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About Chris Schluep

Chris Schluep spent more than a dozen years editing books in New York before moving west. He takes great pride in reading a wide range of books and connecting interested readers with the books they'll love. Chris lives in Seattle with his wife and son, and he feels like he may have one of the best jobs in the world.

Posts by Chris

Daniel Levitin on Getting Organized, Choosing Priorities, and the Importance of Daydreaming

LevitanDaniel Levitin's The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload is a comprehensive look at the evolution of information, the neurobiology behind how we think, and how we can become better organized in a world of distractions. I reached out to Levitin to learn more about his background and some key points to the book.

Read on for an interview with Daniel Levitin.

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Chris Schluep: Tell us a little about your background.

Daniel Levitan: I dropped out of college as a math major and became an entrepreneur. I started working for a small record company, 415 Records. It was a full time job, but as a start-up, we didn’t have much money — we poured it all back into the company. So during those first few years,  I also worked as a data analyst at AT&T and Wells Fargo Bank (my math background came in handy). That led to me being hired as the executive assistant to Ed Littlefield, who at the time was on the boards of Wells Fargo, General Electric, Chrysler, and Del Monte Foods. I learned a lot from Ed about business, critical thinking, and organization—a lot that found its way into this book.

We built up 415 records over a period of eight years and sold it to Sony in 1989. I then started my own production and consulting company, and consulted to every major record label and a number of rock bands.

I went back to college at Stanford in my 30s to study neuroscience — I wanted to know more about the science behind how the mind works. I received my PhD in 1996 at the University of Oregon and then completed post-doctoral training at Stanford Medical School and UC Berkeley. I started teaching and  running a laboratory at McGill University in 2000. Since 2013, in addition to my work at McGill, I'm the Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI, a new top tier undergraduate program that is part of the Claremont Consortium. This is a very exciting opportunity to put into practice a lot of what neuroscientists have learned about the science of learning.

CS: This is the most complete book about the mind and how to organize it that I’ve ever read. How long have you been working on it?

DL: I've always been fascinated by organizational systems — how record stores arrange their records, how hardware and grocery stores arrange their products, how libraries classify books. So you might say the book has been percolating for many years. The actual writing of the book took four years. Everything I know about the subject is in this book, along with what I've learned along the way about productivity, efficiency, and decision making. Although it may not seem obvious, decision making is related to efficiency: most decision making can be facilitated by more optimally organizing the information at hand.

CS: Why has life become so complex?

DL:  The information explosion is part of it. By some estimates, we humans have generated as much information in the past twenty years as in all of human history before them.

Just one hundred years ago, if you got a PhD in biology, for example, you probably knew as much as anyone in the field knew about it — you were a world class expert. Now, you can get a PhD in biology studying the visual system of the squid and still not know everything that is known about that.

Also, we're being asked to do more. Because of the rise of shadow work — part of a shadow economy of labor that isn't reckoned in the GNP — all of us are doing things that used to be done for us by others: we pump our own gas, make our own airline reservations, bag our own groceries. Think about something as simple as trying to get to the right person in customer service or tech support. It used to be that switchboard operators would route us to the person we needed to speak to. Now we have to navigate ever more complex voice menus.The computer age was supposed to bring us more leisure time. Instead, it allowed companies to offload a lot of the work they used to do in the name of customer service onto customers.

CS: What’s the chief difference between Highly Successful People (HSP) and the rest of us?

DL: The ones I've met don't have different brain structures, as far as I can tell — it's not like they have some module the rest of us lack. It's just that they have a little bit more of some qualities all of us already possess: they're a little bit more focused, a little less distractable, a little more driven. But the chief difference is that they've adopted systems to help them be more efficient, and they guard their time jealously — among other things, they don't spend more time on a project or decision than it is worth. (And by worth, I don't just mean financial worth, but the emotional and physical costs of following certain paths.)

Also, they ask the right questions, which is an underappreciated skill. It's what great leaders do. Why? Because not all questions are equally vital.  Successful people in any domain are able to identify the questions that can push understanding forward.

CS: How can we be more like HSPs?

DL: We can adopt some of the systems that they've devised. They make lists, prioritize tasks throughout the day, practice "productivity hours" where there are no interruptions from phones or email, and they ask the right questions when confronted with new information. There's a lot about asking the right questions in Chapters 6 and 7.

CS: You decry multitasking. How would you convince the many fans of multitasking that they’re using the wrong approach?

DL: As a neuroscientist, I know that we humans are very good at self-delusion. It's always helpful when there are studies that can help separate our intuitions from reality. And the reality is, based on dozens of carefully conducted experiments, we don't actually do several things at once. Instead, we shuffle rapidly among them, one after the other.

Multi-tasking is not always problematic, and sometimes it's necessary. But if you have a serious task to do, you have to hunker down and do it and not a dozen other things.

Part of the illusion is tied into how the brain's reward system works. Everytime we accomplish some task, no matter how small, and every time we learn some new piece of information such as from a social networking newsfeed, our brain doles out a little hit of dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Doing all these little tasks in rapid succession make us feel good. But it's short lived, like a sugar high. And in fact, sugar is part of the story. The brain needs glucose to function — that's the fuel that keeps brain cells firing. Every decision, every small task, every new piece of information, burns precious glucose. After a couple of hours of multi-tasking we feel tired and depleted because we've literally depleted the store of energy in our brains. And we have far less to show for that two hours than we would if we had been uni-tasking.

CS: Procrastination: does everyone do it, and how can we avoid this habit?

DL: Procrastination is a very human tendency. I think we all proscrastinate to some extent. The trick is not to prcorastinate the important tihngs like your annual physical or a diabetes test. But if it's time to replace the furnace filters in your house, and you procrastinate for a week or two, that's really not a big deal.

There are lots of tricks for avoiding procrastination. Perhaps the best is to arrange the external  environment so that temptations reduced. I wrote a lot of this book in public and university libraries and I mindfully did not sign into their wireless system. Having the internet unavailable is a great boon to work. Now of course we need the internet for research and for information. In my case, I simply made a list of things I needed to look up on the internet and looked them up later.

Another trick is to carefully prioritize your To Do list, and identify when your most productive time is. My most productive time used to be after dinner, and I'd stay up until 2 or 3 working intently. For the last ten years it's shifted to early mornings and I get up at 5:30 and go right to my desk and write. The trick is then this: Whatever is most important, make sure that you carefully carve out time to do it during your most productive hours and don't let anything else interfere with those sacred hours.

One thing that we all do is that we imagine what will be the perfect environment or set of circumstances that will allow our creativity to flow and our productive selves to emerge unbridled. Of course this is true to an extent. If you're a painter, you need paint and brushes. If you're a scientist, you need a laboratory. But you can't you let your search for the perfect environment prevent you from actually getting started. You'd be surprised what people get done in less than ideal environments. Just look at the cave paintings of Alta Mira or the great art that came out of concentration camps in World War II. Or of course Tolstoy writing his novels after a grueling day as an office clerk.

My favorite story about this is John Fogerty. He wrote all these great songs about nature — Up Around The Bend, Green River, Born on the Bayou — and he wrote them all from a one bedroom apartment in El Cerrito and Oakland. His imagination was his environment, not the urban landscape.

Another related idea is what my friend Jake Eberts (producer of Gandhi, Dancing With Wolves, and Driving Miss Daisy) used to call "eating the frog": find the most unpleasant task you have to do and do it first thing in the morning. If you hate exercise, do it first when  your gumption is highest and you can get it over with.

CS:   Talk about a little about the importance of day dreaming.

DL: Daydreaming is when our thoughts meander from one to another. It tends not to be linear, and it allows us to forge new connections between concepts and ideas that we didn't know were connected. It turns out that daydreaming is the default state of the human brain, and the time when we are apt to be most creative. We've all experienced this. There's a problem we can't solve, we keep coming at it from different angles and finally give up. Then, suddenly, while we're doing something else — usually something relaxing and daydreamy — the solution comes to us. And it's usually a solution that we wouldn't have seen before, one that required connecting things that weren't otherwise connected. That's the daydreaming mode, what neuroscientists call the default mode or the task negative mode of attention (because you're not actively engaged in a task). The first part of The Organized Mind is devoted to sharing what we now know about the brain's attentional system and memory — why we remember some things and not others — and how all of us can use that information to improve our daily lives.

"In the Kingdom of Ice" - An Interview with Author Hampton Sides

IceAuthor Hampton Sides' latest book In the Kingdom of Ice is our spotlight pick for the Best Books of August. Set against the Gilded Age, and following a crew bound for parts unknown, this is a nonfiction account that captures a time and place like few books in recent memory. We caught up with Sides to talk to him about his book... and he shared with us some research materials as well.

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Chris Schluep: When did you first learn about the story of the USS Jeannette?

Hampton Sides: It was in Oslo, Norway, while I was on an assignment for National Geographic about the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who had been engrossed by an earlier U.S. expedition from the 1880s—the Arctic voyage of the USS Jeannette. Even though the Jeannette was a thoroughly American saga, I had never heard of the expedition before. When I dug into the primary literature, I found it to be one of the grittiest, most harrowing stories of adventure and discovery that I’d ever encountered, chock-full of amazing characters. The Jeannette saga was extremely important and universally well-known in its day, but no one I knew had ever heard of it. That’s when I knew there was a book here.

The-Jeannette's-abandonment-depicted-by-maritime-painter-James-Gale-Tyler__Courtesy-of-Vallejo-Maritime-Gallery-of-Newport-Beach-California
The Jeannette's abandonment, depicted by maritime painter James Gale Tyler, courtesy of Vallejo Maritime Gallery of Newport Beach, California

CS: Describe your research. Was there a key piece that made you think "now I know how to frame this book"?

HS: In the early going of my research, I lucked into one of those priceless situations that I think all of us historians dream about: An invitation from a little old lady to come sift through a trunk full of yellowed letters that she had literally rescued from her attic. In this case, the trunk contained the personal papers of Emma De Long, the wife of the Jeannette expedition’s captain, George De Long. Once I read the stuff, I knew that I’d found a powerful new way to frame the book: It was not just an adventure tale, but a love story as well. Emma De Long’s letters to her husband, and his letters to her, are elegant, eloquent, and moving, and as the drama unfolds, they become truly heart-wrenching. Really, that trunk full of papers formed the emotional spine of the book.

CS: How long did it take to complete the book? What were the challenges?

HS: I spent three years on this story. For me, the biggest and most rewarding challenge was physically retracing parts of the voyage. I wanted to follow in the path of the Jeannette—to experience something of what that epic journey was like—so I went to Russian High Arctic and the central coast of Siberia where the men of the Jeannette made landfall. This is some of the most severe and inaccessible terrain on earth, but also hauntingly beautiful. The end of the Cold War and the thinning of the ice brought about by climate change had made it possible to reach many of the places the Jeannette had voyaged, places that had effectively been off-limits for more than a century. My real goal was to find the mountain deep in Siberia’s Lena Delta where the Jeannette survivors buried their comrades. It took me forever, but I finally found the site: Even to this day, it’s called American Mountain.

Lost-in-the-Ice-headline-from-The-New-York-Herald__public-domain
"Lost in the Ice" headline from The New York Herald

CS: An unusual combination of public and private resources went into driving this expedition. Can you talk a little about the conditions that led to the voyage?

HS: The Jeannette was a U.S. navy ship, sailing under naval rules and commanded by naval officers, but the expedition was underwritten by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the millionaire playboy publisher of the New York Herald. Such a relationship would never happen today, but back then the still-nascent U.S. Navy was anemic and cash-starved. Bennett, who had sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa, was looking for another sensational story for his newspaper, so he bankrolled this expedition to reach the North Pole. This hybrid arrangement says a lot about the Gilded Age—about the power of the press in that era, and the stupendous amount of money and influence that could be wielded by a single man. Bennett—a duelist, a sports enthusiast, a womanizer and a famously reckless yachtsman—was an outlandish human being with an iron will, and he had a wallet fat enough to make this all happen.

CS: Do you have a favorite character in the book?

HS: This is mainly the story of 33 explorers living under duress on the ice—and I grew fond of nearly every one of these men, especially the commander, George De Long. But I’m really taken, too, with some of the background characters we meet off the ice. My favorite is Dr. August Petermann, a German eminence who was the world’s preeminent cartographer at the time of the Jeannette voyage. Petermann believed that a warm water basin covered the dome of the planet. He said that all the Jeannette had to do was bust through the ring of Arctic ice and enjoy smooth sailing to the north pole. There wasn’t a shred of evidence for his theory, but no matter: Petermann was eloquent and forceful, and his beautiful maps showed an “Open Polar Sea” that was impossible to dislodge from the public imagination. I went to Petermann’s hometown of Gotha, Germany, and found him to be a fascinatingly gothic character—romantic, eccentric, grandiose, deeply flawed, and ultimately tragic.

CS: Did your work on the book lead you to draw any conclusions about climate change?

HS: Yes. One of the big problems that climate change researchers have grappled with is finding a way to know what the polar ice cap truly looked like a century ago in order to compare it with today's Arctic ice conditions. To understand that, you'd have to go back in history, build a research station, and dangerously trap it in the drifting icepack for years. 

As it happens, the Jeannette kept meticulous records of the ice as it drifted two years, and a thousand miles, across the frozen sea. After the ship sank, De Long's men lugged dozens of heavy meteorological logbooks containing troves of information about the icecap and Arctic weather—the hard-won product of their daily labors for two years. When they reached Siberia's shores four months later, De Long buried those logbooks in the sand, and miraculously, they were later found by Navy rescuers, eventually ending up in the National Archives in Washington, where they've gathered dust for 135 years. Over the past year, however, NOAA scientists have digitized those logbooks, and have been analyzing De Long's data. The story they tell is a sobering one: The polar ice cap, at least in that 1,000-mile swath of the High Arctic, has shrunk, weakened, and thinned far more dramatically than anyone realized.

The-thermometric-gateways-to-the-pole-as-envisioned-by-Silas-Bent__Courtesy-of-NOAA
The thermometric gateways to the pole as envisioned by Silas Bent, Courtesy of NOAA

CS: There’s no question that these men endured extreme tests of survival. In your opinion, does this sort of heroism exist today?

HS: Of course we see amazing examples of heroism all the time. The difference, I think, is that people today—Americans especially—are less willing to put themselves in situations that are virtually guaranteed to produce extreme hardship and death. What floors me is that thousands of people applied to be on the Jeannette, even though everyone knew the ship would become locked in ice and that destruction would probably ensue. Arctic exploration, up until that point, had been one long tale of nearly limitless suffering, yet Americans signed up in droves. It says a lot about how tough and stoic—and yes, heroic— people were in that era. It also says something about the powerful allure of the High North and the essential riddle of the pole. It was a nagging, gnawing obsession: People had to know what was up there.

Siberia's-Lena-River-Delta-with-ice-barrier__Courtesy-of-European-Space-Agency
Siberia's Lena River Delta with ice barrier, Courtesy of European Space Agency

"The Alliance" - Rethinking Employment in a "Free Agent Nation"

TheallianceBusiness is changing. As authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh have noted (and as they note in this interview), we are moving away from business embracing employees as a longterm "family" and entering the realm of "Free Agent Nation." The Alliance is their answer to this change. I found the book to be a fascinating read, and I was happy to be able to ask them some questions about The Alliance.

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1. How has the employer-employee relationship changed over time, and why do you consider it to be broken now?

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a steady shift away from thinking of companies as families and towards what Dan Pink prophetically dubbed “Free Agent Nation.” The metaphor of company-as-family worked as long as companies offered lifetime employment.  Once technological change and globalization made this kind of inflexible arrangement untenable, trying to pretend that companies which treated employees like free agents were still like family forced both managers and employees into being dishonest with each other.

The result of free agency and the lack of honest conversations has been an erosion of trust.  And without trust, neither employer or employee will be willing to make the kind of mutual investment that drives breakthrough results.

2. What can Silicon Valley teach us about the new world of business?

Intentionally or not, Silicon Valley has pioneered a new way for companies and employees to work together.  Rather than making false commitments to lifelong employment, employers and employees come together to form a mutually beneficial alliance between self-interested parties.  Silicon Valley’s famous stock options reflect this approach; the typical vesting schedule of an option grant is four years—long enough to work together to build something of value, short enough to reflect an honest and mutual understanding.

3. Describe the basic idea behind the Alliance?

The alliance is a two-way relationship between independent players that lets company and employee work together toward common goals, even when some of their interests differ.  Manager and employee work together to define a “tour of duty” whose mission, when accomplished, helps transform the employee’s career and the company’s business. The paradox is that recognizing an employee’s independence is what allows the manager to have the honest conversations necessary to rebuild the loyalty and trust that’s been missing from today’s employment relationship.

4. What is the ultimate goal of the Alliance?

The ultimate goal of the alliance is to help company and employee build a deep, mutually beneficial, and lifelong relationship.  When both parties feel comfortable enough to invest and reinvest in each other, they can achieve breakthrough business results.  And even if radical changes in the business environment lead company and employee to end the employment relationship, they can continue to help each other via a corporate alumni network. 

5. You make a point of encouraging networking to solve problems, not just inside the company but out. Aren't there inherent risks in this strategy (like revelation of sensitive information to external parties, or employees being lured away by outside contacts)?

There is always the risk that an employee might reveal sensitive information or be lured away, but this risk is overblown, and pales in comparison to the potential benefits.  Most employees know what information needs to remain secret, and if they don’t, a manager can always specify what can and cannot be shared.  Similarly, most employees are quite aware of their market value.  Here in Silicon Valley, a good software developer might receive dozens of job offers every year.

Meanwhile, the benefits of tapping the collective network intelligence of the company are enormous.  This network intelligence can provide useful information on everything from the competitive landscape to key industry trends—before they hit the trade press.

6. Do you consider the book to be aimed at managers, employees, or both?

Our primary focus is on helping managers find a better way to work with their people.  That’s why we’ve included specific and detailed tips on how to have these honest conversations about values, career goals, and explicit tours of duty.  But we also think the book will be helpful to employees who want to explore a different way of working with their boss.

7. What are some companies that already practice the tenets of the Alliance?

A large number of the principles outlined in The Alliance come from Reid’s own experiences at LinkedIn, many of which we describe in the book.  We also tried to incorporate lessons from other CEOs like John Donahoe at eBay, Brad Smith at Intuit, and Linda Rottenberg at Endeavor.

"Is It Like You Thought It Would Be?" by Diana Gabaldon

OutlanderThe long-awaited adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's beloved Outlander series kicks off August 9th at 9pm ET/PT on Starz. The author shared with us her thoughts on seeing her books come to life...

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Ever since clips and trailers and stills of the new STARZ “Outlander” TV show have been released, people have been eagerly asking me, “So—is it just like you imagined?” “What’s it like to see these people who’ve lived in your head for so long come to life?” “Did you ever imagine it would be like this?”

Frankly, it’s a bit like the scene in Outlander where Claire asks Jamie—immediately after they’ve made love together for the first time (and his first time ever)—“So was it like you thought it would be?” And—after making her promise not to laugh at him, he confesses, “Almost. I didna realize ye did it face to face. I thought ye must do it the back way—like horses, ye ken?”

As in, yes, it’s a lot like I imagined it (“it” being the show itself), and at the same time, quite different. How so?

1. I have friends who are screenwriters, friends who have worked in the film world, and friends who have had films made of their work. Based on everything I’d heard and read, I was expecting to have nothing whatever to do with the production myself. I was familiar with Ron D. Moore’s work, so had high hopes that it would be good, but figured all I could do was cross my fingers.

Instead, I was startled—though very gratified—at the degree of involvement offered me. Ron and his production partner, Maril Davis, came to my house and spent two days with me, talking through ideas, characters, storylines, etc. We were much on the same wavelength, and as the production got underway, they were more than courteous about including me, asking my opinion on things (though they are, of course, under no legal compulsion to take account of it), showing me scripts and footage, inviting me to the set in Scotland and generally making me feel welcome.

MyOwnHeartsBlood2. I always want to roll my eyes when people say, “Isn’t it exciting seeing your characters come to life?”—because as far as I’m concerned, they’ve always been alive. Still, I know what these people mean, and yeah—it is exciting. Is it like I expected?  No, it’s much better…

Everyone has a mental image of what Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall look like. I actually know what they look like. Now, plainly, no actor alive will look exactly like anyone’s mental image of a character, and I certainly didn’t expect the actors chosen for these parts to look “like” my knowledge of Jamie and Claire. And they don’t.

But. Ron and Maril sent me Sam Heughan’s audition tapes, when they cast him as Jamie. Frankly, I had doubts, having seen some IMDB photos of the man…but five seconds in, and it wasn’t Sam, it was Jamie, right there. Amazing!

See, actors do magic, no less than writers do. And beyond certain minimal physical requirements, it doesn’t really matter what they look like—only that they can be the character they play. And every single actor in this show can do that.

3. Now, I do understand what “adaptation” means, and a bit about how one translates text to a visual medium (I used to write comic book scripts for Walt Disney, and have in fact done a graphic novel (The Exile) version of Outlander). But what I didn’t realize was just how engaging a good adaptation could be.

Ron’s adaptation is very faithful to the original story; anyone who’s read Outlander will recognize it instantly. But there are the small changes, the insertions, the moving of scenes for dramatic cohesion—and all together, these “different” touches give the show a constant sense of novelty and discovery. I watch footage, knowing what’s going on—but wanting to know what happens next.

And you can’t ask more of a good story than that.

Bill Gates Sells a Business Book

BusinessadventureWhat's the best business book Bill Gates has read? In a recent article, he named Business Adventures by John Brooks, sending it to the top of the Amazon Best Sellers list. (It currently sits at #4.)

The billionaire/philanthropist heard about it from another great reader. "Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: 'It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,' he said. 'I’ll send you my copy.' I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks."

If you're interested in a 1960s collection of New Yorker articles, one that's beloved by two of the richest men in America, you should check it out. I know I'm going to. The only problem is you'll have to wait until September 9th to get the paperback edition--because it was out of print until Gates gave it his Seal of Approval.

 

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

MockingbirdFor fifty years, journalists have trekked to Monroeville, Alabama in search of Harper Lee. Normally, they leave town without even setting eyes on the famous but reclusive author. But in 2001, Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills wrote to Harper Lee's older sister, Alice, whom she eventually met. It was the beginning of a long conversation—which Ms. Mills recounts here in this exclusive essay:

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When the Chicago Tribune sent me south on an assignment in 2001 to write about Harper Lee’s hometown, I never imagined the adventure that awaited me. I certainly never imagined that I would meet the author herself. Lee had remained famously, ferociously, private since a few years after her first and only novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960.

We like to think we know which questions have the power to change our lives. What do you want to be when you grow up? Will you marry? Stay in your hometown? You can weigh those decisions, give them the thought they are due. Then everyday questions come along, and they turn out to carry that power, too. That’s the suspense of life, the serendipity. On that August day, my quick answer to my editor’s simple question, “Want to take a trip?” changed the course of my life and work for more than a decade.

After a nearly a week of talking to people around Monroeville, I knocked on the door of the house where the Lee sisters, Alice and Nelle Harper, lived, never expecting it to open. I had written Alice Lee, the then-89-year-old attorney who served as gatekeeper to her sister, known locally as Nelle, to tell her I would be in town and why.  

Alice opened not only the front door but the door to their lives as well. Soon, to my even greater surprise, I met Nelle. She arranged to come for a conversation at the Best Western where I was staying. From that meeting, a friendship with both sisters began, as did a years-long conversation about their lives and work.

At first slowly, then with increased gusto, Nelle shaped my own work, and how I viewed their town and the South. To the sisters, it was critical that I first understand their region, that I see them in context. Early on Nelle told me “To understand Southerners, you need to understand their ties to their church and their property.” And so I was off on a different kind of assignment, the Lee sisters’ guide to the South. I attended churches of all kinds in their corner of the Bible Belt, interviewed their friends and family, and took long drives with them through the small towns and rural areas they knew growing up. 

Marja-Mills-Chris-Popio-(2)My newspaper story ran in 2002 and I was on to other topics, while staying in touch with the sisters. My struggles with lupus made daily reporting increasingly difficult, however, and eventually it became clear I would have to find another way to work. In the fall of 2004, with the sisters’ blessing, I began renting the house next door to theirs to work on what became my memoir, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.

The Lees were ready to share more of their stories. Share them they did, on long country drives, on leisurely afternoons at their home and, with Nelle, often over afternoon coffee at McDonald’s or Burger King. “I know what you can call your book,” Nelle told me over one such coffee at Burger King. She leaned in and stabbed her finger in the air. “’Having Their Say.’ I know they used it with the Delaney Sisters but titles aren’t copyrightable.’” Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years was a bestselling book about two African American sisters reflecting on their lives.

The Lees fascinated me as sisters. Alice was the oldest of four siblings. Nelle was the youngest. Alice was 15 years older than Nelle, as much mother to her as sister.  Neither married or had children but in other ways they took very different paths.  Alice lived most of her life in their small hometown.  Nelle moved to New York as a young woman and stayed, eventually dividing her time between Manhattan and Monroeville. Alice was petite. Nelle wasn't. Alice wore only skirts, even on the week-ends. (Nelle referred to her as “Atticus in a Skirt.”) Nelle made casual pants and shirts her daily uniform. Alice worked at her law office until she was 100 years old. After the success of her novel, Nelle never held a traditional job. The never-ending press of interest in Nelle and the novel, however, was work in itself.  

The Lees didn't make big concessions to modern technology and conveniences, either. If a routine worked, they stuck with it. Nelle and I did laundry together at a Laundromat the next town over. The sisters faxed because Alice's hearing made using the phone impossible. But computers were not in the picture. Nelle used a manual typewriter to answer some of the correspondence that still poured into their post office box.

For all the sisters told me about their lives, I learned as much simply from seeing how they lived them: with a passion for books and history, church and community, friendship and family, and very little interest in material things. Television they had little time for, except when it came to football and golf. Their modest red brick house in Monroeville overflowed with books, but when it came to things such as wardrobes and furniture, they found simple things that worked for them and stuck with the same for decades.   

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the saying goes, and it was illuminating to see how they went about their day to day life in Monroeville. Both Nelle and Alice spent their time on books and friends, and, when it came to money, you would never know Nelle’s novel had brought her wealth. They did donate, quietly and generously, to church and education funds and various charities.

I am so much richer for my time with them. Spending time with these fascinating, intelligent, witty women was a lesson in living life on your own terms. They valued words far more than wealth--and their daily lives reflected that.

I’m reminded of a story Alice told me. When Nelle was studying in England in the 1940s, one of the Oxford boys she knew was going to London because he had a letter of introduction to a member of Parliament. “Something had happened that his girl couldn’t go,” Alice said, “and he asked Nelle Harper if she’d like to go. And she went. I think maybe they bicycled all the way in but, you know, it’s not far. And they were having tea on the terrace and this man who was hosting them excused himself from the table for a short time and returned with somebody.” Alice paused and looked at me with the relish of a cook about to serve a delicious dish. “And that somebody was Winston Churchill.” She continued, “Nelle Harper was so shocked and so overcome she couldn’t remember what she said. . . . Nelle Harper’s letter back home [to us] said, ‘Today I met history. I met history itself.’  

When I think of my time with the Lees in Monroeville, I feel the same way.

-- Marja Mills, author of The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

(Photo credit: Chris Popio)

A Debut to Remember: Celeste Ng's "Everything I Never Told You"

CelesteNgOne of my favorite books of the year is Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started reading it, but I'd heard good things about the novel, and it quickly drew me in. In the end, I tore right through it. As I say in this interview, there isn't a false note in the book.

I only hope that my praise for Celeste Ng's debut doesn't raise the bar so high that it can't meet readers' expectations.

Here's my interview with Celeste Ng:

 

A Conversation with James Browning, Author of "The Fracking King"

James Browning's The Fracking King is an engaging story about a high school junior named Winston Crwth. "Win," as he's called, is at Pennsylvania's Hale Academy (his third school in as many years), and he's there on a "Dark Scholarship" (paid for by the fracking concern, Dark Oil & Gas). He's also a big Scrabble fan.

Browning populates his novel with quirky, memorable characters, and he does a fine job of combining Scrabble, boarding school, and fracking to create a story that's both entertaining and provocative. The Amazon Editors liked it so much, we picked it as a July Best Book of the Month

FrackingKingI had the pleasure of talking to author James Browning, who aside from being an author, is a spokesman and chief strategist for Common Cause, a government watchdog group:

Chris Schluep: First of all, are you a scrabble fanatic?

James Browning: Scrabble was the only game at which I could beat my step-father, a man who believed that children should be “seen and not heard.” I also played constantly with my mother, and my brother and I played about 300 games one summer when we were supposed to be painting our father’s house in Palo Alto, California.

CS: Can you tell me where the idea for the novel came from?

JB: The novel was mainly inspired by a meeting I had in Harrisburg in 2008, with a legislative aide who looked like Bartleby the Scrivener. He warned me not to use the “c-word” in Harrisburg—by which he meant “corruption”—which was a pretty amazing thing to say because the whole point of my job with Common Cause was fighting government corruption.

This meeting and the feeling I got while working in the state capitol—that I was stuck in some lost novel by George Orwell—gave me a real sense of urgency and feeling of responsibility as I began to look at the issue of fracking in Pennsylvania. Winston Crwth’s own journey to boarding school and then to Harrisburg is also the story of the power of a single word, “fracking,” in the hands of the right person. 

CS:  How long did it take you to write the book?

JB:About two years, but I’ve been writing fiction and hoping to publish a novel for a long time. I wrote a different Scrabble novel back in 1998 when I was in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins—a story of Scrabble and doomed love.

CS: Why did you choose to set it in a boarding school?

JB: Boarding school is the thing that woke me up politically—as much because I believed in non sibi, “not for self,” the motto of Phillips Academy Andover, but also because of a lingering sense of shame that I did nothing when several of the not-rich kids in my dorm were expelled for breaking school rules for the second or third time, when the rich kids seemed to get four, five, or more chances.

CS: Are you afraid that it will be seen as "just a Fracking novel"? Because it isn't.

JB: The Fracking King can be read as a fracking novel, or a Scrabble novel, or a novel about a kid trying to survive high school. Or as I told my oldest son, a budding icthyologist, the book is like a cuttlefish, which can change colors to look like sand, a rock, a snake.

CS: What's next for you?

JB: I’m writing a novel about reading for the blind, a sort of older sibling to The Fracking King.

I used to work as the night manager at a studio that recorded textbooks for blind and dyslexic students and it was my job to catch any mistakes before these tapes were sent to the master library. The readers were wonderful, very dedicated, and would describe things like the “honeycomb” shape of certain molecules in a way that a blind person could imagine running their hands along the inside of the molecule.

Many years later, I’m still remembering mistakes that got by me, that got by all of us, and which were then copied and sent to who knows how many listeners. The new novel imagines what would happen if some of those mistakes were sent into the world and accepted as reality—and how you would try to fix them.

 

WWII Hero Louis Zamperini Dead at 97

UnbrokenWhen Louis Zamperini's WWII bomber went down over the Pacific Ocean, he probably didn't think my story will become a huge best seller and be made into a movie. Survival was central to his mind as he sat in his little raft in the middle of the ocean. He had to survive intense sun, lack of food and water, leaping sharks, storms, and enemy aircraft. Eventually, he was taken in as a Japanese prisoner of war, where he was mistreated in ways that might have made his open sea experiences seem like a maudlin vacation. But through faith and resilience he survived to tell his tale.

Although his story is well-known to legions of readers, it is worth repeating (and reading and rereading).

Zamperini was born in 1917 to Italian immigrants in Olean, NY. His family moved to California in 1919, where he showed a proclivity for getting into trouble. To channel his energies, he took up boxing and eventually became a world-class runner. He ran the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he finished 8th—but he ran the last lap of the final so quickly that Adolph Hitler reportedly asked to meet him (they shook hands).

Zamperini enlisted in the Air Force in 1941, where he became a bombardier. In 1943, he and his crew were sent to search for a lost aircraft over the Pacific. Their B-24 (commonly known as the “lemon plane”) encountered mechanical difficulties and went down 850 miles west of Oahu. Only three of the eleven men aboard survived. One man, Francis McNamara, died after a month at sea. Zamperini and “Phil” Phillips survived on fish, two albatrosses, and captured rainwater. When they reached the Marshall Islands after forty seven days adrift, they were taken by the Japanese.

Their troubles were far from over.

The movie of his life is scheduled for December of this year. It is based on the inspiring and hugely successful best seller Unbroken.

He also wrote two memoirs: Devil at My Heals and Don't Give Up, Don't Give In (to be published in November).

An Interview with Karin Slaughter, Author of "Cop Town"

CoptownKarin Slaughter is one of the best crime writers around. Her novels are distinguished in part by a rare depth of character, a rare depth that is smart enough to step out of the way of the plot so that readers will keep turning the pages. Her latest is Cop Town—her first stand-alone novel—about a female cop trying to get by in 70s Atlanta. As a rookie cop, Kate Murphy has an uphill climb. But that's just the beginning of her difficulties, with news of a brutal murder and the shooting of a beloved fellow cop.

I caught up with Karin Slaughter at Book Expo America, where we sat down to talk about her book, her research, why she likes to write about Atlanta, and more.

She was an absolute pleasure.

 

An Interview with Lily King, Author of "Euphoria"

LilykingLily King's Euphoria is our Spotlight pick for the Best Books of June. This enchanting novel is based loosely on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, and of it, Sara Nelson wrote: "This is the best kind of historical novel--the kind that sent me running to read more about its real-life inspiration."

It's a book that can be read on several levels, and our entire team got behind it. Some admired Euphoria for its potent sense of love and adventure, while others were drawn in by the drama and the revealing examination of how people study other cultures. Booklist summed it up as "a powerful story, at once gritty, sensuous, and captivating," and I couldn't agree more.

I was happy to get a chance to talk to Lily at the Book Expo America this year:

 

 

An Interview with Biz Stone, Twitter Founder and Author

BizA while back I had the pleasure of talking to Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and author of Things a Little Bird Told Me. Twitter's origin story begins with brainstorming sessions held at Odeo, a podcasting company in San Francisco, where Stone worked after working at a company called Blogger. In the interview below, Stone talks about why they held that brainstorming session, what it was like to get Twitter off the ground, and why you should probably buy your developer a phone if he doesn't have one.

Stone doesn't come from a technical background (at one point, he was a book jacket designer) and his childhood was far from privileged. What he did have was a sound work ethic and the ability to think outside norms—a quality that characterizes so many business successes. In Things a Little Bird Told Me, I found a compelling and inspiring character. The same goes for our conversation below.
Chris Schluep

 

BizStoneAudioFin


"Well, How Did I Get Here?" - A Conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard, Author of "My Struggle"

MyStruggleI first heard about Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle like most other people who have heard about it: through the media. It was just before the U.S. publication of book one (there will eventually be six in the series), and I didn't get to reading it at the time. But it hovered at the edge of my awareness, and it would come up every once in a while. (I remember Colson Whitehead trying to describe it during a lunch, and I remember not really getting it.) Eventually I did pick up My Struggle, and I get it now.

But it's not an easy work to describe. My Struggle is about a man named Karl Ove Knausgaard—a writer, father, and husband, who, like the author, grew up with an alcoholic father. The book is notorious for following the banalities of its protagonist's life. It makes art out of the mundane, keeping a bright light on his feelings as he passes his days, and—maybe my favorite part—striking out at times into truthful exposition on life.

Did that help? I don't know. But it's a literary sensation, and it deserves it. Read on to get a better sense of the book and the author.

 

Chris Schluep: I have begun describing My Struggle as “A Portrait of the Artist as a Man.” How do you describe it?

Karl Ove Knausgaard: I think definitions are enemies of the novel, or at least the opposite of what they try to obtain, but My Struggle certainly is about a man who tries to make art out of life, or life out of art, so your description is accurate. For me, the novel basically is about identity. Its starting point
is the question "well, how did I get here?" A man, me, in the middle of his life, that radically changes: he is a son, but his father dies, and he's a father, which forces him into something new, for him, that is —for at the same time, there is a feeling in him that previous generation's roles and behaviours run through him like a flood. So the question is: what is it to be a person? How much of me is mine? The answer is sought in a long run of descriptions of everyday life, but never found or even pinned down, because, well, that would be the opposite of what a novel does.

Knausgaard_aj_photo2Schluep: The books are alternately described by others as novel and memoir, sometimes as both in the same piece. Where do you fall on that distinction? Were you actively looking to tear down these barriers?

Knausgaard: I just tried to write a novel. This was the only way I could do it at the time. So no, no active down-tearing of anything. But for me, these books definitely are novels. I didn´t try to represent my life, but wanted to use my life as a kind of raw material for a novelistic search for meaning or for meaningful patterns. I use all the novels tools, I can describe one day over three hundred pages, or a year in a sentence. It isn´t fiction, though, it´s non-fiction, but it isn't a documentary or a memoir either: it's a non fiction novel.

Schluep: How close is Karl Ove Knausgaard in the books to Karl Ove Knausgaard in real life? Were you generally conscious of separating the two, or did it not matter to you?

Knausgaard: The books reflects my inner self, this is how the world looks from the inside of me—which means that the feelings are as important as the observations, that everything that happens is soaked with feelings. It also means that there are no real barriers between a description of what I read and what I see or do. So it´s me. But if you meet me, you will have quite a different impression, I guess—because the bodily presence is so very different, always tuned in to the other, always restricted to the social rules, which the written self is not.

Schluep: What authorial advice did you give yourself as you sat down to write the first words of My Struggle?

Knausgaard: Just get over with it.

Schluep: When did you realize there would be six books and why did you make that decision?

Knausgaard: I had written twelve hundred pages or so when I handed it over to my editor. He wanted to publish it, and we discussed how we should do it. One volume? Two? Then he proposed twelve volumes, one each month for a year. That was such a brilliant idea. In the end, they didn't dare; it was too risky economically, so we ended up with six novels, three in the fall, three in the spring. I could part the existing manuscript in six, and the job would have been done, but I parted it in two, so that I had to write four more novels that year. So we published the first in September, and I promoted it while writing the third and editing the second,and when that was published, I wrote the fourth, and so on.

Schluep: Did the success of the first book change your approach to writing the ones that followed?

Knausgaard: Not the success, but the controversy definitively did. I never quite understood the rage that these books would be met by, I was naive and completely underestimated the power of the real-life subject. In book one and book two, I´m as honest and direct as I could be (it's impossible to be absolutely honest, which I understood after a few pages), but when all the attention came, which was insane, I became much more careful and kind. In book six, I wanted to take the ruthlessness back, to save the whole project, and that was extremely difficult, being deliberately immoral, and not just accidentaly immoral.

Schluep: You’ve described the writing of My Struggle as “literary suicide.” Could you explain what you meant by that?

Knausgaard: There should be nothing left when I finished. The author should be dead. To obtain that, I even blew all my ideas and plans for future novels. And I succedeed, the author of these books can never come back. So I have to invent a new one if I want to continue writing.

Schluep: How have you come to terms with your fame?

Knausgaard: I haven't, really. My basic approach is that of denial. In most interviews, I talk about how bad these books are, and what a lousy person I am. That's my defence. At the same time, I´m addicted to it, I google myself all the time. And isn't that a typical addiction behavior, a life of kicks and denials?

A Video Interview with Peter Heller, author of "The Painter"

The PainterPeter Heller caught our attention a couple of years ago with his debut The Dog Stars. Here's what we had to say about it at the time:

Adventure writer Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is a first novel set in Colorado after a superflu has culled most of humanity. A man named Hig lives in a former airport community—McMansions built along the edge of a runway—which he shares with his 1956 Cessna, his dog, and a slightly untrustworthy survivalist. Poetic, thoughtful, transformative, this novel is a rare combination of the literary and highly readable.

The book was met with wide acclaim and much success—so we eagerly anticipated his next novel. The Painter, about a 45-year-old artist and fly fisherman named Jim Stegner, did not disappoint. In fact, it's even better than The Dog Stars.

Having lost two wives to divorce and his only daughter to violence, The Painter's Jim Stegner has felt the sting of life; but he’s also capable of experiencing great beauty, whether through his art, his relationships, or while out casting on a river. He is a man who is capable of lashing out against the world—the first line in the novel is "I never imagined I would shoot a man."

I sat down to talk to Peter Heller about the inspiration for Stegner, and much more.

 

Dan Roam, Author of "Show and Tell: How Everybody Can Make Extraordinary Presentations"

Show and tellHumans share a number of universal fears. Fear of spiders, snakes, heights, and closed spaces are all worthy Top 10 contenders.

And then there's fear of public speaking (which might as well be described as "public sweating" in my case).

For a lot of us, giving a presentation is at the top of the list. If we have to do it—and many of us must—it becomes an out-of-body experience that we dread like a Brazilian wax.

With this in mind, I always look forward to hearing from seasoned speakers, people who seem to have it all figured out. Dan Roam, author of Show and Tell: How Everybody Can Make Extraordinary Presentations, is one of those people, and during our interview I enjoyed both watching him speak and listening to what he had to say. Dan has a unique view on giving presentations, providing useful tools to help us show and tell (hence, the title)—and to make sure we're at our best during these frightful moments.

 

 

>> For more on Dan Roam, go here. <<

100 Mysteries & Thrillers to Read in a Lifetime

AgathaThe Amazon editors have spent the last few months putting together a list of what we're calling 100 Mysteries & Thrillers to Read in a Lifetime-- a list of books that will make any person well-read in the genre. As in all lists of this sort, it's a subjective business; but that was half the fun. As Sara Nelson, our Editorial Director, likes to say, we're a pretty opinionated group when it comes to this sort of thing. So we argued, yes, but we're happy with the end result. We hope you are, too. If you're not, you can go to Goodreads to vote for your own favorites.

Here are some interesting details about our list:

  • We did not want to play favorites, so we listed the books in alphabetical order.
  • That said, there's only one author who appears twice on the list: Agatha Christie.
  • The first book on the list, A Coffin for Dimitrios, has even been read by James Bond (in the film version of "From Russia with Love").
  • We included four books for children and young adults. It's never too early to start.
  • Two books are only available as ebooks.
  • We included just a bit of true crime, namely In Cold Blood.
  • The last book left off the list was The Godfather.

Peter Matthiessen Dead at 86

Matthiessen2Peter Matthiessen died today at 5:15pm EST after an illness of some months. He was 86 years old.

Matthiessen was born in New York in 1927. Shortly after graduating from Yale, he embarked for France, where he co-founded The Paris Review. (He later disclosed that he was working for the CIA at the time and used the Review for cover.) An active environmentalist and champion of human rights, Matthiessen produced such great works as The Snow Leopard, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. His epic Shadow Country, three novels that he painstakingly reworked into one volume, covers the life of Edgar J. Watson, Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer. Shadow Country won the National Book Award in 2008. 

Matthiessen worked up to his death, and his last novel In Paradise, set during a spiritual retreat in Auschwitz, will be published on April 8.

The Amazon editors recently spoke with Peter Matthiessen.

“I Felt I Could Go Deeper with Art” – An Interview with Peter Matthiessen, Author of “In Paradise.”

Peter_Matthiessen-CREDIT-Linda-GirvinNote: Sadly, Peter Matthiessen died today, April 5th, at 5:15pm EST after an illness of some months. He was 86 years old.

Matthiessen was born in New York in 1927. Shortly after graduating from Yale, he embarked for France, where he co-founded The Paris Review. (He later disclosed that he was working for the CIA at the time and used the Review for cover.) An active environmentalist and champion of human rights, Matthiessen produced such great works as The Snow Leopard, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. His epic Shadow Country, three novels that he painstakingly reworked into one volume, covers the life of Edgar J. Watson, Florida sugarcane farmer and infamous murderer. Shadow Country won the National Book Award in 2008. 

Read on for our recent interview with Peter Matthiessen--

------------------------------------------------

Peter Matthiessen, three-time National Book Award winner and esteemed author of both fiction and nonfiction, has never backed away from writing about difficult subjects. In his new novel In Paradise he sets his story in the mid-90s, at a spiritual retreat at Auschwitz—the result is a book that is as profound and searching as anything he has written before. In Paradise is our spotlight pick for the Best Books of April

The Amazon books editors recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Matthiessen some questions about In Paradise

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Chris Schluep: When I first started reading the galley, I thought, “I didn’t know Peter Matthiessen was Jewish.” But you’re not. How aware of this were you while writing the novel?

Peter Matthiessen: I was aware that I wasn’t Jewish, of course, and I was only somewhat hindered by doubt on that score. It was more that I wasn’t qualified in other ways. I wasn’t a veteran of the camps, and perhaps more important, I hadn’t lost family in them; some people don’t think you’re entitled to write about the camps unless you’ve had first-hand experience of them. And of course I was humbled by the many powerful accounts of life in the camps: who needed mine? If I couldn’t bring something fresh to it, why do it at all? Nonetheless, there was a strange experience I wanted to write about.  In the mid-1990s an international group of more than a hundred went to Auschwitz. We chose to go in the winter, because that was the toughest time for the prisoners, and we stayed in the former SS barracks and meditated on the selection platforms in all weathers. It was a way of honoring or “witnessing” for the more than a million who had died there. In addition to the violent impression the place itself made on us, so grim and relentless—the towers and gates, all that barbed wire, the few decrepit barracks still standing--most of us experienced a peculiar event in the course of our stay there, a manifestation of … something. I couldn’t purge myself of the wish to write about it. I’d kept a journal of my time there, and later I sketched out a factual account, but I found no way to do justice to the experience with the bare facts, which were nebulous. Under those circumstances, I felt I could go deeper with art, with a novel. As a character in the book, an old painter, says, “The only way to understand such evil is to reimagine it. And the only way to reimagine it is through art.”

MatthiessenCS: One of your greatest gifts as a writer is the ability to express authentic outrage in the face of injustice. Is this something you’ve actively sought to do throughout your writing career?

PM: I’ve mainly sought to keep my voice down, let the evidence speak for itself.  Which is not to say that I wasn’t really angry about certain situations– Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, the neglect of American Indian people, the systematic exploitation of the environment for unworthy purposes that results in its ruin. I’ve always lived by Camus’s idea that the duty of the writer is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, and perhaps that’s more true of the death camp victims than anybody else. I don’t want to urge good behavior on people – I don’t think that’s my role--but there’s nothing in human nature that separates us from the potential for doing such evil again. We all have this capacity – we can’t only blame it on the Germans.

CS: Do you view that as a part of your writing legacy?  

PM: I’ve never really thought about my “writing legacy.” I’m not sure I have one.

CS: One of the characters—Anders, the evolutionary biologist—questions whether a potential for evil behavior can be called “unnatural” or “inhuman," and there’s a great Solzhenitsyn quote in the novel along the same lines. Where do you fall on this? How does your understanding of Buddhism inform your reaction to evil? 

PM: I have to agree with Solzhenitsyn (and Anders) in the tragic absence of any more sensible explanation. To get to the bottom of evil has taxed far greater minds than mine, at far greater length, so I’ll avoid the temptation to define it definitively. But Buddhism has a teaching, which comes in three parts: We shall not do evil; we shall do good; we shall do good for others. The last part is key. I have to agree with his Holiness the Dalai Lama – the only essential virtue is kindness, compassion. To the extent that everybody in In Paradise, including my main character, Clements Olin, is trying to behave decently, to be open to the others on the retreat, the book recommends that. But in a few cases, it’s a painful recommendation. I quote someone in the book as having said that the point of life is to help others through it. Essentially that would be a Buddhist thought, and at my best, so to speak, I try to go along with it.

CS: If I were to summarize the book to someone, I’d say it’s about art, spirituality, and love in the face of the void. But that seems too schematic, and it narrows it. 

PM: Those labels all apply, of course, but others do, too.  I never describe it if I can help it. I try to avoid restraining it that way.

CS: It’s evident in reading the novel that you’ve read much literature on the Holocaust. Could you provide a short reading list for our readers?  

PM: I think Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz is the one absolutely essential text, because it’s so concentrated, and he expresses himself so vividly and beautifully. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski (who is the subject of Clement Olin’s research in In Paradise) captures the lunatic aspect of the whole phenomenon of the death camps – how terrible and how ordinary they were, the disgusting food, the living circumstances that sooner or later would kill you, as they were designed to. Borowski just describes it; Levi spells it out. And then there are the extraordinary diaries and letters of Etty Hillesum, a wonderfully intelligent and thoughtful young Dutch woman, with a family, a lover, aspirations to be a writer, who died at Auschwitz in 1943. And you read with dread, because very quietly, through the eyes of this enormously sensitive person, you see the Holocaust developing, life narrowing down, and you know that these people are going to get arrested, sooner or later.

CS: Is there a book you haven’t written that you would like to write? 

PM: Many. Where do I start?

Jeff VanderMeer Drops by Amazon to Talk About "Annihilation"

51H2WZitH0L._BO2,204,203,200Jeff VanderMeer, author and Omnivoracious contributor, stopped by Seattle on his recent book tour. Having worked with him extensively on many Omni posts, and having read a few of his books (try City of Saints and Madmen), including his latest novel Annihilation, I was excited to sit down with him.

Annihilation, which was a Best Book of the Month for February, is one of those books that will either draw you in from the start or spit you out confused and reeling. Four women--simply known as the Psychologist, the Surveyor, the Anthropologist, and the Biologist--are sent on the twelfth expedition to a mysterious region simply known as Area X. From there the mysteries multiply, as VanderMeer leads us on an adventure deeper into the unknown. The Los Angeles Times had this to say about the book: "'Annihilation,' in which the educated and analytical similarly meets up with the inhuman, is a clear triumph for Vandermeer, who after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal."

There are two more books to follow in the Southern Reach trilogy. And you won't have to wait long--Authority is scheduled to be released in May, and Acceptance will publish in September.

YA Wednesday: Margaret Stohl Interviews Seth Fishman, Author of "The Well's End"

Well's EndAuthor Seth Fishman's new Young Adult novel The Well's End was published yesterday, and it's getting great reviews. Booklist gave The Well's End a starred review, calling it "a fast-paced, thrilling adventure story that begs for a sequel."

International best-selling writer Margaret Stohl, co-author of Beautiful Creatures, caught up with Seth to generally fawn over the book and ask him some questions.

 

Seth Fishman: First of all, my biggest thanks for these really amazingly fun and original interview questions.  I’ve long loved your books, and it’s hard to imagine you reading mine and enjoying. What an honor!

Margaret Stohl: Seth, your brain = a deeply dark place. Comparable to, say, a well. True or False? Discuss.

SF: Truish! I’d like to think that if you shine a light into my brain, you find that it isn’t so scary, or that it’s full of nice things, like water or wishes. That said, I often set the tone for The Well’s End by imagining what it would be like to be stuck down a well.  The cold, the smell, the darkness, the fear. My mind and wells = best friends.

MS: When a little girl falls down a well and years later, finds herself getting in once again over her head—this time in the middle of a conspiracy involving a killer virus, her father, and her school—I get the feeling this story didn’t come from a dream about sparkly vampires, Seth. How did it come to you?

SF: I like all sorts of vampires, but when I set out to write this book, I wanted to ground the story in as much terrifying reality as possible. So I started with the girl who fell down the well, loosely based on ‘Baby Jessica’ McClure, who really did fall down a well in my hometown when I was a kid. Once I had this backstory in place, I wanted to invite the reader to become so confident in the reality of the book’s world that when it tilts, they don’t even notice (or, at least, feel that it’s very naturally part of the ride).

MS: The Well’s End is an adrenaline rush from start to finish. Was that the plan, or do you just like to torment high school students? When you read, are you also an adrenaline junkie?

SF: Ha, very kind of you to say! Maybe the torture comes as payback for all the years I was a camp counselor. I’d say that I worked very hard with my editor on the pacing of the book, though I didn’t map out cliffhanger chapter endings or anything like that. Still, considering that the [semi-SPOILER] virus moved pretty quickly, if I wanted to have anyone living by the end of the book, I had to keep the pedal to the floor. The challenge, I suppose, was building legit, fleshed characters while they were constantly running for their lives. As to reading, I love a good thriller or adrenaline push (like Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Marie Lu’s Legend series) but I’m just as much a fan of the slower literary (David Mitchell or Gabriel Garcia Marquez being favorites). Depends on the mood, on where I’m reading them, and on whether I want to get any sleep!

MS: Bones break. Bullets fly. Parents and students are disposed of. And I’m reading your book on a flight home from Tokyo, having Battle Royale flashbacks. Did you know you were going to have to shed a lot of blood to take Mia on her journey from just being the girl who fell down the well?

SF: I’m not afraid of killing off characters. In fact, I believe one of the reasons Game of Thrones is so compelling and ‘fresh’ is that George R.R. Martin kills off major characters left and right. This raises the stakes in the book and keeps the reader on his/her toes. It also is a real challenge that I love: the author has to be able to create more than just one character and rely on them. Battle Royale still haunts me; I believe having The Well’s End haunt someone would be the height of compliment. 

MS: Your main character, Mia, is a competitive swimmer thrust into the role of survivalist. She talks about forcing herself to “dive in,” as an exercise in conquering her own fears. Yet your book is full of things to be very, very afraid of, right?

SF: I couldn’t help but play with the juxtaposition, really. The idea that Mia was petrified of water and darkness because of some freak childhood accident did nothing to stop me from putting ‘monsters’ in the water and the dark. In this case, her fears were justified.

MS: So can fears really ever be conquered? Or do they just give way to new fears? What’s more frightening – trusting people or diving into the unknown?

SF: I’m really fascinated by the role fear plays in the actions we all take, every day. For Mia, I wanted her fears to both hinder and aid, to be very much part of her identity. At the same time, I don’t think facing fears is easy; you don’t have a fear of heights and go skydiving once and get cured, you’re still scared of height, just more able to deal with the phobia. I wanted fear to push Mia, and I wanted her to not always be rewarded. Sometimes the answer isn’t to dive right in. And if you do, you might not always like what you find. 

That said, I think trust is one of the greatest characteristics of humanity. When we learn to trust someone, they become a part of ourselves. They know our needs and fears and our weaknesses. If you travel in a group, and you trust those people, suddenly everyone becomes smarter faster stronger. 

MS: Diving in seems almost like the best way to describe the narrative structure of your book, Seth. Maybe that’s also an apt way to describe a debut novel, from a successful literary agent no less. What made you dive in as a writer, here and now?

SF: A ‘debut author’ is a deceptive term. Most writers have books and stories in drawers that have never seen the light of a bookstore shelf. I’ve been writing as a hobby since I was fourteen, and The Well’s End was the culmination of years of false starts and craft-building. Debuts are really just a longtime writer’s chance to finally meet an audience. Despite the fact that I represent some amazing authors as a literary agent, and have seen them go through publications of their own books, this still feels entirely new and exciting and, in some ways, terrifying.

MS: I really loved your book: what else should I read? What goes next to The Well’s End on your imaginary shelf? For that matter, what would Mia Kish’s favorite books be?

SF: That’s a great question (and I’m so glad you loved the book)! It’s hard for me not to think of the books that influenced me when I was a teenager when creating Mia, which is, I understand, potentially problematic to a modern audience, so I’d say she’d have a nice mix. Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (I know, I know, borrow someone’s copy or go to the library), and aside from the two titles mentioned above, Laini Taylor and Leigh Bardugo and, ahem, a certain Icons series are really wonderful. Finally, I’d think that Mia would be open to having amazing graphic novels like Saga by Brian K. Vaughn or Fables by Bill Willingham. If you want a good thriller, read Lexicon by Max Barry (though I don’t see that on Mia’s shelf, not as much as, say Prep or The Secret History).

MS: When can we get our hands on the next one?

SF: Ha. Ask my editor! She has it in her hands as we speak! Should be out one year after The Well’s End.

 

 

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

August 2014

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