January 11, 2016
, the third novel by the utterly charming and gracious Samantha Hunt, is one of those rare books in which both the language and the story take center stage. We were hooked by the remarkable prose and then compelled by the inventive plot and the (somewhat literally) fantastic characters. Ruth and Nat are best friends growing up in the Love of Christ! Foster Home, run by an aging megalomaniac and his sometimes-there, drug-addicted wife. Out of boredom and, later, for profit, assisted by an eloquent, intriguing con man, the two kids channel the dead. Hunt alternates Ruth's chapters with a narrative set years later following her pregnant, unwed niece Cora, who is being led by a mute Ruth on a silent journey across the state of New York. Mr. Splitfoot
is a beautiful, funny, bizarre, and wholly original tale that manages to incorporate love, death, motherhood, séances, and ghost activism.
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly
raves, "This spellbinder is storytelling at its best," and Kelly Link implores, "Samantha Hunt is astonishing....Her new book contains everything that I want in a novel. If I could long-distance mesmerize you, dear reader, into picking up this book and buying it and reading it at once, believe me: I would." We were thrilled to choose Mr. Splitfoot
for our Indiespensable
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What was the genesis of Mr. Splitfoot
I started writing it when I was nine months pregnant with twins. I could hardly walk and so, yes, of course I should write a book about two women walking across New York State! And make one of them pregnant! I was thinking about Linda Thompson a lot. I love her music. I think often about how she lost her voice for so many years. Linda Thompson, Maya Angelou
, Marianne Faithfull. What does it mean to be a woman, a singer, who can't talk, can't sing? My great-grandma Ada lost her voice after her first child died. I wanted to make a character who can't speak. How is she going to tell her story?
What's your interest in, and experience with, the supernatural? Have you ever held, or attended, a séance?
I am very interested in the supernatural, though that doesn't necessarily translate to belief. I think often about how the dead affect my life. There are loads of natural things that are super, like eyeballs, peacocks, and telepathy. Many things have happened I cannot explain. For example, when my youngest daughter was three, we drove past a roadside memorial...
November 19, 2015
You know that Mary-Louise Parker can act. Even if you never saw her in her very dark, very funny Showtime series Weeds
, for which she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, you probably caught her in Bullets over Broadway
, The Portrait of a Lady
, Fried Green Tomatoes
, or HBO's Angels in America
, to name a few of the many projects she's worked on. But you probably didn't know that Parker is also a writer. Dear Mr. You
, her first book, is a memoir in the form of letters to various men in Parker's life (real and imagined). It is playful, poetic, inventive, page-turning, and downright gorgeously written.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, raves, "Dear Mr. You is straight-up fantastic; a gripping and deeply humane and often hilarious book. It catches glimpses of life at all sorts of unexpected moments, electrifying them with its sharp-eyed astonishment at how absurd and joyous things can get. There’s nothing cheaply earned about its wonder; nothing sugarcoated in its gratitude. It's all grit, all messy particulars — full of surprise and full-throated in its song." And Mary Karr writes, "Dear Mr. You is a pants-pissingly funny, gut-wrenching meditation on her loving and tormented encounters with the masculine….I drank it down in one gulp, then started back at page one again. A magnificent, necessary surprise."
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Jill Owens: How did Dear Mr. You come to be? It's such a good idea, structuring a book as letters to people.
Mary-Louise Parker: The very first one I wrote was the invocation; it was something I'd written for Esquire when they asked me to write about men in general. That was quite a few years ago, but I remembered I loved writing it and being able to mix the mundane with the romantic and the poetic. It felt more like a little prose poem.
I wanted to keep writing it, but of course, I had a word count. It was just a little piece in the magazine. A couple of people mentioned it to me, but I was posing right next to it in my underwear making a pie, or something like that, and it completely upstaged the whole piece. [Laughter] But I loved writing it, and so later I experimented with writing others. It really grew out of the first one that I wrote for my dad.
Jill: There's the first letter to your dad and then the last one as well, which is beautiful and emphasizes his role in inspiring your writing in general. What do you associate with him about yourself? What do you see of him in you?
Parker: Everything. It's pretty striking when your kids get older and you see not only yourself but your own parents in your children. I certainly see my father in my son, and oddly, my daughter has so many traits of my mother's. She's adopted but she's so like my mother, it's almost freakish...
November 12, 2015
Kristin Hersh is that rare breed of musician who is also a fantastic writer. Though most people would know her from her solo career or her bands Throwing Muses or 50 Foot Wave, her first memoir, Rat Girl
, described her life as an 18-year-old songwriter, newly diagnosed with mental illness and pregnant. Mary Gaitskill called it "awestruck — by music, feeling, perception, wild animals, mystery, dreams….It is an original beauty." Her most recent book, Don't Suck, Don't Die
, is about her deep and long-lasting friendship with Vic Chesnutt, another extraordinarily gifted musician who committed suicide in 2009. Hersh seems to write and live where magic does — her combination of unsettling honesty, intuition, and eerily poetic language creates an impressionistic portrait of a loving, conflicted friendship between two unusual people, their relationship to art, and their marriages. Michael Schaub of NPR raves, "Don't Suck, Don't Die
is not only one of the best books of the year, it's one of the most beautiful rock memoirs ever written," and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. writes, "A stunning, difficult, and beautiful chronicle. The true Vic comes alive." Funny, heartbreaking, gorgeous, and raw, Don't Suck, Don't Die
is a powerful work and a fitting tribute that will stay with you for a long, long time.
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Jill Owens: When I talked to you about Rat Girl, it sounded like you were reluctant to write that book at first — and I heard you were reluctant to write this one, too. How is it that people keep talking you into writing books?
Kristin Hersh: [Laughter] I don't know! I wish they'd stop, because obviously I'm a reluctant individual.
I was honored to be asked to write an article about Vic because it seemed like, well, better me than someone else. But when I said, "sure," what I meant was "probably not." [Laughter] I'm a musician, and I figured people think I'm a fuck-up, and I'm always gone, and so it's not gonna happen.
But then six months later, the University of Texas Press called asking how it was going. I said, "Oh. Well… How many words did you want again?" And when they told me, I said, "That's a really long article!" [Laughter] They said, "Yeah, we're a publishing company. You told us you'd write a book, so you'd better get on that."
I realized I was going to have to warn them that there would be nothing definitive or biographical or even typical about what I was going to deliver. It'd be more like dreams and memories combined. All true — this is nonfiction — but sense perceptions, perceptions like sense memories, are fuzzy and dreamlike. And so is a storyline when you're talking about a human being who is somewhat shocking every time you see them, unpredictable, like Vic.
Every time I told them this, every time I gave them an excuse, they would say, "That's what we're looking for." So I couldn't get out of it.
October 13, 2015
"Ambitious" is the word that keeps cropping up in reviews of City on Fire
— understandably so, as the novel clocks in at over 900 pages, features at least 10 major characters' perspectives, and melds so many different worlds — punk rock, visual art, journalism, drugs, wealth, anarchism — with astonishing skill. At its center is a mystery: the Central Park shooting of Samantha Cicciaro, a teenage girl who is the last descendant of a family of fireworks makers. Though his incredibly varied characters are each strikingly authentic, and the plot is never less than page-turning, Garth Risk Hallberg's book is, at heart, a kaleidoscopic love letter to New York City, set mostly in the '70s leading up to the great blackout of July 1977. Ron Charles, writing in the Washington Post
, raves, "Dazzling....[A]n extraordinary performance....Hallberg inhabits the minds of whites and blacks, men and women, old and young, gay and straight with equal fidelity...making every one of them thrum with real life." And Entertainment Weekly
marvels, "It's hard to believe this layered New York epic is a debut: The glitter and grime of the city’s punk heyday are captured in gorgeous detail as multiple stories converge." City on Fire
is a favorite among our employees, and we're thrilled to have chosen it as Indiespensable
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Jill Owens: How did this giant novel get started? When did you realize the scope of it, and how ambitious it was going to be?
Garth Risk Hallberg: All of the really essential things about it, including the scope, came to me in the space of about 45 seconds in the year 2003.
Hallberg: I think that, prior to that, some very deep seeds had been planted and were growing beneath my notice. I grew up in a fairly rural town in North Carolina — Greenville. It's a small town. There was a state college there, which doubled the size of the population when school was in session.
I gave a lot of these experiences to the character Mercer in the novel: Growing up, I had a sense of a fish-out-of-water feeling that ripened into, as I got older, a feeling of actual estrangement from my surroundings — not in any angry way, but more in sadness than in anger. The problem was with me: Why don't I feel like I belong here?
Very early on — it's hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg — I was a voracious reader. Reading was not just an escape or a Band-Aid; it was a deep form of feeling seen and recognized, and being able to see and recognize other kindred spirits. My dad was a writer, too, which also likely had something to do with that.
September 9, 2015
"Padgett Powell is an extravagantly talented writer," raves The New York Times Book Review
. We also think he's one of the funniest, saddest, and most innovative writers that you might not yet have read. His first novel, Edisto
, was nominated for the National Book Award, and he's also won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Whiting Writers' Award. His 2009 novel, The Interrogative Mood
, is written entirely as a series of questions; his 2012 novel, You and Me
, is a dialogue between two men on a porch about the nature of time, stove-knob burglars, what death means, and whether they should make a liquor store run in jumpsuits stuffed with heating pads.
Powell's absurd and surreal but incisive ruminations and extraordinary facility with language and image are on full display in his new collection of stories, Cries for Help, Various. Kevin Wilson notes, "To read a Padgett Powell story is to ride, and ride well, never quite sure of where you are going, not caring because it is wonderfully captivating. But the real genius is that Powell, in his own way, always leaves you exactly where you need to be." If you aren't yet familiar with the deep peculiar joys of this Southern master, his new collection is an excellent place to begin.
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Padgett Powell: Powell's City of Books is a big city.
Jill Owens: It is a big city, yes. It's a big community online, too.
Powell: It has yet to recognize me as a proper heir.
Jill: [Laughter] There's still time.
Powell: I came out there and did a reading, what, three years ago? And I expected to claim part of my estate then, but no one with any authority met me to tell me where I stood.
Jill: Well, I'll have to remedy that. I'll have one of the Powells talk to you.
Powell: We need to have a discussion. I'm doing my part. I'm producing books; I'm not merely showing them. I'm ground-floor material here.
Jill: All right. I'll support it...
August 31, 2015
In January of this year, eight months before its release date, the buzz was already starting to build for Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family
. Bookseller colleagues were passing around the few advance reader copies we could get a hold of and telling each other, "You have to read this!" Four major review sites — Kirkus
, Publishers Weekly
, Library Journal
, and Booklist
— all gave it a starred review, and recently the Man Booker Prize committee longlisted it for the 2015 award.
Did You Ever Have a Family is Clegg's debut novel, but the author is no stranger to the publishing world. He has worked for years as a literary agent and written two bestselling memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days, both of which won wide acclaim for their candidness about addiction.
A heartbreakingly beautiful story filled with hope, loss, and redemption, Did You Ever Have a Family follows several characters as they try to piece their lives back together in the aftermath of a devastating accident. Michael Cunningham raves, "The force, range, and scope of Bill Clegg's Did You Ever Have a Family will grab you with its opening lines, and won't let go until its final one. I can't recall another novel that so effortlessly weds a nuanced, lyrical voice to an unflinching vision of just how badly things can go for people." Darin Strauss adds, "You hold in your hands a great book of kindness — every restrained, exquisite sentence comes loaded for bear. It's been a lot of years since a novel has so moved me. Number Bill Clegg among that endangered species: major American writer." We couldn't agree more, which is why we're thrilled to have chosen it for Volume 55 of Indiespensable.
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Shawn Donley: Your first two books were bestselling memoirs. Why did you decide to transition to fiction for this new book?
Bill Clegg: The transition wasn't as clean as it might appear from the outside. I had actually begun writing the novel in fits and starts, sort of in and around writing both memoirs.
At the time it was just getting ideas out of my head and down in a file, which is not unusual. The unusual part was that it kept on growing. Then, after I had written the books, there was just something about it that had a center of gravity. And I kept on coming back to it until it was finished.
Shawn: Is the process of writing fiction different for you?
Clegg: The experience is different. It's much more joyful. There's more curiosity; there's less known insight. There's that crackle of surprise and wonder connected to it. Whereas with a memoir, it's a transcription with noted ends. It has different satisfactions, pleasures, and meaning.
August 12, 2015
Eli Gottlieb has done something unusual — he's written two novels, 20 years apart, from opposing but connected perspectives. The Boy Who Went Away
, his first novel, draws from Gottlieb's own childhood to chronicle a young boy's coming of age in a family with a severely disabled, classically autistic brother. It won the American Academy's Rome Prize for Fiction, and Phillip Lopate
called it "shockingly, electrically alive." Gottlieb went on to write two critically acclaimed literary thrillers, The Face Thief
and Now You See Him
, which was devoured by our CEO, Miriam Sontz: "I read it for an hour at lunch and then finished it the same night right after dinner, when I heated up leftovers so I wouldn't have to spend time away from this book."
His newest novel, Best Boy, written from the perspective of a middle-aged autistic man who's been living in institutions most of his life, tells the other side of the story from The Boy Who Went Away. Walter Kirn calls Best Boy "A literary experience of piercing, invigorating, profound humanity," and Andrew Solomon raves, "Amid the flood of books about autism in childhood comes this gripping novel about the fresher territory of autism in midlife...written with élan, wit, and great empathy." We're excited to choose Best Boy for our Indiespensable #54.
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Jill Owens: How did you decide to revisit the territory of The Boy Who Went Away from a different point of view? How do you see Best Boy relating to that first novel?
Eli Gottlieb: I think that what all the books I've written have in common on one level is a real attention paid to the mechanics of narrative. I think that's the place that I really am happiest in the actual gearing of long-form narrative.
I wrote that first book because I was writing a book that was far more avant-garde, if you will. It was based more on the influence of Milan Kundera. The only typescript of that book was stolen out of my car, and in response to that, almost in a fit of rage, I decided to completely abandon the idea of any distance between myself and the reader and wrote a book that was as self-revealing as I could make it. That was my first novel, The Boy Who Went Away.
I just dispensed with the entire postmodernist bag of tricks and wrote a very straight-ahead, conventional narrative, but I was ambivalent about the autobiographical, and I made a point of writing two books after that that were not explicitly autobiographical...
May 26, 2015
Vendela Vida is a force to be reckoned with. She's written four novels and one book of nonfiction; she's a founding editor of the Believer
and a cofounder of 826 Valencia, plus she's done some screenwriting. Her newest novel, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty
, is her strongest work yet. In this moving, darkly funny, beautifully written story, an unnamed narrator who has traveled alone to Morocco finds her life and identity beginning to alter and unravel in sudden, surprising ways. Jess Walter, author of Beautiful Ruins
, raves, "You will tear through Vendela Vida's The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty
, this wry, edgy, philosophical thriller, this love child of Albert Camus
and Patricia Highsmith
, this sly satire of Hollywood, this entertaining journey through the vast desert of identity and regret." We agree, and we're proud to choose it for Volume 53 of Indiespensable
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Jill Owens: In an interview with us several years ago after your first novel, you talked about how finding the starting point is often the hardest part of the writing process, and once you have that, everything falls into place. I was wondering if that's still true, and how you found the starting point for The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty.
Vendela Vida: That's very funny that I said that so many years ago, because I've been thinking about that with this book, too. I didn't realize I had already come to that conclusion. I feel like you're always coming to the same epiphanies as a writer.
I had a plot in mind for a book for a long time that I wanted to have happen and wanted to write about. I had some backstory written for the character, but I didn't know exactly what the main story in this book was going to be for a long time, and I didn't know where it was going to be set. But I had this character in mind, and I knew some of the themes about identity and so forth.
It wasn't until a trip to Morocco, where... I won't go into too much detail, but let's just say that, like the character in the book (the second-person character who's never given a real name), I also ended up in Casablanca being able to meet the chief of police.
There is not much similarity between the book and my own life; the only similarity, really, is the starting point. But I found myself in the police office with the chief of police in Casablanca, and I was probably the happiest person ever to be in that police office because midway through the interview talking about what had happened and going over details, I realized that this was going to be the beginning of my book.
After that, I think I had a huge smile on my face. I was looking around the office taking notes of what the interior looked like, what the flowers looked like, what everything looked like. I think they were all very confused to see someone so happy. Usually people sitting in that chair are crying or very upset, and I think I was almost elated because I had finally found the entry into this novel that I knew I'd been trying to write.
That's how it started, and after that I wrote very quickly.
Jill: Travel is a major theme in all your fiction. Even in your earlier books, it's a means of getting away from oneself, or shedding or changing one's identity a little bit. What interests you in writing about those moments of change, those intersections of Americans in other countries?
Vida: I have two answers to that. One is that my favorite novels are novels that start off with Americans abroad, everything from Graham Greene to Hemingway to Paul Bowles to Jean Rhys, people who write about characters not comfortable in their own surroundings. I think from the onset that creates a lot of inherent drama. That's always been interesting to me. I always love reading fiction that's set in other countries. And I love travel, so I think in some ways it was a natural intersection of writing about other places.
I also am someone who doesn't necessarily like to write about where I am right now. For example, right now, I'm sitting outside a laundromat in San Francisco. I don't think I would ever write about San Francisco while being in San Francisco.
I like to not be in the place I'm writing about, because I think that if I were writing about San Francisco and living here, I'm afraid that too many of my day-to-day interactions would make their way into the book. I would experience something and then I would be tempted to put it in the book. Whereas I find there's something about setting fictions in other countries that allows me to envision them whole and separate and then write them down, if that makes sense, and not have the landscape and the terrain and the world that I created in my head be punctured.
For those reasons, I really love to set books in other countries. And also because, as I mentioned, those are my favorite kind of books to read. I think ultimately as a writer you tend to write the books that you like to read. That's what the deal is for me.
Jill: How much did you have to travel for this book? Did you go back to Morocco after that first time when you realized this was where the story was going to be set?
Vida: I did not go back there after that. I thought about it at one point. For the last two books, I spent a lot of time in each of the countries. With The Lovers, which is set in Turkey, I went back there three times; the same with Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, which takes place in northern Scandinavia. I was there a total of three times, in Lapland.
For this book I didn't go back. I use a lot of... I don't know what else to call them but tools, while writing, meaning a lot of photographs of things. If anyone ever looked at the photos I take while traveling, they would be of no interest to them. [Laughter] I take pictures of laundromats, of billboards, of cars, of hotels where I think my protagonist might stay or be. I find those pictures to be really useful when I'm writing. For this novel I had a lot of those photos in my head or I researched a lot of photos and that's what I used to recall some of the details.
I also watched a lot of films set in Morocco, documentaries and even travel videos, just to remind myself of all the small details — what's sold in the souks, what's sold on the streets, things like that. Sometimes when you're writing, you think, "What is something I saw?" You wind up back with some spices, or the same display of leather goods that you saw, and then you can research what other goods ar
March 10, 2015
Our Endless Numbered Days
tells the story of eight-year-old Peggy and her survivalist father, James, who inexplicably leave behind their London home and start a new life in an isolated cabin in the woods. Both stylistically rendered and deliberately paced, this book is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the ability we all have to endure. Amy Stewart (author of The Drunken Botanist
) raves, "Like the wilderness into which Claire Fuller's characters disappear, Our Endless Numbered Days
is rigged with barbs and poisons, tricks and tragedies. It's weird and wild and sometimes terrifying, but it's also beautiful and heartbreaking and breathlessly alive." Claire Fuller's debut novel marks the arrival of a remarkable new literary talent, which is why we're thrilled to have it as our pick for Volume #52 of Indiespensable
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Shawn Donley: How did the story of Our Endless Numbered Days evolve?
Claire Fuller: It started when I was doing a creative and critical writing MA at the University of Winchester. They asked us to find something that had appeared in the news that we could use as the basis to start writing. I think it was about 2011. There was a teenager named Robin van Helsum, who said that he had come out of the woods in Germany. He claimed that he had lived in the woods for several years with his father, and his father had died. Everybody believed him. It took about nine months for them to realize that actually he had just run away from home. He fooled everybody for ages.
The story was interesting, and I thought, What if he really had lived in the woods? What would have taken him there? What would have made him come out at that moment? How would they have survived? That's where the idea came from.
Shawn: Music plays a significant role in the book, in particular "La Campanella" by Liszt. It serves as a bond between Peggy and her mother, who's a concert pianist. How did you choose which music to use?
Fuller: I'm not a pianist at all and certainly can't play anything. I listen to a lot of music, though. I wanted a piece of music that was going to be difficult for her to learn but fairly short so that the reader could get the gist of the piece over a whole scene. I also wanted it to be quite pretty, a nice piece of music. I did loads of online research, went on forums, chatted with pianists, and came up with that....
December 30, 2014
During these cold, dark days of winter, there's nothing I enjoy more than losing myself in a book that evokes the mood of the season. Set in Swedish Lapland in the early 18th century, Wolf Winter
is a wonderfully atmospheric novel that perfectly captures what it's like to live in a remote, unforgiving landscape. Debut novelist Cecilia Ekbäck crafts a story filled with intriguing characters and a powerful sense of place. As the Library Journal
says in an Editors' Fall Pick, "Ekbäck writes with deliberate pacing and immerses the reader in the endless snowfall of winter with her hypnotic prose." Rene Denfeld, author of The Enchanted
, declares: "Rich in history and authentic detail, Wolf Winter
is a deeply satisfying read." We wholeheartedly agree, which is why we chose it for Volume #51 of Indiespensable
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Shawn Donley: Wolf Winter is set in 1717 yet has a wonderful, timeless quality to it. Why did you choose this specific point in time?
Cecilia Ekbäck: I wanted a time when things were changing because I like to explore the impact of place, in the larger sense of the word, on people, on characters.
In 1717, Sweden was at its largest. It was a superpower, if you like, after many decades of wars, but this is when it started crumbling. Lots of people had died, there was no more money, there was war on every front, and the king had returned home after having warred abroad basically his whole adult life.
Things were crumbling for Sweden as a whole. It was clear there were going to be changes, and nobody quite knew what those changes would entail, in terms of how we were governed and what would happen next. That's why I picked that year.
Shawn: What type of research did you do to get a better perspective on that time period?
Ekbäck: I read everything that I could find in terms of history books, and then I read lots of local books.
In Sweden when a town celebrates a significant anniversary, it's a tradition for the community to produce a local book. Those books don't often go very far, but they have lots of anecdotes. They're very personal to those towns.
I read loads of those books. Then I interviewed my grandmother and her sister and her friends because industrialization came to Lapland very late. My grandmother always used to say that it was a shock when it happened, when roads arrived. She used to say, "You went from shoes you had made yourself, out of leather, and sewn yourself, to high heeled shoes overnight."
Shawn: That's quite a shock.
Ekbäck: Yeah, she used to say, "When a meter of snow falls and you walk outside, you think, Well, this is not my world." You recognize certain things, but others you don't. I remember a lot of her stories. They made their own food. My grandmother was shepherding goats in the village as a child. She had to finish school when she was 10 to start working.
I thought basing the settlers' lives on that knowledge that she had around food making and laundry and so on, a lot of it probably would have been the same.
I think there was shame, or at least I know there was for my grandmother, in how they had lived before. She used to talk about the "fine people." The fine people were people with an education. It was the priest, and it was the doctor, and so on.
Shawn: The setting in northern Sweden also plays an important role in the story. You now live in Canada but are originally from Sweden. Did you intentionally choose this setting as a way to revisit your homeland?
Ekbäck: I did, yeah. The setting, Blackåsen Mountain, doesn't exist in real life. I based it on where my grandparents lived in Lapland — the two villages where they lived and where we spent a lot of time growing up. The nature was from what I remember of the mountains where we used to go a lot. I wanted Blackåsen Mountain to reflect what it felt like growing up with a sense of that freedom.
To me it was kind of a psychological setting, in a way. I wanted to show the impact that the climate and living that close to nature, what it does to you or can do to you. Especially the sort of fear, I think, that we felt growing up, because the stories were still rife. There were lots of stories. Santa Claus for us wasn't a big, jovial man. He was a small, gray little man who lived in the barn.
Shawn: He sounds scary. [Laughter]
Ekbäck: He really was terrible. If you didn't feed him during the year, you'd be punished. You'd have an accident. My grandmother always used to say, if we lost something, "Well, it's the boy in the bog who's taken it."
I wanted that to have an impact on the book and the story. Yes, it is a way of remembering. I've missed it. When I wrote the book, I lived in London and we only came to Calgary in May. I've missed living this close to nature — sort of having it upon you, if you like.
Shawn: Wolf Winter was written in English, which isn't your first language. What were the challenges of writing in your nonnative tongue?
Ekbäck: It was really hard, and as you can tell, my English isn't perfect by any means. I left Sweden when I was 24, and I didn't write for many years because I didn't feel I had a language. My Swedish was the Swedish of a 24 year old, 20 years ago. My English wasn't good enough. But then I felt I had to take up writing again, and when I did I had to make a choice, whether I was going to write in English or Swedish.
At the time, I was doing my master's degree at Royal Holloway in London. I thought since I was going to do my master's in English, I might as well stick with the English. In the beginning, there was lots of work with the thesaurus and the dictionary. It was quite difficult. It took me a long time to write, but there is a liberty that comes with using a language that isn't your mother tongue. It gives your writing a texture that you don't necessarily get in your native language.
I see they're translating this book back to Swedish now. That is very interesting for me.
Shawn: Are you doing the translation?
Ekbäck: No, I'm not. I was asked if I wanted to do it, and I was thinking, no. [Laughter] I think it would become too confusing.
Shawn: You became a writer a bit later in life. What type of career did you have before you started writing?
Ekbäck: Before this, I worked in marketing. I've done marketing for 20 years in many shapes and forms. We had our children late in life, too, so I have twins who are now three year olds. They came at a perfect time to stop working. I was ready to do something different. Now I'm writing full time and I have my girls.
Shawn: Did your daughters have any influence on the creation of the two girls in the story?
Ekbäck: Yes, they did. Dorotea is a lot like one of the girls, and Frederika is
October 28, 2014
Some people are compelled by a restlessness from within; others are shaped by the unwieldy forces around them. In Miriam Toews's poignant new novel following two sisters raised in a small Canadian Mennonite community, siblinghood is a bond strengthened by this dynamic. Elf is now a world-famous concert pianist with a happy marriage, while her sister, Yoli, is a scattered, stalled writer in the middle of her second divorce. Yet it is Yoli who serves as protector for her fragile and impulsive older sister, a woman so crippled by depression that she repeatedly tries to take her own life. Says The Guardian
's Stevie Davies, "I can think of no precedent for the darkly fizzing tragicomic jeu d'esprit
that is Miriam Toews's sixth novel." Daring, propulsive, and deeply affecting, All My Puny Sorrows
is indeed in a class of its own. We're honored to have chosen it as the featured title for our 50th volume of Indiespensable
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Jill Owens: You're known for drawing from your own life in your earlier work, and All My Puny Sorrows sounds like it's very autobiographical as well. Can you talk a bit about how this book came about?
Miriam Toews: Yes, it's definitely the most autobiographical of my novels. Four years ago, in 2010, my sister committed suicide, and before that she had made several attempts. All My Puny Sorrows is an attempt to describe that or shape some sort of narrative from that experience.
Jill: How did you think about this process? It's fiction, but it's so strongly drawn from your own life. Was that any different than your previous work?
Toews: It was more or less exactly the same as my previous work. I think often that all my novels are like one big novel. One is just an extension of the other. With this one, while I was using my own experiences and that of my sister and my family, I also wanted to have the freedom that fiction would give me to impose a kind of narrative on those events and on my feelings about those events. That's one of the reasons why I write fiction. It's the freedom of it, being able to set the pace and tone, and to make stuff up when I need to in service to the theme.
Jill: In almost all of your books, the relationship between the two sister characters is extremely important. It's always been pretty central to your work, much more than most people write about sibling relationships, and I was wondering what interested you about that dynamic specifically.
Toews: It's interesting that you mention that because, a couple of days ago, I was doing an event here in Canada at a writers' festival, and the woman I was doing it with said, "I've been reading your stuff, and it seems to me that your sister is actually your muse." That really hit me because, of course, it's true.
I had never really thought about that. I was just writing the stuff that I wanted to write, that I needed to write. Then, of course, it made me think, Oh, and my sister is not here anymore. But a muse doesn't necessarily have to be alive or even a real person, I guess.
All of my life I only had one sibling. My sister, Marjorie, was six years older than me. I grew up in her shadow. She was larger than life. She was very articulate and eloquent and elegant and well spoken, very fun and glamorous. She did things that I dreamt of doing one day. Like reading — that was at an early age [laughter]. Then traveling, going to university, having boyfriends. So I was always examining her from a bit of a distance.
But there was also something else about her. There was something that I couldn't quite catch, or connect with. That so intrigued me. There was a mystery about her. I think that was, in retrospect, the beginning of her suffering, of her despair, of her depression, of her mental illness, whatever you want to call it. That was the place that I couldn't go to and was so compelling to me, so fraught and so dark. It was scary but kind of intriguing at the same time.
Also, she was a huge support. Later in life, by the time I was 12, she was 18. She had left home, left our little town and went off to the university and had an interesting life as a young woman. I was back at home in our small religious community that I so desperately wanted to leave.
Then, when I also grew up and became an adult, she and I were very close. She was very supportive of my writing, for instance. She didn't have kids of her own, but she was a huge influence, a huge part of our family, my family with my kids and my partner. She babysat and helped me out. There was a close bond. And yet there was always that thing about her, that kind of darkness that swirled around.
Jill: I'm a little more than five years older than my sister, and I feel like we're much closer as adults than we were when we were younger, too. I left home when she was so young. There was that separation there for a bit.
Toews: Exactly. Where you almost aren't even really aware of the other person's existence [laughter]. I'd forget about it in large chunks until my sister would come home from the university. Then the excitement began again at home. I'd think, Oh yeah!
Jill: In Swing Low, you write in the voice of your father, who also committed suicide. I was wondering if you ever considered trying to write in your sister's voice with this book.
Toews: No, I didn't. In Swing Low, writing in my father's voice was like a natural, organic extension of my time and my experiences with him before he died, because in the days leading up to his death, I was writing him notes. I was visiting him in the hospital and writing all of these notes for him so that he could read them when I wasn't there, when my sister wasn't there, when he didn't have visitors. They were just encouraging notes. "You will be well again. We all love you. You'll get out of the hospital soon. You'll get through this." Things like that, typical things that you would say.
Then, after a while, he couldn't really make sense of them that way because his mind was in such crisis. I would have to write the note from his point of view, in his voice. "I will be well again. I will get out of the hospital soon." Then he could understand it when he read it back to himself.
When I wrote the book about him, it just seemed normal and right to me to continue on like that. When he died, it was such a shock. We were all so shattered and so full of questions. With suicide you keep wondering, How did that happen? What happened? Why? Of course, there are very few answers, so writing the book in his voice helped me to get a little bit closer to answering some of those questions. Not entirely, of course, but it just made sense at the time to examine his life and become him, in a way, so that I would understand his actions and why he chose to die the way he did.
When my sister died, again it was just kind of a feeling I had at the time. Maybe for a week or two I thought, Maybe I'll write a nonfictio
September 2, 2014
David Mitchell's newest mind-bending, time-skipping novel may be his most accomplished work yet. Written in six sections, one per decade, The Bone Clocks
focuses on Holly Sykes, who begins the book in 1984 as a British teenager and ends it as a grandmother in 2043. Holly's otherwise ordinary life is interrupted by voices, whom she initially calls the "radio people," and psychic experiences, which ultimately pull her into a sort of supernatural, immortal war. Joe Hill
raves, "There's no real argument: he's the best novelist of his generation — and the most fun. The Bone Clocks
is a stunning work of invention, incident, and character. The levels of awesome in this book are off the charts." Gorgeously written, bracingly intelligent, poignant, and occasionally very funny, The Bone Clocks
is one of our favorite novels this year and our pick for Volume 49 of Indiespensable
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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of The Bone Clocks?
David Mitchell: There were a couple of geneses. One was my middle age — it's my midlife crisis novel. I've reached that age where mortality is no longer a distant abstract in the future ("it will get you one day"). It's actually there in the mirror. It's in your knee caps. It's in your spine. It's in the breathlessness when you take the stairs instead of the escalator.
Through the novel, in a way, I offered myself this Faustian pact where you can become immune to all of that. You can be young and peaceful and healthy forever. All you have to do in return is have your conscience amputated. So, playfully, one of the geneses of the book was from my own biology, from my own aging process.
Another was from an idea that kind of went wrong: the idea being to write 70 short stories, one per year of Holly's life, where she would either be a main character, a very minor one, or something in between. It was a great idea in theory, but when I started doing it, about 10 or 15 stories in, the problem was that when you're reading a short story, you pay attention to every single word. When you're reading a chapter you do looking as well as reading. You look at the words. Your mind doesn't always pay attention to literally every word and every line. It was very tiring to read, because you didn't know where you could partly switch off and when you couldn't, I found.
So that idea condensed, in a way, from 70 short stories to six decades, one novella per decade, in which Holly was either the main character or a hefty, major one. In a way, the novel is built with the scaffolding of an early idea, but the scaffolding became the main edifice.
Jill: That's interesting, because that's something else I was going to ask: Why did you want to focus on Holly indirectly for a large part of the book?
Mitchell: Greed, I suppose. I wanted to get lots of other things in that I couldn't have done had Holly been the direct focus. This means that there are periods where the narrative eye has to shift away from her. The payback is you also get to explore the relationships which Holly is a part of.
Yes, it's all Holly physically in the first section. Then you can get to explore Hugo, who's essentially a casual lover, but a casual lover who has the potential to become more than casual. With Ed, you get to explore the relationship of the person you had a kid with, a breeding partner. There has to be a better word for it than that, but that's what comes to mind. [Laughter] With Crispin, she's a colleague. And along the way we get to see her as a mother and a daughter and a sister, as well. In the end, she's also a grandmother, a guardian, and a teacher.
That is one useful advantage of having written the book the way I did. Yes, you take your eye off the ball. On the other hand, it facilitates an exploration of all these other relationships. We are many things, aren't we, in life? We aren't just the one self. We have these relationship selves. These selves vary with the kind of relationship in question. With a big, broad, smeary canvas like this one, I got to explore quite a few of these selves where Holly is one side of the relationship.
Jill: How did Holly's character initially come to you?
Mitchell: I went to a comprehensive high school in the U.K. It was formed in the late '60s as quite an idealistic kind of school. It was non–fee paying, and it was a mainstream school. In a way, it still is, despite several generations of reforms.
The point of it was that future managers — the future elite, if you like — and future novelists would be going to the same school as future blue-collar workers, future trade unionists. We'd all learn about each other and happily build a new tomorrow in a few decades hence.
Nice in theory, but as these utopian things go, reality tends to spoil the best-laid plans. It didn't work the way that the planners intended. However, it did mean that I was at school with kids like Holly; even though I was middle class with parents who were artists, I was there cheek by jowl with what you might call some pretty rough kids. Holly would be an amalgam of some of the girls I would have known, and been at school with, and been kicked by [Laughter] when I was 15, 16.
In a sense, she developed as characters always do. You sit down and work out what they think about, about society, money, sex, work, language, class, God, the other characters in the book, their parents, family, religion, etc. You think long and hard about these things and hopefully make a credible, plausible, believable character who feels real, and who mostly you care for.
Jill: You jump around in time in a lot of your work, but in this book, I guess in part through the concept of mortality you mentioned, you're taking on the nature of time itself, in a way. What made you want to address that — not directly, exactly, but sort of as a through line?
Mitchell: I'm writing a little bit for an academic journal whose editors got in touch with me from California. The journal is called SubStance and it's completely about time. It's what they do. So, yes, I have been thinking about the subject. It's almost accidental. The book does think about time a lot. It thinks about deep time.
I've got a character, Esther Little, who is millennia old, and then of course there are children in it as well. We get to see time from the human point of view, where time is a slow-motion, slow-burning decay bomb that turns embryos into newborns, newborns into toddlers, toddlers into teenagers, teenagers into middle-aged people like me, middle-aged people like me into our senescent, bedridden selves, and then obviously it's curtains.
We also get to see us from time's point of view. People who want out of that built-into-our-genes parabola of a lifetime level of time. They want something more, as Hugo's bunch do, the Anchorites. There are also people who have that whether they want it or not, like Marinus and the Horologists, who do come back, whether they like it or not. They sort
July 1, 2014
Dima and Yarik are twin brothers in a Russia set in a slightly alternate universe, in the city of Petroplavilsk. The city is in perpetual daylight, thanks to the Oranzheria — a "sea of glass" greenhouse built over farmlands lit by mirrors in space. Though inseparable in childhood, Dima and Yarik begin to take radically different paths as they navigate adulthood, family, responsibility, and ideology. The Great Glass Sea
, the first novel by "5 Under 35" winner Josh Weil, is steeped in Russian folklore and fable, and is a moving and ingenious tale of familial love. Library Journal
calls it "resplendent and incandescent," and Lauren Groff
exclaims, "The Great Glass Sea
is our world made uncanny: the Russian countryside of folktale and literature turned darkly luminous, menacing, and brittle. I was intoxicated by this novel's brains and I fell hopelessly in love with its heart. Josh Weil is a spectacular talent." We were so impressed with it, we chose it for our Indiespensable Volume 48
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Jill Owens: In your first book, The New Valley, you write very movingly about rural Virginia; it plays a huge part in those novellas. Place is also a huge part of the new book, but it's a radically different setting. What made you want to write about somewhere so different? How do you think about place in your fiction?
Josh Weil: Those are two really important and big questions. First of all, I didn't necessarily choose to write about it. It really was something that had been in me for a long time, ever since I spent time in Russia and the Soviet Union when I was young, and then Russian club and my Russian language classes all throughout high school took over my life in a big way. So it was a place that was very present in my mind ever since I was a kid. Because of that, I always knew I'd write about the region at some point.
When I started writing, I thought it would be a short story. I wrote the opening paragraph pretty much as it is in the book now. When I started to get into the scene, I realized it was going to be something longer and put it away. But it clung to me.
It was through the landscape in my mind that the story really gripped me, more than any real understanding of the Russian landscape. In a way, it was very different from Virginia in that I didn't know the landscape as well but the place was my way in. And so a lot of it was imagining that setting. Then, of course, you start to do research. I went back to Russia to try to get some of those physical details that might have eluded me otherwise. It starts to become alive.
The idea of place and the importance of place has always been so, so vital in making the world feel real. At the same time, it's also how I often wind my way into a story. In some ways, it's a crutch for me. It's something I have to watch myself for. My writer friends who have been reading my work for 10 or 15 years always say, "I know Josh is struggling with this scene because he's writing about the clouds again." It's just a way that I can grab something that feels solid, that allows me to pull myself into the moment if I'm struggling. I go through and have to pare a lot of that out, but because of that, place is a grounding element for me.
Jill: How did you end up spending time in Russia as a child?
Weil: I was on a student exchange. I stayed with a host family in the far northern city of Petrozavodsk, which is obviously what Petroplavilsk is modeled after. I changed a lot of the names, but just slightly. My family on my mother's side is all Russian Jews. My mom used to put Russian folk songs and Eastern European folk songs on the record player and teach me dance steps, and we'd dance around the living room. My great-great-uncle, who is very important to me, grew up in a home where American Communists would meet. So there was always this element that was buried deep inside me about Russia.
Then when I went to junior high school, I was lucky enough that my school had a Russian language program. And this girl who I had a crush on decided to take a Russian class. That's the main reason I wound up taking Russian, but I stuck with it for six years. It became a huge part of me. Then I went on a student exchange and lived as a host student in the Soviet Union — the last year, actually, that it was the Soviet Union. I was 14.
Jill: There's a strong influence of Russian folktales and fairy tales throughout the book — for Dima in particular, but it colors both brothers' lives. I grew up reading those stories, and I love how you incorporate the images and the language. Why did you want to make those tales a focus in a work about a futuristic Russia?
Weil: I never, ever thought of this novel as a science fiction novel, or even really a futuristic novel. It's funny that it has gotten placed in those realms. It shocks me because I don't know that I've ever even read a science fiction novel.
For me, instead, it felt like a fable. I didn't want to write something that was set in a world that was so far detached from our own as a fable would be, but I wanted to write something that felt like our own world, as close as possible, and yet freed from only the constraints that would have kept it from being the story I wanted it to be.
What struck me about it was this idea of writing something that had the tone or the feel of a fable but was rooted in realism. So that's how I thought about it. I think it probably has to do, too, with the very fact that I don't know Russia that well. Even though I was there as a kid, studied it for years, and went back to do my due diligence and research, I didn't know it so well that I felt that I could write the real Russia today. I would have failed if I tried to do it, and it would have been arrogant of me to try.
In a way, setting it within fables was important for two reasons. One, it freed me up to feel like I could write about Russia because I was writing something that was so obviously not claiming to reveal Russia's soul as it is now in 2014. But also, my relationship with Russia had been one that was created half in my mind. So, it was my own private fable of Russia, if that makes sense.
Jill: What kind of research did you end up doing on the mirrors themselves and the greenhouse, and what their effects on the ecosystem, plants, animals, etcetera would have been?
Weil: I did a fair amount of research on that — two different kinds. One was the kind that I did before getting into a lot of the meat of the writing, which dealt with the ideas more, so I was reading about different philosophies around socialism and communism, or looking at ideas of leisure and what's happened in American capitalism. That kind of stuff I did as preparatory research.
The other stuff that you're talking about I did only as much as was necessary in order to get the world to work. I didn't want it to become, for exactly the reasons I was talking about before, a science fiction novel.
May 1, 2014
More than most writers, Lorrie Moore has devoted readers who fervently await each of her new publications with something approaching reverence. With the release of her last novel, A Gate at the Stairs
, Jonathan Lethem
declared himself one of those fans: "Moore may be the most irresistible contemporary American writer....On finishing A Gate at the Stairs
, I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately." Bark
, Moore's latest work and first book of short stories in 15 years, showcases her razor-edged humor, her dazzling skill with language, and her incredible psychological precision. Reading Bark
, I realized that as much as I love her novels, I'd been missing the irresistible pull of her stories terribly without knowing it. Kirkus
agreed in a starred review: "One of the best short story writers in America resumes her remarkable balancing act, with a collection that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same paragraph....In stories both dark and wry, Moore wields a scalpel with surgical precision."
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Jill Owens: How did this new collection, Bark, come together? Had you been working on some of the stories while writing other things?
Lorrie Moore: Bark is a collection of stories written over 10 years, from the period of 2003 to 2013. They are arranged more or less in chronological order. During that time I was also working on a novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which was published in 2009. Though there has been some commentary that this is a slim collection, it is my second longest. I think the bound galley made it look smaller than it was. There are eight stories, as there were in my second collection, Like Life. Do I sound sufficiently defensive?
Jill: Did you know that the longer stories — "Wings" and "Debarked" — would remain stories rather than become novels?
Moore: Actually I imagined "Debarking" would be shorter and that "Wings" would be longer, perhaps a novella. But they were never destined to become novels.
Jill: What do you like about working in those different forms (short stories and novels)?
Moore: Once a decade I have an idea that needs the wider, longer canvas of the novel. I like keeping company with the protagonists of my novels. The characters in a short story are assembled in a more temporary way and I don't think much about them afterward. But the heroine of a novel can linger with you. It's also possible, because of that, to take time out to write the occasional story.
Jill: I read that you studied and played music at one point. And you write about music frequently; your characters are often musicians. Do you still play? Are there similarities between playing and making music and writing?
Moore: No, I never studied music seriously, but members of my family did. I love music, and all writers are probably aspiring to the condition of it with every sentence. I also like characters who are musicians since they are fun to spend time with.
Jill: You're pretty well known for the humor in your writing. Do you like reading fiction that's funny, too? What are you drawn to, in that way?
Moore: So many writers are funny and don't get credit for it. Alice Munro, for instance. I'm reading her work with grad students this semester and they are surprised by all the sly humor in her stories. Margaret Atwood is more openly funny and satirical, even in her poetry, and her style and tone was always an inspiration to me. Alison Lurie and David Lodge are very sharp and humorous observers of academe and the literary world. Roddy Doyle is very funny. David Sedaris I adore, but he is doing something slightly different, as a writer of humor. I once went through a big Peter De Vries phase. He always made me laugh out loud. And Shakespeare is always a hoot. Or almost always.
Jill: And your puns! I've actually read some of the puns out loud to friends of mine who are also pun lovers. Does that cross over into real life, as well?
Moore: I feel a little falsely or at least overaccused in the pun department. Shakespeare and De Vries and Maureen Dowd are more appropriate targets. Some of my puns are just mishearings or misunderstandings. Misunderstanding is the key element in a certain kind of comedy.
Jill: Do you think it's related to being interested in language in general?
Moore: Oh, sure. And it's also maybe related to being hard of hearing. There is a hinge between homonyms that connects two very different worlds, and it is sometimes fun to note when a word does that.
Jill: A Gate at the Stairs seemed like you were writing from a perspective that was the opposite of some past protagonists — the student rather than the teacher, the native Midwesterner rather than a transplant. Was that a different kind of empathy, a different kind of challenge?
Moore: No, all empathy is generally the same. It's a leap but a leap you're interested in taking. I don't tend to write characters who have my biography. There has been some overlap here and there, but not a lot. One works, I suppose, a little like an actress. What made Tassie accessible (in my opinion) was her watchfulness, intelligence, and youth. Who hasn't been there?
Jill: In "Wings," you write, "...if one knew the future, all the unexpected glimpses of the beloved, one might have trouble finding the courage to go on." Could you expand upon that idea at all?
Moore: In "Wings" the young woman is seeing all the unfortunate qualities in the man she loves and it becomes a strain on her affections. Eventually she cannot love him at all because of what they both have done. This is a theme in at least three Henry James novels that I can think of: the spring of one's affection being broken by various things that have transpired — mostly betrayals of some sort. But betrayals of self.
Jill: "The Juniper Tree" was a really moving and poignant
April 23, 2014
For months before I read it, coworkers would rave during meetings, send me glowing emails, or stop me in the hall to tell me how much they loved All the Light We Cannot See
. We couldn't keep advance reader copies in the office for more than a few hours. I had long been a fan of Anthony Doerr, for his extraordinary short stories in The Shell Collector
and Memory Wall
and his previous novel, About Grace
. His newest novel, set during World War II, tells the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a 16-year-old blind girl living in occupied France, and Werner, an 18-year-old German soldier who was conscripted from an orphanage due to his extraordinary mechanical abilities. A missing, possibly cursed jewel known as the Sea of Flames; scale-models of neighborhoods in Paris and Saint-Malo made by Marie's father to teach her how to navigate; a secret ocean cove with snails and mussels — Doerr's remarkable story is filled with gorgeous, almost magical imagery you might not expect in a war novel.
Jess Walter gushes, "All the Light We Cannot See is a dazzling, epic work of fiction. Anthony Doerr writes beautifully about the mythic and the intimate, about snails on beaches and armies on the move, about fate and love and history and those breathless, unbearable moments when they all come crashing together." Karen Russell says, simply, "Anthony Doerr can find the universe in a grain of sand and write characters I care about with my whole heart." And in a starred review, Library Journal declares, "This novel has the physical and emotional heft of a masterpiece." When our Indiespensable team read it, we were just as impressed, moved, and enthusiastic, so we are very happy to have chosen it as the featured title for Volume 47.
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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of this novel?
Anthony Doerr: The easy answer is: It was 2004. I had finished the novel About Grace. Back when they didn't email you the covers, I was in Princeton for a year, and they wanted me to come up to New York to see the designs. I had been scratching around for a new idea. I was riding into Penn Station, I think it was, and we were going through the tunnels underground. The guy in the seat right in front of me was on a 2004 cell phone and lost his call. He got angry, physically angry. He was rapping his phone with his knuckles.
I had my notebook with me. I was writing stuff down about how we've forgotten what a miracle it is to be able to speak with someone. Here I am in Hawaii using light waves to talk to you in Portland. That's a miracle! That was not available to humans for the entire history of our species. That night I started thinking about different ways to remind the reader about how radio was so strange. To hear the voice of a stranger in your house that you couldn't see was a total miracle in the '20s and '30s. I started trying to evoke that.
I had a boy trapped somewhere and a girl reading a story to him. I didn't even know what story it was. I didn't know the circumstances of his entrapment, anything like that. But that was the genesis, I guess. In those early paragraphs, you don't know what you're doing. You're just fumbling along in the dark.
Jill: How did that transform into being set during World War II? How did the boy and girl end up on opposing sides of the war?
Doerr: This is simplifying it a little bit, but it was probably almost a full year later. I was still reaching around for why the boy was trapped. I knew it had to be set in a time when radio was the most powerful technology, the Internet of the time. And I was in France on book tour for the translation of About Grace. There was a book festival in Saint-Malo. We got there at night, and we went right to the dinner. There are these interminable dinners when you're on French tour [laughter]. There are journalists, and everybody smokes, and there are tons of different courses. All these chairs are really little. And you're like, I just want to get out and walk around.
So after dinner, I walked around the town. I had never seen it before. It was dark. There were these ramparts along the walls all around Saint-Malo. At night, the sea breeze is divine, especially in May. You're about three stories up, so you can see into the third-story windows of all these old granite mansions around there. The ocean is dark except for a couple of lights on boats.
I was totally enchanted. I felt like I was in a city from Calvino's Invisible Cities. It was almost like something out of somebody's imagination. I've never seen anything like it. The whole city is built as a fortification, and yet it's also this really gorgeous setting. I spent the next day wandering around. There are all these tunnels underneath the city. Lots of corsairs, which were these state-sanctioned pirates, had mansions there. They had fortified cellars where they'd keep all their loot, with these grand old chimneys.
I was talking to my editor. I was like, "This city's so old; it's amazing." He said, "Actually, your country destroyed this city in 1944." They had to rebuild almost the entire thing. I think it was 88 percent destroyed. I'm like, "Sorry about that. Oops."
First of all, that act of erasure, that such an event can be covered over by this painstaking rebuilding of a town, that idiot tourists like me wouldn't even notice that this place had been destroyed. Then, immediately, I had the idea that that boy who I had trapped, this was my circumstance — something that has to do with the siege of American bombers in 1944, in one of these almost impregnable corsair cellars, with big granite walls and timbers overhead, that could withstand that, and he might be trapped inside. That's what I had after that trip.
Then it was another year before I figured out why he might be there and before I got Marie... In my students, I'm always dispelling the notion that characters come like a light bulb over the head in cartoons. For me, it's like a shapeless big lump of clay. You just build it into something and then you step back and go, "That's not right," hack it apart, put out a new arm, and say, "Maybe this will walk around and work." [Laughter]
Jill: Is there any kind of jewel in the real world like the Sea of Flames that inspired that?
Doerr: Yes and no. The closest analog is in the British Natural History Museum. It's a sapphire that people have believed is cursed for a long time. But in my case, I just started reading. So now I had Saint-Malo, and I tried to figure out the
April 8, 2014
The American Booksellers Association collects nominations from bookstores all over the country for favorite forthcoming titles. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
not only received the most votes for April's Indie Next list, it received the most votes ever
in the history of the program. You don't, however, need to work in a bookstore to fall in love with this book. The story is an affirmation of the important role books play in our lives and the ability they have to transform us all.
In a starred review, Library Journal commends The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: "Funny, tender, and moving, it reminds us all exactly why we read and why we love." Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, raves, "Gabrielle Zevin has written a wonderful, moving, endearing story of redemption and transformation that will sing in your heart for a very, very long time."
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Shawn Donley: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a bit of a departure from your previous books. What inspired you to write about a small independent bookstore?
Gabrielle Zevin: You can't avoid it these days. Ten years ago when I published my first book, it was like publishing in a completely different universe. There was no Twitter, no Facebook. In a way, publishing in 2005 was similar to publishing in 1950. Nobody kept blogs; that was still optional. I didn't even have a website then.
This is my eighth book in about a decade. I've published during a time of enormous change in the industry. I wanted to write a book that reflected a bit on issues of why we should shop locally versus online, the rise of ebooks versus print. But even more than that, I think the book is about the pleasures of a reading life.
Shawn: As a longtime bookseller, let me say that you did a wonderful job of capturing all the joys and challenges of working at a bookstore. What type of research did you do while writing this book?
Zevin: I'm like a unicorn; I'm a midlist writer who hasn't done anything else but write. But because I wasn't amazingly famous, I didn't become Stephanie Meyer, or even a huge literary name like a Jonathan Franzen or a Joshua Ferris.
I'm very privy to the way bookstores work, and I think a lot about the ecosystem that my books have been published in. I think it's great to be aware of how publishing works.
I remember when I published my first book, I certainly had many ideas about books, and very few ideas about publishing. I thought, Maybe the book will just show up, and then it'll be an instant New York Times bestseller. I'll be walking down Fifth Avenue, and every single store will have my book in the window. I thought that was how publishing worked.
In fact, the truth of publishing is that it's a very complicated ecosystem that I've been allowed to observe close up. I've done events where lots of people came, and I've done events where two people came, and one of them was the bookseller. When you do those kinds of events, you ask questions.
Shawn: How would you describe A. J. Fickry, the main character in this novel?
Zevin: He is a prickly curmudgeon. It says so on the jacket, and it's true. I really relate to that because I think that people who are book buyers, and people who work in bookstores in general, they are two things. They are not particularly motivated by money, and they are in the business of their own taste. These two factors combine to form people that are very particular about things. People don't understand that. When you go into a town, there aren't that many places that aren't about survival. Bookstores and books themselves are more than just commerce.
Shawn: The novel is set on a Martha's Vineyard–like island off the coast of Massachusetts called Alice Island. Why did you choose this setting?
Zevin: The setting was really important to me. I'd been thinking about it a long time, but I thought of A. J. as somebody who had become isolated because of his intellect. He loved his very specific taste. It cut him off from people. I thought of the island setting as symbolic of where he was in his life.
I've been thinking about it some more because people are asking this question. It takes a lot of effort to get to Alice Island. First of all, it's fictional, but if it were a real place, it would take a lot of effort to get there. You'd have to take a ferry; you'd have to take a plane. Maybe you have to drive, and maybe you have to drive some more.
I was thinking that reading is the same way. People choose to read and it takes effort. It's not one of those hobbies that asks nothing of the person who is doing it. It's more than a hobby. You choose to be a reader and you choose to go to Alice Island.
Shawn: It's a commitment.
Zevin: It's a commitment to being in a reading life because, especially now, we're aware there are so many other ways that you can, let's say it nicely, "spend your time." Not nicely: "waste your life." Those who decide to pursue reading stories, it is a decision you make.
Shawn: Publisher's sales reps are a very likable and eccentric breed. Did you base the character of Amelia on any particular sales rep that you knew?
Zevin: It's a combination of lots of them. Like I said before, I wasn't aware that those people existed. It never came up in, say, John Irving when he'd write books about books. All that he mentioned was the 92nd Street Y.
I love books about books, and I always have, all of them. Maybe you'll see a character of an agent, and you'll definitely see an editor character, but the book sales rep never comes up. Somebody was saying to me recently that probably that's because they're not very romantic. I thought, Au contraire, it's actually quite romantic. They only come out three or four times a year to go meet these people, so you have these slow-motion relationships with people that you see over many years.
The first book sales rep I ever knew really well was a guy who was kind of a legend, as far as a book sales rep can be a legend. That was when I was publishing with Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. His name was Mark Gates. He was one of those huge personalities. He had a voice like Harvey Fierstein. I was amazed and shocked to watch him go through the catalog of FSG's offerings at that time, because he was brutal. He would sit across the table from a bookseller. He would flip past the pages so quickly. "This is not for you. You didn't do well with his last title, so don't stock this one." Ostensibly his job, of course, was to represent all the books.
I remember feeling very convicted that I didn't want to end up on a "flip past" page in the catalog. I'm not sure I have.
Shawn: But there are a lot of books in
April 3, 2014
Jen Van Meter writes comic books, which is quite possibly one of the most amazingly cool jobs that anyone can have. Her multi-volume hit series Hopeless Savages
, from Oni Press, was nominated for an Eisner Award, otherwise known as the Comics Industry's equivalent of the Oscars. She also writes for Marvel, has a deeply hidden desire to write for the Hulk, and brought new life to a little character you might have heard of named Black Lightning
In honor of the second annual International TableTop Day and Geek Week, I caught up with Jen to talk about geeks, geeky stuff, and what being a geek means to her.
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Heidi: What's the geekiest thing you've ever done or participated in?
Jen Van Meter: It's such a funny word, "geeky," because — given what it meant around me when I was growing up — I can't think of anything I've done that's geekier than becoming a professional comics writer.
But I think it's come to mean different things in different communities and contexts; what's sticky about it for me is the sense of having a driving personalized passion for some aspect of pop/sci-fi/fantasy/gaming culture that extends somehow past casual consumption or enjoyment. It's hard to pin down because there are so many ways to be that passionate and to express it, I think.
But here's my gut answer to your actual question: When I started graduate school, I was thrown into the teaching pool pretty quickly. I wasn't much older than many of my students, I was very shy about public speaking, and I didn't feel a great claim to much authority up in front of the room at first — I was intimidated. At the time, the role-playing game we were spending the most time with was White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade; my character was all tough and mean and wore leather and got into bar fights and wasn't intimidated by anybody. So on teaching days, I dressed like her. I didn't tell anyone, but for about a year, I worked up the nerve to go teach by secretly cosplaying this fictional character.
Heidi: I love that. I used to play an elf named Selenium. I spent a month crafting a magic bow with a +2 to hit.
Van Meter: I love character names. I once made a space opera pilot named Cinemax Odion that I thought would be sort of short term — played that character for years, and now the name never sounds weird or silly to me.
Heidi: You began to go into what "geeky" means to you. Do you want to elaborate on that further?
Van Meter: It's so fraught now, isn't it? My childhood sense of it being a shaming word — the sort one group used to distance itself from another — seems thankfully, mostly gone. Those "geeky" kids who spent lunch hours teaching themselves to code on the school's one computer, or who obsessively followed Doctor Who on PBS late at night, who met up to play role-playing or board games instead of going to the dance, or who read all the comics — those ways of investing yourself have largely been vindicated by where technology and pop culture have gone in the last 30 years, haven't they? So many of these interests that used to seem rarified, arcane — they've moved into really central places in the dominant culture, and the communications technologies we've developed help people who used to feel isolated by their passions find their fellow travelers so much more easily.
So in the wake of that, there's this weird moment now where "geeky" and "nerdy" have become positive shorthand for so much: for deeply loving some one thing or activity, for knowing a lot about something, for being into a whole bunch of things loosely affiliated with "geekiness" — but there are still a lot of people who feel the sting of the old negative brand, whose sense of who they are was shaped by doing their thing despite it. So there's actual cultural debate now about who "gets" to call themselves a geek or a nerd. It might sound silly to people who aren't really invested in it, but it's identity politics and gatekeeping like we find in almost any community, and it can get very cruel and embittered when it comes up. It's not much different from the music scene, where there's always been that tension of who's a "real" whatever-it-is and who's a poser or a fake, or the religious schisms that have occurred over minute points of doctrine: who claims membership in a group and why they do it, this is stuff that really deeply matters to people.
For me, the word really comes down to passion for this thing — whatever it is; dressing up as a cartoon character you love and going to a convention where you can hang out with others doing the same, it's driven by the same passion that has people putting on the jerseys of their favorite players and all going to the game together. And the people who showed up years ago in the rain when the team was on a losing streak, sometimes they're hostile to the people who weren't born then, or who didn't feel they belonged but do now, or who've responded to recent popularity of the game — but that freedom to claim, "I'm a passionate lover of this thing I love," can't really be withheld, can it?
Heidi: Thankfully, no, it can't. Speaking of passions and shifts in mind-set, you were on track toward a PhD prior to what seems like a complete about-face into comic book writing. What drew you toward that particular art form, and what was your journey like getting there?
Van Meter: I've been a comics reader since before I was technically literate — the form has always been a part of my life. I didn't know much at all about how they got made until I was in my 20s, but I was an avid and passionate consumer. When I started having writing ambitions of my own, though, I always imagined it would be prose. I fell sideways into writing comics by going to conventions as a fan and having friends who worked in and around comics — I was around writers and artists in social settings and learning about how making comics worked. Then I took the chance and ran with it when it was offered to me: Jamie S. Rich, then an editor at Dark Horse, suggested I pitch him a short story, and every step of the process was thrilling and fascinating. I fell as in love with making comics as I had been with reading them; I think it's the collaboration that, for me, makes it so compelling. At every stage, I'm working with other people to create this story that then requires the reader's collaboration as well — it's kind of magical.
Now I have to back up. Sometime midway through high school, I met a college professor who also wrote fiction, and as she talked about her life and what she liked about each side of her career, I thought that sounded like exactly the life for me. So that was my plan, and it stayed my plan through getting my BA, getting married, and eventually getting my master's at the University of Oregon. It was while I was working on my doctorate — Literature in English an
March 17, 2014
It's hard to believe that 200 years ago, the Pacific Northwest was one of the most remote and isolated regions in the world. In 1810, four years after Lewis and Clark's successful crossing of the continent, New York businessman John Jacob Astor organized and financed an expedition to establish the first commercial settlement on the West Coast. Two advance parties made up of 140 members set out on the long, arduous journey to the Pacific Coast. Three years later, nearly half of them had died. In Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire
, author Peter Stark recounts this captivating tale of madness, starvation, and survival under extreme hardship.
In a Starred Review, Kirkus calls Astoria, "a fast-paced, riveting account of exploration and settlement, suffering and survival, treachery and death." Laurence Gonzalez (author of Deep Survival) raves, "Peter Stark weaves a spellbinding tale from this lost chapter of American history. Astoria gave me the sense all readers long for: that nothing exists but the riveting narrative unfolding in your head."
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Shawn Donley: This attempt to establish the first commercial settlement on the West Coast is a fascinating part of American history. How did you first become aware of this story?
Peter Stark: My previous book is called The Last Empty Places. It profiles four really unpopulated areas of the country. Five or six or seven years ago, I happened to be driving my car through Eastern Oregon down a long, lonely road. There was no habitation for miles and miles around. I pulled into a town after dark called John Day. You Oregonians are probably familiar with that town. I spent the night there. The next morning I got up and said, "Why is this town called John Day?" I started doing some research.
It turns out John Day was one of the original Astorians on the huge Overland Party sent from New York by John Jacob Astor. He endured incredible trials: starvation, being left behind, being accidently poisoned. He was helped by some Indians but then stripped and sent naked out into the wilderness by others. He was traumatized by the experience.
My interest in the story grew the more I read about John Day. That was just one little, tiny part of this huge, sprawling story. I've lived in Lewis and Clark country for 30 years, and I had never heard this history told. It was this major expedition that came after Lewis and Clark and has been more or less forgotten by the American popular consciousness.
Shawn: All American schoolchildren learn about Lewis and Clark. Why are more of us not aware of the Astor expedition?
Stark: That's something I've pondered quite a lot. One reason is that we love our heroes in this country, as every country does. Lewis and Clark are great heroes. Their success was very clear cut. They reached the Pacific and they came back. That was their mission.
This mission was much less clear cut. It was to establish a transpacific trade empire based at the mouth of the Columbia River. It was backed by Thomas Jefferson as well as John Jacob Astor. When it didn't succeed the way it was supposed to, there was no culminating moment. There was not one losing the Alamo epic battle. There was, rather, about 35 years or 40 years of limbo that followed this first American colony on the West Coast.
I think that's one of the reasons we don't really know the story. It was this heroic effort, way larger than Lewis and Clark, to try and start this colony, but it didn't resolve itself until many, many years later.
Shawn: You mentioned John Jacob Astor. He was the organizer and the financier of this expedition. What was his background?
Stark: He had a really interesting background. When you mention the Astor family, most people think of wealth, New York, East Coast.
Shawn: I think of the Waldorf Astoria.
Stark: Yes, that's exactly right, the Waldorf Astoria. It turns out that John Jacob Astor was born in a tiny little German town called Waldorf. That name still lives on in the Waldorf Astoria. John Jacob Astor left Waldorf as a young man. I think he was 16 or 17.
This was right after the Revolutionary War in this country. He went to England for a few years, worked with his brother, who was in the musical instrument–making business in London. Then Astor, at about age 21, came to the United States.
On board the ship over here, he met a fur merchant, who said, "You can make a lot of money in the fur trade, and you don't need much money to start." Astor started a business importing finely made musical instruments to the U.S. and exporting all these wild animal furs to Europe, where they sold for huge amounts of money.
Shawn: It seems like Astor looked to the West Coast for its untapped commercial potential. How did this compare to the goals Thomas Jefferson had for the region?
Stark: Well, that's been a dynamic that's never really resolved itself. But if Astor's colony had succeeded, it would be a very interesting dynamic to watch play out, because Jefferson saw Astor's colony on the West Coast as the beginnings of a democracy, a separate or sister democracy to the United States. Astor saw it as a huge commercial colony that would start this transglobal trade empire. So whose vision would finally win out was never resolved.
Shawn: Astor's ambition had a global scale that was much ahead of his time. He had this plan to try and connect the markets and the trading posts of the Pacific Northwest with China, London, and New York.
Stark: Exactly. It was really transglobal. He had a vision very early, essentially, taking trade goods from London and New York — manufactured goods, knobs, pots, beads — taking them around South America up to the West Coast, the Northwest, trading them for furs.
The sea-otter furs were extremely valuable in the emerging markets and especially in China. There was also an abundance of beaver pelts from the interior. He was going to collect these furs from the entire Western part of the North American continent, purchase them from Native Americans with manufactured trade goods, and funnel them through this colony at the mouth of the Columbia River.
He would have all those furs sent across the Pacific to China and sell them to the Chinese, where the Mandarins use sea-otter furs to trim their robes. Huge markups there. He would then use that money to purchase silks, porcelain, tea, and other Chinese luxury goods, take those back around the world to New York and to London, and sell them at another huge markup.
Shawn: It's ingenious and very ambitious.
Stark: Very ambitious. He'd have a fleet of ships circling the globe and carrying out this trade. He was trying to create a monopoly or near monopoly on the fur market. He realized that's where the serious money was.
March 14, 2014
Tessa Hadley is a British novelist and short story writer who is highly praised by critics, frequently published in the New Yorker
, and regularly compared to Alice Munro
and Colm Tóibín
. But I am convinced she remains underread in this country. Hadley quietly and brilliantly illuminates seemingly ordinary lives in stories that shine with emotional depth, psychological wisdom, and understated wit. Her prose is masterful and precise, and her characters linger in the mind long after the books have ended.
Her latest novel, Clever Girl, follows Stella throughout her life in Bristol, England, from when she is born in 1956 to age 50. She becomes a young single mother; has various love affairs, friendships, and careers; tries on identities and freedoms as historical eras change around her — in other words, lives her life. But Hadley's novel ignites that single life until it blazes.
We agree with London's Literary Review: "This is Hadley's extraordinary skill as a novelist: to navigate and narrate the fleeting moments in an individual's life when the future crystallises, by choice and circumstance, for good or for bad....Clever Girl is a remarkable novel by one of this country's finest, if most unassuming talents."
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Jill Owens: What was the genesis of Clever Girl?
Tessa Hadley: The genesis was probably actually the first chapter, which began as a freestanding story. I got that story from the very oddest place. It almost seems lost to me now; I can't believe it. But I was reading an article about the daughter of Louis the XVI, of all things on earth, who was the survivor of the French Revolution. Both her parents were killed, and her little brother died mysteriously. Nobody ever knew when or how. It was about her surviving into subsequent decades and her strange withdrawnness, and how she didn't like people making a fuss of her. People tried to turn her into a bit of a saint. She was very dignified. I'm not at all a royalist, by the way, but it's just a story that fascinated me.
Somehow — I now don't know how — that got translated into the idea of a very ordinary working-class woman in Bristol in the 1950s, whose little boy is killed and who comes through that. It's not like me, doing a historical transposition. But it was the idea of that woman in that life, and that story took hold of me, and then just turned itself into something that was imagined from the time of my childhood. That's a very odd thing to say, isn't it? That's the last thing anybody would ever expect.
Then the story got itself told. My fascination with where an experience like that goes in somebody — where can they put it, and how can they carry on? — became something entirely different, and became a life story — Stella's life story — that ran on a parallel track to mine. She's born in the same year as me, and in the same city. I feel as if I could have known her. Stella absolutely isn't me and doesn't have my life, but I really embarked on her with that first story. It was so happy to write, and it worked so fluently. I just thought, There's much more of this.
So as I finished the story, I was waiting to see whether other people liked it and whether it had worked. Then I published it as a freestanding story in the New Yorker. Already I was thinking, I know some more things are going to happen to her. I know she's embarked on this adventure of her life, which is full of obstacles and difficulties and extreme happenings. She's a bit of a warrior. She could be, in her feisty little imagination. Stella's life, from that point, inspired her own future. There's a lot in it that I was enormously enjoying writing.
Jill: I love that you call her a warrior. She's remarkably resilient and remarkably adaptable, maybe even from that first chapter, when she wakes up early and walks home from her grandmother's house, and then makes her way to the stables. You get the sense that she will be very self-reliant throughout her life.
Hadley: Yes. I think she gets quite a lot of that probably from the upbringing she has from her mother. Although her mother is at every point a very responsible and loving mother, there's something tough about her that refuses to let Stella be too soft. She pushes her into thinking for herself. I'm not sure she knows she's doing that, exactly. That isn't the policy, but the mother's personality is a bit feisty, and a bit tough, and a bit unsentimental. Somewhere the daughter gets part of that from her, even though in so many ways she's so unlike her mother, and what she chooses is so unlike her mother.
But then, of course, that's like her mother, too, because her mother has firmly rejected her mother's way of life and way of thinking, so actually that's inherited as well. That sort of making it out for yourself, lighting out for the territory kind of thing, and making it up as you go along, though the mother's revolution has been so much smaller. But it's been bold, and she's brave, too. Yes, Stella gets a lot from her mother, I think.
Jill: How much did you think of Stella's story as tied to her time and her place in history, which is your time, too?
Hadley: Hugely. I'm such a believer that personalities and people and lives are not mysterious, intact essences. I feel we are the product of our era — in ways that are wonderful — and we would be, all of us, entirely different had we been born in a different century, in a different place.
Part of what's interesting is to think, everything that's happening in the '60s and all those huge turnarounds of sensibility, and that instability — what effect does that have on the people who are coming of age in that atmosphere? In the '70s, really, is when Stella becomes a young woman. How does that manifest in her life?
It doesn't matter how much we think we're in charge, making the shapes and forms for ourselves. Of course, alongside that, we are the heirs to what we're born into, and the possibilities open to us are whatever is there for us, in our era — and that changes from decade to decade.
I was intensely interested in what it meant, growing up at those times in particular. What kind of sensibility, what kind of intelligence, what kind of courage those decades have produced in people, and I suppose in women in particular... Though, actually, I was just as interested in what sort of young men it produced, and what was in their heads.
Jill: For Stella — as it would have been for many people, obviously, at that time — in some ways she seems very much within those tides of history, and then in other ways she also is so concerned about her children, and that's her main focus.
Hadley: Yes. What you're saying in a way (quite rightly, of course) is that there are certain underpinning fundamentals that don't turn around from decade to decade.
The Blazing World, is aptly titled; it is a tour de force about a larger-than-life artist, Harriet "Harry" Burden, whose three great works used "masks" — male artists who claimed the works as their own. Hustvedt frames the book as an anthology of Harry's life and work after her death, including excerpts from Harry's many journals, interviews and critical essays (both positive and negative) from members of the art world, and reminiscences from Harry's children, friends, and lover.
The Blazing World warmly and thoroughly depicts an intelligent, fierce life well lived and tackles feminism, creativity, and definitions of identity. It is Hustvedt's most masterful, page-turning novel yet, and we are proud to feature it as Volume 46 of Indiespensable.
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Jill Owens: What made you want to go back to writing about the art world? Your last novel, The Summer without Men, had this hidden, subversive visual art in it, but it wasn't the main focus of the story the way it is in this book and in What I Loved.
Hustvedt: I have a longstanding fascination with visual art. I do, in fact, draw as well, as I did in The Summer without Men. I also write essays about visual art. It's a natural tendency for me to return to that.
It's hard to absolutely restore the genesis of a book. But I think for me, this one began with the idea of masks and a woman hiding behind a masculine mask. The notion of having living pseudonyms do this for her in the art world just seemed natural. I love making up visual works of art in language. I get to be an artist without actually being an artist in that sense. This is a wonderful pleasure for me, so I did it again, in a different way.
Jill: All of the art in this book and in What I Loved sounds like art that I wish existed, that I would love to see. How does that process work with fiction? How do you imagine it?
Hustvedt: These are works that I would like to make if I were a visual artist. Often, they grow in my mind as visual images, and then I describe what I see. They're really mental images. I suppose many artists begin their own work that way. They see something. Unless it's really representational and they're trying to do a portrait, for example, and represent a real person, they must be working from mental images. Rather than creating works of art themselves, I describe them in the text.
Jill: It's interesting that you mention the drawings in The Summer without Men. When we spoke about that book, the image of a woman crawling out of a box was something that very much was in that book. We talked about the idea of someone having been shut in, finding a way to break out, which certainly seems to describe Harry in this book.
Hustvedt: Yes, Harry is an explosion... out of the box, out of what she feels has been confining her. It's interesting. It did occur to me that between the little drawings in The Summer without Men and the second work of art that Harry does with Phinny, there is a connection there. But actually, when I was first writing that passage, it didn't occur to me. It didn't occur to me until later, which means that this material is coming from places deep within myself that I'm not entirely aware of until later.
Jill: You describe Harry as an explosion, which I would agree with. She's such a vivid, towering, forceful character, but also moving and vulnerable.
Hustvedt: I think I began to hear her and to see her, and I had this thought: I wanted her to be huge. I'm six feet tall, but Harry is at least two inches taller than I am, and she has wild hair. I imagined her as very big boned and extremely strong. Also, she has large breasts. She's a really big woman. This, of course, has been hard for her in her life. I mean, we know that she was self-conscious when she was younger. But, in a way, I think Harry grows into herself. I wanted a powerhouse of a woman, so she evolved, I guess.
Also, I wanted someone who is unleashed into herself in some way, and is very learned; she is an erudite character. It was fun to do. So she's passionate; she's really angry. She's pretty neurotic, as her friend Rachel knows, so she's both perspicacious and blind, as you say, strong and vulnerable. She's a multitude of contradictions. But she was a lot of fun to write.
Jill: I can imagine. I thought it was interesting and funny that Harry names Bill Wechsler, the artist in What I Loved, as one of her influences because, in a way, their work does sound sort of similar. I thought, on one level, of course it does because they're both your creations.
Hustvedt: They are. But it makes sense that Harry would admire Wechsler's work. Even though they're not identical, there is a narrative impulse in both of them. I think it was a natural way of finding my world.
Jill: Bill, in a way, in his "Self-Portrait" series, is doing almost the inverse of what Harry is doing. He's ostensibly painting himself as a woman, but under his own name, celebrating that rather than masking it.
Hustvedt: Exactly. In a number of my books, from my first novel, actually, even in The Blindfold, there are versions of cross-dressing. It just keeps coming back, the idea of passing from the masculine to the feminine or the feminine into the masculine.
In The Sorrows of an American, I have a character, Burton, who cross-dresses. He finds his feminine side, the way Bill is exploring femininity in his self-portraits. In The Blazing World, I'm going in the other direction. Harry is masking herself as a man and trying to plot her way out of this binary male/female that she feels has harmed her work.
Jill: You have written extensively about the fact that we have, it seems, lots of male and female selves inside us.
Hustvedt: Yes. We all came out of a man and a woman, after all — every single one of us. We all live in a culture that is continually isolating feminine and masculine aspects, even when they're not related to people. If you think about softness associated with femininity and hardness associated with masculinity, you have the "soft" disciplines like the humanities and the arts, and then you have the "hard" disciplines — science and math, for example.
It's all very interesting, but I think that every person partakes of these masculine/feminine qualities. I think Harry does, too, but Harry's enraged
January 6, 2014
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 a direct subject — especially the history of 20th-century music. What did you want to deal with in this novel that you hadn't dealt with before?
Richard Powers: I actually think that in some ways The Time of Our Singing is probably just as focused on music in terms of a life spent making music and a thousand years of vocal music. What's different about Orfeo is its emphasis on a life spent trying to create music and, in particular, trying to write a music that hasn't been heard yet.
Peter Els begins his life as a performer, goes to school to study chemistry, and is seduced back into music when he discovers that he has a talent for composing. What's most fascinating to him is this idea of something that wasn't there that now is there and making something that's just a little bit beyond the ear's current ability to hear.
I guess in that sense, the book takes on a much more intimate focus, because while Time of Our Singing is about singers and their relationship to preexisting music and what it feels like to be onstage and recreating something that might be two, three hundred or a thousand years old, for Els the arrow of time, the direction, the pinhole relationship to music, is pointed in the other direction. It's pointed toward a thing that doesn't exist yet. It's the pursuit of a kind of music that he can't quite name yet.
As a result, it becomes much more a relationship between temperament, individual and private — the challenges of a private life, of a self, intersect the story of music in a different way. He wants to make his music. He wants to find something that he can put a personal stamp on, that he can say, If I didn't make this, no one else would have. And so, in a sense, I see what you mean that this book is more focused on music because it's more intimately focused on what music might come out of an individual soul.
Jill: A refrain I like throughout the book is: "Music doesn't mean things. It is things."
Powers: Yes. The struggle for composers, which Els goes through in different stages over the course of his 70 years, is precisely that battle between a music that might be a matter of life and death, as it is for Shostakovich, or a way of surviving the evils of human history, as it is for Messiaen. You align yourself to a kind of music in the service of one or another of all the different kinds of things that the human mind might want. And at the end of the day, you have this reflective feeling of saying, it's very possible that in pursuing a kind of music that you wanted to serve a certain function, to create a certain social urgency, to solve the problems of your historical time and place, that it might also have been worthwhile to make a music that simply moves people in the most etymological sense of that word — actually just makes their bodies want to move.
It's that tension — between the music of pattern, the music of the cognitive brain; and the music of body, the music of pure spirit — that infects his life at every turn. Music is both those things! And human beings are both thinking creatures and feeling creatures. And the art that hits on all cylinders, the art that moves us intellectually and bodily and spiritually, is what we're after. But to capture all those things in the same vessel is a very, very difficult task. And it's a very difficult one for Els until the very end.
Jill: How did you think about actually describing and narrating the music? Your description in particular of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time was magnificently evocative. I haven't yet had time, but I want to listen to it soon, as well as revisit Reich and Shostakovich and some others you include who I haven't listened to in years.
Powers: That's good to hear. One thing I wanted to do in the book was create a kind of very rapid retrospective of the incredible places that classical music has gone in the last hundred years, and the huge gamut of need that music served. To try to make a kind of whirlwind anthology that would touch on all kinds of music — music of great formal ingenuity and then music that just lets it all hang out. The opposite end of the spectrum, from the highly constructed formal ingenious music of Els's graduate school — the 12-tone serial kinds of things at mid-century, which are all about creating a language, a highly literate and highly structured language — all the way to the other end of the spectrum with Harry Partch and hobo music and the music of the street and the music of desperation and physical urgency.
I wanted to create descriptions of music and to treat those historical pieces in different ways — do a biographical approach, do a historical re-creation of the composition of certain pieces, but also do a more musicological or listener-response approach to music. I wanted to create this "thirteen ways" of listening to the song of human beings in the 20th century.
Along the way, I became really enchanted with describing musical pieces that don't exist. To take Els's life and journey through these different capacities of music and try to imagine the pieces that he's actually writing and describe these fictional pieces in a way that will somehow put them on par with these landmarks of 20th-century music. I was trying to find different kinds of vocabularies to describe them to laymen, as these musics unfold, and appeal to the reader. To treat these pieces — to almost compose them in my head and then to describe them as though I were listening to them for the first time.
And that was a great delight because, the truth is, this is in one sense a very self-indulgent book because at the bottom of my closet are hundreds of amateur compositions from years ago. That's my roa
October 18, 2013
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.
Jill: Place seems to be an extremely important part of all your novels — the Northeast in A Secret History, the South in The Little Friend, and now Amsterdam, New York City, and Las Vegas in The Goldfinch. How do you think about place in your work, and why did you want to focus on these cities this time?
Tartt: My books have all really started with a sense of place. Amsterdam's a city I've spent a good deal of time with, and the germ of this book really began almost 20 years ago with a sort of dark Amsterdam mood. And, I've been in and out of New York most of my adult life.
Jill: Theo is in such varying states of grief throughout most of the book, and he also — understandably — is frequently on drugs of one sort or another in order to try and deal with it. How did you approach having a voice and perspective that were filtered through those lenses?
Tartt: This is something that the novel does better than any other art form: reproducing the inner life and the inner experience of another person, particularly extreme forms of consciousness like grief, dreams, drunkenness, spiritual revelations, even insanity. Unlike movies, where we're always onlookers, in novels we have the experience of being someone else: knowing another person's soul from the inside. No other art form does that. And I like dealing with particularly intense inner experiences because I think that in many ways, this is what the novel does best.
Jill: Reading your work is incredibly immersive; while I was reading The Goldfinch, I was jumpy, edgy, feverish, worried as one crisis or another was happening in the book. Do you think about how your readers will inhabit your characters? Does that affect the voice or the perspective?
Tartt: Hmm, that's an interesting question. I never really thought about it in quite that way before. I would have to say no. But I do inhabit my characters myself as I write.
Jill: Each character, too, leaps off the page; Theo's friend Boris, for example, is such a fantastic creation, but even smaller characters like Platt Barbour or Xandra are fully developed and memorable. Can you talk a bit about how you approach character, and if there were any in particular that you enjoyed writing in this book and your earlier work?
Tartt: I started out wanting to be a poet rather than a novelist, but character, and my fascination with character, is primarily why I'm a fiction writer instead. And I think that part of the reason I write such long novels is that I like to spend a long time with my characters and get to know them really well — I especially enjoy writing characters who are unruly and unpredictable, who have their own energy and who carry scenes by themselves. Bunny and Henry in The Secret History were like that for me, as were Hely and Edie in The Little Friend. In Goldfinch, I loved all my characters, but I especially loved writing Theo's scenes with Boris and Andy — I enjoyed writing Andy so much that there were a lot of scenes with him that got cut and didn't end up in the finished novel.
Jill: In all your novels, the main character or narrator has been a child or an adolescent. While Theo is a bit older than that by the end of this novel, he's arguably not fully adult yet. What interests you about writing from the perspective of young people?
Tartt: For me, writing from the point of view of young people brings me back to the great pleasure I first had when reading as a child — when I galloped breathlessly through books, when I would come home loaded down with library books and really become lost and entranced in them. Writing about young people is a way back into that readerly excitement. It's also fun to write about young people because they are introspective and still trying to make sense of the world, and their own place in it.
Jill: You have such a gift for metaphor and simile, in even the smallest moments in your work — I could almost have picked them off any page, but two examples that I loved were early in the book. About Mrs. Barbour:
"Her voice, like Andy's, was hollow and infinitely far away; even when she was standing right next to you she sounded as if she was relaying transmissions from Alpha Centauri."
And Mr. Barbour:
"His ruddy cheeks and his long, old
July 11, 2013
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 writers of our time — has written a magnificent novel that woke my tired heart." We are proud to have chosen Brewster as Volume 41 of Indiespensable.
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Jill Owens: You live in Brewster now.
Mark Slouka: Yes, I do. I'm looking out at it as we speak. Little Quito, I affectionately call it, because it's gone through these waves over the years, and the latest incarnation is Ecuadorian. I think I read somewhere that we have the largest Ecuadorian population outside of Ecuador, per capita. It's extraordinary. It's really quite wonderful. My son just came back from Ecuador. He said, "I sit on your porch and I feel like I haven't left."
Jill: Why Ecuador specifically? Do you know?
Slouka: I think it's word of mouth. A lot of these guys are agricultural workers. I guess the word goes out. Families come up. Friends talk to friends.
I suppose the whole Italian American thing that happened here and the Irish American thing and all the rest of these groups went along the same tracks. This is just our latest phase. The Italian American presence is still dominant, but it's being challenged and that's kind of cool.
Jill: Did you grow up in Brewster?
Slouka: I grew up around it. I was born in Queens. It's a simple question and a complicated answer. I was born in Queens, but my parents were Czech refugees. I actually couldn't speak English until I was five or six, or thereabouts. I went out on the playground, and it was like, Whoa. What's the matter with these kids? They don't speak Czech.
We had a little cabin out here, on a place called Lost Lake — actually, we have one there again, after many years — so we were always hovering around Brewster. Brewster was about five miles away, and it was where we'd see my dad off on a train going to the city, which is what dads did back then. Then we'd pick him up late in the afternoon, and the cocktail would be waiting. It was the whole early '60s Mad Men kind of thing.
Jill: I have to admit I was picturing that as you described it.
Slouka: He wore that hat, and he was about seven feet tall, because I was about a foot and a half. Yeah, so Brewster has always been... We were stuck out in Winslow, Arizona, last fall; my wife and I, our family has been sort of gypsies all our lives, and we kind of ran out of rope. It was like, "Well, where the hell do we go now?" I said, "Brewster's a place we keep coming around to." It's the first house we've ever owned. We bought a house, just snuck in under the rising interest rates, so this is the first anchor I've ever had — Brewster is it.
Jill: Was the experience of writing about a place while you're living in it different than the experiences with some of your other fiction?
Slouka: It was, because this book was really a kind of liberation or homecoming. It's my first American book, or almost wholly American. I think of it as American. It was the first book where I gave myself permission to be here. I'd always been dealing with the ghosts of Europe and my family's stories, my parents' lives. It was time to come home.
And you can't stick your nose out in Brewster without hearing that sort of gorgeous New York–area idiom. That whole Irish/Italian American thing. It's rich and it's poetic and it's profane and it's home.
So, in a way, it was really easy being in Brewster and writing about it because it was all around me. The funny thing now is I can't go around Brewster without seeing my own characters and places where they went. That's interesting and strange because it's how fiction takes over reality. To me, that's fascinating. I keep thinking I see Ray and Karen heading off into the woods, and by the reservoirs. Or, Oh, that's the place where they stood on Garden Street looking over the graveyard. It's interesting.
Jill: When you were growing up, did you want to get out of Brewster in the same way that Jon and Ray do?
Slouka: I think I was born wanting to get out. You know what I mean? I'm hardwired for wanting to get out of wherever I am. So the short answer is yes. I had a difficult family situation. Jon's mother is very much patterned after my own mom.
I have an interesting story for you, actually. This is how dumb we are about our own fiction. I wrote the novel, and a couple months later I was talking to somebody who had read it. They said that the relationship they found most interesting was not necessarily the one between Jon and Ray or Ray and Karen but between Jon and his mother.
An hour later I was in the shower and I had this epiphany. I suddenly understood what I had done. In a sense, I had split myself in two in writing Jon's character and his fate.
What happened to me is that I had a wonderful relationship with my mother when I was a child. But at some point she had sort of slipped headlong into depression, and her past caught up with her. She spent my entire boyhood and young adulthood mourning the child she had lost. I was always standing in front of her saying, "I'm right here. I'm the same person. I haven't changed. I'm right in front of you."
And in the novel I literalized it. I took that idealized younger self and I killed him off. And the other son, me, has to kind of live on in the shadow of that loss. It was one of those oh, of course moments. I had no idea. It would have been too pat, too neat. It would have been disastrous if I'd known in advance what I was doing. But I had no
June 27, 2013
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 to this terrific material. This is Chariots of Fire with oars."
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Shawn Donley: Most Americans are familiar with Jesse Owens's triumph at the '36 Olympics, but few, I would imagine, know about this rowing team from Seattle. How did you first become aware of this story?
Daniel Brown: This story literally walked into my living room one day, about six years ago, in the person of my neighbor, a lady named Judy Roman. She had been reading one of my earlier books to her father. Her father was in the last few weeks of his life and living under hospice care. She wanted to know if I would come down and meet him.
His name was Joe Rantz. I knew that he had once rowed in an Olympic race and that he had built this enormous cedar fence around my property, but I knew little else. He started talking about his childhood, growing up during the Depression. That was really poignant because he had a very, very tough time, a particularly tough time as a child growing up.
That morphed into a conversation about how he came to row crew at the University of Washington and, ultimately, how that crew wound up rowing for an Olympic gold medal in Berlin in the summer of 1936 against a German crew in front of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring and other top Nazis.
By the time he finished telling me this story, I was absolutely mesmerized. After this conversation with Joe, I asked him, "Can I write a book about your life?" He shook his head and said, "No, you can't write a book about my life, but you can write a book about all the boys in the boat." That's what I set off to do.
Shawn: The book was about all of the boys, but he's still the main focus.
Brown: Necessarily, he was the main focus. I had access to huge amounts of material about his life and his back story. He was actually abandoned by his parents during the Depression. That had a lot to do with why crew and this experience was so important to him. His story is sort of the central narrative that holds the book together.
Shawn: With all the challenges he faced growing up, I felt like he could've been a character out of The Grapes of Wrath. Do you think that competing in the Olympics was a real turning point in his life?
Brown: Yeah, I think the whole experience, not so much competing in the Olympics as finding a sense of self and a sense of family in this crew. He'd been cast aside, treated as disposable by his own family, and the crew gave him a sense that he belonged someplace, and that what he was doing was important. In that sense, it certainly transformed his life.
Shawn: Before you started writing this book, how familiar were you with the sport of rowing?
Brown: I didn't know anything about rowing at all.
Brown: Virtually nothing. My dad went to UC Berkeley, and he was a fan of the Cal Crew when I was a kid, and they were very good. This was the same time period, actually, as my story. I personally didn't know anything about it until I got involved in this story. I spent a great deal of time down at the University of Washington Shellhouse. The coaches and oarsmen and oarswomen down there have been really good about teaching me about rowing. They've also done me a great favor by reviewing draft after draft of the book.
Shawn: It's a really unique subculture.
Brown: It is. Rowers are very passionate about their sport. They tend to feel as if it's been ignored to some extent in the mass media. It doesn't get the attention, obviously, that a lot of sports do. The rowers that I've been talking to at book talks have been very excited about it.
Shawn: What was surprising to me was how popular rowing was in the 1930s. There was daily coverage in the newspapers. There were tens of thousands of spectators turning out for meets.
Brown: Even hundreds of thousands, sometimes. Outstanding oarsmen would line up on the cover of Saturday Evening Post or Time magazine. They became almost minor celebrities in the '30s.
Shawn: Why do you think it's declined in popularity?
Brown: Watching a crew race from the shore, it is not always the most exciting thing in the world, unless you happen to be at the finish line or right where something dramatic happens. A lot of the drama in crew takes place in the boat. One of the things I tried to do in the book is take the reader inside the boat during some of these great races. Because it actually was pretty compelling, what they went through.
Shawn: Some reviewers have compared The Boys in the Boat to Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken and David Halberstam's The Amateurs. Did you read these books or others like it while doing research?
Brown: After I signed up to do this project, the first two books I sat down to read were Seabiscuit and The Amateurs. Both of them in very different ways were, to some extent, models for me. I admire those books very much. I learned a lot by thinking about my own story while reading theirs.
Shawn: You begin each chapter in the book with a quote from George Yeoman Pocock, the master boat builder for the Washington team. He's like a philosopher king of rowing.
Brown: Exactly. He was an English-born boat builder
May 29, 2013
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.
Within the first day or two of writing, I had a lot of the elements of the book. I had the bear. I had written a sentence or two about the fingerling and the foundling, but I didn't really know what they were. I had all these things I wanted to explore. I generated a bunch of mysteries, and then I chased them down for a year or two.
Jill: I like that idea, that you set up mysteries and then chased them down. That feels like what the narrator is doing in the book.
Bell: Yes. I think that's part of it. I always was in his voice. I had to find out everything through his eyes, in a certain way. He would encounter something he didn't understand, and I wouldn't get to understand it yet either.
Jill: I've never read a novel remotely like this book, which was an amazing thing. When I would try to describe it to people, I would say things like, "It's like a prose-poem-myth-fable-creation story." What were you thinking about in terms of form, in terms of pushing or exploring the boundaries of what a novel can be?
Bell: Yeah, it doesn't synopsize well, right? [Laughter]
Jill: It really doesn't.
Bell: It's funny, because I feel like that's the worst thing. The book before it was a book of 26 post-apocalyptic parenting stories. It was really easy to explain. This is not!
I think about it a lot in terms of myth. That's a big part of it. One of the things I hated when I was in grad school, if you were a person who wrote in a really high prose, if you weren't writing in a vernacular, everyday prose, the assumption was always that this would be impossible to sustain, that you could only do this in short stories or poems.
That's clearly not true because there are lots of books that do it. I knew that it was something that I was conscious of and working at — trying to be able to extend this sort of prose over a long period of time. Some of the initial goals worked that way.
It's gone through a couple of different forms. Early on, I was looking for a form for it. It was shaped off this five-part opera structure that I was reading about but that I didn't really understand. I was just using it to hang stuff on. Then that fell apart. Formally, it's been a lot of different things. What started to really work, but it's hard to see, is that there were these repetitions in the story, both in the prose at the microscale and these larger forms of repetition. That seemed useful, that every time those repetitions became exhausted, the form broke and something new happened. That became a way of writing it.
It did end up in this weird place! Some of the things I really love about myth and fairy tale don't actually lend themselves to novels very well. That created some of the weird effect of it, maybe. Like slightness of character in fairy tales — not having psychological motivation, in a certain way. But combining this parenting story with that kind of characterization, I think, maybe created some of that motivation.
Jill: That makes sense, that repetition, both in the prose and in what's happening. It feels like a spiral, or getting to the bottom of a spiral, and then a new thing happens. I was really impressed with one of your other interviewers, Andrew Ervin from Tin House, who said he read the whole book in one night. I do that a lot, but I couldn't do that with this book. I needed to have some of those breaks to step back and process what was going on for a while there.
Bell: That makes sense. There was a version of the book where the original structure wasn't working. I wrote a version that had no chapters. It was just this scroll that was like 500 pages long. It was clear that it was way too relentless. There was nowhere to breathe or pause or stop.
When I was first talking to my agent about the book, he never saw that version of it. I told him it existed, and I saw the look on his face. He was ashen. [Laughter] He said, "That's a terrible idea!" I was like, "I know!"
Not every book needs to be read cover to cover. I think that's okay.
Jill: You mentioned the voice earlier. There's such a solemnity to it and very little, if any, humor, which does add to the feeling that it's epic and momentous and mythic.
Bell: One of the things that I go back to a lot, that I found really interesting in this book and the book before, that I'm trying to step away from now a little bit, is this idea of using that biblical diction or an archaic diction or a mythic diction as a way of making things that are familiar strange.
There's a David Foster Wallace quote, which I'm going to paraphrase badly, that says something like, the task used to be to make the strange world familiar to readers. Now everything is familiar. This generation's
May 16, 2013
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.
This is, to me, a book that is trying to articulate one person's interior life — what goes on behind the scenes. Related to that is the question of the relation of that interiority to an external world. I'm always interested in that. The epigraph to my last novel was from Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, and I'm misquoting somewhat, but basically it says that it's not what happens to you but what you think happens to you that matters. I wanted to try to write about that.
It's also about a time — in midlife, I guess — when you realize that everything doesn't lie ahead, that some things are behind you, that some possibilities are no longer open to you. How do you contend with that? How do you find a way forward?
All of these things went into it. All of these together — can they make a single genesis? I don't know.
Jill: In terms of the relation between the interior and the exterior world, Nora is speaking almost directly to the reader; she declares herself an unreliable narrator early on, when she says she's always been prone to exaggeration. But she has such a strong and passionate voice, and she seems like she's sort of trying to pick apart what happened with this and to be as honest as she can be. That was an interesting dynamic to me.
Messud: I think the truth is that each one of us is unreliable in varying degrees. She is both reliable and unreliable. It's been interesting; Nora is now in the world and everybody's free to have whatever response to her they may have. I've had a couple people ask me, "Is she crazy? Is she unreliable to the point where she's telling us things that simply didn't happen?" I was really surprised because it never crossed my mind for a moment that people would read Nora that way, that they would think she's making things up.
But, of course, it's true that from actual, factual events she creates an emotional intimacy with her new friends that might not be the experience that they would narrate if they were telling the story. In that sense, she makes something up. But I think we all do, inevitably. It's the Rashomon thing. If you have five people in a room who all have the same experience, each will tell the story differently. I guess you could call it the Gospel thing, too.
Jill: There's also the conversation she has with Skandar about deciding what comes first in a story — how to set up the narrative and how that will affect what the reader or the listener takes as important and interprets. You begin in this book with her fury, which is such a powerful and refreshing concept and image.
Messud: Yes, and that's how I wrote it and that's what I always intended. But along the way, there were early readers who said, "What if you just took that out and started with the second chapter, which begins with Nora meeting Reza, the little boy, in the supermarket." And it would be a different book.
Jill: It would be a completely different book without the framing of that very strong emotion, which lends a kind of immediacy and intensity to the story.
Messud: I'm glad you felt that because that was my hope. As a teenager I read Notes from Underground, and it was exhilarating for me; I hadn't known that fiction could do that. I hadn't known that it could be an urgent and intimate address that would seem as though somebody had grabbed me by the arm as I was walking down the street and shared their most intimate thoughts with me. I had loved reading fiction all my life, but I had not known that it could do this, too. Yes, certainly some sense of urgency or immediacy was very much part of writing this book. I'm glad if it was part of your experience of reading it, too.
Jill: When you mentioned loving the misfits that you found in male writers and not having equivalent female characters that you'd found, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a male friend of mine recently about why more men don't read books by women. He said one reason was that he assumed that he wouldn't find the kind of voice that he's interested in and that he associates that voice with male writers because that's where he's found it in the past, which seems related to that idea.
Messud: Interesting. I have been pleasantly surprised — which makes it sound as though I was expecting otherwise, but I didn't know what to
April 22, 2013
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 novel. About two days before my agent sent it out to editors, she said that we needed a new opening paragraph. So that was one of the last portions of the book that I wrote.
Jill: It encapsulates so much of Havaa's whimsy but also the horror of her father being taken and the house being burned down.
Marra: Yes. I think it was one of those situations where, once you reach the end, you can totally grasp what the book is about, and what its concerns and obsessions and themes really are. It felt much more natural to write the opening paragraph after knowing all of that. Previously, I think I was looking at it from the wrong end of the tunnel.
Jill: The timing and the pacing seemed a little unusual to me, in that the reader takes in details like Akhmed's paintings, for example, the first time they're mentioned, without really understanding what they are. There's a constant back and forth, and connecting one thing to another throughout the whole book, which makes it actually feel like a constellation to me. How did writing like that work?
Marra: I know it's a rather complex plot, but it didn't feel very complex as I was going. I was always looking back to what has come before. It's probably not a very good idea to compare a novel to a board game, but I almost felt like during the first 100 pages, I was creating all of the pieces that were on the board. The rest of the novel was going back and looking at those pieces, and seeing how they moved, and how they revolved and collided and connected with one another.
I was very much aware of, and intentionally reusing, what came before because that feels like the most accurate version of how we live our lives, how it just unfolds. We're constantly going back and touching upon things that had meaning or significance in the past.
Jill: Why did you want to structure it over a period of five days? Which, of course, is in some ways such a short amount of time, but then also you're learning an immense amount about the characters' past, and also a little bit about their futures, within those days.
Marra: It was sort of a balancing act because I wanted the novel to cover the entire span of these two wars. At the same time, I knew that I needed some sort of suspense in this through line that would always pull the readers forward. You might dip back 10 years, but hopefully you're always wanting to know what's happening in this more condensed, suspenseful, limited time frame. A lot of the passages that take place in prior years are more summative. They're less scene-based to some extent, I think, than the chapters that are set up across the period of these five days. Being able to move between the two gives the book both a breadth and a depth that I don't think I would have really been able to achieve, had it been set over 10 years or just purely over these five days.
Jill: Why did you want to write about Chechnya during the wars? Did you feel at all strange about taking that on, as an American writer?
Marra: Yes, absolutely. I was actually thinking about this earlier this morning — thinking about where the book actually began. I think it may have begun as far back as when I was 18, when my younger sister had had some spinal surgery and there were a lot of complications. She was in a hospital in Delaware for three or four months. It was touch and go for a little while. I would go up there and visit every weekend. I remember spending a lot of time walking around this, by and large, empty hospital.
So I thought about the idea of the relationship between patients and surgeons, and the families of these patients and surgeons. It's almost a spiritual connection between the two. You look at a surgeon as you would a secular priest, almost, if it's your child, if it's your sister on the operating table. That was an idea that very much has interested me and I've wanted to explore for some time.
I didn't really act upon it until I came to Chechnya as a subject. My first real awareness of Chechnya came when I was a college student, studying in Russia. I arrived in St. Petersburg about two months after Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated for her reports on Chechnya. I lived with an elderly woman and her grown children in an apartment that was not too far from the neighborhood military cadet school.
I would see these 16-year-old kids marching up and down the street in their blue military uniforms, and about a half mile beyond the school was a metro station. There you would also see young kids, but they were a couple of years older. They were wearing combat fatigues rather than the dress uniform, and most of them were missing limbs. They were all veterans of the Chechen wars.
Chechnya really seemed like this chasm that was separating these two streets, and from that point on I really became fascinated with it. It wasn't a part of the world I really knew anything about. The wars there haven't gotten the same attention as, say, the wars in Bosnia.
I read all of the nonfiction that I could find on Chechnya, and all the while I was searching for a novel that was set there. I couldn't find a single novel written in English that was set in the period of the two most recent Chechen wars. I came to write this novel because it was the type of book that I wanted to read, that I wanted to pick up on the shelf of a bookstore. But it wasn't there yet. To view this route, I felt like I came to it more as a reader than a
February 26, 2013
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 of forward narrative thread. I wrote a piece about my stepfather that is remarkably similar to what is in the book in the spring of 2008. And for about a year, I sort of picked up and put down the idea of writing the memoir. I was writing other things. I didn't want to 100 percent commit to it, but I thought maybe I should try and see what happens. Then, later in 2009, it became the focus of my life, and I worked on it thoroughly and with laser-like focus for another two years.
Jill: The structure is loosely chronological, but it also seems subject- and character-based. How did you decide to structure it like that?
Ruta: I let the structure develop organically, and chronological did not seem like the most exciting way to do it. I like to think of it as a series of loop-the-loops that happened to go in a narrative arc, but the thread just loops back to the beginning, and back to the beginning, and back to the beginning, many times along the way. Some of the chapters are character driven and some are theme driven, but I was trying to let each chapter determine its own structure, and then, once I had that for a first draft, the chapters fit in nicely together in the structure that they're in now.
Jill: There are a few places in the book where you speak directly to the reader — towards the beginning, for example, you say, "What else do you need to know about this woman [your mother] before you go on with the story?" How did you decide to introduce her character like that?
Ruta: That's funny. That's a great question, and I'm so glad you noticed that. There was actually a lot more of that in earlier drafts that I eventually cut out. It was getting gimmicky, and it was also representative of... it was me not trusting myself as a narrator to have a strong enough voice. A lot of my direct addresses to the audience were these admonishments to "believe me; listen to me; know this is real..." As I worked through different drafts, I was more confident in the story and the voice as it was, and so I cut a lot of that out.
I come from a background in fiction. I've written short fiction. I've published short fiction and I'm working on a novel now. I tend to write in the third person. Writing in the first person about a character that is me was so surreal that I had to be talking to somebody. This is not happening in a vacuum. I'm not just telling my life story. I'm telling my life story to readers, and I don't know who they are yet, but I did want to somehow acknowledge that relationship.
Jill: At a certain point, you say about the nature of memory, "If you can remember anything, it's already wrong. The image or event has changed, just as you have — minutely, chemically, through the passage of time between then and now. Something happens to you, and it's gone." I was thinking about that passage when you were saying that you were telling readers, "Believe me, this is real." You're pretty up front about some things being hazy and possibly not true, but then there's a lot of wonderfully specific dialogue and details. Did you just trust your experience of things? Did you go back and ask for corroboration of anything?
Ruta: I trusted my experience of things, and as I was writing this memoir, I was also getting sober, and so my memories were coming back to me. As I talk about at the end of the book, memories were flooding back and feelings were flooding back. Feelings I didn't know I had, grief I hadn't gotten rid of yet, anger as well as experiences. Little pieces of dialogue, little flashes of scenes from my life were returning. It was a little bit like recovering from a head injury. It was just the long, slow, self-induced head injury that is alcoholic drinking. [Laughter] And that was happening as I was writing. I was warming up those memory muscles and those narrative muscles, and as I was warming them up, they were getting stronger and stronger and more things were being generated.
There are places where it's hazy and I felt compelled to admit that, but there are other scenes in which these are direct quotes or things that my mother has said or other people have said that I wish I could forget. [Laughter] But that's exactly how it was said.
There are other moments that are crafted — where I don't know exactly what happened. Like, Was I eating cereal that time? I probably was. I need my character to come into the kitchen for some reason, so I can have this moment with my mother that is absolutely a solid, concrete memory of her saying a very specific thing to me. I don't know precisely why I walked into the kitchen, so I'm creating a motivation for my character which is, Pour a bowl of cereal.
There are little moments like that in which narrative construction is part of the architecture, and a necessary part. For the most part, yes, I have a strong memory, I guess. I don't know how it is with other writers. I think memoirists in general have really good memories or else they would never endeavor to do such a painful, painful project.
Jill: Several times — about Uncle Vic's smell or the word avuncular or other examples — you describe sense memories really flaring in the reptilian part of your brain while writing this. How did you deal with that?
Ruta: It was really hard. The hot air balloon chapter in particular, whenever I would work on that chapter, I would immediately fall asleep and take a three-hour nap afterwards. Even if I was only working on it for an hour and a half, I would be so exhausted by the end. It's physically draining to revisit those places. A lot of my memories are body memories. When it comes to physical trauma, it's true that the body remembers better than the mind
February 12, 2013
George Saunders fans have long been stalwart champions of his work, recommending CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
to anyone who would listen, pushing copies of In Persuasion Nation
and The Braindead Megaphone
into the hands of the unconverted. He's always had critical praise, from no less than Thomas Pynchon
("An astoundingly tuned voice — graceful, dark, authentic, and funny") and Tobias Wolff
("Scary, hilarious, and unforgettable....George Saunders is a writer of arresting brilliance and originality"). He's also won a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. But with the publication of his first collection of short stories in six years, Tenth of December
, Saunders has produced a most unlikely work: a wildly popular short story collection.
Jennifer Egan says, "Tenth of December shows George Saunders at his most subversive, hilarious, and emotionally piercing. Few writers can encompass that range of adjectives, but Saunders is a true original — restlessly inventive, yet deeply humane." And Dave Eggers raves, "You want stories that are actually about something — stories that again and again get to the meat of matters of life and death and justice and country? Saunders. There is no one better, no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity." Tenth of December has been at the top of our bestseller list since it came out (and it's #13 on the New York Times list), and on Friday Saunders read at our store to a devoted crowd of 450 fans. If you haven't caught on to his particular brand of dark, hilarious, extraordinary prose yet, you're about to be behind the times.
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Jill Owens: In an interview with us years ago, you said, "There's something about those theme parks. If I stick to one of those I tend to write more interesting prose than if I'm trying to write about something more quotidian. If I try to write realism, the energy of the prose goes down." But I'd say some of the stories in the new volume come a lot closer to realism, including the title story. Have you found other ways to find that energy in prose?
George Saunders: You can hear in that quote that I'm not entirely sure how I feel about that tendency. I was aware of it, but I was wondering, Why is that? I think that statement was true at the time. There were some things I could write about where the prose would come alive, but for other things I would resort to a kind of habituated way of writing realism. And that second way wasn't good, that kind of out-of-the-box realism.
Then I stumbled on this way of writing that I think of as third-person ventriloquist. The first time I did it was in a story called "The Falls," which is in Pastoralia. It's a way of approaching ostensibly realist material from the inside of someone's head. It differs from traditional stream of consciousness in that you're really mindful about trying to use their diction, and that in turn means that you're kind of honoring their psychological affirmations.
So that was a way to make the prose funnier and faster, that one little mental construct — I'm going to go into Jim's head and I'm going to think like Jim. Suddenly, that was doing the same thing for me that the theme park constraint was doing before.
Jill: What makes a collection hang together for you? Is it theme, or rhythm? How do you know when it's complete? I ask this in part because my advance reader's copy of Tenth of December didn't have the story "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" in it, which is in the finished book, and it made me think about the ways the book would be different in each of those incarnations.
Saunders: That decision about what gets in, in what order, is intuitive. I'll get a bunch of index cards when the stories are all done and put the first and the last lines of each of the stories on the cards and just kind of move them around. The idea would be that something would please you about the first story enough to make you go to the second one, and so on. The ordering is important there because sometimes the lengths between stories are… if you don't do it right, they're not appealing, somehow. And you don't want story eight to be too much like story nine. All those kind of gut feelings go into it.
As for the "Semplica-Girl" story, I started it in 1998, and I got really stuck on it for all these years. I liked it, and I'd come back to it, but I couldn't get it finished. So I thought, Oh, this obviously doesn't want to go in there, so I'll just leave it out. I put the book together in the order that the advance reader is in and really liked it. In fact, for a long time I was worried that if I put that additional story in there, it might be too long; it might slow the momentum. But then I got on a roll towards the end of this process and I had more time for it, and I finished the story.
I just felt like it was a major, substantial book with that story included in it. It also seemed like there's a lot of cross talking going on between that story and the other ones.
In the end, it was like three or four days of being at the optometrist — Is this better or this better? [Laughter] My editor, Andy Ward, really helped me. I trust him with my life, and he said, "It's definitely better with it in. Let's do it." So that was good.
Jill: I agree with him.
Saunders: I do too. The first version was faster in a way, but it was a little slight. It was only 170, 180 pages or so, and I felt that this gave it a little more heft. Of course, if I hadn't been able to really nail the story, I wouldn't have wanted it in there, but I had a lucky surge of energy at the end there where I felt like I got it right.
Jill: "Puppy" freaking made me cry. So did "Tenth of December."
Saunders: I'm sorry. [Laughter] But yay!
Jill: It's so rare; I was very self-conscious about it while it was happening. I thought, I never cry from fiction! I think it's because there does seem to be, in this new book, at least the possibility of redemption on occasion, or for things not to go terribly wrong all the time... [Laughter]
Saunders: That's exactly right. The funny thing is, I don't think I've changed that much in my feelings about life since my very first book. Technically, it can be hard to get positive valences in there without being sappy. I was very emotionally involved in all my stories, in the stories from CivilWarLand. They seemed to me very emotionally
C. P. Farley,
January 30, 2013
As a writer, Whitney Otto is a democrat. Her tendency is to tell a story through a plurality of voices, to refract her narrative through a prism of perspectives. This is most obvious in her bestselling first novel, How to Make an American Quilt
, whose central metaphor is literally a collection of discarded bits of cloth pieced together into a cohesive whole, but the theme recurs in all her work. Her new novel is no exception.
Each chapter in her new book, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, tells the story of one woman photographer. Six of the eight are based on historical figures, though Otto changed the names and played freely with the facts of their lives. So, Imogen Cunningham becomes Cymbeline Kelley, Madame Yevonde becomes Amadora Allesbury, Tina Modotti becomes Clara Argento, etc. The final two photographers are invented entirely, though their work is based on the work of photographers Judy Dater and Sally Mann.
It's an interesting, engaging experiment. Through the fascinating lives of these eight unconventional women, the reader not only travels the arc of 20th century history, technology, and art but is brought face to face with the particular struggles creative women faced in the past century. As author Sena Jeter Naslund put it, "What makes Eight Girls Taking Pictures so remarkable is its simultaneous sharp focus and wide-angle lens."
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C. P. Farley: Why did you want to do a book on photography?
Whitney Otto: I didn't really want to do a book on photography. I wanted to do a book on these women who were photographers. They were all women whose work I liked before I knew about their lives in general. The exception would probably be Lee Miller. I knew more about her life as a muse and as a model than I did as a photographer. I didn't know she was a photographer, actually.
Farley: And she was a really interesting photographer.
Otto: Yes, very surrealist. And that's the other thing that's interesting about all these women. Even if they started out more traditionally, they all had a more modern take. Miller was a surrealist. Grete Stern was a collagist. Modotti... she was very, very modernist. Imogen Cunningham started out in an era when photography was still being used in a very painterly way: using soft focus, trying to replicate what paintings did. Then all of a sudden it was like, wait a minute, this is a whole different medium!
Farley: Sort of like early films, which were filmed more like stage plays, until they figured out the possibilities of film.
Otto: Right, it was the same thing, where suddenly filmmakers realized that they had other tools. Imogen Cunningham was a member of the group f/64 with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and several other photographers. They wanted to use available light. They wanted everything to be as natural as possible, which was sort of like the antithesis of the painterly, soft-focus, allegorical stuff that early photographers had been doing.
Farley: One of the other photographers you write about, Madame Yevonde, did do a lot of allegorical stuff, but she was also doing something else that was really new — with color. Her photos are crazy.
Otto: Yes, her stuff looks so contemporary it's unbelievable. She's great. I mean, that really heavy color saturation, and that kind of wink and a nod, juxtaposing subject matter that was very classical, like the goddess photographs she did, with very modern techniques. Like giving a robed woman a Nazi helmet and a handgun — and she's Athena. She's one of the first photographers I absolutely loved in my life. She's not very well known here, actually, even today. I discovered her when I was in England. But the Internet has really brought everybody to fore.
Farley: A good deal of the book is focused on photographers in the first half of the 20th century. Did you focus on this era deliberately?
Otto: Well, again, I wasn't so much interested in photography as I was interested in these women, who all were photographers. I'm not really interested in writing about writers or writing. But photography is very much like writing to me because it can be a service — you can pay people to do it — or it can be an art form. Or it can be both at the same time. Writing kind of does that same thing. That's a connection for me.
Originally, I want to say in the '90s, I was going to write a memoirish thing, and I thought one section of this book would be about my cultural heroes. They'd be a sort of filter through which I could view my life. Of course, I never ended up finishing that, and in the early 2000s, I realized I was getting interested in these various photographers and their work and their lives. So I thought, I'll write about them.
It started out, in 2003, as a nonfiction book about these eight women photographers. But I always wanted to do a fictional version, too. I thought it would be cool to do two books that draw on the same material, one nonfiction, one fiction; they'd be these companion pieces. The only problem with the nonfiction version was that I thought nobody would buy it! [Laughter] So, I put it down for a few years. Then, when I went to pick it up again, I thought, I just want to do the fiction part.
With each of these women, I didn't want to write full biographies. I wasn't interested in their entire lives, just aspects of their lives or aspects of their work. I wanted bits and pieces. I thought, What is the one thing I want to say about each of these women? Then I realized the sum of their lives formed this 20th century arc.
So if you look at it, the book may start in 1909 and then it ends around 1927. The second chapter picks up again probably in 1900, but then it ends at the eve of the Second World War. Then it picks up again. The beginning of each chapter backtracks substantially, but it will always pull you further into the 20th century. That wasn't really by design, I'm sorry to say. [Laughter] It was just more by interest, because that was where their stories ended for me, or the interest ended for me.
Farley: In writing about these women, though, you blended fact and fiction very freely. The basic narrative arcs of their lives follow those of the historical women, but you gave them new names and identities, and in many cases invented much of the details of their lives. How did you decide on the balance between fact and fiction in this book?
Otto: Well, you know, I think for anyone who's going to write a fictional