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March 2012

Hide Your Children! The Garbage Pail Kids Return

In the 1980s, the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards were so notorious that they were banned from select schools (well, mine) and were traded and pored over like some back-alley dice game at lunch (well, mine again). I will never know what happened to my stack of GPK cards, but I no longer have to wistfully imagine what “Clogged Duane” and “Dinah Saur” looked like, thanks to the recently published Garbage Pail Kids by Abrams ComicArts.

Upon delivery, my nearest neighbor immediately asked to borrow the book. The 220-plus page hardcover instantly triggers a lost sense of dark nostalgia in those who were kids in the mid-1980s. This book collects every card from Series 1-5, and it includes a five-page introduction by Art Spiegelman and a two-page afterword by artist John Pound. The rest of the pages are all GPK. Note that the characters had “alternate” cards—same image, different name—and those names are listed at the bottom of every page. The back matter for the cards is not reproduced outside of the front end papers, but the dust jacket is the same material as the old card packaging—and underneath lies a recognizable image of the pink rectangular gum that came in every pack.

Punny highlights for me were “Babbling Brooke” and “Nervous Rex” (lowlight: “Hot Scott”). In retrospect, I do see some cause for concern (sorry, 1986 self!), notably the drug references, stereotyping, and overall bad taste (but never so bad as how that gum fared—once chewed, twice shy). This hindsight makes Garbage Pail Kids an even better read. How did The Topps Company get away with some of these—see “Half-Nelson” and “Stoned Sean,” for example? It’s a fascinating retrospective, and Spiegelman’s involvement in the original series somehow lends credibility to it all.

“Snot was a good idea (gross bodily fluids were a staple of Topp’s sophisticated brand of humor),” Spiegelman writes in the introduction. “We all worked anonymously, since Topps didn’t want the work publicly credited…I was annoyed at the time, but my book publisher, Pantheon, was very relieved. The first volume of Maus was being prepared for publication while the GPKs were near the height of popularity.”

Maus went on to earn a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author and illustrator worked on the Garbage Pail Kids cards. You can say this aloud every time your neighbor asks to borrow your copy.


Writers Don’t Cry: LIVE at Emerald City Comicon


YAmazonheadou’ve read my columns—now drop by and say “hello!” I’ll be doing a panel at Emerald City Comicon on a subject close to my heart: villains. I know I don’t have to tell you how much cooler they are than heroes. Anyway, I’ll be bringing fabulous guest author extraordinaire Erin M. Evans, five-star author of The God Catcher and Brimstone Angels, which features some totally delectable villains. I’ll even have a few signed copies of her wicked book to give away to lucky participants.


Come for the books, stay for the villainy, and leave a little bit eviler than you walked in the door.




Friday, March 30th
Sympathy for the Devil: Creating Killer Villains for Games and Books

Room: L-102
Time: 7:00 - 8:00

Fascinating and devastating in their sharp suits, with their killer smiles, and their eyes that will eat you alive, villains are strong, smart, and motivated. They have that lean and hungry look. They stand alone. And say what you like about villains, but they know what they want. And that confidence is sexy.

Without the villain, there is no story. Without the villain, the heroes aren’t heroic. And without the villain, things are a lot less interesting. What is Star Wars without Darth Vader? Who is Harry Potter without Voldemort? Kick your game or book up a notch and learn the secrets behind creating killer villains with author, editor, and Amazon columnist Susan J. Morris of “Writers Don’t Cry.”

Emerald City Comicon
Washington State Convention Center
800 Convention Place
Seattle, WA 98101-2350


Want to brush up on your Writers Don’t Cry before you go? Here’s a handy index of all my columns, which I keep scrupulously up-to-date: The Writers Don’t Cry Index. Want to chat beforehand? Follow me on Twitter @susanjmorris.

PEN/Faulkner Awards Announced


Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic has been selected as the winner of the 2012 PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction. The judges described it as "a precise, poetic novel that tells the story of Japanese picture brides brought to California from Japan in the early twentieth century."

Ms. Otsuka and the four finalists will be celebrated during the 32nd Annual PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Ceremony, which celebrates the winning novel as “first among equals.” The four other finalists/equals are:



Three judges, who are chosen annually by the directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, selected four finalists and one winner from among the more than 350 submitted works by American authors published in the U.S. during the 2011 calendar year, making this the largest peer-juried award in the country. This year’s judges were Marita Golden, Maureen Howard, and Steve Yarbrough.

"Suddenly, a Knock on the Door": Ira Glass Reads a Story by Etgar Keret

KeretThere are authors who cut their milk teeth on short stories, and there are authors who dedicate themselves to the form with Buddha-like focus. Israeli writer Etgar Keret—nerds of a certain ilk will recognize his name from This American Life and The New Yorker—falls firmly into the latter camp, as his newly translated sixth collection makes clear.

The quirky, thought-provoking, often hilarious pieces in Suddenly, a Knock on the Door lend themselves to being read out loud, on your coffee break, or between subway stops. Keret doesn’t bother with a coat of sugar or even Splenda: His characters question themselves and screw up with such regularity that it’s easy for us to plant ourselves in the middle of their lives.

The tension in these stories comes from the sort of decision anyone might make on any given day, like what to stash in your pockets, where to go to lunch, and if you feel like getting a drink with that guy you fooled around with a year ago who didn’t call afterward. In Keret’s world, he’ll be flawed and you’ll be flawed, and whether or not it works out isn’t really the point. The point is to go along for the ride, however brief, and lose yourself inside other people’s moments.

To celebrate the English-language publication of Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, we’re thrilled to share two excerpts with Omnivoracious readers: an exclusive audio version of the title story, read by none other than Ira Glass (squee!); and, after the jump, the full text of “What Animal Are You?”


"Suddenly, a Knock..." - read by Ira Glass

What Animal Are You?

(This story originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine.)

The sentences I’m writing now are for the benefit of German Public Television viewers. A reporter who came to my home today asked me to write something on the computer because it always makes for great visuals: an author writing. It’s a cliché, she realizes that, but clichés are nothing but an unsexy version of the truth, and her role, as a reporter, is to turn that truth into something sexy, to break the cliché with lighting and unusual angles. And the light in my house falls perfectly, without her having to turn on even a single spot, so all that’s left is for me to write.

At first, I just made believe I was writing, but she said it wouldn’t work. People would be able to tell right away that I was just pretending. “Write something for real,” she demanded, and then, to be sure: “A story, not just a bunch of words. Write naturally, the way you always do.” I told her it wasn’t natural for me to be writing while I was having my picture taken for German Public Television, but she insisted. “So use it,” she said. “Write a story about just that—about how unnatural it seems and how the unnaturalness suddenly produces something real, filled with passion. Something that permeates you, from your brain to your loins. Or the other way around. I don’t know how it works with you, what part of your body gets the creative juices flowing. Each person is different.” She told me how she’d once interviewed a Belgian author who, every time he wrote, had an erection. Something about the writing “stiffened his organ”—that’s the expression she used. It was probably a literal translation from German, and it sounded very strange in English.

“Write,” she insisted again. “Great. I love your terrible posture when you write, the cramped neck. It’s just wonderful. Keep writing. Excellent. That’s it. Naturally. Don’t mind me. Forget I’m here.”

So I go on writing, not minding her, forgetting she’s there, and I’m natural. As natural as I can be. I have a score to settle with the viewers of German Public Television but this isn’t the time to settle it. This is the time to write. To write things that will appeal, because when you write crap, she’s already reminded me, it comes out terrible on camera.

My son returns from kindergarten. He runs up to me and hugs me. Whenever there’s a television crew in the house, he hugs me. When he was younger, the reporters had to ask him to do it, but by now, he’s a pro: runs up to me, doesn’t look at the camera, gives me a hug, and says, “I love you, Daddy.” He isn’t four yet, but he already understands how things work, this adorable son of mine.

My wife isn’t as good, the German Television reporter says. She doesn’t flow. Keeps fiddling with her hair, stealing glances at the camera. But that isn’t really a problem. You can always edit her out later. That’s what’s so nice about television. In real life it isn’t like that. In real life you can’t edit her out, undo her. Only God can do that, or a bus, if it runs her over. Or a terrible disease. Our upstairs neighbor is a widower. An incurable disease took his wife from him. Not cancer, something else. Something that starts in the guts and ends badly. For six months she was shitting blood. At least that’s what he told me. Six months before God Almighty edited her out. Ever since she died, all kinds of women keep visiting our building, wearing high heels and cheap perfume. They arrive at unlikely hours, sometimes as early as noon. He’s retired, our upstairs neighbor, and his time is his own. And those women, according to my wife at least, they’re whores. When she says “whores” it comes out natural, like she was saying “turnip.” But when she’s being filmed, it doesn’t. Nobody’s perfect.

My son loves the whores who visit our upstairs neighbor. “What animal are you?” he asks them when he bumps into them on the stairs. “Today I’m a mouse, a quick and slippery mouse.” And they get it right away, and throw out the name of an animal: an elephant, a bear, a butterfly. Each whore and her animal. It’s strange, because with other people, when he asks them about the animals, they simply don’t catch on. But the whores just go along with it.

Which gets me thinking that the next time a television crew arrives I’ll bring one of them instead of my wife, and that way it’ll be more natural. They look great. Cheap, but great. And my son gets along better with them too. When he asks my wife what animal she is, she always insists: “I’m not an animal, sweetie, I’m a person. I’m your mommy.” And then he always starts to cry.

Why can’t she just go with the flow, my wife? Why is it so easy for her to call women with cheap perfume “whores” but when it comes to telling a little boy “I’m a giraffe” it’s more than she can handle? It really gets on my nerves. Makes me want to hit someone. Not her. Her I love. But someone. To take out my frustrations on someone who has it coming. Right-wingers can take it out on Arabs. Racists on blacks. But those of us who belong to the liberal left are trapped. We’ve boxed ourselves in. We have nobody to take it out on. “Don’t call them whores,” I rail at my wife. “You don’t know for a fact that they’re whores, do you? You’ve never seen anyone pay them or anything, so don’t call them that, okay? How would you feel if someone called you a whore?”

 “Great,” the German reporter says. “I love it. The crease in your forehead. The frenzied keystrokes. Now all we need are an intercut with translations of your books in different languages, so our viewers can tell how successful you are—and that hug from your son one more time. The first time he ran up to you so quickly that Jörg, our cameraman, didn’t have a chance to change the focus.” My wife wants to know if the German reporter needs her to hug me again too, and in my heart I pray she’ll say yes. I’d really love my wife to hug me again, her smooth arms tightening around me, as if there’s nothing else in the world but us. “No need,” the German says in an icy voice. “We’ve got that already.” “What animal are you?” my son asks the German, and I quickly translate into English. “I’m not an animal,” she laughs, running her long fingernails through his hair. “I’m a monster. A monster that came from across the ocean to eat pretty little children like you.” “She says she’s a songbird,” I translate to my son with impeccable naturalness. “She says she’s a red-feathered songbird, who flew here from a faraway land.”

"What Animal Are You?" is an excerpt from Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Etgar Keret. Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger. English language translation copyright © 2011 by Etgar Keret.

Exclusive Q&A with Carl Hiaasen on "Chomp" for Middle Graders

Carl Hiaasen was one of the first best-selling adult authors to also start writing for kids. In fact, his debut book for middle graders, Hoot, won a Newbery Honor in 2003—not bad for your first time out! As I learned in my Q&A with Hiaasen below, Hoot was intended to be a one-time thing, but writing for kids was fun and, lucky for us, Hiaasen has continued to bring his trademark humor and gift for storytelling to a middle grade audience.  His fourth book for young readers, which comes out today, is Chomp

In Chomp, a somewhat erratic wild animal wrangler and his son, Wahoo--named for the wrestler, not the fish--find themselves in the middle of the Everglades with a reality T.V. survivalist who prefers a cushy hotel room to actual wilderness, but still thinks he can wrestle an alligator.  Thankfully, Wahoo is up to the challenge of wrangling a T.V prima donna, helping a damsel in distress, and solving a mystery. Laugh-filled adventures, interesting characters, and a story I didn't want to end, make Chomp one of my favorite new books to recommend for middle grade readers. I sent Hiaasen some questions via email and he sent me back some answers--you can read our exclusive Q&A below, or find it here. -- Seira

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Media Monday


The New York Times

  • The New York Times describes Jeanette Winterson's new memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as "unconventional and winning," and a book that "wrings humor from adversity." The book is primarily about Winterson's relationship with her adoptive mother (who first uttered the title of this memoir), a woman whose size, fundamentalism, and derangement make her seem like a character out of fiction. Kathryn Harrison of the Times writes, "It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. 'The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,' Winterson observes."

  • One could argue that Sylvie Brownrigg buries the lede in her review of Carol Anshaw's novel Carry the One. The last sentence of the review compares the novel to the work of Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields, stating that both authors "give readers the reward of paying close, forgiving attention to ordinary people as they illuminate flawed, likable characters with sympathy and truth." That's heavy praise. In Carry the One a group of friends at a wedding leaves together at 3am, only to have the driver of their vehicle strike and kill a ten-year-old girl. Then we follow these characters, Shields-like, through the rises and falls of their lives. But even if Anshaw treats her story with humor and humanism, can it really be as good as Shields? Brownrigg seeks to answer that question in the opening sentence of the review (so maybe she doesn't bury the lede) when she writes, "A very good book is not only more satisfying, memorable and coherent than its lesser neighbors on the shelves. It’s also more relaxing to read." True. And then a little later: "This writer knows exactly what she’s doing. She won’t let you down."


    Peter Behrens took on a tough task when he decided to write The O'Briens, "a family saga spanning roughly 70 years," which "follows four generations of an Irish family from the wilds of Quebec at the turn of the 20th century through British Columbia, California, New York, Montreal, Europe and finally to Maine in the 1960s." Reviewer John Vernon points out that such novels do best to set their characters' actions against the greater backdrop of history. "The best family sagas follow the slow-motion explosion of genes into successive generations but also set their stories against historical change, revealing its power to erode even the strongest characters." In this case, it's World War II, which "hovers in this novel’s path like flak and rips the lives of the novel’s characters to shreds. The last hundred pages are a powerful evocation of that war’s effect." For this alone, Vernon writes, The O'Briens is "a major accomplishment."

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Philip Athans on Building Immersive Sci-Fi & Fantasy Worlds

Special Announcement: Susan J. Morris (Writers Don’t Cry columnist) Philip Athans will both be appearing at Emerald City Comicon in Seattle, WA, on March 30th. Meet the authors as Susan discusses the secrets behind creating killer villains for games and books, and Philip discusses the ins and outs of the publishing business! Details at the end of this column.

WritersdontcryWorldbuildingBooks are more than stories—they are whole worlds. Absorptive, transportive, and filled with all the quirks, grit, and breath-taking wonders that make the magic feel oh so real. The Lord of the Rings movies brought J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to life in ways that had never been seen before, and we were enraptured, practicing our sword play and learning the languages of the elves—just in case. Harry Potter inspired a whole theme park where some people go again and again, just to have the feeling of being in that magical world once more. And Avatar’s Pandora was so beautiful and resonant that people actually cried at the end of the movie when they realized it wasn’t real. That they couldn’t live there.

That is the power of a well-built world.

Of course, the work required to build a world with such strong immersive properties is no small task—and it’s particularly intimidating when you’re facing the blank page of your book or outline. I mean, there’s a whole world at stake here—where do you even start? How do you know what decisions will make or break your sci-fi or fantasy world?

AthansPhotoFortunately, I was able to get a hold of New York Times best-selling author and editor Philip Athans, who has more than a little experience designing and maintaining worlds. A professional world-builder at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, Philip also had a hand in maintaining The Forgotten Realms shared world for many years, creating the Fathomless Abyss world, and co-creating the shared world Arron of the Black Forest. A veteran on both sides of the red pen, Philip is ideally suited to help guide authors through creating their own rich, immersive fantasy and sci-fi worlds.


Susan: World building is such an intimidating concept. Why is it so important for fantasy and science fiction writers to establish a world for their stories? Can’t they just make it all up as they go along?

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Graphic Novel Friday: Avengers: The Children's Crusade

When I began the newly published Avengers: The Children’s Crusade collection, I did not expect it to be one of the best superhero comics so far in 2012. For one, I’m not a huge Avengers fan. Yes, I’m thrilled at what I’ve seen so far of Joss Whedon’s directorial adaptation set to release in May, but the team (comprised of Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man) always seemed too goody-two-shoes for me. Secondly, Children’s Crusade stars what I thought to be glorified side-kicks, the Young Avengers.

Let me tell you, Omni readers: I was wrong.

Children’s Crusade turns the Young Avengers into a must-read team; it picks up long lost threads from Avengers Disassembled and House of M and resolves them with aplomb; it makes me care where the regular Avengers team goes from here; it features an extended guest appearance by X-Factor, still the best X-Men team on the stands; it turns Doctor Doom, often a one-note villain, into an at once sympathetic and hated character. The book does far more than this, but I cannot say too much more without spoiling all the great plots and subplots that writer Allan Heinberg (screenwriter for Gilmore Girls, among other notable television shows) effortlessly weaves to a satisfying close by the oversized hardcover’s end.

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Q & A with Mark Bittman, author of "How to Cook Everything The Basics"


When it comes to food, Mark Bittman is the best of both worlds: a populist who just wants to teach you how to cook well, and an elitist of sorts (or at least a theoretician) who takes the idea of food very seriously. His latest book How to Cook Everything The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food -- With 1,000 Photos came out on March 13th. Here's a conversation with Mark Bittman, followed by a few recipes. Enjoy!

It’s been ten years since How to Cook Everything came out. How has your approach to thinking about food and writing cookbooks changed since then?
It's actually been almost 14 years since the first edition, which I can hardly believe myself. For me, there's a big difference between how I think about "food" and how I approach writing cookbooks. In fact, the way I write cookbooks has barely changed: I try to write simple, straightforward recipes that encourage people to cook rather than wow or intimidate them. These are cookbooks for people who cook or want to learn how to cook. In terms of thinking about food, see the next question.

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Six Sweet Reads for March Madness

-- by Reed Tucker and Andy Bagwell, authors of Duke Sucks!

51nbFARCquL._BO2,204,203,20035,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_March Madness is finally here, and depending on how much free time you have between your gambling and the fake calling in sick to work so you can watch the games, you might want to pick up a book or two on roundball. It’s a subject near and dear to our hearts, because we both graduated from the University of North Carolina, where a passion for basketball is forced into you by a series of dubiously ethical injections at the student health services freshman year.

We also wrote a new book on our own little corner of the basketball world. It’s called Duke Sucks: A Completely Evenhanded, Unbiased Investigation into the Most Evil Team on Planet Earth, and it tries to answer a question we find utterly fascinating: Why do so many bball fans in so many parts of the country overwhelmingly dislike Duke? Pick it up, if you’re so inclined. In the meantime, here are a few of our favorite basketball books to read this March -- or any time.

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