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Author Archive: "Peter Manseau"

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter

Though I began writing Songs for the Butcher's Daughter just three years ago, the story it tells had been following me around for more than a decade. It began just after college, when I — newly graduated with a degree in religion and so totally unemployable — stumbled into a job working with an organization that collected used Yiddish books.

A few times a month, my colleagues and I would leave our warehouse in Western Massachusetts and drive north, to Montreal, or south, often to New Jersey, mainly to New York: Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Co-op City. Wherever Jews grew old, they were afraid of leaving their books as orphans.

So they called us, and we came. Most of the books we collected were saved only to die among their own; destined not to be distributed to a university (as was our goal), but to crumble on our bookshelves. But still the books' owners always seemed gladdened by our efforts. At least once every trip I heard the same grateful sentiment: The very fact that we cared enough to come for ...

Wish You Were Here

I thought I'd follow Ms. Orlean's lead and devote my last post to my personal Powell's connection.

I first visited Powell's two years ago, somewhere near the end of an absurdly long promotional tour for my first book. The tour was supposed to be ten cities but ended up closer to thirty — every time the publisher agreed to send us to a particular town, my coauthor and I would immediately line up two or three more within driving distance. We'd just spent a year on the road making the book, so "within driving distance" to us meant something different that it does to most. If we were going to Chicago, we argued, how could we not go to Madison? And if we'd be in the Great Lakes area anyway, why not drop over into to Michigan? We were convinced that killing ourselves for three months would be the key to the book's success, and so whenever we rolled into a new place we immediately hit the streets, hanging flyers, making programs for the readings, contacting everyone we could think of to spread the word.

As often as not it didn't work, in part because


Good to be Home

Finally, finally, I am off the highways and back at my cluttered desk, back in my little farm house, back in my cozy corner of the world. Charlottesville, Virginia, is a writers' town if ever there was one: John Grisham owns about a thousand acres on the edge of the county; Mark Helprin is said to live somewhere near Monticello; Rita Mae Brown, the woman who writes about cats, has a house just down the road. Faulkner spent some time here, too. Seems to be a place for people who want to think of themselves as southerners but need easy access to northern cities when book award season comes around.

As for me, I'm an accidental southerner. When I first crossed the Mason-Dixon a few years back, looking for stories of strange American religion to include in Killing the Buddha, I had no idea I would end up living among my material. There's a cloistered convent down in the valley just west of our house, for example, and whenever we can we buy our vegetables from a Mennonite family that sets up a stand on the roadside.

We don't see much of the nuns (that's


Poop Deck

I left Massachusetts in a minor snow storm; no real accumulation but the roads were slick and the visibility was poor. Driving into flurries has always reminded me of the Millennium Falcon's jump to hyperspace, every flake a star whizzing by so fast you can only see the streak of white it leaves behind. By the time I could see the road ahead I was halfway through Connecticut.

I've made this trip south no fewer than five hundred times. My favorite time to leave is well before dawn, when you can be sure to miss rush hour traffic going into New York. If you plan it just right you can cruise by the city and hit the edge of Newark as the sun comes up. There's something about seeing the sky turn pink over industrial wasteland that makes me think of Morning in America; something majestic about smokestacks silhouetted in a haze of their own excretions, like ships headed out to a foggy sea; something that makes me roll down my window, breathe deep and think, So that's what it smells like.

On this particular trip south I didn't leave in the early morning but the late afternoon,


One for the Road

A peculiar thing about journalism conferences like the one I just left is the way they force people who seek out interesting situations for a living into the most uninteresting situation imaginable. I met one writer recently back from Eritrea; another who spent months among the Deadhead doomsday cult known as the Twelve Tribes; another who uprooted his family to write a book (a great book, in fact) about amateur baseball on Cape Cod. All these folks with the dirt of strange lands under their fingernails, and I met them while waiting for the cellophane to come off the cheese plates at the opening reception.

I've been to my fair share of conferences, of many sorts, and looking back now they all seem more or less interchangeable. My weekend among journalists didn't feel so different from the dental technologies convention I crashed a few years ago in Nashville. Every field has its stars and conferences as a rule seem to involve the many chasing the one. Philip Gourevitch, for example, drew a big crowd each of the several times he spoke. I know this because I was crammed into the room like everyone else. Had I


Greetings from BosWash

As a native New Englander and transplanted Virginian who just wrote a book about my family's strange religious history in Massachusetts, I spend a lot of time driving up and down the east coast. Enough time in fact that when the good folks at Powell's asked me to be a guest blogger for a week, odds were I would find myself on the road for some portion of it.

So here I am. After finishing up the Vows book tour last week in Boston, I decided to stick around for a few days to attend a conference on narrative journalism. It was held over the weekend in an absurdly large convention center on the edge of the city. The place felt like an evacuated airport (huge windows, empty hallways), and the assembled journalists seemed always to be either rushing from one room to the next or waiting around with nothing to do. We passed idle moments trying to read each other's name tags without saying hello.

It turned out to be a pretty interesting event bookwise. Tom Wolfe — dressed in required immaculate white — gave a rambling keynote address that ranged from Philip Roth to Paris Hilton; ...

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