Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

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

Tuesday, December 19th, 2023

Publisher Interview: Eye of Newt Books

Eye of Newt Books logo

LibraryThing is pleased to present our inaugural Independent Publisher interview, hopefully the first of a series. We sat down this month with Neil Christopher, one of the publishers of Eye of Newt Books, an independent Canadian press based in Toronto whose small but impressive catalog features works that pair imaginative fiction and folklore with beautiful and striking artwork. An educator, author and filmmaker who taught for many years in the Arctic, Christopher was one of the founders of Nunavut-based Inhabit Media, an Inuit-owned publishing house that specializes in content featuring traditional Inuit mythology and knowledge. He is himself the author of a number of collections of Inuit tales, from Arctic Giants to The Dreaded Ogress of the Tundra: Fantastic Beings from Inuit Myths and Legends.

How did Eye of Newt Books get started? Whose idea was it, how did it all come together, and what is your vision, going forward?

We have been working in publishing in the Canadian Arctic for almost 20 years, and during that time we met many amazing authors and illustrators that sometimes didn’t fit into our Arctic publishing initiative. As well, there were many stories and projects we wanted to do that didn’t fit into the Arctic publishing work. So, we wanted to start a Toronto-based publishing company that could work with these incredible writers and artists and could realize some of these projects.

Danny** was the one who came up with the name, and we worked together to clarify Eye of Newt’s vision. Basically, we want to make quirky books that might not have a home elsewhere. We want to make books for kids that we would have enjoyed; and we want to make books for adults that we want to read.

**Co-founder of Eye of Newt Books, Danny Christopher is Neil Christopher’s brother, and is also an author and illustrator.

Many of your books—Bestiarium Greenlandica (Denmark), Museum of Hidden Beings (Iceland), Hausgeister (Germany), Welsh Monsters & Mythical Beasts (Wales)—were originally published elsewhere, and often in different languages. How did you discover these books, and their authors and artists? What do you look for, when it comes to adding a book to your catalog?

In our work with Inhabit Media, we often come across books from other countries that we want to version in English and make available to the North American market. Most of these books are about folklore or mythology. We are interested in preserving and promoting authentic traditional lore from other countries. Both Danny and I loved that growing up, and now we get to bring it to a new generation of readers.

Now we often receive submissions from other publishers. It didn’t take long for us to get known, and we are always getting amazing book projects submitted to us for English versioning or licensing for our market.

Both Inhabit Media and Eye of Newt strongly feature works of folklore and mythology. Are you particularly drawn to such tales? What makes them important, and why do you think both of the publishing houses you helped to found are centered around them?

That’s a great question! When we started Inhabit Media, we saw that children in Nunavut were not aware of their own cultural stories. Correcting this situation was one of Inhabit Media’s early missions. Through that work, we saw that traditional stories and lore were being lost or forgotten all over the world. Myth and legends were always something both Danny and I loved growing up, so creating books that help gather and protect authentic representations of myths and legends from around the world is important to us. We love new quirky stories, but we don’t want to forget the old stories and ancient magic.

The books in the Eye of Newt catalog are visually striking, with artwork in a diverse range of styles and media. Are the illustrations as important as the text, and if so, why? What are some of your favorite illustrations, from your catalog, and what is it about them that speaks to you?

For Eye of Newt the artwork and illustrations are just as important as the text. Both Danny and I have other work in publishing and filmmaking. Eye of Newt started as a side project, which quickly grew into something larger. Because of this limited time, we are very selective of the book projects we take on. We are really proud of the list of books we have created, and we intend to keep our standards high to only bring unique and beautiful books to our readers.

Some of my own favourite illustrations are from Iris Compiet’s Faeries of the Faultlines and Kamila Mlynarczyk’s I Can Be Myself When Everyone I Know Is Dead… They are starkly different, but I have a soft spot for prolific creators who really pour their heart and soul into their work and create a lot of it.

Are you still involved in Inhabit Media, and if so, how do you balance your work there with your work at Eye of Newt?

Yes. Both Danny and I are still very active owners of Inhabit Media. Eye of Newt was a passion project for both of us and continues to be so. I am sure finding balance for any business owner is a challenging task, and we certainly find it challenging. Eye of Newt has a talented and committed staff team that are moving projects forward when we are away. A lot of the Eye of Newt work for Danny and I happens at night and on weekends. Danny and I also said that Eye of Newt would be our retirement project, it just got started a bit early and now we are playing catch up all the time.

What can we look forward to in the future, from Eye of Newt, and from you?

Our success with our early books has opened doors with many amazing creators from around the world. We are really excited about the books we have lined up. One area to watch for is the fun and unusual children’s books we will be launching in the next few years. This year we released Kyle Beaudette’s The Garden Witch which is a loose folklore retelling with an aesthetic (and naughtiness!) we enjoy. We always wanted to have children’s books as a major part of our list, and our early books slanted more towards mythology and fantasy. Now, we are looping back to children’s books to help round off our list.

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

If you had a look at my library, you would easily see where some of our inspirations come from. Faeries by Froud and Lee, Gnomes by Huygen and Poortvliet, etc. and tons of strange and fun children’s books. Just like Eye of Newt, you will see books that are beautifully illustrated. As well, both Danny and I collect very old books. A lot of that collection focuses on folktales, history, witchcraft, and shamanism.

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

I have been leaning back into my older books lately. Two books I have been enjoying this month are Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island by Weta Workshop. Two books I consider classics. The World of Kong is very hard to find, as it is out of print, but well worth the hunt!

Labels: interview, publishers

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, December 3rd, 2021

An Interview with Scholar Anna Faktorovich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you been reading lately?

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

Labels: author interview, interview

Friday, October 22nd, 2021

An Interview with Novelist Priyanka Champaneri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview, interview

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

An Interview with Poet Danielle Rose

This month LibraryThing sat down with poet and editor Danielle Rose. Rose is the author of at first & then, which won the Fall 2019 Black River Chapbook Competition, as well as The History of Mountains, available through Variant Lit. Her poems have appeared in publications such as Hobart, Palette, and Sundog Lit. She was recently at the center of a social-media storm for comments about the state of poetry in the wider culture (see below), leading to her dismissal from her position as Poetry Editor at Barren Magazine.

“I wish poets understood that the general population has no interest in what we do, so when we speak we are speaking only to each other. The delusion that poetry is something powerful is a straight line to all kinds of toxic positivities that are really just us lying to ourselves.”

You’ve said that your position is not a defeatist one, but affirmative—even liberatory. What did you want fellow poets to take away from your original post?

Intent is a slippery, untrustworthy thing. It is so much in the moment, and our recollection is deeply influenced by our own feelings. My feelings have run a gamut—exhausted, indignant, astonished, cowed, jubilant, disgusted. In one way the tweet was a crude public frustration, in another way the tweet was a nasty dig at folks who genuinely believe that the whole world is composed of poetry all the way down. There was agreement and disagreement, a lot of conversation. Then some people showed up uninvited and broke everything fragile while setting the refuse bins on fire. I am reminded of Brian Massumi: “You are aware of the result, not the process.”

I wonder about confusion. The statement about the problem is not to be confused with the problem itself, although we are quick to do just that. Writers are so used to bending words that we have trouble recognizing when we are the ones being bent around the words we employ. If I could succinctly restate my position, I would do so. But that would be an essay covering already-well trod ground, which would address historical and cultural examples, etc… It would be read by maybe four people.

And somewhere in there I might cut to the banal ordinary and admit that it peeves me that so much of the conversation about poetry in a place like Twitter centers around a performative and uncritical register that contains hyperbolic exclamations about things like ‘power.’ If power is so commonplace what do we even mean by power? We too rarely interrogate our relationship to how language bends us around pillars of utterances that help us categorize our world. We should trace the consequence even if it is something we immediately feel is good.

But I think what I wanted and want is completely immaterial. If quiet, singular desire could win battles, we’d have no need for this kind of communication about communicating. I understand this may not be the most satisfying answer but sometimes answers are not satisfying. Sometimes they aren’t answers at all but instead a pile of questions that now demand your attention and this cycle never really stops, ever, all the way down forever.

If poetry is not meant to communicate with the wider culture and world, what is it for?

“Poetry is concerned with communication” is a quite unassailable position to stake out, I think. It is when we start to use those words that poets like to use with convenient definitions that can be shifted to suit whatever purpose is necessary, like power, that we begin to see problems. Or in other words that here, as well, our feelings shape our conceptions of truth. I think this might be something of an example of what Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart refer to when they talk about ‘what sticks in the mind’ with regard to our beliefs and judgements. That we all encounter ideas and they attach themselves to us in individual ways. Our feelings about the question affect the content of the question. Such as assuming an active, results-oriented result in a field such as poetry. We want what sticks to us to be good for us, however we define that idea.

Instead of focusing on results and becoming bogged down in the aspirational (because concepts that stick reinforce themselves because they are a part of us) we can instead focus on process. What does a poem do? It becomes a record. Eventually, a history. I think there can be a strong argument for the usefulness of poetry in an ethnographic sense insomuch as poetry provides a unique opportunity for language to capture a particular bundle of otherwise intangible things. But at the end of the day poetry is reactive, it responds to something else; it deepens an understanding that is existent in-process, already.

You have stated that you were not “cancelled,” but the response to your post could suggest a desire for uniformity of thought in the poetry world. Is this about conformity?

I think that sometimes we encounter a concept that comes into conflict with the concepts that make up our own identity and this is generally part of a healthy, constant process of individual development. ‘Uniformity’ is ultimately a simplistic model. Berlant tells us about how norms are ‘spongy’ things, their purpose to soak up new concepts. I don’t think that is what is going on here, exactly. Or at least not about the reaction to the tweet, which is different from the tweet, itself. Sara Ahmed says, “The complainer becomes a complaint magnet, to become a complainer is to attract complaints,” and she is right. The lightning rod does not consent to be struck by lighting, it just is.

Maybe more immediate, I do not think you can point at the responses and subsequent discourse and find a coherent uniformity of belief. Everyone who agreed did so for their own, slightly different, reasons; everyone who disagreed did so for their own, slightly different, reasons. Which is a kind of uniformity, I suppose: A uniformity of minor disunion.

You have written of your great love for poetry, and of how you have been hurt by it. What makes poetry so powerful?

I see what you did here. I’m not certain it is helpful.

People have hurt me. More accurately, people’s actions and decisions have caused me harm in front of this backdrop we call ‘poetry.’ It is all just an argument about causal effect. What is doing harm, the poem? No, the poet. The community that affirms that poet despite the harms they cause. A poem cannot plot against you. A poem cannot punch you in the face leaving you with a nosebleed. A poem does not staunch the bleeding, after. We do not seek out poets to build bridges over rivers. There are edges and limits and boundaries to phenomena that we rarely understand more than experiencing a fleeting emotional feeling that becomes intertwined with the thing itself. And then we react with anger when the thing we have merged our selfhoods with is challenged.

None of this is a ‘good look.’ It is barely an identity. Berlant says, “Identity is marketed in national capitalism as a property. It is something you can purchase, or purchase a relation to. Or it is something you already own that you can express: my masculinity, my queerness.” All this possession and ownership and it is reflected in the actions of poets who cannot bear to watch their relationship with capital dressed down to the exploitative economics it actually is, under all the aspirational, self-promotional nonsense.

What poet(s) has/have been most influential in the development of your own work?

This is something that is always changing as I encounter new things and process new ideas. I am quite taken by work that situates itself on the borders of ‘poetry,’ where other disciplines and ideas can seep over that vague boundary and find a foothold somewhere a little new. Since poetry is a kind of produced tool, it should be expansive and useful—not reductive and exclusive.

In the rough contemporary milieu I find myself most drawn to Susan Stewart, Anne Carson, and Lauren Berlant. I have a type, I admit it.

Tell us about your personal library? What’s in it, and how do you organize it?

I dislike ‘getting rid’ of books. I keep everything, and my partner has to keep putting up new bookshelves so I don’t see this changing. It is mostly unorganized. Or it would look unorganized from the outside. Work is clustered by genre, author, etc… I have a few larger, topical collections that are worthy of the term ‘collection.’ They get their own shelves. In my home office I have a ‘working shelf’ of everything that I have touched recently and might need/want again.

And then there are piles of books scattered around the house, always.

I suppose I organize my books according to a momentary hierarchy of my own individual need.

What are you reading now?

Lauren Hough’s Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Alina Ștefănescu’s DOR, Diane Louie’s Fractal Shores. And whatever else passes across my desk because I soak it all in.

The book I have been most stuck in of recent has been Berlant & Stewart’s The Hundreds, which is an almost-perfect book. Or at least, it tries to actively work with what it is we do, as writers, instead of nailing everything to what we hope to be true before we even test the hypothesis.

Labels: book world, interview, poetry, social media

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2021

An Interview with Michael Tamblyn, Rakuten Kobo CEO

This month LibraryThing is pleased to catch up with Michael Tamblyn, the CEO of Rakuten Kobo, a Canadian ebook, audiobook and ereader company doing business in 150 countries. Tamblyn serves on the board of OverDrive, an ebook distributor working with both the non-profit and retail sectors; is involved with AGE-Well, a Canadian organization dedicated to developing technology and services for healthy aging; and is the founder of BookNet Canada, a “non-profit organization that develops technology, standards, and education to serve the Canadian book industry.”

What drew you to the book business and book technology?

I always loved bookstores. The small town where I grew up had a pretty standard books+cards+stationary store, but I thought it was fantastic and I began bugging the owner for a job at 11 or 12. He was a bookseller of the old school, wore three piece suits to work retail, and had absolutely no need of an urchin to work in his store. Fast forward 8 or 9 years, I’m working my way through a university degree in music, cooking at a restaurant that was attached to the iconic Canadian indy store, The Bookshelf. The store manager stuck his head in the door of the kitchen and said there was an opening in the bookstore and if anyone was interested, now was the time to speak up. I had just had a very timely conversation with one of my music instructors that went something like “If you get burned or cut working in a kitchen, you’re out of the program. You don’t get 2 months off to rehab an injury; you’re just out.” That got me into the store. Fast forward another couple of years, I have graduated with my music degree, so of course I’m still working in the bookstore. But I didn’t love stocking shelves, and we were just reading about this startup in Seattle that had just left the garage and was selling books online. I thought “We could definitely do this,” and the store owner agreed, so we gathered a little group together and started the first online bookstore in Canada, bookshelf.ca, next door to the store in the storage space of a gift basket company next door. It was 1995-ish. Since then, most of the jobs I’ve had have been where books, business and technology crash into each other.

You were part of the team that founded Kobo in 2009. What was your vision for Kobo, and what sets the company apart?

I was CEO of BookNet Canada when ebooks first started to gather momentum. We launched one of the first conferences on digitization, TechForum, and that was where Mike Serbinis gave one of the first presentations of this app that they had created, called Shortcovers. Indigo was backing it, and it was one of the purest examples I have ever seen of a retailer tackling the innovator’s dilemma head-on. They built something that threatened their core business and put their smartest people on it to make it work. Maybe a month after, they asked if I wanted to join to head up the sales and content sides of the business – ecommerce, publishers, authors, and anything else that needed a home. I had been running BookNet for six years, together with an incredible group of people, and it was one of those “don’t look, just leap” moments. I joined a company in a basement that was selling maybe 25 books a day.

But the vision was crystal clear: this is the start of a transformation in reading. No one, deep down in their hearts, believes that we are still going to be chopping down trees and  pressing ink into them 50 years from now to do our reading. So a change is coming. The only questions are “how quickly” and “who will make it happen?” What I had learned from bookshelf.ca and Indigo is that you can compete successfully against really big companies. Canada isn’t like the US – Amazon hasn’t washed away all domestic competition, online or in-store. If you are focused, have some serious up-front investment, and pick your battles carefully, you can dance between the elephants’ feet. So while Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and Google were all fighting each other for control of the U.S. market, we started building out businesses in every single other country that looked like it needed an ebook solution. We partnered with retailers like Indigo who saw ebooks coming, wanted a solution that would let them maintain connection with their customers, and were looking for someone who could help them compete. And it worked. Now if you look around the world, Amazon really only dominates a couple of markets for ebooks — the US and the UK. Everywhere else, it’s a real fight – France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, on and on. And in most of those markets, there is a bookseller partnered with Kobo who is keeping their marketshare, going toe-to-toe with the biggest tech companies in the world. It’s pretty fantastic.

For some time now it has been in the public mind that there is a competitive, perhaps even antagonistic relationship between digital and print media. Do you share this view? What do you think the future of book publishing will look like, when it comes to print vs. ebooks?

There will always be print books. There are some books that are just beautiful objects. I would say this is a tempest-in-a-teapot issue made up of 1/3 economics, 1/3 aesthetics and 1/3 McLuhan.  Publishers make good margin on ebooks, and the physical supply chain has costs that publishers would probably love to say goodbye to. But the print book retail market is much more diverse – chains, Indies, grocery, discount stores – than the ecommerce or ebook business. If I had to guess, I think publishers look at the print world as a hedge, a barrier that keeps a few players from being completely dominant. So they are very careful to support it, maintain it, keep it healthy. That gets wrapped in “I could never let go of paper books! I love the smell of them and the feel of pages against my face…”. That’s an aesthetic stance more than a practical one, one that gets harder to sustain when you hit your 40s, need reading glasses and then find out that it’s really really nice to be able to make the font on a book bigger! There is a never-ending tension in the book business between higher-prices/smaller-audiences (hardcovers, trade paper) and books for the masses (paperbacks, libraries, ebooks, library ebook access). eBooks are just the latest manifestation of books as a mass medium: “How do we get this book to as many people as possible as cheaply as possible?” with all of the usual forces lined up against that impulse.

In a recent article for Forbes, you wrote about the hidden age discrimination in the tech world, that a disinterest in the needs of older consumers is a costly strategic error. What are the long-term benefits of designing with older users in mind?

You can approach it two ways: one is as an issue of accessibility. Anything you do that makes life easier for a sight-impaired person, for a person who has issues with manual dexterity, for a person who can’t lift something that is too heavy, it makes the experience better for everyone. The other is from a market perspective: older adults are the fastest growing demographic in the U.S., in Canada, in the EU. These are countries in the middle of a massive demographic shift. And they, on average, love reading, love books, have disposable income, and have time both to read books and buy them. Being in the book business and not designing for older adults is like being in the boat business but not caring much about motors, sails or oars.

Tell us about your personal library. What’s on your shelves, and what’s on your ereader?

In paper: cookbooks, art books, books that are just made beautifully that make you happy just by picking them up. In digital: everything else. All the fiction, non-illustrated non-fiction, fan fiction, the stuff that you read a review about and go “Oh that sounds cool – I should read that!” Really, everything where the content is more important than the object. I also move around a lot, so having most of my library with me all the time is a massive benefit.

What have you been reading recently, and what would you recommend to others?

I started missing travel about a year ago, so I was tearing through books that took me to places I knew. The Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London paranormal series took me back to places I knew right down to the brass on the doorknobs. Meet Me In the Bathroom about the NYC music scene of 2000-2010. Layered through that was reading that was coming out of Kobo’s Diversity & Inclusion work: Eric Foner’s incredible books on Reconstruction, P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph (for the Canadians reading this). And then books I have been reading for our podcast Kobo In Conversation: Katie Mack’s The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia. So much good stuff.

Labels: book world, ebooks, interview

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

Tuesday, August 18th, 2020

Interview with a Medical Library

John S Marietta Memorial Medical Library

LibraryThing is interviewing people in the book world who are affected by current events. This month, we caught up with Tim Kenny of John S. Marietta Memorial Medical Library, to ask about how their medical library is handling recent events. This library manages their collection through our catalog for small libraries, TinyCat.

1) What is the purpose of your library? Where is it located and what population does it serve?

We are a county hospital/health network library. We are located in Fort Worth, TX. Our
population served includes physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and all other clinical, support, and
administrative staff. We also provided patient level and consumer health support, but our
primary focus is health care professional support.

2) How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected library use and services? What are some solutions
you have found to deal with those changes?

Yes, COVID-19 has changed our service model. The library staff has been working from home
since late March. The library space itself is badge access so our community can still access our
computer bank and perform after hours check out. We try to get into the space every month
to clear the book drop and ensure all is well overall with the space. In our library we do a lot
of clinical and patient care focused searches. Fortunately, we can do 90% of our work
remotely as well as access all of our electronic resources. We have a lot of e-books in TinyCat
and our limited print collection is available for checkout to those with badges via a
rudimentary honor system while we are out.

3) If you could pick three items to represent your collection, what would they be and why?

Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine , Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support (ACLS),
William’s Obstetrics

4) How is your personal library organized?

I don’t keep many books long term but for the one’s that make the cut, I probably go by
subject/genre/author. My physical media films are genre/title. Finally, my comics are sorted
by title, then year, then issue number. I’ve reorganized my comics many times and tinkered
with the organization but this method fits my style best.

5. What are you reading lately?
Letters of Note by Shaun Usher / A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn / Full
Throttle by Joe Hill.

Thanks, Tim! Want to learn more about how people in the book world have been weathering the changes this year? Check out the rest of the interview series.

Labels: interview

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

Interview with Harriet’s Bookshop

Harriet's Bookshop

LibraryThing is interviewing people in the book industry who are affected by current events. This month, we caught up with Jeannine Cook of Harriet’s Bookshop, which celebrates women authors, artists, and activists.

1) What is Harriet’s Bookshop and how did you get the idea for a bookshop like it?

Our mission is to celebrate women authors, women artists, and women activists. We’re named after Harriet Tubman, a profoundly influential woman abolitionist, activist, and writer. We are located in Fishtown, Philadelphia, and online.

2) What do you think is the purpose of a specific bookstore over a more general one?

Toni Morrison said that if you don’t see the book you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you have to write it yourself. I had never seen a bookstore full of Black women, Black authors, Black women activists, Black mothers. A bookstore that celebrated these women’s work and histories and passions. So, I made one. People told me not to go this niche—that I would limit my potential audience—but I’m happy to say that hasn’t turned out to be true.

3) How has COVID-19 changed business for Harriet’s Bookshop?

We actually opened our doors on Feb 01, 2020, then closed due to the virus in mid-March: so we were only formally open six weeks. It’s been a lot of continual adjusting. We moved our collection online for orders, and also have pivoted to figuring how to put the furniture of our store outside on the sidewalk for physical sales a few days a week. Also we increased communication with customers online. A lot of pivoting.

4) If you could summarize your bookshop in a few books, what would they be?

First, I would say Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero by Kate Clifford Larson. It’s one of the best biographies of her. Larson’s in-depth research is impeccable.

Next, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. She asks what freedom is, what it really means. Through deep questions and an intense narrative, Morrison asks what freedom is in the context of the choice of slavery or death.

And a more recent book: Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half. This book is about the questions we have when creating ourselves, our identities: racial identity, gender identity, political identity, all identities. I think if people come into the bookshop and end up asking more questions than finding answers, that is a good thing.

5) How is your personal library organized?

It’s minimalist and rotating. I’m very much not a book hoarder, which people have questions about because I have a bookshop, but that’s what I like: having just what I’m reading out to view. What you see are the books I’ve rotated to read soon, not the whole collection.

6) What are you personally reading lately?

The book that is really staying with me these days is Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. In the same way that we now look back at slavery—particularly chattel slavery in this country—and ask how was that allowed to continue, how did people not just stop it, Whitehead’s book asks that of us and our issues right now. When our grandchildren look back at now, they will ask how putting children in jail is still allowed, how it is still happening and no one is stopping it. The Nickel Boys asks that question with this book. It’s easy for people to buy a book, read it, and then move on, but I don’t understand how anyone does that with this one. How do you just move on to the next book after The Nickel Boys?

Labels: bookstores, interview

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020

Interview with Sistah Scifi

Sistah Scifi

LibraryThing is interviewing people in the book industry who are affected by current events. This month, we caught up with Isis Asare of Sistah Scifi, founded to uplift sci-fi and literature written by Black women. 

1. What is the mission of Sistah Scifi and how did it come about?

Sistah Scifi is a cauldron of all things afrofuturism; afro-mysticism; Black sci-fi; and voodoo casting spells to uplift literature written by Black women

2. How would you define afrofuturism as a genre and why do you love it? What are some good books to start with for people unfamiliar with afrofuturism?

I love this definition from Wikipedia:

Afrofuturism is a cultural aestheticphilosophy of science and philosophy of history that explores the developing intersection of African diaspora culture with technology. It was coined by Mark Dery in 1993[1] and explored in the late 1990s through conversations led by Alondra Nelson.[2] Afrofuturism addresses themes and concerns of the African diaspora through technoculture and science fiction, encompassing a range of media and artists with a shared interest in envisioning black futures that stem from Afrodiasporic experiences.

Sistah Scifi

I enjoy Afrofuturism because I love thinking about technology and the future. Afrofuturism layers core tenants of African diasporic culture – ancient African religions, equality, freedom, family – in a way where I feel seen and valued as a reader.
Ytasha Womack literally wrote the book on Afrofuturism: “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.” That would provide great context.
Isis Asare of Sistah Scifi
I would recommend Octavia E. Butler’s work as a place to start. Folks unfamiliar with her work can join the Octavia E Butler Read-A-Long. You can find details here.

3. What are some things that the wider sci-fi community could do to better support Black sci-fi literature and authors?

There are two things all readers can do:

1. Read and recommend science fiction books by Black authors – not simply because they are Black or because it is trending now but because these are compelling and highly imaginative stories.

2. Look for independent authors in the space. Sistah Scifi will launch two titles by independent authors Nicole Givens Kurtz and Venus Kalie this week.

Isis Asare of Sistah Scifi

4. Tell us about your home library—what’s in it? How is it organized?

My home library is organized in four sections – business strategy books like The Innovators Dilemma; race, gender and political studies such as Women in Tech; self awareness such as Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace; African American Literature such as The Bluest Eye; and Afrofuturism such as An Unkindness of Ghosts.

5. What are you reading now?

I am reading Pet by Awaeke Emezi for the SOULar Power Book club.

Thanks, Isis and Sistah Scifi!

Are you affiliated with an organization that you think we might want to feature in our interview series? Reach out to info@librarything.com.

Labels: bookstores, interview

Thursday, May 21st, 2020

Interview with Callan Bignoli About #ProtectLibraryWorkers

Callan Bignoli, Library Director at Olin College of Engineering

Callan Bignoli of #ProtectLibraryWorkers

The book world is rapidly changing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. LibraryThing has been talking to people affected by these changes. For all our conversations, go here.

We interviewed Callan Bignoli (she/her/hers), Director of the Library at Olin College of Engineering, who has been organizing and advocating for the health of library workers. First through the #closethelibraries campaign to encourage hold-out library systems to close their physical doors for public and staff safety earlier this year, and now for #ProtectLibraryWorkers, advocating for a more considered approach to re-opening physical library locations, including curbside.

According to Callan, she “worked hardest on local efforts where she thought she’d be able to make the most change, and tried to supply resources to help people with organizing and power mapping to support them throughout the country.”

Callan be found on Twitter (@eminencefont) and her website.

1. What is #protectlibraryworkers and how did it come about?

#ProtectLibraryWorkers evolved from the #closethelibraries movement on Twitter when it became clear that just because a library had closed to the public did not mean that communities or library staff members were being kept safe. Curbside and home delivery, interlibrary loan, document scanning, and more were still happening at libraries, often with library assistants, pages, and student workers being put at risk while their “higher up” colleagues worked from home. In the case of libraries in Minnesota, Texas, Florida, and likely elsewhere, workers were forcibly deployed to other positions that exposed them to considerably more risk, such as emergency childcare centers and temporary shelters, with little choice in the matter other than whether or not to still get paid. Then, the wave of layoffs and furloughs began to sweep the country. #ProtectLibraryWorkers was an attempt to speak out against all of these crises and advocate for libraries-as-people, not just libraries-as-institution as we have seen our professional organizations repeatedly choose to do.
2. How can people support library workers at their local or national level?
1) Sign this petition written by members of current and past Library Freedom Institute cohorts to push for safe and fair reopening conditions. We want as many cosigners as we can get before we begin to distribute it to decision makers in individual states.
2) Figure out what is going on locally and question it. Is your local library providing curbside pickup before your state’s stay-at-home order is lifted? Ask why that’s happening and push for it to stop.
3) Continue paying attention to the local conversation and find like-minded fellow citizens to band together and prepare to push back on library budget cuts and staffing reduction.
4) Donate to EveryLibrary’s Help a Library Worker Out (HALO) fund.
3. If you could wave a magic wand and create guidelines for libraries as we go through reorienting to a new normal, what would some of those guidelines be?
Stay home for as long as possible. Don’t just close down and silo yourself off to the other departments in your school, city, or town; despite whatever competition for resources or beefs you had before, don’t feel as if you have to go this all alone. Everything is different now. Deeply and carefully consider which of your patrons are benefiting from curbside delivery, think about the amount of time and effort you’re putting into it, and think about what other outreach you might be doing to help those that aren’t benefiting. As layoffs and furloughs worsen, partner up to create mutual aid networks for library workers in your area. If you’re a director, do everything in your power to keep your staff. Communicate clearly and honestly with your people. Trust them to keep finding things to do while they’re teleworking, and ask yourself, “Does it really matter when we’re trying to save lives?” Ask that question often.
We ask all our interviewees the same final two questions:
4. How is your personal library organized?
At any given time, about 1/3 of my small collection of books are library checkouts (often from Olin’s library), so I have one shelf of those, one shelf of fiction, and one shelf of nonfiction. I tend to keep the unusual/unofficial things the longest, like self-published poetry books given to me by former patrons, a personal journal of the mid-century advertising artist Marilyn Conover that I found in a used bookstore in Gloucester, the Shutterfly book my old boss gave me of the library we renovated together, that kind of stuff.
5. What have you read lately? What do you recommend?
I’m currently in the last section of Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy which probably makes me seem like I’m behind the curve, but honestly when I was in public library administration, I didn’t read much of anything–so I’m still catching up now! I’d say the biggest takeaways for me personally have been 1) the understanding that movements can and should take many forms and that we shouldn’t necessarily lump things under the same big umbrellas, 2) the acknowledgment that lasting change is long, slow, and hard work, which isn’t something that naturally “comes” to me, and 3) the importance and strength of consensus decision making, and, relatedly, putting explicit trust in others. I’d recommend it to anyone doing work in social justice or advocacy movements, and really any kind of leaders or managers as well.

 

Labels: interview, Uncategorized

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Interview with Tom Holbrook of RiverRun Bookstore

Independent bookstores are struggling right now. We are eager to talk to booksellers about what’s going on, how they are dealing with this ongoing crisis, and ways we can help. We talked with Tom Holbrook of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, NH.

How has River Run been managing the Coronavirus?

Like all retail in New Hampshire, our sales floor is closed to the public, but we can do curbside pickup. As a result, we are fielding phone calls and emails all day long. In addition to curbside pickup we are delivering books to Portsmouth and Kittery, and mailing books anywhere in the US. It’s a lot of work—a lot!—but at least we have work to do and it is keeping the store in people’s minds.

How can people help you out, or help out their local indie?

Our customers have been amazing, and our online friends have been great as well. Our online ordering site usually gets a few orders a week. Since this started we’ve been getting 10–12 a day. That’s really the best way for people to help us out – buy a book from our website. It’s good for us, and good for them! It’s my hope that we are winning people away from Amazon during this time, and will be able to keep them as loyal customers. We also launched a great t-shirt online to promote reading and social distancing, and hit our goal of 100 shirts in 4 days. Our offer runs through April 30, so it’s not too late to get one!

Tell us about your home library—what’s in it? How is it organized?

At home, I don’t have as many books as people imagine, because I just borrow them from the store (shh!), but I keep them in a yellow room with bookshelves along the wall. One case is full of my favorite books that I want to keep and share, the other 3 cases are full of books I haven’t got to quite yet!

What are you reading now?

Currently I am reading Night Boat to Tangier (RiverRun | LibraryThing) by Kevin Barry, which has definite Joyce overtones in its dialogue and flow. Rereading Once & Future (RiverRun | LibraryThing) by Cori McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta. Best YA I read last year, and the sequel just dropped so I need a refresher. My 11yo daughter and I are working our way through the Wells and Wong mystery series (RiverRun | LibraryThing), and we both love it.

Thanks to everyone who supports indie bookstores!

See all bookstore interviews hereDo you run an independent bookstore and would like to be featured in our blog? Please reach out.

Labels: bookstores, interview

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

Interview with Josh Christie of Print: A Bookstore

Josh Christie of Print: A Bookstore

Josh Christie of Print: A Bookstore

LibraryThing interviewed Josh Christie, co-owner, with Emily Russo, of Print: A Bookstore, in Portland, Maine about his bookstore and what book lovers can do for bookstores during this crisis.

Q: How has Print handled the Coronavirus?

On March 16th, we closed our doors to the public. We’re anticipating reopening on March 30th, though this could certainly change—our course of action will be determined by advice from state and national authorities.

While our doors are closed, we’ve shifted to online (printbookstore.com) and phone orders. We’re offering free nationwide shipping or local delivery for orders over $20, and curbside pickup for orders of any size. We’re also letting people know about their options for ebooks and audio books from Print, via Papertrell and Libro.fm.

We’re also using the temporary closure to tackle administrative and back-end tasks in the store, like updating our website and point-of-sale system, as well as deep cleaning and organization. There’s no lack of things to do, and we hope to keep our entire staff on for their regularly scheduled hours while we weather this crisis.

Q: How bad is this for indie bookstores like yours?

It’s hard to overstate just how hard this will hit independent bookstores. Most stores—even profitable ones—operate with precious little cash on hand, so any interruption in income makes available funds dry up quickly. With margins on books generally running about 5–10 percent less than other goods (and little opportunity to adjust prices, as they’re printed on the product), an already thin-margin business is about to get much tougher. And, since most don’t warehouse books of their own, any disruption to local or international supply chains could make getting books to customers difficult.

There’s also book signings and author events, which are impossible in a time of social distancing. Events aren’t a huge part of the bottom line for every store, but for many (including ours), they’re significant. We’ve already cancelled everything through the start of April, and if the need to socially distance extends to the summer these will only grow.

Which is to say, I don’t think it will be any easy time for any business of any size, but some of the structural and economic realities of bookselling make it particularly fraught.

We’ve already seen stories about stores laying off or furloughing staff, and we’re undoubtedly at the start of this rather than the end. For the majority of stores, I have to guess the best case scenario is a big impact on income and a reduction of payroll. For many, I fear this will result in closures.

Q: How can LibraryThing members help Print and other indies?

The most direct way to support bookstores like ours is to shop with us. The most significant impact would be made by buying gift certificates, which immediately injects cash into our businesses. However, any purchases are a huge help. It’s also still a great time to preorder books, which don’t provide income now but guarantees future business.

And, while it’s not a form of financial support, following our stores on social media and signing up for our newsletters will help us get the word out about how we’re navigating this crisis. Similarly, even if you aren’t in a position to buy from us, boosting and promoting us to others will get more people through our (virtual) doors.

We always end with two questions.

Q: Tell us about your home library. What’s in it, and how is it organized?

I live alone in a pretty small one-bedroom apartment, but there are multiple bookcases and bookshelves in each room (including a few I added to the walls myself when I ran out of space). I’ve been a buyer for bookstores for almost a decade, so I’ve got a pretty even split of finished books and bound manuscripts/galleys. My tastes tend toward narrative nonfiction, largely contemporary, and most of what I have reflects that. I’ve also written a few books, including one on the history of beer in Maine, so I’ve got a lot of older books about beer, brewing, and Prohibition.

Organizationally, it’s a bit of a mess. 7 or 8 years ago I scanned every book I owned into my library on LibraryThing, but at this point I’ll admit I don’t have a great sense of what I have or where it is. I could lie and say it’s meant to inspire browsing and seeing what strikes my fancy, but it’s really just laziness.

Q: What are you reading now?

As always, I have a few half-finished books scattered around me. There’s You Never Forget Your First (>Print | LibraryThing), the first significant biography of George Washington from a woman, by Alexis Coe. It reminds me quite a bit of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra (Print | LibraryThing) and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey (Print | LibraryThing) in how it recontextualizes history we’ve heard a million times. And then there’s Michele Harper’s The Beauty in Breaking (Print | LibraryThing), a memoir from a female African American emergency room physician being published by Riverhead Books this summer. I’m also a person who actually reads cookbooks from front to back (I love food writing, and recipes with a voice), and Alison Roman’s Nothing Fancy (Print | LibraryThing)  is on my nightstand. Finally, Homie by Danez Smith (Print | LibraryThing). Smith has been a favorite of mine since his 2015 collection Black Movie (Print | LibraryThing), and I’ve been slowly devouring his new collection over the last few weeks.

 

Labels: bookstores, interview