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Four Great Novels That Can Be Called Post-Multicultural (Or Not)

Who We BeJeff Chang has spent the better part of his adult life analyzing and chronicling the role of race in America. The result is Who We Be, a compendium of essays, photos, lyrics, and other snippets that define, well, Who We Be. Here’s how he puts his thoughts in the book (below). And here is Chang’s list, exclusively for Amazon customers, on further reading on related topics.

When the legendary curator Thelma Golden wanted to name the generation of Black contemporary artists who came of age around the turn of the millennium, she jokingly called them "Post-Black," as in post-civil rights, post-Black Arts, and as she put it, "post-Basquiat and post-Biggie." Writers of that generation—you might call even call them part of the hip-hop generation—shared lots of things with Golden's visual artists. They were no less concerned than previous artists with legacies of race and racism, but they had a different relationship to identity. Their elders had dealt with invisibility. They were dealing with visibility. They were writing for audiences who knew all about affirmative action, diversity trainings, and "political correctness"—but were just as stumped at how to forge racial progress. These audiences knew what not to say to each other, but not what to say next. These novels capture the difficulty—and, just as often, the absurd hilarity—of the post-multicultural, post-whatever, post-post era we are living through.

 

POST TIME:
Identity in the New Millennium

But if I have to choose between
I choose me
—Erykah Badu, “Me”, New Amerykah Part One: (4th World War)

There was a joke that was everywhere at the turn of the millennium. It had started long before, among high-school friends, back when the saying was, “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” But this post-“Black thing” thing was much smaller than that, even more impenetrable, a sub-tribal sign.

The joke had begun with a group of Black guys at a diverse high school in West Philly. It first surfaced in a two-and-a-half minute film short Stone had made with some of those same friends, called True.

It opens with a shot of Stone lying on the couch watching a football game. The cordless rings and it’s his friend Paul, lying on his own couch watching a kung-fu flick.

“’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin’ man, just chillin’.”
“True, true.”

The other characters don’t do much either: Dookie draws comic book characters, Fred picks up the phone and buzzes his friend Porto Rock into the apartment. The dialogue amounts to maybe a dozen words, the most meaningful of which is simply “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” When each says it, he stretches out the “aaauuuuuuuuh,” wags his tongue, bobs his head, improvises his own stupid faces in his own way.

By the end, Paul has changed the channel to the game, and he and Charles watch together, still having a non-conversation conversation.

“So what’s goin’ on, B?”
“Chillin’. ’Sup with you?”
“Nuttin man, just chillin’.”

And that was it—a group of Black men at rest, not called upon to perform, just being who they be. The short was like what an anthropologist might call “thick description,” what a psychologist might call “the opposite of micro-aggression,” what a comedian might call great material. Years later, when director/actor Charles Stone III’s Whassup? commercial for Budweiser debuted in the 2000 Super Bowl, it seemed that millions were let in on the joke, too.

Multiculturalism had allowed artists of color to toy with the possibility of no longer having to play a role already scripted for them. After multiculturalism, they might move beyond the aesthetics of uplift and respectability, be freed from the burden of representing positivity or confirming oppression. They could aspire just to be. They might still choose to represent identity, race, difference, and inequality. But they wanted to consider it a choice.

“Individuality,” wrote the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in his 2005 post-multiculturalism book The Ethics of Identity, “is not so much a state to be achieved as a mode of life to be pursued.”1

Stone had been a music-video director, making videos like A Tribe Called Quest’s Bonita Applebum and The Roots’s What They Do that had slyly subverted Black male stereotypes. By the late 1990s the industry was changing. This short was Stone’s bid for new work. He knew he had something good, so he took his time. He spent two years writing it, and one more to shoot and finish the edit. He debuted True at a music video short festival in the summer of 1999.

An Irish-born-and-raised copywriter at agency DDB Chicago named Vinny Warren spotted True at a festival and brought it to Budweiser. Stone had worried about how the ad would play in the real world. “When people do it and do it badly, it’s like some old Blaxploitation shit, like straight-up minstrel,” he said.

“True” required context and specificity to work. Saying “Wazzzaaaaauuuuuup?!” to each other was an act of recognition. I see you. You and I are together in this moment. The ad had to be made by a Black director featuring an all-Black cast. Stone knew there would still be objections that his concept was “niche market.” Warren’s Irishness, his foreign-ness, Stone felt, allowed him to understand the nuances and see the big picture.

They still needed to pitch the concept to all the confused marketers, casting agents, and execs. In those sessions, Stone decided to describe it in gendered terms. “Look, it’s really simple. It’s men holding hands through the phone,” he would tell them. “It talks about that wonderful nothingness that men do that is actually quite complicated.”

One day DDB execs told Stone they wanted to try out a “multicultural” cast. By this, they meant that they wanted to try white actors. Maybe it was progress that whites could now see themselves in the “multicultural” thing. But wasn’t that still kind of missing the point?

On the last day of casting, Stone and Warren asked to bring back four of the five actors from the original True cast, just to compare them to the “multicultural” cast. Stone recalled, “Sure enough, they were like, ‘What are we doing? We should just stay with the original cast.’”

And so Stone turned up the lighting, put bottles of Bud in each character’s hands, and further slashed an already haiku-length script into what would become the commercial called Whassup? At the end the word “true” rested over a Budweiser logo. Six months later, he and his homies were partying in Cannes after receiving the Grand Prix, the global ad industry’s top award.

Fred Thomas—Stone’s old buddy turned international star—told a British reporter, “It was strictly our thing. Strictly our clique.2 It never went all over Philadelphia. Now the whole world is part of our clique.” One of the Cannes judges agreed, “It’s not just an ad campaign, it’s a movement.”3 Who in the history of advertising could have predicted that a sixty-second spot featuring a group of bored Black males would become the first globally viral ad of the millennium?

The joke among friends had become a joke shared around the world. But what was the world seeing?

 

1Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005), 5.
2Simon Hattenstone, “Whassup?”,Guardian, October 25, 2000, http://www.theguardian.com/print/0,,4081177-103680,00.html.
3Michael McCarthy, “Budweiser’s ‘Whassup?!’ TV Ads Claim Grand Prix in Cannes,” USA Today, June 26, 2000.

The Only Way Out of the Apocalypse Is Through

Station ElevenPublished earlier this year, Claire Cameron's novel, The Bear, opens on a very dark night: On a family camping trip, a savage attack from a 300-pound black bear orphans five-year-old Anna and her younger brother, sending them on a terrifying flight for survival through the Canadian wilderness, ending their world as they know it. It's a thoughtful take on change and fear, and the strength we find within ourselves to propel us through.

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven--recently announced as a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction--deals with the end of the world on a much larger scale: A doomsday virus that wipes out 99% of humanity. We thought it would be interesting if the two authors spoke about the new book and the inspiration behind it.


Claire Cameron Interviews Emily St. John Mandel, Author of Station Eleven

Station Eleven, the latest novel by Emily St. John Mandel, has been called, "an ambitious and addictive novel" by The Guardian and "equal parts page-turner and poem" by Entertainment Weekly. Author Ann Patchett said, "I wouldn’t have put it down for anything." 

The novel jumps back and forth between a post-apocalyptic world and the start of a flu epidemic that had wiped out 99% of the world's population twenty years earlier. This sounds like a dark story, and it is. But, as with the best tragedies, St. John Mandel manages to show beauty and hope in the gloom. It is also expertly crafted. She weaves time and develops characters in a non-linear and convincing way. It's a riveting read.

As a writer, the moment I finished the novel I wanted to know more about how it was written. I interviewed St. John Mandel by email. --Claire Cameron

Claire Cameron: What was the first spark of inspiration for Station Eleven?

Emily St. John Mandel: I wanted to write something quite different from my previous three novels, all of which were generally categorized as literary noir. I'm happy with the way they turned out, but I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a crime writer. To be clear, I have a great deal of respect for crime writers and crime fiction. It's just that I don't want to be pigeon-holed as anything, and I love film and theatre, so I thought it would be interesting to write about the life of an actor.

At the same time, I wanted to write a love letter to this extraordinary world in which we find ourselves, this place where rooms fill with electric light at the flick of a switch, water comes out of faucets, and it's possible to cross the Atlantic in an afternoon. One way to write about the modern world is to contemplate its absence, which is why I decided to set parts of the new novel in a post-apocalyptic era. I think of the book as a love letter in the form of a requiem.

CC: How did you imagine the disaster specifically, the flu epidemic, in your novel?

ESJM: I imagined an extremely aggressive strain of swine flu—with some variant in the viral RNA resulting in a freakishly quick incubation period—making the jump from pigs to humans on a farm in the Republic of Georgia. In early drafts, the initial outbreak was quite specific and detailed: a teenaged girl who lives on the farm kisses her boyfriend, who's traveling to Moscow that afternoon. The following day, passengers on a plane from Moscow to Toronto begin to feel ill a few hours into the flight. This is also true of passengers in other airplanes bound for other continents, and in trains and buses bound for other countries. I imagined a mortality rate of 99%.

The Bear

The Bear

by Claire Cameron

CC: I was struck by a character who watched an airplane take off, “Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never recognized the beauty of flight?” Do we live in an era of beauty?

ESJM: We do, although it's also of course an era of ugliness and horror. We live in a world filled with spectacular things that we too often take for granted, and flight is an easy example of that. I don't always enjoy flying. It's often a horribly uncomfortable experience. But the fact that it's possible is incredible, isn't it? I've been fielding accusations of being easily impressed since childhood, but in my defense, a lot of things are impressive.

CC: Your novel shows that even in the face of disaster humans can be good to each other, which is a different world than is depicted in many post-apocalyptic stories. Are you hopeful about human kind?

ESJM: Generally, yes. My suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of people on the world really just want to go about their business, raise their families, and live peacefully. But with regard to this book, the key here is the timing. Post-apocalyptic stories are often set in a period of chaos and mayhem immediately following a societal collapse. I assume that such a period would occur, but I was more interested in writing about what might come after that, fifteen or twenty years after the collapse. I assume that the entire world wouldn't be consumed by mayhem forever, because mayhem isn't a sustainable way of life over the long term.

CC: Though you now live in New York, you grew up in Canada. Did this influence your novel?

ESJM: Yes. Delano Island in the book is an ever-so-thinly fictionalized version of the island where I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia, and the book is partly set in Toronto, where I went to school.

CC: Station Eleven is a literary novel, but it also uses some of conventions of genre – suspense, science fiction and elements of horror. How does genre influence your writing? Do you think about genre or conventions when you write?

ESJM: I've always just set out to write literary fiction, with the strongest possible narrative drive. My ideal of the perfect book is Donna Tartt's The Secret History; it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.

I try not to think about genre while I'm writing, because the whole question of genre seems completely arbitrary and amorphous to me. If a literary novel is set partly in the future, does that somehow make it less "literary" than a novel set in present-day suburbia? If a literary novel has a crime in it, is it automatically crime fiction? Ultimately, these labels have more to do with marketing than with the content of the work itself. Case in point: my first three novels were generally marketed as literary fiction in North America, but I'm a thriller writer in France. Same books, different marketing strategies.

CC: The traveling symphony has a line from Star Trek on the side of their caravan: "Because survival is insufficient." How important is art to our lives? Does it change how or why we live?

ESJM: I think it's very important, and it does change the way we live. Survival is never enough for us, and we find examples of this in the most desperate places on earth: people play musical instruments in refugee camps and put on plays in war zones.

 

See more books by Claire Cameron and read more--including the proper way to split firewood--at www.claire-cameron.com.

YA Wednesday: Meg Wolitzer on "Belzhar"

BelzharBack in June I read a book called Belzhar that I'd been hearing about.  Author Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings was one of our Best Books of 2013 and prior to that I'd loved her novel for middle graders, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman, so I was eager to read her first book for young adults.  It's amazing. And it just released so not only did it *finally* get to claim it's rightful spot at the top of our Best YA of October list, but now when I rave about it I don't have to follow-up with, "...but it won't be out until September 30th..."

Belzhar speaks to the experiences of love, loss, and reading something life-changing. And sharing those experiences with people you may never have picked out of a crowd but when life throws you together, deep friendships are forged.  I laughed, I cried, and in the video below I talked about Belzhar with Meg Wolitzer at Book Expo in New York. I enjoyed talking with her as much as I do reading her books.  Now I anxiously await the next...

Where I Wrote It: John Twelve Hawks, on Writing his New Novel, "Spark"

Readers of Omnivoracious may be familiar with our "How I Wrote It" Q-&-A series, in which we ask authors to describe the writing of their book (including questions about their work space, their tools, their fuel--you can read them here). In "Where I Wrote It," we'll be asking authors to share photographs of their desk or office, along with a brief description of that space and what role it played in the creation of their book. Our thanks to John Twelve Hawks, whose new novel, Spark, is a Best of the Month pick in mystery, thriller, and suspense.

John12Hawks

In our Digital Age, it's almost impossible to live "off the grid." But we can find places of refuge where we know that our thoughts are our own.

The first draft of my new novel, SPARK, was written at a friend's house in rural Ireland.

Every morning, I would sit at the kitchen table near the cast iron stove, drinking strong tea while I gazed out the window at a green world. Everything seemed possible at that moment, and words streamed in with the sunlight.

Spark2  --John Twelve Hawks

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[Note: John Twelve Hawks, a pseudonym, is famously, elusively anonymous. Here's a portion of a note he posted on his Random House-hosted website, announcing the publication of SPARK: "Contrary to Internet rumors, I am not dead or in prison. I do move around a great deal and live in London, rural Ireland and New York City."]

How I Wrote It: Walter Isaacson, on "The Innovators"

Isaacson"We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation," says Walter Isaacson, whose new book explores the overlooked collaborations and breakthroughs that would eventually give us the personal computer and the Internet. 

In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, one of our Best Books of the Month, Isaacson shows how lone geniuses like Steve Jobs (the subject of his bestselling 2011 biography) didn't single-handedly create the digital age in which we now live.

[*Scroll down to see a video of Isaacson discussing The Innovators.]

Tell me about the the origins of The Innovators

I began working on this book almost fifteen years ago. It grew out of my fascination with the innovations I’d been part of when I ran digital media for Time Inc. and also from my biography of Benjamin Franklin, who was an inventor, publisher, postal service pioneer, and all-around information networker and entrepreneur. Plus I was an electronics geek as a kid (my father and two uncles were electrical engineers), and I loved soldering circuits, sorting transistors, and building ham radios (WA5JTP). I realized, leaving aside Al Gore jokes, that I didn’t even know how the Internet had been invented. My initial plan was to focus on that. But when I interviewed Bill Gates, he convinced me that the simultaneous emergence of the Internet and the personal computer made for a richer tale. I put this book on hold early in 2009, when I began working on a biography of Steve Jobs. But his story reinforced my interest in how the development of the Internet and computers intertwined.

InnovatorsHow is this book different from your previous books?

I wanted to step away from doing biographies, which tend to emphasize the role of singular individuals, and once again do a book like The Wise Men, which I had coauthored with a colleague about the creative teamwork of six friends who shaped America’s cold war policies.

We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation. There are thousands of books celebrating people we biographers portray, or mythologize, as lone inventors. I’ve produced a few myself. Search the phrase “the man who invented” on Amazon and you get 1,860 book results. But we have far fewer tales of collaborative creativity, which is actually more important in explaining how today’s technology revolution happened. It can also be more interesting.

What’s the first line and what does it say about the book?

"The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them.” It conveys that I don’t want merely to generalize about innovation. We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning. Instead, I set out to report on how the most important dozen or so innovations of the digital age actually happened and to tell the tales of the people who created them. What ingredients produced their creative leaps? What skills proved most useful? How did they think and collaborate? Why did some succeed and others fail?

Tools

I’m a gadget freak. I use an iPhone and a Blackberry and sometimes a Samsung smartphone. I have a MacBook Air and a Dell PC and an iPad. I like to be able to write and research on any of them, wherever I am. So one of my most useful tools is Dropbox, which allows me to summon from the vasty cloud any of my documents, interviews, drafts, and outlines on any device, anywhere, anytime.

Soundtrack

New Orleans funk -- Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste.

How do you relax and recharge?

Long swims to clear my mind.

Research

I love combining archival research with doing my own interviews. There are historians who are better than I am at mining archives and journalists who are better at pursuing reporting leads, but I like to combine both approaches. I’m lucky that I’ve known and been gathering string on most of the players in the digital revolution over the years--ever since my days at Time in the 1980s and 1990s when we put many of them on the cover--and I can get them to sit down with me. I also love to ferret out the academic papers, journals, and oral histories as well as go see the actual artifacts, such as Colossus at Bletchley Park, Charles Babbage’s reconstructed engine at London’s Science Museum, the Mark I at Harvard, and the delightful cornucopia at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

What surprised you?

The important role of women in the digital revolution, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper to Jean Jennings. They deserve more recognition.

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> See all of Walter Isaacson's books

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Rumors of Tears: An Interview with Nicholas Sparks

Ns1If Stephen King is the King of Horror, Nicholas Sparks is, well, the King of Love. There’s no mystery to it, Sparks insists: “I just put people on dates and let them fall in love.”

Across seventeen novels, nine of them adapted for film, that boy-meets-girl formula, which he's explored every angle, has worked amazingly well for Sparks. He’s become one of the world’s best selling and most beloved authors, and he hasn’t slowed down a bit. The film adaptation of his novel The Best of Me opens Friday, and a screen version of The Longest Ride is coming next year.

“What I’m most proud of in my own career is: I never got lazy,” Sparks said during our interview earlier this summer at Amazon’s Seattle campus.

He’s also never tired of writing about love, “the emotion that pretty much drives most of the goodness in the world." Though he tries to walk a line between drama and melodrama--"almost like threading a needle”--he acknowledges some critics think he crosses into mawkish sentimentality. His goal, learned from his hero, King, is to simply tell the best story he can, and let readers decide. And if he makes readers feel something? Then he's done his job.

“I’ve heard rumors that some people have actually shed tears over some of my novels,” he joked.

The interview is a long one--almost 45 minutes--but fans will enjoy hearing Sparks talk about his work habits, and how sales of The Notebook seem to spike whenever Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt.

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>See all of Nicholas Sparks’ books

>See Amazon's exclusive book-and-DVD combo of The Notebook

>Visit our Facebook page for more Nicholas Sparks news and deals this week


 

Chasing Paper: The Debt Collection Underground

Bad Paper“Creditors have better memories than debtors.” --Benjamin Franklin

Everyone knows about collections agencies, but how they actually operate is much more interesting than you probably think. Falling somewhere between Glengarry Glen Ross and Mean Streets, Jake Halpern's Bad Paper introduces us to an economy spanning many shades of gray. Halpern's book tracks the descent of "paper" (spreadsheets containing the information of millions of debtors and their debts) as it's sold for pennies on the dollar by banks and credit companies and passed through a network of collectors. Files are often bought and sold multiple times, each transaction stripping away the best remaining prospects as collectors wring paper dry through all manners of persuasion and coercion. Along the way, Halpern encounters first-hand the game's players, from the financiers at the top of the pyramid to mid-level "brokers" and the ground-level phone-jockeys; these are all hard men within their contexts, as one tale of a Tarantino-grade stand-off over stolen information attests. This book is unexpected, and unexpectedly fun.

Read these short biographies of some of the Bad Paper's most interesting players, and check out our Q&A with Halpern below. Bad Paper is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.

 


 Bad Paper's Cast of Characters by Author Jake Halpern

Aaron Siegel: Private Equity Fund Founder

“All of a sudden, you’re swimming in waters you didn’t really want to swim in – never would have conceived you’d be swimming in.” -- Aaron Siegel

Aaron is a banker who made a big gamble. In 2008, he purchased well over a billion dollars worth of unpaid credit card accounts for pennies on the dollar. What he bought, essentially, were just spreadsheets with names, addresses, phone numbers, and balances of debtors. All went well until some of those accounts were stolen and vanished into the debt underworld. Luckily Aaron had someone to call – a fixer named Branson Wilson who knew just what to do. (See below.)

Brandon Wilson: Debt Broker & Fixer

“I will come back down here, I will take your server, I will burn your agency to the ground, I will come to your house and burn it down, and then I will come back here and burn this store down. Understand?” – Brandon Wilson

Brandon Wilson is a former armed robber who now runs his own collection agency and debt brokerage firm. He also serves as Aaron’s emissary to the collections industry’s many unsavory precincts.

Shafeeq: Debt Collector & Security Specialist

“I can go and shoot a person—an intruder, at your house—and it would be a lot easier to do something like that with the security contract in place. Whereas if I’m just showing up at your house, and I shoot somebody, now there’s a lot more, you know, paperwork.” – Shafeeq

Shafeeq runs one of the collection agencies that Aaron hires to “work” his paper. He is a devout Muslim, who tries to avoid charging interest whenever possible. Shafeeq also runs his own security firm and is licensed to carry a firearm.

Jimmy: Debt Collector from the East Side of Buffalo

“Back when he ran up into my office with that gun, I’ll tell you what, it felt good. My adrenaline was pumping. I wanted to shoot him.” -- Jimmy

After going to jail, Jimmy turned his back on crime and reinvented himself as a debt collector. Even so, sometimes his past catches up with him.

Larry: A Debt Broker Based in Buffalo

“Certain things you don’t want to know, because once you know something, then you become an accessory to it or responsible—so it’s just better not to know, because most of the dealings on the level that we’re on, they’re not legitimate.” – Larry

Larry worked as a debt broker for years and is now trying to make a living as an artist.

Theresa: Debtor

“There are a thousand ways to rip off desperate people. The more desperate you are, and the less you have, the easier it is.” - Theresa

Theresa is a former Marine who fell hopelessly into debt when her marriage ended badly. She paid $2,700 to collectors who claimed to own her debt and then never heard from them again.

 


 

Bad Paper author Jake HalpernQuestions and Answers with Jake Halpern

 

On the surface, debt collection doesn’t seem like the most scintillating topic. How did you get involved with this story?

I know this sounds odd, but this book owes it existence to two people: my mother and Brad Pitt. It began with my mom. She started getting calls from a debt collector over a debt that she didn’t even owe. So I started investigating the debt collections industry and discovered that my hometown – Buffalo, N.Y. – was one of the epicenters. I ended up writing a profile about a collector, from Buffalo, for The New Yorker. After the article comes out, I get a call from Brad Pitt’s producer, telling me that he wants to turn the story into a TV series with HBO. I was shocked. But he was serious. So I end up traveling back to Buffalo, with the screenwriter, and we stay at my parents' house. It was surreal. The screenwriter is staying up on the third floor and my dad and his wife are making meals for him in the kitchen. Anyway, my job on this trip is to line up some interesting people for the screenwriter to meet, so his script feels authentic. Back when I was doing my story for The New Yorker, no one wanted to talk with me. Now, all of a sudden, I am doing a project with “Brad,” and people are tripping over themselves to talk. One night, the screenwriter and I go out to dinner with a banker and a former armed robber who had gone into business with one another. They tell me an incredible tale. They purchased $1.5 billion worth of bad debt for pennies on the dollar. Their aim was to make a fortune. All goes well on this unlikely venture until some of the debt is stolen and the former armed robber must delve into an underworld where debt is bought and sold on street corners. This quest ends in a showdown with guns in the inner city of Buffalo, N.Y. Needless to say, I was hooked on their story.

What was the most unexpected turn the story took?

There were a bunch of unexpected turns. My favorite involved a character named Shafeeq, who was a smart, charming, gun-toting, black, Muslim polygamist. He is a rather minor character in my story, actually, but he played a pivotal role in one dramatic scene – the showdown with guns – and so I really wanted his perspective. I tried to get him to talk for well over two years, but he refused. Then one day he tells me that he will talk, if I travel to Buffalo and meet him at his mosque on the East Side of Buffalo. So I go. I show up at the mosque at sundown and, almost immediately, this very aggressive panhandler accosts me. Then out of the shadows of the mosque steps Shafeeq. He is ENORMOUS, roughly six and a half feet tall, and weighing more than 300 pounds. The panhandler skedaddles and Shafeeq leads me into his mosque, which is situated in a beautiful old church. We talk for the next three hours. During this time, he give me one of my favorite quotes from the book, which is an impassioned defense of polygamy. He claims that, by being a good father figure to many children in the African American community in Buffalo, he is a powerful force for good, because is modeling good behavior on an exponential level. “You’re Xeroxing righteousness,” he tells me. It’s one of those little, kind of random moments that is just so bizarre, fascinating, and memorable.

The book is filled with rough-around-the-edge characters doing some shady things. Was there any moment you felt uncomfortable, or even at risk?

Just once. I was in the car with a former cocaine dealer, named Jimmy, who had reinvented himself as debt collector. We were on the East Side of Buffalo, which is poor and crime-ridden. Suddenly, Jimmy slams on the brakes, bolts out of the car, and leaves me sitting there for the better part of ten minutes. When he finally returns to the car, Jimmy tells me that he had just spotted a guy he knew, who had recently pulled a gun on him. Jimmy had apparently chased after him but not found him. At that moment, Jimmy was shaking with rage. I just sat there in the car with him, saying nothing while he regained his composure. It was a tense few minutes.

You describe some of the collectors engaging in some dubious practices in order to collect on debt, especially where it comes to taking advantage of debtors’ ignorance (with regard to collection law and their rights) and collector tactics such as bullying. Do you expect reform in this business, and do you hope your book plays a part?

I do hope things change. In 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will be issuing new rules that will – hopefully – change the way the consumer debt is bought, sold, and collected upon. And yes, I am hopeful that my book may help shed some small amount of light on the seedier corners of the industry. But ultimately, the ability of the CFPB to clean up this industry will also hinge on policing. Currently it is policing about 175 of the biggest agencies in the business. Yet according to recent industry estimates, there are well over 9,000 collection businesses in America. That’s a lot of ground to cover. So I am hopeful, but I am also doubtful that the industry will be fixed overnight.

Name three of your most influential writers or books.

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann. Grann is a superb nonfiction writer. The number of amazing stories he finds, on a regular basis, is mind-blowing.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover. Conover is simply the best reporter I have ever encountered.

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. This is a swashbuckling adventure tale involving Vikings. I love Vikings.

Next project, or current obsession?

I am weirdly interest in jailbird lawyers. I like the idea that there are a few prisoners who have studied the law, become erudite, and are helping work on cases. I am currently scouting out a story involving one of them.

In addition to your nonfiction, you co-authored a couple of well-received young adult novels. How’s that different? Do you plan more?

This is true. The biggest difference here – other than the fact that I write about haunted woods and iceberg fortresses – is that I co-write the books with my friend Peter Kujawinski. We wrote the first book in our Dormia series in 2009. Around that time, I was living on Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico, which remains one of the most remote and sparsely settled regions in the continental United States. From my desk, in our tiny ranch house, I watched prairie dogs frolic and tumbleweed blow across the street. Meanwhile, my co-author – Peter – was serving as an American diplomat in Paris. His environs could not have been more radically different. Peter, known simply as “Kujo” by friends and family alike, inhabited a sprawling three-bedroom penthouse with stunning views of the Eiffel Tower. What united us, however, is that we were both twelve-year-olds at heart and wanted to make up imaginary worlds involving magical cities nestled in the mountains. So we started writing the Dormia series. And we just signed a two-book deal with Putnam / Penguin to start a new series. The first book, Nightfall, should be out in about a year.

Video: Ken Burns on the Making of "The Roosevelts"

RooseveltsKen Burns is known for telling epic stories about events and achievements in American history, from Prohibition to the Civil War to baseball. But rarely has he focused on personal history as he does in his latest documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which profiles the entwined, influential lives of Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Burns recently visited us at Amazon to discuss the seven-part series, which began airing on PBS in September and is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (The series is accompanied by a book of the same name, written with Geoffrey Ward).

"If these people really did influence us more than any other family--and I can make that argument--we want to know where they came from," Burns told me during our interview. "Their empathy is borne of certain sufferings that they each experienced ... They're all wounded people."

A Love Story Complicated by a Crime: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

I received a somewhat disturbing text from a friend the other afternoon. She was running late for work Paying_guestsbecause she couldn't put a book down that I'd recently leant her. "How can I go? I must read on!" "But, the children!" I cried. She is a nanny, you see, so while I could relate to her plight--I had spent a rare sunny day in Seattle, indoors, eschewing some much needed vitamin D reading the very same book--I didn't have children to keep alive. Such are the perils when one picks up The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. So readers, clear your calendars.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Waters recently, on a not-so-rare rainy day in Seattle, to talk about this historical page-turner, set during a "politically untidy" time that has many parallels to our own. 

The story takes place in 1922 in suburban South London. WWI has ended and ex-soldiers are roaming the streets, unemployed and uncertain about the future. In a once grand and genteel house, Frances Wray--a spinster with a surprising past--lives with her mother.  "They've lost their men to war, and they've lost income and servants, and so they've had to bring in lodgers to make ends meet, and they are Leonard and Lilian Barber, the paying guests of the title. Francis is at first appalled by their gaudy furniture and bothered by the sound of them moving about upstairs, but finds herself increasingly drawn to Lilian. So the novel is the story of their affair and the sort of dramatic and really violent and alarming consequences that it has for everybody involved."

The novel was inspired, in part, by an actual murder case from that time--a case that had a "classic triangle at [its] heart--a wife, a husband, and a male lover. And, I began to think what it would be like if the lover was female--what that would do to the story, how it would touch on other issues in the period." With this germ of an idea, Waters began researching similar cases in earnest. "I was struck when I looked at those murder cases--and I looked at lots of other murder cases from the period. They did tend to feature ordinary people who by some sort of mistake, by a moment of madness, were plunged into nightmare and into disaster and ultimately towards some sort of violent death. And I was very struck by the fact that people in murder cases like that, they don't know what's coming...In the months, weeks, days leading up to the murder, they were just leading their ordinary lives."

Waters is known for plotting-out most of her books ahead of time, but she admits that she was knee-deep in the writing process before realizing that--despite the murder and the mayhem--the book is mainly a love story.  "I really was sort of rooting for Frances and Lilian but very conscious that their love came at a cost...Once I'd realized, though, that that was kind of the trajectory of the book--that it was based on their love--the book came together for me more smoothly. And then it became a novel very much about how their love is put under pressure, how it's tested by this dramatic incident, and the moral complexity of the events that follow."

Sound a bit dark? Fortunately, as fans of other Waters’s novels like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith can attest, she has a knack for humanizing her characters with pitch-perfect humor for the period that also resonates with a modern audience. "Often humor is so specific to its moment that it doesn't date well. There's nothing worse than, sort of, terrible comics movies from the 20s, for example...The best of them last but they just seem incredibly tiresome now as no doubt our movies will in another hundred years. So, it's trying to find humor that belongs, feels like it belongs to the period and yet still seems kind of funny to us. That’s quite a challenge...We do need to get beyond those static black and white pictures of the past and remember that people live their lives in color, and with laughter, as well as with tears and sternness. The whole range, that's how you bring the past to life."

The Paying Guests was a Best of the Month selection for September.

Trust the Reader: Author Colm Tóibín on "Nora Webster"

Nora WebsterOh, to spend a few minutes talking to Colm Tóibín! Even on a transatlantic telephone call, the sonorous voice comes through, as precise and erudite and charming as you would expect from having read his books. Tóibín is a master of the beautiful, quietly emotional novel, but he’s also very definite in his opinions ("This business that you must like characters in fiction!" he practically harumphs) and rigorous in his locutions. I wish I could have listened to him for hours...

Tóibín's new book, Nora Webster, is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month. It will be available October 7.

Many of your books take place in, or refer to, the same county in Ireland where you grew up, and to people you might have known in the town. Who or what was the inspiration for this particular novel about a widow and her children?

My father died when I was 12, and it was just myself and my brother and my mother in the house. And I noticed everything. So while this is not a memoir, it does come from memory. A lot is invented, but what isn’t invented is the silence, the way of handling things. All the chattering, but underneath so much that is not being said. What I set out to do was just to get it right: the story of those years and what it was like in that place. I began to imagine as much as remember. It’s as though I was making a tapestry from two forms of wool: one was called memory, the other imagination. In many ways this is the story of what happened to me, even though it is a novel, not a memoir, and not fully from memory.

Some early reviews have compared Nora Webster, as a character, to Hedda Gabler and Emma Bovary. How do you feel about that?

The way I see it is that she’s sort of Emma Bovary without the adultery, the obvious excitement of a 19th century novel. Yes, the book is about provincial life. And yes, it’s about a woman oddly trapped. And yes, it’s about a woman who is not meek and mild, who can exert herself. And like Jane Austen’s Emma, every so often she does something extraordinarily wrong. She’s oddly damaged in some way or other, but at the same time has many good qualities. Still, you don’t want to make her a fierce mother, an Electra figure, a Medea. She wants to be left alone, but she also wants everyone to come near her. There are levels of ambiguity in her that I thought would be interesting.

You don’t generally write loud, noisy books, and this one is no exception. You seem most interested in designing the small moments, the interior thoughts...

It’s a question of trusting the reader. When you leave out an awful lot, the reader's imagination is pushed very far. It’s a portrait of a sensibility, the same as a painter would paint. One of the advantages of being in New York a lot is going to the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and looking at the Vermeers. It’s not so much creating "scenes"--as ordinary moments. You have to make them luminous, make them mysterious. Make them matter.

Do you feel differently about this book than your others, because it does have an autobiographical element?

There’s an early novel called The Heather Blazing that is like this is in that it goes back to the childhood and the house. The others are based on my having left the town. So yes, the [autobiographical] ones feel different. They have a funny, different texture to them.

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