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March 2013

Amazon Asks: Leigh Newman, on Guns, Grizzlies, and Alaska

LeighWriting about her Alaskan childhood wasn't something Leigh Newman had intended. Not until the novel she'd been working on fell apart. "It was a flop novel," she said, and ultimately not fixable.

In something of a panic, she decided to try to craft a narrative about her adventurous, outdoorsy and difficult childhood, to recreate some of the stories she'd tell friends, the ones that would always elicit "you should write about that" responses. But it took that failed novel for her to finally feel ready to revisit those youthful days of soaring across Alaska in her dad's float plane, of remote camping, fly fishing, and hunting. And to write about her parents' divorce, which led to a back-and-forth, half-and-half life: private school in Baltimore with mom; summers and Christmas in Alaska with dad.

"Once I started writing, I couldn't stop," Newman said by phone. "So I knew I was on the right path." She also wrote a fantastic Modern Love column for the New York Times, about duck hunting with her father and husband, the response to which nearly crashed her Blackberry, "And I thought, 'Okay, now I have a book'."

The result, Still Points North--an Amazon biography & memoir Best Books of the Month pick for March--is a beautifully told tale of a gangly little girl who grows up with Jack London as a dad, confronting grizzles and gutting fish and, more than once, nearly drowning. "I grew up with the mistaken assumption that I'd grown up like everyone else," Newman said.

Still Points North is also a clear-eyed look at a broken family, at two people who should not have been together but who managed to provide their daughter with a lush, two-part life: wild and outdoorsy, bookish and refined. Newman ultimately makes peace with some of the previously unresolved details of her parents' split. And despite some rough times, she's grown to appreciate the many wonderful moments she experienced throughout her wildly unconventional childhood.

I asked Newman (who, as deputy editor for, knows a thing or two about books) a few questions about her book, what she's reading now, books that have influenced her life, and more.

Still-poitnsWhat's the elevator pitch for your book?

A love letter to an Alaskan childhood. Also known as: how to surviving grizzlies, stalling planes, raging rapids and a courageous eccentric family that couldn’t quite keep it together.

Describe your book in one sentence? Or two?

Doing stuff on your own is very Alaskan. Doing life all on your own is exhausting… and not very fun.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Godforsaken Idaho by Shawn Vestal.

Favorite 3 books?

As I Lay Dying (Faulkner). Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller). Little House In The Big Woods (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Important book you never read?

Don Quxiote.

Book that changed your life?

A Portrait of A Lady. A woman who choose the wrong life, despite all her freedom.

Book that made you want to become a writer?

Hamlet. I read it really young, on accident. I didn’t what the hell it was. But I liked the sound of it.

LeighFavorite books as a child?

Red Tag Comes Back by Fred Phelger. It’s a story about a salmon. My dad read it to me just about every night.

What's your most memorable author moment?

Having everyone in the world think that the child on the cover of my book was not me at age six, but my six-year-old son.

What talent or superpower would you like to have?

The ability to read the instruction manuals with that come with Blu Ray players.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

A letter from a woman convinced we had gone to summer camp together in the Alaskan wilderness in 1969, before I was born. She described my camo pants, our work detail felling trees and building roads. I liked her so much I thought I was there.

Favorite line?

“Surviving isn’t living and once you’ve brushed up against the two conditions, you can’t pretend it’s not a choice either way.”

What's next for you?

A dog. Leonard, my old friend, died last year. And it’s time to get another big, stinky, shedding, not-very-potty-trained animal in my life.


Finally, I asked Newman about the book's title, which is clearly a commentary on the continued pull of the 49th state on her life. "Still points north" comes from an unpublished poem by Elizabeth Bishop about her longing for the home she left in Nova Scotia.

Dear, my compass
still points north
to wooden houses
and blue eyes,
fairy-tales where
younger sons
bring home the goose

2012 Philip K. Dick Award Finalists Weigh in on PKD and the Competition

The nominees for the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award were announced recently. The award is presented annually to a distinguished work of science fiction published in paperback original format.
  • Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot (Black Cat)
  • Harmony by Keith Brooke (Solaris)
  • Helix Wars by Eric Brown (Solaris)
  • The Not Yet by Moira Crone (UNO)
  • Fountain of Age by Nancy Kress (Small Beer)
  • LoveStar by Andri Snær Magnason (Seven Stories; translated by Victoria Cribb)
  • Lost Everything by Brian Francis Slattery (Tor)

    The winner will be revealed tonight -- Friday, March 29 -- at Norwescon in Seattle. But before that happens, while the finalists are all in that space between, we thought we’d check in with them and get their thoughts on the award's namesake as well as their knowledge of the other nominees... Do you like Philip K. Dick's work, and can you share what's personal about being nominated for this particular award?

    Ryan Boudinot: I have enjoyed Philip K Dick's work, yes. I read a bunch of his short stories in college, then in recent years discovered his excellent novel VALIS. I admire his imagination a great deal and have found the work of his I've read to be incredibly daring.

    Keith Brooke: Yes, I'm a big admirer of his work. I have particularly fond memories of reading his novels in my teens. Books like a A Scanner, Darkly and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch made a huge impression: relentlessly readable but also a lot going on behind the scenes—I liked that I was reading something that stretched my mind as well as entertaining it. My YA novel Erased (published under the pen-name Nick Gifford) was a deliberate attempt to do a very Dickian thing: establish the reader's trust in a
    world and then peel that away a layer at a time with repeated
    rug-pull moments where the reader must reassess everything they thought they knew.

    Eric Brown: I love Dick's work. (I wrote the Penguin Classic edition's Introduction to his fantastic The Man in the High Castle). I like the way he writes about real people; how his heroes aren't super-heroes but people like you and me, with problems, weaknesses, hopes and desires. He's an amazing writer even if you consider merely his characterization. 

    On top of that there is what his novels are about: perceptions of reality and what it is to be human—and the fact that he was writing, particularly early in his career, when sci-fi wasn't about these things. He's a hero. The PKD award is nice in that it celebrates where he came from—the paperback original, the grunge end of the market. I like that.

    Moira Crone: I do like Philip K Dick's work. I think he is one of the writers who will be read the most in the future, because explores the shifting understanding we have about reality now, in the Quantum era. He is before his time, he got it. The observer influences what he observes. We are catching up now with the questions he was asking. I would say the same about Ursula K. Le Guin, whose Left Hand of Darkness predicted the entire challenge of the fluidity of gender roles, fifty years before it was in the mainstream consciousness.

    What is personal about this for me is that I have never written in this genre before and I had a lot of questions in the beginning about being accepted -- and many potential publishers were wary of this switch for me because they did not know how to market a sci-fi book. But I have found that sci-fi readers have embraced the book, and are incredibly enthusiastic and excited to talk to me about what I created and the worlds that other writers have engendered. 

    I am a total "newbie" in this world, and yet I got this far. Another thing that is personal is that I am being read by an entirely new generation than before, and I really love the energy of my new readers; they make me want to write in the genre more, to go for the sequel. Writing this sort of book in this age is very enjoyable, because you can have so much interchange with your readers.

    Nancy Kress: I first read Dick's The Man in the High Castle when it came out in 1962. I was fourteen, had just discovered sci-fi, and was baffled. This was such a strange book! I lacked sufficient knowledge of history to fully understand the changes that he was creating, but I was intrigued. And that is still the effect his work has on me: intrigue, occasional bafflement, and an enduring sense of the strange.

    Andri Magnason: I would say that his early influence on me was mainly through films and ideas floating around and discussed by friends. My early influence was by reading too much folklore, poetry and mythology while reading science and trying med school. Other writers include Karel Capek, Bulgakov, Calvino, Borges, Vonnegut and Orwell, and Icelandic writers and poets. Brautigan had quite an influence on LoveStar. I was kind of imagining a world before [his novel] In Watermelon Sugar when I started writing, but that changed so much that I would not call it a prequel.

    The nomination is very important, almost like an Olympic gold to me. I was a bit worried, looking over the endless pile of sci-fi, wondering what the real geeks would say about my book. I was not quite following the formula and genre rules that seemed to be dominating the scene. I wondered if my book lacked vampires or zombies or six volumes. I was also wondering if someone had already written my book without my knowledge. 

    Most importantly is that now I know that you can write some kind of sci-fi in a 1,000-year-old Viking language only spoken by 300,000 people and still be taken seriously and manage to connect to an audience in the large world (with the help of Vicky, my great translator of course). If you don't win, who do you hope does win?

    Ryan Boudinot: I feel it's important to make the distinction that "I" have not been nominated for the award. My novel, Blueprints of the Afterlife has. I'll be genuinely happy for the author of whatever book is granted this award.

    Keith Brooke: Oh, Eric Brown, without a doubt. We've been friends for years, and we've written a bunch of stories together (a new edition of our collaborative collection, Parallax View, is just out in paperback and e-book formats). Beyond the friendship, though, he's a superb writer and really deserves the attention.

    Eric Brown: I hope Keith Brooke wins, period. His novel alt.human [as it's titled in the U.K.] -- Harmony in the States -- is better than my Helix Wars, and Keith deserves the award. He's a good friend and I was privileged to be among the first readers of the manuscript. If neither of us wins, then I hope Nancy Kress does. I haven't actually read her book, but I've read quite a bit of her work and admire it tremendously.

    Moira Crone: Of course I would want to win. I won't say who I like the best—I have only read about half the other nominees. I think that LoveStar and Lost Everything have very fine writing in them and I have found them wonderful. But I have not read Blueprints, yet, and some of the others. The range is exciting and all of them seem completely accessible to someone like me, who has read in sci fi but certainly not the whole genre. 

    Nancy Kress: I won't say who I think should win the award because I haven't read all the nominees, so it wouldn't be fair.

    Andri Magnason: I have been reading Blueprints of the Afterlife the recent weeks and it is a very inspiring great book, kind of the type of books I tend to seek and find very rarely. It seems like the jury is open to experimental things and I appreciate that. So, I am quite honored to be nominated along with that book. I am currently catching up on the other books, as I have just finished a deadline for my next book. Can you give us a favorite teaser of a sentence from your nominated novel?

    Ryan Boudinot: "The world was full of precious garbage."

    Keith Brooke: "I opened my mouth to speak, to ask him what was going on, for I was suddenly sure that he understood far more than me, but then Pennysway began to unhappen."

    Eric Brown: "After the row with Maria, which left him feeling sick and wishing he could retroactively edit his words, Ellis strapped himself into the shuttle’s couch and prepared to take off from Carrelliville spaceport."

    Moira Crone: "Now dear boy, so far, you have been very brave."

    Nancy Kress: My nominated work is a collection of stories. This opening paragraph is from the eponymous story: "I had her in a ring. In those days you carried around pieces of a person. Not like today."

    Andri Magnason: From the manifesto of LoveStar, the CEO of the LoveStar corporation..."To be content with having had an idea is like being content with having once had an orgasm, being content with having once eaten or drunk."

  • Archer & Armstrong: Heroes, Humor, and History

    As part of its relaunch, Valiant Comics is making a bid for “Call It a Comeback” publisher. In the 1990s, Valiant was very much a part of the comics boom, launching independent characters in the marketplace to great fan adoption. Like many of its contemporaries, however, Valiant suffered once the initial superhero bubble burst. But that was 20 years ago, and the market is a much different place, rife with opportunity and nostalgia. Enter Valiant Comics, again, with several throwback titles reborn into sophisticated packages.

    One such title is the winning Archer & Armstrong, by writer Fred Van Lente and artist Clayton Henry. Fans of historical conspiracies and buddy-cop stories will love this one. Young Obadiah Archer is in search of his possibly immortal enemy, Armstrong, an ancient Mesopotamian who tried in vain to stop a prophetic Armageddon. The comic jumps from historical flashbacks to contemporary chase scenes. Archer’s duties stem from a Biblically focused upbringing, and he leaves his tutors (all creepy eyes and smiles) with a singular purpose: destroy Armstrong. When he finds his archenemy, however, he sees an intoxicated cad, and before Archer can fulfill his purpose the two of them are captured by an order of nefarious zealots. Their true schemes shake Archer’s resolve, and—naturally—Armstrong helps him escape. Readers can see where this is going: the two grudgingly band together to thwart the true evil, but it’s the journey that makes the book so rewarding.

    Van Lente writes punchy, ever-quipping dialogue as Archer and Armstrong banter between fisticuffs. Yes, there are a few anachronistic moments, where contemporary phrasing pops up in the historical flashbacks, but the book is full of punchy jokes and clever twists. Look for Van Lente’s narrative boxes whenever Archer uses a new martial art or technique, or when Archer focuses on a particular weak point of his assailants—both informative and funny. Henry’s artwork is the book’s highpoint—his sharp lines, wide-open faces, and expertly choreographed fight scenes turn this story into one that is beautifully told. I’ve been following his work since Exiles, and he’s at his best in Archer & Armstrong.

    After this arc, Henry departs the book, but fans need not fear: Emanuela Lupacchino will handle pencils in the second volume (due in August), and she brings beautiful character designs, fluid action, and amusing facial expressions to her projects (see also Castle and X-Factor). 

    You can’t go home again? Nonsense. Archer & Armstrong revisits a fan-favorite duo and gives them new life.


    Drinks with Teddy Wayne, Author of "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine"


    A new interview series in which Amazon Editors meet authors at their favorite bars

    The bar Angel's Share is hard to find. But hidden behind an unmarked door on the second floor of an unassuming sushi restaurant in the East Village is an elegant bar with a few cozy, dark-wood booths and a long menu of delicious specialty cocktails.

    This was the bar that Teddy Wayne picked. He's the author of the novels Kapitoil and, most recently, The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, which is a fictionalized take on the life of a pop star who closely resembles teen heartthrob Justin Bieber.

    Over cocktails, I spoke with Wayne about the bar, Jonny Valentine, and the future of Justin Bieber.

    Why did you pick this bar?

    I've come here a lot over the years, sporadically. It has a really beautiful interior, the environment is carefully controlled and cultivated, and as I get older, I like loud places less and less and appreciate quiet atmospheres where you can actually talk. And there's no obnoxious noises or behavior around you. It appeals to me as I age, which is a good or bad sign.

    Also the drinks are incredible--creative confections that are mixtures of strange and unique ingredients that are always delicious.

    So what are you drinking?

    It's called the Old Folks. It's a whiskey with a dusting of some kind of dry molasses, something on the rim, and some other stuff that's very tasty.

    What inspired The Love Song of Jonny Valentine?

    There's a direct inspiration: I used to tutor kids after school once a week, and in the fall of 2010, I saw a girl I was tutoring reading Miley Cyrus's book, Miles To Go, which is sold by Amazon. It's mostly pictures with a couple sentences per page. A friend a week later asked me, "Do you have an idea for a humor book we could collaborate on together?" And I suggested parodying Miles To Go or a similar a pop-star biography. Soon after I said that, I realized that this might make an interesting novel.

    So, I started writing it as a novel. [My friend and I] abandoned the parody idea, but I kept on writing. And six months later, I was finishing the first draft.

    So, why did you decide to do Justin Bieber instead of Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. Is Justin Bieber special?

    Continue reading "Drinks with Teddy Wayne, Author of "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine"" »

    “Seeing My First Novel out in the World Was a Shock," but Not to My Mother

    51J7VGTbKQL._BO2,204,203,20035,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_When we placed Edward Kelsey Moore's debut novel on March's Best Books of the Month list, Amazon Editor Mari Malcolm described the book as having many of the same "winning qualities" as The Help and Steel Magnolias, calling it "an utterly charming, often hilarious tribute to friendships." Readers seem to agree, as the book debuted on the New York Times best seller list this week.

    What has the debut experience been like for the author? He tells us below.


    The first time I held a copy of my novel THE SUPREMES AT EARL’S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT in my hands I couldn’t bring myself to set it down. The morning that the book arrived by overnight mail, I walked through the house, placing it on different surfaces. I had to see it in every room to prove to myself that it really existed. Even though the book had lived in my mind for years by then, actually seeing my first novel out in the world was a shock.

    My mother doesn’t feel any such sense of wonder. Mom says, “I’m not surprised at all. It’s just an extension of your talking.  You know how you are. Since you were a baby, you never wanted to shut up.” My mother is also one of the few people in my life who wasn’t surprised when, after decades as a musician, I became a writer. She says, “I knew you’d get to it eventually. It’s always about the words with you.”  Preacher’s wife that she is, my mother also takes the time to remind me that divine intervention is at work with all things at all times. “You know where all these blessings come from, don’t you?” she often asks me.

    I’ve spoken often about how much THE SUPREMES AT EARL’S ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT owes to the all-female after-dinner chats I eavesdropped on when I was a child. Mom was a central participant in those conversations and the novel’s publication has meant an opportunity to talk with her about those women, many of whom have passed away.

    My mother says, “Auntie would be so proud,” speaking about my great-aunt Oleytha, the best storyteller I’ve ever known. Family lore states that when I was six months old, Auntie astonished my mother and amused herself by getting me to repeat simple words at her prompting, beginning a back and forth between us that would go on for decades. A highlight of my youth was hearing my great-aunt Oleytha recap the funerals she attended as a Christian duty and for entertainment value. Anyone fortunate enough to hear Auntie offer a review of a funeral that didn’t live up to her rigorous standards would feel inspired to produce at least a short story in her honor. My mother also insists that her sister Nanny would have loved the book. That’s a safe bet because Aunt Nanny, one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, found a way to squeeze joy out of any situation. Talking to my mother, I am reminded of Aunt Nanny’s early passing, but also of how she spent her final days being so incredibly funny that doctors and nurses came to see her, a dying woman, in order to be cheered up.

    In the short time since THE SUPREMES was released, I’ve heard from some of the others who sit around the table after Moore family meals. They are all less surprised than I am that I’ve become a published author. They remind me that I was a kid who always had something to say, and then they offer stories to back that up.

    Check out my website ( and let’s keep talking.


    Edward Kelsey Moore

    March 2013

    Sam Lipsyte Visits Seattle


    Sam Lipsyte is a writer who has been called "a literary rock star" and "a mordant jokester with a madman's imagination." And that was just in one sentence.

    If you are unfamiliar with Lipsyte's work, Janet Maslin's recent New York Times review of his short story collection The Fun Parts would be a good place to start. She summarizes the humor, wisdom, empathy, and strangeness that defines his work; and she ends her review with the above-mentioned effusive sentence.

    The Amazon editors fall decidedly in the Maslin camp. We'd already picked The Fun Parts as a March Best Book of the Month in Literature & Fiction when we learned that Sam Lipsyte was coming to Seattle, and we jumped on the chance to have lunch with him. We found him to be laid back and friendly (see accompanying post-lunch photo--Sam is wearing his Seattle plaid), the kind of guy who drops knowledge and jokes the way the Easter bunny drops colored eggs.

    SamlipsyteWhen you're talking to an author whose work has appeared in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and when that author also teaches Creative Writing at Columbia, the tendency is to ask him a lot of questions about writing. One of the questions we asked was how Lipsyte's approach to writing has changed over the years. In response, he described a scene that might be familiar to some of you writers out there: in the beginning, he said, before he had kids and a teaching gig, he would wake up and drink a lot of coffee in order to get fired up to write; but then he would drink too much coffee and enter what a friend of his calls "the jo-hole," after which he'd have to take a nap to calm down, followed by waking up again, drinking more coffee, and getting four or five hours of writing done in the late afternoon or early evening.

    A follow-up question was asked about how he approached writing now that his life was significantly more complicated. "I write when I can find time," Lipsyte said. Then he explained that a teacher of his had once stressed the importance of "checking in" with one's work every day, even if it was only for twenty minutes.

    For more on Sam Lipsyte, see here and here.

    Julia Glass on Mary Beth Keane

    How I Almost Missed Out on a New Favorite Author

    I did not deliberately choose to read Mary Beth Keane's first novel, The Walking People. It came to me in a blizzard of books I read as one of three judges for a literary prize back in 2010. I took my responsibility seriously, even primly; one thing that worried me was how strongly my personal biases would influence my choices. 

    Just then, I happened to be weary of immigrant stories in general, nor did it help that I had recently, belatedly, read the incomparable Angela's Ashes

    But I had vowed to read at least 50 pages of every book I was to judge, so I took The Walking People with me on an overnight trip I made alone, to give a talk. That night, I went to bed without reading, exhausted; in the morning, I decided to hang out with the dreaded book until 9 a.m. or so, just to avoid rush-hour traffic. Sighing, I opened it. When I next looked up at the clock, it was 11:15, past checkout time. I had lost not only my connection to real time but very nearly an extra night in hotel fees.

    I drove home, stashed my suitcase, and plunged back into the book. Every so often I'd flip to the end and look at the author's photo. How on earth did this fresh-faced young woman—from my middle-aged perspective, this girl—know so damn much about so many things? I'll skip all the exquisite historic and cultural details of that novel. What Mary Beth Keane knows best, and most remarkably, is how the human heart grows, changes, and endures. She seems to know intimately every stage of life, from childhood through sexual awakening, through long marriages and parenthood, through working lives filled with compromise, through the mental dwindlings of old age.

    Out of more than a hundred accomplished books, I and my fellow judges named The Walking People one of the top five contenders for the PEN/Hemingway Prize. At the ceremony, I met Mary Beth, and I asked what her next act would be. Later, I paused to wonder: Wait. Did she really say, "A novel about Typhoid Mary"? (Okay, so maybe my hearing is starting to go. The room was awfully crowded.)

    Last year, finally, I read Fever. And you might say I read it in a fever -- the fever of emotional suspense that makes all the best books so essential. Does it involve Irish immigrants? Yes. Did I give a hoot? No. Mary Mallon is a show-stopping, strong-willed, heartbreaking heroine, and the New York in which she lived a hundred years ago comes stunningly alive as the backdrop for the story of her long and rich but star-crossed life.

    Here's something I know firsthand: second novels that follow prizewinning firsts are tough. They're tough to write, tough to send out into the world. But Fever is even more ambitious, beguiling, and moving than The Walking People. Mary Beth has outdone herself. And now, of course, I have to find out what in the world she'll conjure up next. This time I'll trust my hearing. Already I can't wait to read it.

    Amy Stewart and Brad Thomas Parsons on the History and Future of Botanical Mixology

    Drunken-Botanist-CoverAmy Stewart has a knack for making plants utterly fascinating, and The Drunken Botanist--one of our Top 10 Editors’ Picks for the Best Books of the Month--takes her trademark blend of scientific sleuthery and intriguing anecdote to intoxicating heights. This brisk tour of the origin of spirits acquaints curious lovers of spirits with every conceivable cocktail ingredient, from classic to esoteric. Stewart talked with Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, winner of 2012 James Beard and IACP Cookbook Awards--and an Amazon Best Book of the Year pick--about the medicinal roots of cocktails, the importance of great ingredients (in the booze and in the glass), and the pleasures of testing cocktail recipes.

    AMY: Brad, what strikes me about your book on bitters is the close connection between medicine and cocktails. So many bitters started out as straight pharmaceutical formulations, back in the day when the only medicines we had were plants. You and I both know that it's a bit of a stretch to call a cocktail a health drink, but do you get a lot of people asking you asking you if the bitters they're drinking are actually good for them?

    BTP: Many of the individual botanicals used to make bitters have their own purported benefits for health and well-being, but remember these medicinal plants people were consuming as a patent medicine were often composed of over 50% alcohol, with claims to cure everything from headaches, rheumatism, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea to malaria. That's my kind of medicine! I do stand by a tall glass of bitters and soda as a most effective restorative after a rich meal. Trust me, it works. And a sugar-dusted lemon wedge soaked in Angostura bitters can cure hiccups. That's a promise.

    I loved when you wrote in The Drunken Botanist, "It would be impossible to describe every plant that has ever flavored an alcoholic beverage. I am certain that at this very moment, a craft distiller in Brooklyn is plucking weed from a crack in the sidewalk and wondering if it would make a good flavoring for a new line of bitters." As a bitters enthusiast who lives in Brooklyn, I have indeed encountered some unexpected housemade bitters, tinctures, and infusions. What's the most bizarre botanical-based spirit you've come across in your travels and research?

    AMY: Well, all spirits are botanical-based, which is really my point--with very few exceptions, everything in every bottle is a plant. (Those exceptions, by the way, would include milk, which has just enough fermentable sugar for Mongolians to make fermented mare's milk and for a distillery in Vermont to make milk-distilled vodka).

    But among the more bizarre botanical ingredients? I'd have to name sundew, a tiny carnivorous plant that was part of the original recipe for rosolio. Nowdays the term "rosolio" is applied to any number of homemade mixtures of wine, brandy, fruit, and spices, but in the fifteenth century, you were actually expected to pick the bugs off some carnivorous bog plants and add those to the brew.

    So here's something I'm wondering about. I have this theory that distillers who make such a big deal about their secret recipes are a little behind the times. It seems like the trend right now is towards greater transparency about the botanicals in the bottle. People actually want to celebrate ingredients and talk about what they are and where they come from. I know so many American gin, liqueur, and bitters makers who list all of their ingredients and really explain why they chose each one. Do you see the same thing? It's a real departure from the "Our secret recipe comes from King George, who gave it to his footman to thank him for saving his life" or whatever.

    Bitters-coverBTP: You're on point that calling out the botanicals and celebrating anything unique or locally sourced is becoming a way to make your product stand out. Bitters, too, have a long association with proprietary formulas, and it's even trickier as they're classified as a "non-beverage" alcohol product. While 45% alcohol, they're not intended to be consumed on their own, but applied in dashes and drops. Essentially, they're classified as a food product (which is why, depending what state you live in, you normally won't find them in liquor stores). There's a lot of small-batch bitters being sold that don't, in fact, list much about their ingredients at all. Bittermens Bitters, who used to be based out of Brooklyn but now call New Orleans home, set the bar for their bitters-making peers by establishing a Craft Bitters Alliance that helps educate bitters makers about the byzantine bylaws of the TTB and the FDA to encourage everyone to live up to the law and present their products in the best light possible. Certain botanicals must specifically be called out on the label, while others are allowed to be bundled under "spices." But it's more about the specificity of the source--like Seattle's Scrappy's Bitters highlighting their use of cocoa nibs from Seattle's Theo Chocolate in their chocolate bitters.

    Continue reading "Amy Stewart and Brad Thomas Parsons on the History and Future of Botanical Mixology" »

    Why Zombies? A Defense of the Z Word

    When it comes to zombies, I will not apologize.

    In darker, future times, that statement might take on a different, more ominous meaning. For now I simply mean that I won't apologize for my cultural obsession with zombies, the stacks of books and movies about them that clutter my home, that this is my third time in three months writing on the subject here, or that this probably won't be the last time I do so. Allow me to explain why.

    Vampires vs. Zombies - or How the Zombie (Fan) is Misunderstood

    Beyond the built-in genre-based bias from which all horror typically suffers, zombies have developed a reductive reputation –- one from which their horror cousins, vampires, seem immune.

    To state the obvious, vampires historically have been portrayed as cunning, mysterious, sexy creatures. They're cold-blooded killers, yet from the works of Polidori and Bram Stoker to Ann Rice and Stephanie Meyer, bloodsuckers have made the ladies' swoon.

    Zombies, by comparison, are typically portrayed as grunting, ravenous, simple creatures. That's fair. But those who don't watch these kinds of films or read these kinds of books seem to apply the creatures' traits to their fans. And that's not fair. "You've made a plan for the zombie apocalypse? How [eyeroll] cute." (We'll get back to that.) Non-fans merely see a barrage of violence resulting in lots and lots of splatter repeated from one story to the next. But to see no more than the gore is to miss what's really going on, on many levels.

    First and foremost, unlike vampires, zombies typically are not characters. They're part of the setting; they're often creatively concocted and masterfully manufactured (particularly in the visual sense), but they're nonetheless mere catalysts whose sole narrative purpose is to propel the real characters and the real plot. Once one accepts that basic but crucial premise, the value of the rest of the story can click.

    What Zombie Stories are Really About

    Credit where it's due, the modern zombie is actually a direct descendant of the vampire. Just as Bram Stoker is considered the godfather of the modern vampire, so film director George Romero established our basic understanding of and generally accepted "rules" for zombies. Romero, by his own admission, ripped off Richard Matheson's vampire novel I Am Legend. It always comes back to books!

    So what are these "rules"? There's the general stuff: how zombies are made, how they move, how to stop them. But again, it's not really about the zombies. Romero released the movie Night of the Living Dead in 1968, during the Vietnam War. In a way, every zombie story since has been, to some extent, a guiltless war story. Amid the zombie hordes, we follow the everyman hero as he faces an enemy that is beyond human and therefore beyond reason or redemption. Likewise these stories have been, like some of the greatest literature, social commentary -- a vehicle by which to confront our own ethics and morals. Just beyond the immediacy of a zombie attack lies the real threat: mankind. Even the more lighthearted and increasingly popular field of zombie romance forces us to consider: "When civilization as we know it ends, how do we hold onto our very humanity?"

    But those are just the narrative novels. Among the most popular (not to mention clever) zombie books on the market today are field guides and how-to manuals. Often these books are tagged as parody and are purchased as gag gifts. There's nothing wrong with having a laugh, but there's more to these books than you'd expect, as well.

    The Government is Ready: Are You?

    The debates between zombie fans can get heated, to put it mildly. They're like epic logic problems, infinite tautologies meant to solve the mystery of how to simply survive. And to a non-geek it can sound pretty silly. "You've made a plan for the zombie apocalypse? How [eyeroll] cute." But take a good look at the thought process and the preparation involved in deciding such things as whether to evacuate or stand your ground, what your weapon of choice is and what you'll need, bare minimum, to live after the fall, and the real-world applications are fairly impressive. 

    If you plan to evacuate, you'll know escape routes from your home in an emergency. If you plan to stay, you've figured out how to fortify your home (and you're probably saving a ton in utility bills as a result). If you've thought through how you'd take out a moaning, toothy brain-craver to the point that the baseball bat or katana is within arm's reach, you've also got an edge against that burglar downstairs. If you've got a backpack stashed with survival supplies, you won't be the pathetically empty-handed shopper who can't even find a flashlight for sale the day before a natural disaster hits.

    Scoff all you want, the U.S. government is on my side. The Director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, Dr. Ali Khan, is quoted on the organization's zombie preparedness site as saying "If you are generally well equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse you will be prepared for a hurricane, pandemic, earthquake, or terrorist attack."

    The Point of No Return

    At the time of this writing, spring has just begun. Another TV season of The Walking Dead is coming to an end. World War Z is on the cinematic horizon (not to mention R.I.P.D, Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D and The 4th Reich), a Zombieland pilot is on its way to Amazon, and it was only a month or so ago that Warm Bodies was hot at the box office, winning its opening weekend.

    The floodgates have been opened and there's no going back. Like vampires, zombies have permeated the mainstream. Relegating zombie stories to Halloween now would be as ridiculous (and almost as dangerous) as restricting chocolate eating to February.

    There's no longer a bad time to enjoy the undead in any medium and there are hundreds upon hundreds of zombie books available for readers of all different interests: survival guides, romance, parody, humor, drama and, of course, horror.

    If you're not a zombie fan and you've read this far, guess what: you're infected. We've collected a few of our favorite zombie stories in our Essential Zombie Books store. It'll help you to adapt to your new life.

    But if you're already like I am about zombies, then ... well, first of all, please shoot me a comment here and let's talk source materials, virus origins, strategum, and weapons of choice! But secondly, you've probably got your own favorite books on the subject. Let me know what they are and why.

    How Important Is It to Write About [Vampires]?

    WritersdontcryDo you have a question about your fantasy novel, short story, or spot of flash fiction that’s burning for an answer (or even just a question about writing or the column in general)? If so, please email in your questions to: me “at” susanjmorris “dot” com.


    Dear Susan,

    I read your post in response to the question concerning the importance of genre. When writing nonfiction, a memoir to be precise, how critical is the author's celebrity and platform to the success of the work? Without platform or celebrity, is the project worth the effort? 


    Hi Chuck,

    I’m glad you saw my column! And thanks so much for sending in the question. Though, I’m going to take it and stretch it out a bit, since this column is focused on fantasy and science fiction, and fantasy memoires have yet to prove numerous enough to birth a genre (Darth Vader: Behind the Mask!). So I’m going to take your question to be: how important is a topic’s popularity to the success of the work, and without a popular topic, is the project worth the effort? (And to translate into fantasy terms: how important is [writing about vampires] to the success of the work, and without [writing about vampires], is the project worth the effort?)

    To answer this revised question, I’m going to attack it from three angles: the impact of a topic on the marketability of a book, what makes a book something I want to read, and figuring out what makes a book “worth it” for you as an individual. Each piece should help to answer the question in a slightly different way, and by the end, between them, hopefully you’ll be able to come to your own conclusions.


    Writing About [Vampires]

    Oh man. I know it can get frustrating when it seems like the market is blowing up for books that you just don’t want to write. Sometimes, it can be tempting to think that if you just wrote about [vampires], or whatever’s popular at the moment, you could for sure sell your book, since people are clearly snapping them up like cakepops. And there may be something to that! When I was a kid, there was one unicorn book in the whole elementary school’s library. I really wanted another book on unicorns. I would have probably read any book on unicorns. But tragically, there were no other books on unicorns. So you totally could have monopolized my market, right there.

    Continue reading "How Important Is It to Write About [Vampires]?" »