You may have heard that Scottish novelist Iain M. Banks passed away on Sunday at age 59, having announced on his blog in April that he had terminal gall bladder cancer.
Upon learning of Banks's death, fellow author and convention buddy Neil Gaiman wrote on his own blog, "His work was mordant, surreal, and fiercely intelligent. In person, he was funny and cheerful and always easy to talk to."
Banks was known equally for his science fiction writing and his general literature, and he ammassed an oeuvre of 28 books in his career, beginning with his acclaimed debut The Wasp Factory. His 29th and last, which will be released on June 25, is The Quarry--the story of a teenage boy who longs to learn about his mother, but has limited time since his father is dying. What a poignant final work of humor from a man who brought so much joy to his readers over the last three decades.
"If you've never read any of his books, read one of his books," Gaiman advises. "Then read another. Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing."
We believe that books can take you places. And in that spirit, we've picked our favorite transportive classic and contemporary novels, memoirs, biographies, and travel books to prove it. Our selections for Around the World in 80 Books represent all seven continents (even Antarctica!), so whether you're jet-setting this summer or traveling from the comfort of your armchair, these books will be the perfect company for your journey.
Editors Note: As you'll see from the first line of his introduction through to his last fantastic question, horror author Joe Hill has tremendous respect for Neil Gaiman's work. In this exclusive discussion of Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane--one of our own top picks for June's Best Books of the Month--Hill explores both the real and the imaginary inspirations behind some of the novel's most compelling details.
by Joe Hill
You know the facts already, and if you don't, man, have you missed out:
If Neil Gaiman wrote nothing but Sandman, his award-winning comic series, he would still have the stature of a Bradbury or a Tolkien. Sandman was not just the best, most daring, and most moving comic of its time; it was and is probably the best, daringest, movingest comic of any time.
Gaiman followed with an epic, American Gods, which--along with Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Jonathan Letham's Fortress of Solitude--shattered the artificial barrier between genre and literature, inspiring the best writers of my own generation to slip the shackles of realism and take a chance on fantasy. Godswas a kind of uncorking and a flood of fever-dreams poured forth afterward. Coraline was only the scariest book for children ever written, and it led to a phantasmagoric movie that soars like a modern Wizard of Oz. The Graveyard Book reads like if Charles Addams wrote The Jungle Book, and deservedly was awarded the Newbery Medal. And Gaiman's episodes of Doctor Who stand among the most keenly felt and inventive chapters in that show's storied 50-year history.
So now here is The Ocean at the End of the Lane--an overpowering work of the imagination, a quietly devastating masterpiece, and Gaiman's most personal novel to date. I had a chance to talk to him about it. Here are some things we said:
Joe Hill: Not long after a grotesque and tragic shock, the young boy at the heart of the novel meets Lettie Hempstock, her mother, and her grandmother. We soon discover that Old Mrs. Hempstock can snip bits out of time; Lettie's mother can see things happening elsewhere; and at one point, Lettie herself can be found hauling around an ocean in a bucket. These aren't the first women to wander through your stories, deforming reality as they go. Would the story have been different if it was a house of three guys? Could that even have worked?
Neil Gaiman: It would have worked, yes, although it would have been a very different sort of book. The farm men I knew as a boy were a taciturn lot, and they weren't much for talking. I like that the Hempstock women are chatty, and welcoming.
I think I got to take all the things I loved about my grandmothers' kitchens when I was a boy, the feeling that food was always there and that always somehow meant family and meant love, and transmute that into something rather stranger. And less Jewish.
I went for the women partly because I liked the idea of grandmotherly energy, and because the original inspiration for the Hempstock family, when I was about 8 years old, was having read a story of Henry Kuttner's called “Pile of Trouble” about the Hogben family, an Appalachian family of mutants--and all the Hogbens were men. (There is a Ma Hogben, but she never says or does much.) I thought about the farm down our lane that was mentioned in the Domesday Book, and wondered what would happen if the people who lived there had been there for the last thousand years. So the Hempstocks had been composting in my head since I was a small boy, waiting for their story to be told. Sometimes other Hempstocks would show up in other books, but they weren't the real Hempstocks, the ones in the farm at the end of the lane.
JH: Have there been women in your life who seemed especially prone to warping reality?
NG: My wife, Amanda, is terribly good at warping reality. She is like a bowling ball on a rubber sheet, and you find yourself living in her universe, doing things that are completely unexpected or unimaginable for you, but you blink and you're up on a stage singing, or wearing a peculiar wig, or writing a book filled with feelings and emotion, or doing something equally as unlikely.
My daughters, Holly and Maddy, are each good at warping reality in their own unique ways. Maddy's world is prettier and simpler than mine, Holly's has more hats in it.
JH: There's another woman in this story who goes nibbling holes out of our world: Ursula Monkton, who comes to work as a nanny--a kind of anti-Mary Poppins--for our hero's parents. But really, why is Ursula Monkton so bad? She only wants to help people!
NG: I agree with you. And Ursula Monkton, wherever she is, agrees with you a lot. It's just that people are fragile, and the ways Ursula wants to help them are ways that break them, or drive them to madness, or worse. It's one thing to want money, but if you find yourself choking on a coin as you wake, the money is slightly less desirable.
Ursula Monkton (or, as I tend to think of her, the thing that calls herself Ursula Monkton) was a glorious and scary thing to write, and she took me by surprise. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was going to be a short story until Ursula Monkton decided to follow our hero home...
NG: Imagine a mosaic picture of a house in the country: lots of red and blue and yellow and black and brown and white and a dozen different shades of green tiles which make a beautiful picture if you stand back far enough.
All the little red squares are true--true things, true places, true feelings. But the red squares aren't the picture. All the rest of it is lies and stories, often within the same sentence.
I hoped that I was able to write an emotional truth, but even though the landscape of the story is the landscape of my childhood, the family isn't really my family, and none of the things that happened to our hero happened to me. Well, none of the big things, anyway. I didn't even know why our white Mini went away until over thirty years after it happened.
JH: Our hero has only a single weapon to hold back the darkness--his books. What were your weapons as a child?
NG: Books. They were more of an armour and an escape route than they ever were a weapon, really, though. Books are defensive, not offensive (unless you're the puzzled adult trying to make the kid with the book interact). I loved all books that I could read, and I never knew if I was ready for it until I tried to read it, so I tried to read everything. My mother had lots of her childhood books on our bookshelves, so I read those and had great fun putting imaginary versions of them into Ocean.
There were other weapons. I was bright, and I could use that as a weapon: words can wound, whatever those sticks and stones sayings claim about them never hurting, and I could use them if I had to.
I really wanted a catapult, because kids in books had catapults, but they were regarded as things you could put people's eyes out with, and I do not believe I ever had a catapult.
JH: It was only after I finished the novel that I realized--with quite a bit of shock--that the narrator doesn't have a name. He remains, throughout, an indefinite ‘I.' And we are told early in the story that names have power and special significance; they can be used against you. Who is this guy? Does he even know himself?
NG: I'm sure he knows his name. In the first draft, in the handwritten manuscript, Ursula Monkton calls him by his name, but I took that out in the second draft. It seemed right that he's--not nameless, but has no reason to tell us his name.
Names do have power in this book, and naming things and people was something that fascinated me. None of his family have names, after all. They just have roles.
JH: There's a lot of wonderful food writing in this book. I had to put the thing down several times to rummage desperately through my fridge. Can you give us the recipe for the Hempstocks' lemon pancakes? Please don't let that part be make-believe.
NG: There is no make-believe in cooking. There were few things I took as much fun in cooking, when I was a boy, as pancakes. (I liked making toffee, too, because it was a little like a science experiment.)
Right. The night before you are going to make them, you mix:
1 cup of ordinary white flour
a pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups of milk and water (a cup and a half of milk and a cup of water mixed)
1 tablespoon of either vegetable oil or melted butter
(You'll also need some granulated sugar, and a couple of lemons to put on the pancakes, along with other things like jams and possibly even maple syrup because you're American.)
Put the flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Crack the eggs in and whisk/fork the egg into the flour. Slowly add the milk/water mixture, stirring as you go, until there are no lumps and you have a liquid the consistency of a not too thick cream.
Then put the mixture in the fridge overnight.
Grease or butter or oil a non-stick frying pan. Heat it until it's really hot (377 degrees according to one website, but basically, it has to be hot for the pancake to become a pancake. And these are crepes, French style, not thick American round pancakes).
Stir the mixture you just took from the fridge thoroughly because the flour will all be at the bottom. Get an even, consistency.
Then ladle some mixture into the pan, thinly covering the whole of the base of the pan. When the base is golden, flip it (or, if you are brave, toss it). Cook another 30 seconds on the other side.
For reasons I do not quite understand (although pan heat is probably the reason), the first one is always a bit disappointing. Often it's a burnt, sludgy, weird thing, (always, in my family, eaten by the cook) (which was me). Just keep going, and the rest will be fine.
Sprinkle sugar in the middle. And then squeeze some lemon juice in, preferably from a lemon. Then wrap it like a cigar and feed it to a child.
(You can experiment with other things in the middle, like Nutella, or jam, or even maple syrup--but remember that these pancakes are not syrup-absorbent like American style pancakes.)
This is a very peculiar interview, Joe. Let me know how the pancakes come out.
In Claire Messud's ferocious The Woman Upstairs, middle-aged Nora, an artist-wannabe who is actually a frumpy suburban schoolteacher, announces her rage in the very first pages. "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that."
But as the book goes on, she doesn't need to announce her feelings: every move she makes signals that the overwhelming impulse that drives her is rage. What's she so mad about? Everything, it seems. Or, as author Messud said in an interview in her publisher's office, "She had perhaps accepted that certain opportunities had been foreclosed [i.e. the ability to marry and certainly have children] and all of a sudden [when she met the young family with whom she became obsessed and immersed] somebody came along and opened the doors and said, 'Well, actually, you have one more chance'... But when those relationships fall apart, she's angry in exact proportion to how excited she was. She's angry about what she has lost."
Similar but different, Noa P. Singleton, the eponymous heroine of our debut this month is also angry, although she masks her rage as a smart alecky but blasé lack of concern for her fate as a prisoner on death row. She isn't moved when a young lawyer comes to try to get her sentence reversed; she isn't impressed when her long-lost father tries to establish a relationship with her; she doesn't jump when her victim's mother comes to her defense.
Noa and Nora--hmmm. What would Dr. Freud say about the echo of those names?--are both cut off from connection, and when either woman gets close to engaging with life, by choice or by chance, she can't help screaming her head off.
There's already been plenty written about whether Messud's heroine is so unlikable as to sink the success of the book. (Messud herself says she worried that people might be turned off by this character whom she says is neither biographical nor autobiographical, but is, nonetheless, "real.") And many have opined that an angry, unlikeable voice will never attract much of an audience, especially if that angry, unlikeable voice belongs to a female. ("Women's anger, in particular, is unseemly to some people," Messud understates.) And yet, the books keep coming--and keep selling.
There are few more likable, readable, perhaps even justifiably angry heroines than, Nora (hmm...that name again) Ephron's doppelganger in Heartburn. Or Fay Weldon's in the delightfully vicious, Lives and Loves of a She Devil, arguably the most delicious revenge novel of all time. See also, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Or what about the predatory, rageful woman in Zoë Heller's spectacular What Was she Thinking: Notes on a Scandal? (Decent movie, but better book!) There are, of course, angry men, too. And while the therapists might say male rage is more societally accepted, if that were true, a novel like Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament, about a furious, broken down guy who decides to eat and drink himself to death, would be better known than it is.
"It is human to make choices against your own best interest," Messud says. By that definition, Noa is certainly human: she has plenty of opportunities to exonerate and excuse herself, but can't quite bring herself to do so because she's guilty of some things, if not the exact crimes for which she was convicted. Most of us, I think, would agree with Messud’s comment that "bad choices, as much as good ones if not more so, are what our lives are made of." Likewise, "bad," angry characters are what the best books can be made of.
Philipp Meyer's 2009 debut novel, American Rust, earned numerous accolades (including a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship) and marked him as a writer of exceptional potential. With The Son--a 150-year saga of family, oil, and power set against the birth of Texas and the modern West--Meyer has seemingly fulfilled that promise. He took time to answer a few questions about the new book, including some of his unusual things he did during the course of his research, and violence as an inseparable reality of North America's past.
The Son is available May 28.
The Son is an immense novel, spanning generations,
a wide swath of Texas (and American) history, and incredible cultural change. Did you always intend for it to be this
ambitious, or did it grow out of a more particular idea?
I always knew it was going to be an ambitious book. The
problem, when I began writing it, was that I didn’t know nearly as much I
thought I did about the history of Texas and the history of the American West.
And the more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know, and the slower the
writing became. There were a lot of moments of slapping my head and realizing I
needed to research a whole new period of history before I could write the
things that belonged in the novel, and at some point I realized that the book
was basically going to take place over two hundred years. That was exciting but
also a bit depressing—I was thinking I’d finish this book in three years, like
my last one. It ended up taking five years.
The Son is thoroughly entertaining (and
revelatory) in its period detail and vernacular, especially Eli’s experience
with the Comanches. How much—and what sort of—research was required to achieve
such a level of realism?
There was so much research that it all became a blur. I know
I read at least 350 books, though I likely read more; I took weeks of animal
tracking classes, spent a month at Blackwater (the private military contractor)
learning combat skills and soaking up the warrior culture for the sections on
both the Comanches and the early Texas Rangers; I taught myself to bowhunt and
killed several deer, ate them, tanned various deer hides. I shot two buffalo
(whose meat was destined for restaurants and grocery stores) and because the
Plains tribes sometimes did it for survival purposes, I drank a cup of warm
blood from the neck of one of the animals. Not recommended. And I spent months
in the woods, mountains, and deserts of Texas—I slept outside, hiked, or hunted
almost everywhere the book takes place, took careful notes on and pictures of
all the plants and animals I saw, then realized that the ecology of Texas had
changed so enormously over the past 150 years that my notes weren’t necessarily
valid. So had to go back to the historical and archeological record to research
about exactly how and where and why it changed—the plants and animals I was
seeing between 2008-2013 were not necessarily the plants and animals that were
there in 1850 or 1870 or 1915. Texas used to be a much wetter place—much
of what is now desert or brushland was grassland in 1850. The landscape has
changed radically in a very short period of time.
There’s a lot of violence in this book, and scenes that
might make some readers uncomfortable. That’s part of the tale, of course,
given both the era and setting. Did you have any reservations about not holding
back? Is there intent to the way you want readers to face that violence?
I’m reluctant to talk about this too much, and to make too
big a deal of it, but here goes:
I’m not sure the book is any more violent than any other
book set in this time period, but I made an effort to not glorify it or gloss
over it. A lot of books about the American West, about our creation myth, are
full of blood and gore but there is no real sense of loss—they are like Quentin
Tarantino movies. I wanted to address that tendency. I wanted the reader’s
sympathies to shift from one side of the conflict to the other. I wanted the
loss on both sides to be real.
That said, the politically correct part of me definitely
considered toning it down—especially the scenes of combat between the Comanches
and the various settler groups. But doing so would have come at such a cost to
truth and accuracy that I couldn’t bring myself to do it—the historical record
was too clear. The Native Americans were at war for their very survival and the
European-American settlers were at war to make their fortunes and expand their
country. Neither side committed any atrocity that has not been committed at
some other period in history—whether earlier, during the Spanish Inquisition,
or later, during the big wars of the 20th century. And I was careful that
whatever violence there is in the book—whether committed by Texas Rangers,
ranchers, or settlers, by Comanches or U.S. soldiers—was based on real events.
It was not me imagining how things might have been.
It’s important to remember that people have been living in
America for 15,000 years; thousands of cultures have risen and fallen here in
that time, and, while no one was taking notes, it’s not that hard to guess that
most were overthrown by force. In Texas alone, since the Spanish arrived and
began writing things down, the Apaches came in and overthrew most of the other
tribes and then the Comanches came in and overthrew the Apaches (and to some
extent, the Spanish). The land we live on is quite literally soaked in blood; you
can’t really understand American history, and what we come from, until you come
to terms with that. And equally until you come to terms with the fact that,
regardless of the winners or losers, the degree of brutality was basically
equal on all sides. I think it’s easy to say that this brutality—the
ubiquitousness of it—is the great point to be taken from human history. But
that is not how I think of it. The point is that despite all that bloodshed,
here we all are, still breathing, still falling in love and having children,
still living our lives.
Both of your novels have a strong sense of geographical
identity: American Rust in Pennsylvania and The Son in Texas. How
does location shape your books? That is, does the story grow out of your
experience of a place, or do you start with a story that you want to tell?
With the story. I didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania or in
Texas. I just knew that this is where those books were going to be set. So I
had to go and learn those settings. The location is crucial—you have to
understand the economic history, the natural history, the philosophical history
of a place before you can write about it. You have to know how the people look,
speak, think, move, what they hope for, how they vote, how they eat, where they
sleep, what they do for work. You have to know everything. Not
necessarily when you start the book, but definitely before the book is done.
Who are your greatest
influences? Do you read for inspiration for your own work, or to take a break
from your own work?
Overall my biggest influences, and the people who I see
myself as learning the most from, are the modernists, basically Woolf,
Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, Welty, etc. But I will read anything I find
compelling. I’m going through a Vargas Llosa kick and right now and just
finished a few books by Lobo Antunes. As a reader, there is nothing more
satisfying than coming across an under-appreciated master, or a new book by an
As for the way I read, what happens when you cross the
threshold after which you are a practitioner, or a working artist—whatever you
want to call it—is that you don’t really read the same way. Probably not so
different from the way a professional athlete watches a game. You are
constantly observing, learning, zooming in and out on what people are doing.
You’re not quite as lost in the magic of it, because you’re thinking: “holy
----, how did she/he do that!” Maybe that’s a loss. When I say it out loud, it
seems like it. But in truth it doesn’t feel like it. I guess it feels like the
natural evolution of my relationship to writing, or art, or the world. Somehow
the pleasure of writing has supplemented or augmented the pure pleasure I used
to get from reading. The amount of happiness is the same, but it comes from a
slightly different place.
When eight-year-old Robert Chatham loses everything to
the fast waters of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, he lights out across
the country, a refugee seeking shelter with (and from) a Homeric cast of
misfits, hucksters, and ne’er-do-wells: the ladies of a "hotel" of ill repute;
a piano player whose talent for the blues matches his seemingly supernatural
powers of healing; a close-knit clan of trappers, living in swampland itself marked for flooding, behind the wall of a WPA dam. Wherever he finds himself,
Robert's gripped and propelled by his fear of the devil closing in
behind. Cheng's novel fits comfortably
in the tradition of the Southern Gothic, but such simplification shortchanges
the power and originality of its language, the artfulness of its voice.
Southern Cross the Dog is one hell of a debut.
Cheng took the time to answer a few of our questions about his book, the blues, and the origins of the phrase Southern Cross the Dog.
You’re from New York,
and Southern Cross the Dog is about
as southern as a book can get. What inspired you to write about that part of
I started this novel as a kind of offering to
country blues music. I wanted to be able
to re-create in story the kind of experience I feel when I listen to someone
like Son House, for example. For me, the
only way to do that in a way that felt sincere was to set it in Mississippi,
during the era of the prewar blues. Set
the book someplace else and at some other time, and it would've been like I was
trying to get around something. And you
can't do that if you want to write a book you’re proud of.
Your story begins 85
years ago at the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, moving through the early
1940s. Was there something about that particular era that interested you,
something that you could build a novel around?
The Great Mississippi Flood was a great starting point, from
a storytelling perspective. There's a
largeness to it, and its impact shadows the characters throughout the book. For Robert and his family, the flood marks
them in a way that's irreparable. The
flood and the Mississippi River also occupies this amazing space in the
music. There are so many songs about the
river, about the levee camps, and about the flood. The idea first came to me when I was
listening to John Lee Hooker sing and play "Tupelo." It's absolutely haunting.
How did you conduct
your research for not only the finer details of the culture, but also the language
of the period?
I think there’s a misconception about how writers research
and how the research is used. Or at
least, on my part, I don't think I do the work of going to a library for a long
period of time, digesting the information, writing the book so that it is faithful
The small facts that open up
the world of a novel are important and can be like manna to a writer, but the real
value in research, in sitting with materials, is that the path of your research
reinforces the writer's path through their novel. By which I mean, the way you direct your
research tells you what it is you want your novel to be about. You're discovering the world of your novel,
not the real world as it can be represented in a novel.
But to answer your question, I read aggressively everything
I could about blues and blues music. I
listened to blues music for close to a decade before I started the book.
Gothic—is a literary genre in itself. Did you
have any trepidation in stepping into such a rich tradition?
I didn't really think about it going in—which I think was
lucky; it would’ve been paralyzing
otherwise. Now that the book is done,
I’m a bit cautious of comparisons that are being made now. They’re very complimentary and gratifying to
hear, but they also saddle a young writer with a terrible responsibility. Excruciatingly beautiful books have come out
of this part of America, but I can't say sincerely that my name has any place
next to giants like William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.
Does one book set in the American South now make me a southern writer? Is it enough to admit
me into one of the richest American literary traditions? It's one book. When it’s put to me that I "wrote a book about the South" I think
on some level that's wrong. I didn't write a book about the South. How could I have? To me, the book is about something
different. Something more.
That said, are there southern writers
(or writers of the South) whose work you admire most?
It almost seems besides the point to go on about William
Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor or Cormac McCarthy. Their contribution to the world of letters
will be felt from now until the last eye has fallen across the last word of the
last book. But I would like to single
out the late Larry Brown and the New York-born Peter Mathiessen, whose books are
visceral and exciting and make me proud about wanting to write books.
What is the meaning
of the phrase Southern Cross the Dog, and what is its importance to the
Where the Southern Crosses the (Yellow) Dog is a place where
two railroad lines—the U.S. Southern and the Yazoo Delta—cross in Moorhead, Mississippi. The place is referenced in blues music, and
in my mind, it seems to reference a place of final rest and peace. A kind of coming home. Which is, in a sense, what I believe Robert
blues—pervades the book. Was that a starting point or something that grew naturally? Do you have favorite blues musicians?
It was a starting point. It was more than a starting point. It was there before I even conceived of the book. It was there for years, settling inside of
me, carving me up in quiet unknowable ways.
As for favorite blues musicians, I have too many. Far too many.
I think Lightnin' Hopkins might make it on top of the pile. Big Bill Broonzy, certainly. The problem with naming names is that I’ll
always come up with another likely candidate for first place. I list a slew of them in my acknowledgments.
This is your first
book—how long did it take to write? Was it a larger (or more difficult) project
than you imagined?
About three years to get a first draft. During the editing phase, I think I cut about
a hundred pages out of the book, and then fed some more pages back in. The book wasn't an easy book to write,
certainly, but that’s part of the joy of being a writer. Solving problems. Working on sentences. Building worlds and populating them. Difficult is good. It keeps things interesting.
Are there more novels
coming from you, and will they all be this dark? Are you interested in nonfiction projects, as
Hopefully there will be more novels coming from me. Knock on wood. And I hope they won't all be dark, but my
writing does tend in that direction. I
think I'm pretty light-hearted in person though. As for nonfiction, I like doing essays,
op-eds, journalism pieces—that sort of thing. It's a different discipline, requires a different kind of thinking, but I
like seeing what comes out.
What are you reading
The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly. It's
also set during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and it looks like it has a
more central role in the book than it does in mine. I've only just started it, but it promises to
be an amazing book.
Reconstructing Amelia is a media-fest of narrative, emails, texts and other bits a tormented mother uses to deconstruct her teenage daughter's life and figure out whether she did or didn't commit suicide. Climbing the charts, it's the first novel by lawyer-turned-author Kimberly McCreight, who knows a bit about motherhood angst and, well... villainy.
What's the elevator pitch for your book?
A page-turning mystery about parenting in the age of cyber-bullying, Reconstructing Amelia follows a mother as she tries to piece together the last troubled days of her daughter's life.
The Odyssey. I want to say that I'll read it soon, but now that I have children, I think that might be a lie. Perhaps, once they go to college.
Favorite book(s) as a child?
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The story felt so huge and important even though I don't think I fully understood why. Unfortunately, my children don't let me read it to them because I always start bawling on page two.
What's your most memorable author moment?
I quit being a lawyer more than a decade ago to chase a dream. The road was much longer and darker than I ever expected, but I'm lucky to have so many amazing friends who helped see me through. I had dinner with one right after my book sold. When I shared the news, she shouted, jumped out of her chair, and burst into tears, pretty much all at the same time. She wasn't the only friend to cry when I told her either. The outpouring of love and support from so many people in my life has been nothing short of astounding. I feel so insanely fortunate
Getting the call from my editor telling me that I'd made the New York Times Bestseller List was another moment I'll never forget. Assuming it actually happened. I'm still half-convinced I hallucinated it.
What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?
I think it may be more of a super-villain power, but mind-control. That's what I'd want. I promise I'd only use it for good, of course. To be honest, I can't imagine why everyone wouldn't want that. The power to make everyone think and, therefore, do whatever you want? Who wouldn't pick that? As it turns out, my family, that's who. Not only did they all give much more hero-ish answers, but now I think they're all sleeping with one eye open. Except for my older daughter. As she sees it, I already have that power. After all, I'm always making her do whatever I want anyway.
What are you obsessed with now?
Greek frozen yogurt. After claiming for years that it was disgusting, I'm now utterly addicted.
What are you stressed about now?
The end of Breaking Bad. I know they'll pull it off in the same flawless, breathtaking form with which they've executed the rest of the series, so I'm not worried about them. I'm worried about me. What am I going to do without that show? I guess I'll still have the yogurt.
What are you psyched about now?
Summer. I can't wait for late afternoons on the beach when the setting sun turns the whole world gold and there's salt on your skin and you've had way too many ice cream cones for no good reason. I'm looking forward to our family vacation too. My daughters are finally old enough to really travel, and we're taking them to France and England. I can't wait to see all of it again for the first time through their eyes.
What's your most prized/treasured possession?
My husband and my children. And, don't worry, I know they're not possessions. I mean not really. But they're what matters most to me.
Author crush -- who's your current author crush?
Can I have two? John Green and Flannery O'Connor. I so wish the three of us could go out to dinner.
What's next for you?
I'm a few hundred pages into my next novel. It's another dark mystery with a deep emotional core. I'm kind of obsessed with it too. That and, you know, the yogurt.
What's the last dream you remember?
I had a dream that my kids' hamster, Chocolate Chip, escaped from her cage. In the dream, she was about six times as large as she is in real life, which is exceptionally bad news because she's essentially an attack hamster. In the dream—I mean nightmare—we all had to escape from her by crawling out a window and down the fire escape. Which reminds me, I really do need to find a hamster tamer.
"We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me." Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.
What's your favorite vice?
Candy. I consume all kinds, often in huge quantities. In fact, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. However, if someone happens to stumble on my enormous secret stash, I always lie and tell them it belongs to my children. Of course, that has the unintended side effect of making me look like a terrible parent. But you can't have everything, can you?
What do you collect?
I love the idea of collecting and I'm completely fascinated by people who do. But I'm more of a purger myself. In fact, if there's a disorder that's the opposite of hoarding, I think I might have that.
Best piece of fan mail you ever got?
I heard from someone who'd read Reconstructing Amelia after a loss in his own family. He wanted me to know how the story had helped him process his own grief. It was the warmest, most lovely note, and, reading it, I so felt the love for this person who was no longer here. I was in tears before I'd even stepped away from my mailbox.
She was running late. Her appointment to interview a famous, favorite author was at 12:30 across town, and for once she knew not to try to brave the traffic in a taxi, even if it was right in front of her when she exited her building. She raced instead across the street toward the subway, when splat--her ankle twisted and she fell to hands and knees on the sidewalk. This being New York, ten passersby turned to ask if she was all right; none of them stopped.
And darkness fell.
For once, she was going to be on time, so she left the office a full half hour early and grabbed the cab that had stopped right in front of her building. But she'd miscalculated, and at 12:30--when she was supposed to be inside the publisher's office interviewing a famous, favorite author--she was stuck in midtown traffic with a dying cell phone.
And darkness fell.
OK, so the above is a hamhanded attempt to imitate the main trope in Kate Atkinson's fantastic Life After Life, in which a rather ordinary British woman is born, dies, is born and lives again several times throughout the twentieth century. In far less capable hands (see above) such a setup would seem gimmicky at best, or at least just tiresome. But Life After Life has received uniformly excellent reviews, been a best book of the month and currently hovers around No. 37 on our bestsellers list precisely because it is neither; instead it is smart, funny, and a little odd, much like its creator.
By the time we meet, Kate Atkinson, indeed sitting in her publisher's office, has been on tour for a few weeks and has spent plenty of time talking about what her book means. And yet, though she has surely been asked these questions many times, she has a meandering, very British way of making it seem as if she's just discovering the answers as she goes along.
When I refer, for instance, to Life After Life as a "literary do-over," a term that has been in the press already, she says until this week she hadn't heard that expression; "we don't have it in England," she says. And besides, she doesn't think our heroine, Ursula, is having "do overs" because the locution suggests Ursula is aware of what's happening and that she has a choice. "From my point of view, as the constructor of this narrative, I see what happens to Ursula as character changing. Things happen to her, and she accrues layers," Atkinson says.
"I really enjoyed writing this book, much more than I usually enjoy writing. I felt a huge emotional engagement with it," she says, particularly with the parts about WWII. "I feel I have a very British emotional relationship with the Blitz," she says. What does that mean? I ask. "That's what we English do," she says. "We have a very emotional relationship with the Blitz. We see it as a period at which we were at our lowest and at our best."
She admits that she usually frets (her word) a lot during the writing process, especially when a book is heavy on plotting. But this novel, for all its twist and turns, was more linear, she says. "For me, the structure was simple, not like writing a crime novel at all," she laughs. "Writing the last book, Started Early, Took My Dog, drove me mad; it's knotty, four different narratives that need to go like this," she demonstrates, knitting her hands together. "[With Ursula] I knew she was born, going to die, be born, die."
Yet, much as she loves Ursula--her own (and many readers') favorite in a cast of beloved characters--Atkinson says Life After Life is really not about a single person at all so much as it is about the war itself.
"I've always wanted to write a book about the war. It sounds very cold, but as a novelist, I knew how much mileage narrative mileage there is in it." And, as many reviewers have noted, some of its most inventive, interesting scenes involve Hitler's mistress, Eva Braun, with whom Atkinson says she became "obsessed" during the researching of the novel.
"She's fascinating in the way that she's not fascinating. There's nothing extraordinary about her; she was completely ordinary. She loved makeup and posing for photos. She loved her body, she swam she skied. She was this healthy Bavarian female who was ready to get married and be fecund and have children. Instead, she was with someone who never showed any public demonstration of affection or even acknowledgement. But she was clearly obsessed with him in a kind of erotomania way. Women, so many German women, shared the same erotomania for him, weeping and shouting after him."
But if her depiction of the war is dramatic, it is also worrisome, in terms of how Life After Life will be received, especially in Germany, where Atkinson will soon be touring. "I'm a little worried," she says, "about being asked questions there because the book is about fighting the war, and about patriotism... The German publishers love the book so I'm taking that as a basis, but... I suppose it will either do really well or really badly."
Here, of course, there's no question about its future. In the top 100 Amazon bestsellers almost from the day it appeared, Life After Life is by any definition Atkinson's breakthrough, the title that will make her--has already made her--as famous and successful here as she has long been in the UK.
"When I finished this book, I thought: 'I'll never write a book as good as this,'" she says, with a mix of pride and modesty and anxiety that has become, in this hourlong conversation, characteristic. "I do think it's my best book."
It's safe to say that Lydia Netzer, author of the 2012 New York Times Notable Book Shine, Shine, Shine, is a real fan of Julie Wu's debut novel The Third Son -- the tale of a Taiwanese young man, Saburo, working against the odds of familial tradition and national politics to achieve his own dreams.
Of the protaginist Netzer says, "For me a defining moment was when he climbed mountains in South Dakota in dress shoes without complaint, so he would not appear incapable in front of his oblivious American colleagues."
Netzer spoke with Wu about The Third Son: the multiple stories being told, the real history of Taiwan, and defying conventional endings.
Lydia Netzer: The Third Son is an epic love story set against a violent chunk of history. How did the two play off each other?
Julie Wu: To me, it is all one story. The book is primarily Saburo's individual journey, but this journey is fundamentally linked to the political and historical events occurring around him. The development of his struggles with insecurity, identity, and loyalty to his abusive parents--these are in my mind both specific to Saburo and representative, on a larger scale, of a certain segment of his people at the time.
Netzer: Most Americans know very little about Taiwanese history. What do you want your book to say about Taiwan?
Wu: Most Americans are unaware even that the Taiwanese did not choose their current government. I wanted to give voice to the Taiwanese people and show that they have their own points of view that have been suppressed or ignored for hundreds of years.
Netzer: Who is Saburo, for you?
Wu: Saburo is inspired by my father, and this moment is based on a real episode in his life, when he was invited to go on a hike in the Smoky Mountains. He did, indeed, show up in dress clothes and dress shoes. To me this story epitomizes a certain kind of immigrant experience--a willingness to persist, despite ill-preparedness and humiliation, and a grasping at any offer of inclusion, no matter how halfhearted.
Netzer: The love story between Saburo and Yoshiko is complicated by circumstances, but at its heart it is the sweetest, simplest love. Did you use a model for this relationship? Do you believe that you can love your childhood sweetheart forever?
Wu: The characters are both inspired by my parents, and the lovely relationship between Saburo and Yoshiko is similar to my parents' relationship. My parents, however, met as adults and had a very quick, easy courtship that would be totally boring in a novel. Having Saburo and Yoshiko meet as children, lose sight of each other, and have various obstacles and people keeping them apart was a means I used to drive the novel forward and deepen the significance of their relationship. I do hope there are relationships in real life like this!
Netzer: I think you exploded the choice between "a happy ending" and "a tragic ending"--does this perhaps reflect the historical themes of your book?
Wu: I am so thrilled, because that is exactly the reaction I was trying to elicit! I do believe that in any hard-won victory, either on the personal or on the state level, there are notes of mourning for all that was lost and all that could have been. Saburo's journey is a triumph because he has had such tragedy in his life. Pure, unadulterated happiness, the way an innocent child feels it, is wonderful. But it's the mixture of deep happiness and deep sadness that moves us the most.
Every so often, you'll come across a book that burns so hot and bright it'll sear a shadow on your vision. For a while afterwards, everything you look at will have the book's imprint on it; your world will be colored in the book's tones, and you will glimpse the book's characters on the street and feel your heart knocking in your chest for a few blocks, as if you'd escaped a close call.
This is how I felt after I read Rachel Kushner's brilliant The Flamethrowers. The night I finished it, I dreamt of racing motorcycles across sunshot salt-flats and of floating in glimmering Italian swimming pools. In the morning, I tried to describe the book to a friend but I eventually faltered into silence.
"This is a beautiful book," I finally said, "a book full of truth, a book about art and motorcycle racing and radicalism, about innocence and speed and stepping up to a dangerous brink, a book very deeply about the late seventies in New York City and its powerful blend of grittiness and philosophical purity."
"Oh," said my friend. "So. What is it about?"
I tried again. I said, "It's a love story, about a young artist under the sway of an older, established artist, scion of a motorcycle family, who betrays her, and she joins up with an underground group in Italy."
"It feels like a contemporary European novel, philosophical and intelligent, with an American heart and narrative drive," I said.
"Oh," said my friend.
"Just read the book," I said, and my friend did, and loved it to speechlessness, as well. "Wow," is all he could say when he returned the book to me.
I don't blame him. The truth is, this is a strange and mysterious novel, a subtle novel. Much of its power comes from the precision of Kushner's language and how carefully she allows the flashes of perception to drive the narrative forward. See Reno, the offbeat narrator, describing ski racing to her lover, Sandro, saying, "Ski racing was drawing in time." Suddenly you can see what she means, a body's crisp slaloming down the white slope, the way the skier draws a perfect serpent down the clock.
Or see Reno, racing her motorcycle: "Far ahead of me, the salt flats and mountains conspired into one puddled vortex. I began to feel the size of this place. Or perhaps I did not feel it, but the cycle, whose tires marked its size with each turn, did. I felt a tenderness for them, speeding along under me."
There is something deeply eerie happening under the words, something on the verge of tipping over and spilling out; and, at the same time, a gentleness and innocence at the core of all that noise and speed.
Rachel Kushner is an unbelievably exciting writer, a writer of urgent and beautiful sentences and novels that are vast in their ambition and achievement. I finished it months ago, but The Flamethrowers -- startling, radiant -- still haunts me.