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Archive for the 'Interviews' Category

Richard Powers: The Powells.com Interview

If everyone got to talk to Richard Powers for 45 minutes, humanity might go ahead and evolve to its next level. Unfailingly kind and generous, passionate and fiercely intelligent, Powers is as remarkable to speak with as he is a writer. The San Francisco Chronicle has said that Powers "may be America's most ambitious novelist," and The Echo Maker, for which we last interviewed him, won the National Book Award.

Orfeo, his latest novel, centers on Peter Els — a composer who, because of his experiments in microbiology in his retirement, finds himself on the run from the authorities; in so doing, he revisits the people, music, and memories that have shaped his life and his composition. Powers returns to some familiar subjects — notably music, genetics, and the surveillance state — with lyrical and beautiful prose, a moving and relatable story, and an eloquent and fascinating look back at the music of the 20th century. We are incredibly proud to present Orfeo as our choice for Indiespensable Vol. 45.

Jill Owens: You've written about music in many of your books, but in some ways this one feels the most focused on it as ...


Donna Tartt: The Powells.com Interview

Donna Tartt has a lot of devoted fans among the Powell's staff; I think I got more requests for advance copies of The Goldfinch than any other upcoming book. And for those lucky enough to get one, the reviews were unanimous: we loved it, and it was well worth the wait. The Goldfinch is a masterful novel. An epic coming-of-age story written in brilliant, illuminated prose, and a mesmerizing portrait of friendships and unconventional families, Tartt's third novel has been rightly called Dickensian for its sweeping themes, colorful characters, and extraordinary attention to detail. Stephen King raved, "The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind....Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction." We absolutely agree, which is why we chose it as Volume 43 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: How did you choose the painting, Fabritius's The Goldfinch? What about that particular image resonated with you, and what's your history with the painting?

Donna Tartt: Actually, I did consider a couple of other paintings, briefly, though I always knew it was the one. I first saw it as a copy at Christie's Amsterdam — I loved the painting the instant I saw it, and the more I found out about it, the more enthralled I became. The Goldfinch is a tiny painting — not much bigger than a child's school notebook — and a greatly beloved and unique little work; in all the Golden Age of Dutch art, there's nothing quite like it, and it also has a fascinating history that plays into the plot of the novel. The painter who made it, Carel Fabritius — who was the pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer, and who was greatly celebrated in his own day — died very young in a tragic accident, the explosion of a gunpowder factory in Delft that destroyed most of the town. This little painting is one of Fabritius's very few works that survive.


Larry Watson: The Powells.com Interview

Larry Watson, the author of Montana 1948 and many other fine novels, has just published Let Him Go, his latest foray into literary fiction. Let Him Go, like many of his previous novels, was published by legendary independent Milkweed Editions, his publisher of choice. It tells the story of the Blackledges, Margaret and George, as they make the trek from their home in the Dakotas to Montana, where they hope to be reunited with their grandson, Jimmy, in the face of fierce opposition from his mother and stepfather, the utterly loathsome Donnie Weboy.

When Montana 1948 came out back in 1993, I somehow came upon a copy. It's a shortish book; I read it in one sitting, if memory serves. But what has really stuck with me is how enormously blown away I was by it. I was writing reviews and some other small-press oriented stuff for The Nation at the time, and I wrote about it for the magazine. It was, of course, a glowing review.

As for Let Him Go, once again I'm having a literary peak experience. I've read a lot of good books this year, some of them very good indeed. But, to be honest, I can't remember the last time I read a book that was not only this powerful but this deeply satisfying in every way (read here: Nation déjà vu). So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to catch up with Larry for a few moments shortly after his book's release.

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Chris Faatz: Larry, as you know, I've been a fan of your work for years. One of the things that makes your writing truly sing is the way you depict landscape, and the way that human beings fit into the landscape that you've chosen for them. In this book, which takes place primarily in Montana, the prose is taut and spare yet peppered with breathtakingly lovely depictions of the country and those who inhabit it. What do you draw from to bring this stuff forth?

Larry Watson: I always hope that an idea for a book will come as a package deal — character, situation, setting (in place and time), point of view, structure, and perhaps other elements all bundled with a label that says, "Here it is. Tell it this way." And that instruction as to how it should be told has to do with voice, which will affect the presentation of everything on the page. I don't know my entire story in advance of writing it, but I do have a sense of how it should be written.


Mark Slouka: The Powells.com Interview

Mark Slouka is a marvelous essayist, short story writer, and novelist and a frequent Harper's magazine contributor; he's written about everything from Chang and Eng to cyberspace and the nature of reality to why exactly George Bush needed all that brush clearing. His latest novel, Brewster, takes him closer to home; it's a dark and spare coming-of-age story, a portrait of a small New York town in the late '60s, and a moving depiction of an intense and loving friendship. The book follows Jon Mosher, a 16-year-old with a difficult family life who befriends an outsider named Ray, a rebellious fighter with an abusive ex-cop father. When Ray falls in love with a new girl in town, Karen, the dreams — and the fates — of all three friends hinge on getting out of Brewster.

Jennifer Egan raves, "The dark undertow of Slouka's prose makes Brewster instantly mesmerizing, a novel that whirls the reader into small-town, late 1960s America with mastery, originality, and heart." And Colum McCann writes, "Reading Brewster is like entering the very heart of a Bruce Springsteen song — all grace, all depth, all sinew. Slouka — one of the great unsung ...


Daniel James Brown: The Powells.com Interview

The Boys in the Boat is one of those stories that I can't believe hasn't been told before. At the 1936 Olympics, nine college students from Seattle — working-class sons of farmers, loggers, and longshoremen — rowed against the best in the world. To compete at this highest level, they had to first beat their rivals at the University of California - Berkeley and then crews from the elite Ivy League schools. At the Olympics in Berlin, they went up against a British boat filled with the best from Oxford and Cambridge and a powerful German team rowing under the watchful eye of Hitler. The guts and determination of these underdogs captivated millions of Americans during the depths of the Great Depression.

Daniel James Brown has crafted a wonderful piece of narrative nonfiction that is filled with both drama and passion. In a starred review, Booklist calls The Boys in the Boat, "a book that informs as it inspires." David Laskin raves, "History, sports, human interest, weather, suspense, design, physics, oppression and inspiration — The Boys in the Boat has it all and Brown does full justice ...


Susan Nussbaum: The Powells.com Interview

Susan Nussbaum's debut novel, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, is, as Rosellen Brown says, "a celebration of strength, dignity, and the cathartic pleasure of telling it like it is."

Set in a nursing home for young adults with disabilities, Good Kings Bad Kings mines the lives of seven characters: a diverse group of young people and their caregivers. Nussbaum, who is an award-winning playwright, masterfully channels the voices of her characters, including a disabled Hispanic teen trying to find her way after losing the grandmother who raised her, a wheelchair-bound woman who is seeking new love and new meaning in her life, and a young man who wants to enjoy living and loving independent of any institution. They may inhabit a world unfamiliar to many, but the core of who they are, the heart of their joys and suffering, are intensely universal. Yes, this novel will make you ache, but in the very best way.

Good Kings Bad Kings is a marvel that does what the best fiction does. As Barbara Kingsolver, the founder of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, explains: "Fiction...creat[es] empathy in a reader's heart for the theoretical stranger." Thanks to Nussbaum, ...


Matt Bell: The Powells.com Interview

Matt Bell's debut novel is set, as its title suggests, in a remote area next to a lake in a forest. The cast of characters includes a giant bear, a foundling, a fingerling, a woman who can sing whole worlds into being, and her husband, who wants nothing more than to lead a quiet life and — most importantly — raise a family. Things don't work out as planned, though, as pregnancy after pregnancy ends in tragedy. As the story unfolds, and the couple's dreams of a simple life unravel, the sheer force of Bell's prose and the mythic, underworldly power of his characters' fates grip the reader by the throat.

Jess Walter (National Book Award finalist and author of Beautiful Ruins) tried to capture the experience: "This is a fiercely original book...that sent me scurrying for adjectives, for precedents, for cover." That about sums it up. In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is as difficult to describe as a dream. This onslaught of primordial imagination will confound, confront, and absolutely amaze you. We loved it so much, we chose it for Volume 40 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods? I will note, I love that title, but it might be the hardest title to remember ever.

Matt Bell: It's a lot of title! [Laughter]

I'm not necessarily an idea person. I don't start off with an idea ahead of time. It's weird, the way these things work. I had just finished my last book, and I was trying to find the next thing. I was writing a lot of starts every day, trying to get some traction.

The first thing I wrote was a passage that's not in the book, of the husband watching the wife singing. He's seeing these things that she could potentially one day create with her voice, which isn't something that happens in the book anymore. But that was the initial seed of it.


Claire Messud: The Powells.com Interview

Claire Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, is fiercely intelligent and urgently intimate, written with precision, humor, and an incredible command of language. Nora Eldridge, an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is living a life of quiet desperation after her mother's death when she meets the Shahids — Sirena, a successful and enchanting Italian artist; Skandar, a brilliant professor of the ethics of history; and their charming son, Reza, a child in Nora's class. Nora falls in love with them all, in varying ways, and these relationships bring her ecstasy, artistic freedom, and, eventually, shattering pain and fury.

In a starred review, Kirkus called The Woman Upstairs "an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms....Brilliant and terrifying," and in another starred review, Booklist raved, "Messud’s scorching social anatomy, red-hot psychology, galvanizing story, and incandescent language make for an all-circuits-firing novel about enthrallment, ambition, envy, and betrayal. A tour de force." The Woman Upstairs may be the renowned author's finest work yet.

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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of The Woman Upstairs?

Claire Messud: There were several, I think. If you'll bear with me, I can tell you a few.

One impetus was a feeling as a reader that I had all my life read and greatly appreciated the ranting voices of misfit, dissatisfied, or antihero men, but I didn't know of any female equivalents. So part of me wanted to write in the voice of a woman whose voice had not been heard.

Another aspect for me was the whole question of the interior life. I think that's something that is absolutely universal. In Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog," the protagonist — who's had many affairs but who has for the first time fallen in love with his mistress — reflects on the fact that what is most important to him, only he knows. It's completely secret, and nobody around him is aware of the things that matter to him most. Then he has the apprehension that this is true for everybody, so that all around him, he doesn't actually know what's most important to all the people he thinks he knows.


Anthony Marra: The Powells.com Interview

Anthony Marra's debut novel is a marvel. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena describes, in astonishingly beautiful prose, five days in a rural village and bombed-out hospital in Chechnya during wartime. As the characters — including a doctor, a hunted child, a historian, and an informant — try to adapt and survive, their histories, connections, and desires are unveiled. Marra has created a breathtaking work of haunting, evocative fiction.

Ann Patchett calls A Constellation of Vital Phenomena "Simply spectacular....If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go," and Maile Meloy declares, "You will finish it transformed." We are proud to have chosen A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for Volume 39 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: The first sentence of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena sets the tone immediately. "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." Was that always the way the book began?

Anthony Marra: No, actually. That was one of the final sentences I wrote. It had a different opening paragraph for the first five drafts of the ...


Domenica Ruta: The Powells.com Interview

Growing up in an Italian-American family in Danvers, Massachusetts, Domenica Ruta had a life filled with violence and poverty but also imagination and love. Ruta's mother, Kathi, who "believed it was more important to be an interesting person than it was to be a good one," cycled between welfare and great wealth, helped get her daughter into a prestigious boarding school, and gave her Oxycontin. In gorgeous, inventive prose, Ruta chronicles her coming of age, relationships, and struggles to define herself outside of her family. Darkly funny and painfully honest, With or Without You is an essential, necessary work.

We whole-heartedly agree with Amy Bloom's assessment: "In the world of memoir, Mary Karr's and Geoffrey Wolff's exceptional books burn and brighten, like actual stars among strings of tinsel. With or Without You is like that. I will read whatever Domenica Ruta writes."

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Jill Owens: How did With or Without You come about?

Domenica Ruta: I started toying around with the idea of writing a memoir. My initial idea was to write linked short essays but not an actual memoir — short essays about my life, but not with any kind ...


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