Blogs at Amazon

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

"Nine Questions for Jim Shepard" by Andrew Eisenman

Shepard9 QUESTIONS FOR JIM SHEPARD

By Andrew Eisenman

 

“What the hell am I doing here?” says Air Force Captain Gordon Phelan, the first time he sets foot on Texas Tower 4, the Cold War-era offshore platform at the center of Jim Shepard’s heart-crushing new Kindle Single. Tower No. 4—or “old shaky,” as one of the servicemen has painted over the mess hall door—was one of the Air Force’s “most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters.” In “Safety Tips for Living Alone,” Shepard mines this forgotten piece of American history not only for its page-turning drama, but for what it says about us now—a nation suspended in the wobbly space between achievement and disaster.

One of America’s best living writers, Shepard is the author of six novels—with one on the way—and four collections, including most recently You Think That’s Bad (Knopf, 2011). “Safety Tips for Living Alone” (Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading) is a selection for Amazon’s Best Books of the Month. It’s on sale now.

Over email, Shepard answered questions about the real-life events that inspired the story, his research process, government surveillance and his own recommended reading.

 

AE: What is “Safety Tips for Living Alone” about?

JS: The triumph of the human spirit. No: actually, I suppose it’s more about the way we turn our lives over to others—in the case of the servicemen, over to the military, and in the case of their wives back in the 50’s and early 60’s, over to their husbands—and the way that that trust can then be so devastatingly betrayed.   Reading about the disaster, I was moved by the servicemen’s trust in the Air Force, and their wives’ trust in them. Especially in the face of what happened.  

 

AE: In his introduction, Joshua Ferris calls Texas Tower 4 a “forgotten, misbegotten episode in American history.” What about the story of “old shaky” captured your imagination? 

JS: See above. Also, it was precisely that forgotten and misbegotten aspect of the episode that struck me. Not only had these guys all been killed—and their families devastated—but the whole thing was now so lost to history. And it seemed like such classic military episode: one of those maddening disasters that’s so eminently avoidable. There’s a reason SNAFU is a military acronym.  

 

AE: What kind of research goes into writing a story like this?

JS: A dispiriting amount. The record of the congressional hearings on the collapse of the Tower—which ran to nearly 300 pages—was a particularly bottomless source of information for a sad-eyed nerd like me. I also read memoirs of women from the 50’s and 60’s who suffered stoically (and usually proudly) in various ways as the wives of service members. Those were hugely helpful about the kinds of complicated emotional dilemmas that interested me. 

 

AE:  How do you know when you’ve done enough research and it’s time to start writing? 

JS: Writers are geniuses at procrastination, and you can always tell yourself there’s more research you have to do, so I usually start writing once I’m sufficiently excited about what I’m doing that the anticipation overcomes the sense of hubris involved. I usually begin by writing about one small corner of the world I’m researching, so that I can sort of nose outward from that. And by writing, I also discover what else it is I have to learn. 

 

AE: Before “Safety Tips,” I was reading Ron Hansen’s astonishing, gorgeous novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford—also historical fiction. You both find ways to inhabit history through language. Does the constraint of authenticity make the writing easier or harder? 

JS: I love Ron’s work.  In fact, "Safety Tips" was hugely inspired by one of my favorite of his short stories, “Wickedness,” about the Nebraska blizzard of 1888.   If you haven’t read it yet, boy, do you have a treat ahead. The constraint of authenticity makes the writing both easier and harder, as you would probably expect. On the one hand, you’re provided with all sorts of elements to work with, and a kind of a box. On the other, all of those elements are constraints.   

 

AE: The story is told from the perspective of the wives of four men who go to work on the platform. What about the experience of the wives resonated with you? Why did you choose to tell the story from their vantage?

JS: I was struck, reading the memoirs of military wives, by how violently they found themselves in their own accounts whipsawed between feeling absolutely powerless and complicitous in whatever disaster happened to be going on. That seemed to me a paradox that a lot of us as Americans can relate to at this point, as we feel our political system becoming increasingly unresponsive to the public will.

  

AE: You were three years old when the bulk of this story takes place—in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. What did you discover about the America of your early childhood?

JS: Well, for one thing, I discovered that lethal fuckups like this took place, made headlines, caused no change whatsoever, and then were swept under the rug.   

 

AE: Texas Tower 4 was a surveillance radar station built in part to give the U.S. extra warning in case of a Soviet bomber attack. A different kind of government surveillance is in the headlines these days. Was any of that on your mind while writing? 

JS: It was. Speaking of the story’s relevance to our current political position as an utterly surveilled population. This mania that our government has to know all, a mania justified by its—and our—apparent inability to live with or tolerate any sort of fear of an outside threat: that hasn’t gone away. And a lot of people want to make sure it doesn’t. 

 

AE: The story was published by Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series. What books do you recommend?   

JS: Well, I just gave a shout-out to Ron, but of course there are a lot of newer books out there I’d recommend as well. If someone’s looking for non-fiction, I’d recommend without reservation Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, or Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve. If they’re looking for fiction, I’d be equally enthusiastic about Jim Crace’s Quarantine, or Hilary Mantel’s The Giant O’Brien. That’s a start, anyway.   

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon's Best Books of December: Part One

This is the time of year at Amazon when The Best Book of the Year program takes center stage, which is as it should be. But we're still reading and choosing the Best Books of the Month during this time, and there are some very good books coming out in December. Here are our Top 5 books of the month for December:

MoriartySpotlight: Our top pick is Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz. Endorsed by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle, Horowitz "begins where Conan Doyle left off,"Senior Editor Neal Thompson informs us, "with Holmes and his evil nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, having tussled right off the edge of Reichenbach Falls." Thompson continues: "The action begins when Pinkerton detective Frederick Chase and Scotland Yard inspector Athelney Jones meet in a Swiss village days after Holmes and Moriarty have disappeared. The two collaborate in their search for the ruthless Clarence Devereaux, a depraved criminal mastermind seeking to fill the void left by Moriarty’s drowning. But, as with all good Holmes tales, things are not always what they seem. Horowitz proves himself a worthy successor, packing this violent, energized tale with foot chases through Victorian London, clever disguises, encoded messages, feints and fakes, plus buckets of blood and a platter of red herrings.

BooksandwarPick #2: Here's a fascinating story about the power of books. Amazon's Amy Huff describes Molly Guptill Manning's When Books Went to War as follows: "The image of the Berlin book burning in May of 1933 is a common photo in history books. What’s less common is how books became a strategy to undermine the Nazi propaganda that had been proving surprisingly effective throughout Europe. While re-telling the history of the war, Manning threads through the impact that books had in fighting the Nazis, providing a narrative of their influence on the war that has previously been left out of most history books. Book lovers and history buffs should enjoy this new perspective."

 

HerePick #3: Here is probably the book that surprised and charmed us the most this month. It's a graphic novel, which would lead many readers to think it's not for them; but many readers should reconsider. Amazon Editor Erin Kodicek describes Richard McGuire's work as "slyly clever and unexpectedly moving." The entire book, first envisioned in 1989, is the record of what takes place in one room—"visualizing," as Kodicek explains, "the goings-on in a specific corner of a specific room over the course of hundreds of thousands of years (past, present, and future)." It's a trip through time, one page at a time, told in nonchronological order (the form allows McGuire to show different events from different time periods on the same page). This is surprisingly powerful stuff that will alter how you think about time and the room you are sitting in right now. 

StrangePick #4: When did Haruki Murakami become as prolific as Stephen King? Maybe that's an overstatement, but The Strange Library is Murakami's second book this year. It's shorter than his usual fair, and it's not easy to decribe—so I'll make full use of Amazon Senior Editor Neal Thompson's review (slightly edited for space): "What an odd and oddly beautiful little book. A little boy enters a quiet library where he meets a creepy old librarian who leads him deep into a maze of dark catacombs beneath the library. There, we learn of the librarian’s ghoulish designs and the boy encounters a small man wearing the skin of a sheep and a pretty young girl pushing a teacart, their worlds now 'all jumbled together.' The Strange Library was designed and illustrated by famed book jacket designer (and frequent Murakami collaborator) Chip Kidd, whose moody and mysterious depictions of a child’s (and a parent’s) darkest dream match Murakami’s surreal imagination. This is vintage Murakami and, at the same time, something entirely fresh. No one puts animal skins on humans like Murakami. No one would dare."

SparepartsPick #5: Joshua Davis' Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream is a timely book that reads like a movie script. That's a  good thing, because there's a movie based on the book comoing out next month. Amazon's Amy Huff fell in love with this "fantastic story of four Mexican-American teenagers struggling to find their place." Brought together by a robot competition, these teens learn about a lot more than robots. Huff says, "by describing how these teens came together, author Joshua Davis gives us a succinct history of immigration and a micro-lesson in Arizona politics. It all leads to the a scene in a pool in Santa Barbara, CA—with each team member realizing how they fit on the team, and in their adopted homeland." Our feel-good read of the month.

You can find all of our Best of the Month picks here.

Author P.D. James Dies at 94

1e44810ae7a09018b64e4210.L._V192596150_SX200_.gifP.D. James died at her home in Oxford, England this week. She was 94 years old.

A consumate stylist, James did not begin writing novels until she was in her late thirties. She went on to write twenty books, notably introducing the fictional Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh to the world.

According to a recent BBC interview she had no plans of stopping:

"With old age, it becomes very difficult. It takes longer for the inspiration to come, but the thing about being a writer is that you need to write," she told the BBC.

"I hope I would know myself whether a book was worth publishing. I think while I am alive, I shall write. There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too."

I had the chance to interview Ms. James for Omnivoracious a couple of years ago, upon the publication of her novel Death Comes to Pemberley, which is set in the world of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

The full interview is below:

 

511EpQoiqiL._BO2,204,203,20035,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Recently, we had the pleasure of posing some questions to the distinguished crime writer P.D. James. James has won numerous awards and has been inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame. At ninety-two years old, she is beloved by so many, having written some twenty novels, many of which have been adapted to television (as well as to movies, including one of my all-time favorites "Children of Men"). Her most recent novel is Death Comes to Pemberley, in which a murder takes place in the world of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice.

 

Omnivoracious:  How long have you been thinking about setting a detective novel in world of Pride & Prejudice?

P.D. James: The idea of combining my two enthusiasms, writing detective stories and Jane Austen, in one book had been at the back of my mind for a few years but I did not seriously start to plot it until some months after the publication of The Private Patient. 

Omni: What pitfalls were there in entering the world of another author? Did you feel you were playing in Austen's sandbox, or did it feel like your own?

P.D. James: As I re-read all Jane Austen’s novels at least once a year her world was not strange to me and I did not feel I was imposing on her creativity.  I enjoyed introducing new characters and I think the magistrate, Sir Selwyn Hardcastle, made a particularly effective contribution to the plot.

Omni: You seemed to bring more of the real world into Austen's. For instance, there are mentions of women's rights and other modern changes. Was your intention to break the hermetic seal and flesh out Austen's world—or did these added details just follow logically?    

P.D. James: I did not wish to break the hermetic seal of Jane Austen’s world.  The added details were matters of concern to most educated people of Jane Austen’s time and I thought it right to introduce them.

Omni: Who was your favorite character to write in Death Come to Pemberley (and was this your favorite character from Pride & Prejudice)?  

P.D. James: Darcy was my favorite character to write, and Elizabeth my favorite from Pride and Prejudice.   

Omni: You have traced your literary influences to four writers - Jane Austen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. Do you enjoy each of these authors for different reasons, or do they share one or two of the same qualities?

P.D. James: I enjoy them for different reasons, but all have a virtue in common: the ability to write brilliant dialogue.

Omni: Do you have favorite books by these authors that you could recommend to our readers?

P.D. James: I would recommend A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, and any book by the other three.

Omni: You began writing in your late thirties. Before you wrote your first novel, Cover Her Face, how much writing were you doing? Did you write short stories, parts of novels? Or just letters and grocery lists?

P.D. James: I was busy earning a living so had little time, but I did write a short play for radio and received an invitation to submit another, but my first novel prevented this.

 

 

Raise Your Voice: A Conversation with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

SenatorgillibrandA few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for a discussion about her book Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that she was such a pleasure to talk to--she was elected for a reason--but the Senator talked candidly and intimately about issues that are important to her and to her many of her constituents, especially women. The Senator is a strong advocate for the issues she cares about, and her book is part-memoir, part encouragement to people (especially women) to let their voice be heard. Here's a transcript of our conversation:

Chris Schluep: Why did you write the book?

Senator Gillibrand: I wanted to have an intimate conversation among women about issues that we care deeply about--our shared challenges--and to really create a call to action for women's voices to be heard on the issues that they care about. It's part memoir, part self help, but really about the broader goal of women being heard, because their life experience is so different, the perspective is different, and when women's views are heard, you'll have a broader base of ideas and a broader base of solutions.

CS: What do you read, and what effect has that had on the book you've written?  

Senator Gillibrand: I tend to read a lot of feminist literature, and I think it's really important, and I enjoy it. But I also tend to read biographies, and when I'm reading a biography of a woman, particularly a woman leader, I'm always looking for how she got from A to B. I'm always looking for that little bit of advice, which is why when I decided to write this book I did tell personal stories. I really did reveal very personal details of my life, because I want the reader to know, number one, that her story is not necessarily disimilar from mine, that some of these challenges are shared, some of the struggles are common, and number two, I want her to be able to see herself and know in some of the tougher stories that, she is not alone, that these kinds of things happen to everyone, and that through my own failures and lack of confidence and decision making, she can see how she can not only embrace her ambitions but aspire to do whatever she wants to do. So, I wanted to make it personal, but I also wanted to share how I got from A to B so that they could see themselves and help answer some of those tough questions they're facing themselves in their own lives.

CS: How are ambitious women treated differently than men?

Senator Gillibrand: I talk about one study in the book where if you show a picture of an ambitious man to a group of people they'll so, Oh, he's a leader, hard-charging... good things. And if you show a picture of a woman and say she's an ambitious woman, they'll say she's cold, calculating, self-centered. So just that word, for whatever reason, has a very negative impact on us as a society. But if you asked anybody, "do you believe that girls should have hopes and dreams, that they should have high hopes for themselves, and do you think they should work hard toward them?" everyone's going to say yes. So it's not the meaning that we reject, it's just the word. So... use a different word, but we should embrace this goal that "ambition" is not a dirty word, that in fact we want all of our daughters and women to aspire and then work hard toward those aspirations.

CS: Would talk about work-life balance, because you say in the book that you don't like the phrase "having it all"?

Senator Gillibrand: I don't like the frame, first of all, because "having" is an odd choice of words. It sounds like we're having a second slice of pie, or having a vacation, and the "all" really pits women against each other, because it's saying women who stayed home with their kids are having a less-than-full life, and it pits women against men in a very unhelpful way--so I'd rather the conversation focus on how we can do it all, because a lot of women are balancing work and family because they have to. In 4 out of 10 families, moms are primary or sole wage earners and 8 out of 10 families moms are working, so the traditional framework where mom stays at home and dad goes to work is part of a Madmen era that is just not reflected today.

CS: You write "Don't be afraid to show emotion." Could you talk about that?

Senator Gillibrand: It not only shows how much you care, but it's something that's relatable. so if you're really angry, or you're really upset, or you're really passionate, or you're really concerned, when you share that feeling, not only are people going to understand where you're coming from, but they'll understand the depth of your concern and the depth of urgency, and so without showing emotion it's very hard to convince someone that your advocacy is important. It's a powerful tool and we should embrace it as women. Because our ability to empathise, our ability to feel someone's suffering, or want to fight against some injustice is something that makes us powerful advocates and we shouldn't lose sight of the power behind the passion.

CS: And that was reflected in you're experiences with the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy?

Senator Gillibrand: A perfect example of it. Because men and women were sharing these very
heartbreaking stories of how all they wanted was to serve our country and even die for our country, and they were being told "no" based on who they love. And when I first met with Lt. Dan Choi his personal story was so upsetting to me because he talked about why he joined the military--that it was the integrity and the character of the military and their goals and values that he loved. But then when he fell in love and couldn't share that with anyone he served with, he felt like he didn't have any integrity. He felt like he was denied that basic honor because he was
forced to lie, and I thought that is a really horrible injustice and we're losing some of our best and brightest because of it.

CS: What does it feel like to have inherited the former Senatorial seat of Hilary Clinton?

Senator Gillibrand: Secretary Clinton has always been a role model for me. She's somebody who really got me off the sidelines when she first said at an event I was at "decisions are being made every day in Washington. If you're not part of those decisions and you don't like what they decide, you have no one to blame but yourself." That really woke me up, and I realized that there were conversations happening around the country and globally that I wasn't part of. And I wanted to be. I really wanted to be a public servant and be part of these debates, and so throughout my career I not only helped her in her Senate race, but we formed a relationship and she's been a mentor and given me advice every step of the way, and so I'm really grateful to her personally for not only being the role model but also being the mentor that I certainly needed in my career.

CS: What's the best lesson you've taken from being in the Senate?

Senator Gillibrand: That if you listen to others and you work toward a common goal, you can build consensus. You can find common ground. And even in a place as broken as the U.S. government and Congress, you can find people who want to achieve good things. And so with something like sexual assault in the military, we were able to garner the support of the most liberal senators, like Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders, and the most conservative senators, like Ted Cruz and Chuck Grassley and Rand Paul. And so, if you can just look at issues from a place of common sense and not dismiss people at the outset but actually engage them you can accomplish a lot. And so I really work toward those kinds of issues where there is commonality and we can build from there.

CS: What kind of advice were you given when you started putting everything online?

Senator Gillibrand: My Sunlight Report--I was really made fun of, and I got a lot of negative reaction from my colleagues, because I put on my meetings, I put on my financial disclosures, and I put on my earmark requests. And some of my colleagues made fun of me in saying, you know, "We're talking right now, is this a meeting? Are you putting this on your web site?" And I said no, this isn't a meeting. The whole purpose was to give my district, my constituents, more information--to say, listen, if I'm meeting with this activist group or this advocacy group, and you have the other position, you have a right to know so that you can ask for a meeting, so that you can be heard, too. And so I felt like we needed that level of transparency, and I was told that was stupid by many people and that you're just giving information to opposition researchers. But I felt very strongly that if it's something that I'm embarrassed about or would be ashamed of, then I shouldn't be having that meeting. If it's not worthy of public review, then it's not worth having. And granted, I was a newcomer. I was doing it differently. But I was sort of raised in the computer era, so I really feel like transparency in government is a great approach, because I always believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

CS: You state in the book that it's important for women to be smart; but you also say that they should not be afraid to be themselves.

Senator Gillibrand: Be exactly yourself. No matter what it is. And that's what my mother taught me. By the time she was my age, she was a second degree black belt. So, she had a very different approach to living life than most moms of her generation. I felt very lucky.

 

 

 


 

Announcing the Amazon Editors' Best Books of the Year

NgIt's been another phenomenal year in books, and we've just released our list of the Best Books of the Year. At the top is a debut novel that had us all talking: Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You. To quote our Editorial Director, Sara Nelson, the book "is kind of a ‘sleeper’ in that it got less attention initially than other novels, but Ng’s debut is a sad and moving story that we all fell in love with from the first line. Deeply felt and searingly emotional, Everything I Never Told You is the kind of novel that people say doesn’t get published any more. We’re so happy it did.” That's for sure!

Here is our top 10, along with excerpts of our original reviews of the books:

1. Everything I Never Told You: "There isn’t a false note in this book, and my only concern in describing my profound admiration for Everything I Never Told You is that it might raise unachievable expectations in the reader. But it’s that good. Achingly, precisely, and sensitively written." --Chris Schluep

Doerr2. All the Light We Cannot See: "This is a book you read for the beauty of Doerr’s writing-- 'Abyss in her gut, desert in her throat, Marie-Laure takes one of the cans of food…'--and for the way he understands and cherishes the magical obsessions of childhood. Marie-Laure and Werner are never quaint or twee. Instead they are powerful examples of the way average people in trying times must decide daily between morality and survival." --Sara Nelson

3. In the Kingdom of Ice: "Author Hampton Sides does a masterful job of setting up the voyage against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, developing fascinating characters along the way, and delivering a true triumph of narrative nonfiction. Drawing on journal entries, letters, and eventually his own visit to the region, Sides paints a vivid, moving, and breathless portrait of the crew of the Jeannette. How could a book about this much snow and ice be this good?" --Chris Schluep

Peace4. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: "Although he continued to thrive academically in college, growing up in the second largest concentration of African-Americans living under the poverty line created barriers that even one as gifted as Robert Peace could not fully surmount. This is a riveting and heartbreaking read, as Rob Peace seems always to have been on the outside—the resented geek in the hood, and the inner city black man in the Ivy League." –Chris Schluep

5. Redeployment: "Klay is fearless; he eviscerates platitude and knee-jerk politics every chance he gets. '[A fellow soldier] was the one guy in the squad who thought the country wouldn’t be better off if we just nuked it until the desert turned into a flat plane of grass,' he writes. These stories are at least partly autobiographical, and yet, for all their verisimilitude, they’re also shaped by an undefinable thing called art. Phil Klay is a writer to watch." --Sara Nelson

6. Revival: "How does Stephen King do it? In book after book, writing long (Under the Dome, 11/22/63) or short (Joyland) he manages, nearly always, to tell a compelling story that is both entertaining and somehow profound, or at least thoughtful. His latest, Revival, is vintage King. It’s the perfect mix of baby boomer nostalgia (think Stand By Me) – this guy remembers the 60s with details you usually can only find in photographs – and good old American horror, the kind that was first elevated by such minor writers as, say, Poe and Hawthorne." –Sara Nelson

Hoffman7. Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art: "Did he disappear into the tropical jungles, or was he rendered and eaten by the tribesmen, as many speculated and the Rockefeller family long denied? Award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman has stepped into Rockefeller’s boot prints and Asmat society, interviewing generations of warriors in an exhaustive and engrossing attempt to solve the mystery. The result, Savage Harvest, succeeds not only as a captivating and sensational puzzle, but also as a (seemingly unlikely) modern adventure and a fascinating glimpse of an anachronistic people pulled into the 20th century by the tensions of global politics." --Jon Foro

8. The Book of Unknown Americans: "In alternating chapters, these men and women share stories of how their adopted country has left its mark on them, for better and worse. The close bond that develops between the Rivera and Toro families drives the novel forward, particularly the relationship between their children Mayor and Maribel, as closely held secrets and feelings of guilt, love, hope, and despair are unpacked with warmth and compassion. With her cast of 'unknown Americans,' Henriquez has crafted a novel that is inspiring, tragic, brave, and above all, unforgettable. --Seira Wilson

Moriarty9. Big Little Lies: "What is it about Liane Moriarty’s books that makes them so irresistible? They’re just classic “domestic” novels about marriage, motherhood, and modern upper-middle-class family life, after all. And despite the fact that Big Little Lies is Moriarty’s sixth adult novel (and it comes decades after the grandmother of this kind of thing, Bridget Jones’ Diary), it is remarkably new and fresh and winning." --Sara Nelson

10. Station Eleven: "The story shifts deftly between the fraught post-apocalyptic world and, twenty years earlier, just before the apocalypse, the death of a famous actor, which has a rippling effect across the decades. It’s heartbreaking to watch the troupe strive for more than mere survival. At once terrible and tender, dark and hopeful, Station Eleven is a tragically beautiful novel that both mourns and mocks the things we cherish. –-Neal Thompson"

"How to Get A Major Book Deal" by Nir Eyal

HabitsAuthor Nir Eyal is all about making things that people want and getting it to them. His brand new book Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products is the fruit of many years of research and study. Now he tells us how he applied his hard-won principles to getting a book published.

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

“Hi Nir,” the email began. “I have been reading your work and find it incredibly interesting.” Naturally, this is the kind of message a blogger loves to receive. However, this email was special for another reason. It was from a prominent New York publishing agent who represents several authors I read and admire. “I don’t know if you've already started down this road or whether writing a book interests you, but I’d be delighted to have a conversation with you if you are interested.”

Was she kidding? Heck yeah I was interested!

We scheduled a time to talk. She told me she is fond of my work and thought it could reach a larger audience if it was promoted by a major publisher. That email and the subsequent call would lead to the forthcoming release of my book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

I should mention that the focus of my research for the past several years — and the topic of my book — is mind hacking. I study the psychology of how products change human behavior. Given my knowledge of the subject, I’d be foolish not to use what I teach others. Here are three surprising techniques I utilized to write my book and a few tips from some very successful friends.

Write What You Want to Know

When Daniel Pink began working on his mega-hit book, Drive, he knew relatively little about the subject he was going to write about. What he did know for certain was that his curiosity was not yet satisfied. Pink told me he knew “enough to realize that the science of motivation was utterly interesting but woefully under-covered.” Interestingly, the more Pink learned, the more things fit into place. Today, Pink is an expert in his own right.

Curiosity is author rocket fuel. In my own book, I describe the psychological power of variable rewards. Receiving positive reinforcement at variable intervals — that is, not knowing when the good stuff is coming — has been shown to spike dopamine levels in the reward centers of the brain. It is a major reason why all sorts of experiences like video games, slot machines, action movies, and even our cell phones, keep us so engaged. For authors, searching for the answers we seek can be just as engrossing. The unpredictable nature of the hunt for knowledge can provide endless motivation for those able to harness it.

As Pink told me, “The big motivator for good books is the author’s own curiosity. If I’m not curious about a topic, why should I expect any reader to be?” Leveraging the variable reward of pursuing answers to one’s own burning questions is one of the best mind hacks I know.

Get Frequent Feedback

Many would-be authors believe they have to know all the answers before they start writing. Whether it’s a full volume book or a 500 word blog post, people tend to not start until they have all the pieces of the puzzle figured out. Generally, this leads no where. Far too many people who have important things to share never publish because they fail to take the first step.

When New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin began working on her forthcoming book, Better Than Before, she admits that like Pink, she didn’t have all the answers. “If I have what I think is a good idea, I want to get it out into the world,” Rubin told me. “I don’t hold ideas back.” Despite knowing her ideas were only half-baked, Rubin began putting her thoughts and theories out into the world via her blog because, she says, “I learn more about them as I write about them and also because my creativity is more stimulated by throwing ideas out there … Often I will write a post about a new idea to see what responses it evokes.”

In my own book,I detail the psychology behind taking action. Psychologists have known for years that when a behavior is difficult to do, we need more motivation and willpower to do it. For many people, the burden of needing to have all the answers before writing, make the book writing journey too difficult to start. Instead, breaking down the process into small iterative steps can reshape and improve the work. Publishing small posts frequently with the intention of testing new ideas with readers not only provides a constant stream of critical feedback but also supplies a kind of intoxicating encouragement that can push an author forward.

Help Your Readers Invest in Your Work

Like Gretchen, the content of my book started as blog posts. After I had published my thoughts for several years, I began to see common themes emerge. I turned my posts into a series of lectures I later taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. As my blog readership grew, I received a few emails asking when I’d write a book. One of those messages came from Ryan Hoover who offered to help arrange my essays into a book format. Ryan’s work also helped identify holes in the text where I needed to do more research and writing.

When I had completed a rough draft, I decided to ask my blog followers for help and did something most authors would think is nuts — I placed the full text of the book online. Certainly, some people may think giving the entire world access to an unpublished book is crazy. However, the response was tremendous and the experience taught me something profound. By letting people make suggestions and improvements, readers were also investing in the book with their time and effort.

Psychologists have studied the powerful influence small investments can have on the way we think and act. Several studies have demonstrated that putting effort into an activity makes us more committed to it. A happy by-product of asking my readers for help editing my book is that I now have a team of advocates ready to tell others about the book.

When I received my literary agent’s email asking if I was interested in publishing a book, I was ready. I had put the psychological principles featured in my book to good use. By following my own curiosity, getting frequent feedback and asking my readers to invest in my work, I was in a great position to take my book to stores and eventually readers’ hands.

Editor’s Note: Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products and blogs about the psychology of products at NirAndFar.com. For more insights into how products change user behavior, join his free newsletter and receive the first chapter of his book.

 

Karen Russell talks with Bradford Morrow about his new novel "The Forgers"

TheforgersBradford Morrow's The Forgers is a dark literary thriller set inside the world of rare books. The incomparable Karen Russell is a big fan of The Forgers and caught up with Morrow to talk to him about his new novel. 

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

KAREN RUSSELL: The Forgers is a totally sui generis existential thriller that introduced me to the world of rare book collecting, a world where I know you have serious street cred. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how the idea to write The Forgers came to you?

BRADFORD MORROW: The Forgers opens with a simple, disturbing, and to me compelling sentence, “They never found his hands.” My editor, Otto Penzler, had asked if I would write a story for a series of bibliomysteries he publishes, and once I’d settled on exploring the rarefied, high-stakes world of literary forgeries, I thought to myself, What would a ruthless forger most want to deprive a rival of having? Pens, nibs, inks, antique papers, subterranean connections in the rare book world?  No, his hands, of course. So I began with that single image and all the narrative possibilities and challenges it offered. The rare book community, a collective of brilliant eccentrics among whom murderers don’t generally mingle, is one I have been a part of for my whole adult life—first as a dealer, later as a collector—so most of my research was already done by the time I wrote that sentence and those that came after.   

My experience of writing The Forgers was one of extraordinary, unstoppable momentum—the story very quickly matured into a novella and the novella soon burst into a novel. And while, yes, it is a literary thriller, it is also a heartrending (at least to me) love story—love between two people, as well as a love of antiquarian books that, for some, crosses ethical borders into a place of bibliomania, of psychopathy.

KAREN RUSSELL:  This novel is Morrow magic at its best—I’m thinking of the awake-with-a-flashlight feeling I had reading The Diviner’s Tale, a novel that explores the quest for truth through the character of a female dowser, and the gothic spawn you’ve gathered in your story collection, The Uninnocent, which, like The Forgers, is always honest about the best and worst parts of our natures. But The Forgers also feels like new ground to me. The lyricism of your prose, its humor and its unbelievably beautiful insights into human relationships and human nature, seem to challenge narrow definitions of what a “thriller” can do. I confess that I’m never sure how genre lines get drawn, and your book seems to me like a glorious hybrid creature, a genre pegosaurus, your own Morrow-mutation. Were you consciously setting out to rattle the cage bars of genre?

BRADFORD MORROW:  I love great genre writing, but talking genre can sometimes be a tricky business, in part because certain tropes over literary generations have become codified, and wherever there’s a code, there are some out there who would enforce the code, others who are strict practitioners of the code, and so on. That said, many writers I admire have embraced the worlds of genre, imagining and inventing wonderful books that often push beyond traditional dictates. And readers are a far more resilient, edgy, engaged group of literary explorers than some give them credit for being. I love working with genre, playing with expectations, so long as I can write the narratives I’m driven to write. If anything I do challenges narrow definitions, why then, that must be a good thing, I have to believe.

KAREN RUSSELL:  As far as love stories go, this is a terrifically original one. I was riveted by the tension between the narrator’s private life as a forger and his public one with Meghan, the way his desires seem absolutely incompatible. “Do what you love,” as you tell us, is an adage that can underwrite all kinds of unspeakable activities; and loving someone might require forfeiting a beloved activity that structures one’s identity. How does this narrator’s secret life as a forger impinge on his aboveground relationship?

BRADFORD MORROW:  While our narrator operates in a world deeply cast in shadows and secrets—he only mentions his own name once, and grudgingly in passing at that—his love for Meghan is unquestionable. To my mind, his private identities as a man who loves creating literary forgeries and a man who loves Meghan Diehl, incompatible as they may be, are equally powerful. Though his technique and literary historical knowledge as a forger are so exceptional that on occasion he feels he’s created work that is, to borrow a line from U2, “even better than the real thing,” it is very telling that he never gives Meghan, who runs an East Village used bookshop and loves books too, any forgeries.

KAREN RUSSELL:  As the editor of the in-every-sense-fabulous journal Conjunctions, you’ve helped me and countless authors to firm up the “reality” of their imaginary worlds. From your books, I know you to be an expert deceiver, and one proof of this is that I feel as if your books are a stranger’s memories that I am importing into my own body. When you are working on your own forgeries (stories and novels), how do you vet for yourself when something feels emotionally true, even in a superficially outlandish or wild tale?  And how can it be that we can all sense truth in art, even as it everywhere announces itself as imaginary, false?

BRADFORD MORROW: Truth is a pretty holy tabernacle of a concept, but all art, no matter how original and even unprecedented it is, constitutes a kind of forgery in that “forgery” is tantamount to “making.” One forges ahead. One can just as easily form, shape, produce, forge something that’s a true contribution not just to the arts but the world of wrought iron, for instance. Literary practitioners of the imaginary must create language that provides a gateway to a kind of separate reality, one that is both fictional and authentic at the same time, contradictory as that might seem. I used to worry about writing something emotionally true, but now I focus on language, trusting that the language I craft will articulate an experience of truth that my readers will share. 

KAREN RUSSELL:  How pervasive is forgery in the rare book world, do you think? Do you have a favorite anecdote from your time as a dealer or a collector?

BRADFORD MORROW:  Every reputable rare book dealer who has been in business for any amount of time has encountered forgeries. Because reputation is paramount—these are smart, often scholarly people, some of them living encyclopedias, and proud of their legacies—most booksellers are intensely scrupulous about the manuscript materials and inscribed books they handle. This doesn’t mean that fakes don’t get into commerce. I can’t say I have a favorite anecdote, but earlier this year at a rare book fair in New York, I saw an autographed copy of the first American edition of a Virginia Woolf book in which the signature was wrong, embarrassingly wrong. From an oversized “V” on, the letters were inaccurately formed and far too large, the baseline was weirdly stepped up from her first name to the surname, the ink color was atypical, and so forth. This didn’t stop the seller, who I assume didn’t know better, from asking a very pretty penny for the piece. When I mentioned it to a dealer friend, an expert I trust who was also showing at the fair, he confirmed without having to look at it a second time that it was a forgery, and not a very sophisticated one at that. “Too bad,” we agreed. “It would have been a pretty nice book.” As for my own experiences, back when I was a rare book dealer in my twenties, I went out of my way to stay clear of any autograph material that seemed even slightly off, and as a collector I still do. Did any forgeries slip past me? Impossible to say impossible.

You know, there are forgers from earlier centuries who are actually collected, because they were so sophisticated or brazen or both. Thomas Chatterton and William Ireland come to mind, as does Thomas Wise. Even the infamous in the arcane world of literary forgers have their fanciers, their biographers, their colorful histories. 

KAREN RUSSELL:  The Forgers has epigraphs from Jorge Luis Borges and Arthur Conan Doyle—in terms of assembling a family tree for The Forgers, that sounds spot-on to me. What other influencers might you include, literary or otherwise, if you were tracing this novel’s lineage? Who are some of your favorite liars, er, authors?

BRADFORD MORROW:  Friends who know my great admiration for William Gaddis may see hints of The Recognitions in The Forgers, since the former engages art forgery and the latter literary forgery, but if there was any influence of the one book on the other, it is lost on me, as I never consciously looked to Gaddis for any inspiration for this novel. When traveling in Ireland while writing the book—it was written quickly, by the way, in a matter of months, after some serious time stewing over it—I had a drink with John Banville, and had long been a fan of The Book of Evidence, which I see as a distant cousin to this novel, not plot-wise but tonally somehow. I did go back and reread most all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures as research for some of my forger’s more inventive counterfeits, and have to feel that Doyle’s pacing infected me, quick movements whereas I often love to linger. Nabokov’s short novels I can cite as a direct influence. Orson Welles’ last major film, F for Fake, about the superlative art forger Elmyr de Hory, I watched at least three times. De Hory was in a league of his own—the shamelessness, the sheer genius, the scope of his ambition were altogether galvanizing to me as I plumbed this netherworld. Welles admired him too as a fellow “liar,” a fellow bodhisattva in search of the believable sham. 

As for my favorite writers, they are many and various, and only some of them would cotton to the idea of being called liars or forgers. I’ll let you guess who would and wouldn’t.In no order other than their names come first to mind, I think of Beckett, Cather, Woolf, Angela Carter, Hardy, Nabokov, Gass, Thomas Bernhard. I’m purposely leaving out the living and the Homers, Shakespeares, Donnes, and Swifts. But these are some whose work I go to for solace the same way others go to their Bible or whatever holy book they hold in high esteem.

KAREN RUSSELL:  I love the book, and was struck by your ability to channel some of the deep metaphysical preoccupations from your earlier books into a heart-in-your-throat page turner. How do you see The Forgers as connected to your other work?

BRADFORD MORROW:  That’s an interesting question, a tougher one than it might seem. I can’t truthfully say that I have some overarching philosophical system that informs my novels and stories. That said, certain themes have seemed to crop up in all eight of my books, including The Forgers, and they’re also there in the novel I’m finishing now, The Prague Sonata. Searching for an impossible place to call home in this world is one. The subjective nature of history and malleability of what’s “real” is another. I am fascinated by treacherous people who see themselves as spotless innocents—in other words, the kaleidoscopic range of self-deception available privately to all of us who ever breathed. Those are a few, anyway. I’m sure there are many more abiding preoccupations that thread through my work, but Steven Millhauser recently wrote me that he’s not much of a Steven Millhauser scholar, and I feel much the same way. Others will be able, if they’re of a mind, to identify recurrent themes and ideas. My job is just to make each book as good as I can and hope it connects with sympathetic readers such as yourself.

KAREN RUSSELL:  How does the “act of faith” of book-collecting relates to love, for this narrator?   

BRADFORD MORROW:  That’s easier to unravel over the course of a novel than in a few sentences. Suffice it to say that the greatest book collectors I have known are less interested in rare books as investments, say, than in the preservation of culture. There’s a devotional element and historical imperative behind the impulse to gather, in obsessive depth and with bibliographic erudition, a collection of early arctic exploration, of Vladimir Nabokov, of Italian incunabula, of early comics, of antique cookbooks, you name it. As our narrator’s father, a great and scrupulous book collector himself, tells his young son about the passions behind collecting, “Books make us feel alive, and though we obviously won’t live forever, they make us feel as if we might. These walls of books in this room? They stand between us and the unknown....  We shore them against our ruins and they give us poor mortals comfort and joy like religion does.” Not dissimilarly, love makes us feel alive and, despite our mortality, prompts us tell the people we love, “I will love you forever.” Love is devotional, obsessive, protects us from the harshnesses of the world, affords us comfort and joy, and promises to shore us against our ruins, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. So definitely, in the context of this novel, human love and the totality of passion that informs the collector, not to mention the world-class forger, conflict with and yet weave in, around, and through each other.

 

The World of Ice and Fire: A Sneak Peek at Interior Pages

IceandfireThe World of Ice and Fire is coming. It publishes Tuesday the 28th, and the parts of it I've seen are gorgeous. Here's a sneak peek at some of the pages (click on each page to get a closer look).

Here are some specs:

• full-color artwork and maps, with more than 170 original pieces
• full family trees for Houses Stark, Lannister, and Targaryen
• in-depth explorations of the history and culture of Westeros
• 100% all-new material, more than half of which Martin wrote specifically for this book

The publisher describes it as "the definitive companion piece to George R. R. Martin’s dazzlingly conceived universe." Sure seems like it.

 

Now for the sneak peek at those pages...

 

 

IceandFire#4
“The Wall and Beyond” chapter opener; art depicts The Wall and Castle Black

 

IceandFire#2
Title Page; art depicts Aegon the Conqueror upon Balerion, the Black Dread

 

IceandFire#3
“The Glorious Reign” chapter opener; art depicts The Red Keep and King’s Landing

 

IceandFire1
 Endpapers depicting Dragonstone

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Books of October, Part Two: A Smorgasbord of Books

Last week I wrote about the Editors' first five picks in October’s Best Books of the Month and promised to write about the rest of the picks this week. We run the gamut here--from debt, the military, and a novel about a cuckolded lawyer to vampires, elephants, and a best-selling collection of essays by a young and talented famous person.

Here they are:

InvisiblefrontPick #6: "If I were to tell you that this fascinating book chronicles the life of a war hero," writes Sara Nelson in her review of The Invisible Front, "you’d likely expect to be reading about a Patton-like figure barking out orders or a 'Mark Owen' telling of the capture of Osama Bin Laden." But this book is not about that kind of war hero. "Mark Graham was a lifelong soldier who saw more than his share of fighting," Nelson explains. But Mark Graham suffered in ways that are painful even to imagine. Both of his sons followed him into the military. One died in war; one killed himself before deploying. Instead of abandoning the military, Graham, along with his wife, "vowed to devote the rest of his career to 'fixing' it." Their story of confronting suicide and PTSD in the military will move and ultimately uplift you. As Nelson puts it, "if that doesn’t make them heroes, it’s hard to say what would." 

BadpaperPick #7: Sometimes these books really sneak up on us. It's safe to say that, when we started reading October galleys for Best of the Month consideration, we weren't thinking "I really wish I could read a book about the world of debt." But Bad Paper won us over. As Amazon Senior Editor Jon Foro writes about the book, "Everyone knows about collections agencies, but how they actually operate is much more interesting than you probably think." He describes the books as "falling somewhere between Glengarry Glen Ross and Mean Streets." It's populated with hard men who often pay "pennies on the dollar" for your debt information. Foro sums it up this way: "This book is unexpected, and unexpectedly fun." Let it be said that debt can be a lot more interesting than you thought, particularly when you're reading about someone else's.

 

RemedyPick #8: Following up on his 2012 Best of the Month Spotlight pick (that book was Life Among Giants), Bill Roorbach returns with the wonderfully-titled The Remedy For Love. Senior Editor Neal Thompson says of the author, "he again creates believably damaged, oddball characters: a buttoned-up, cuckolded small-town stud (Eric), and a bruised, half-starved mystery girl (Danielle)." It seems a bit of a mystery why Eric (an attorney who does pro bono work) and Danielle (who looks homeless but expresses a “retractable beauty, like a cat’s claws”) would come together, especially when they get holed up in her cabin. But Thompson summarizes it this way: "You think you know where things are headed, but how Roorbach gets us there is unexpected, sexy, and intense.... The story stuck with me for many days."

 

LestatPick #9: Just as Edison invented the lightbulb (sort of), Anne Rice invented the vampire. Ok, that's not exactly true--she more reinvented vampires. But still, when her Prince Lestat first took the stage, it got people's blood boiling. In this new novel, Seira Wilson writes, "The newly resurrected, but no less rebellious, Lestat addresses a mysterious twenty-first century vampire genocide with the same panache, self-absorption, and drama readers have come to know and love. Rice masterfully populates the present-day storyline with a cast of characters from her previous novels along with new blood, so to speak, and reading this book is like seeing old friends whom you’d sort of forgotten about, but are thrilled to meet again—even if you are reading about them for the first time." 

 

LeavingtimePick #10: Will Jodi Picoult's Leaving Time land at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list? That's a question to be answered shortly, but it certainly seems to be everywhere. Picoult has written more than twenty novels, and she doesn't appear to be slowing down. This new novel is about a teenage girl named Jenna who is searching for her mother. The mother, who disappeared ten years ago, studied elephants--and their behavior artfully plays into the storyline. But Jenna cannot find her mother on her own. She enlists the help of a formerly famous—now infamous—psychic, as well as a down-and-out private detective whose career went south during the botched investigation of her mother's disappearance. Together, they form a sort of new family to help her in her quest.

 

NotthatkindofgirlDebut Spotlight: Lena Dunham anyone? Have you heard of her? Have you seen her in a magazine or on television. If any of you answered "no," then you probably don't own any magazines or televisions. Not That Kind of Girl is a book of essays inspired by Helen Gurley Brown's Having It All, except that it's directed at a new generation. Amazon's Brittany Pirozollo writes of the book, "In an era where twenty-something women are told how to think, where to work, who to date, and what to wear, it’s refreshing that a voice has broken the mold to empower women to do one thing—be yourself, flaws and all."

 

You can find all of our Best of the Month picks here.

 

An Amazon Exclusive: Neil Patrick Harris Reveals Everything

HarrisIt's not often that you get a behind-the-scenes peek at a book's creation. Read on to see what it took to write Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris (and some other guy).

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

Like many memoirists before him, Neil worked with a collaborator whose job was to take his words and edit them for clarity, eloquence, and in some cases a little extra “oomph.” To illustrate this process, Neil’s collaborator, David Javerbaum, has been gracious enough to provide Amazon with before-and-after examples of both the original sentences written by Neil and the final versions David revised.

 

ORIGINAL: I was born on June 15, 1973.

FINAL: I emerged heroic and triumphant from my mother’s seedhole into a nation consumed by the tragedy of Watergate.

 

ORIGINAL: I had a comfortable childhood.

FINAL: I grew up deprived of deprivation, lacking even a single deficiency to call my own.

 

ORIGINAL: “How would you like to play Doogie Howser?” he said.

FINAL: “How would you like to play Doogie Howser?” he said, removing his pants.

 

ORIGINAL: I do not remember many details of those two days.

FINAL: That weekend in bed with Meryl Streep and Jamie Farr was everything a 17-year-old boy could dream of.

 

ORIGINAL: I have nothing but kind things to say about my four co-stars on How I Met Your Mother.

FINAL: And now a few words about the meth head, the skinhead, the arsonist, and the plushie.

 

ORIGINAL: “How would you like to play Hedwig?” they said.

FINAL: “How would you like to play Hedwig?” they said, removing their pants.

 

ORIGINAL: There’s nothing more satisfying than hosting the Tonys and the Emmys.

FINAL: There would be nothing more satisfying than hosting the Oscars.

 

ORIGINAL: “Mr. Sondheim,” I said, “playing a role in one of your musicals is a dream come true.”

FINAL: “Yo yo, Stevie S.!

I’m filled with happiness!

’Cause when I’m in ya show

I feel like I’m ya ho!”

 

ORIGINAL: The decades-long struggle to identify and “label” my sexuality was for me just another aspect (albeit a very important one) of a more generalized quest to fuse all the wayward parts of my mind, soul, and spirit into one coherent, fully integrated self.

FINAL: Yep, I’m gay.

 

ORIGINAL: My children Gideon and Harper are my two greatest achievements.

FINAL: My professional career has been so accomplished, even my own children fall well down the list of my greatest achievements.

 

ORIGINAL: My home phone number is (310) 555-8712.

FINAL: My home phone number is nnnnnnnnn [REDACTED].

 

ORIGINAL: “I absolutely refuse to remove my pants,” he said.

FINAL: “I absolutely refuse to remove my pants,” he said, removing his pants.

 

ORIGINAL: Above all, this book is dedicated to David Burtka, my partner and soulmate.

FINAL: Above all, this book is dedicated to David Javerbaum, my collaborator and one of the great literary geniuses of the 21st century.

 

The New Trailer for the "Unbroken" Movie

For those who haven't read Unbroken (I realize a lot of us have read it), there's still time to read the book before seeing the movie. I've had a lot of conversations through the years about whether one should read a book before seeing a movie, and the answer varies depending on the book and the reader--but this is one title I'd recommend reading first. I know I just wrote that it depends "on the book and the reader," but in this case I think Louis Zamperini's story has enough universal appeal that the advice read the book first applies in nearly all cases. It really captures the imagination, and your imagination should be as unsullied by visuals as possible when you dig into this unbelievable true account. That said, here's the trailer. It's very good. -- CS

"Apocalypse Now" Meets "Lord of the Rings" - An Interview with Fantasy Author Chris Evans

EvansFantasy author Chris Evans new novel Of Bone and Thunder goes on sale today. It's a book that, like many fantasies, revolves around war—but unlike most fantasies it focuses mainly on the grunts doing the fighting as opposed to the politicians moving the chess pieces. As you read the book, you quicky realize that there's a real-life model for his fantasy world (think Vietnam, but with dragons, magicians, and dwarves), and that makes it all-the-more compelling. Kirkus recently called it "memorable and deeply satisfying—a fitting tribute to those who serve." I caught up with Evans to ask him a few questions about his new book:

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

Chris Schluep: How do you describe your novel?

Chris Evans: Of Bone And Thunder takes the chaos of "Apocalypse Now" and transports into an epic fantasy world like that of Lord of The Rings.

CS: When did you get the idea for this story?

CE: I've been fascinated by military history since I was a child and developed my love of fantasy around the same time. As I read more of both, the idea of combining the two grew stronger. After using the Napoleonic Wars and British Imperialism in my first fantasy series, I was ready to tackle the Vietnam War. It meant plunging traditional fantasy into a dark and unsettling world, but one that still had hope.

CS: Was it the place or the characters who first came to mind?

CE: The jungle came first, but only because I knew it before I knew the veterans that would ultimately inspire my characters. Still, the jungle is very much a character in its own right.

CS: What kind of research did you do?

CE: My work with veterans as a military history editor provided me with untold sources of inspiration and anecdotes. Coupled with voracious reading and a constant soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane et. al. in the background, I was transported to a jungle that I hope readers will find every bit as majestic and mysterious as the real thing.

CS: How did you surprise yourself in writing the book?

CE: This novel took me deeper into the creative process than any writing I'd done before. I came to realize that there are no absolute heroes or villains. The same person can be craven and courageous on the same day. War amplifies that and I think I conveyed that in ways I haven't before.

CS: Have you heard from veterans? What response would you hope for?

CE: I have, and it's been incredibly positive. I set out to write a fantasy that captured the essences of the Vietnam War. As such, the characters and their experiences are an amalgamation of the combat tours and of the veterans I know and many more I don't. My hope from the very start was that they would view the book as an homage to what they experienced, and I am gratified that that has been the case.

The Best Books of October, Part One: Some Serious Reading

Maybe it's a fall publishing thing, but there is some pretty heady writing in the top 5 of our October Best Books of the Month. We (the Amazon Editors) try to pick our Best of the Month books with all readers in mind—so go here if you're looking for something that might be a little less daunting. But this month it just-so-happens that we have, in order, a National Book Award finalist, a two-time Man-Booker Award-winner, a three-time finalist for the Man-Booker Award, a Rhodes Scholar, and a winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. That probably sounds heavy, like a meal of roast potatoes and super smart pot roast, but let's face it: pot roast is delicious.

Here are the top 5 Best Books of October:

MortalSpotlight: To build on our opening theme of seriousness, let's start with dying. We may as well face that we're all going to do it, so why not do it right? That's the essence of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In describing Gawande's book, our Editorial Director, Sara Nelson, puts it this way: doctors have been trained to attack problems—to win—but that victory doesn't look the same to everyone. "Death is the enemy," she quotes from the book. "But the enemy has superior forces." And it can be fruitless to fight a war of annihilation against a superior enemy. "In his compassionate, learned way," Nelson writes, "Gawande shows all of us—doctors included—how mortality must be faced, with both heart and mind.

MantelPick #2: Hilary Mantel is so good she's won the Man-Booker Prize not once but twice. For anyone who's read Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies, you know she's a great writer. But the short stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher show another side of her writing, one that brings vividness to a life more like her own (we assume). In the words of editor Erin Kodicek, "there are only ten stories... a few of them quite spare, but all so chock-full of vivid detail and devilish wit that it leaves the reader wanting more." Kodicek writes, "They don’t hand out Man Bookers like candy, and these stories further explain why Mantel has two on her mantel (so far)."

ToibinPick #3: Sara Nelson describes Colm Toibin's seventh novel as "atmospheric and emotional." It is a story about a forty-year-old widow, set in rural Ireland during the 1960s and 70s, a woman who is "on the verge of slipping back into the isolated life from which her husband had rescued her." Nelson warns that Nora Webster is not entirely likable, accurately pointing out that "a self-centered person mired in depression rarely is." But, she says, Nora slowly wins you over. "Even more important, she eventually finds a way to save herself. This is not a novel that makes a lot of noise—and yet it’s musical. It has a kind of deliberate, note-by-note crescendo—but very few crashing cymbals—as Nora rediscovers her love of singing, learns how art can help her navigate through grief, and how music can help even the most quiet among us to regain our voice."

InnovatorsPick #4: Before Walter Isaacson wrote that fabulous blockbuster about Steve Jobs, he was working on another book. The book is called The Innovators and it is our #4 pick for the Best Books of October. Amazon Senior Editor Jon Foro writes, "Many books have been written about Silicon Valley and the collection of geniuses, eccentrics, and mavericks who launched the 'Digital Revolution'.... but Walter Isaacson goes them one better." He describes The Innovators as "probably the widest-ranging and most comprehensive narrative of them all," building as Isaacson does from the 19th-Century and showing how today's greats, and the greats before them, stood on the shoulders of giants.

JamesPick #5: Marlon James' lyrical and sweeping novel A Brief History of Seven Killings is not an easy book—it is violent, it is big, and it demands that you work sometimes—but it's one that drew me in completely, and I read through the second half of the novel very quickly. The story is written as an oral history, with multiple voices. I was immediately struck by the author's prodigious talent for inhabiting these voices; from men to women, from the patois of a Jamaican rudeboy to the voice of a CIA operative, reading these people is a special experience. The story revolves loosely around the attempt in the 70s to assassinate Bob Marley, but it spans out from there, from Jamaica to Miami and New York in the 90s. In summing up my Best of the Month review of the book, I wrote: "like all great novels, James’ work drew me in, entertained me, and changed me in ways I could not have anticipated."

I'll cover the rest of the top 10 next week. You can find all of our Best of the Month picks here.

 

"Some Monsters I Have Loved" by Keith Donohue

MonstersNew York Times best-selling author Keith Donohue's The Boy Who Drew Monsters went on sale yesterday. It's a hypnotic literary horror novel about a young boy trapped inside his own world, a boy who nearly drowned a few years ago and since then refuses to go outside. Instead, he stays in his room and draws monsters--but those drawings begin to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. To celebrate monsters, and Keith Donohue's new book about monsters, we're posting the author's list of favorite monsters.

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

Monsters prowl the shelves of bookstores and hide between the covers, ready to spring out and catch the unwary reader. From the great monsters of myth and fable—the gorgons and harpies, the dragons and ogres—to the nightmare visions of today’s masters of horror, the supernatural takes form in hundreds of great stories designed to pluck at our deepest fears. Here’s a list of 12—no, make that 13—literary monsters I have loved.

1 and 2. Grendel and his mother from “Beowulf.” Grendel is bad enough, a giant shadow walker who likes to visit the mead hall and snack on drunken revelers. He is defeated by Beowulf, who rips off the monster’s arm, and leaves him to die. This upsets Grendel’s mother, who is somewhat worse than the son. John Gardner’s novel Grendel tells the story from the monster’s point of view, and Seamus Heaney’s bristling adaptation breathes new life into this ancient story.

3. Caliban, from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Many of the other characters in the play refer to him as a monster, and he is often depicted as deformed in productions, but is he a true monster? Or a reflection of our inhumanity?

4. Frankenstein’s monster. It’s hard not to imagine Boris Karloff’s flat-headed monster with bolts through his neck, but the real monster, the creation of Mary Shelley in her novel, Frankenstein, is something much worse. Stitched together from cadavers, it’s been alive for nearly 200 years.

5. Dracula. Again, the movie is not the book. The vampire as portrayed by Bela Lugosi and scores of others loses some of the oomph from Bram Stoker’s weird novel. A study in point of view, the novel uses letter, diaries, and other eyewitness accounts of the descent into madness. Dracula may not even be the scariest monster in the book: think of poor Renfield and his most unusual diet.

6. The Pooka MacPhellimy from Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. Drawn from Irish folklore, the Pooka is one of the great comic literary monsters. Witty and urbane, he spends a great deal of the novel discussing philosophy with an invisible and quarrelsome Good Fairy who travels along with him in the Pooka's pocket. He believes his wife may be a kangaroo.

7. The Devil’s entourage in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The devil, Woland, comes to Moscow in the 1930s, to wreak havoc on the Soviets. Among his entourage are a wisecracking giant cat named Behemoth, a redheaded succubus named Hella, and several henchmen, including Azazello, a broad-shouldered man in a bowler hat who has one fang sticking out of his mouth. They are far more fun than the Communists.

8. The monster from Stephen King’s novel It. Usually shows up as a clown, which preys on children. A clown!

9. The Tooth Fairy. The late Graham Joyce was a master of the story that deals with the psychology of fear and anxiety. “I am less interested in ghosts than in people who see ghosts,” he once wrote. In his wonderful coming-of-age novel, the Tooth Fairy shows up one night, oddly dressed and smelling of horse's sweat and chamomile, to visit the seven-year-old hero. And she stays through adolescence.

10. The Other Mother in Coraline. For me, the best of Neil Gaiman’s monsters is the Other Mother, who lives in a dimension apart from Coraline and her family, with a box of buttons.

11. The wraith in Sjon’s From the Tale of the Whale. There is a ghoul afoot in Iceland, the wraith of a man drowned in the sea, who must be hunted down by the hero of this lyrical gem of a book. The best way to catch a ghost might be: “to tell the ghoul the history of the world, of spirits and men, both evil and benevolent. In that way it will eventually see where it fits into God’s great mechanism and realise that it is in quite the wrong place. For how is a dead man to tell the difference between himself and the living if he is still able to walk around, participate in fights and run errands?”

12. The goblins in Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There. A picture book about a girl named Ida, who must rescue her baby sister after the child has been stolen by goblins and replaced with a changeling made of ice. This is for children.

13. The ghost in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom.” A ghost, who reminds us that such monsters are often born out of our torment and longing.

--

Donohue’s fourth novel, The Boy Who Drew Monsters (Picador), was published on October 7th.

Of All the Gin Joints: Amazon Editors' Favorite Movies, Watering Holes, and More

GinjointsLast week saw the publication of the book Of All the Gin Joints: Stumbling through Hollywood History. Written by Mark Bailey and illustrated by Edward Hemingway, it's a book of witty quotes, fascinating histories of Hollywood actors, and of course drink recipes. Chelsea Handler describes the book as "like being at the best dinner party in the world," and the editors at Amazon had a lot of fun with it. In return, the author and illustrator had some fun with us. Here are four illustrations of our Seattle-based editors, drawn by Edward Hemingway, who also illustrated Of All the Gin Joints. We've included some fun facts to go with the illustrations.

 

Amazonseira!-1

Seira

  • Favorite classic movie: The Wizard of Oz
  • Favorite dead actor or actress that you would like to drink with: Marilyn Monroe
  • Favorite watering hole: Russell's, Seattle
  • Preferred hangover helper: Cheeseburger and a Coke.
  • Hollywood drinking quote: “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.” –Elizabeth Taylor

 

 

Amazonjon(1)

Jon

  • Favorite classic movie: The Night of the Hunter
  • Favorite dead actor or actress that you would like to drink with: Boris Karloff (we share the same birthday)
  • Favorite watering hole: Frankies 457, Brooklyn
  • Preferred hangover helper: Phở (Vietnamese noodle soup)
  • Hollywood drinking quote: “The whole world is about three drinks behind.” –Humphrey Bogart

 

 

 

Amazonneal

Neal

  • Favorite classic movie: The Long Goodbye
  • Favorite dead actor or actress that you would like to drink with: Humphrey Bogart
  • Favorite watering hole: Kings Hardware, in my neighborhood (Ballard) in Seattle. It’s old school – worn wooden floors, battered booths. I once watched a guy drink five bourbons, for lunch.
  • Preferred hangover helper: Coke, aspirin, sleep, remorse.
  • Hollywood drinking quote: “Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” —Jack Kerouac

 

 

Amazonchris2

Chris

  • Favorite classic movie: Casablanca
  • Favorite dead actor or actress that you would like to drink with: Steve McQueen
  • Favorite watering hole: El Quijote, New York. It's next to the Chelsea Hotel.
  • Preferred hangover helper: Bacon, egg, and cheese.
  • Hollywood drinking quote:“I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they are going to feel all day.” – Frank Sinatra

 

 

Weekend Reading: The Perfect Seattle Day... Sort of

It feels like fall has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest. The sun is still hanging on in Seattle, but barely, and it's getting cooler. I have a neighbor who describes the Perfect Seattle Day as "gray sky, gray mountains, gray water." He'll have his wish soon. At least it will be good reading weather.

Here's what we'll be taking a look at over the weekend. Happy Friday!


 

TITLE

Atlantia by Ally Condie

Seira Wilson: A new stand-alone novel from the author of the Matched trilogy—one of my favorites. This one is also a dystopian novel, but one where society is divided into those who live above--on land--and those who live in the submerged city below the sea. And, like the Berlin Wall, whatever side you’re on is it—you can’t leave. Twin teenage sirens, hard choices, and a mysterious death—this is shaping up to be another winner from Ally Condie. (Available October 28th)

Also reading:

 
TITLE

Why We Lost by Daniel P. Bolger

Chris Schluep: The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are common topics for fiction and nonfiction these days. Mostly, I've recently been focusing on the fiction titles written about the wars--but General Bolger's honest look at what happened and why comes from a pretty unique point of view. This could be a big book.  (Available November 11th)

Also reading:

 
TITLE

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro

Erin Kodicek: I’m reading Family Furnishings by Alice Munro. Much to many readers’ chagrin, Munro announced that she was putting her pen down for good last year, after just having won the Nobel Prize in Literature. ‘Furnishings’, therefore, is a hand-picked selection of short fiction that she wrote over the past two decades. Reading these stories makes me rue her retirement even more, but it’s also a reminder of why Munroe is so beloved. (Available November 11th)

Also devouring:

 
Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev

Jon Foro: When British TV producer Peter Pomeratsev's traveled to Russia, he found a country wild at heart and weird on top--flush with cash, hustlers, and power brokers, but few rules (especially if you have cash). He also found an entertainment industry churning out agitprop and eager for Western tropes to co-opt with a Putin twist. The "surreal" subtitle is apt. (Available November 11th)

Also reading:

 
TITLE

The Final Silence by Stuart Neville

Neal Thompson: I’ve read enough mysteries and thrillers to know this much: when there’s a locked door, there’s usually something bad behind it. That’s what Rea Carlisle quickly discovers when she inherits a house from a strange uncle she barely knew. Turns out he was even stranger than she could’ve imagined. Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a city of ghosts and a blood-soaked history, it feels as if menace lurks with each turn of the page in this dark and brooding forthcoming novel from a master of neo-noir. (Available October 28th)

Also reading:

 

National Book Foundation Announces the List of 5 Under 35

FacesEvery year, book lovers look forward to the National Book Foundation's announcement of their "5 under 35"—a list of young, talented authors selected by a committee of former National Book Award nominees. Each member on the committee picks one of the five new authors. Here are this year's picks and the authors who picked them:

  • Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Riverhead, July 2014) Selected by Aleksandar Hemon, 2008 National Book Award Finalist for The Lazarus Project
  • Redeployment Phil Klay, (Penguin Press, March 2014) Selected by Andrea Barrett, 1996 National Book Award Winner for Ship Fever and Other Stories
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House Press, May 2014) Selected by Karen Tei Yamashita, 2010 National Book Award Finalist for I Hotel
  • Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade (W.W. Norton & Company, March 2015) Selected by Andre Dubus III, 1999 National Book Award Finalist for House of Sand and Fog

The Best Books of September: Part Two

Last week I wrote about the Editors' first five picks in September’s Best Books of the Month and promised to write about the rest of the picks this week. Here they are:

BettyPick #6: If you want to hear straight from the woman who has spent nearly forty years as the legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman, Betty Halbreich's I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist is the book for you. Amazon's Editorial Director, Sara Nelson, certainly was interested. As she wrote in her review of the book, "I want this woman who practically invented personal shopping 40-plus years ago to come to my house, analyze my closet – and retool my wardrobe, and, thus, my life." But Nelson points out that there's much more to the story. Halbreich had to recover from a tough marriage, a nervous breakdown, and the forces of the times that were opposed to working women—all before she could reinvent herself. In Nelson's words, "let Halbreich take you back to a time when women wore brooches, men donned hats, and everybody had a guiltless cocktail before dinner."

MandelPick #7: What would it be like to lose everything you have and have ever known? Emily St. John Mandel's post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven asks that question, then it asks another: What would you then try to get back? As Amazon Senior Editor, Neal Thompson, writes, "What’s touching about the world of Station Eleven is its ode to what survived, in particular the music and plays performed for wasteland communities by a roving Shakespeare troupe, the Traveling Symphony, whose members form a wounded family of sorts. The story shifts deftly between the fraught post-apocalyptic world and, twenty years earlier, just before the apocalypse, the death of a famous actor, which has a rippling effect across the decades. It’s heartbreaking to watch the troupe strive for more than mere survival. At once terrible and tender, dark and hopeful, Station Eleven is a tragically beautiful novel that both mourns and mocks the things we cherish."

HobbsPick #8: Jeff Hobbs' nonfiction book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League doesn't try to hide behind its title. You know from the start how it's going to end. But getting there is where the real story lies. The author, a novelist by trade, was the Yale roommate of Rob Peace, a brilliant kid from Newark who overcame incredible odds to get out of his rough neighborhood and begin to make a life for himself. As you read the book, you grow to love Rob. You will root for him even as you find yourself angry at some of the decisions he makes; and you're there beside Hobbs as he uncovers more and more about his former roommate's life. This is a riveting and heartbreaking read, as Rob Peace seems always to have been on the outside—the resented geek in the hood, and the inner city black man in the Ivy League. For more on how the book about Robert Peace got written, see here.

AtwoodPick #9: She's baaack. Margaret Atwood returns with Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, of which Amazon's Erin Kodicek says, "these tales are fun, which is odd considering the sinister current that runs through many of them." Kodicek points to the stories "Revenant" ("one of three cleverly interconnected tales"), as well as “The Dead Hand Loves You” ("Atwood playfully skewers the horror genre then gleefully indulges in it"), and “Torching the Dusties” ("ominously tongue-in-cheek") as standouts. "Fans of Margaret Atwood will certainly delight in this collection," says Kodicek. "But beware, the Stone Mattress will make groupies of old and new readers alike." 

 

WatersPick #10: Sarah Waters is back, too. the author of Fingersmith and The Little Stranger has written a novel set just after World War I entitled The Paying Guests. The novel settles in with the widowed Mrs. Wray and her 26-year-old daughter, Frances, who pass each day in their home outside London very much like the day before. But Amazon's Kodicek writes, "Take a deep breath as you’re reading, because as soon as you are you lulled into the calm cadence of these lives, the Wray’s tenants—the 'paying guests' they have taken in to help with the bills—turn everything topsy-turvy, and by the novel’s conclusion, you have gone from straight-up period piece, to love story, to edge-of-your-seat crime thriller."

 

PitreDebut Spotlight: Every month, the editors pick a debut writer whose book we loved and who we plan to keep an eye on through the coming years. In September that was Michael Pitre, a marine who served two tours in Iraq and the author of the novel Fives and Twenty-Fives. The title refers to the ground rules a road team follows when bomb searching. As Senior Editor Neal Thompson writes, "When they stop to repair a pothole, they first scan the immediate five meters; a bomb detonated in that circle would obliterate them all. Next they sweep the twenty-five meters in every direction. In putting us right in the heat and the dust, inside the helmets and Kevlar vests that chafe the skin, Michael Pitre shows us that the battlefields of modern warfare are far more complex and bizarre than the American public might imagine." The story is told from three unique perspectives: a platoon leader, his medic, and their American culture-loving Iraqi translator. Thompson writes, "Pitre is a nervy, funny writer, with an ear for dialogue and banter. And he’s not shy about commenting on America’s role in the world, and on the haunted postwar lives of its soldiers." Learn more about Michael Pitre here.

See you again next month. Until then, you can find all of the Amazon Editors' September's Best Books of the Month here.

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.

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.

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

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.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

December 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31