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Best of the Month

How I Wrote It: Lin Enger, on "The High Divide"

LinSet in the 1880s, mostly in the wilderness of the Montana Territory, Lin Enger's second novel, The High Divide, tells the sweeping story of a man on the run, from both his family and his past. It's also the story of the bloody history of the northern plains, the slaughter of bison herds and of the native Plains Indians. The High Divide (on sale 9/23) is one of our Best Books of the Month editors' picks in literature and fiction.

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Origins

This novel comes from three places:

First, from my lifelong fascination with the American bison, the buffalo, an interest I attribute to a family legend dating back to 1884, when my great-grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, supposedly shot and killed one of the last wild buffalo in Dakota Territory. The animal was drinking from the stock tank behind his sod barn.

The second source (related to the first) was my discovery some fifteen years ago of a bit of history I found remarkable, and remarkably ironic. I came across it in a book called The Time of the Buffalo, by Tom McHugh. In 1886, William Temple Hornaday, curator and chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., realized the museum possessed not one good specimen of the American bison.  Aware that the animal was near extinction, he organized in the fall of that year an expedition into Montana Territory to collect specimens--a hunt that resulted in the “harvest” of 25 bison, which Hornaday then fashioned into a lifelike panorama that stood on display in the Smithsonian until 1957.

Third, and entirely unrelated to the first two--and for reasons I cannot fathom--I’ve long wanted to write a novel about children forced to go in search of a missing father. And it was this father I invented, and his wife and their children, who became the focus of the novel.

I should add: my best stories come from the collision of two or more very divergent ideas.

HighReader

I didn’t know it when I started, but by the time I finished the novel, I was writing to remind readers in this forward-leaning country to pause, take an honest look back, and remember how we came into possession of the continent we occupy. It is not a noble story, and those who lived it--those on every side of the struggle--suffered all kinds of losses. And in fact the story has never ended. As a third-generation immigrant, I couldn’t tell it from a Native perspective, but I was able to tell it from the point of view of a soldier caught up in the Indian Wars, and from the perspectives of his wife and his sons, who (like the families of all war veterans) fall into the category, you might say, of collateral damage.

Space

Not exactly by choice, I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself?  Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886. I also wrote in other places: coffee shops, libraries, hotel rooms, anywhere. Writing a novel is such an immersion experience--you have to take it with you; it refuses to be left at home.

Since finishing the book, my wife and I have downsized into a smaller house, and I recently acquired a standing desk (salvaged from a library) that I’ve placed along the empty east wall of our bedroom. That’s where I’m writing the next book.

Tools

I write first drafts with a mechanical pencil on narrow-lined, spiral-bound notebooks. Then I type that draft into a MacBook and start the work of rewriting and revising. For this book, I made an effort to complete the first draft quickly; I was teaching full-time and had only one or two hours a day, but I was still able to finish the draft in about six months. At every writing session I filled between two and four notebook pages with a very small cursive script. When I write letters or academic prose, I work on the laptop keyboard, but when I write fiction I need the personal connection of my fingers gripping the pencil, the lead script scratching its way onto the lined paper. Often, I am able to move more deeply into the world I’m making if I take off my glasses (I’m very near-sighted) and bend my head right down into the words as they appear. Anything to erase the distance between myself and the story, which seems to exist as a thing apart from me.

Words

As a professor, I read all the time--books I’m teaching, student papers and stories, masters’ theses.  I’m always having to push my own work aside. And so when I can finally turn my attention to it, when I’m finally looking at a space of time ahead of me, writing time--especially summers--it doesn’t take much to prime the pump; the flow is there, and the writing comes pretty fast and joyfully. Which is not to say it isn’t hard work. It is. But hard work can be fun, draft after draft of it before scenes and characters have taken on the lives I envision for them. I wrote five drafts of this novel, and not one person read it until I was satisfied that it was finished.

But what am I reading now? The Grapes of Wrath. An old college friend recently told me he’d just read it for the first time, and that shamed me into giving it another try. Wow. Steinbeck’s vision, his compassion, his encyclopedic rendering of a place and time, it’s blowing me away. When I’m working on a first draft, though, I don’t have the mental space to read other people’s fiction--or to read much of anything besides what is required of my teacher-self. Once in revision mode, I’ll read again, preferably fiction writers whose sentences I admire: James Welch, Cormac McCarthy, James Salter.

Inspiration

My inspiration was the research I did in order to get things right--or try to. I read books about the bison, about Native American history and culture, about the Indian Wars of the late-nineteenth century, about the settlement of the West. The temptation, of course, was to keep on reading and put off the writing, because there was never a time when I thought, “Yes, now I’m ready: I know everything I have to know.” Never happened. I just had to plunge in and trust I wouldn’t drown.

Temptation

I have this terrible inclination, as soon as the writing starts going well, to push away from the desk, notebook, or laptop, and go do something absolutely unnecessary--make something to eat or mow the lawn. It’s like some part of my self doesn’t want the writer part to see the project through. So I have to be constantly on guard against this urge. On the other hand, when I find myself struggling with a scene or a sentence or a plot turn, beating my head against a wall and unwilling to give up until I find the answer, that’s when I have to force myself to leave the writing for a few minutes and go for a walk. And if I do that--just step away--many times the problem will dissolve, almost by itself, and I can return to my desk with a clear path ahead.

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Lin Enger is an Iowa Workshop graduate, the author of the novel Undiscovered Country, and the recipient of a James Michener Award and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. His short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ascent, Great River Review, Wolf Head Quarterly, and other journals. He teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Visit his website: www.lin-enger.com.

 

The Gray Areas of Gray Matter: Author Matt Richtel on Information Overload

A Deadly WanderingIn 2006, a pair of rocket scientists died on a Utah highway, killed in a collision with a student named Reggie Shaw, who had been texting at the time of the accident. A Deadly Wandering uses this moment to launch itself into an investigation/rumination on the increasing presence of technology in our lives, probing for answers to the question How much is too much? This might have been boring if anyone but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel had written it. The result is anything but: Richtel has combined his savvy as a New York Times science reporter with his skill as a writer of technology-infused thrillers to weave two separate, if related, stories together: the tragedy—and ultimate redemption—of Reggie Shaw, and the deleterious effects of technology on our brains, bodies, and culture. A Deadly Wandering is a riveting blend of humanity and science.

We asked Richtel some questions about Shaw and the growing influence of information in our brains and our culture, and his response was much more detailed and enthusiastic than we could have hoped for--it's the same energy that drives this masterful work of narrative nonfiction.

A Deadly Wandering, available in hardcover and Kindle on September 23, is a selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month for September 2014.

 


Matt Richtel on A Deadly Wandering

How did you come to the story of Reggie Shaw?

I first met Reggie for a story about distracted driving that I wrote for The New York Times. In more than two decades in journalism, I’ve met hundreds of fascinating people. Few like Reggie. He has a depth of character, a candor, quiet wit, the All-American kid laid bare through tragedy, dark truth and, ultimately, redemption. He became the first person, or one of the first, charged with negligent homicide in a texting and driving death. And he was, in many ways, the last person you’d ever expect that to happen to. Ordinary guy, good guy, turned hunted and haunted criminal, turned hero.

At what point did you realize that this story had potential beyond the tragedy of the accident? What compelled you to write the larger story about technology and society?

Although the Reggie story stuck with me, and he and I stayed in contact, I wasn’t particularly compelled to write a book about it, not at first. Instead, I kept studying and thinking about the science: what was so alluring about technology; what was it doing to our brains? Why would Reggie, a thoughtful, smart 19-year-old kid send a meaningless text while driving at dawn in the rain, while going 55 miles an hour? I realized that I had formulated some ideas about just how magnetic our devices had become, how irresistible, and they were steeped in science that is both decades old and emerging. I’d talk to scientists about my thesis and they’d say: Yes, yes, you have to write about this. Something is happening to our brains and you’ve got to write about it.

But those were just ideas. And, from my standpoint, ideas don’t make good books. Certainly not great books. Great books are stories. They are about people, characters, and passions. That’s my bias, anyway. I want to be swept away by a narrative. Reading, to me, should be fun. Think: Unbroken or Into Thin Air.

In the years I spent learning about the science, I got to know the scientists. You want to talk about characters. These are brilliant, funny, quirky, opinionated people. They laid the groundwork for how we, as a society, understand the brain. They also have their quirks. One of the foremost experts has a license plate that reads “attend.” When I asked him why, he said: “Because turn off your #*^& cell phone is too long.” Another neuroscientist holds crazy Friday Night parties in San Francisco with the most famous technology people, and with musicians and the digerati. One of the great early scholars, whose work after World War II helped shape how we think about the brain and its relationship with technology, told me incredible stories about the early days of neuroscience.

Now I was starting to see story lines; the story of how we understand the brain, the people who help us understand it. There was a context around Reggie’s story, and, at that point, I didn’t realize just how incredible his story was.

So I spent many months talking to Reggie and the people around him in the little town in Northern Utah that he calls home. I heard extraordinary stories from Reggie’s family, those who defended him, hunted him and prosecuted him, sentenced him. It’s not so much that their stories were so unusual, but they were so candid, so open – stories about terrible childhood abuse, personal tragedy, minor life infractions, small town reflection, great love and loyalty, lust. As one character described Reggie’s town: it is like Friday Night Lights. These personal tales, far from being incidental or irrelevant to a story of distracted driving, were quite integral. The way these characters see themselves, and the world, informed how they saw Reggie, and the idea of attention, and the idea of distraction. They are us, so is Reggie, but willing to share in vivid candor their role in a great drama.

Now I had the potential for a great book. At its core, it is the weaving of two narratives. One is a tragic car wreck, gumshoe investigation, historic prosecution, defiant defendant and zealous pursuers, all glued together an intense human drama. The other is a scientific journey, one that starts with the birth of neuroscience in 1850, and tells the very human stories of the neuroscientists and their discoveries. The two story lines intersect, remarkably enough, because one of the leading scholars in neuroscience and the science of attention wound up testifying in Reggie’s pre-trial hearing.

In sum, the book weaves together these narratives: an irresistible human drama with the story of how we understand the brain and its relationship to technology. Through the lens of these stories, we come to understand the value of attention, its fragility, and the assault it faces in the digital age. The book is a narrative, in the truest sense, not a lecture, told through story and character. At least that is what’s intended.

Author Matt Richtel (photo: Meredith Barad)

The book includes some of the latest science about humans and our ability to absorb and accommodate an ever increasing amount of information and input. What surprised you the most in the research?

Here’s what most surprised me: we often are not using our electronic devices for the reasons we think we’re using them or say we’re using them. We say we need to stay in touch. We say we’re afraid of missing out on something important. That’s certainly true some of the time. But much of the time it is not true. We are using our gadgets because we can’t help ourselves; we are so accustomed to the stimulation that, in its absence, we feel bored. We love to click the keys and make something happen on the screen. We love to feel the little adrenaline rush when we make new information appear, whether or not it is relevant or valuable. The devices are like slot machines, with levers to pull to give us a squirt of dopamine. There is a debate whether or not to call this “addiction” or merely extremely habit forming. In any case, I now look out our devices much differently than I did several years ago. These are brain stimulation devices. That doesn’t mean they’re all bad, not at all. One of the reasons they are so stimulating is that they can and do lead to the exchange of valuable information, crucial communications, entertainment. But not as much as we imagine or advertise.

That thing in your pocket? It’s got you by the brain and it is not letting go.

How much is too much? At what point do tools designed to improve efficiency have the opposite effect?

There is this wonderful study I learned about for the book. It’s the “chocolate cake” study, and it helps answer this question. In the study (I’m oversimplifying a bit), subjects entered a room and were asked to choose whether they wanted to eat a piece of chocolate cake or have a bowl of fruit. Here’s the twist: some of the study subjects, prior to entering the room, were asked to remember a handful of numbers. The scientists discovered something remarkable: the study subjects who were asked to remember numbers tended to choose the chocolate cake, while the study subjects who didn’t have to remember numbers chose the fruit.

What’s the point?

The brain is very sensitive to information overload, even in small doses. The amount of information we are remembering and juggling can impact even small decisions, and in unconscious ways. Now translate that into how we use our devices; if we are overloaded, even a bit, it can impact how we relate to every aspect of our lives. It can, without being too hyperbolic, impact the idea of free will. Will you choose fruit or chocolate cake? Will you make a good decision about work, your children, etc, etc?

So, to answer your question directly, I believe you need to create enough down time from your devices to clear your head. You need to be free of information overload to even make decisions about how much to use your device. In concrete terms, take a walk without your device, take a Saturday or Sunday with the power button in the “off” position. Take a vacation where you disconnect altogether. This includes disconnecting from radio, TV and other media, which are sources of information, obviously. Disconnecting, I believe, and the science supports this, will give you a clearer head to figure out how much you need to stay disconnected to make good, clear-headed decisions. It will differ person-to-person, but, whoever you are, a clear head is needed to make the good call.

What do we find so alluring about information? Where in our relationship with technology do you think it began in earnest?

In a word, information is “survival.” Our need for information – from knowing that fire burns to knowing what time to show up at a meeting – determines so much in our daily lives. That is the first reason that information is alluring.

In that respect, language itself is a crucial technology, a critical human innovation that lets us communicate information in a short-hand way. If I can tell you that fire burns, then you don’t have to thrust your hand into the fire to find out for yourself.

With books, we could distribute ideas to masses. With phones, we added sound and intonation and urgency. And now with mobile devices, we can do so from anywhere, anytime.

Who could deny the extraordinary utility? These devices tap into the deepest primitive need to be informed and to respond to sources of information to find out if they represent opportunity or threat. One way to think about it is to think about the idea of being a caveperson, eons ago, in the jungle. If someone tapped on your shoulder, you’d have to turn around immediately to find out if that person was a threat, or maybe was offering food. Today, when the phone rings or a text comes in, it’s like being tapped on the shoulder by anyone, anywhere in the world. Quite literally, a billion people could be tapping you on the shoulder. How can you resist this primitive call for information – even when you’re behind the wheel?

In this respect, the technology is playing so powerfully to our primitive wiring that it can “hijack the brain.” That’s how the scientists put it to me. The lure of the device overpowers us to the point where it diverts focus away from other demands, like driving, or dinner with your spouse and kids or even walking down the street (for those who’ve walked into a tree while checking a sports score on the phone, you know you are).

Do you hope that this book makes readers reconsider their own digital habits? Have you changed your own?

Yes, I hope they will reconsider their habits, on the road and off of it. I hope they will take a complete break when driving and then, when not driving, take regular breaks from digital stimulation. I’ve done both. The reason is because I’ve learned, through lots of research, that I have limited brain power. We all do. And the more we are constantly stimulated, the more we deplete our neurological tanks, text by text, angry-bird game by angry-bird game. Until we are depleted to the point of being unable to process information, whether about work, our relationships, homework, and so on. This is doubly true of young people, whose brains remain under development. The more they are constantly stimulated, the less able they are to make good decisions and the more they crave the stimulation, creating a wicked cycle. But why do I care whether people are connected all the time? Where do I get off sounding so preachy? Perhaps I should retreat to the position of husband, father, friend, co-worker; I’d like to be around people who are engaged with the world, paying attention to it, listening, processing. I’d like to be a person like that. I think it makes me a better dad and husband, a better voter and writer, and thinker.

Is legislation an effective tool against “distracted driving”? What would you say to those who would decry “nanny state” prohibitions? Is there anything that can change our behavior?

I want to be careful not to be too prescriptive given the fact I’m a journalist and a New York Times reporter, and to try to maintain some objective distance. That said, two things are very clear: (1) texting while driving is extremely dangerous (in the moment like being blind drunk); (2) people know it’s dangerous and they do it anyway. In other words, the problem isn’t about attitudes. The attitudes are already consistent with the risks. But the behaviors are not. People continue to take extreme risk.

What we know historically is that behaviors change through public education and tough laws. The fact that behaviors haven’t changed – even though attitudes have changed – suggests to some people in public health that the laws must be toughened. Without fear of real penalty, like big fines or loss of driving privileges, people might not change behavior, so goes the theory. If you feel that’s the nanny state, then you might feel that drunk driving laws are the nanny state too.

Finally, some public health people feel the current no-texting laws are confusing: you’re allowed to use your phone to dial or call up a music program but not to text. When can you touch your phone and when can you not? It’s a gray area for drivers and a gray area for law enforcement. Without more clarity, these folks say, it’s going to be hard to get behaviors consistent with what everyone seems to know: it is potentially deadly to look down at your device, manipulate it, even get so lost talking on it on it that your attention gets diverted from the road.

Will the Reggie Shaw case become a touchstone moment or a missed opportunity?

I certainly don’t think it’s a missed opportunity. Put another way: Reggie pours his heart out to audiences around the country, telling them not to get distracted while driving. In that way, he has redeemed himself like no other person I’ve ever met. Many people I talked to about him – people who once demonized him – now say he is an American hero. So no, not a missed opportunity.

But is it a touchstone? Good question. I think that it can be if we are ready for his message. This, I would say, is true of lots of people in history, leaders, whose messages have been unpopular, right up until the point they’ve become popular, the public receptive. Reggie and others like him will become leaders when we are ready to listen. And I don’t know yet whether we’re ready. We may not know until it happens.

Which other writers of “narrative nonfiction” do you admire?

I’ll mention three books and writers.

For me, Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a work of magic and art of the highest order. It’s about the Vietnam War, the men who fought it, the things they carried. Honestly, I’m not sure that it qualifies completely as non-fiction in that it plays with truth and our emotions as it essentially asks the question: what is truth and what is perception of truth? In that way, it is a kind of new new journalism, an acknowledgement and embodiment of the idea truth and reality depend on the camera angle and the camera man’s perspective. And all told within the confines of a great story.

Similarly The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, about the execution of Gary Gilmore, is a story that is an incredible personal saga and story while also, almost incidentally, raising great moral questions. The reporting is so detailed, so excruciatingly vivid. In fairness, Mailer calls this “a true-life novel,” suggesting he took some liberties. But I can’t imagine there are many, knowing how much reporting went in and how well documented that reporting is.

But if I had to pick a model of narrative nonfiction, at least for purposes of my book, A Deadly Wandering, it would be Into Think Air. Simply, it’s an irresistible story, magnetic, impossible to put down and then, by the end, you realize you were so swept up in a story that you didn’t realize you learned a whole bunch about a subject that may or may not have been interesting to you. Same with Unbroken. And, to a large extent, The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis. This is high art; teaching under the auspices of entertaining, or is it the other way around?

The Best Books of September: Some Old Friends and Some New Surprises

BoneclocksSeptember’s Best Books of the Month are out, and featured among our Top 10 picks is the #1 book on Amazon right now (the title may be a surprise to some). But first things first:

Spotlight: Our spotlight selection for September is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. There’s something different about the publication of this novel—something that wasn’t there when Mitchell ‘s previous works were published. He’s always been beloved by his fans, but it appears that there are more of them now. Watching the reception of The Bone Clocks is watching a cult writer come to the mainstream.

DeadlywanderingPick #2: Matt Richtel’s A Deadly Wandering is one of those books that makes selecting the Best of the Month a special experience. It’s safe to say that the Amazon editors didn’t see this one coming until they read it. This is a book about one of the first deaths on the highway as a result of texting and driving. In the words of Senior Editor Jon Foro, “This might have been boring if anyone but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel had written it." And indeed A Deadly Wandering never flags. It is partly an examination of how technology affects our lives, partly an exploration of a terrible tragedy, partly a story of redemption; and definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

SecretplacePick #3: Tana French’s last novel Broken Harbor was a Best of the Month selection in 2012, so it’s no surprise to see her here again. Of her latest novel, The Secret Place (Book 5 in the Dublin Murder Squad series), Senior Editor Seira Wilson writes, “As in her previous books, just when you think you’ve solved the mystery another curious twist appears and French keeps you guessing right up until the very end.” French is clearly a writer at the top of her game. That she's managed to extend that game for five novels (her first was the smash hit Into the Woods) is especially remarkable.

CosbyPick #4: Despite his immense fame, there has never been a major biography of Bill Cosby until now—a surprise, given his nearly ten-year dominance on NBC, not to mention his many other contributions (my personal favorites: Fat Albert and "Noah"). Sara Nelson, Editorial Director for Amazon Books and Kindle, writes of the book, "the portrait that emerges here is of a guy who has worked tirelessly and earnestly to change the race conversation in this country, one silly bit at a time." Or, if you're familiar with his Noah bit, cubit by cubit.

WhatifPick #5: And now for a slight surprise... Our #5 pick for the Best Books of September is currently #1 on Amazon.com. That book is What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. So who is this guy and what is What If? Munroe is a former robotics researcher who now runs the blog xkcd full-time. As you might gather, the blog provides serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions, and it's wildly popular. Apparently quitting the 9 to 5 gig is working out for him. Congratulations, Randall Munroe!

Tune in next week for a quick summary of picks 6 through 10 in September's Best Books of the Month.

Jennifer Holm and Esther Ehrlich: Best Books of September

14thGoldfish400Two of my favorite kids' books this month (both on our Best Children's Books of September list) are Jennifer Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish and Esther Ehrlich's Nest.  They are very different stories, but have strong family relationships and spunky main characters in common--I think the same reader would really enjoy both.

The Fourteenth Goldfish (our spotlight pick) is clever, funny, and thought-provoking.  I loved eleven-year-old Ellie's grumpy inventor grandfather who teaches her about the power of science and belief and being no less than one hundred percent yourself.  I laughed A LOT reading this book and recommended it to three people just last night.  Not even kidding.

Set in 1972, Nest is a powerful story about Nest400eleven-year-old Naomi, called "Chirp," and the tremendous change her family undergoes as the result of physical and mental illness.  Over the course of the book they bring out the best and worst in each other, anger and love competing for space.  Chirp finds solace in the birds near home and in an unlikely friendship with the neighbor boy who has family problems of his own. This is a book that made me hug it to my chest and heave a big sigh when it was over.  Fans of Jenni Holm's books like Turtle in Paradise would like this one.

These two authors recently got together and shared their conversation:

Jenni Holm: Your book is just gorgeous. Was there a specific moment in your life that inspired it?

Esther Ehrlich: Thanks, Jenni! No, there’s not a specific moment that inspired Nest but, I think, a lifetime of moments. The spark for the book was an image that came to me of two sisters dancing in the road together in a summer rainstorm while their mom, a dancer who wasn’t feeling well, watched them from the porch. That image captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go, and the rest of the book unfolded from there.

Jenni Holm: I have all brothers, so I really enjoyed how you delve into relationships between sisters. Can you talk a little about that?

Esther Ehrlich:  I grew up in a family with four children born within five years of each other, three girls and one boy. I guess I couldn’t imagine writing a story without siblings, but I could imagine a few less of them! Chirp having one sister just felt right.

There’s something so powerful and unique about sister relationships; they’re amazingly intimate, but you don’t choose them. Sisters can be dramatically different from each other, yet there’s a deep bond that links them together. Chirp and Rachel have such different personalities, but in ways that really matter, they’re similar—they’re both loyal, smart, observant girls with a huge capacity to love.

Jenni Holm: You developed a wonderful sense of place and time. How did you go about doing your research? 

Esther Ehrlich:  Oh, the research! I spent a fair amount of time making sure that this bird would be doing that thing at this time of year there. I depended on a wonderful guide I found online that was specific to the birds on Cape Cod. And I listened and listened to birdsongs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. I wanted to do the birds justice—choose the right bird for the right mood/situation.

Most of my research was about double-checking the accuracy of my memory of the early 1970s. What did it say on the box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers? What Stevie Wonder song would Chirp and Sally most likely be dancing to in the basement? When did that commercial with the owl saying “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”run? I also dug up an old menu from Howard Johnson’s so Dad could order a “grilled-in-butter frankfort” instead of just a plain old hot dog!

Jenni Holm:  It's great having a story starring quiet yet observant children. Were you like this as a child? Why did you decide to write these sorts of characters?

Esther Ehrlich: Wow, good questions! To answer the second question first, I feel like I made very few conscious decisions about the characters, especially about such fundamental qualities like their personalities, what makes them who they are. I don’t mean to sound mystical, but the process of writing characters, for me, is much more about following their lead, paying attention to their quirks, what they reveal in little and not-so-little ways about themselves as the story develops, than about a deliberate choice I’m making. I never said to myself, “I think I want to write about an eleven-year-old girl whose eyes are wide open to the world but who doesn’t talk much to other people about her experiences.”

That said, my mother always used to say to me, “You don’t miss a trick, Es!” which I took as a compliment. I was definitely a kid who paid attention to pretty much everything. Of course, this also meant that I was very tuned in to what was going on with the people in my life—my family, friends, kids at school, teachers—and my accurate or, I’m sure, sometimes inaccurate ideas about how they were feeling. There was a vigilant quality to my observing. What is this person feeling and what is it that they need from me? No one who knew me as a kid would have described me as quiet—I was definitely a talker and still am. But the truth is, especially as a kid, my most peaceful and therefore happiest time was when I pulled back from the hard work of being vigilant and just spent time, quietly, by myself. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent alone with my bunnies in the backyard, brushing their fur with a soft toothbrush, trying to teach them to sit and stay, and just hanging out in the grass or fall leaves or snow.

Jenni Holm:  Anything you would like to add?

Esther Ehrlich: Well, I’d like to thank you for your interest in Nest and me, but I’d especially like to thank you for all of your writing. You give feisty, smart girls—and kind boys—a good name, and I appreciate that!

How I Wrote It: Debut Author Michael Pitre, on "Fives and Twenty-Fives"

5sIn early 2011, Michael Pitre found himself transfixed by the Arab Spring protests flaring throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

At the time, he’d been separated from the U.S. Marine Corps for a year and, nearing the fourth anniversary of his second tour in Iraq, was settling into civilian life while writing fiction in his spare time.

Until Arab Spring, he’d had little interest in writing about his experiences in Iraq. "I was very reticent to write anything from the perspective of the Marines or US servicemen in Iraq," he said. "I just liked to write. This is something I did at night to amuse myself."

But then, watching young men and women displaying such courage against well-armed authorities, willing to take a bullet for their beliefs... "It just flipped a switch for me," the New Orleans-based author said during a happy-hour visit to Amazon headquarters in Seattle last week.

Pitre began thinking about Iraqis he'd worked with during his two tours (2006 and 2007)--men and women who had taken "insane risks" to help U.S. troops. "I started thinking about what had happened to them," he said. He tried writing a story about an Iraqi translator, which slowly, with nudges from his wife, evolved into the three entwined narratives that comprise his stunning first novel, Fives and Twenty Fives (Amazon's Best of the Month “Debut Spotlight” for September).

Pitre-2The novel follows two Marines and their Iraqi interpretor working in a high-risk road repair platoon, shifting between their time in Iraq and their troubled postwar lives. Though Pitre’s experience was much different from his fictional characters, he did send early drafts to friends from his old battalion, and was encouraged by their feedback, which was: Not everyone's a hero. Not every day was good. Not every meal tasted great. This is a true story. “That was the response I was hoping for," he said.

He also received encouragement from his wife, whom he'd met during his first deployment, and corresponded with by letter and email during both deployments--emails and letters that came in handy while writing the novel. "I wrote it because my wife told me to, more than anything," he said, only half joking. She basically told him: If you can't sleep, and you're going to keep me awake, go to the living room and do something productive. He started writing in the evenings, and would update his wife on the fate of his characters. "They became like members of our family," he said.

"I didn't know I needed catharsis until those moments with my wife,” he said. “I think she knew I needed catharsis more than I did."

~

Five things about the author:

  • Born in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, into a close-knit Cajun family.
  • His father worked in the oil industry, and Pitre spent part of his youth living in West Texas, for a while attending school in the football-crazed town featured in Friday Night Lights.
  • Studied history and creative writing at LSU, with plans to become a teacher, but after Sept. 11, 2001 was inspired to join the Marine Corps.
  • Deployed to Iraq in 2006 (as a communications platoon commander) and 2007 (as combat operations center watch officer), both times at a base called Al Taqaddum. Left the Marines in 2010 as a captain.
  • Lives in New Orleans with his wife, working for an insurance company and writing his next novel.

Recipe Road Test: Best Guacamole EVER

SeriouslyDelishGood guacamole can be the entire reason for going to a particular restaurant, but there is also a lot of mediocre guac out there--especially at my house...  I've tried the package of guacamole seasoning from the grocery store. So wrong. I've tried winging it with avocado, lime juice, hot sauce, and the occasional dalliance with sour cream.  Also no bueno. 

Seriously Delish has a lot of great recipes (it is, after all, one of our Best Cookbooks of September) but when I saw how sweet house guac, I knew that was the first recipe to try.

I made it for a group recently after a day of sun, boating, and beers, and it was hands-down the best guac I've ever made and one I'd be proud to serve again.  I attribute this to the copious amount of lime, the finely chopped jalapeno and red onion, and the right amount of salt.  Fresh, bright, and delicious, the recipe is also mighty generous and was perfect for our hungry group of eight. Next time I'm going to try one of Merchant's recommended ways to "trash up" my guac (starting with bacon, of course). I failed to take a picture of my own bowl of how sweet house guac which I blame on beer and the desire to eat this as fast as possible.

Below is the recipe and photo from page 92 of Seriously Delish.  

SweetDelishGuacamoleHow sweet house guac

I have been known to eat an entire bowl of guacamole by myself in one sitting. To say that I am in love would be a severe understatement. It would probably even be offensive. Over the years there has been a lot of guac to cross my path. I’ve determined what I love and don’t love, and this is it. My number-one preference is for the dip to remain completely authentic in flavor—so I don’t want any sour cream or yogurt mixed in. I am happiest when my red onion and jalapeño are finely diced and when my tomato is mostly seeded. Lots of salt and pepper are a must. And the limes—well, they are the key. Oh, and so are the margaritas.

MAKES 3 cups • TIME: 10 minutes

4 very ripe avocados, halved and pitted

Juice of 2 limes

1 large tomato, chopped

1⁄2 red onion, diced

1 jalapeño chile pepper, diced

1⁄3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Scoop the avocado flesh into a large bowl. Add the lime juice, tomato, onion, jalapeño, cilantro, salt, and pepper. Mash the avocados with a potato masher or a fork—you can leave it as chunky as desired. Taste and season additionally if desired.

NOTES: For all of you cilantro haters out there who claim your guac tastes like soap, simply leave it out. No biggie. And if you want to trash up your guac (aka, one of my favorite things to do), feel free to add some juicy mango chunks or crispy bacon. I’ve done it, my friends. It’s fab.

How I Wrote It: James Ellroy, on WWII and His Second LA Quartet

PerfidiaThe “enormity” of December 7, 1941 still resonates for James Ellroy. It's an event that rippled through his home city of Los Angeles and is now at the core of his new novel, which uses the Pearl Harbor bombing as the trigger point for a cascading series of interconnected lives and storylines, exploring politics, race, sex, corruption and more.

Perfidia is the first book in a planned quartet--Ellroy calls it his Second L.A. Quartet--a prelude to the first quartet, which included The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz.

Ellroy's goal was to write a big novel about “big internal conflict, big murder cases, juxtaposed against history,” in particular the resulting internment of Japanese immigrants. In his well-known bombastic fashion, he called Perfidia “the secret human infrastructure of enormous public events. It’s Ellroy’s Ragtime.”

The Japanese internment “was racial animus writ very large,” he said, citing the lack of internment for Italian or German immigrants.

Perfidia brings back fictional and real life characters from the first Quartet, Ellroy said, and puts them “in the cauldron of World War II ... Perfidia marks the chronological beginning of my life’s work.”

As with his previous books, the low-tech author wrote Perfidia longhand in ballpoint pen.

We spoke with Ellroy earlier this summer in New York. Perfidia goes on sale today.

XKCD Webcomic Creator Randall Munroe Asks: "What If?"

WhatifWhat if I swam in a pool of spent nuclear fuel?

What would happen if lightning struck a bullet in midair?

How long could the human race survive on only cannibalism?

Could you get drunk from drinking a drunk person's blood?

If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

These are the kinds of questions Randall Munroe receives daily from his millions of loyal, curious, and sometimes worrisome fans, at his crazily popular webcomic site, xkcd.

A former NASA roboticist--who now has an asteroid (4942 Munroe) named after him--Munroe responds to fans’ bizarre questions using computer simulations, military research, complex math equations, and consulting with experts. His responses, complemented by his stick-figure drawings, are mini masterpieces that often predict the annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion.

Monroe's new book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, is a Best Books of the Month selection that’s currently ranked #1 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Which helps explain the overflow crowd that came to hear him speak today on Amazon’s Seattle campus, where he was greeted like a rock star. (He's also recently been on NPR and the Colbert Report.)

MunroeBefore a very appreciative audience--more than a few of them engineers--Munroe explored a few sample questions from the book, including: What if you tried to build a periodic table made of brick-sized chunks of each corresponding element? Ultimately, he explained in his very deadpan delivery, by the time you got to the seventh row of the elements, you would've ignited a series of explosions that kept igniting more explosions. "Within the first few seconds you’ve had several Hiroshimas worth of energy released,” he said, revealing a drawing of a giant mushroom cloud over the United States.

Munroe also explored a scenario involving the fastest possible means of delivering an Amazon package across the country, by drone. After a complex series of calculations, the result was also a massive explosion and a mushroom cloud. “There is no conceivable reason to deliver a package this fast,” he said.

The What If? blog grew from a physics lecture Munroe once gave to high schoolers at MIT. As he watched the students tune out, in the same way he'd tuned out in boring classes, he decided to find ways to make science more interesting. But he admitted that his ultimate goal isn't really to teach, but to learn.

“The real reason I’m doing this is: I really want to know the answer to these questions,” said Munroe (who asked not to be photographed during his visit. That's his self portrait to the right.)

~

AnimorphAsked about his five favorite books, Munroe semi-seriously cited the Animorphs series--particularly books #5 and #26. "So I guess that's two..."

He also mentioned these three:

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

    "I felt like it was one of the books that nailed the vibe I was going for with writing What If ... It's a what-if scenario: what if people disappeared overnight."

Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter

    "I've read it many times, each time understanding a little more of what I was reading as I was growing up."

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.

    “As someone who grew up in the country, it was just mind blowing, in terms of explaining how cities actually work ... It corrected all these misconceptions I had about cities, some of which I learned from playing Sim City.”


 

 

Forever in Fashion

I'll Drink to ThatI’ll Drink to That, the memoir from legendary Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper Betty Halbreich, is more than just a book about fashion. Sure, there are tons of stories of  little, lonely Betty playing in her mother’s closet among bottles of Joy perfume, of working for “Mr Beene” (no one would ever have called the mid-century designer anything else), of the golden sable coat that still, to this day, hasn’t turned color. (They do that, you know.) But equally interesting is the way Halbreich’s life unfolds, and how she managed to turn a  passion into a salvation. Halbreich’s voice – on the page and in person – doesn’t have a soupcon of little-old-lady; what I like best is that it’s peppered with barbs and idioms of her era. (Now that I’ve talked to Halbreich, I appreciate that co author Rebecca Paley is a genius channeler; Halbreich in person sounds just like Paley has made her read on the page.) Sure, she rambles a bit – but, as she reminds you often, she is 87. Besides, she says she’s not crazy about all this attention she’s getting. (Methinks the lady doth demur a bit.)  But all I can tell you is that the only thing better than a half hour conversation with Betty Halbreich might be Betty Halbreich looking around your closet for half an hour. But, alas: she doesn’t make house calls. (I asked.)


Q: You were featured in a beloved documentary (Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s) and have been the subject of an article in The New Yorker. Lena Dunham (of Girls fame) is developing a TV show around you. And now you have this book: can you say why you decided this was the time to write it?


A: I think this was a catharsis. It’s a strange thing about my life. I’ve never had to look for a job, I never wanted to write a book. Someone I knew always pushed me. I always have to be pushed.   Everything I do, someone has to take me with an invisible hand and leave me. I’m not a self motivated person, but once I start to do something, I always belong to the Clean Plate Club.


I'll Drink to ThatQ: Were you always obsessed with clothes?


A: I cared about clothes. I care visually about clothes. My mother loved clothes and was fashionable, and I guess I grew up in a world of looking around. It’s [the love of fashion and art] sort of inbred;  it’s truly something you’re born with. My daughter knows about painting and art. She’s the associate director of the Modern [Museum of Modern Art]. My son is a nonprofessional photographer. So we are sort of visual people. I don’t add, I don’t subtract, I don’t divide and I don’t use the computer. Visual people sometimes have a very difficult time. 

 
Q: You get the sense from the book that fashion advice is not the only kind of counsel that your clients are seeking...


A: Here in the dressing rooms, you wouldn’t believe what comes out. And they say things like: My husband says I should wear this or that, and what do you think? Half of the women cannot face themselves in the mirror... but they can face me. They can face the stranger, but not themselves. They don’t feel secure, but maybe I make them feel secure because of my age. They have nothing to fear from me.


Q:  Don’t you think we all grow up with “rules” in our heads about what we can and cannot wear, rules maybe our mothers or the fashion world told us.


A: Well, you can take those rules and scratch them right now! I said to young Emily (her assistant at Solutions, the personal shopping department at Bergdorf) who’s my right hand, my left hand and half of my brain: “Everybody is wearing white pants!” In my day you never wore white pants in the city. Maybe at the beach, but not tight ones. I see size 20s in white pants: where do they find them? They look like they’re going to be beached. I can’t wait until winter when everybody puts a coat on.

I'll Drink to That


Q: But size 20s have a right to be fashionable, don’t they?


A: Yes, of course, but it can be very difficult. I say my most difficult clients (to dress) are the 12s, 14s and 16s: they’re the lost ladies. Nobody wants to dress her, give her a sleeve, or some length. My department shouldn’t be called Solutions. It should be called Challenge.


I'll Drink to That Q: Do women dress for fashion, for men, or for each other?


A: Don’t you think people should be comfortable in their own skin? I always say it’s how you carry yourself. A lot of dressing is to make you feel good, but sometimes it has to do with your peer group.  You want to look like your group. And we’re all into a youth thing: I abhor what everyone’s doing to themselves: the injections and the redoing. There’s a lack of individuality. Do women dress for women or men? Both, I think, but when someone says to me that they took a dress home and Joe didn’t like it, I say, “You know. Don’t wear it around him. Don’t let him make you hate that dress!”


Q: If you had to pick your favorite item of clothing, what would it be?


A: Well, there’s that sable, still in my closet... The cabochon ring my mother gave me is the most important thing in my life. Every morning when I put it on I hear my mother saying, “You wear that every day of your life.”  My mother was one tough broad. I have a love hate relationship with the old world. I’m thrilled that I can be part of this [modern] world. I really don’t know how it happened.  Somebody is taking care of me. So many people my age, they’re in wheelchairs. I’m in heels!

YA Wednesday: Best Books of September

Labor Day weekend is always a bit of a double-edged sword--it's a nice long weekend to relax and eat lots of barbeque but the end of it means that it's actually September and the start of fall. Already. Here in Seattle this means crossing our fingers that we can stave off the fall rains for one more month (please, please, please...).  This September there are so many stellar YA books that the best books list for the month has a half-dozen that just couldn't be left out. GiveYouSun

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Our spotlight pick for the month and a book I'll continue to recommend for the rest of the year and beyond. The novel centers around boy-girl twins who are extremely close and also extremely competitive.  The narrative alternates between Noah filling in the time when they were thirteen and Jude telling their story three years later, at sixteen. Somewhere in the middle things went horribly wrong and picking up clues and peeling back layers page-by-page is an unforgettable experience. I'll Give You the Sun captures several complicated relationships in one remarkable story that has me wondering if it has left an indelible mark on my mind.  I hope so.

 

Skink Skink--No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen
In his first YA novel, Carl Hiaasen introduces a new generation of readers to one of his most popular characters. Richard and his cousin Malley have always had each other's back, so after Malley disappears with a man she met on the internet, Richard knows he's got to get her back fast. Luckily, Richard stumbles (literally) upon Skink, a man who doles out his own brand of swamp justice to eco-terrorists and sleazy internet predators alike. Skink, No Surrender is classic Hiaasen: quirky, funny, thoughtful, and compulsively readable.

 

EvilLibrarianEvil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen
Imagine a super-hot guy high school librarian who has Cyn's best friend turning to the stacks like never before.  Now imagine the hot librarian is really a demon using the student body like a supermarket of souls and his source for a future wife.  Cyn finds herself somehow immune to his charms but she's definitely in the minority.  Add lots of laughs, crushes, more demons, romance, and unholy high school embarrassment opportunities, and you've got your next favorite read in Michelle Knudsen's clever horror/comedy.

 

EggSpoon  Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire
Gregory Maguire's new novel is one of those unique stories that readers in a wide range of ages will love and I've been recommending it to all of them.  Maguire is known for putting his twist on a familiar tale with Wicked, and in Egg & Spoon he does it again with the best known characters from Russian folklore, Baba Yaga and the Firebird.  Russian history and class disparity are explored through a fantasy adventure that has all the ingredients of a beloved fairy tale: mistaken identity, bravery, unlikely friendship, and a magical setting.  An utterly delightful read.

Afterworlds

 

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
Such a cool concept to this YA story-within-a-YA story, and Westerfeld lives up to the promise.  I'm not gonna lie, this book is a door stopper, but somehow it doesn't bog down despite the page count (don't even look).  All you want to know is what's happening next in the YA novel titled Afterworlds, written by the main character, Darcy, and in the story about Darcy that you are also reading in the pages of Afterworlds as written by Scott Westerfeld.  I hope that isn't too confusing, because it really works--you'll see.

 

InfiniteSeaThe Infinite Sea: The Second Book of the 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
For my reaction to this one just insert your favorite my-jaw-hit-the-floor phrase here. If you thought Yancey threw some curveballs in The 5th Wave, get out your catcher's mitt because he's on fire in the sequel.   And the best part is, this is a well-plotted, thoughtfully written story with deliberate twists that add to the puzzle just when you had all the border pieces filled in. I don't want to spoil anything, so let's just say this is another obsessive read that had me looking back through the pages after it was all over. We'll talk more once it's published on September 16th.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

September 2014

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