Archive for the ‘author interview’ Category

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

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

headshot of Anne Helen Petersen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is your personal library organized?

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

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

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

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

Browse all of our interviews here

 

 

Labels: author interview, interview, Uncategorized

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Pearl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Schwager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview, authors, interview

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

Interview with Brad Stone

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

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

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

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

Whom did you write it for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

» Read our full interview here!

Labels: author interview

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Q&A with David Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Q&A with Mallory Ortberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did! It was enormously fun.

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Interview with Gregory Maguire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Interview with Ann Leckie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Q&A with Andy Weir

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

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

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

Tell us what your novel is all about.

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

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

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

The science is real, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Interview with Maximillian Potter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Interview with Matthew Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your favorite scene to write?

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

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

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

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

Labels: author interview