Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

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