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Author Interviews

Amazon Asks: Francine Prose on Advice from Mavis Gallant, Negotiating Her First Advance, and the "Ultimate Empowered Little Girl"

Chameleon Club Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is Francine Prose's 17th novel (and 27th book, counting nonfiction and young adult titles). And even this longtime fan considers it one of her very best. The story of bohemian Paris between the World Wars, it's bawdy and racy and not a little brave. Prose says it all started with a photograph she saw in a museum, a shot of two women at a table in a French bar: "one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in [male] drag." Et voila: a novel was born.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

First I hit the panic button so we stall between floors, giving me a little more time to say: It's about what Paris was like and how it changed in the 20 years between 1924-1944. At the book's center is a woman, a professional athlete/auto racer and cross-dresser who attended the 1936 Berlin Olympics and became a spy for the Germans. The book is about (and told by) the people around her: a baroness who fostered her racing career; the brilliant photographer who took an iconic portrait of her and her lover; an American novelist; a heroine of the French Resistance; the owner of a legendary nightclub for cross-dressers. It's about love, evil, history, and truth.

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

I'm rereading the complete works of Barbara Pym; some of the books are physical books, some are on my Kindle, and all of them make me purely happy….

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

I'd have to tell you the top 300-500 books of all time.

What's the most Important book you never read?

Anything by Trollope and Galsworthy, despite how often people I love and trust have told me I should. I start, and I can't go on, I just can't...

What's the book that changed your life?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

What's the book that made you want to become a writer? Alt: Favorite book(s) as a child?

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking --the ultimate empowered little girl. Nowadays I even put up with the horrendous '70s film version of the book, to which my 7-year-old granddaughter is devoted.

What's your most memorable author moment?

The day that the legendary editor Harry Ford called to tell me he wanted to publish my first novel. This was in the early '70s. He said he supposed I'd be wanting an advance. I said I did. He asked, How much. I asked, What did he think? He said, How about a thousand dollars? I said, Great!! I was at a friend's house. I was sure I'd be hit by a truck on my way home.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

X-ray vision--the ability to see what people are really thinking. The ability to learn languages instantly and fluently.

What are you obsessed with now?

Syria. The Ukraine. Climate change.

What are you stressed about now?

Same as above.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Three rainbow-loom rubber-band bracelets.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The brilliant Mavis Gallant, one of the great writers of our era, told me not to drink cheap wine, it's bad for the liver.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Karl Ove Knausgaard

What's the last dream you remember?

I dreamed I was wandering around a giant factory—lost. Confused, scared, running into weird and terrifying dead ends. I finally found some people who worked there and asked what exactly the factory manufactured. They said: Ball-point pens, and showed me one. I said, That's funny, those are the kind of pens I write with….Doctor Freud? Do we have to bother with this one?

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

Computer solitaire is the answer to all three.

What do you collect?

Vintage postcards. Masks.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

I got a beautiful letter from a woman who told me that she had been reading Blue Angel and felt, in the room, the presence of her mother, who had died, and who would have loved my novel.

YA Wednesday: Dreaming of Gods & Monsters with Laini Taylor

At the beginning of this month Laini Taylor came to town and we got together to talk about Dreams of Gods & Monsters, the final book in her trilogy.  I first met Taylor in 2011 when I interviewed her here in Seattle for Daughter of Smoke & Bone and we bonded over our shared love of YA novels and John Fluevog shoes.  At the time, I tried not to sound like an obsessed fan girl. Even though I kind of was. And am. 

If you haven't read this trilogy yet, prepare to get hooked on a beautifully told otherworldly story of angels, monsters, and a couple of key humans, enmeshed in love and hate, bound by friendship and family. The detail is so rich, but not cumbersome, that now I picture other angels or monsters as Taylor describes hers, in all their glorious variety and contradiction. I would wear a sandwich board for these books.

Dreams of Gods & Monsters is our spotlight pick for April's Best YA Books, and in this final piece of the puzzle Taylor introduces an additional main character, a woman named Eliza, who ties all three books together in a stroke of storytelling genius.  In the video below, Taylor and I discussed Dreams of Gods & Monsters, the happiness of organic storytelling, and resurrecting Mark Twain.

As for the shoes...well, some things never change and so it was that three years later we had ourselves another Fluevog moment.  Shoe lovers, scroll down to see photos from the interviews.


The Interview Shoes:

Daughter of Smoke & Bone interview, 2011 / Dreams of Gods & Monsters interview, 2014


Amazon Asks: Stanley Bing on Influential Books, Impressing His Son, and Predicting the Future of Technology

Bing If you've read Fortune magazine anytime in the last 20+ years, or, for that matter, if you've cruised the business book world, you already know Stanley Bing: the funniest "business" writer on a very crowded block. Tomorrow, we'll unveil one of the riffs from his newest book, The Curriculum. But for now, we thought we'd grab him for a second, in between high level business meetings and attacks of corporate angst (is there a diff?), to get his answers to some of our favorite questions.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

The Curriculum is a rigorous course of study designed for business students or interested professionals who want to achieve power and success without enduring the tedium, stress, and expense of a traditional MBA.

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

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, because it's discursive and hilarious; Teach Us To Sit Still by Tim Parks, because I can't, generally, and occasionally would like to; and Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune, because I loved it dearly as a child and get slightly lachrymose after a few drinks late at night and start ordering things.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Top Five (in no particular order):

  • Moby Dick, except for the long section on how to cook a whale;
  • The Metamorphosis, particularly the funny parts;
  • The entire History of Crime series, from Roseanna to The Terrorists, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which are the motherload of all subsequent Scandinavian crime fiction;
  • The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by George Simenon, an incomparably perfect little novel about what can happen to a conventional person when the structure of his life unravels;
  • The Shining by Stephen King, because it's the last book that I had to read with all the lights on.


Important book you never read?

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I tried. But there are now some mountains that my brain can no longer climb.

Book that changed your life?

There are probably quite a few, but I'll name two. The first is Crime and Punishment, because I read it at exactly the right moment in my teens sometime, and it seized me the way no other book had until that moment; it seemed like a whole world had opened to me that was in some fundamental way more real than my own. I loved it. I was also really influenced by The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, which took an anthropological view of the corporate organization, viewing it basically as a totalitarian bureaucracy, a perspective that is very useful to me in my own work, which makes me sound very serious, I know, but there you have it. Oh, and I should probably also mention that reading my way all the way through Sherlock Holmes gave me a lifelong love for crime and detective fiction.

Favorite book(s) as a child?

I already mentioned Albert Payson Terhune, and I inhaled his books about his elegant, preternaturally intelligent collies throughout my childhood. I had no idea at the time that he was sort of a Nietzschean crypto-racist, with all sorts of views about superior bloodlines and terrible stuff like that. I thought he wrote very moving and exciting dog stories, you know? Also loved Booth Tarkington's Penrod books, which were all about being a ten-year-old boy in a placid, lovely, small-town America when I was one. I also remember getting a tremendous kick out of a series about cave people at the dawn of time I got at my local library that I now cannot find anywhere online at all. They were big and fat and immersive and if anybody reading this has an idea of what they might have been, I'd be obliged to you.

What's your most memorable author moment?

I was with my son at a Bob Dylan concert. It was intermission and some guy who wasn't too old came up to me and said, "Hey! You're Stanley Bing!" and shook my hand. "That was cool, Dad," my son said. We didn't cry and embrace or anything, but it was a good moment. I'd also have to say that being on Charlie Rose a while back about one of my books was a real thrill. I felt like a real, authentic author the whole time. And I say that not only because it's true, but because it's possible that Charlie may be reading this and it would help get me on his show again.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

"I would love to have the power to stop waking at 3 a.m. every night to check my e-mail."

BingWhat are you obsessed with now?

Two decades ago, around the time I started doing my column for Fortune, I believe, I wrote a humor column prognosticating a future where people would have cranial implants to replace all existing forms of electronic communications. I now believe it was a sort of Jules Verne moment for me, when I thought I was blowing sci-fi smoke, but I was actually predicting a likely future. I am now obsessed with the idea that very soon, before we know it, digital wetware will replace glassware to create surgically enhanced humans who will eventually form the genetic stock of the next iteration of humanity, rendering Homo Sapiens as defunct as our predecessor, Homo Neanderthanensis. I don't want to be around when that happens, by the way, but I would like to have my consciousness digitally preserved and housed in a pleasant place for later insertion into a fully functional cyborg when that's possible.

What are you stressed about now?


What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My Martin D-18, which was built the year I was born and bought in a pawn shop in Cincinnati as a present for me when I was eight years old for $90. It's just as nice as it ever was.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got? The worst?

The best piece of advice I ever got was to stay one drink behind the most senior officer at the table or party. The worst piece of advice was to eat the worm at the bottom of a bottle of mescal one night at a boondoggle in San Diego.

Who's your current author crush?

Mark Bittman. He's actually convinced me to eat like a Marin County hippie before 6 p.m. It's the 6 p.m. part that's brilliant. Every day there's light at the end of the vegetable tunnel.

What book you wish you'd written?

Who Moved My Cheese. Not because of the message -- which is truly deplorable, viewing employees as tiny rodents whose masters may move their sustenance at will -- but because the book probably took 20 minutes to write and has now sold a hundred billion copies. It's the Quarter Pounder of business books.

What's the last dream you remember?

Just last night I dreamed that I was required to go back to the past and perform a certain task without upsetting the natural order of the future. I saw my boss when his hair was black. I saw several colleagues again, who I have missed, actually, since they left the corporation. I saw a 1995-era Cadillac stretch which seemed to be waiting for somebody more important than I was. It was very detailed and interesting. Then I woke up and realized that most of the philosophical issues in my dream have already been dealt with in The Terminator. I'm still thinking about it, though.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

My favorite method of procrastination is to do something else that needs doing, but not quite so imminently. Sleeping is also good, as is drinking until you really can't do anything very well anymore. And let's not forget about Amazon Prime. You guys have some seriously excellent content on there.

What do you collect?

Guitars, cameras, watches, yoyos, and comics. Some other things, too, but those are the main ones. Not all at once, of course. Sort of alternatively, never quite dropping any one, but focusing now and then on each. Right now there's a vintage acoustic guitar I don't need that I have my eye on.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

That's easy. A few years ago, a reader became annoyed at something I had posted on my blog. He shot off a note that was brief and to the point: "Your an idiot," he said. "Your" an idiot! I still feel wonderful when I think about it.

Rabbit, Write: Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

Updike by Adam Begley It’s often useful to separate artists from their art, to assume that a novel, or an entire body of work, isn’t thinly veiled autobiography*. Updike, Adam Begley’s exhaustive and revealing account of the American master’s life, begs us to reconsider that doctrine. Detailed yet readable, it goes far beyond describing the chronology of this unsurprisingly complex (and often paradoxical) character, layering on the lit crit where John Updike’s real life bled into his novels. Essential for admirers and illuminating for anyone with an interest in literature, Updike already merits consideration as one of the best biographies of 2014. Begley has provided us five tidbits from his research for a glimpse into the Updike known only to aficionados and close associates.

* For this reader, at least, who is seemingly drawn to works by or about questionable characters

Updike is an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for April, 2014.


Five Things You Didn't Know About John Updike

by Adam Begley


1. He dreamed of becoming the next Walt Disney. Updike’s first love was cartoons and cartooning. “Have I ever loved a human being,” he once asked himself, “as purely as I loved Mickey Mouse?” His ambition, as a boy, was to become an animator, and only settled on writing when he was in college. Even so, he spent a year after college at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. All his life he doodled, sometimes extravagantly, and he would often draw his own Christmas cards.

2. He was rejected by Princeton. The brilliant, straight-A student at Shillington High was offered scholarships by Harvard and Cornell—but Princeton turned him down. He decided on Harvard, where the annual tuition in 1950 was $600. He was offered $400 in financial aid for freshman year. His aid package increased over the years—because his grades were consistently excellent—and by the time he graduated, tuition was fully covered. He graduated with highest honors.

John Updike (photo by Irving L. Fisk

3. He never had a literary agent. Updike published more than sixty books in his lifetime, and most of them were reprinted as paperbacks and in various foreign languages. The amount of office work to keep track of rights and permissions for all those editions would have kept an agent busy around the clock. A phenomenally focused and disciplined worker, Updike did it all by himself; it was what he did when he wasn’t writing.

4. He was pen pals with Joyce Carol Oates. When he wasn’t writing for publication, Updike was writing letters—to his editors at Knopf and The New Yorker, to scholars and journalists, to friends, to his mother. But the person he wrote to most frequently was Joyce Carol Oates, a lively, gossipy literary correspondence as voluminous as you would expect from a pair of authors who were at the same time producing at least a book a year, decade after decade.

5. He played poker with the same crew for more than fifty years. They started playing in December 1957, a group organized by the owner of an auto parts store and the local pediatrician. They convened every other Wednesday, for low stakes: nickels and dimes until they made the minimum bet a quarter in 1960. Poker night was a raucous event in the early days, drenched in beer and wreathed in smoke. The camaraderie, and the sense of belonging, was for Updike the principal attraction; he confessed, in fact, to being only a mediocre player: “I am careless, neglecting to count cards, preferring to sit there in a pleasant haze of bewilderment and anticipation.” In 2004 he noted that he’d been playing with more or less the same men for nearly half a century, and that in the meantime he’d “changed houses, church denominations, and wives. My publisher has been sold and resold. Only my children command a longer loyalty than this poker group.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that he was far less passionate about poker than he was about golf!

Amazon Asks: Bob Saget Gives a PG-13 Glimpse of the Man Behind "Dirty Daddy"

Dirty DaddyYou've likely seen actor/comedian Bob Saget on TV. Question is, which Bob Saget did you see? The family-friendly Saget of "Full House" and "America's Funniest Home Videos" fame is oh-so-different from the potty-mouthed button pusher who cameo-ed as a misogynist neighbor on "Entourage" and a drug-addicted actor on"Huff," appeared in the blue comedy documentary The Aristocrats, and starred in his own HBO stand-up special "That Ain't Right."

Now, as an author, Saget has written a bridge between his two extreme personas with Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian, one of our April Best of the Month selections in Humor & Entertainment.

Characteristically tangential, in Dirty Daddy Saget jumps from endearingly genuine to sophomorically silly to jarringly vulgar without warning. Somehow, between the exasperated "Oh, Bob"s, the heartwarming "Awwww"s, the head-nodding "Right on..."s, and the cringe-worthy "Ew, really!??"s, we get to know him from his own tainted perspective. He shares a behind-the-scenes look at "Full House," name-drops comedians who influenced him (Rodney Dangerfield, Richard Pryor) and random celebrities he's encountered (Quentin Tarrantino, Jimmy Stewart), remembers career milestones like his first time on The Tonight Show. He also drags his family into it, discussing relationships with his mother, grandmother, sisters, and kids.

But we wanted to know Bob Saget, Debut Author a bit better. So, we presented him with our favorite questions and begged him to keep the answers "printable." What we got back was (with a couple of exceptions), surprisingly sweet.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

It doesn't take long to explain, but before I'd go into an elevator to pitch it, I'm basically the kid who'd push the button on every floor to make sure they're a captive audience.

Dirty Daddy is about how the different aspects of my life have intersected. How I became what some people consider a "dirty" comedian, when all I've ever done is try to entertain my way through a life that often has a huge amount of heaviness in it. The book is about loss, survival, the love of comedy, and my testicles.

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

A stack of several books I've yet to read, a few DVDs I've yet to watch, and a tiny cheesy alarm clock that's had the same miniature battery in it for ten years. It's outlived my last three relationships.

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Jitterbug Perfume

Important book you never read?

Pride and Prejudice

Book that changed your life?

Charlotte's Web

Book that made you want to become a writer?

Dirty Daddy

What's your most memorable author moment?

Writing for 48 hours straight with no sleep to meet a deadline. Most Adaptation-like moment I'd prefer never to repeat in my life if possible.

Preferred reading format: print? digital?

I will always prefer a hardback book, but I'm drawn to digital because it's so easy to acquire them when I'm having a need-to-read moment.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

I'd be really happy to be able to stretch myself to be as wide or narrow as I felt like being at the moment. Take up the whole doorway, or be able to slide myself under it. You asked.

What are you obsessed with now?

At the moment, the fantasy of being able to stretch myself as wide as a doorway, or be able to slide myself under it.

What are you stressed about now?

The state of the world. How desensitized we have become as people. How much we have to do to help this planet and its population. I am also stressed because once I am flattened out so thin to be able to slide under a doorway, I may never be able to ever be unflattened so I could be regular sized again.

What are you psyched about now?

The future. I have no plan except to take care of the people I love. I have no agenda, nothing to control. I'm psyched about what I can contribute that can be meaningful to myself and to others. I'm also looking forward to one day meeting a person has that same non-agenda. In the creative sense, I'm looking forward to collaborating with people I have mutual respect for to create some really good work. In the immediate sense, I'd like a nice piece of salmon that's not too pink inside and yet isn't too dry or crisp either. Nothing worse than a piece of dried out fish.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

A pair of leather lace-less high-top All Stars my daughters gave me two birthdays ago. They're always coming apart at the sole, but I will keep repairing them until the end of time because they mean so much to me.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Mary Karr, author of The Liar's Club and Lit. I love her unabashed honesty and conviction to everything she believes in.

Pen Envy - Book you wish you'd written?

The World According to Garp. I was influenced by its fascinating and funny characters along with what could be deemed absurd with stream of conscious story lines that somehow made its whole world seem entirely possible.

What's the last dream you remember?

My mom, who we lost a few months back, came to me and the basic info imparted was-- everything was going to be alright; she was so proud of me; that the book was going to be received well by a lot of people. She told me how much she loved me seemed to infer I was going to find some new healthy romance--that she would not be involved with from the other side in any meddling fashion. Finally, some Freudian Relief.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

My favorite procrastination is to make the choice to have valuable times with human beings that I care about instead of holing myself up alone to get my work done. The conflict is the temptation to get the omnipresent assignment completed. The selfish and usually pointless approach is to try to get both done simultaneously--accomplish your work at hand while begging forgiveness of those close to you while you're basically working in front of them during what could've been specifically 'quality time.' The favorite method of vice is to diss all responsibility be work or social, go off by myself, and enjoy a good steak and a great glass of wine. Oh yeah, and my kids are there too.

What do you collect?

Sweet desk items my daughters buy me. Could be a plastic necklace, or a felt pen with a face dressed in a Christmas hat. Also enjoy a good glass pyramid to store my deepest wishes and dreams in. My favorite collections are gifts from my daughters that come from them knowing me, and knowing what items give me focus and meaning, There's a ceramic tiny ant eater or similar creature sitting my desk named "Pushkin." He's not named after the Russian Poet. If anything he is a mockery of anyone else ever named "Pushkin." I like him very much.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

The one (and there were several) from a young girl who thanked me for being part of "Full House" because her childhood was similar to the one depicted in that sitcom I was the father in. She said it was the only show she could watch with her dad, since she'd lost her mom, that they could sit and talk about their feelings after. She credits a show made for exactly her, a teenage girl audience--helping her get through how hard it was to live without her mother in her life.

Favorite line in a book?

Part of Tom Joad's speech from The Grapes of Wrath. It's lengthy but I think of it often:

Tom: "Then it don't matter. I'll be all around in the dark--I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build --I'll be there, too."

What's next for you?

I don't know, but I'll be there.

Amazon Asks: Christopher Priest, author of "The Adjacent"

The AdjacentOne does not simply read a book by Christopher Priest (The Prestige, The Glamour, etc.). It is not a casual, relaxing, kick back and enjoy type of experience. His books are often intentionally confusing, reality-mangling, complex adventures in which the reader must be a vigilant participant, attentive to hidden details and willing to dig deep into the layers. Priest's latest, The Adjacent is no different. The story shifts across time and space, between similar yet different characters. Sometimes it provides real links between them, and sometimes it provides red herrings... and rarely is there solid evidence as to which is which. Oh, and if you expect him to tie it all up in a pretty package by the last page, you've simply come to the wrong author. It's just part of his frustrating charm.

And so, anticipating that any questions we ask about The Adjacent will only result in our having more questions than we did to begin with (not to mention ruining the experience of reading for anyone who hasn't yet), let's focus on Priest himself. We asked him to answer a few of our favorite questions, and, true to form, we received answers that beg further illumination (which, of course, we know we'll never fully get).

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

He was a 21st century photojournalist with a camera that changed reality, she flew a Spitfire in World War 2, they were supposed never to meet.

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

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano, The Red Line by John Nichol, the latest edition of "Fortean Times".

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Song of the Sky by Guy Murchie, The Magus by John Fowles, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, A Sort of Life by Graham Greene

Important book you never read?

Almost everything else. I never got past the Battle of Borodino in War and Peace.

Book that changed your life?

Song of the Sky by Guy Murchie

Book that made you want to become a writer?

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

What's your most memorable author moment?

Finishing a book.

Preferred reading format: print? digital?


What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Perfect pitch.

What are you obsessed with now?

The forthcoming film of The Glamour.

What are you stressed about now?

The forthcoming film of The Glamour.

What are you psyched about now?

The forthcoming -- no, scrub that. The advent of spring and my cats are bringing in half-dead small animals.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Property is theft.

Author crush -- who's your current author crush?

Self-love is a sin.

Pen Envy -- Book you wish you'd written?

2666 by Roberto Bolano, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

What's the last dream you remember?

Never can remember them.

What's your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?


What do you collect?

I never collect anything ... I accumulate stuff. Mostly books and cameras.

Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

"Dear Chris -- I loved your new novel. Brought back all those sexy memories. My lawyer will be in touch."

Favorite line in a book?

"This is the saddest story I have ever heard." (The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.)

What's next for you?

The forthcoming film of The Glamour. The forthcoming stage play of The Prestige. My new novel in progress. A non-fiction work about aviation.

Up All Night: Karen Russell on Writing "Sleep Donation"


If the power of books is to bring people together, then there's perhaps no example more literal than the Craigslist missed connection I stumbled across just minutes before interviewing Karen Russell. The posting, titled (sic) "karen russel cutie - w4m", was written by an Austin-based woman who met a man reading one of Russell's books at a coffee shop. They hit it off, sort of.

"I said, "hey. karen russell. Right?" And i flashed you the cover of my book. As if you didn't KNOW i was reading it. We talked for a few minutes. You didn't even know. You didn't even know that um. You didn't even know that she had written other books. But i felt a connection."

I forwarded the link to Russell, who, delighted by the idea that her work could play matchmaker, said, "I want these people to find each other, and then I want to officiate at their wedding." Speaking with Russell, I found her sense of humor arresting, her laugh totally charming — a little surprising considering the darkness and moodiness of her latest work, Sleep Donation (one of our Best Books of the Month picks for March and a Kindle Single). It's a clever, haunting novella about a dystopian world where insomnia has become a fatal epidemic. The story follows a young woman named Trish who works at Slumber Corps, a company that helps those who are able to catch some Z's the ability to donate their shut-eye to the sleepless. Those familiar with Russell's previous work — her two short story collections, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and her novel Swamplandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — will find the same sci-fi and fantasy-mashing sensibilities here. Russell attributes her category-bending to a childhood reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy and not recognizing the lines between the different genres.

"I actually had so little awareness of what distinguished Jane Eyre from A Handmaid's Tale. When I was a kid, they all just read like great stories to me," she said.

Her influences include many classic sci-fi authors, such as Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler, Ray Bradbury, and Aldous Huxley. But since her world experience first came from novels, her reality is grounded in fictions that existed to critique the real world. She jokes that her upbringing was like visiting the fantastical version of Paris at Epcot Center, then actually visiting Europe decades later.

Continue reading "Up All Night: Karen Russell on Writing "Sleep Donation"" »

Eve Harris and Deborah Feldman in Conversation

ExodusThe Marrying of Chani Kaufman In the last two months, authors Eve Harris and Deborah Feldman have each published books that focus on Orthodox Jewish communities. Exodus, one of our Best of the Month selections in Biography & Memoir in March, is a follow-up to Feldman's bestselling first memoir, Unorthodox. In it, she attempts to rediscover herself and her roots after taking her son and leaving the strictly religious Hasidic community she grew up in in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Similarly, Harris' debut novel, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, is set in an Orthodox community in Hendon, North London. It was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and it is one of our Best of the Month selections in Literature & Fiction this month. We brought these two authors together to discuss the writing process, how their books were received, and what's up next.

Deborah Feldman: What was your reaction when you heard that The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was longlisted for the Booker Prize?

Eve Harris: Of course the Booker was a huge shock – I felt like I'd woken up in a parallel universe! And nothing has been the same since.

DF: Had it been a long process writing the book?

EH: I had actually had a hard time writing the book. Having never written a novel before, the structure was the biggest challenge. I ended up with a lot of colored post-it notes stuck to two flattened cardboard boxes donated by my local corner shop. Each note represented a chapter and each color represented a different character. I moved them around until I felt dizzy! Writing is a grueling, lonely slog, but the days when it just felt right and my characters leapt off the page were the best. And then having the book longlisted was just incredible.

Your first book, Unorthodox, also got a lot of attention, and was clearly quite controversial in some circles. Were you surprised by that reaction, and how has the approach you've taken with Exodus differed from the way you set about writing Unorthodox?

DF: I can't honestly say I was surprised by any of the reaction, actually. But the writing process for the second book was certainly a little different.

I decided to write Unorthodox in the present tense, because I was twenty-two years old at the time, and still felt very much entrenched in the story. As a result, it has a strong coming-of-age feel. I actually like that, because many of the books that inspired me when I was an adolescent were written in a similar tone, like Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Anza Yezierska's The Bread Givers. Yet when I started writing Exodus, I immediately reverted to past tense, even though many of the events that take place in the book are relatively recent. Leaving the community allowed me to become a much more reflective person in the past five years.

Otherwise they were both written in a similar time frame, with much of the same processes and rituals, although I've managed to fine-tune my method somewhat through practice, which is nice.

EH: That's so interesting, especially for someone who is just starting to work on their second book. I hope I will be able to fine-tune my method, too. I have an idea for the next book, but right now I am focusing on being a mum to my two-year-old and continuing to promote The Marrying of Chani Kaufman.

What are you working on next?

DF: I'm actually working on two different projects at the moment. One is a collection of narratives that focuses on unique ethnic identities and the role they play in a globalized society, and the other project is an in-depth look at the contrast between several women from very different cultural backgrounds who are exploring their sexuality in a unique and thought-provoking way. Both of these works are very concerned with the intersection between cultural identity and a globalized future, but I don't know which of these books will be completed first at this point, or if they might even end up coming together as one project. I feel like you really can't know what a book is until it's actually done.

EH: That's certainly true. Chani changed a lot throughout the writing process, but the central part of the story was always the same. I had taught at an ultra-Orthodox girls' school, and during that year I also got married by an Orthodox rabbi. So I experienced a lot of what Chani goes through as a bride and afterwards started thinking about how strange the Charedi world is, in a lot of ways. I was in a writing course and actually working on a set of short stories, which my tutor was pretty unimpressed by – not least because everyone else in the class was already working on their novel. But after having my confidence knocked I set to work again, and when I next read to the class, a few weeks later, it was the passage that would become the first chapter of the novel. That's how it all started!

DF:  As I've said, there is an emerging canon of books dealing with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish experience, and I count your book among works by Chaim Potok and Naomi Ragen. I would say that Potok has a strong male perspective, specifically in The Chosen, and Ragen has a powerful female one. What's interesting about The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is that it manages to have a very gender-neutral perspective on the Hasidic community: when you read it you feel that the male and female characters get equal billing in terms of depth and impact. This is one of the reasons I found the book so startling.... I'm so glad you weren't discouraged and went on to write [it].

National Poetry Month: Q&A with National Book Award Winner Mary Szybist

Mary Szybist
photo by Joni Kabana

I can't think of a better way to kick off National Poetry Month than by conversing with the recent winner of one of poetry's highest honors. Mary Szybist is the author of two books of poetry: the eloquent and musical Granted, and this year's winner of the National Book Award in Poetry (and our Best Poetry Book of the Year), Incarnadine. We're extremely fortunate that Mary was kind enough to take some time away from her position as associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon to answer a few questions on the new book and poetry-at-large.

Aside from its obvious connection to the word "incarnate," the word incarnadine, in a literal sense, refers to a particular shade of red. How did you settle on the title of this book?

Incarnadine swirls around one of the iconic scenes of incarnation, the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the scene in which Christians envision God entering into this world, into a body, into time—so that obvious connection is an important one.

The color, however, is important too. "Incarnadine" originally meant pink or flesh-color, but since Shakespeare's famous use of it in Macbeth, it has come to mean blood-red. Incarnadine is especially haunted by the iconic figure of Mary, who is almost always portrayed by painters in blue and red; those are the two dominate colors in this collection. In the notes at the end of the book I include a short passage from Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot explaining why earth appears blue from space: "And why that cerulean color? The blue comes partly from the sea, partly from the sky. While water in a glass is transparent, it absorbs slightly more red light than blue... the red light is absorbed out and what gets reflected back to space is mainly blue." I call the book Incarnadine, but blue is the color most often mentioned and described in the poems. In my mind, both colors are always at play.

If one reads about your work across the web, they'll often come upon the phrase "intimate spaces." How does space into play in poetry and Incarnadine, which speaks often to the Christian scene of The Annunciation and a literal inhabitance of the body?

I am interested in the distance between things: the distance between people, the distance between humans and animals, the distance between our conceptions of what is divine and what is human. Sometimes these distances can be vast but they can also be charged and intimate spaces, like the space between Mary and the angel that painters have often rendered so beautifully. I was grateful to Stan Sanvel Rubin for noting in his recent review in Water-Stone Review that "the subtle grammatical difference between "incarnadine" and "incarnation" opens a slippage in connotation which is more than a trick; it's a gap that Szybist's writing wants to fill. The rift opens further with the doubled referent of the name claimed both by the living poet and the subject of the sacred story." I am writing into the space between things: the distance between Mary and the angel, the distance between the Virgin Mary and the personal Mary who is me.

Do you see the poem itself as a space to be stepped into, and if so, what does that mean for the inhabiter (the reader)?

Yes, in a sense I do envision a poem as such a space. "Stanza" is Italian for "room," but traditionally we don't just talk of poems as rooms: we refer the "body" of a poem. Haven't we all wondered to what extent we would be ourselves were we to inhabit a different body? Though our bodies change, sometimes radically, we do not get to try out other bodies. Poems allow us imaginative play: they allow consciousness--which is articulated through language--to try on different linguistic forms, different linguistic bodies. As the poet John Ashbery has said, "The world does change, in the telling." I think that we do too.

IncarnadineThe narrator of Incarnadine has such a focused attention to images of the Annunciation which occur around her, and one can't help but assume a desire for spiritual understanding in that voice. The Annunciation itself, however, seems to take off from another place: Mary is found, favored, chosen, inhabited, acquiesces. Is the notion of being spiritually discovered important to this book, to you, or to spirituality itself?

I think there is only so much we can do to achieve real understanding of any kind, no matter how much we might desire and work toward it. I think often of Simone Weil's words: "I know by means of my intelligence that what I do not understand is more real than what I do." I don't think this is call for passivity but a call to recognize the reality of what we do not comprehend. I try to write toward points of empathy. This may or may not help make me more open to receiving insight or understanding or grace (perhaps all of which are forms of being "spiritually discovered," as you so wonderfully put it), but I consider it one of my best hopes.

There's always an undeniable musical quality to your poems. Do you find that lyric and music to be an organic part of your writing (as it would seem to the reader) or is it something you actively seek? And is it essential to the poem?

Perhaps both versions are true: it is an organic part; I seek it out. I love Emily Dickinson's response to Higginson when he criticizes her rhymes. She explains: "I thanked you for your justice—but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp—" In comparing herself to a horse who depends upon the jingling bells to "cool" and ease her heated labor, she suggests that she couldn't move through the difficult journeying of her poems without that music. In this vision, the bells are not an organic part of the horse's tramp (they are separate from the rhythm of the hooves on the road), but the tramp does depend on them: they are not merely decorative additions. This all resonates with me as very true. The music is necessary.

It's likely because of the intimacy present in your poetry that I can't help but feel both Granted and Incarnadine contain a fair amount autobiographical narrative. How important is it that your poems be actively connected to your life and mind, if at all?

My poems are connected to my life and mind, but I think what is active about the connection is this: I do not write to record or map experience; I write out of a desire to enlarge it, to go beyond myself. Although I have in myself the strong desire to be settled, to choose an identity and point of view and rest there, I finally agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson: "People wish to be settled: only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them." I write in an attempt to unsettle myself.

So far, you've published two books of poetry. You spoke to this some in your acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, but do you believe that there are some thoughts only poetry can express? Could you see yourself writing a novel someday?

I am awed by great novelists in part because I don't have the sensibility to conceive of and write a novel. When it comes to writing I would rather, like Emily Dickinson, "dwell in Possibility—," which she unabashedly characterizes as "A fairer House than Prose--/More numerous of Windows—/Superior—for Doors—" I am just as interested in the way that language speaks us as I am in expressing things through language. If I were to make special claims for poetry, they wouldn't have to do with the subjects that poetry best expresses. In my acceptance speech I quoted Paul Connolly who said, "I believe that it is not arguing well but speaking differently that changes a culture. Poetry is the place where speaking differently is most prevalent." A change in language can be a change in perception. As a general rule, it is harder to speak differently when your language must convey information, develop plot, and so on. Often all I ask of a poem is that when it speaks of something, it speaks of it differently.

And the vague question I'm sure you're getting way too often right now - what's next for NBA winning poet Mary Szybist?

I have been trying to write new poems. I have been thinking about the spiritual journeying of Teresa of Avila and the spirit houses that snagged my imagination when I visited Laos, but the real answer to your question is: it will be a surprise for me too.

Spotlight Feature: Phil Klay, Author of "Redeployment"

I had the chance to sit down with Phil Klay, author of our March Best of the Month Spotlight Pick, Redeployment. Check out our feature-length profile of Klay, in which he discusses his short story collection, his deployment in Iraq during the surge, and the myths of war that he finds disingenuous.


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