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Archive for the 'Original Essays' Category

Powells.com interviews and original essays

The Mormons and Me

I spent two years with Mormon people, with Mormon books, and embraced by Mormon history to write American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. People constantly ask me: Well, what did you think of them? What were the Mormons like?

I respond that I started this project mildly prejudiced in favor of Mormons. More to the point, I'm mildly prejudiced in favor of organized religion. I attend church fairly often, and — even though Mormons often describe their own religion as "weird" or "peculiar" — I regard the Latter-day Saints as part of the American religious mainstream. I've never had a (significant) beef with some of the stretch points of the Saints' beliefs, to wit, the mysterious appearance and disappearance of the "golden tablets" which contained the Book of Mormon. My own religion, Anglicanism, isn't exactly, well, rational.

I also like to say that I ended this project with a mild, pro-Mormon bias. But it's true that a great deal happened in between.

There are about six million Mormons in the United States, and ...


Shit Rough Draft

I was sitting in a British and Irish romantic drama class my last semester in college when the idea for Shit Rough Drafts hit me. I was working through a humor piece for the school paper and was in the midst of a rough draft. My deadline was in a few hours, and instead of paying attention to the class, I was in turmoil over the shit state of my 500-700 word humor column for the George Mason University Broadside. The idea I had was funny, but the draft was rough, and I was cursing my deadline, wondering why I had ever agreed to it.

I was staring at the rough draft in front of me that looked like the ravings of a lunatic. There were cross-outs and curse words, doodles and arrows, and then more curse words. It was an absolute mess and I felt defeated. I knew it was just a rough draft, but it was still my work, and it was bad. It was in that moment of defeat that I thought about other writers' suffering. I wasn't the only one who had shitty drafts. ...


Four Elements of a Daily Writing Page in William Stafford’s Practice

This year we celebrate the centennial of William Stafford's birth — in Hutchinson, Kansas, 1914. He started in the Midwest but published 59 of his 60 books in Oregon (not to mention the dozen published since his passing in 1993). When people would ask him, "Bill, when is your next book coming out?" he would often answer, "Which one?"

How did he do that? Well, the answer is very simple and lavishly inviting: he wrote something every day for 40 years, and his books were made from about one day's writing out of eight that he found worthy.

In this little remembrance of him, I want to consider what those daily writing pages contained, and how they worked for him — and how something like his approach might work for any of us who chose to give such daily writing practice a chance.

His pages, which are now housed in the William Stafford Archives at Lewis & Clark College, exhibit a varying daily mixture of four prevailing elements:

1. Each page includes the date of the writing. Is that even worth mentioning? Well, it turns out to be strangely ...


Bringing Up the Dead

I have this recurring nightmare that my mother is alive.
She never died.
I've made a terrible mistake.
I have to call my editor.
We can't publish the book.
I don't know how I could have made such a wild mistake.
I mean, she looked dead.
I signed the papers.
I let the man from the cut-rate crematorium in Albuquerque take her body away.

But in the dream, she isn't dead.
And in the dream, she's really pissed about the book.

I can't get through to my editor. Of course I can't get through. It's too late. It's already out, anyway. My editor can't do anything.

Maybe I can hide the books.
Or.
Maybe.
Just walk away.
I'd been having the dream for nearly six months the night it occurred to me: it didn't matter if she was alive.
If I'd lived these many months believing she was dead, feeling freer because she was dead, writing the truth without worrying about cleaning it up because she was dead, then who cared if she was alive — or pissed?

I wrote my first memoir when my mother was still very much alive. It seems like eons ago. Even my stepdad was alive. Was it only a ...


Charm

When I was nine, my mother acquired a charm bracelet with five charms, one for each of her children: one resonant symbol that supposedly summed up the character and passion of each of us. I can't remember them all. A charm for one brother might have been a dog. We did not have a dog, but he desperately wanted one. Another brother was represented by a cross. Supposedly, he thought of being a priest one day. My sister's charm may have been ballet shoes. At four, she spent most of her time twirling around the house, knocking gracefully into the furniture. My charm was a silver grand piano, a symbol so wrong that I felt diminished and tragically misunderstood every time I saw it.

Every Friday after school, my mother dropped me off at her aunt and uncle's brick house, where I had a lesson with my mother's cousin, a young man who taught me gently, patiently, for a full hour before fleeing into the night to his real job, playing piano in a riverside nightclub. My lesson with Johnny was followed by supper alone with his elderly parents. In ...


Underwater Home

I was born and still live in rural East Tennessee. I grew up on Mountain Valley Road, surrounded by foothills and farmland, rocky creeks pouring into muddy rivers. I spent my childhood exploring the piney woods behind the house my grandfather built. I spent more than one hot afternoon working alongside my mother in tobacco fields, plucking hornworms from the plants. We East Tennesseans form a deep attachment to our land, going back to when our ancestors were sustained by what they coaxed from the soil. As a writer, both the beauty and the hardship of Appalachia have been a source of inspiration to me. In my first novel, Bloodroot, these mountains became more than a setting. The landscape of home became like another character.

When I began a second book, once again I found inspiration in my own backyard. Long Man is what the Cherokees called the Tennessee River, with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea. I chose to give the fictional river that flows through my novel the same name. Having been raised in East Tennessee, I'm familiar with the dams ...


Entry Points

There's nothing quite as awesome as getting hooked on a great book series. You suddenly realize there's a huge pile of content just waiting for you to love it. But starting in on a series, even one that's popular, can be intimidating. It's not always best to start at the beginning. Sometimes a series takes a few books to really get good. Other times, the best book for introducing new readers ends up somewhere in the middle. So where do you begin? The following are cases where I personally think you're better off starting somewhere other than the first book.

Wagers of Sin by Robert Asprin and Linda Evans. The second book in the Time Scout series, Wagers of Sin is a clear-cut case of the "Empire Strikes Back Effect," where an already-good story has a sequel that outshines it. The loveable rogue Skeeter Jackson (a minor character from the first book) takes over as protagonist in this amazing tale of a time-traveling con man. It's much more likely to suck you in to the Time Scout universe than the titular first book.


Silent Plains

There are seven stories I read at least once a year, for pleasure and in the same very rational spirit that infertile males of certain old (and new) world tribes have eaten rhinoceros horns and tiger penises, hoping that imbibing a thing of a certain shape and power will transfer the shape and power upon the imbiber. One of those stories is Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Each time he follows that woman through the streets of Paris, dreaming she is his first love, hoping she will not turn around and break the spell, my blood quickens, for I have done that. Another is a story I found by accident called "The Dandelion Clocks" by Juliana Horatia Ewing, who was said to have influenced Kipling and who, like an Edo ink painter, draws character in a stroke. Four of the stories are Kipling's: "The Church That Was at Antioch"; "The Manner of Men"; "The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows," the most beautiful story of terminal drug addiction you will ever read; and a rarely anthologized story about a Lahore prostitute and betrayal of the Empire ...


The Parallel Apartments

One afternoon in the mid-1990s, I found myself in Dauphine Street Books in New Orleans, staring hungrily into a vitrine containing costly literary vertu — a first edition of Joyce's slender and fragile Pomes Penyeach, a signed copy of Lynd Ward's textless Madman's Drum: A Novel in Woodcuts, and an utterly faultless copy of Percy's The Moviegoer. From behind the thick glass these and other toothsome unobtainables mocked me: my job at the local Harrah's Casino, where I labored as an impressment specialist, a position meagerly remunerated at, if I remember correctly, $6.30 per hour, a wage entirely inadequate to the pursuit of the only book-related activity as pleasurable as reading them: collecting them in desirable editions.

I wiped the drool of bibliophily from my chin, turned away, and began to wander the cramped shop's towering aisles, looking for the books-on-books section — if I couldn't have the books I wanted, then I could at least read about them.

But the section, a shoelace-level half-shelf in a stuffy corner of the shop, had nothing tasty to offer. I was about to leave when I noticed nearby ...


Hiking Alone in Grizzly Bear Country

I was hiking a five-day loop — alone — in the Rocky Mountains when I rounded the switchback and saw a large body on the trail ahead. It had brown fur with a cinnamon tinge that was draped across dense, humped back muscle. A broad head lifted and I could see the dish-shaped muzzle was catching my scent. I knew bears. This was a grizzly. For the first time during my hike, I wasn't alone.

A young woman hiking alone in the mountains sounds dangerous. In the pre–cell phone era maybe it was, but I'll stop short of calling it foolish. By that time in the mid-1990s, I was a competent rock climber and versed in mountain travel. I'd decided to strike out on my own. Maybe I thought that the trip might prove my newfound independence, but trying to press logic on my 21-year-old self was likely impossible. As I remember, the idea popped into my head. And then, just as suddenly, I hoisted on my backpack, tied a bandana over my braid, and set off for higher altitudes.

The bear stood on the trail next to a ...


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