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Author Interviews

The Wilderness Within: Author Diane Cook on "Man V. Nature"

Man V. NatureClaire Cameron and I have something in common: we both like books about the struggle between humans and the natural world, especially when nature has the upper hand (see her list of "The Best Books About Getting Eaten" as proof). Her 2014 novel, The Bear, is the tale of camping trip gone wrong: 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. Told through the voice of the young girl, it made the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, which you may know by its former name, the Orange Prize.

So when I saw Man V. Nature--a collection of short stories about humans in peril, and particularly the ways they deal with it--passing it along to Claire seemed the obvious choice. And she liked it, enough to suggest an interview with author Diane Cook. Their conversation follows.


I was immediately intrigued by the title of Diane Cook’s new collection of stories, Man V. Nature. My intrigue doubled when I found that the title story is set on a raft.

I make a grand claim that I’ve read every "stranded on a raft" story in print. It’s probably not true, but maybe I’m close? Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an introduction to another Richard Parker in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. From there I’ve spent 76 days lost at sea in Adrift with Steven Callahan and 117 days Staying Alive with Maurice and Maralyn Bailey.

I won’t go on forever, but my point is that "stranded on a raft" is almost like its own established genre. There is pressure on the writer who takes it on. She must bring something new.

When I saw that Cook had her own "stranded on a raft" story all I could think was, "Oh yeah? Surprise me." She did so, in spades. The title story in Man V. Nature seethes with heat, rejection and twisted perception. Like the very best raft stories, it pinpoints that moment where being lost in the wild brings out the wild in us.

I found myself enthralled by all of the stories in this collection. Not only are they surprising, but also fresh, funny, sad, often surreal and oddly true.

When I finished, I knew this was a writer I wanted to know more about. Cook, just back from the wilderness of her book tour, answered my questions by email.

--Claire Cameron

 

Claire Cameron: Your stories place characters in survival situations, like the three friends lost on a dinghy, co-workers in an office disaster, a woman in a shelter who is waiting for a placement with a new husband, and feral boys struggling to live through winter. All this hardship and I found myself cracking up. Why am I laughing?

Diane Cook: I’m glad you’re laughing. In general, I’m a funny person and my worldview, even when sad, is still rueful. Also, I think that as unreal as the situations in the stories are they aren’t at all unrealistic. There is the feeling (to me and I hope to other readers) that these are situations entirely possible even if they wouldn’t actually ever come to fruition. That they are things people ultimately are capable of. Which is uncomfortable.

Man V. NatureHumanity has come up with the most awful ideas and has rationalized them so successfully. And so there is the lightest dusting of satire and/or cynicism over the stories. This knowing wink is a bit of a relief in situations that would otherwise make us squirm. It’s comic. The knowing wink also leads us to some hope too. We recognize what’s wrong in these worlds. That’s half the battle.

CC: At the beginning of the collection you quote Emily Dickinson: "The Wilderness is new--to you. / Master let me lead you." I kept coming back to this and thinking about it. My idea: In your stories it is often a character's instinctive response to the unknown that leads to something new. What does the quote mean to you?

DC: In an abstract way, the quote says something to me about the characters and the worlds they are inhabiting. The characters are often bewildered by something their world is presenting them. They are new to it and need some kind of guidance. As the stories go on, who and what offers relief is unexpected and surprising. But I think leaders and guiding philosophies exist in the stories.

And the wilderness as an idea is very important to me, be it a wild wood, a bewildering society, or a wilderness of the mind. But the quote actually comes from a letter Emily Dickinson wrote to her longtime publisher and editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. I believe she is writing about the recent death of his wife. And so the Wilderness is the grief after death and she is offering help as he navigates this new terrain, the landscape of grief and loss, a landscape she knows.

This is important to me too. My mother died just before I began writing in earnest and I know that many of these stories are grappling with loss in some sense. I began to work out some of my feelings of loss by watching my characters go through their paces with grief of all kinds.

CC: A few of the stories are set in worlds where civilization has collapsed in some way, yet the collection as a whole feels hopeful. Like in 'Moving On', a widowed woman in a shelter is placed with a new husband and manages to find good. Are people inherently hopeful?

DC: I’m glad you see the hope in here. I definitely do. I think people must be hopeful otherwise, why go on?

Each breath into the next is an affirming step toward more life. I really think of it coming down to each moment. Each breath is an inherently hopeful thing. In this next instant anything is possible, isn’t it?

Even when my characters hit a wall or find themselves far from where they’d hoped to end up, they are still making the effort to survive, whether in a world-ending flood, or just survive the ending of some relationship. The book is about this yearning to survive, an almost desperate one. And to me that is the same as hope.

CC: Some of your stories are a refreshing take on social norms, like the teacher in "Meteorologist Dave Santana" who has sex for pleasure. She is also somewhat of a misfit because the other teachers don't know how to be around someone with "no secret shame, guilt, trauma or self-hatred." Why do we suppress our instincts?

DC: This is one of my main fascinations in life, which must be why I end up writing about it so much in the book. All the characters grapple with this tension between how they want to behave and how they must behave. Some give in to impulses, others don’t.

In my own life I tend to catalogue these moments myself and wonder why I act how I act, and wonder how different I am from others when it comes to my impulses. I think we suppress our impulses as an overture of peace. I do what is expected of me in certain situations because someone, usually someone I love or someone who has influence over me, expects it. Or because I know that to not behave in a certain way causes problems for everyone else.

I’m the kind of person who tries to avoid making more work or hardship for others. I am, however, endlessly fascinated by people who don’t live like this. Fascinated and perhaps a little jealous sometimes. I write about these people sometimes, and other times I write the characters who are more like me.

In this way I end up stringing together a kind of portrait of how complicated it can feel to be a regular person in the world.

CC: The wilderness looms everywhere in your book, sometimes in the center of the story, sometimes in the edges and sometimes inside a character. What is the wild to your writing?

DC: I get most of my inspiration from the natural world. Many of the situations in these stories came from my observations of the lives of wild things and asking myself how humans would deal with a similar situation.

Like, with the story "Somebody’s Baby," I was thinking about how precarious the lives of newborn animals are in the wild and how there are always predators waiting to strike when a mother isn’t looking. Danger is just a way of life. And survival is a daily thought. I wondered how mothers in a suburb might react to a threat that is unavoidable and constant. Loss in the wild is a stark and common thing. I love thinking of humans as wild things just farther along a spectrum of being.

And I try to keep that sense of wildness in my characters. For me it is the only way the actions of people can begin to make sense. I think we’d be so much more comfortable in our skin as people or as a society if we didn’t deny our wild lineage. It’s always been my belief that the world makes more sense when we acknowledge that sometimes our rationality is at odds with our instincts.

Little Humans, Big Humanity

Little HumansBrandon Stanton is a big human. Aside from being just a literally big dude, he's big in spirit: genuinely friendly, enthusiastic, empathetic, and interested in people. All these  characteristics made his Humans of New York blog and subsequent book both poignant and extremely popular--as well as garnering him recognition as one of Time magazine's 30 People Under 30 Changing the World.

This fall, he followed up with Little Humans, 40 pages of his favorite portraits of his younger subjects--both from the blog and previously unseen--that will delight the littlest readers and shutterbugs.

Brandon stopped by our room at Book Expo America to talk about the book, his approach to street photography, and his one essential tip for taking great pictures of kids. And true to his good nature, he was totally cool when the Secret Service shunted us into a stairwell to make way for an appearance by Hillary Clinton next door. 

UPDATE: OMG. Watch the video of the little humans reading Little Humans at the end of this post.

 

 

The Goodreads Interview: Stephen King

Goodreads_icon_1000x1000Thanks to our friends at Goodreads for this excerpt from their recent interview with Stephen King, whose new novel, Revival, was selected as one of Amazon's Best Books of 2014.

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KINGJust when you think Stephen King's well of pitch-black, sleep-with-the-lights-on horror must surely be running dry, he finds new and possibly even darker ways to terrify us. His latest novel, Revival, sees the author of more than 50 global bestsellers—including The Shining, Pet Sematary, and It—return to the "balls to the wall" (King's words) supernatural horror with which he made his name.

In a recent Twitter post about the book, King told readers, "If you're going to buy it, better tone up your nerves." His publisher, Nan Graham, said that upon reading it, "I asked Steve whether it really had to be this dark, knowing before he answered that, yes, it does.

Indeed King dedicates Revival, out this month, to "some of the people who built my house," including Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and H.P. Lovecraft. A story of fate, rock and roll, religion, obsession, and addiction, it follows Jamie Morton, a boy from Maine whose life becomes inextricably bound to his onetime childhood pastor, an increasingly sinister figure who performs mysterious electrical "healing" sessions.

Despite a near-fatal accident 15 years ago, after which he considered retiring, King remains prolific. Revival marks the author's fourth novel in two years: In June he released Mr. Mercedes, billed (on his website) as his "first hard-boiled detective tale"), and last year the 67-year-old published Joyland and Doctor Sleep, his gripping sequel to The Shining.

King tells Goodreads what inspired Revival, how tea by the gallon rather than drugs and alcohol now fuel his craft, and why he loves collaborating with his novelist sons, Joe Hill and Owen King.

Goodreads: Congratulations on the un-put-down-able Revival; my children almost went hungry. What was your inspiration for this book? And is it really "the most terrifying conclusion" you've ever written?

Stephen King: The inspiration was Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, which is a terrifying story about the world that might exist beyond this one. Other influences were Lovecraft, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and my own religious upbringing. And I've been wanting to write about tent show healings for a long time!

I wanted to write a balls-to-the-wall supernatural horror story, something I haven't done in a long time. I also wanted to use Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, but in a new fashion, if I could, stripping away Lovecraft's high-flown language.

GR: The book is concerned with what you call the "fifth business," "change agent," or "nemesis"—the person who pops up at regular intervals throughout life with a purpose yet to be revealed. Who is this person in your life, if there is one?

SK: I think we rarely recognize the fifth business in our lives at the time those people are changing us. As a writer, I'd have to say it was Philip Roth, who first spoke to me in college when I read [Roth's 1967 novel] When She Was Good. Since then, he's shown up again and again, at 10- or 20-year intervals, always saying—through his work—"Come a little farther. Do a little better."

GR: How did your experience of addiction and playing in a rock band (the Rock Bottom Remainders) inform your portrayal of the hero Jamie Morton?

SK: There's a saying—"Write what you know." It's bad advice if you take it as an unbreakable rule, but good advice if you use it as a foundation. I did spend years as an addict, so I know that world, although I wish I didn't. When it comes to rock music, I'm not much of a player, but I do have entry-level chops. I'm more knowledgeable as a listener, and Revival gave me a way to write about rock and roll without being preachy or boring. Through Jamie I had a chance to talk about how important rock is to me and how it lifted my life.

GR: Revival seems as much a meditation on family and aging, love and loss, as it is a mystery/horror story. Was this your intention from the outset?

SK: I never have a thematic intention at the outset. The story informs the theme for me rather than the other way around. But as it happens, you're right—this is, at least to a degree, about getting old and the rapid passage of our lives. "It's a damn short movie," James McMurtry says, "how'd we ever end up here?"

GR: There's a line on page 25 that says, "Writing is a wonderful and terrible thing. It opens deep wells of memory that were previously capped." How true is this for you in your fiction?

SK: Writing is like being in a dream state or under self-directed hypnosis. It induces a state of recall that—while not perfect—is pretty spooky.

GR: Which of your books/stories are you most attached to and why?

...READ THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW AT GOODREADS.COM...

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About the interviewer:

Catherine Elsworth is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Cond&eacute Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.

Dean Koontz Interviews His Dog, Anna, Who Interviews Him

Dean Koontz's latest novel is The City. On December 9 he's publishing a Kindle Single, Odd Thomas.

His dog Anna's, ahem, new book is Ask Anna: Advice for the Furry and Forlorn.

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Dean Interviews Anna

AnnaDEAN: Hey, sweetie, how does it feel to see your first book, Ask Anna, in print?

ANNA: Better than a bee stinging me on the nose, maybe not as good as being given a membership in the Sausage-of-the-Month Club. I'm a little worried about the celebrity thing, so I've ordered a custom disguise that makes me look like a poodle.

DEAN: There's an article in your book that reveals how people like Noah and Albert Einstein changed history by listening carefully to their dogs' advice. Are you aware of any more recent famous people who failed to heed the advice of their dogs?

ANNA: Tragically, yes. Mr. Johnny Depp's dog warned him not to play Tonto.

DEAN: Is there any down side to a dog being a successful author?

ANNA: Carpal-tunnel paw. Hollywood wanting to buy the film rights and recast me as a gerbil to be played by Adam Sandler in a furry suit. Perhaps a catty review here and there. Static electricity from the computer screen standing my fur on end, so that for hours at a time I go around looking as if I stuck my tongue in a wall plug.

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Anna Interviews Dean

Koontz2ANNA: Hey, Dad, what's it like having to share the limelight with me now that I'm a published author?

DEAN: I have no jealousy whatsoever. I hope you enjoy a career that is bigger than mine. And don't worry: I would never--never!--put one of those annoying post-surgery cones around your head for no reason at all except envy or something. And I would never--never!--change your name to Pussycat and make you answer to it.

ANNA: Good to know. Sometimes we go for a ride in the car and you let me drive, and then you insist on sticking your head out the window. Are you mocking me when you do that?

DEAN: No, short stuff. It's fun! All the great smells!! My ears flapping in the breeze!!! People pointing and laughing!!!!

ANNA: Since my book is about advice, is there any advice I've given you that you're sorry you didn't take?

DEAN: That incident with the angry ferret comes to mind. But they sewed the thumb back on nearly where it was before, and I can still hitchhike with it if I ever need to.

ANNA: Hey, Dad, let me put the loop of my leash around your hand, and I'll take you for a walk.

DEAN: Great! Can we go to the park? Can we? Can we? Will you throw the ball for me? Better yet, the stick! Will you throw the stick?!?

~

> See all of Dean Koontz's books

> See Anna on Facebook

Punk Rock Girl

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A MemoirViv Albertine's new memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. is a book is divided almost straight down the middle. Side One is the story of her upbringing in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill: It's the mid-seventies, and the Sex Pistols are at the head of a massive, angry (or at least frustrated) cultural insurgence. Her rebellious tendencies have led her into the center of punk culture, and inspired by its outsized personalities and  confrontational style, she picks up a guitar, forsaking traditional training for the DIY ethos of the day. After her band with the pre-Pistols Sid Vicious (The Flowers of Romance--a possibly sardonic suggestion from Johnny Rotten) fails to launch, Albertine joins forces with The Slits, a ska-infused, all-girl outfit that, through the force of its collective will and audacity, elbows its way to the front of a stage filled with sharp, mostly male elbows. Everyone is wearing Vivenne Westwood's provocative clothing purchased from Malcolm McLaren's infamous boutique, SEX--at least as much as they could afford. Mick Jones of The Clash wanders in and out of the story, first as a gangly proto-punk spending all of his time and loose change trying to put together a band, and later as Albertine's on-again, off-again boyfriend (the classic London Calling track "Train in Vain" was inspired by her). It's a story in the best rock & roll tradition: Initiative leads. Ability chases. Success looms. Then someone bumps the turntable.

Side Two. The band has blown apart. Grownup problems ensue: education and career; marriage and kids; serious illness, divorce, and identity. The actor Vincent Gallo. Albertine moves through all of it, drawing from the same well of determination that compelled her to pick up the guitar for the first time. The two sides of the book may tell very different stories, but they share perspective and style that are both straightforward and ultimately uncompromising. If you love this music (and your library contains titles like Please Kill Me and Richard Hell's I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp), then this book is fascinating and essential. If not, it's fascinating and inspiring. It's occasionally coarse, and often terribly funny and fun.

In the spirit of the title, we asked Albertine three memorable examples of the three main themes: clothes, music, and boys.

 

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes
Your three memorable articles of clothing or outfits, where & when you wore them, where you got them, and what made them special.

My first cool outfit was by mail order, all the rage in the 1960s. It was a purple corduroy three piece suit, a fitted jacket, mini-skirt and hipster bell-bottom trousers with big belt loops. It came in pieces, so my mother had to sew it all together. Best of all there was a "Donovan" peaked cap included, like a Dylan cap, which I wore to death.

When I first went to Vivienne Westwood's shop "Sex" in 1975, I couldn’t believe that what I was thinking about and drawing at art college, someone else had thought to put onto clothes. I’d never thought of combining erotica, feminism and insurgency with items of clothing. I wore this look with my own embellishments from that day onwards and I didn’t have one peaceful journey through London for the next six years because of it.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaAs my 18-year marriage started to fall apart, because I’d started to play my Telecaster again (still a powerful weapon in the wrong hands), I began to think about how I was dressing. I had become very conventional, not wanting to be noticed, hiding away in a nice house by the coast away from London, and I had to think again about who I was, who I wanted to project with my clothes. You hear all these phrases like "mutton dressed as lamb," but I think good taste is good taste whatever age you are, and clashing prints with cuban heels now or matted hair and loads of black eye-liner back then are good taste - my version of good taste.

Music, Music, Music
Three inspiring/influential/rewarding musical experiences of your life. Bands that you’ve seen, shows that you’ve played, people you’ve met, or any other musical moment.

The first time a live show transported me was when I saw Fleetwood Mac play at a free night-time outdoor concert on a wild piece of land called Hampstead Heath near my home in North London. Everything about the evening was dark and mysterious and forbidden. Fleetwood Mac came on and played "Albatross," the guitars wailed over the tops of the black silhouetted trees, I felt like I was flying and swooping with them.

The second time has to be when I saw the Sex Pistols live at Chelsea School of Art. I was transfixed by Johnny Rotten, not because he was extraordinary, but because he was as near someone like me that I had ever seen on stage and I found that shocking, inspiring and fascinating. He couldn’t sing or play an instrument (like me), he came from North London, a poor family, below-average schooling, bad housing (all like me) and yet unlike me, he wasn’t ashamed, apologetic or embarrassed about any of this. The next day I went out and bought a Les Paul Junior and started to learn to play guitar.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaI stopped playing music for twenty five years. I felt it wasn’t an interesting medium anymore. By 2008 a couple of things had happened, the internet (making it possible to reach people without the conduit of record company men), I became healthy again and I went back to art school one day a week to explore my thoughts and feelings creatively. All this made me want to pick up the guitar and play and write songs again. Big changes in your life aren’t always about eureka moments, sometimes it’s just painfully slow, hard work and dogged determination.

Boys, Boys, Boys
Three who had a profound effect on her life, good or not so good.

The thing is, in the 1970s, ordinary girls and women were very repressed and oppressed, we had no role models, I never once met an interesting woman, in the arts or music who I could imagine being. They weren’t even in the media. The first woman who resonated with me was Yoko Ono. So I was influenced by boys. I wanted to do things boys did and I dated boys that interested me on that level. That realisation has made boys less interesting to me. What do I want or need from them now? Especially now I have my own home and a child. If it’s just about companionship, for years on end…well, that person is hard to find, male or female.

The three boys I nominate are: my first proper boyfriend, Magnus (who I still know and love, we are neighbours), he was interesting, well-read, an amazing artist, from a poor background, and I followed in his footsteps for a while to gigs and art school. I was thirteen, he was fifteen and we went out together for three years.

Viv Albertine by Carolina AmbidaNumber two has to be Mick Jones (guitarist with the Clash) who I met at art school when I was nineteen. I watched as he tried over and over again to form bands, full of passion, love of music and determination, which was very rare in a young person back then. He was also extremely intelligent, self-taught, interested in politics and all aspects of life. From him I learnt how to run a band. We are still friends and love each other too.

Number three is myself. I am the boy now. I am whole. I don’t look to a man to complete me, to inspire me, to lead me somewhere I haven’t quite got the courage to go to by myself. It’s taken fifty or so years to get here. Love and romance sure do look different from this perspective. Most relationships look a bit pathetic to me to be honest. I am questioning what two people are doing, clinging together for years and years on end, way past the relationship’s sell-by date. I would like a new paradigm to be the norm, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

Photos 1 and 2 by Carolina Ambida; photo 3 courtesy the author

Amazon Asks: Patricia Cornwell, on Her New Novel, "Flesh and Blood"

Flesh and Blood is Patricia Cornwell's twenty-second novel featuring forensic sleuth Dr. Kay Scarpetta. This time Scarpetta pursues a sharp-shooting serial sniper, and her investigation leads too close to a family member--her own flesh and blood. Flesh and Blood is an Amazon Best Mystery-Thriller of the Month.

Cornwell

Describe your new book in 10 words?

Cornwell2Scarpetta is unstoppable.

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

My iPhone is loaded with a huge library of Kindle titles that make it easy for me to read while traveling. Some of the latest are Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and All We Had by Annie Weatherwax.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Book that changed your life, or made you want to become a writer?

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Books can change the world and fix what is horribly broken.

What are you obsessed with or stressed about now?

The Bermuda Triangle and Jack the Ripper (not stressed, just hugely motivated).

What's your most prized/treasured literary possession?

A book about Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture that was signed by Agatha Christie (which was a gift from her to someone named "Lucy Boo." I sure wish I knew who that was).

Pen Envy -- book you wish you'd written, or character you wish you’d created?

Okay, I admit I wish I'd created Sherlock Holmes.

What's favorite method of procrastination, temptation or vice?

Playing with our bulldog.

What do you collect?

Art by Dr. Seuss and really cool belt buckles.

Best/worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

Best: Don't take no for an answer. Worst: Do something else because you'll never make a living as a writer.

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> See all of Patricia Cornwell's books

 

Excerpts from "BOMB: The Author Interviews" - Featuring Colm Toibin, Chris Abani, Patrick McGrath, and Martin Amis

BOMB-Author-InterviewsFor more than thirty years, BOMB magazine has been pairing artists, authors, poets, and painters together for intimate artist-on-artist conversations, more than 1,200 of them so far. In BOMB: The Author Interviews, published last week by Soho Press, the magazine's editor, Betsy Sussler, has compiled an incredible collection of authors interviewing authors: an unknown Jonathan Franzen; Roberto Bolaño, just before he died; Lydia Davis and Francine Prose; Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz; Jennifer Egan and Heidi Juilavits; and many more.

Below are snippets from two of those conversations, featuring two authors featured on Amazon's Best Books of the Year list: Colm Tóibín (Nora Webster), in conversation with with Chris Abani (The Secret History of Las Vegas), and Martin Amis (The Zone of Interest), in conversation with Patrick McGrath (Constance).

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CHRIS ABANI: I play with sexuality in all my books. There’s an ambiguity to all my characters. In The Virgin of Flames, the protagonist wants to be a woman. I write my characters from the inside out. There’s no spectacle to it, so of course the first question is, Where is your body in relationship to this text? That always fascinates me. Before I wrote this book about this guy who wants to be a woman—I had always prided myself on, while being straight, being not homophobic at all. Until I wrote a scene where the character is finally about to make love to a transsexual stripper but realizes that that’s not what he wants. In fact, he wants to occupy the stripper’s position. And you have that whole Crying Game moment, but instead of the penis revelation being the thing, it’s the penis disappearance. So this transsexual stripper is teaching this guy how to disappear his penis, so that he could wear a G-string were he to perform as a stripper. I researched it on the Internet. My girlfriend at the time read what I had written and said, “This reads like a manual.” The rest of the book was beautiful but then it’s, “Okay, over here we have the penis.” I really had to go there, so I hired someone who performs as a woman. I said, “Okay, show me how to do this.”

COLM TÓIBÍN: Do you have his number? (laughter)

ABANI: I wanted to ask you, did coming out change your interaction with the text or with readership or with editorship or all of this?

ToibinTÓIBÍN: Yeah. For me, writing down the opening section of The Story of the Night and publishing it, was a very big moment. It was like what you were describing, except I realized I was going to go on being it, even if I stopped writing about it. It was like writing down the truth, which is something we should all be very suspicious of. And the question then is that of putting the truth genie back in the bottle. I would like a rest from either being gay, gay, gay or being Irish, Irish, Irish. Some other thing you could be—French, maybe, or very old, or clean-living—I might try. Obviously, being a woman would be terrific. I did it in my first novel so I suppose I cannot do it again. I wish there were more categories. I suppose there will be in time.

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PATRICK MCGRATH: Evil accumulates?

MARTIN AMIS: Evil takes it out of you. Evil’s always been winning.

MCGRATH: Why should evil keep on winning? 

AMIS: Perhaps because the brain is partly reptilian. I have a rather schmaltzy notion of human potentiality which is, in fact, embodied in literature. 

MCGRATH: How do you mean? 

AmisAMIS: It’s a commonplace that literature evolves in a certain way but it doesn’t improve. It just stays there. It’s a model. I think literature has not just been about, but embodies: the best. The best that humans can do. 

MCGRATH: The best moral thought? 

AMIS: The best moral thought. The representation of humanity at the crest of itself. Something like that. In fact, I’ve never understood why the idea of literature as religion was demolished so quickly. It seems to me that would be a tenable way of looking at it. It’s a constant, making something out of the present and the past at the same time. Certainly an elitist thing, there’s no question about that. But it’s an elite open to everyone. 

MCGRATH: Do you see it decaying alongside everything else? 

AMIS: Literature? No. I mean, they say the novel is dead. Well, try and stop people writing novels. Or poems. There’s no stopping people. I suppose it’s conceivable that no one will know how to spell in fifty years’ time, but not while the books are still there. You don’t need a structure. The autodidact is omnipresent in fiction.

Martin Short: Humble Comedy Legend

I Must Say by Martin ShortYou might know him best as Ed Grimley, the grimacing, high-trousered pop-culture nerd of the rhinoceros-worthy quiff. Or maybe Jiminy Glick, the Hollywood "insider" who packs both obsequiousness and obliviousness into a single awkward, inapproptiate package. Over his long career, Martin Short has created countless iconic characters, filling many roles across a career spanning SCTV, Saturday Night Live, and dozens of films.

His new autobiography, I Must Say, is the story of his remarkable life--hilarious, heartbreaking, and inspiring. From his showbiz-obsessed childhood to Toronto's Second City improv troupe to Hollywood success as a "humble comedy legend," we meet his friends, loves, and co-conspirators: Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, Nora Ephron, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Shaffer, David Letterman all make appearances, as do Steve Martin and Tom Hanks (in fact, their pre-colonoscopy ritual is not to be missed). We also learn how his upbeat sensibilities helped him cope with the losses of his older brother and both parents within months of each other, and more recently, his wife of thirty years. 

Short stopped by our room at Book Expo America in May to talk about the book, inspiration for writing it, and a few of his most memorable characters.

 

Video: An Interview with Author and "Font Nerd" Lena Dunham
-- "I Love the World of Books"

DunhamPraise for Lena Dunham’s memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, has come from all angles: David Sedaris (“A fine, subversive book”), Judy Blume (“Always funny, sometimes wrenching”), George Saunders (“smart, honest, sophisticated, dangerous, and charming”), Miranda July (“hilarious, artful, and staggeringly intimate.”) At Amazon, our reviewer Brittany Pirozzolo called it “Thoughtful, hilarious, and exquisitely-written … like reading your quirky big sister's diary.” 

In this interview (taped at Book Expo America in New York back in May), the writer, creator, and star of HBO’s hit show Girls discusses how writing was actually her first love, and has remained a passion, as has reading. “I love the world of books,” she said.

Writing the essays that comprise Not That Kind of Girl gave her back the “one on one relationship with writing” that she’s missed while working on Girls.

Not That Kind of Girl was Amazon's Best Book of the Month "Debut Spotlight" in October, and was named one of our 100 Best Books of 2014.

How I Wrote It: Frederick Barthelme, on Dictation, Tornadoes, Dishwashers--and Chocolate

BathelmeFrederick Barthelme's new novel is There Must Be Some Mistake.

~~~

How

When starting a new project I first gather all I’ve got in the way of unused text--fragments of stories, scenes cut from novels, sketches, characters, complaints I’ve jotted down, jokes once-loved, whatever. All this stuff has little in common save once it was important enough to draft. I put this mess into a single file and begin The Rewrite. It’s building a monster out of body parts. I stitch the stuff together, revising, extending, smoothing, shaping, seeing where it leads me. I change things without a thought--names, places, times--always trying to find the drama in the microscopic without losing the macroscopic, trying to remember that characters have political and social notions embedded in their lives. For me this embeddedness of beliefs in the characters and their world is the real heart of fiction, and the way fiction works. I take mismatched parts and unify them, jam them together in the middle of a dinner party at someone’s house, add a couple of disinterested guests to lively up the show, and maybe something happening out in the kitchen, where things are always happening. Then I rewrite until a sentence, a paragraph, a scene catches me in a way that seems essential. Then I move on.

This “method” often delivers wonderfully unforeseen results, strange aspects of character, angles on the world that feel fresh and enrich the story, which is what the work is turning out to be by now. For my money, the cardinal rule is keep yourself guessing, surprise yourself, as if printing a photograph that gradually reveals things you had no idea were present.

Eventually all the elements are stitched together seamlessly--these characters in these settings living these lives that resemble our own, but are, in the final balance, wholly fabricated. What we have is a story or a book, a celebration, a festival of argument and suggestion, cajolery, seduction; a gift to the reader in hopes of finding a shared world.

Barthelme-office copyWhere & When

I write mostly after midnight. Years ago I worked on a typewriter at a desk, a door on two sawhorses. Later I used a computer. Later still, I began dictating into a mini cassette tape recorder. I wrote anywhere and everywhere. Two Against One was the first novel entirely dictated. I did it in bed, walking around the neighborhood, in the car, in stores. I wanted to change the prose, make it messier, more inclusive, so I dictated. I liked it. It was fresh and interesting to work that way. Double Down’s first draft was done mostly in lovely darkness on the beach at Fort Morgan, Alabama, in an aluminum folding chair. Bob the Gambler was dictated while driving around town, incorporating whatever sights were to be seen in the early morning hours. Elroy Nights was also a car book. All were dictated in sequence, sometimes edited and rearranged later. Then, with Waveland, I started using the computer again to do the basic text entry.

Most of the latest novel was written in my home office (hello Internal Revenue Service), at a desk, with my feet up, on a MacBook. It’s so small you really feel connected to it in some special way, so it’s a treat to write with.

In February 2012, with a tornado coming, we hastily abandoned the house, thus were absent when the roof came off, the ceiling fell, the lovely pink insulation drifted down, and the two-by-fours flung themselves through the windows. This excitement resulted in a two-month stay at the pet friendly Candlewood Suites, where the ongoing rewrites were done in a moderately antiseptic first floor suite, brown in color. (See the photo below.) We took the first floor the better to provide access to the outdoors for Marshall, everyone’s favorite Springer spaniel.

Space

I’m not the kind of writer to put encouraging quotes or snapshots or other small objects with special meaning around my work place. I’m afraid this kind of thing seems corny to me--the whole idea of surrounding oneself with “meaningful” tokens to spur the muse. I like the muse to keep its distance. And the knick-knacks, too, though it is certainly possible I take too hard a line on this.

By contrast, I’ll happily have the silent television running where I’m working, the better to steal some peculiar bit caught out the corner of my eye. And I will have the windows open if possible. I just don’t want a lot of preciousness around. I’m in my head when writing, and there’s a lot of stuff already in there, and that’s what I attend to. If I want something corny in the story, I want it to emerge “naturally” from my own corny heart.

Tools

With this book I downloaded Scrivener. Ordinarily I use Word like everyone else, so I cringed at the thought of special “writing” software. But once I figured out how Scrivener worked I found it very helpful. It fit my process perfectly. Easy to get things in the order I wanted, painless at text entry, good reorganization, a breeze. It was great and I now recommend it. What’s best about it is that it keeps the whole project at your fingertips in a way word processors can’t. You have all your chapters, sections, bits and pieces right there in a column on the left and the text of the moment on the right. If you want to check something, connect with a prior chapter, move a scene, remind yourself, whatever, it’s all right there in front of you. A big help for longer works. Five stars.

Soundtrack

I like things quiet when I work, so night is good. I love the ringing in my ears and the comforting hum of the air conditioning, the hiss of cars speeding by, whatever outside sounds manage to creep into consciousness. I’ll listen to music (using earphones, because it’s the middle of the night and there are sleepers sleeping), and when I do it’s usually non-tragic, non-hysterical stuff like Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, the early Dollar Brand, many of the ECM players, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Django of course, Miles of Silent Way, and, if I’m particularly giddy, the nutball trumpet of Lester Bowie in the late I Only Have Eyes for You period. I like some classical music, old and new, and I love the sounds made by home appliances--dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, hot water heaters, coffee makers. Some years ago I proposed to the record company that we release a record of a forty-two minute gourmet recording of my dishwasher. I made a demo CD complete with attractive cover. The CD was called Great Washer and it was beautiful in every aspect. It did not fly. Now, these many years later, I note that some shallow personages are posting low quality digital files of their lesser dishwashers on the YouTube. Sleep aids, they say.

Fuel

Chocolate.

~

> See all of Barthelme's books.

Barthelme-motellife

 

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