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How I Wrote It: Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” and 5 Books for Labor Day

BethBeth Macy's Factory Man is the inspiring story of brash and feistyJohn Bassett III, who strives to save his family’s embattled furniture company by fighting back against the cheap Chinese imports that had contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of factory and mill jobs in Southwest Virginia.

Macy is an award-winning reporter who writes about outsiders and underdogs. (She and I worked together at the Roanoke Times for a spell.) She’s also the daughter of a displaced factory worker, and her passion for this story shines through on every page. Factory Man has received rave reviews--Bryan Burrough in the New York Times called it “a great American story”--but Macy is most proud of the support from factory workers who thanked her for telling their story.

“No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America,” she said. “The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light.”

In advance of Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Macy via email about the writing of Factory Man. I also asked her to recommend some books that inspired her.  

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FactoryWhat sparked your initial interest in the story of Bassett Furniture Company?

I set out initially in late 2011 to write a newspaper series on the aftermath of globalization in Henry County/Martinsville, Va., which had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a decade. I was inspired by the work of freelance photographer Jared Soares, who’d been documenting what he saw there: textile plant conveyor belts-turned-food pantry delivery devices and the like. Early in my interviews, I heard there was a third-generation furniture maker named John Bassett III who’d singlehandedly bucked the trend and fought China to keep his factory in Galax, Va., going, saving jobs and his family legacy. When I heard he said things like, “The [expletive] Chi-Comms aren’t gonna tell me how to make furniture!” my story Spidey sense went on high alert. He’d done the counterintuitive thing, and he’d done it during a time of huge cultural/economic change. I knew right away his story was BIG, the kind of piece where you could thread together history, economic relevancy and even memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker myself).

How did you convince John Bassett III to cooperate and give you access?

Polite persistence and baby steps. He was going to give me 15 minutes of his time the first time we met, but I won him over by being prepared: I knew all about the family feud with his brother-in-law, about his insanely twisted family tree. I knew but didn’t quite understand how he’d taken on China. And we all know how irresistible it is to be listened to by someone who’s genuinely curious. Something like 700 phone calls later and dozens of visits and not a few arguments — including one in which we very nearly came to blows — we’re still talkin’.

What was his reaction to the book? How have employees responded?

He calls it “Peyton Place” meets “Gone With the Wind.” He gives me no credit for all the business analysis and anti-dumping case sorting-through I had to do — all the economists and business professors I interviewed, including going to Indonesia to interview the replacement workers. He had trouble initially with some of his family secrets being unearthed, as well as some details about his wealth. But he’s come around. He enjoys the attention he’s getting, and he’s no dummy: He understands that the book could help him sell more furniture! He also wants this country “to kick ass and take names” again, and he thinks he’s the guy to tell ‘em how to do it.

I was at a signing at the Galax Fiddlers Convention last weekend, and the Vaughan-Bassett veneer department showed up and gave me a commemorative plaque they’d made, embossed with galax leaves and tiny strips of walnut and white pine veneer. I think they see “Factory Man” as job security; surely, he can’t close the factory now, right? They appreciate that someone bothered to tell this story from the ground up.

What can other smaller, family-owned businesses learn from Bassett?

Relentlessness, in a word. When the guy at the top cares enough to sleep (or not sleep) with a legal pad next to his bed so he can jot down (or better yet call an employee) an idea that has just occurred to him for the betterment of his company in the middle of the night, that work ethic trickles down. He’s in his factory every day, communicating constantly with employees, challenging them to change and improve over and over again. It’s a live-wire organization, and I think the investments he makes in that factory (mentally, fiscally, emotionally) make it a fun place to work.

How long did you work on the book, and what one thing surprised you the most about what you learned?

I had 11 solid months to turn in the first draft, then the back-and-forth editing continued for another six months or so (between my day job duties). Surprises? There were so many, mostly revolving around just how rich the material was — the maid who wore two girdles, the corporate pilot landing without landing gear, all the “Mad Men” in the mountains behavior. The overarching theme I was left with, though, was this palpable desire that people in the ghost town of Bassett, Va., still have to tell their story. No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America. The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light. You should see the “Factory Man” Facebook discussion group started by one reader — in the span of week, there were thousands of heartfelt comments on it: memories and grievances, hot political debates and loads of nostalgia (old pictures of factories and gathering spots, as well as the grassy fields where the factories once stood). Twenty-thousand jobs evaporated in that one county alone, and along with them dozens of gathering spots, from factories and restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. And here was this unlikely virtual watering hole helping reunite people again. “This book has literally set my soul on fire,” one reader posted.

Factory Man has been compared to the work of Laura Hillenbrand, Katherine Boo, Michael Lewis, and David Simon – congrats, and: who’d you write the book for?

Thanks, that’s truly humbling company. I wrote the book for those 20,000 people I mentioned above. I wrote it for my mom, who soldered airplane lights when the economy was good and babysat other people’s kids when it wasn’t. She didn’t whine, she didn’t take any crap, and she could stretch a dime farther than anyone I’ve ever known. She didn’t have the benefit of higher education, or the social capital that comes with it, that I’ve enjoyed. But she was my first editor, and every bit of grit and heart I have as a reporter — I got it from her.

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Recommended books:

Hairstons1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang — from the ground up, this journalist chronicles the largest migration in human history, documenting the heartaches and triumphs of young rural women migrating to China’s cities, trying to do right by their families and experiencing the growing pains associated with entering the working/middle classes. 

2. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Weincek — an astonishing social history of race in the Southern Piedmont, told through a single family (black, white and mulatto) grappling to understand the legacy of slavery and its contemporary relevance. 

3. The Hard Way On Purpose, by David Giffels — the Akron-bred journalist writes hilarious, painstaking and moving essays about his decision not to flee the Rubber Belt when most of his contemporaries did just that. A beautiful portrait of a region on the mend. 

4. The Unwinding,” by George Packer — The New Yorker writer’s illuminating take on America’s recent economic history, told through a series of portraits of hard-working Americans and corporate greed-heads, in the style of John Dos Passos. 

5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder — the journalist’s profile of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti is a portrait of a fascinating (and fiery tempered) do-gooder, interspersed with telling exchanges between the interviewer and the interviewee and woven with spot-on narrative and surprisingly complex social/medical/business analyses. 

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> Visit Macy's website

> Follow her on Twitter


 

Kill Your Darlings: The Art of Jacket Design

Peter Mendelsund, over a long and influential career as a book jacket designer, has added his deft touch to many volumes--many of which would be recognizable to any book lover. Martin Amis, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jo Nesbø, and James Gleick are just a few of the authors to benefit from his work, and his striking jacket for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo certainly contributed to its success. Forget the cliché; a well designed jacket can boost attention for a book of modest expectations, and transform a good book into a phenomenon.

Mendelsund is now the author of two books of his own, both of which consider the visual--and vital--power of literature, but in different ways. What We See When We Read is an examination of the gestalt of reading: How words on the page enter our brains and are internalized, becoming pictures, sensations, and emotions. There are many titles about books and reading, but What We See goes far beyond simple enthusiasm in its search for meaning.

Cover presents some of Mendelsund's most iconic work, illustrating his creative process through early sketches, interior art, and many, many rejected drafts. He has shared some of that insight here, offering examples of his unrealized inspirations, commentary on why they didn't work, and the final results (the drafts are presented first, followed by the finished jacket).

 


The Fallen

by Peter Mendelsund

 

My cover ideas get killed. (Pretty frequently, actually.) Whether killed by dint of a client's caprice (or good sense) or culled by my own hand, a lot of my ideas never make it to the printing press. Here are a few of those which never saw the light of day....

 Plato’s Republic

The obvious thing here was to attempt some version of the allegory of the cave. This, the image below, seemed like a more modern version of same (The "shadows on the wall" that Plato’s cave-dwellers watch is a television—natch). Perhaps, in retrospect, this one was a tad too cool and knowing. It resembles nothing so much as a Vampire Weekend LP. (Though: Is that really so wrong?)

Plato's Republic comp   Plato's Republic final

 

The Castle, by Franz Kafka


My initial idea for a cover for Kafka's The Castle was this impossible chess game below. Kafka's books always seem to me like games in which the protagonists are not privy to the rules.

The Castle comp  

The Castle final

 

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser

I love the drama inherent in a book jacket covering up a book. Lift the jacket—something is revealed. This, the comp below, would have had a three-quarter-sized jacket, which, when slid up, revealed the case beneath. The idea here was to play off Millhauser's title, and somehow represent the same tension between the pleasurable and the hazardous. I also wanted to accomplish this in a cartoon vernacular (one of the great stories of this collections is "Cat 'n Mouse," a kind of existentialist Tom and Jerry). I illustrated this one myself.

Dangerous Laughter comp 1   Dangerous Laughter comp 2
"Dangerous

 

Peace, by Richard Bausch

A gripping, penetrating, little single act drama. The moral quandaries faced by a squadron of US soldiers trudging through Italy in the winter of 1944. The idea here was to make a landscape which, itself, comprises camouflage; as if the war and the world itself had merged. The style here is very mid-century—almost as if Hemingway had written a WWII novel.

Peace comp   Peace final

 

By Peter Mendelsund

What We See When We Read   Cover

YA Wednesday: Talking to Chris Weitz and Jennifer E. Smith

YoungWorld GeoMeYouEarlier this year I had the great pleasure to sit down with two delightful YA authors to talk books. 

Chris Weitz, best known for his work in film including the movie adaptations of The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass,  just released The Young World, a dystopian novel (the first in a series) set in New York that is also one of our August Best YA Books of the Month.  

Jennifer E. Smith is the beloved author of several contemporary YA novels that deftly navigate the waters of teen relationships with humor and creativity, including this year's The Geography of You and Me.  

On a random note, when we were talking both authors shared major league baseball hopes for this year and it's interesting to see how things have shaken out. Chris Weitz hoped the Yankees new pitcher Masahiro Tanaka didn't turn out to be a dud (so far so good, though he's coming off an injury...) and Jennifer E. Smith was pretty adamant that the Cubs were going to take the 2014 World Series.  Well, there's always next year...

Below is a transcript from our chat.


So, what would be the elevator pitch for your book?

Chris Weitz:  It’s basically about a group of kids making their way in a post-apocalyptic New York in which every convenience and comfort they're familiar with is gone.  So it’s a New York that has fallen into a chaos of warring tribes, and how they will function in that world.

Jennifer E. Smith:  I keep joking that my book has the best elevator pitch ever because it starts in an elevator. It’s about two teens who get stuck in elevator during a major blackout in New York city and end up spending an evening together on a really magical night in the city where you can actually can see the stars because all the lights are out. It’s loosely based on the blackout that happened in 2003.  Then, as the title might suggest, with Geography, it sort of spins off into other locations from there, but it all begins in an elevator in New York on a very dark night.

Chris Weitz: That was a great blackout...

Jennifer E. Smith: Yeah, it was really fun. I won’t tell you all about my experiences since we’re on the record here, but it definitely included more alcohol than cute boys and elevators.  It was one of those nights that felt sort of out of time, once people realized that nothing was seriously wrong everybody was out on the streets, people were giving away beer before it got too warm, and giving away ice cream before it could melt, and New York took on this almost celebratory atmosphere. It was a really memorable night.

Weitz: It’s funny because I think I found the one single thing that unites our books, because my book was partly inspired by the blackout amongst other things, this is sort of New York without electricity and the way that people behave when everything they’re used to goes out the window.

Chris – you’ve directed films adapted from YA novels and written screen plays, was writing a novel a logical next step for you?

I’m not sure it was a logical step, especially looking back.  Given how much harder it is to write a novel than a screen play, it’s a highly illogical thing to do...  but, in a sense, adapting as many books as I have, and I was a literature major in university, that’s where I thought my life was going to be concentrated. Making films was kind of a way to deal with my love of books in a positive way, so it isn’t totally unreasonable that I would turn my attention to trying to write something.

And why young adult?

Weitz: Well, at the time that I decided to do this, I was receiving a lot of submissions of YA and some were great and some were less so, so I thought, well, I may as well give it a go myself.  And I had certain things that I’d been thinking about that I wanted to explore further that kind of come out in this--not necessarily YA related stuff but actually stuff about economics, sociology, and politics.

Jen, you’ve written YA and one middle grade, do you think you’ll write adult in the future?

Smith: I think always it’s fun to explore different creative outlets. The middle grade was really fun for me because all of my YA books are for a similar audience, so the middle grade was very different.  I was once telling somebody that the three things I would never do were: write middle grade, write fantasy, and write for boys, and I literally came out of the lunch and was like, ok, now I kind of want to try… So I think it’s a similar thing with the adult side, I think if the right idea came along it’d be something new to try and something exciting, so we’ll see.  But I really love YA, I think that’s kind of my sweet spot, I feel like I’m 16 at heart and it’s a genre I really love and the audience is amazing for YA books.  It’s just so much fun meeting teens, they’re so enthusiastic.

The YA writing community is really great too, isn’t it?

Smith: It really is, everyone is so supportive and generous, it’s a great little corner of the industry to be part of.

Chris, as someone just coming into this community, have you found that to be true?

Weitz:  I have and it’s also I think that this time in life, maybe from middle school through this period, is a period of really fervent reading.  I remember that from when I was younger, and that’s really wonderful. There’s also a tremendous desire to see  people succeed, to want to see the best in things, as opposed to, if you look at literary fiction, the extraordinarily snarky, kind of difficult, social landscape that that represents.  I think there’s a weird barrier to entry in literary fiction as far as ideas go, I think that young adult is where a lot of the most interesting fiction is actually being written because it’s not as caught up in questions of style.

I think the interesting ideas and openness is part of why so many adults are reading YA fiction...

Smith: Yeah--I get as many emails about my books from people in their 30s and 40s as I do from people in their teens.  Everyone is sort of 16 at heart, somewhere down deep.  Like what Chris was saying about the way you read at that age, there’s such a joy to it, whereas now you start reading a book and you have to go to work so you put it down, but as kids, I remember just tearing through books (I guess I still do now, but…) you can’t get enough and you find an author you love, you read everything they’ve written and then you look for  everything that’s similar to what they’ve written, and you’re obsessed.  And it’s such a joyful way to read.

Matthew Thomas Is Going to Carry That Weight

Every year, a handful of books are singled out for big advance buzz months in advance of the fall season: debuts and "break-out" titles carrying the burdens of hope (the author's) and expectation (the publisher's). Needless to say, not all of these work out. September and October are brutally competitive as publishers line up their blockbusters and heavy hitters ahead of the holidays, and sometimes a book just doesn't live up to its pitch.

Among this year's most highly anticipated books is Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which we first learned of in early spring, when Thomas made some early rounds visiting booksellers. It's an American family saga on the epic side--in both scope and page-count--drawing favorable comparisons to The Corrections and The Art of Fielding, and while that grandness might have compounded its already high expectations, we're pleased to say that the book has certainly earned its acclaim. In selecting We Are Not Ourselves for Amazon's Best Books the Month, Neal Thompson writes:

What’s special about this book is how Thomas takes us, slowly and somewhat unexpectedly, deep inside a family battling the gray-toned middling place of their middle-class existence ... It’s oddly addictive to watch this family unfold, age, and devolve. Intimate, honest, and true, it’s the story of a doomed father and a flawed son and the indefatigable and loving woman who keeps them all together, even as they’re falling apart.

Thomas set aside a few minutes from his busy Book Expo America schedule to chat with us about the book, his inspirations, and the experience of publishing his first novel. (An edited transcript of the conversation is below.)

 

 

Matthew Thomas at Book Expo America (transcript)

Could you tell us a little bit about your book, and a little bit about and the process of writing it?

It is a story about an Irish-American family, set in Queens—initially. It largely focuses on a woman named Eileen, who’s born to Irish immigrant parents. It follows her through the course of her life, as we watch her develop ambitions for a life greater than the one she has, and pursue a different course. She runs into obstacles at various points, overcomes them, and eventually runs into something that she can’t overcome. And the story becomes, in large part, the focus of how she handles this obstacle. Her marriage to her husband, Ed, is a focus of the book, and their relationship becomes the heart of the story. And in many ways, the way that she handles what happens to her husband--this calamitous event that occurs--reveals her character, and the essence of it.

I worked on the book for 10 years. I started the book at the end of my time at UC Irvine. I submitted to workshop--as the last submission I made--after writing and submitting short stories. I finally worked up the courage to write this story--because it involved some difficult emotional material--and I submitted the first portion of it, got some feedback, and then was off on my own in the real world. I worked as a high school teacher for eight years—the last eight years—while I wrote.


Where did you draw inspiration for the book? Was it based on your own experience or your family’s history?


It’s rooted originally in autobiographical impulse, but I think the book improved when I got away from that. It eventually became impossible for me to think of this book as anything but the novel it wanted to be. The characters started asserting themselves and being individuals I couldn’t entirely control, so it quickly got away from autobiography. But the emotional reality of the story certainly extends from my experiences. My father, in particular, is an inspiration for Ed (in what happened to my father), and in fact, I started writing this book after he died. A year later, I found the courage to begin it.


Did you have any literary heroes, or any model, that you wanted to emulate?


A few. 100 Years of Solitude was certainly in the back of my mind as I was writing this: the inter-generational aspect of it, and in the way he [Gabriel Garcia Marquez] conveys so much about the inheritance of traits and the playing out—unconsciously—of themes from one generation to the next. The scope of that book was something I admired and I wanted to try to write toward.


Gatsby was always on my mind, as well, for a lot of the thematic content in that book. Mrs. Bridge was another book that gave me a model for how to write with short chapters, and manipulate short chapters in a larger whole.


So this is your first book, and presumably your first Book Expo. What has been your experience? There’s a lot of hype building around it.


It’s been a big thrill! The biggest thrill for me was meeting the fellow panelists on the Buzz Panel. I got to chat with them for a few minutes beforehand, and it was exciting because everybody had a similar experience, in the sense there was a shared excitement and enthusiasm for what was going on--and gratitude to be here. And it was fun to be part of a group of people who were potentially going to make a mark, and it was exciting to think about reading their books. It’s also amazing to be here because it’s such an unbelievably huge event... it’s like the Metropolitan Museum of Art: you can’t take it all in at once. But it’s a big thrill to be here.

We Are Not Ourselves

How I Wrote It: Karen Abbott, on Maverick Women and the Civil War

Karenabbott_photo_gal__photo_1719461246While sitting in Atlanta traffic years ago, Karen Abbott noticed the bumper sticker on the pickup truck in front of her: "Don't blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis." She realized that many southerners not only felt residual pride for their long-ago Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, but that they were "still fighting the Civil War down here."

From those origins comes Abbott's new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, the story of four female spies, two from each side, including one who disguised herself as a male soldier in the Union army. The book is a thrilling look at the forgotten role subversive women played in the Civil War. "They didn't have political discourse. They didn't have access to the vote. What could they do?" Abbott said.

With playfulness, enthusiasm, and a bit of naughty, Abbott gives us an energetic and witty new take on the Civil War. It's a story as much about women's rights and breaking marital shackles as it is about espionage and subterfuge. Her curiosity is contagious, as is her admiration for the maverick women who "longed to be useful" in a man's war.

Abbott is the bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. We spoke with her at the annual Book Expo America in New York, in late May of 2014.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy goes on sale Sept. 2.

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>See all of Abbott's books

>Visit her website

>Follow her on Twitter

How I Wrote It: Ben Mezrich, on His New Novel, "Seven Wonders"

BenaboutBen Mezrich is best known for his bestselling geeks-to-riches nonfiction stories, particularly Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, both of which became major motion pictures. In Seven Wonders, on sale Sept. 2, Mezrich returns to his roots: fiction. Don't worry ... there are still geeks.

Seven Wonders features an Indiana Jones-type character, Jack Grady, an adventurous anthropologist who sets out to learn who murdered his estranged mathematician brother, Jeremy, who had uncovered some ancient mysteries and modern conspiracies during his research into the Seven Wonders of the World.

The first in a planned trilogy, writing Seven Wonders was a liberating experience for Mezrich, freeing him to write a thriller and at the same time indulge his lifelong obsession with mythology and ancient cultures. "I loved every minute of it," he said. "I felt untethered--although a lot of people have felt that I've been untethered all along."

Mezrich spoke with us during a visit to Seattle.

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>See all of Mezrich's books

  Seven

Amazon Music Book Club: Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy on Self-Help Books & Graphic Novels

Thanks to our friends at the Amazon Music Notes blog for this "Book Club" Q&A with Travie McCoy, frontman for Gym Class Heroes, discussing self-help books and graphic novels. Amazon Music Book Club explores the literary influences on today's musicians.

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image

Reading has a formative effect on a person, inspiring how they see the world and understand their place within it. This seems even more pronounced for artists, who take pieces of everything they experience with them into their own creations. With that in mind, we want to know how reading and literature influence your favorite musicians and the songs they’ve written.

Travie McCoy, frontman New York City’s rap/pop/rock outfit Gym Class Heroes, has always loved books and has been interested in stories and how they can be told from an early age. Although literary references only occasionally pop up in his songs, McCoy--who’s currently working on his second solo album--is deeply influenced by what he reads. We spoke with Travie about his history with reading, how much self-help books can actually help and his love for graphic novels.

What sorts of books were your entry point into reading as a kid?

I loved Roald Dahl books and anything by Shel Silverstein. Where The Sidewalk Ends and stuff like that. I also loved Where The Wild Things Are. But I think Shel Silverstein was my favorite. He actually came to my school and spoke when I was younger and it blew my mind. It was really awesome. Those types of books were my sh*t. And then we’d have book fairs and the Choose Your Own Adventure books came out, which I loved. I loved graphic novels, too. Hellboy, which I am still a fan of.

What’s your most memorable reading experience from your childhood?

There is a book called The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. That was the first book I read without anyone telling me to or having to write a paper on it. I just picked it up and read it. It was a really cool book. It was about this kid who got out of the ghetto and became a boxer. It was really intense. I finished it and I was like, “Whoa, I read a book!” I didn’t have to and there was no consequence if I didn’t, so it was awesome.

Do you still feel that sense of wonder when you finish a book now?

Kind of! It feels good to have the last few pages left and knowing you’re about to finish it. The last five or six pages is always completely good stuff so I get the trembles when I get there. It makes me happy. That’s the best feeling.

Is there a certain type of book you’re drawn to now?

I love self-help books. When you’re younger you think you know everything and then there are these people who are older and have been through everything you’ve been through and have written books about it. I started buying them. I’ve always drawn to the self-help section of any bookstore.

Do you find that they really do help you?

Yeah. There was a book a friend of mine gave me that started my self-help journey. It’s a book called Meditation In Action. It’s a book about how to deal with stress while you’re actually in the situations. You think about meditation as being in a peaceful place, but this is more dealing with the workplace or other people on a daily basis. It was a cool book. I read it three or four times.

What are you currently reading?

A friend of mine gave me The War of Art. Going into writing the record I’m writing now I hit a wall and he was like “Yo, if this book doesn’t help you I don’t know what will.” It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s been super helpful as far as when I do get writers block. I have tricks now to get out of those times or getting my mind off knowing that I do have writers block.

As a fan of graphic novels, could you suggest a good place for readers new to the genre?

Frank Miller. He did the Sin City series. They’re really easy to read and the illustrations are amazing. I thought the books would be ruined in the movie and the movie just made me more excited to read more Frank Miller. The story is really bold. There’s not a lot of words but the ones that are there are really powerful. If anybody wanted to jump off into graphic novels those would be the starting point.

Does the books you read directly influence your songwriting?

Yeah, of course. Anything I find valuable and knowledgeable sticks with me, and I think that knowledge is passed on, whether it’s in conversation or song. I think the last time I put something I read directly in a song was on Gym Class Heroes’ album The Quilt. There was a song called “Drnk Txt Rmeo.” I took some lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and twisted them. I don’t know if anyone has actually caught on to that yet. It was pretty fun.

Is there a certain book you would recommend to fans of your music?

There isn’s a certain book, but anything by Shel Silverstein, if fans of my music want to understand where my writing is coming from. They were funny, a lot of them had rhymes to them, the stories were great. My music is telling stories a lot of times and adding some humor and rhymes. Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl helped a lot with that.

Guest Q&A: Colum McCann Interviews Vanessa Manko

ExileColum McCann's contributions to the world of literature go beyond his lyrical, award-winning novels (most recently TransAtlantic). The guy is a ceaseless champ for the written word, whether it's promoting global storytelling via the Narrative4 collective he cofounded or nurturing students at Hunter College's MFA Creative Writing Program.

One of those students, Vanessa Manko, has written a debut novel, The Invention of Exile, based partly on her family's history. Exile (on sale August 14) tells the story of a goodhearted Russian immigrant who's unfairly deported to Russian, then flees to Mexico where he's stranded and separated from his wife and kids. Our thanks to Colum for this intimate Q&A with his former student.

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ColumColum McCann: For me this novel is not only an auspicious debut but it’s a thrilling thing to have in my hands since I’ve known you for so many years as your teacher in the Hunter MFA program. I’m very proud of you. It’s wonderful when the teacher relationship becomes a “colleague” relationship.

Vanessa Manko: Thank you Colum. It was really amazing for me to hand it over to you--the final book as an object.

CM: When you came to Hunter College, you were mostly writing short stories and then you began to work on this novel. So, tell me, how did you make the shift from the short story to the novel, and where did the idea for this novel come from?

VM: The Hunter MFA program gave me the time and space to think about a larger work and to extend and challenge myself. I think working with faculty (like you and Peter Carey) whose life work and focus was on the novel was incredibly influential. The Hertog Fellowship at Hunter also helped me to understand how writers employ research in building the world of a novel. This story had been inside me for a while as it is partly inspired by family history, but I only began to see its potential as a novel when I had the two years at Hunter to work, write and imagine.

CM: The main character, Austin Voronkov, lives in exile in Mexico City. He is a lonely, broken man, yet he has hopes that he will reunite with his family through his inventions. Can you talk about how the theme of invention works in his life and in the novel?

Vanessa Manko (c) Beowulf SheehanVM: As an engineer-turned-inventor, Austin is convinced that his inventions will bring him across the border to his family in the U.S. He has a kind of monomania about it (the same kind of obsessive focus needed to write or invent a novel, in fact). But he also uses his aptitude for invention in another way, meaning he invents his particular reality, haunted by the past and forever focused on a future when he can be with his family. All of this takes place in his mind and memory and imagination so he is in a continual state of reliving or inventing the past and, likewise, his future. Meanwhile, in the present, in Mexico City, he deals with the paranoid fear that an FBI agent has him under surveillance. Is it real? Is it in his mind? His entire life seems to be an invention. And then of course the novel itself is a work of invention so while the main character believes his inventions will bring him across the border to the U.S., the novel is also an attempt to do just that.

CM: The book is set in Mexico City of 1948 and yet shifts back and forth in time and place--from the U.S. in 1919-1920, to Russia, Constantinople and Paris in the 1920s and to Mexico in the 1930s and 40s--allowing us the chance to see Austin facing a variety of difficult events and circumstances. How did you build the world of the novel from one country to the next and one time period to the next and what made you decide on this structure? It fascinates me by the way.  It’s great to see such agility in a writer.

VM: I first had an image in my mind of this lone figure walking around Mexico City, silent and absorbed in a world of his own. I wanted to follow him. We all know and see people like this, mostly in cities, sort of overwhelmed by their surroundings and incredibly fragile. What happened to him or her? What is his or her particular story? I think too about how we learn someone’s story. It doesn’t come all at once, we learn people’s stories in fragments and over time, adding layers and finding out new facets of a person’s character. I wanted the reader to have this experience when getting to know Austin and his story. I knew I had to go back to his past to understand him and then present how the events of his life affected him. So the novel isn’t linear and straightforward. I very consciously knew that it would jump around in time and place and that I would present him one way in Mexico City 1948, older, broken and a little lost, and another way as a young Russian immigrant in the U.S., filled with hope and pride and ambition and then that I would follow him throughout his travels and hardships, eventually allowing the reader to piece together his life and experience and come to understand why he ends up the way that he is. As the novel also deals with a family that has been torn apart, my aim was for this fragmented structure--juxtaposing time and place on the page--to underscore and mirror the disparate life of a refugee family. I wanted the reader to get a sense of dislocation and loss and to empathize with Austin’s experience and the family’s sense of travel and separation and what it is to be divided by borders.

CM: What are you own links with Mexico?  Can you tell me a little about your friendship with Aura? 

 

Continue reading "Guest Q&A: Colum McCann Interviews Vanessa Manko " »

August Debut Spotlight: "Painted Horses" by Malcolm Brooks

It’s tempting to dismiss Malcolm Brooks’s debut as the latest in a series of American epics treading on Cormac McCarthy territory: The Son, Fourth of July Creek, and The Kept come to mind as recent novels dealing with the darker realities of frontiers, both geographical and personal. Like The Son, Painted Horses positions itself at the moment the frontier era gives way to modernity: in mid-century Montana, a dam project threatens to flood a canyon historically inhabited by Native Americans, submerging thousands of years of Crow history under hundreds of feet of slack water. When the inexperienced Catherine Lemay is appointed to survey the canyon for cultural evidence that could thwart the dam-builders, she assumes one corner of a Faustian triangle with a scheming hydroelectric shill and the mysterious John H, a rugged, reticent horse whisperer who opens the secrets of the country to the young archaeologist. Tangled relationships, difficult decisions, and hard compromises ensue. Decades and continents are spanned, and history unfolds. Maybe we’ve read this before?

But dismissing Painted Horses for its Western tropes would ignore just how good this book is. Brooks's prose is stylistically bold, announcing his artistic aspirations from the opening sentence. His characters are carefully drawn, yet their intentions remain ambiguous enough to be authentically human. His Montana is vivid, wild, and broad, and it’s obvious that Brooks lives where he writes, and loves where he lives. Ultimately, Brooks accomplishes no small feat in this remarkable debut: a tale of literary ambition that lives comfortably inside its genre roots, but not by its conventions.

Painted Horses is the Debut Spotlight selection for Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for August 2014. Watch our interview with Malcom Brooks at Book Expo America below.

 

Painted Horses

New in Paperback: "Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia

PilgrimsWildernessThough this article was originally published July 16, 2013, we're taking the paperback publication of Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness as an opportunity to revisit one of our favorite books of last year.

 

When the "Pilgrim" family rolled into the old mining outpost of McCarthy, Alaska, they were a sight to behold: Robert "Papa Pilgrim" Hale, his wife Country Rose, and their 15 children--an old-fashioned, piously Christian family from another time, packed into two ramshackle campers. Looking for the space and freedom to live out their lives as they pleased, they were welcomed as kindred souls by the ghost town's few residents. A tad eccentric, they quickly ingratiated themselves into the tiny frontier community through Papa's charisma, their apparent dedication to self-reliance, and occasional family performances of their unique blend of gospel and bluegrass, music that seemed to soar on the conviction of their beliefs. And when they purchased an old mining claim in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park with plans to permanently settle there (dubbing it “Hillbilly Heaven”), it seemed the Pilgrim family had come home to the last existing place in America that suited them.

But Hale chafed against the regulations that came with being a National Park inholder, and he quickly adopted an adversarial stance with the NPS, refusing to communicate with or even acknowledge its rangers. Everything went sideways when he bulldozed a road to town across national park lands, stopping just short of McCarthy in an attempt to avoid scrutiny. It didn't work. When the road was discovered by backpackers, NPS agents were fast on the scene and all over the Pilgrims' activities, and suddenly the humble hermit became a lightning rod for property-rights activists in McCarthy, Alaska, and far beyond.

That's where Tom Kizzia entered the story. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, he wrote a series of lengthy articles on the family's struggle with the federal government, and he soon discovered that Papa's past belied the tales he told about himself and his clan. This simple man of faith carried a long, strange, and troubled history: the violent death of his first wife, whom he married when she was 16, and who also happened to be the daughter of Texas governor John Connally; his hippie phase (when he went by the name "Sunstar"), filled with drug-fueled epiphanies and raging outbursts; a contentious relationship with his neighbors in the New Mexico wilderness, who accused Hale of casual disregard for laws that didn't suit his interests (especially the ones related to "Thou shalt not steal"); and worst of all, a dominion over his children that hinted at the most vile forms of abuse. As the situation with the NPS degraded and grew more tense, Hale's behavior became more erratic, driving himself and the entire town toward a denouement worthy of the creepiest Robert Mitchum movies.

With Pilgrim's Wilderness, Kizzia has expanded on his original reporting and written a spellbinding tale of narcissism and religious mania's concussive effects on Hale's family and adopted town, a book that's likely to end up on many year-end Best Of lists. Kizzia answered our questions about Hale, McCarthy, and the town's relationship with the National Park Service.

 

Hale-TwinsHow did you first come to the story of Robert Hale and his family?

This started with a renegade bulldozer in a national park. As a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, it seemed like a good news story. I’d heard from friends out in McCarthy that this guy, Papa Pilgrim, was stirring up the ghost town. I wanted to go out to his wilderness homestead to meet him and his family of 15 kids. When he heard I had a cabin nearby, he said yes, and suddenly I was tumbling down the rabbit hole.
 
“Papa Pilgrim” was a mess of contradictions: he idolized his FBI father and took advantage of benefits such as food stamps and Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, and yet he vigorously agitated and undermined the federal government, particularly the National Park Service. Were his anti-government convictions honest (if confused), or self-serving and opportunistic?

Mostly the latter. He needed enemies to hold his family together. But he was reflexively anti-establishment. Which makes the FBI dad a rich twist. As for being anti-government while accepting government handouts, Alaskans by and large don’t spend too much time worrying about that contradiction.

Continue reading "New in Paperback: "Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia" »

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