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August 2011

Trend Stetting 2: Hail to the Editor in Chief

Regardless of your contribution to Barack Obama’s approval rating, you have to admit one thing: The man can give a speech. And to the delight of professional wordslingers the world over, toiling under deadlines and character counts, he tends to write much of each address himself (like another fellow who’s spent some time on Pennsylvania Avenue used to say, he “feels our pain”).

To figure out why the 44th president’s speeches have such an explosive impact on listeners across the party spectrum, seasoned political analysts Mary Frances Berry and Josh Gottheimer tackled the impressive task of parsing his language. Their forthcoming book, Power in Words, walks us slowly through 18 of candidate Obama’s major addresses during his ascent to the White House.

It’s a fairly wonky read, as you’d imagine, with plenty of citations and endnotes and an occasionally excruciating level of detail: “After a few days in the country spent traveling with a twelve-car motorcade, Obama and his entourage flew to the rural area of Kolego in the Siaya District of Nyanza Province, about 175 miles east of Nairobi.” But Berry and Gottheimer temper their academic approach with lively anecdotes about backstage tension and last-minute rewrites, as well as insight into the symbiotic relationship between Obama and his head speechwriter, Jon Favreau (not the guy behind Cowboys & Aliens—look for his younger, prettier Googleganger).

Here’s what I learned from their efforts: The president’s political savvy and famous preacherlike cadence play a big role in his ability to stun a crowd, but delivery only goes as far as what’s in the package. Berry and Gottheimer close every chapter with the full text of the speech they’ve just analyzed, and the placement is apt. It drives home the force of the words themselves—clean and precise and startlingly emotional, even on a two-dimensional page. You may or may not agree with them, but they’re impossible to ignore.

Lev Grossman: inspired by his daughter, mad at his brother

Outtakes from Grossman's visit last week to Amazon headquarters in Seattle...

Grossman is the author of The Magician King (Amazon editors' top Best Books of the Month pick for August) and 2009's The Magicians. Visit his Amazon Author page, or his website,

She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About


Say you want to describe the perfect fantasy scene. An epic fantasy scene, even. Something memorable. So you describe the emerald grass in a little clearing in the forest, and the noses of the red and white mushrooms pushing up through the moss, and the sheets of golden light dappling the ground beneath the white-barked willows, and the roses, red as wine, the violets like amethysts... and the big, crap-encrusted toilet with a cracked lid sitting in the middle of it all, a centipede crawling out of its bowl. What are you going to remember about that scene? Rachel E Morris

Your character is that toilet. Or rather, your character is the whole scene, but every character should have a toilet to call its own. And depending on what form that toilet takes, your character will be perceived differently. But where to start? Because a toilet alone is not enough. That toilet needs that forest just as much as the forest needs the toilet. And what will make both interesting is the person who needs the toilet. And... umm... why.

That's Not a Flaw, It's a Feature! Your character has a problem. Otherwise, why write about them? More important than your character's name (which is totally deep), or the intensity of their ice blue eyes (just like Olivia Wilde's...), or the cheese-grating utility of their rock-hard abs (here’s looking at you, David Beckham), are the questions at the heart of your character. The fears and desires that keep them up at night and that drive them to do such novel-worthy things.

In Divergent, it is precisely Beatrice’s flaws—not being selfless enough, not fitting in—that allow us to identify with her in a society of seemingly robotic people. But it is her desire—to be herself in a society that practically makes it against the law—that makes us love her.

Continue reading "She's No Mary Sue: Creating Characters People Care About" »

Shared Worlds: Next Gen SF/F Writers Working Hard For Their Dream

SW2011cover (2)

Every summer for the past four years I’ve had the pleasure of heading to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to help run the Shared Worlds SF/F teen writing camp, along with founder Jeremy L.C. Jones and summer camps director Timothy Schmitz. It’s a unique experience that helps the next generation of creatives interested in imaginative fiction begin to hone their skills, meet like-minded students, and learn from a bevy of great writer guests. In the first week, the participants, who range in age from 13 to 17, split into groups and build their own science fictional or fantasy worlds. In the second week, they write stories set in their world.

In addition to Wofford faculty, classroom teachers, and teaching assistants, we bring in professional guests to lecture, lead writing exercises, and give readings. Our Visiting Writer was current World Fantasy Award finalist Nnedi Okorafor, and she was joined by gaming expert Will Hindmarch, World Fantasy Award winner Ekaterina Sedia, Hugo Award winner Ann VanderMeer, and PK Dick Award finalist Minister Faust. (This past year, provided a generous grant to Shared Worlds.)

As Sedia said after the camp, echoing a common sentiment, “I feel truly lucky to have met all of the students. Their talent and camaraderie were an inspiration, and I hope that regardless of where their lives take them, they will hang on to the friendships they’ve made and the worlds created."

Author Nnedi Okorafor photographed with the Shared Worlds students and staff.Shared worlds


Continue reading "Shared Worlds: Next Gen SF/F Writers Working Hard For Their Dream" »

Lev Grossman is "a kid in a candy store."

Amazon hearts Lev Grossman. I mean, seriously.

His new novel, The Magician King, was the "spotlight" pick among our Best Books of the Month for August. The prequel, 2009's The Magicians, was also a #1 Best of the Month selection. So we were thrilled to have him stop by the Amazon offices today for an interview with our own Juliet Disparte.

As a fan of fantasy fiction, Grossman said he believes fantasy writing has entered a "second golden age" and a "rebirth." And as the book critic for Time magazine, he feels grateful that his day job allows him to meet writers he admires, including Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Franzen, Suzanna Clark, Neal Stephenson, and George R.R. Martin. "These are people who are just incredibly inspirational for me," he said. "I mean, I've met John Le Carre. How great is that? So there's a bit of a kid in a candy store element."

IMG_1011Grossman discussed how he set out to write books with themes similar to those he admires - Narnia, Harry Potter - but for adults. (His characters do tend to curse a bit.) And he confirmed that his hero, Quentin, is two-thirds of the way into his own series - a third 'Magician' book is forthcoming.

Funny, charming, gracious, and humble, you'll heart Grossman yourself once the full interview is available for viewing. (You'll find it here soon, and on our author interviews page, The Backstory.) Meanwhile, we thought we'd share a few previews and highlights...

Juliet: I feel like 'coming of age' is a major theme is both of these books. Quentin matures a lot over the course of these two books. And I was curious: was that informed by lessons that you learned in life?

Lev: I wrote the Magicians in my 30s and it was a point in my life where I was sort of professionally kind of defeated and personally also kind of defeated … I kind of had to rediscover who I was and remind myself of what I could do if really tried to be what I wanted to be. And that's what Quentin has to do. He has to realize that he's much more powerful than he thought he was. And he could do things that he never would have believed possible.

Juliet: Other reviewers, including myself, have noted that your characters feel very real - they're witty, they're funny, they're flawed. And I wonder how you managed to accomplish that. Are they based on people that you know? Are there any characters that are like you?

Lev: Well, I don't have any personal flaws myself, um … No, it was very important to me that everybody in the book, and the heroes, be flawed, and the villains have redeeming qualities … One thing I wanted to do in this book is get as many shades of gray in there as possible. And make it clear that in life that people, everybody, they're both good and bad. And sometimes you don't even know if you're acting on your good impulses or your bad impulses.

Juliet: In your day job you are a book reviewer for Time magazine, so you spend all day reading and thinking about books, I imagine. How does your work as a book reviewer inform or affect your work as a writer?

IMG_1019Lev: If you're going to have a day job, and you're writing novels, it's just about the best - there aren't many better jobs to have than professional critic. Because you get to look around and see what other people are doing, see what your contemporaries are doing. And then whenever they do something good, you want to steal it, and avoid giving them credit and just claim it for your own. There's really no better vantage point to survey what's going on in contemporary fiction … I got really lucky when I got that job.

After the interview, he sat with a few of our editors and reviewers - as Seattleites, we were obliged to make him drink coffee - and he even let us talk him into an impromptu Magician King reading. (We'll have video of that here next week.) Now, Amazon really, truly hearts Lev Grossman.

Visit his Amazon Author page, or his website,

President Obama’s Summer Reading List

From our friends over at Abe Books:

We all know that President Obama loves to read books. Www.reuters.comAccording to the White House, during his vacation to Martha's Vineyard the president has been working through four novels and one work of non-fiction. We thought we'd share: Obama’s 2011 summer reading list.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson 
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese 
Rodin’s Debutante by Ward Just
To the End of the Land by David Grossman
The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

"X" Marks the Nostalgia

In the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s, X-Men scribe Chris Claremont wrote the stories that would forever define the origins of the characters for me (no matter how many reboots, clones, and mind-wipes that followed), and Jim Lee dynamically illustrated them. Many of my favorite X-men comics from that era now reside in a basement in Minnesota (sorry, Mom and Dad--they’ll be worth something someday!), making my memories of these issues admittedly ruby-quartz-tinted recollections. But I can’t be the only fan(boy) who yearns to relive these stories as Marvel has quite the late 80s/early 90s X-Men publishing plan in the works. What follows are the titles that have me the most X-cited (forgive me).

X-Men: X-Tinction Agenda: The oversized hardcover collection released this month, and it has been a blast to revisit. The island of Genosha is filled with a populace that both hates and fears the X-Men, yet it uses the powers of enslaved mutants (or “gene-jokes”) to make the living conditions nearly utopian. In other words, it’s Chris Claremont’s entire run on Uncanny X-men distilled into a single metaphor. Several key moments stand out for me: Gambit allowing the evil Cameron Hodge to shoot a spike into his thigh, only to later pluck that same spike from his leg (with his teeth!) and use it to pick the locks that hold him hostage; Wolverine versus Archangel; Gambit (again) quickly planting a kiss on the lips of his captor before escaping (“Pity there’s no time to do this proper.”); and the return of Havok. The hardcover also collects a few choice issues earlier in Uncanny X-Men where Wolverine and Rogue first visit Genosha and barely escape. Marc Silvestri, Rick Leonardi, and others also contribute artwork.

Continue reading ""X" Marks the Nostalgia" »

2011 Hugo Awards Announced: Reaction From Winners Including Connie Willis

Blackout all clear double cover

This past weekend in Reno, Nevada, the Hugo Awards were announced during the World Science Fiction Convention. The award is given to the best in the field from the prior year as voted on by about two thousand attendees of the World SF Convention. Winners included Connie Willis in the best novel category for her duology, Blackout and All Clear, set in England during World War II. Other winners included Mary Robinette Kowal for best short story, Ted Chiang for best novella, and Clarkesworld as best semi-professional magazine. New York Times bestseller Lev Grossman won the John W. Campbell Award for best newcomer. (The full list of winners can be found here.)

For Willis, who has won the Hugo many times, the experience never gets old: “I was stunned and deliriously happy the first time I won (in 1982, I think), and I was stunned and delirious Saturday night. That part never changes, although I now also feel guilty because I’ve been so lucky and won so many times. But since each time is for a different work, it’s always like the first time.”

She has a realistic view of what the award means, telling Omnivoracious “It clearly doesn’t mean that your work is the best, because lots of great science fiction stories and novels haven’t won the Hugo, and Fred Astaire never won an Oscar. But to me it means that people liked my story, which, after working completely in isolation without feedback for a very long time (eight years in the case of Blackout and All Clear), it’s really reassuring to find that out.”

Continue reading "2011 Hugo Awards Announced: Reaction From Winners Including Connie Willis" »

The History of Economic Progress in 4 Minutes, by Sylvia Nasar

Coming next month (from the author of A Beautiful Mind), Sylvia Nasar's Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius. Watch this animated summary of her story:

Amazon Exclusive: Kate Atkinson Interviews Laura Lippman

*With Laura Lippman's latest, The Most Dangerous Thing, now on sale, we'd like to share this great interview between Laura and Kate Atkinson, whose first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was named Whitbread Book of the Year in the U.K. in 1995, and was followed by Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World, Case Histories and One Good Turn.

Kate Atkinson: You employ the first person plural in parts of the new novel. It’s quite a startling device (I loved it in Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End). Why did you use it in The Most Dangerous Thing?

Laura Lippman: The decision was intuitive at first—that is, I knew it was right, without knowing why it was right. When I finished the book, I realized that these passages are a consensual version of what happened in the past, that the survivors have agreed on what happened and that’s why the story is, at turns, unflattering to each of them. They are working out their level of culpability in several tragedies and they just can’t face this alone. And that voice allowed me to include a subtext of gloom and foreboding—the story is being told by people who know how badly it ends.

KA: Do you think you write better now than you did when you first began to write novels? (I only ask because I think I’m a much better writer than I used to be but no one else seems to have noticed.) Do you feel you can trust your “inner critic” or are you plagued by doubts the whole time you are writing?

LL: At the risk of sounding obsequious, I have to say that you set the bar awfully high for yourself with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but I’ve noticed how your work has changed, although I think the word that comes to mind isn’t better, but bolder. You take such big risks and yet you manage them with aplomb. The frustration of being a fan of your work is that there’s nothing quite like it. There are lots of wonderful writers in crime and literary fiction, but there’s only person who can write a Kate Atkinson novel.

I didn’t start out on the same level. That’s not poor-mouthing, as my Southern relatives would have it, but a fact on which everyone agrees. People tell me all the time—really, all the time—how far I’ve come since my first book. But, whether one writes a great first novel or simply a decent one, what are the choices? One can get better, worse, or stay the same. I shoot for better and I accept that there may be some dips, but they’ll come from trying new things at least, not doing the same things over and over. I do trust my inner critic, but I'm happy to have a circle of external critics that I trust as well.

KA: You “honor” the dead in your novels rather than exploit them for sadistic effect. Do you think that’s due to your background as a reporter butting up against real lives rather than fictional ones? Or because you’re a woman? Or just a decent human being?

LL: All of the above? At least, I hope I’m a decent person. I do think crime writers need to take a moment for introspection about the stories we’re telling and the bodies that are piling up around us. It’s somber stuff. There should be an agenda beyond sensation.

KA: How many novels do you have on the back burner at any one time? Have you ever sat down to write and not had any idea what you were going to do?

LL: Once—just once—I managed to have two projects going on simultaneously, a novel and a novella. I do best with one thing in front of me. And, increasingly, I have no idea what I’m going to write next. But that’s part of the job and, for me, part of the fun. I know a book is finished when I’m ready to sit down and ask myself, “What next, what interests me right now?” With The Most Dangerous Thing, I was interested in the way life becomes a kind of horror film at middle age. About two months after I started this book, my father-in-law died after a long decline. About the same time, one of my husband’s oldest friends, dating back to his days on the college newspaper, had a stroke at the age of 48, and died within hours. Yesterday, I picked up The New York Times and happened on a first-person piece by a former colleague, who wrote about having ALS and his intention to commit suicide while he was still able-bodied. He's only 66.

But I also became a parent for the first time last year, which isn’t one of the typical milestones of middle-age, yet there it was. And it had a huge impact on the book.

KA: Do you feel guilty when you’re not writing, even when the other thing you’re doing is totally fulfilling or completely altruistic or utterly well deserved?

LL: If I’ve been disciplined—gone to my desk every weekday morning, written at least 1,000 words—I seldom feel guilty. I feel much more guilt-ridden about not reading enough.

But I will steal a line from Anne Lamott, who once said if people knew how good she felt writing they would set her on fire. Just this morning I was working and it wasn’t an on-fire moment, but it wasn’t a bad day either. Just an average one, the kind of days one has in the dead middle of books. I took a sip of my latte, looked at the clock on my computer and thought: It is 10:10 a.m. and my job is to sit here and make things up. I am a very lucky person.

KA: “I've never wanted people to feel good at the end of my novels,” you said in a Publishers Weekly interview. But do you feel good when you finish?

LL: I feel fabulous. It's the best day of the year. But even on a book-a-year schedule, that means I feel fabulous only one day a year. As someone who takes great pride in completing things, I’ve chosen an interesting little hell for myself.