectually, the most intense year of my life was my MSc in Philosophy. Imagine spending a year working through the Western philosophical tradition from Plato to the 20th century, reading a couple of texts a week, in discussion with a passionate and engaged teacher. This teacher was the philosopher Gillian Rose. I created her Legacy Library on LibraryThing as an act of remembrance and my book is dedicated to her.

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

It’s a bit of a mix, really, reflecting the ebbs and flows of my interests over the years. Reading literary fiction is necessary for my sanity and I’m not averse to the odd scifi novel from time to time, though I get unreasonably annoyed when an author plays fast and loose with the science. The thing that never ceases to delight me is the way novels come along and do something entirely, erm, novel. This doesn’t happen often but when it does I treasure it. From the last couple of decades I’d list The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq; A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman; Phone by Will Self; Orfeo by Richard Powers and Cher Connard by Virginie Despentes.

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

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading mainly physics while preparing the proposal for my second book. In between, novels I’ve particularly enjoyed are An Impossible Love by Christine Angot; My Husband by Maud Ventura and The Course of Love by Alain de Boton. I’m also re-reading Zola’s 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series, in order this time. There’s nothing quite like the gritty realism of his depictions of 19th century life; Dickens is prissy by comparison. And the plots are often so gripping that I find myself skipping descriptive passages to get back to the action. My favourites so far are L’Assommoir and The Bright Side of Life. It was all going well but now, with 6 still to go, I’m a bit bogged down. It may take the right kick from the molecular storm to get me going again.

Labels: author interview, interview

Thursday, October 12th, 2023

An Interview with Rebecca Renner

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with author and journalist Rebecca Renner, a National Geographic contributor whose work has also appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Outside Magazine, Tin House, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and others. A former high school English teacher, she earned an MFA in fiction writing from Stetson University, but will make her book debut next month with Gator Country: Deception, Danger, and Alligators in the Everglades, a nonfiction look at the world of Florida alligator poaching to be published by Flatiron Books.

Set in the Florida Everglades, Gator Country follows the exploits of a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer, as he goes undercover to infiltrate the world of alligator poachers. How did you discover this story and what drew you to it? Did you meet Jeff Babauta first, or did you come across him in the course of researching the broader topic?

The first time I heard the story of Operation Alligator Thief, it came to me as a rumor from one of my high school students. He and I had already been talking about poaching, storytelling, and thornier questions like, “Who owns nature? Is it right for anyone to make that claim?” When this student told me about Operation Alligator Thief, the rumors had blown some facts of the case out of proportion while entirely underplaying others. He described the undercover officer as a shapeshifter who had created a fake alligator farm to catch poachers, like a trap out of a movie. In other words, it all sounded too bizarre to be true. Yet, as Floridians, my student and I knew better: here, the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Wanting to know what really happened, we asked around about the story, but neither of us could find a trace of the officer behind it all. He had disappeared before the sting began, and no one without inside information could find him. In my journalism career, I’ve found that challenges, rather than discouraging me, compel me to try harder, to look deeper. So no matter how many challenges I faced with this story, I could never quite let it go. A few years later, after I had quit teaching to write full-time, a former intelligence operative helped me track Jeff down, and I talked to him on the phone several times before he opened up enough to really tell me his story. It’s almost funny to look back on the days when Jeff didn’t trust me yet, because now he’ll text me out of the blue like it’s no big deal—because it isn’t! That’s fresh in my mind, because he texted me right before I sat down to do this interview.

What makes the Everglades such a special place, and what role does this ecosystem play in your story? If you were writing a tourism brochure for the region, what would you say to emphasize its appeal?

There’s a category of natural landscape that elicits such an automatic reaction of awe that it feels like there’s something more primordial at work than merely a reaction to our own smallness in comparison to their magnitude. Think the Grand Canyon or the magnificent redwoods of the Pacific Northwest. A subcategory of these awe-inspiring landscapes are the ones that don’t really translate to the internet, that pictures seldom do justice, the ones you have to see to believe. The Everglades is one of these places to the point where you can tell when someone has been to the Everglades and taken time to sit and witness them. People who haven’t think that the Everglades are just a swamp or just an infinite landscape of grass and not much else. But people who have experienced the Everglades speak of them with reverence. They are one of nature’s cathedrals, home to myriad ecosystems as varied as the freshwater sloughs and marl prairies you might picture when you think of the Everglades, to hardwood hammocks and cypress domes bristling with orchids and head-high ferns like something out of Jurassic Park. And that’s just the beginning.

The ecosystems in which the story plays out serve as more than backdrops. Among many things, they reminded me of what we have to lose when we choose consumerism over the wellbeing of the planet and of ourselves. In my own part of the narrative, my experience in the landscape of the Everglades led me to an epiphany about the ecosystems I grew up in a little north of there in Central Florida. Similarly, the landscape acted as motivation for Jeff. Many people act like saving nature is a lost cause, and I think part of that is because they don’t spend enough time in nature to realize it’s still there. So there are several scenes in the book when Jeff is standing in awe of the natural world around him, and that helps him remember why he’s doing the difficult things he has to do to complete his mission: If we lose nature, we don’t just lose a habitat. We don’t just lose a playground. We lose a part of ourselves.

In this same vein, I got really lucky with the guy, John Pirhalla, who is the main narrator of the audiobook for Gator Country. While I was still writing the book, I was pulling to do the narration myself. In the past, narrators haven’t done my long-form journalism justice. They have missed not only the appropriate cadence of my words, but I have also felt like the heart in my descriptions has disappeared. I was adamant about not letting that happen with Gator Country, and I didn’t have high hopes for a narrator until I listened to John’s audition. I was mesmerized. I listened to several minutes of that recording, on the edge of my seat, as if I didn’t know exactly what was about to happen. He had the cadence of my words right. He pronounced even the weirdest place names correctly. But most of all, it was the sense of awe that came through in his voice that gripped me and didn’t let me go. I was not surprised, when I finally talked to John on the phone, to hear that he had paddled the Everglades Wilderness Waterway, that he and his wife are avid birders. The Everglades had caught hold of his heart, just like they had for me, just like they had for Jeff. The Everglades has a kind of magnetism: once you fall in love with the glades, it’s part of you forever. You will be drawn back to the place and to the other people who have fallen in love, too.

Alligators (and other crocodilians!) often have a strange fascination for us—part fear, part attraction. Why are they an important species, and are there things people get wrong about them? What is the most interesting thing you learned about them, in the course of your research?

Most people already know or at least aren’t surprised by the fact that alligators are apex predators. But most animals play multiple roles in their ecosystems. Alligators are no exception. They are also ecosystem engineers, meaning that the ways they modify the ecosystem for their own use also benefit other creatures. The holes they dig can become dens or nests for smaller animals. Even by digging and sliding in the mud, alligators can distribute nutrients to surrounding plants, benefitting stationary flora and helping whole ecosystems to thrive. By the same measure, they’re a keystone species. Their nesting activity helps create peat, a carbon sink, among other things. They may even be a sentinel species, animals who indicate the wellbeing of a habitat (and its safety for humans), as their populations are so sensitive to the effects of temperature and sea-level rise. I’m constantly learning new things about alligators, and I wrote a book about them, so it’s safe to say that most people don’t realize how important they are to their ecosystems.

But the most important thing most people seem to get wrong about alligators is how intelligent they are and the depth and breadth of emotion they seem to express. While researching this book, I have seen alligators forge bonds with humans that go so far beyond what you would expect. To me, alligators are fascinating in part because they are so mysterious. For many of us, our cultures have conditioned us to see alligators as terrifying beasts, mythic monsters made mundane by modernity. (Bonus points for accidental alliteration!) But they’re neither. They’re cousins to birds, and perhaps just as intelligent. The largest alligators alive today could be 60 to 70 years old, meaning that they have survived since their species was considered endangered. There is still so much we don’t know about them. Yet the more we learn, the more we understand about their ecosystems and our world as a whole.

That’s a big difference from the animal that’s a subject of zany memes. However, I’ve also learned that we can’t discount the impact of those memes. And I’m not just saying that because the guy who runs the Gators Daily twitter account helped me research part of this book. Recent studies have shown that memes about “unappealing” species positively impact the awareness of and engagement with conservation efforts concerning those species. So I guess the takeaway here is, if you love something, make it a meme? Or in my case, a book that is sometimes funny. That’s one last thing I learned while writing this book: Alligators sure do make humans act silly.

Although the natural world is a key element of your book, the human interaction with that world is also an essential part of the story. One reviewer noted that your book offers an exploration of the ”blurry lines” between poachers and conservationists. What are some of your takeaways, when it comes to the human story of alligator poaching? Were there things you learned which surprised you, or which you found particularly interesting or moving?

I went into this book with a view of poachers that I quickly found did not align with reality. When I pictured poachers, I thought of big game hunters gunning down endangered rhinos. But it turns out that’s not what the typical poacher looks like, and hurting nature is seldom their motivation. While big-game poaching and larger organized smuggling rings do exist and are a big problem, most poachers are either the bottom rungs of larger operations or not part of an organization at all, and they’re breaking the law on accident (more common than I thought, for sure) or to make ends meet using the skills they know best. They know more about nature than most people, and they might even engage in wilderness upkeep activities that they might not even realize fall under the umbrella of conservation. This is true of one of the “mysteries” I investigated down in the Everglades, so I won’t spoil it for you by getting specific. Let’s just say even I was shocked when I came to this particular realization.

When it comes to the human story of alligator conservation, I realized that when outsiders talk about poaching, the poachers often become scapegoats for problems that have affected them rather than ones they’ve created. Habitat loss at the hands of construction—of housing developments, of commercial areas, and even of roadways—has had far more impact on alligator populations than poaching ever could. Some people get mad when I say this, thinking I’m defending crime. The reality is that I’m a stickler for the truth. The raw numbers, the statistics here, are what made me come to this conclusion. In fact, the statistics challenged the beliefs I held when I started researching this story. I’m not even a hunter. I’m just a perennial questioner of authority.

This realization has made me question my perspective and the previous conclusions I’ve read about conservation that I’ve assumed to be true. Now, whenever I see someone blaming hunting as the reason for the downturn of a species, I question it. Sometimes hunting is indeed to blame, but it’s seldom the whole story. Even in the case of the American bison, which many of us have been taught were slaughtered by colonialist powers (which is true), the downturn of the species also happened in part because of bovine diseases that jumped from cattle introduced to the plains by American ranchers. Knowing the whole story doesn’t excuse our impact on nature, and in the cases of the bison and the alligator, the cultures that depend upon those animals. Instead, I believe that when we reveal these nuances, we can gain a new understanding of who controlled the original narrative, why they blamed who they blamed, and what they had to gain from that. It might be different for every animal, but I see some similarities. In the case of the American alligator, deflecting blame for their downturn onto illegal hunting meant that other activities that put pressure on the species, namely construction, could continue unchecked. People who paved, drove through, and lived in the alligator’s habitat would have someone else to blame while being able to ignore their own impact on nature, and the even greater influence wielded by powers such as corporations who benefitted from nature’s destruction.

You are a prolific journalist, publishing numerous shorter pieces in National Geographic and many other publications. Gator Country is your first book-length work to be released. Were there challenges, or things you particularly enjoyed about writing a longer work, compared to some of your shorter pieces?

This is silly, but one of the best (and worst!) things about shorter-form journalism is the more-or-less instant feedback you get on it, first from your editor then from your readers. I’ve had several stories go viral, and that has been scary and exciting, but I think it also conditioned me to want instant praise (or criticism) for my work. The more I think about this, the more I feel like that desire for instant feedback may not be for praise but for human interaction.

Writing, no matter the genre, is a solitary endeavor. As a very young writer, I wrote novels and posted chapters on the internet for friends to read. My best friends in high school, who I thank in my acknowledgements, were avid readers of my work long before it was any good. Writing has always been my main form of self expression and the way I interacted with the world. So, in writing something longer, I had to find a way to keep going without the instant feedback that comes with shorter publication cycles. Luckily, my editor and my agent stepped into these roles so I wouldn’t feel like I was writing into the void. I’m truly indebted to them for that, especially because I wrote this book during the pandemic when all of us were feeling isolated. Needless to say, I’m trying to be more social now, but I’m having the opposite problem. I’ve gotten too used to being alone.

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

My shelves are extremely varied. I started off my writing life as a fiction writer. I wrote my first book, a fantasy novel, when I was 15; and no, it’s never going to see the light of day. I always wanted to be a novelist, and I’d written five (I think?) in my teens and 20s I won’t even show to my agent. That doesn’t include a fantasy novel that I’ve written and scrapped several times. I started writing it when I was 19, and now that I’m finally a good enough writer to do it justice, it has almost a decade and a half of world building and just as many years of devouring fantasy novels. These have been as varied as classics like the works of C.S. Lewis and Ursula K. Le Guin, to sci-fi’s golden age heroes like Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, and Philip K. Dick, to modern superstars like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Naomi Novik, and Leigh Bardugo. I could go on and on and on.

Another big part of my library is, of course, nonfiction. When I was a teenager, I thought nonfiction was boring. Then I discovered narrative nonfiction. The very first narrative nonfiction book that I read—the one that made me realize that nonfiction could be just as engrossing and exciting as fiction—was The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. As I got older, I read a lot of narrative nonfiction as research for fiction. Before I knew it, I was devouring just as much nonfiction as I was fantasy. There’s a special place in my heart reserved for narrative nonfiction books about nature. It wasn’t until after college that I read one of my absolute favorites, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. My dad had just died, and I was stuck in my home town and working a dead-end job, down and out in paradise, as I like to say. I remember reading how Outside Magazine had sent him to write the story that would become that book, and I thought, That’s the life I want to live. That’s what I want to do. Six years later, Outside Magazine sent me to the Everglades, and about a year after that, I sold Gator Country. Between those two bookends, I read so much narrative nonfiction. Two of my favorite authors whose work I read in that time are David Grann and Susan Orlean, so I was blown away that my publisher (without me saying so!) chose to compare my book to their work. I guess when you’re a writer, you are what you read.

I also like to read literary fiction, thrillers, classics, and… okay, pretty much everything. But for a while, right after college, I made myself a course of study that I would call the Art of Suspense. I read Time’s best 100 thriller and mystery books of all time and I tried to figure out the best things each of those books did and how I could use those techniques in my own writing. Some of my favorites from that were Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

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

I’m one of those weird people who reads 50 books at once. Here’s a random smattering of stuff I’m either currently reading or that I’ve just finished.

I’m considering writing a book about dolphins, so I’m digging into that topic, and I’ve run into a problem: Susan Casey already wrote the perfect dolphin book, Voices in the Ocean. Honestly, this is the best kind of problem to have, because now I get to enjoy that book.

I’m also trying to figure out comps for my fantasy book, so my agent and I are doing kind of a buddy read of Babel by R.F. Kuang. While the plot isn’t much like my book, it does share a certain vibe, and the writing is spectacular. I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I definitely recommend it.

A book that I want to read that I think would pair well with Gator Country is Crossings by Ben Goldfarb. I don’t explicitly talk about road construction’s impact on wildlife in Gator Country, but that’s just fine, because Ben has it covered from every possible angle.

Okay, one last one. I’m late to this one, too, but SPQR by Mary Beard. Apparently, I’m not the only one who constantly thinks about the Roman Empire. But the thing I come back to again and again—which SPQR hasn’t mentioned yet—are the insulae, which were essentially ancient apartment buildings. They don’t sound great. They were especially prone to fire and collapse, and I wonder more frequently than I think is normal what it was like to live in one. So I’m looking forward to reading Beard’s new book, Emperor of Rome, even though it probably won’t talk about insulae.

Labels: author interview, interview

Monday, September 11th, 2023

An Interview with Jarret Keene

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with author Jarret Keene, who is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he teaches American literature and the graphic novel. His publications range across a number of genres, from his rock band biography, The Killers: Destiny Is Calling Me, to his travel guide, The Underground Guide to Las Vegas. He has co-edited a number of short story collections, including Las Vegas Noir and Dead Neon: Tales of Near-Future Las Vegas. His latest offering, Hammer of the Dogs, is a dystopian adventure set in an apocalyptic Las Vegas, and was published earlier this month by the University of Nevada Press.

Hammer of the Dogs has been compared by reviewers to such works as The Hunger Games and Divergent—both very popular works of dystopian fiction. Were these books an influence on your story? What were some other influences?

Yes, of course The Hunger Games and Divergent were an influence on Hammer of the Dogs: the books are so fun! But I went back into the past to study the darker, violent influences on these books: Koushon Takami’s Battle Royale, Stephen King’s The Long Walk, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Jack Kirby’s X-Men comics. The best dystopian YA stories tend to explore an intriguing premise: savage yet gifted kids under extreme pressure from corrupt government forces, forced to fight each other and survive lethal threats. Hammer of the Dogs picks up the conceit and cranks it to eleven, with the protagonist, Lash, armed to the teeth and ready to smash the world in order to save her friends and rescue her father.

Dystopian fiction has become increasingly popular in the last twenty years, within the wider world of speculative fiction. Why is that? Is it simply a reflection of our growing concern for the future of humanity and the world around us? What’s significant about this genre of storytelling, and what does it allow the writer to do, that they couldn’t otherwise?

In our teens, we realize that adult life is dystopian. Today the internet and social media amplify the anxiety of youth with “likes” and “comments.” Now young people run a terrifying gauntlet: tech inundation, college debt, unaffordable housing, COVID lockdowns, endless vaccines, school shootings. The reflection is crystal-clear, and the dystopian YA genre allows us to explore the full range of nightmares, and to give solutions if we’re interested. That’s why the genre continues to grow in popularity. Lash’s solution in Hammer of the Dogs is to pick up the deadly tech and refashion her environment. Passivity isn’t an option. Anyhow, it’s fun to wreck and rebuild. As long as you know how to rebuild.

Las Vegas features prominently in your work, both fiction and nonfiction, and is the setting for Hammer of the Dogs. What role, if any, does the city setting, and the wider Nevada landscape, play in your story? What made you choose the Luxor Hotel as the headquarters for Lash’s school? Are there other Las Vegas and Nevada landmarks that make an appearance in the book?

Las Vegas is a sinful, eyeball-seducing playground. Nevada is a frightening military playground. Yet the desert and mountains are gorgeous. Few realize this, and I wanted Hammer of the Dogs to depict Las Vegas in an unfamiliar way, as a site of desert warfare and twisted entertainment. But Las Vegas is also a blank slate of promise. Las Vegas has been this way since its inception, with the media and government masking its true potential. The book’s hero, Lash, eventually sees the city’s mask, and rips it away. So Las Vegas, plus the surrounding valley, is a character all its own. I chose Luxor, because I used to work there in the communications department. For years, I wrote employee newsletters in the bottom of a pyramid, spotlighting sous chefs and Cirque due Soleil acrobats and guest room attendants. Everything I describe in Hammer of the Dogs, from the employee dining commons to the Luxor Sky Beam, is how I experienced it. It was a world within a world, and we competed with other hotel-casinos on the Las Vegas Strip in fundraising efforts, in physical competitions (including hot dog-eating contests), and we were subject to brainwashing by corporate management and the unions alike. It was easy to extrapolate and imagine gangs of teenagers housed in each hotel/casino—Bellagio, CityCenter, Mandalay Bay, Excalibur—plotting to kill all rivals using drone technology. I use everything in Las Vegas—Boulder City, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas Speedway, Fremont Street Experience, the gypsum mines, The Shops at Crystals—as a background against which Lash wages war.

In your work as an educator you explore and teach about the graphic novel format. How has this impacted your writing? Would you say that your storytelling style is a very visual one, or that you have particular images in mind, when writing? What came first, when you were writing this book: ideas, words, characters, images?

Teaching the graphic novel inspires my writing, which is highly visual. I wrote Hammer of the Dogs as a “movie tie-in novel,” the kind that used to be abundant in the 1980s. Every fun sci-fi/fantasy movie (Krull, Tron, The Last Starfighter) back then had a novelization for sale at the mall bookstore. I “saw” the story unfold before I wrote down a word, which helped me accelerate the pacing and maintain the headlong momentum. So Hammer of the Dogs is, in essence, one revved-up cinematic set piece after another, until the very end where I intentionally let the story go off the rails. Lash isn’t patient. She wants to search and destroy, and I did my best to remove the boring parts so that Lash shines and sheds copious amounts of bad-guy blood. She wanted to fall in love with a bad boy, so I helped her with that as well. Lash made this book adventure-packed, fun, easy to write. So yes, images and ideas always arrived first—then character, then words.

As an educator, you work with younger adults, and your novel is aimed at that demographic (among others). What is important, when telling a story for this audience? Does awareness of the audience change how you write?

I wrote Hammer of the Dogs for a younger audience, sure, but I layered in Easter eggs for Gen Ex-ers and Boomers to savor. There’s a nod to postwar popular culture in every page, from Jack Schafer’s Shane to The Empire Strikes Back to Alice Cooper’s Constrictor. There’s a LOT of references to ’80s hard rock and glam metal, with Lash blasting her dad’s music on his old Walkman whenever she needs to get psyched for battle. I think it’s important to NOT condescend to readers by only presenting one generation’s cultural references. Young people are curious, old people are curious. People are curious to learn about pop culture from every era. So I believe it’s important to satisfy a young reader’s curiosity and take them places they’ve never even considered. I also wanted to take young readers on a mythic journey with Lash. That’s the awareness I brought to every sentence in Hammer of the Dogs: I want younger readers, older readers, any and all readers to be swept up in the momentum of Lash’s adventure. I didn’t change the way I write exactly, but I certainly laser-focused on what makes for full-throttle storytelling.

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

If you visit my LibraryThing page, you’ll see my favorite books. But my office shelves are loaded with Jack Kirby-rendered comic books, books about Greek and Roman myths and ancient and classical warfare, and various versions and translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Because I teach American literature and world literature, I have so many favorites, including Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines, Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, Isabel Allende’s Zorro, to name a few. I love the classics, but I get a lot of pleasure from reading comics.

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

I recently finished reading and highly recommend the following, especially if you have a taste for alternative, non-corporate literature and writing:

Stephen B. Armstrong’s rock history I Want You Around: The Ramones and the Making of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Backbeat, 2023)

Bernard Schopen’s Drowning in the Desert: A Nevada Noir Novel (University of Nevada Press, 2023)

Justin Chin’s poetry collection Burden of Ashes (Manic D Press, 2023)

Chris Mullen’s six-book YA Western series Rowdy (Wise Wolf Books, 2022-2023)

Ryan G. Van Cleave’s YA nonfiction book The Witness Trees: Historic Moments and the Trees Who Watched Them Happen (Bushel & Peck Books, 2023)

Labels: author interview, interview

Wednesday, August 9th, 2023

An Interview with Joanne Elliott

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with Joanne Elliott, an American-born author who has spent most of her adult life in Belfast, Hong Kong and on Inishbofin, a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The founder of the Kellett School, now the British International School in Hong Kong, she is the author of two books on childhood diabetes, as well as numerous short stories published in British, Irish and South African magazines, has written radio programs for RTE (Irish National Radio), and for seven years ran a local newspaper on Inishbofin. She has also taught at all levels, from preschool to university. Now, at the age of eighty-eight, her novel Love in the Shadow of Mao—the second she has written, but the first to see print—has been published by the London-based Austin Macauley Publishers.

You have said elsewhere that the idea for the story in Love in the Shadow of Mao came to you in 1978, while you and your husband were returning to Hong Kong after a tour of mainland China. Forty-six years later, your book is finally published. Did you work on it throughout this entire period, did you leave and return to it—what does the writing process look like, over the timespan of a few decades? What were the challenges of working on your story for this long, and did it have benefits as well?

The story was in my mind for many years after we left Hong Kong but I did not start writing it as my life was busy, crammed with other writing projects like the island newspaper, The Inishbofin Inquirer, which I started and edited for seven years. I am not an organized writer, have little discipline and tend to throw myself in projects, work frantically at them and then lay them aside for others.

You have described your book as a story of living in two worlds, something which would apply to many of your characters. You yourself might also be said to live in more than one world, marrying across national lines, and settling (multiple times) far from your childhood home. Would you say there was anything autobiographical in your story? What does it mean to live in two worlds, for you and for your characters?

As you say, I also lived in two worlds. Even though I left New York behind almost seventy years ago, when I need to know which way is East or West I imagine myself standing on the corner of 57th Street and 5th Avenue. Then I know where I am.

Some of my characters and incidents are fleeting impressions over many years. When I lived in Arizona in the 50s I once saw a television interview with Hope Cooke, a girl who married a king from a little Himalayan country. The expression on her face struck me and the first note I made for the novel was the line “Julia was hiding.” Actually it was “Rachel was hiding.” I later changed her name because the Chinese have trouble pronouncing the letter “r.” The description of Jen Chiman came from a young oriental man I saw in a church I was visiting in Scotland when I was in Hawthornden Castle in a writer’s retreat working on the China book. Until I saw him, I had little idea how Jen looked. As soon as I saw him in a pew across from me I knew that he was Jen. My daughter who developed diabetes at age eight was, of course, a large biographical element for the character Catherine Lee. At the corner of our street in New York was a Chinese laundry. I never knew the people who owned it but certainly the background was Catherine’s. A man I once danced with at Columbia University’s International House was the image of Ben, recalled some 50 years later. (Warning. Don’t mix with writers. They use everything.)

As you say, I and also my characters lived in two worlds. Perhaps it gives us insight or tolerance and broadens our perspective. It also prevents us from fitting in completely. We are always on the outside looking in.

Your book is set during China’s Cultural Revolution, a time of great upheaval and terrible hardship for many. How much research was needed for the historical and cultural background of your story? What were some of the most fascinating things you learned, and what were the most tragic?

My only real glimpse of the Cultural Revolution was a tour of China taken in 1978. We waited 2 years for permission and saw mostly what we were permitted to see. Occasionally, we caught a glimpse of the truth, a dirty blood spattered jacket on a doctor when visiting the medical building of a commune. A sign saying “We Will Liberate Hong Kong” quickly whisked out of sight. The restaurant Catherine is taken to by Sung in the book is one where we had a feast on the last night of the tour. Since then I have spoken to many people who have toured China. They are all amazed at my stories. Things have changed so spectacularly.

Most of my knowledge of the period is from books, histories, biographies, novels. I have read several hundred of them, starting from Pearl Buck which I devoured as a teenager. I have always been fascinated by the Orient. I spent three years in Japan in the 70s as well as three years in Hong Kong. When I was a child I insisted on eating with chop sticks and cooked minute rice for myself.

The most tragic thing, when researching the Cultural Revolution, was to see how ideals of fairness and decency are impotent against the realities of power and human greed.

Your book is also a story of love. What does your story say about love, especially in difficult times? Does love conquer all?

The love that survives in my book is, of course, the love of Julia for the child, Ping. All other loves, no matter how strong, are dominated by circumstance. Jen was generous in his love because he had been given so much by Lily. I think we are all able to love if we have been in receipt of it.

You’re eighty-eight years young, and have published your first novel. What’s next? Are you working on a second novel, and will it also be a work of historical fiction?

I have been working on an autobiography which is at the moment an amalgam of all the stories I have written over the years. I found, to my amazement that I could follow my life in my own fiction. I wonder what that says about me!

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

My library is the heart of me. I remember as soon as I learned to read my favorite game was playing “library,” arranging my mother’s books, making little cards for each one and giving them numbers. I often recall the day we moved to a different neighborhood and my mother leaving the unpacking and the care of my baby brother to her sister so that she and I could find the local library. When I was about twelve my uncle died and left me his collection of classics from the Greeks and Romans through to Emerson and Thoreau. My father built two large bookshelves to house them and they have followed me around the world. I wouldn’t be myself without them. Since then I have added hundreds of novels, plays and poetry. In my study I have housed history, philosophy and religion, the stairs are lined with shelves of fiction, A to Z starting at the top. In the living room are floor to ceiling biography, autobiography, music and art. The China collection takes up a good deal of the space.

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

At he moment, I am reading a fascinating novel by Amy Tan called Saving Fish from Drowning. Yesterday I bought a paperback of Any Human Heart by William Boyd. I had already read this on kindle but I wanted it on my shelves because I will enjoy it again when I can turn the pages. I’m afraid I am out of sync with all this technology and I fear very much for our civilization if reading continues to go out of style.

Labels: author interview, interview

Wednesday, July 19th, 2023

An Interview with Sandra A. Miller

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with Sandra A. Miller, an essayist and feature writer, whose 2019 memoir, Trove, chronicled her parallel searches for worldly treasure—$10,000 in coins buried somewhere in New York City—and a deeper sense of meaning, an answer to the sense of longing that was consuming her, despite an ostensibly happy and successful life. Miller’s debut novel, Wednesdays at One, released by Zibby Books earlier this month, is a work of literary suspense that follows the story of a clinical psychologist who is haunted by the mistakes of his past, as brought to light by a mysterious unscheduled client who begins to appear at his office every Wednesday afternoon.

Where did the idea for Wednesdays at One begin? Did the story idea come first, or did the characters?

The seed for the idea was planted twenty-seven years ago when my husband, who is a clinical psychologist, was stalked by one of his clients. She would come to our house and listen to our conversations through open windows, then bring that information into their therapy sessions. Without going into the details of what turned into a four-year nightmare for my family, I started thinking about what it would be like if a psychologist with a dark past had a client come into his office knowing something reprehensible that he’d done. I was interested in the idea of that role reversal–a vulnerable therapist and a client in the power seat. The idea stayed with me for decades in which I made a few attempts to tell the story from the female client’s perspective. It wasn’t until I got the voice of Dr. Gregory Weber—the guilty psychologist–in my head that the story really took shape.

The therapeutic process, and the relationship between therapists and patients, is a narrative element used in many stories, including your own. Why is that? Does it bring something important to your book, something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, that the protagonist is a psychologist?

The therapy dynamic involves the exchange of deeply personal information that often no one else is privy to except the people in that room. There are clear parameters to protect the client who is disclosing that information, leaving room for trouble if the therapist steps outside of the professional boundaries and does anything even vaguely untoward or inappropriate. In Wednesdays at One, Dr. Gregory Weber does not maintain his professional demeanor, and that makes for a compelling and dramatic story. There most certainly wouldn’t be the same high stakes if Gregory worked in another profession—one that didn’t hold him to the highest of moral standards.

Your protagonist is described as having an enviable life, in many ways, but is afflicted by a secret sense of unease and dissatisfaction. This contrast between the outward and inward life is similar to the one explored in your memoir. Would you say that Trove was an influence on some of the themes of your story?

Absolutely. Several of the themes in Trove—Catholic guilt, classism, family dysfunction, and the conflict between our inner and outer lives—have reappeared in Wednesdays at One in a fictional form. Those were the most prominent themes of my childhood, and now I’ve explored them in my novel. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely finished with these themes, because they offer rich opportunities to create tension between characters and deepen the plot. Another key subject in Trove was my father’s illness and death—something which my protagonist Gregory must deal with in the novel. As a creative writing teacher, I tell my students they may find that they have a key story or theme that will find its way into all of their work. Losing my father when I was nineteen is that subject for me. It shows up, if only subtly, in nearly everything I write.

Your essays and articles have appeared in hundreds of magazines and journals, and you have a memoir under your belt as well, but this is your first novel. Did your writing process differ with this book, when compared to your other work, and if so, how?

I recently realized that I wasn’t able to write a novel when I was raising my two young children, because I didn’t have the space required to build a complex fictional world—not when my real family needed so much of my energy and attention. In those years, I had far more success with creative nonfiction inspired by personal stories from my own life. I could easily write about my son’s debilitating eczema, my mother’s protracted illness, my beloved sister’s five year battle with cancer (she’s fine now). Those stories poured out of me, and I could find plenty of markets to publish my writing. But in the pandemic summer of 2020, with both of my children independent, this novel came to me like a download, and I had the mental and emotional space to write it. I wrote 1000 words a day for three months and by the end of the summer, the novel was complete. It felt like a gift. Or maybe the story was building inside me, waiting for the right moment to emerge.

What was your favorite part about writing Wednesdays at One? Was there anything about the process you didn’t particularly like?

The writing process for this book was magical. In thirty years as a creative writer, I never experienced anything like it. I enjoyed writing all of the characters, which made them a delight to interact with on the page. I guess the hard part happened when I started getting feedback from my beta readers and had to go in and make some changes to the characters I’d gotten to know and care about as they were.

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

I read pretty widely, but my weakness is for rich, emotional family dramas with some dark turns. Glancing at my shelves I see many books by Elizabeth Strout, John Irving, Annie Ernaux, and Jumpa Lahiri. I also read a fair amount of memoirs, as long as they have a strong narrative arc, such as Barbarian Days by William Finnegan or the heartbreaking, Know My Name by Chanel Miller.

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

I’m really enjoying Long Bright River by Liz Moore and just finished listening to Viola Davis’s memoir Finding Me, which is one of my favorite audiobooks. Don’t miss that one.

With Milan Kundera’s recent death, I was reminded of how much I loved all of his books, most of which I read in my MFA program. But The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of my favorite novels, and it taught me so much about structure and point of view. It’s a great book for readers to enjoy and writers to learn from.

Labels: author interview, interview

Thursday, March 16th, 2023

An Interview with Jane Roper

LibraryThing is pleased to sit down this month with author Jane Roper, whose memoir Double Time chronicled her first three years as the mother of twins, while she was also grappling with a diagnosis of bipolar 2 disorder; and whose debut novel, Eden Lake, used the classic setting of a summer camp to explore issues of love and loss. Roper’s second novel, The Society of Shame, is due out this April from Anchor Books, and follows the story of a woman who becomes a social media sensation after a photograph capturing a period stain on the back of her pants goes viral.

The Society of Shame centers around a woman who becomes an online sensation after a photograph taken of her goes viral. Was there a real-life internet drama which served as an inspiration for your story? If not, where did your story idea come from?

In one sense the story was inspired by all internet dramas. I’ve always been fascinated by how scandals and dustups play out online—how quickly things can go viral, and the ravenous way people gawk and/or pile on with their opinions and judgment.

I wanted to build a novel around an attention-averse character who becomes “internet famous,” but hadn’t figured out the inciting incident. Then I saw a news story making the rounds online about a man who came home to find his wife and her lover dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage, where they’d (presumably) been having sex in her idling car. Finding out your spouse has been unfaithful is humiliating enough, but to have it become national news, and the source of endless jokes—oof! So, I decided to have the heroine of my book, Kathleen Held, discover in a very public way that her husband, a U.S. Senate candidate, is cheating on her (also in a garage, but nobody dies). Then I doubled down on her humiliation by having a picture from the scene, complete with the period stain on her pants, go viral.

In many cultures, menstruation is surrounded by taboos, and often tied to notions of shame, particularly in the public sphere. What made you center this particular form of “shame” in your story, and what is its significance? Did you feel that your storytelling itself was breaking taboos?

Every woman lives in dread of having a period mishap, because of those taboos you mention. So, it felt like the perfect choice for Kathleen’s shame-inducing crisis, and one that many readers would relate to. I also needed something that could plausibly snowball into something much bigger than Kathleen’s own humiliation. There’s a lot of very real, much needed activism around menstrual justice and destigmatization happening today, so it wasn’t that big a stretch to create the fictional #YesWeBleed movement in the book.

I do feel like I’m breaking taboos by writing a book where menstruation is a big part of the plot—and I love it! There’s no reason for periods to be a source of shame, and the more people write / talk / make art about it, the more normalized it will become, I hope.

Social media also features prominently in your novel, which is described as an exploration of the perils of being “extremely online.” What are those perils? Is there a connection, in your view, between social media and shame culture?

I confess, I love social media. But when you spend too much time there, it starts to feel like your entire world. You lose your sense of perspective, and reactions to your posts and pictures and comments from others online—many of whom are complete strangers—take on an outsize weight. This is what happens to Kathleen in The Society of Shame: she gets so obsessed with what people are thinking and saying about her on social media that she loses sight of her real-life relationships and her core values and priorities.

I think there’s definitely a connection between social media and shame culture. In colonial times, people who misbehaved were shamed by being put in the stocks or publicly whipped on the town green, where everyone could watch and jeer and hurl rotten cabbages. Today, social media is the town green, but on a much, much bigger scale. Humans take a certain glee in shaming people, and social media makes it so easy to join in—and enjoy feeling morally superior in the process. You can like and share and retweet and add your own indictments or snarky quips. The only thing you can’t do is throw produce. I wanted to hold a mirror up to all of this in the book, get people thinking—and laughing, I hope—about online shaming, and the way it affects people at the receiving end.

Your protagonist channels her humiliation into becoming an activist but finds that her pursuit of online celebrity is harming her relationship with her daughter. Are you offering a commentary on activism, as it is enacted online? If so, what would healthy activism look like?

Kathleen’s problems aren’t so much about her activism, per se, but her all-consuming quest for approval by the internet masses. What I wanted to illuminate about online activism is how easily it can become performative—more about the memes and hashtags and swag (like the menstrual cup hats the activists in the book sport) than the substance of the work. Truly effective activism tends to be a long-game, and most of it is not Insta-worthy.

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

My LibraryThing shelves are still very much a work in progress, but they lean heavily toward books that have stuck with me for years, many of which I read when I first started writing fiction in my twenties: Interpreter of Maladies, Love in the Time of Cholera, Middlesex, Nine Stories, The Shipping News, Invisible Man, and The Remains of the Day, to name a few. Reading as a writer for the first time, I was obsessed with figuring out how and why they worked, so they left an extra deep impression.

There are also a number of memoirs on my shelf—I particularly like funny ones, by funny women—lots of literary fiction, some favorite classics, and a growing number of psychological thrillers. I’ve been getting more and more into this genre of late, especially as audiobooks. They’re an excellent incentive to pop in my earbuds and go running!

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

I’m currently deep into Terra Nova by Henriette Lazaridis. It’s a gorgeous historical novel about two British men who hope to be the first people to reach the South Pole, and the woman they both love back home in England, a photographer documenting the women’s suffrage movement. I also recently read and loved How to Be Eaten, by Maria Adelmann, which depicts fairytale heroines as modern-day tabloid fodder. It’s funny and smart and completely original.

Labels: author interview, interview

Thursday, February 16th, 2023

An Interview with Megan Frazer Blakemore

LibraryThing is very pleased to sit down this month with children’s author, middle-school librarian and former LibraryThing employee Megan Frazer Blakemore, whose newest middle-grade fantasy, Princess of the Wild Sea, was published in January by Bloomsbury Books. A Junior Library Guild Selection, this story of a young princess raised in isolation as the result of a curse placed upon her has earned starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and Booklist.

Princess of the Wild Sea has been described as a loose adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. Why do you think that fairy-tales are such a popular jumping-off point in children’s fiction? What is it about Sleeping Beauty specifically that led you to choose it as a framework for your story?

As a writer, I think it’s fun to play with existing tropes and the expectations of genres. When your audience is children, their knowledge of these expectations is, naturally, limited. Fairy tales offer a way to play that children can understand and appreciate. This generation of kids is not only aware of fairy tales, but also retellings and fractured fairy tales, so they are primed for this kind of story.

As for why Sleeping Beauty, this story has always been one that frustrates me. The titular princess has so little agency and, in many versions, is the victim of extreme violence. I wanted to give her more power and choice. This also gave me a chance to think about who gets to be the hero of stories and what it even means to be a hero. These are the types of questions I like to grapple with with students, so it all came together.

As a middle-school librarian, you are well acquainted with your audience and their reading habits. What are the unique challenges and rewards of writing for a younger audience?

Because I have so much experience with kids, I know what they are capable of. Kids like to think about big questions. They like to be challenged. It’s my job to create the framework that allows them to do this. As I mentioned above, young readers are still learning the conventions of genre and storytelling. This can be a challenge because you want to make sure they can understand what you’re doing, but it’s also one of the rewards: I get to introduce kids to this world. I get to invite them into the land of literature. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously both as a writer and a librarian.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you start with a story idea, a character, a scene? How do you go about constructing your story?

I once heard Sharon Creech speak and she talked about how stories come from a collision of ideas, and I think that is true for me as well. Sometimes I will notice something out and about in the world and it will get my wheels spinning, but it almost always has to rub up against something else. In this case, I had this image in my head of a girl running across an island. I don’t know where it came from, but I liked the idea of a story about a girl who was the only child on an island, surrounded by grown-ups. At the same time, I was teaching a course on Children’s Literature at Maine College of Art. We did a whole unit on fairy tales and I was totally immersed in them. My thoughts on Sleeping Beauty rubbed against this idea of a girl on the island, and the story started to come together.

I tend to write what some people call a “discovery draft.” I am figuring out the story as I go. In this case, I definitely took some wrong turns. At about a third of the way in, I cut nearly half of what I had written and went in another direction. It was not as difficult a decision as it sounds—I knew I had taken the story in a direction that wouldn’t work and had to go back.

The revision process is where I really construct the story. I take a look at what I have and decide what I need to do to shape it into something that is actually book-like. I write outlines, make plans, and write multiple drafts until I feel it’s ready to be shared. It’s probably not the most efficient process, but, so far, it works for me.

What is your favorite scene in Princess of the Wild Sea, and why?

Because this is a fantasy novel, there is a lot of magic. I had a lot of fun writing those more whimsical magical scenes. It’s a chance to revel in joy and wonder. My favorite might be a scene that takes place on the night of Princess Harbor Rose’s birthday. Her magical aunts come together to make a beautiful, magical celebration for her. I really wanted to show how much her world is grounded in love so that when that world is threatened, the stakes feel really high.

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

If you look at my LibraryThing shelves, you’ll see I have a lot on my “Read but unowned” shelf. That’s because I get a lot of my books from libraries. My bookshelves at home almost serve as snapshots of my reading life. I still have a lot of books from college when I studied Medieval and Renaissance literature. I have research and theory books from when I was getting my MLS. My husband and I together have just about every book Stephen King has written since we both spent our teen years reading him. I mostly read fiction, but I also really enjoy nonfiction, especially deep dives into subjects I’ve never really thought about before. And, of course, there’s a lot of children’s literature.

By the way, I really love the Charts and Graphs feature on LibraryThing as a way to visualize my reading. My Dewey one is definitely 800-heavy, but the genre one shows more diversity. I used tags to take a snapshot of my 2022 reading, and I’m excited to see how that changes over time.

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

My reading tastes tend to be a little all over the place. I read a lot of middle grade and young adult because of my job as a librarian and because of what I write. I just read a fun rom-com, Better than the Movies by Lynn Painter. If you like romantic comedy movies and the fake dating trope, this is a good choice. Now I’m reading Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe.

I’ve been recommending When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill to anyone who will listen. I love books where big magic intersects with our mundane world, and it doesn’t get much bigger than thousands of women suddenly turning into dragons. I think Barnhill did such an amazing job of crafting this story around the rage that so many of us have been feeling these past few years.

Labels: author interview, interview

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, 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

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Interview with Ann Leckie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Q&A with Andy Weir

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

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

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

Tell us what your novel is all about.

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

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

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

The science is real, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Interview with Maximillian Potter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Interview with Matthew Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your favorite scene to write?

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

Author Interview: Alexi Zentner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your favorite scene to write?

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

Read our full interview here.

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Author Interview: Ian Doescher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read our full interview here.

Labels: author interview

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Interview with Tom Standage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview, authors

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Interview with Patrick Ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview, authors

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Author interview: Samantha Shannon on “The Bone Season”

Some excerpts from my interview with Samantha Shannon, which appeared in the August State of the Thing newsletter. Samantha is the author of The Bone Season, the first volume in a seven-part series, released just yesterday by Bloomsbury.

Do you recall which part of The Bone Season came to you first? Was there a particular moment that inspired the novel?

I was doing an internship at a literary agency in Seven Dials—a junction in London where seven streets meet—when I had the idea. I imagined a girl having the exact same day at work that I was, but she happened to be clairvoyant.

The Bone Season is set in 2059, but in an alternate world which diverged from our own in 1859. I’d love to hear how you set about developing the universe in which the novel takes place, and the sorts of things you had to consider as you did so.

I wanted my clairvoyant society to be a cross-section of historical types of divination, so I did quite a lot of reading about classical and Renaissance impressions of augury, soothsaying and so on. Scion evolved in my mind as a response to the criminal underworld (whereas in the story itself it’s vice versa), and I did a lot of thinking about how to create a believable world in which clairvoyance is persecuted, and about what the people of Scion might hear, see, feel and think in their everyday lives.

Much of The Bone Season is set in what was once Oxford (where you have, I should note, recently finished your undergraduate career). What was it about Oxford that made it work well as the setting?

Oxford was perfect for The Bone Season. Although it’s a modern place in many respects, there are still vestiges of archaism and tradition, and its spectrum of old buildings, from various centuries, give it an eerie sense of being frozen in time.

Who are some of the authors you particularly admire or who’ve had some influence on your own writing?

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was what first got me interested in dystopian and speculative fiction, alongside Orwell and Wyndham. I specialised in Emily Dickinson at university; her poetry inspired many of the themes I want to explore in later Bone Season books.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

I just finished The Gamal, the debut of Irish novelist Ciarán Collins, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the moment I’m reading the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire.

Samantha also talked to me about working with Imaginarium Studios on the film version of The Bone Season, and told me what she’s liked most about the publishing process. Read the rest of our interview.


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Labels: author interview, state of the thing

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Author interview: Paul Collins on “Duel with the Devil”

Some excerpts from my interview with Paul Collins, which appeared in the July State of the Thing newsletter. Paul teaches in the MFA program at Portland State University, and is the author of many books, including Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, The Book of William, and more. He’s also NPR’s “literary detective,” and writes for a wide variety of publications. His new book, Duel with the Devil was published in June by Crown.

In Duel with the Devil you tell the story of a gruesome 1799 New York City murder case in which a young woman’s suitor is accused of causing her death. The young man puts together something of a “dream team” of defense lawyers: who were his attorneys, and how did he manage to obtain such impressive counsel?

The defendant, Levi Weeks, managed to get the three best lawyers in NYC: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston. Weeks was a construction foreman, but his brother Ezra Weeks happened to be the most successful developers in the city—and Hamilton and Burr were both clients of his! Hamilton in particular was running up an impressive tab (which he couldn’t pay) having Weeks build him a mansion, so he certainly owed a favor.

I might add that while Livingston’s the least known of the trio, he was no slacker himself: the guy was later appointed to the Supreme Court.

This wasn’t the only time Hamilton and Burr found themselves on the same side of a courtroom, right? What others sorts of cases did they cooperate on?

They usually worked on commercial cases—property disputes, insurance cases over lost ships, that sort of thing. They were often on opposite sides, but not always—in fact, right before this case, they’d wrapped up a monster settlement for a client named Louis Le Guen. Since Aaron Burr was even worse with money than Hamilton, he promptly asked Le Guen for a loan!

You’ve got one of the best titles out there, as NPR’s “literary detective.” I’d love to hear a bit about how you seek out the sorts of fascinating historical stories you like to tell: do you go in search of them, or do they tend to be just things you’ve stumbled across in the course of other research and then decide to follow up on?

Often I’ll just grab random old newspapers and magazines (in libraries or online) and start snooping, but a surprising amount of the time it’s weird, random stuff I find while looking up something else. Chance favors the prepared mind and all that.

On this book in particular, though, a lot of the small and odd details came pretty systematically—namely, I read through nearly every available Manhattan newspaper from 1799 and 1800. That’s not quite as insane as it sounds, because newspapers back then were 4 pages long! Still, it was thousands of pages, but that’s always my favorite part of writing—wandering through those lost-dog notices and molasses shipments and yellow fever quack cures. Probably a whole bunch of other stories will now spin off from that experience.

What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

The British Library recently reissued Andrew Forrester’s Victorian pulper The Female Detective (1864), which I’d never read before and was fascinated by. As a writer, I really love the premise of Alexandra Horowitz’s new book On Looking—basically, walking around the same NYC neighborhood eleven times with different kinds of experts observing it each time. And as someone fascinated by disastrously bad movies, I’m excited to see Tom Bissell’s upcoming The Disaster Artist, about the making of “The Room.” I was actually with Tom the first time either of us saw it, and…wow. Just…wow.

Also, I’ve just come off a Wodehouse reading jag. After eight or nine of his books in row I felt like I’d consumed an entire sheet cake, but it’s a testament to him that, well, I’m seriously thinking of reading a tenth.

But wait, there’s more! Find out what Paul’s working on now, and about some surprising tidbits he’s found during his researches. Read the rest of our interview.


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Labels: author interview, state of the thing

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Author interview: Travis McDade on “Thieves of Book Row”

For the July State of the Thing newsletter, I interviewed Travis McDade about his second book, Thieves of Book Row, published in June by Oxford University Press. Travis is curator of rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law, where he teaches a class called “Rare Books, Crime & Punishment.”

Set the scene for us, if you would, by providing a brief description of what Book Row was like during its heyday. Is there anyplace even comparable today?

Book Row was six blocks of Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue packed with bookstores and personalities. Most of these shops were run by men who had learned the trade at the elbow of other booksellers, so there was a well-earned knowledge of the book business, of lower Manhattan and of other booksellers’ aptitudes. These guys were well-read and hard-nosed. There is a tendency now to look back with the sort of nostalgic, moonlight-and-magnolia gloss we often do with the recent past—and some of that is deserved—but Book Row wasn’t Disneyland. It was a labor of love for many of these guys, but it was definitely a labor. And life in Manhattan in the early 20th century was no picnic.

There are places now that have clusters of bookshops—Hay-on-Wye in the west of England springs to mind—but nothing like Book Row. What made it unique was a combination of these personalities, certain historical economic forces, and the nature of New York City at the time. It couldn’t have existed anywhere else, and it can’t exist now.

The theft ring you write about in Thieves of Book Row was no fly-by-night operation: these guys were organized! Give us a sense of how the operation worked, who was involved, and the impact these thefts had on the book and library world of the time.

Like most cottage industries, it developed organically. It started out as just some guys stealing books and selling them to shops—the classic American story!—and it grew from there. A confluence of events made this theft ring, like Book Row itself, possible. By the second half of the 1920s, there was reliable transportation, a decent economy and a rise in the value of a certain type of books. These books, as it happened, were sitting on the open stacks of libraries all over the American northeast, most librarians not even imagining they were worth the effort to steal. Once, at least, they had been right about that. But by the 1920s, it made good business sense to send men from Manhattan to Worcester, Massachusetts, to steal half a dozen books, if the men could then easily move on and hit Lancaster, Leominster, Gardner, etc. The thieves would get paid a standard rate of $2 per book and the bookstores would sell them for anything from $25 to $1,000.

Just to give an indication of how large the theft ring was, by the time it came to an end, the major problem was not getting the books out of libraries but finding places to store the surplus.

One of the key thefts you focus on in the book is the snatching of a copy of Poe’s Al Araaf from the New York Public Library. What made this particular book such a desirable commodity at the time? And how did that theft turn out for the thieves in the end?

Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems was Poe’s second publication, but the first to use his name. Like much of his early work, because it had not been popular, few copies were saved. This, coupled with the fact that the value of Poe works had been party to an inexorable upward climb for three decades, made it a hot commodity.

I’ve tried to get my head around the “why” of the theft. The question “what were they thinking” is often hard to understand in retrospect, and I confess I can’t be sure what the answer is. The theft from the New York Public Library seems to me a great deal like awaking a slumbering giant. The NYPL employed a man whose sole job was to keep its books safe—a unique position at the time—and had powerful allies in the city. When there were so many other compliant victims out there, why would anyone want to give the NYPL a reason to get involved? Recklessness? Spite? Because it was there? I don’t know, but it spelled doom for the theft ring.

Tell us about the research for this book. What sorts of sources did you find that allowed you to reconstruct this theft ring and its deeds so thoroughly?

This book started out as a small part of a chapter in a larger book, when my only sources were a few newspaper articles and a New York appellate court case. Then I stumbled across a memoir that had a few pages on the theft and, very quickly after that, an article in a book collecting magazine from 1933. Each of these offered their own bits of information, each was written in an entirely different voice and each at different removes from the scene of the crime. Most of my previous research was based on court and law enforcement records—dry, fact-based, close-in-time material. The writing of this book, typified by those first sources, required me to draw on a range of much different sources to create a narrative.

Booksellers’ memoirs—even if they did not mention this crime, or Book Row—were great, adding a certain life to the book. But there were also other types of first-person reporting that was extremely helpful: correspondence, court testimony, depositions, etc. These are more raw than memoir, because they aren’t meant for public consumption, and so offer up little facts that a person would not ordinarily think to include in a more formal record.

I also read a lot of fiction from the time. Most of this was not helpful, except for providing context, but some bits and pieces made it into the story. There is even a little humor in the book, if you look hard enough. For example, I rely on a 1920s article from The New Yorker, at one point, to add levity to a passage; so you can probably guess that what humor exists is bone dry.

For more on Thieves of Book Row, what Travis is reading now, and a bit about what he’s working on next, read the rest of our interview.


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