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August 2010

Editors at Work: Behind the Scenes of the Paris Review Interviews

I'm a shameless dork about a number of literary things, but perhaps the first of them were the Paris Review interviews. Plenty of other folks might have been doing more interesting things on their study breaks in my college library, but I wore a path in the linoleum between my desk and the shelf in the stacks where they kept all the old Writers at Work collections, and by the end of four years I had worked my way through all of them, from E.M. Forster through Rebecca West and S.J. Perelman and James Jones and Lillian Hellman and all those other mid-century giants canonized by the magazine's editors, and if I hadn't graduated I'd probably have started over at the beginning and gone through again.

Why are they special? Well, because they were first (author interviews were nowhere near as ubiquitous then as now), but, as the newish editor of the Paris Review, Lorin Stein, pointed out during his guest stint on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog last week, because they treat these interviews like no one else does. This isn't some guy (like me) calling up an author for 20 minutes and calling it a podcast. As the writers I've talked to who have worked on these have confirmed, they are a major, collaborative project:

In the first place, the method is slow. My interview with Jonathan Lethem took a couple of weeks, with reading assignments before each session. Joshua Pashman's interview with Norman Rush, coming out in the September issue, took three years, eight sessions, and 500 pages of transcript. (Later boiled down to 33 pages in print.)

In the second place, the interviews are collaborative. After our interns type up the transcripts, the interviewer and subject sit down and edit them—together. Often they rewrite the questions and answers completely. When Frederick Seidel interviewed Robert Lowell, the tape recorder didn't work: Fred wrote up the whole thing from memory, then gave it to Lowell to revise.

When writers have total control, George realized, they feel safe. And when they feel safe they open up.

Stein's post is of course quite rah-rah for his own magazine, but I'd no doubt feel the same if I had been bequeathed a legacy like that. And as a dork, I loved the glimpse behind the curtain, including a preview of the interviews in the pipeline for coming issues, starting with Norman Rush and Michel Houellebecq in the September issue, and after that "Dave Eggers, Ann Beattie, Samuel Delaney, Louise Erdrich—and, yes, Jonathan Franzen." And, perhaps best news of all, they are in the process of putting the full archive online and searchable. You can also find some of them in the newly curated collections Picador has put out in the past few years: volumes I, II, III, and IV. --Tom

P.S. Coates, one of my favorite bloggers, had a couple of editors as guests while he was off writing in the woods this past month, and I had meant to point to them earlier, since it's relatively rare that book editors step out from behind their desks to speak for themselves. Along with Stein's posts, I liked what Chris Jackson, who edited Coates's Beautiful Struggle at Spiegel & Grau as well as folks like Victor LaValle and Matt Taibbi, had to say about his approach:

Part of the fun of being an editor is the occasional fantasy that you're calling together a league of literary superheroes to take on the forces of evil in the world.  Put your art to work, I say.  I've always been drawn to stylistic outliers, polemicists, and revisionists--I'm a firm believer that the greatest need in our age is for writers to move readers from whatever comfortable positioned they've fallen into.  I'm a fan of vulgarity.  In part its a function of my upbringing: growing up in Harlem in the 70s and 80s taught me a lot about the irrepressible power of a true thing told in the most resonant possible language.

Jackson and Stein also each had responses to the Weiner/Picoult/Franzen hoo-ha that managed to get them heaped with more hoo-ha, about which more later.

Comic-Con and Beyond: "The Jedi Path"

What makes a Star Wars book stand out? 41y8mmXSZ7L._SL200_AA250_2

Having a page on Wookieepedia is good. Receiving a glowing book review from Jeff VanderMeer is even better. Having your book unboxed on Techland? Very cool. And getting everyone from Tommy Lee Edwards to Darth Vader to read your book at Comic-Con? Pretty memorable. Back in July, Daniel Wallace shared his newest book, The Jedi Path: A Manual for Students of the Force, with a wide array of Comic-Con attendees--and gave us the photos to share with you (check them out after the jump).

Jedi Path has already generated lots of buzz among Star Wars fans after it was previewed on Daniel provided some more information on why The Jedi Path is such a unique edition to the Star Wars mythology:

The Jedi Path was conceived as a textbook that was carried by young Initiates and Padawans to guide their instruction in the Jedi Temple. It's supposed to look like an in-universe artifact that fell through a rabbit hole from the galaxy far, far away. In fact, this copy is ostensibly the last one in existence following Order 66 and the destruction of the Jedi Temple.

The "vault edition" is packaged by becker&mayer! and sold through Amazon. It features a mechanized metallic case and removable items including a letter tracing the book's history, a severed Padawan braid, a metal Jedi Credit medallion, a Jedi starfighter patch, a burned poster of the Jedi Code, a map of the Jedi Temple, a lightsaber sketch on the back of a Dex's Diner napkin, and a note concerning some missing pages apparently torn from the book.

The book itself contains the wisdom of eight revered Jedi who put their thoughts to paper approximately 1,000 years before the events of the movies. This particular copy was printed approx a century before the movies, falling into the consecutive hands of Yoda, Thame Cerulian, Count Dooku, Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka Tano, Darth Sidious, and Luke Skywalker. All of the owners left handwritten comments in the margins so they could complain, educate, mope, or gloat.



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Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times
(we covered the Sunday Franzen cover review ahead of time last week):

  • Kakutani on The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: "It’s hard to imagine that a novelist could lift such elements from several of the best-known best sellers of recent years and turn them into something original and gripping, but that’s exactly what Mr. Guilfoile has done in 'The Thousand.' Though there’s some ridiculous mumbo jumbo about the secret society at the heart of the novel, though some of the complicated plot points end up not making a whole lot of sense, the book is jet-fueled by its author’s unerring sense of character and his nimble, fleet-footed prose."
  • Jim Krusoe on Meeks by Julia Holmes: "'Meeks' is a wild, woolly, sly, gentle and wry first novel by Julia Holmes, as well as the name of one of the book’s two main characters, a park bum with delusions of grandeur.... 'Meeks' isn’t one of those books a reader snuggles next to for a pleasant trip to the mostly familiar. It’s more like having a dream where everything starts off well enough, and then, without quite knowing why, you’re being chased. It’s a book whose singular vision keeps returning to me at odd moments, one of the most original and readable novels that’s come my way in a long time."
  • Mark Harris on Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring: "Given that Steward lived in an era in which so much of gay history was hidden under mattresses, shoved in the backs of bureau drawers, burnt up in ashtrays and wished away in confessional booths, his desire to document and preserve is in itself as moving as it is rare. Demystification, however, is another matter: his life turns out to have been far too sui generis to exemplify anything except the fact that so much more was going on in gay America than even most gay Americans realized."
  • Robin Romm on The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom: "'The Pain Chronicles' is an expansive, invigorating mix of medical reportage, history, memoir and cultural criticism... Yes, some people, including Thernstrom herself, learn to manage medication or train their brains to modulate the perception of pain through neuroimaging. Their successes, recounted so meticulously here, will surely prove useful to others. But 'The Pain Chronicles' is no mere self-help manual. It’s a sophisticated, elegantly compiled treatise — as wide-ranging, complex and defiant as pain itself."
  • Terrence Rafferty on Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories from the Library of America: "A lot of writers, both in and out of the horror genre, know how to create a sense of dread. What makes Jackson’s sensibility so distinctive is that her brand of dread tends to be self-aware and even, at times, self-amused. There’s often a tinge of embarrassment to her characters’ fear, simply because it’s so tenuous, so apparently sourceless: they can’t tell if what’s troubling them is something or nothing."
  • Maslin on True Prep by Lisa Birnbach: "'True Prep: It’s a Whole New Old World,' [is] a surprisingly worthwhile sequel to the now-creaky 'Handbook.' This new compendium moves beyond school days to address matters newly relevant for the core readership: how to remarry, how to dress for a funeral and how to deal with the collateral damage caused by decades’ worth of the party-hearty behavior described in the first book."

Washington Post:

  • Carolyn See on Growing Up Jung by Micah Toub: "There's nothing more endearing than a family memoir in which the author is actually fond of his family. It's rare; it's close to miraculous. If a person wants to write about his youth and his parents, it's usually because he has scores to settle. Affection turns the whole thing into a miracle.... I hated to see this book end. I loved every person in it, from the wistful dad with his 'fluffy-edged' voice, to Toub's kind and darling mom, his tolerant and loving ex-wife, even that volcanic teenaged sister, who refused to tell stories about the ceiling. 'Growing Up Jung' is a gem."
  • Jess Walter on Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: "If killing your protagonist with more than 600 pages to go sounds audacious, it's nothing compared with the literary feats Murray pulls off in this hilarious, moving and wise book. Recently named to the Man Booker Prize long list, 'Skippy Dies' is an epic crafted around, of all things, a pack of 14-year-old boys. It's the 'Moby-Dick' of Irish prep schools."
  • Sy Montgomery on The Tiger by John Vaillant: "To those of us who love the embattled cat, 'The Tiger' offers the emotional satisfaction of Quentin Tarantino's film 'Kill Bill' -- with the tiger in the role of Uma Thurman's vengeful bride. But the characters in this book, both human and tigrine, are more nuanced.... Vaillant's book teaches a lesson that humankind desperately needs to remember: When you murder a tiger, you not only kill a strong and beautiful beast, you extinguish a passionate soul."
  • And then there's Ron Charles, who has indeed turned his mixed review of Franzen's Freedom (which I linked to last week) into his second video book review. In this case, thanks to some funny homemade effects and a camera-ready subject, I think video beats print:

Los Angeles Times:

  • Carolyn Kellogg on Three Delays by Charlie Smith: "Billy and Alice are a tripped-out Scott and Zelda, a Jane Austen romance via Hunter S. Thompson, a Romeo and Juliet on the burned-out edge of the baby boom.... This fictional relationship, like those in real life, ultimately excludes those not a part of it. There is no effort to seduce the reader; Billy tells us how deeply he knows Alice, but we can't go there with him. Coupled with the unimportant plot and unclear chronology, the refrain of this relationship fails, at times, to carry the book's weight. Luckily, there is Charlie Smith's engulfing prose, full of surprises and possibility, to lift it up. Which it does."
  • Marion Winik on Guilfoile's The Thousand: "If you like Scott Turow, Stan Lee, Dan Brown, or Michael Crichton, then you are in the target audience for Kevin Guilfoile's novel 'The Thousand.' Unfortunately, like smoked duck ravioli with wasabi-tomatillo sauce, Guilfoile has fallen under the sway of one influence too many."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Omni Daily News

An Undefined Future for the O.E.D.: Oxford University Press clarified today that a decision on whether the Oxford English Dictionary's third edition will be made available in physical form or go completely digital would be premature: "It is likely to be more than a decade before the full edition is published, and a decision on format will be taken at that point."

Zimmy's Mark on History (and Historians): Purists wary of a historian's take on Dylan might reconsider given Sean Wilentz's visceral connection to his subject. In a review of Bob Dylan in America, New York Magazine quotes Wilentz as crediting Dylan with his own historical epiphany:

“He discovered something in me and I heard it,” he says, “which is that you can see the past in the present. To me, the collapsing of it is the beginnings of historical consciousness. I can feel it, taste it, and smell it, and so can he.”

Moving and Shaking: Temple Grandin's Emmy win last night for Best Made-for-Television Movie sent Grandin's The Way I See It and Thinking in Pictures up's bestsellers list.


Guest Post: First-Time Novelist Darin Bradley on Noise, the Apocalypse, and You

First-time novelist Darin Bradley, guestblogging on Omnivoracious this week, has taught courses on writing and literature at the University of North Texas, Furman University, and East Tennessee State University. His short fiction, poetry, and critical nonfiction have appeared in a variety of journals, and he served as founding fiction editor of the experimental e-zine, Farrago's Wainscot.

Noise takes as its premise that, in the aftermath of the switch from analog to digital TV, an anarchic movement known as Salvage hijacks the unused airwaves. Mixed in with the static’s random noise are dire warnings of the imminent economic, political, and social collapse of civilization—and cold-blooded lessons on how to survive the fall and prosper in the harsh new order that will inevitably arise from the ashes of the old. Critically acclaimed writer Paul Jessup has called Noise "Little Brother meets Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness meets Mad Max and the Road Warrior meets Letham."

Today, Bradley talks apocalypse, returning on Wednesday and Thursday with new posts...


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End-o'-the-Week Kid-Lit Roundup

Quick links from around the kid-lit blogosphere:

The "Green Book" inspires a kids' book. The New York Times has the story on how the "Green Book"--or, more formally, "The Negro Motorist Green Book: An International Travel Guide"--will feature in a new kids' book. ("It tells the story of a girl from Chicago in the 1950s and what she learns as she and her parents, driving their brand-new car to visit her grandmother in rural Alabama, finally luck into a copy of Victor Green’s guide.")


51w2Qt5KJNL._SL500_AA300_ Finnikin of the Rock review. Sure, Finnikin of the Rock is officially YA, not strictly kid-lit, but Liz B. at Tea Cozy loved it so much that she stayed up until 4am reading it: "I love this book so much that I am now torn between two book boyfriends (Eugenides and Finnikin), feeling like a fool, loving them both is breaking all the rules."

Mr. Popper's Penguins movie. This 1938 Newbery Honor winner is being made into a movie starring Jim Carrey, directed by Mark Waters (who also directed The Spiderwick Chronicles)--although it sounds like the movie takes quite a few liberties with the original text.

2012556431 Diary of a Wimpy Kid-style "hybrids." The Seattle Times talks about a new trend, the rise of chapter books "with a blend of text and illustrations." Among these Diary of a Wimpy Kid-style hybrids are Lincoln Peirce's Big Nate books and Jon Scieszka's Spaceheadz.

Farewell to Booklights. We're sad to see one of our favorite blogs go, PBS Booklights. The crew said their goodbyes this week--and at least offered up some going-away party cake:
Favorite Children's Book Cake

2077-1 Guardians of Ga'hoole movie. PW has the details on a new movie based on Kathryn Lasky's much beloved Guardians of Ga'hoole series.

Talking to the vampire expert. School Library Journal just did an interview with Donna Rosenblum, their "expert reviewer" of vampire books, "to find out what else--besides Twilight--is hot and why kids think vampire books are so banging." She also discusses typical onset age for vampirophilia ("Around 10 or 11. Sixth grade-ish.") and what books make for a good introduction to the genre (Bunnicula tops the list for fourth- and fifth-graders).

Beverly Cleary video clip. As Travis at 100 Scope Notes says, "Not too shabby for someone who’s been retired for a decade."


Graphic Novel Friday: "The Amazing Screw-On Head"

When I interviewed creator, writer, and artist Mike Mignola at the 2009 Emerald City ComiCon, I had to smile and nod when he mentioned his side project, The Amazing Screw-On Head, because I knew next to nothing about it. Afterward, I decided to do some digging, and while I could not find reasonably priced, available copy, I did uncover a few interesting tidbits. In 2002, Mignola wrote and illustrated The Amazing Screw-On Head as a one-shot comic, and it went on to win the Eisner Award for Best Humor Publication. A few years later, Mignola developed the comic into a pilot for the SciFi (now, cringingly, “SyFy”) Channel. (Unfortunately, it was not picked up for further episodes.) Not too shabby for a comic with a quirky title; if only I could read it.

Cut to this September, when Dark Horse Comics will release a special hardcover edition of The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects, including three never-before-published short stories and “The Magician and the Snake,” another Eisner Award-winning tale, all written and drawn by Mignola.

The hardcover is a slim one--104 pages--and the titular story is only about a quarter of the page count, but it packs in the signature Mignola creepiness and humor as if it were all too aware of its abbreviated length. After finally devouring the contents, I’m at a loss at how to describe it without doing the absurdity a disservice. To begin with, President Lincoln unblinkingly calls upon “Screw-On Head,” who, as his name suggests, is a detached head with a threaded neck that allows him to be twisted into various vessels/bodies to thwart evil. He is aided by Mister Groin, who, as his name does not suggest, is a well-dressed and soft-spoken partner of Head’s. Together, they are assigned with stopping the nefarious plan of Emperor Zombie and a giant catfish-headed dragon. It’s as crazy as it sounds. Coupled with the deadpan storytelling, the outlandish visuals (aided in no small part by colorist Dave Stewart) and off-kilter chain of events make this a sure-to-please read for fans of the goofier side of the Hellboy auteur.


The Amazing Screw-On Head started out as an idea for a toy. It wasn’t a serious idea, just a thought--a robot head, threaded like a light bulb, that you could screw into different robot bodies. I like that. I still want that toy…I created a comic that was pretty much just for me,” writes Mignola in the supplemental section of the hardcover. He also reveals that two of the stories, “The Prisoner of Mars” and “The Witch and Her Soul,” were written specifically for this collection. The short stories veer in tone from folktale to Sci-Fi hysteria, and if they feel a bit slight, it’s only because it’s so easy to want more when Mignola both writes and illustrates his work. New artwork from Mignola has been sparse the past few years, making this collection a must-read--and it’s full of alien jellyfish, low-tech machines, vampire bats, and ominous statues.

In November, a new Hellboy collection, Masks and Monsters, arrives (this is the third Hellboy collection this year after The Wild Hunt and The Crooked Man and Others), along with B.P.R.D. Vol. 14: King of Fear, which has the tough task of following Vol. 13, also released in 2010 and one of the better B.P.R.D. trades out there. While I’m at it, I might as well mention Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels, which centers around a very peripheral character from the usual books and is impossibly fun. As the Hellboy universe continues to sprawl and branch out, a book like The Amazing Screw-On Head serves as a palate cleanser. Think of it as a brief but welcome diversion for readers already steeped in the Hellboy mythos.

Now, where to find that pilot episode? Anyone have suggestions?

EDIT: An alert reader noted that a good place to start with the pilot episode is our very own retail site, of course. 


An Interview with Publishers Weekly's Rose Fox

Like many publications connected to book culture, Publishers Weekly has been changing in response to a changing landscape. A little over three years ago, they turned over the science fiction/fantasy.horror reviews editor job to Rose Fox, and launched PW's Genreville, where Fox regularly blogs about industry news along with her partner Josh Jasper. Fox's energy and progressive approach have given the SF/F/H section of the magazine a definite boost, and provided genre fiction with a new public forum.

Fox comes from a literary family--her parents, Charles Platt and Nancy Weber, are both writers and met at a party attended by, among others, Harlan Ellison.

Platt is a British writer associated with the New Wave science fiction writers of the 1960s who has since become a naturalized U.S. citizen. His cult novel The Gas (written for the infamous Paris publisher Olympia Press) deliberately pushed buttons and boundaries, and William Gibson endorsed his The Silicon Man as a "wholly new and very refreshing way" of exploring cyberspace.Platt has also been widely praised for his journalism, especially his work for Wired and Make magazines.

Weber, is best known for her memoir The Life Swap, in which she recounts her efforts to exchange lives with another woman in the 1970s. Her fiction credits include horror (The Playgroup), category romance (eight for Berkley Jove's To Have and to Hold and Second Chance at Love lines), mainstream fiction (Brokenhearted), and young adult (Double Solitaire) titles. A professional chef as well as an author, she currently focuses on essays, travel and culinary journalism, and other nonfiction.

I interviewed Fox via email recently--about her family and her work at Publishers Weekly. Would you describe your childhood as being "literary" in the sense of being surrounded by books, writers, the whole culture?

Rose Fox: Oh, absolutely. Both my parents are writers. My aunt and uncle are writers. My mother's father and grandfather ran a printing company. I have ink in my veins. I grew up surrounded by books and words (my mother is a word game fiend) and writers of all stripes. Do you remember if there was a time when it first dawned on you that your father and mother were published writers? Growing up, what did that mean to you?

Rose Fox: It's just something I always knew. I should mention here that my parents split up when I was quite young, and I lived with my mother and only visited my father once a week or so. While my mother was raising me on her own, she supported us with her writing, so a typical day would be her in one room with the typewriter and me in the other room with the babysitter. I didn't see my father at work as much, but I probably assumed he was a writer before I actually knew it, because writing is just what parents do!

Rose fox 
(Rose Fox portrait by Omar Rayyan)

Continue reading "An Interview with Publishers Weekly's Rose Fox" »

Omni Daily News

Mr. Popper's March of the Penguins: Mr. Popper's Penguins, Richard and Florence Atwater's delightfully funny chapter book (originally published in 1938), is set to be turned into a movie starring Jim Carrey. [The Hollywood Reporter]

A Forest of Books: In Quebec, book lovers and nature lovers alike can enjoy The Jardin de la Connaissance, "a temporary garden in a forested area involving approximately 40,000 books, multi-coloured wooden plates and several varieties of mushrooms." [via GalleyCat]

"Urban Hipster Lit": Already beloved over at The Stranger, Salon profiles 26-year-old Tao Lin (Shoplifting from American Apparel):

"Through all of this, Lin's writing, despite its shortcomings, has perfectly captured the aimless malaise of the Internet generation. It's no wonder, then, that he has successfully used the Web to manage his career and push his name onto computer screens everywhere. His guerrilla-style online marketing has made him a Web phenomenon. But can it break him into the publishing mainstream?"

Moving and Shaking: Worth Dying For, the followup to 61 Hours, earns a spot on our Movers & Shakers list this morning as Lee Child fans anticipate its October release.


Shared Worlds: Zombies, Alien Babies, and Book Recommendations from Students

(Shared Worlds video from year one.)

Every year now for the past three years I've gone to Wofford College in South Carolina in the summer to help run Shared Worlds, a teen writing camp for students interested in science fiction and fantasy. The camp is fairly unique, in that the first week the students split off into groups of ten and build their own SF or fantasy world. This years' worlds were incredibly complex, including mind-blowing creations like living islands and space squid. During this time, they're also getting discussion of biology, politics, and other relevant subjects from Wofford faculty. In the second week, they write short stories in their worlds, which are then constructively critiqued by professional writers.

Throughout the process, guest writers come in to lead discussions, do readings, and talk to the students. This summer, guests included short story writer Nathan Ballingrud, Holly Black and Kathe Koja, with Michael Bishop, Marly Youmans, and Will Hindmarch conducting the critiques and making themselves available in the writing labs. Camp director Jeremy Jones and I provide content in the form of lectures, and also help the director of summer programs, Timothy Schmitz, keep things on track.RAs and TAs assist by giving the students structure and activities outside of class and writing time. Publishers like Wizards of the Coast provide scholarship money, while websites like SF Signal ran special MindMeld interviews to provide additional advice. Due to its unique approach, the camp has received coverage from the Guardian online, the Washington Post blog, and many others.

This summer we had almost 40 students, the most ever. They worked hard, had a lot of fun, and came out the other side invigorated and energized. The camp validates their love of fiction and of writing, and it allows them to concentrate on being creative for two weeks without any other distractions. We had 15 returning students, some of whom were coming back for a third year. We love that kind of loyalty, especially since it keeps us on our toes to keep fine-tuning and honing the program.

Harmony and megan
(Students Harmony Riley and Megan Jackson. Apparently, Megan thought the baby might be edible.)

This year, I had to leave after the first week, so I left a proxy: a green plastic alien baby who, as a kind of jump-start to my website many years ago, I sent to various writers and others around the world. This particular alien baby has been to the South Pole, to Thailand, to Finland, to Central Asia, and many other places---thus some of the photos in this post. The students really adopted the alien baby and took him (her?) to heart!

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