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About Mia Lipman

Mia Lipman’s oodles of books (including the complete John Berger, Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Roth, and Colette) are shelved by genre and alphabetized by author so she can always find the one she wants. Yes, she really has that many. No, the genres aren’t alphabetized. Even nerds have limits.

Posts by Mia

The Sanity of Falling Short: An Interview with Maggie Shipstead

ShipsteadMaggie Shipstead knocked it out of the park with her debut novel, Seating Arrangements, a comedy (and drama—I refuse to say “dramedy”) of manners that garnered accolades, awards, and comparisons to the likes of John Cheever. Her sophomore effort, Astonish Me, is just as polished but much wider-ranging. It follows a pair of ballet dancers across their professional and personal lives: Joan decides she lacks the talent to continue in a demanding and often demoralizing career, but being a family woman doesn’t quite suit her; Arslan, whose defection from the Soviet Union hinges on his affair with Joan, breaks her heart and goes on to stardom.

As precise and elegant as the art form it describes, Astonish Me is an Amazon Best Books of the Month pick for April. The author kindly took time out of her touring schedule to answer a few questions about the novel via email.

Mia Lipman: I went to an Alvin Ailey show recently, the first professional dancing I’ve seen in years, and I was struck by the perfection of the performers. Athletes take just as much care with their bodies, but we get to see them screw up all the time. Dancers rarely miss a step—it’s their job not to. Does this apparent infallibility make us more curious about their inner lives? Why did you decide to tackle ballet dancers as characters?

Maggie Shipstead: That’s so true about dancers—they do make mistakes, but most of them are so subtle, the audience doesn’t even notice. That concealment of effort is part of the art of ballet and definitely contributes to the pleasure of watching it, but it also adds a formidable layer of difficulty (imagine, related to what you said, if track and field athletes had to maintain serene facial expressions through their exertions). As a non-dancer, it’s almost impossible for me to fully imagine how differently ballet dancers inhabit their bodies than I do—for example, the idea of being able to stand on the toes of one foot and lift my other leg over my head is truly alien.

But I like to write about lives or experiences that are exotic to me. My work is solitary and rooted in the mind and involves sitting still for long periods, whereas dancers’ practices are dynamic and collaborative and physical. On the other hand, I understand well the poignancy common to artists of all stripes that comes from never quite being able to translate the ideas in your mind into the performance or book or painting you really wanted to make—artists who want to stay sane have to make some kind of peace with falling short. And I was also drawn to writing about dancers simply because I love ballet.

Most little girls go through some kind of ballet phase (mine lasted about five minutes, but it was intense). Why do you think this particular art form captivates us so much, especially when we’re young?

Maybe this is pessimistic, but I think children see ballerinas as women who are celebrated for—and idealized as—being beautiful and graceful and silent and feminine and ethereal. For lots of little girls, wanting to be a ballerina is about wanting to be looked at in a certain culturally approved way and not about wanting to actually dance; most kids are in no way equipped to understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making a real ballerina. Those women are tough, mentally and physically, and they have to convey complex, often dark emotions onstage. That’s why most kids, like myself, spend one year in a baby ballet class and go, “Oh, no, this is really hard. No, thank you.”

Continue reading "The Sanity of Falling Short: An Interview with Maggie Shipstead" »

Therapy in Reverse: An Interview with Barbara Kingsolver

FlightbehaviorBarbara Kingsolver is the award-winning author of 14 works of fiction and nonfiction, including Pulitzer Prize finalist The Poisonwood Bible. Her latest novel, Flight Behavior, was selected by Amazon's editors as a Best Book of the Month and one of our Best Books of the Year in 2012. We sat down in New York City to talk about Ms. Kingsolver's new book, the intersection of fiction and science, and why literature should be "mandate-free."

Mia Lipman: I have a friend, a high school teacher, who calls your books "faction"—a combination of fiction and fact—and says that he and his students learn from them. When you write novels, do you intend to educate? Or is that a bonus byproduct?

Barbara Kingsolver: I would say it's a byproduct. If someone does learn about the world from reading a novel of mine, that makes me very happy. It's probably not what brings me into the novel in the first place—I usually am pulled in by some big question about the world and human nature that I'm not going to resolve in the course of the novel. But I'm very devoted to getting my facts straight.

I didn't study writing in school, I studied biology as an undergraduate and graduate student. So I think that I write fiction in the scientific way. I love invention, obviously; I love creation of character. But I do feel very rooted in the real world, even in the way that I create characters. I begin with themes, I think about the plots that are going to reveal these themes as people address big questions…and then I think about character and psychology and kind of work as a therapist in reverse, because I have to back up and give these people whatever background—and even damage—will render them believable in the actions that they're taking. So I try to invent my people in a realistic and fact-based way.

If my setting is new to a reader, or the concerns of the novel are new, I hope they will learn something about the world. I would like to say that they can trust that what they do learn in the novel will be accurate, because I pay a lot of attention to facts. I do a lot of research to make sure that I'm not giving them, you know, blue moons of Jupiter. It's not science fiction.

Flight Behavior incorporates your well-known passions for environmentalism and sustainability—as you mentioned, you trained as a biologist. Is it a challenge to bring social responsibility into the worlds that you create, or does that happen organically?

I would say it's probably completely incidental. It's not what I'm setting out to do. I'm not trying to tell anyone how to think or, heaven forbid, how to behave—that's not the domain of fiction at all. In fact, one of the things that I really love about literary fiction is that it's one of the few kinds of writing that doesn't tell us what to think or what to buy or what to wear. We're surrounded by advertising—

By mandates—

Mandates! That's exactly the word I was looking for. We're surrounded by mandates, and I believe that literature should be mandate-free. I feel very strongly about that. However, because I write fiction that is based in the real world, it's going to lead people into some of the modern dilemmas and concerns and even catastrophes that they will think about in a new way…. I'm not going to tell them how to feel, I'm just going to tell them: Here we are in this particular pickle. That's the situation in this novel—it's leading the reader into some knowledge about the new world we live in, in which the climate has already changed.

So writing a contemporary novel requires some addressing of contemporary concerns.

That's right. But I'm never going to tell the reader what to believe; I'm going to examine these characters that believe different ways, and examine their motives. What are the motives that drive denial? Because we all have our favorite denials [laughing].

We certainly do.

It's a really important part of human life. And in some sense, it's how we all get through our days. I've kind of avoided talking about the plot so far, but in this novel, which is set in a rural place in Southern Appalachia, something happens—which I'm not going to describe—but something happens that looks very beautiful and miraculous, and it may also be catastrophic. And it attracts a lot of attention, but the rural people who live in the middle of this beautiful catastrophe have to figure out what to do with it. So that's the point of entry. It's about human psychology and it's also about the world, and there are scientists in this novel who are working out exactly what is happening.

When I think of your work, I think of strong women: Taylor in The Bean Trees, the Price women in The Poisonwood Bible. In the character of Dellarobia, you have another female protagonist with a very strong and very real voice. Do you shift your approach when you're writing from a male perspective, as you did in The Lacuna?

Not really. I don't begin with gender, by any means. I begin with character. I knew that for this story, I needed two important characters: one who was smart but very naïve, very unworldly, and who had had a very narrow life. So I thought that it made sense for her to be a young farm wife who got trapped, who had to give up her own plans when she became pregnant and got married at 17. She's never been off the farm—she's been in this pretty stultifying life with in-laws who don't like her, don't ever approve of her, and economically they're really struggling. So she's a person who started out with big dreams, but she's never seen the world. And I thought that she was a perfect kind of character [to bring readers] into this story, to let them see the world through her eyes, and then explode her life outward. Chapter by chapter, her very restricted life opens. First she becomes an important player in her family, then in her church, then in her community and in her state—and then, of course, it goes viral. So in the course of just a few months, [Dellarobia] has to deal with a lot of new information and new kinds of people. Having you see this all through her eyes was a very handy device.

And the other important character is kind of her opposite. This scientist, Ovid Byron, has seen the world. He's traveled, he knows a lot about what is going on—but there's a lot he doesn't understand about not just the local culture and the local people, but about what it is like to be a person of limited means. And so putting those two characters together and creating this chemistry was really fun.

In addition to novels, you write essays, poetry, and nonfiction. Are you drawn toward a given medium based on what's happening in your own life, or are there outside forces at play?

Once I heard the great poet Lucille Clifton give a reading. And someone in the audience asked, "Why are your poems always so short? They're never more than about 14 or 16 lines long." And she said, "I raised six children, and that's how many lines I could hold in my head through the whole day. I was waiting to sit down at my desk and write." So I can relate to that, because at the time I heard her say it, I had a small child. I had a baby that I left with a babysitter for one hour so I could go hear Lucille Clifton. So undoubtedly for all authors, and certainly for authors who are women raising children, there are constraints on our lives that will affect the shape of our work. And I'm no exception, but I've been very lucky to have a very cooperative family that allows me to write whole novels, usually with a few interruptions. [Laughs.] But I also feel that having a family life…has enriched my life immensely and given me any wisdom that I have.

Speaking of wisdom: In 1999, you established the Bellwether Prize for writers who've never published a major novel. When new writers seek out your advice, which I imagine they often do, what's the first thing you tell them?

Quit smoking. [Mia laughs.] Because I think that when people read fiction, they're really reading for wisdom. I am. That's what most of us really love. If we read a novel that rocks our world, it's because there's something in it that we didn't know already. Not just information but really wisdom—sort of what to do with our information. And wisdom comes from experience, so…

So you want them to live a long time.

Exactly. The longer you live, the more likely you are to have something to say.

The Neurological and the Divine: An Interview with Oliver Sacks

Oliver SacksPhysician and professor Oliver Sacks is the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, and Musicophilia, among many other works. A few months ago, Dr. Sacks—whose moving, fascinating collections of case studies nearly convinced this diehard fiction reader to major in neuroscience instead of literature—graciously welcomed me into his New York City study to discuss his latest book. Hallucinations, fresh off the presses today, is one of our Best Books of the Month selections for November.

Mia Lipman: In Hallucinations, you mention that your childhood migraines are one of the reasons you became a neurologist. How did they help shape your path?

Dr. Sacks: My experiences go back to my first memories of when I was three or four, suddenly seeing a brilliant zigzag which seemed to be vibrating, then enlarged and covered everything to one side. This has happened innumerable times since, but that first time was very terrifying…I know I was in the garden, and part of the garden wall seemed to disappear, and I asked my mother about it. She too had classical migraines, so she explained what it was about and said that it was benign and it would only last a few minutes, and I'd be none the worse. So though I'm not in love with the attacks, it's nice to know that one can live with this quite well.

So that early experience made you curious about why this was happening to you?

Indeed, and there were other experiences. Sometimes it was just color, perhaps in one half of the visual field, or things would be frozen and I couldn't see any movement. So I think this gave me a very early feeling that it's only the privilege of a normal brain which allows us to see the way we do—and that what seems to be a simple vision in fact must have dozens of different components, and any one of these can go down. So it was a learning experience for me as well.

HallucinationsSpeaking of learning experiences, you talk in the book about a period in your 30s when you did a lot of hallucinogenic drugs—

Ah, I thought that would come up. [Laughing.]

Of course, it's the best part! I especially liked your description of the results as "a mix of the neurological and the divine." What did this self-experimentation teach you about your field, as well as personally?

I can't conceal that my motives were sort of mixed, but these were learning experiences as well as recreational ones, and occasionally terrifying ones. The gain, I think, [is that] it's a way of revealing various capacities and incapacities in the brain, including, perhaps, mystical ones…I quote William James, who, after taking nitrous oxide, said that it showed him there were many forms of consciousness other than rational consciousness, and that these seem to be uncovered one by one. And that's quite an experience. I do not recommend it to anybody, and I hope my writing about these things is not seen as a recommendation. I think I'm very lucky to have survived them, which several of my friends and contemporaries didn't.

The cornerstone condition in Hallucinations is Charles Bonnet syndrome, or CBS. Will you please describe CBS and tell us why you chose to center the book on this condition?

I see lots of elderly people who are hearing impaired or visually impaired but quite articulate and intact intellectually. In general, the hearing impaired get musical hallucinations and, even more commonly, the visually impaired can get visual hallucinations of a complex and dramatic character. These were described in the middle of the 18th century by a Swiss naturalist, Charles Bonnet, and we speak now of Charles Bonnet syndrome. It used to be regarded—when I say "used to," I mean until 1990—as very rare, with only a few dozen cases reported. But it's now obvious that it affects between 10 and 20 percent of people with significant visual impairment. But like all hallucinatory experiences, people are frightened to mention it, and one may only get an account of it when there's a nice, trusting relationship between the patient and the doctor.

[CBS] can be very frightening, as it was for the old lady Rosalie whom I describe. But she was hugely relieved when I could say, "You're not mad, you're not demented, you're not on anything, and this is a normal reaction of your brain to being blind." And I told her about Charles Bonnet, and she was very tickled by it.

She liked to have it named.

Yes, yes—she said, "Tell the nurses I have Charles Bonnet syndrome." I speak about a very different sort of hallucinatory experience she had when she thought she was dying, and I didn't know whether I should add that, in fact, she survived and is now enjoying her 99th year.

That's wonderful to know. I'd also like to explore the section on auditory hallucinations, particularly the cases where people hear voices when they're in serious danger. Are these recognized in retrospect as inner commands, or do some patients continue to believe it was an outside voice?

Well, it may depend on the person somewhat. Freud, no less, described this himself on two occasions when he was in mortal peril: hearing a voice, he said, as "a shout in the ear," saying "this is the end"—and at the same time seeing the words printed in midair. On the other hand, when he heard the voice of his fiancée occasionally when he was a lonely young man in Paris, he wondered if there was something, I want to say, paranormal. He wondered if there was some telepathy, and he would always note down the exact time and try and check. In fact, nothing ever happened.

That must have been very disappointing.

He was perhaps disappointed and relieved. I mention in a different context, in a chapter on epilepsy, a woman who heard a voice—God's voice—telling her to run for Congress. [Laughs.]

And she followed it?

She followed it. And she advertised it, and people thought, "Well, you know, if God suggested it…"

I wonder how she did in the polls.

She did very well. It had always been a strongly Democratic district, but she almost tipped it the other way.

Continue reading "The Neurological and the Divine: An Interview with Oliver Sacks" »

Trend Stetting 23: Playing the Links

Forsyth"If there's one thing that etymology proves conclusively, it's that the world is a wretched place," Mark Forsyth cheerfully informs us in his bestselling language guide The Etymologicon, out in a bright yellow paperback edition this month.

Marrying cheek and melancholy as only the British can (full disclosure for new readers: I'm half-English and addicted to Beyond the Fringe), Forsyth walks us through the workings of his frenetically interesting mind while unpeeling the layers of history behind common words and phrases. He traipses seamlessly from Pantheon to pandemonium, bunkum to bunk beds, pausing along the way to explain how fool's finger and leech finger evolved into their much less colorful modern counterparts, middle finger and ring finger. More's the pity.

I've read more books about words and language than the average bear, and sometimes (spoiler alert for future columns) they turn out dry and impenetrable. The Etymologicon is the opposite in all the best ways—easy to follow, free of jargon and footnotes, and uproariously funny—and I had trouble putting it down, even as Mr. Forsyth overstuffed my brain with obscure knowledge.

When a chapter on heroin follows a chapter on SPAM and the transition seems perfectly logical, you know you're in expert hands. The consequences of both words may be wretched, but you'll keep reading all the same.

Like the sound of The Etymologicon? Here's a treat for you: Forsyth's next book, The Horologicon, lands in the UK on November 1. Feel free to join me for a cuppa as I await the import.

Too Good to Be True: An Interview with Benjamin Anastas

AnastasBenjamin Anastas's first novel, An Underachiever's Diary, was hailed as the "funniest, most underappreciated book of the 1990s"; his second, The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance, was named a New York Times Notable Book. Then Anastas's personal and professional lives fell apart. His new memoir, Too Good to Be True, tells the story of this dramatic downward spiral—and how he slowly, painfully inched his way out of it.

In a recent email interview, the author answered questions about parenthood, process, and how to stake your claim as a writer.

Mia Lipman: This book is raw—much of it is a chronicle of personal failure. Was it cathartic or painful to write?

Benjamin Anastas: I started writing the book at one of those moments when nothing was working: I couldn’t pay my bills, I kept sending off résumés but never hearing back, my girlfriend was getting freaked out by my broke-ness, even my four-year-old son had started to bemoan the fact that we could never buy anything. It was a historically bad time. So when I started to write about it, I felt an immediate sense of relief—not that my troubles were magically over, but that I had some agency again. I could write about the feeling of living in a time and place—Brooklyn in the era of the $2 million brownstone—that just didn’t seem real sometimes. It definitely helped.

For most aspiring authors, just getting a book published seems like summiting the mountain. Your first novel was a hit, but it didn't guarantee more success. Do you think there's a point at which a writer can truly relax about the future?

Before I became a parent and ran into this extended stretch of trouble, I'd always subscribed to the F. Scott Fitzgerald school of economics: Sell a book, quit a job. Pay off your “terrible small debts” and decamp to Europe. Not anymore! Writing is too precarious, the rewards too delayed; aside from the harsh realities of trying making a living, there is the constant fear that the well is going to dry up. I don’t think there’s ever really a point where you’ve “made it” and can just relax. There’s always that next book gnawing at you, taunting from the other side of the empty page.

Too Good to Be True closes with a letter to your son. Is this book a diary of sorts, one you'll want to share with him when he's older?

My son knows about the book. I’d like him to read it when he’s older, but I’m not going to push it on him. I want his own curiosity to be his guide. While I was writing, it slowly became clear to me that he was my intended audience; that in going back to unravel the story of his origins, I was trying to free him of the bondage that comes from not knowing, the deceptions that families conspire to create and keep hidden over time. As a child of divorce myself, I never wanted him to question my commitment and my love.

Continue reading "Too Good to Be True: An Interview with Benjamin Anastas" »

Trend Stetting 22: Judgment Day

LetoLauren Leto is the coauthor of Texts from Last Night: All the Texts No One Remembers Sending, published in 2010, which I’d touch only if I were, say, stuck in a hostel in Italy on a Sunday without another page of English in sight. (This may or may not be why I once—once—read Dan Brown.) But with that caveat snugly in place, I’m pleased to report that Leto’s new offering, Judging a Book by Its Lover, takes today’s standard-issue literary snark and elevates it to an art form.

By turns hilarious (in “Stereotyping People by Favorite Author”: “Mitch Albom: People who didn’t go to college but do well on crossword puzzles”) and insightful (in “Open Letter to Ayn Rand Fans”: “How can you be so focused and not see that you’ve chosen the most transparent philosophy to live your life by?”), Leto manages to avoid her own traps nearly all the time. Skip the silly intro and the occasional anecdote about her love life—it’s easy to see them coming—and focus on her intelligent, biting, surprisingly useful insights about how what we read (or claim to read) reveals who we are.

But above all else, take advantage of Leto’s exhaustive “How to Fake It” chapter, which chronicles the basic facts, best-known works, and cocktail-party anecdotes about all the authors you’ll ever need to cite for street cred. If CliffsNotes had an opinion and a couple of drinks under their belts, they’d sound like Lauren Leto.

Full disclosure: Even if I hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed most of Judging a Book by Its Lover, I’d have to recommend it anyway because there’s an entire chapter about how the author never finished Infinite Jest. You might remember a certain Trend Stetter making a similar confession earlier this year.

Leto also has a penchant for cheap, ugly copies of books because “crappy paperbacks are tributes to use”—if she ever stops by my house for a G&T and a snarkfest, I know she’ll appreciate the worn stacks of novels from the annual library sale. We’re sisters of the dime-store edition. So for just a few minutes, if she catches me on a good day, I won’t judge.

Trend Stetting 21: Getting Schooled

SlangI didn’t go in for much slang as a kid, having had like drilled out of me by an academic dad and a serious reading habit centered on Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, and Anne of Green Gables. Articulate companions all.

Then I spent the summer after high school in Berkeley, and by the time college rolled around I couldn’t make it through a sentence without nice, tight, and sweet (but never hella—even back then, it didn’t feel right to bend grammar quite that far). Eventually my older brother asked me to stop calling him bro, so he morphed into dude instead. I was hooked.

Why those words? And why that summer in that place? Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University, considers these questions and more in Slang: The People’s Poetry, out in paperback this week. First he helpfully outlines the distinction between slang and its kissing cousin, jargon. The latter tends to be homogenous across regions and interest groups: the casual restaurant terminology recognized by servers from Jersey to Oregon, for example, or the snowspeak familiar to boarders worldwide.

Slang, on the other hand, has direct links to “social, aesthetic, and linguistic knowledge,” as Adams explains: “It’s a language of being, not of vocation or avocation.” Slang isn’t language at work; it’s language at play. That said, it also does a fine job of demonstrating where we come from (and, in the case of my first Bay Area stint, where we’ve been). If I call it soda and you call it pop, we’ve learned a little something about each other.

Adams' take on Slang is a serious read, if not heavy-handed. You’ll find more hilarity on Urban Dictionary and other wiki-style sites that track the evolution of our twisted, effed-up, gnarly language. But the professor's thoughtful, thorough exploration of why we sling slang waxes much more, like, eloquent. For realz.

Apocalypse Never

For the other side of the argument, check out Chris Schluep's entry Apocalypse Now.

MiaOf all the questions we curious humans ask ourselves, the most potent begin with "What if…?" What if you were trapped on a desert island with only 10 albums? What if you had to choose between dying to save others and living while they perished? And the perennial literary favorite: What if most of the population/world/universe disappeared and only a handful of people survived? How would they handle it?

Wait—we're forgetting the most important question: Who freaking cares? It's sci-fi sacrilege to say, but I am seriously over the hypothetical apocalypse. Believe me, I crave escapism as much as anyone with a stack of bills and a 9-to-5 job. But I'm happy to find it in novels about folks who might reasonably exist, struggling through situations that might actually, you know, happen to them.

Following on the heels of ancient legend (see: Epic of Gilgamesh; Noah and his ill-fated dinghy), post-apocalyptic fiction isn't a new trend in modern literature. Starting in the late 1800s with Mary "Frankenstein" Shelley and her Last Man, writers have obsessed over what goes on in our squirrelly minds when our normal surroundings and routines are blown to bits. Seeing as stories can't exist without imagination, I understand this instinct. But it also seems like kind of a copout: Why do authors need to strip away all of society to figure out who people really are? For my money, it's a much greater feat to make a reader hold her breath as Muriel Glass (the hapless wife in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories) paints her nails, ignoring the ringing phone.

Granted, the apocalypse makes for a hell of a setting. Epic landscapes full of fire, craters, aliens, zombies, abandoned buildings, the occasional bloodthirsty straggler left to fend for himself. Ripe with possibility! Rife with symbolism! Relentlessly relentless! And so, so, so played out. Give me a gorgeously drawn, wickedly insightful day in the life of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse or Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford instead. Please.

With all due respect to Cormac McCarthy and his countless disciples, I’d like to recommend a selection of outstanding recent novels (and a handful of classics) that tackle immediate human concerns, rather than hinging on unrestrained viruses or Nostradamus-style prophecies. If you dive far enough into these imagined worlds, you won’t even notice the apocalypse raging outside.

Recent Picks
All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost
, Lan Samantha Chang: Foibles and desires disrupt a hallowed MFA program.
We Only Know So Much
, Elizabeth Crane: A hilarious, biting romp through the psyche of a dysfunctional family.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared
, Jonas Jonasson: Facing death from natural causes rather than the end times, Allan Karlsson takes his last adventure.
Home
, Toni Morrison: The spare, masterful story of a Korean War vet struggling to reconnect.
Love and Shame and Love
, Peter Orner: The finest chronicle since Bellow's of a Chicago boy, born and raised.

Classic Picks
The Dud Avocado
, Elaine Dundy: The original bumbling It Girl was ahead of her time.
So Long, See You Tomorrow
, William Maxwell: A tiny gem of a mystery set in 1920s rural Illinois.
A Dance to the Music of Time
, Anthony Powell: Yes, all 12 volumes—worth every lunch break.
Nine Stories
, J.D. Salinger: There are eight other capital tales, but you'll never forget Esme.
Marjorie Morningstar
, Herman Wouk: I reread Marjorie's feisty, moving life story at least once a year.

Heading Out to Wonderful: An Interview with Robert Goolrick

GoolrickRobert Goolrick, author of the runaway bestseller A Reliable Wife and a bracingly dark and honest memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, has written a marvelous new novel called Heading Out to Wonderful. Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, the story begins with a classic premise: A stranger arrives in a small town. What happens next will slowly, beautifully twist and break your heart.

On a recent rainy afternoon, Goolrick stopped by Amazon to talk with us about the importance of concentration, the Grecian true crime story behind his new book, and what it feels like to get fired via email on a Friday night. "I don't really understand very much about how we do what we do," he says. "So writing is the only way that I can truly come to terms with the motivation and psychology of things that have actually happened."

 

Trend Stetting 20: Brief Case

KlinkenborgWhat if I told you that a 200-page prose poem is the most useful guide to writing that I've come across in ages? Before you run away shrieking, consider the man behind the effort. New York Times contributor and editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg—the versatile author of three books on farm life, immigration, and reptiles, respectively—takes a Neruda-like approach to dispensing advice. Several Short Sentences About Writing consists of occasionally startling, always opinionated statements and questions that aspiring wordsmiths would do very well to consider.

"This is a book full of starting points," notes Klinkenborg in his prologue, and each could keep a literary debate team busy for hours: "Pay attention to rhythm, first and last"; "Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed"; "'Inspiration' is what gets you to the keyboard, and that's where it leaves you." His guidance ranges from nuts-and-bolts practical to lyrically philosophical, but three clear messages ring throughout: Write short. Always revise. Never stop reading. As Klinkenborg observes, "You're not responsible for your readers' ignorance, and they're not responsible for your erudition." That smarts a little. But you know he's right.

In my years of working with authors, I've often defined the editor's role as "a conduit of clarity": Sift out the sediment, polish the gold nuggets, and leave no trace of yourself behind. Klinkenborg counsels writers to accomplish the first two steps themselves by asking questions, making lists, crafting sentences in their heads before marking them down, and avoiding the common traps of jargon, chronology, and expectation. "Your job isn't to arrange chunks of evidence, chunks of the world in the order you gather them," he cautions. "Your job is to atomize everything you touch."

To his point, Several Short Sentences About Writing need not be read from front to back. Dip in anywhere you'd like—you'll find gold. Then maybe you'll start spinning some of your own.

Trend Stetting 19: Precision Shooting

GarberMarjorie Garber, professor of English and visual and environmental studies at Harvard, does not rest on her laurels. She has authored or coauthored more than a dozen books on a strange and impressive range of topics (Shakespeare After All, Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, and Dog Love, among others), and her latest essay collection has a stark, striking cover and a great deal to say.

Though it clocks in at right around 200 pages—practically emaciated in the annals of academic publishing—Loaded Words is far from a light read. It may take you a couple of chapters, as it did me, to ease into the dense prose: Dr. Garber's decades of scholarship lend themselves to a thicket of citations, footnotes, and quotation marks around common terms to indicate their grander significance ("data," "beliefs," "our"). But if you stay the course, she will prove very approachable, even delightful, in her unabashed passion for language and history ("I own Hamlet T-shirts in a variety of fetching styles").

Consider the lovely passage in which she first meets the rare Cranach Press edition of Hamlet, published in 1930: "When I saw the book, I was enraptured…I touched the handmade paper. I looked at the type and the typeface…. It was like falling for a movie star, or a rock star." Garber calls this her "boing-boing" feeling, and anyone who considers literature a tactile experience knows exactly what that means. I've fallen hard for a few handsome books in my day.

Loaded Words also shines when the author brings contemporary politics and culture into the conversation, as in her insightful essays on critic F.O. Matthiessen, who counted himself as married to his longtime partner 75 years before Prop 8 hit the ballot; and "Our Genius Problem," wherein the modern "genius" designation extends to football coaches and entrepreneurs as often as to scientific and literary pioneers.

You'll need your thinking cap to navigate Loaded Words—or perhaps your velvet thinking tam. If you set it at just the right jaunty angle, you'll be in for a treat.

Trend Stetting 18: Get the Lederer Out

LedererBorn to an English mom and an academic dad, I was raised in the tradition of intellectual absurdist humor perfected by the likes of Beyond the Fringe, Flanders and Swann, and Monty Python. America falls depressingly short of modern equivalents in TV land (maybe if Jon Stewart wrote for 30 Rock? And it stayed on the air?), and most new books about language that try to be funny wind up on the novelty shelf.

Thank goodness for Richard Lederer. During his heyday in the 1990s—when this young Trend Stetter was chomping her way through the library at alarming speeds—Lederer wrote one of our most entertaining books about the quirks and foibles of the English language. A couple of decades later, his Anguished English is still the dog-eared paperback I'm most likely to pull off the shelf and wave around during a dinner party. (In fact, I recently did; hence this column.) Its finest chapter, "The World According to Student Bloopers," kills me every single time: As one teen scholar explains about ancient Egypt, "The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation." Is our children learning?

Dr. Lederer, bless his puntastic heart, wrote several other books that also make me nostalgic for the literary comedy of yore. Favorites include Get Thee to a Punnery and Crazy English, which shamed my proud memorization of "antidisestablishmentarianism" (dying to tell you I just spelled that without looking it up) by showing off words that were twice, three times, ten times as long! It blew my mind. In case yours hasn't exploded yet, consider that "hippopotomonstrosesquipidalian" has no function in this entire universe except to mean "pertaining to a very long word." If you don't think that's awesome, we probably can't be friends.

Summer is officially here, word fans. Maybe instead of lugging a blockbuster hardback or a tiny screen full of crappy reality shows on vacation, you'll stash some classic language humor in your beach bag. I promise your next dinner party will thank you.

Trend Stetting 17: Smart Quotes

ByrneI should mention right away that I loathe epigraphs. It's a visceral reaction: the same feeling I get from footnotes in fiction, the scraping tool dentists use, and people who call their coffee drinks "expresso." Like literary criticism, epigraphs tell me how I'm supposed to feel about a piece of writing before I've had a chance to read it—please don't mess with my head like that. Maybe (maybe) I'll check out your italicized George Orwell excerpt after finishing your book, so I can look for the connection. But not before. Never before.

Here's something I do love, though: pith. And it doesn't get much pithier than a good quotation, expertly employed. Robert Byrne may be America's foremost employer of quotes, as evidenced by his satisfyingly chunky new collection, The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said. (Why that particular number? He explains in his winning introduction, so I won't spoil the story here.) In logical progression—the chapter on "Love" precedes "Marriage" precedes "Birthing and Babies" precedes "Divorce"—Byrne's book marches us through the stages of our lives as elucidated by masters of the bon mot.

On the modern end of the spectrum, Byrne offers wisdom from Jon Stewart on war, Ellen DeGeneres on religion, and David Sedaris on travel; reaching back into the archives, he calls on trusted sources W.C. Fields (re: children), Jane Austen (re: happiness), and Anthony Powell (re: aging). Comedian Rita Rudner has apparently cornered the market on sex and relationships—"Not only was I not asked to the prom, nobody would tell me where it was"—along with usual suspects Steve Martin and Woody Allen.

Even with all these accomplished wordsmiths to choose from, I have only B.B. King to thank for my favorite quote in Byrne's extensive volume: "Nobody loves me like my mother, and she could be jivin'." You won't see that line at the front of my next book, but it's a serious contender for my gravestone.

Other fine collections for your quoting needs

The Quotable Hitchens: Offend everyone you know as articulately as possible.
The Book of Poisonous Quotes: Somewhat obscure, but worth it for the author bio alone.
Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: The granddaddy of the genre, now in its 17th edition.

Encountering the World: An Interview with Peter Cameron

CameronPeter Cameron is the author of two story collections and six novels, most recently Coral Glynn. He sold his first story to the New Yorker in 1983 and has lived in Greenwich Village for 25 years, but a few weeks ago he flew west and stopped by Amazon's Seattle headquarters. I've been a fan of Cameron's writing since a friend gave me a copy of The City of Your Final Destination with the following instructions: "You have to read this, love it, and pass it along."

Mia Lipman: In Coral Glynn—and in some of your other work, I'm thinking particularly of The City of Your Final Destination—the main characters are displaced, taken out of their comfort zones. What interests you about putting people in unfamiliar contexts?

Peter Cameron: I think one of the reasons I do that is that when people are displaced—or out of their comfort zone, as you say—they're more observant; the world that they're in matters more to them because they're negotiating it, they're discovering it. So as a writer, it allows me to also discover the world. It's an opportunity to make the world of the novel more interesting and more vivid because of the way it's being encountered.

Do you shift your approach to a story when you're writing from a female perspective, as you do with Coral?

I don't. I always write fiction, and my fiction is never autobiographical. So in all my books, whether they're first-person narrators or third-person narrators, they're characters—they're people who are other than me. Once you make that leap to create an imagined character, for me it's no different doing a woman than it is an old man or anybody that I'm not. It's about imagining. I think it's interesting that gender is this thing that we all focus on—there are so many things that make us different from one another, and gender is just one of them.

I think that's maybe more striking in first-person narratives.

Right, yes. When I was writing stories for the New Yorker, I had a couple that were first-person with a woman narrator. And they had this rule where you had to, like, announce in some way in the first paragraph that it was a woman.

Oh, interesting. This was in the '80s?

Yes, in the '80s. And it was really hard to do that in a subtle way [laughs].

"I am a woman."

Yes, that was always a challenge, to describe some article of clothing that only a woman would wear.

That is fascinating. Do you know when they got rid of that rule?

It was. I don't know, they might still have it.

God, I hope not.

They had a lot of rules, though, back when William Shawn was editing it.

I was going to ask you about that: You started out writing short fiction. Then you shifted to novels and, it seems, never looked back. Do you ever miss writing stories?

I do. I really miss writing stories. There's something really satisfying about writing a story, but also something pleasurable in terms of not having so much invested in it. When you work on a novel, it's three or four years, so if it's not working, it's really agonizing. Whereas if a story is not working or doesn't work, you haven't wasted part of your life. [Laughs.]

[Laughing] There you go. You can abandon ship.

Yeah. But something happened with my mind, my brain or my imagination, when I was in my 20s: All I could think of were ideas for short stories, and I thought I would never write a novel because every idea I had, I could see how it could work as a short story—and once you see it as a short story, then it's sort of impossible to say, "Well, I'll blow it up to 300 pages" when I can do it in 20. So I thought I would never write a novel.

Then something happened: My ideas became more complex, and they came less frequently. I think when I was young I had so much material to go through, and then I sort of caught up with myself. So I don't know if it was self-preservation in a way, but the ideas I got were more complicated, so I'd have to spend three or four years doing them. I just get fewer ideas now, but they seem more inherently novelistic.

Continue reading "Encountering the World: An Interview with Peter Cameron" »

Trend Stetting 16: The Namesake

CiuraruIn the age of celebrity autobiography and memoirs penned by twentysomethings, ghostwriting has become de rigueur in a dishy way (though I'd guess most practitioners don't look like Ewan McGregor). But what about the other side of the coin: Why would any lucky soul capable of writing a book with her own two hands hide behind a fake name?

Well, for lots of reasons, reports Carmela Ciuraru in Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. Out in paperback next week, Ciuraru's light but intriguing history takes a fascinating look behind the scenes at some of fiction's most celebrated fake names, from O. Henry to Isak Dinesen to Victoria Lucas. (Victoria who? That's Sylvia Plath to you. The brilliant, depressed young woman originally published The Bell Jar under a pseudonym to mask her dark novel's autobiographical elements.)

Sexism was a popular motivation for 19th-century greats to take on new identities, including the Brontë sisters, Aurore Dupin (George Sand), and Marian Evans (George Eliot). Unable to break into Europe's male-dominated literary circles in their petticoats, these talented ladies assumed men's names to capture the attention of publishers. Once their extraordinary gifts were revealed, their identities became public knowledge—but to a woman, they continued to use male pseudonyms throughout their careers. Ciuraru notes that this allowed a level of freedom they may not have enjoyed otherwise: Sand, "magnanimous and brave," also cross-dressed, rolled her own cigars, and had lovers of both genders; Eliot, "a politically progressive atheist" and "formidable intellectual," lived openly with a married man for years.

The Brontës, for their part, were painfully shy, and privacy also played a key role in the nom de pluming of another mainstay of the modern canon. Charles Dodgson, a clergyman with a penchant for young girls, refused all letters addressed to Lewis Carroll after Alice's Adventures in Wonderland made him famous. Then, of course, we have the class divide: George Orwell's blueblood lineage disdained its native son's preferred subjects—hookers, beggars, and "common" working men—so the sickly Eric Blair took to the streets and lived among them. His metamorphosis into Orwell accompanied the publication of Down and Out in Paris and London, a semiautobiographical chronicle of the experience.

As for Samuel Clemens, owner of the most famous pen name in American letters, he claimed nautical origins for his nom de plume. But he also got a big kick out of tricking his legions of fans, among them Darwin, Faulkner, and Edison, the latter of whom proclaimed: "An American loves his family. If he has any love left for some other person, he generally selects Mark Twain."

I really can't write a better closing line than that. Maybe my ghostwriter has a few ideas.

Trend Stetting 15: Speak Easy

ElbowAnother column, another orange book. I know—I'm a broken aesthetic record. But David Orr's ode to poetry and Peter Elbow's Vernacular Eloquence have little in common besides their complexion. Orr exemplifies journalistic brevity, while Elbow, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, expounds heartily and at length in the best collegiate tradition.

Stuffed with citations, long gray sidebars, and subheads that run to multiple lines, Vernacular Eloquence may seem daunting if you have only one or two academic degrees to your credit (and none from Oxford). Brave it out, though, and you'll be handsomely rewarded with a fascinating explanation of how everyday speech and writing differ—and why we ought to bridge the divide not by striving for more formality in how we talk, but by taking a more conversational approach to how we write.

"Just because we know enough to do something well doesn't make it easy," the author notes in his empathetic introduction. In fact, writing well is so hard that it scares many aspiring wordsmiths, even those who would happily—and skillfully—chat for hours. Arguing that "spoken language is more coherent than written language," Elbow points out that for inexpert writers, the final draft of a piece often makes less sense than the first. Why? Because we fret, overthink, and recast in an attempt to mold our simple, clear arguments into the complex set of standards associated with "good" writing.

That's not to say we should never make revisions or follow basic rules; I shudder to think. But when we worry too much about correctness as we try to express ourselves, we may wind up curbing our voices for the worse. Even if you're not an Oxonian, Elbow suggests you steal a page from the famous school's playbook and try reading each draft out loud: You'll spot errors more easily and improve the fluidity of your writing. If we apply the confidence of what we say to what we put on the page, we might manage to achieve a kind of (dare I say it?) eloquence.

The Long and Short of It: An Interview with Etgar Keret

KeretI've waxed enthusiastic on here before about Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret's sharply funny new story collection, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door. Between tour stops in California and Chicago, the very busy Keret kindly paid a visit to our Seattle offices to chat about storytelling, moviemaking, cake baking, serial killers, and trusting your instincts.

He also humored our request to read a piece aloud from the collection—look for the video at the end of this interview, and prepare to be charmed by his accent (warning for delicate ears: a couple of four-letter words are used).

Mia Lipman: You just came from the L.A. Times Book Festival. Were short-story writers well represented there?

Etgar Keret: Yeah, in my panel. It was very much like an AA meeting. “My name is this and this, and I write short stories. I don’t care! They tell me to write a novel, but I like writing short stories!” Then we all hug.

You’re one of those rare writers, like Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, who has stuck with stories throughout your career.

“Stuck” is pretty judgmental.

[Laughing] I didn’t mean stuck in a bad way, I meant that you’ve stayed with stories.

If your boyfriend would have said, “I’m stuck with you, but not in a bad way. In a nice kind of way…”

I love short stories, I’m a champion of them around here. Why does the short form work so well for you? What are you drawn to in that length?

When I sit down and I write something, I don’t say, “I want to write a short story” or “I want to write a three-page story”—I want to write something that is on my mind. Many times when I begin writing a story, I say to myself, “This is going to be my first novel.” And I think about the protagonist meeting his grandchildren in the park. And while I do that, a truck comes and runs him over after two pages. So it’s not intentional. For me, it’s very strange when people say, “Why don’t you write longer stuff?” The bottom line: You have something that you want to say or you want to write. And when it ends, it ends.

You’re also a filmmaker. Do you have a different creative approach to making films than you do to writing fiction? Is it a different state of mind?

I beg more when I make films. [Laughs.] Filmmaking is a collaborative project...when you write a screenplay, you should be able to know exactly what you’re doing, to be able to defend it, to be able to explain it to people. Because if a story is a cake, then a screenplay is just a recipe for a cake. If I make a cake and I don’t know exactly what ingredients I put in, but it comes out tasty, it’s OK. But if I have to write it on a page and somebody else has to make this cake, I have to be much more conscious.

So there is something about screenplay writing—it’s more conscious effort, more rational effort. I feel like I need another scene here, I need to establish that. But when I write [fiction], I really just sit down and write. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, and it’s completely an act of letting go and losing control.

Continue reading "The Long and Short of It: An Interview with Etgar Keret" »

Trend Stetting 14: Right to the Point

OrrI had three reasons for opting to review David Orr's recent book that have nothing to do with the words inside it. First, the title: Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry. How freaking fantastic is that? I'd read almost anything called Beautiful & Pointless—a YA novel with a tragic ending, a hipster design magazine, a religious tract.

Reason number two, also title related: Ampersands are my favorite punctuation mark. Yes, I have a favorite (and several runners-up). Think what you will—I feel no shame about this. Several years ago, a coworker made me a fuzzy red ampersand ornament during the holidays; another drew a picture of me sitting on a giant ampersand for a greeting card. Proclaim your idiosyncrasies from the rooftops, friends. You might get some killer homemade gifts out of it.

Third reason: The cover is a delicious shade of mandarin orange. Visit my kitchen sometime, and you'll understand. I realized I had a problem when I came home from a shopping trip one afternoon with a giant orange spatula.

And now, having read the book from clever title to orange back cover, I need to add a fourth reason: Orr's disarmingly smart, funny, and engaging prose. As the author notes at the outset, he has chosen to write about "an art form that currently occupies a position in the popular consciousness somewhere between lute playing and crewel embroidery." Moreover, this art form is "enormous and perplexing, and at least half of it is interesting only to scholars and the certifiably disturbed."

Continue reading "Trend Stetting 14: Right to the Point" »

Art & Love: An Interview with Jeanette Winterson

WintersonIn the 20 minutes that I was delighted to spend talking with Jeanette Winterson recently, she offered enough beautiful off-the-cuff insights to fill an essential volume on writing, reading, love, and what it means to "reinvent the past."

Lucky for us, she has just such a new book out: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, the poignantly titled story of the author's relationship with her adoptive and biological mothers, her intellectual and sexual coming of age, and how reading became her salvation.

To whet your appetite for this "cover version" of Winterson's life (please don't call it a memoir) and our taped chat below, here's a sampler of the wisdom that she packed into her brief stop at Amazon during a very busy book tour.

Jeanette Winterson on...

love:
"I always think about the rougher energy of love, that love is unsettling. It's the one thing that stops us being selfish. It's the one thing that allows us to actually see another person."

health:
"[Fiction and poetry] are medicines, they're doses, and they heal the rupture that reality makes on the imagination."

openings:
"Books and doors are the same thing. You open them, and you go through into another world."

humanity:
"Reading's not a luxury, art's not a luxury. It's about your soul, and it's about yourself. And if reading is a luxury, being human is a luxury."

responsibility:
"Writers are not here to conform. We are here to challenge. We're not here to be comfortable—we're here, really, to shake things up. That's our job."

her writing:
"It's a symbiotic process, writing. What I am makes the books—not part of me, all of me—and then the books themselves inform the sense of what I am. So the more I can be, the better the books will be."

your writing:
"I always say to people who want to write: Live life! Don't stand on the rim, don't sit on the sidelines. Make mistakes, make a mess, get it wrong. Read everything, and get out and be in life."

"Suddenly, a Knock on the Door": Ira Glass Reads a Story by Etgar Keret

KeretThere are authors who cut their milk teeth on short stories, and there are authors who dedicate themselves to the form with Buddha-like focus. Israeli writer Etgar Keret—nerds of a certain ilk will recognize his name from This American Life and The New Yorker—falls firmly into the latter camp, as his newly translated sixth collection makes clear.

The quirky, thought-provoking, often hilarious pieces in Suddenly, a Knock on the Door lend themselves to being read out loud, on your coffee break, or between subway stops. Keret doesn’t bother with a coat of sugar or even Splenda: His characters question themselves and screw up with such regularity that it’s easy for us to plant ourselves in the middle of their lives.

The tension in these stories comes from the sort of decision anyone might make on any given day, like what to stash in your pockets, where to go to lunch, and if you feel like getting a drink with that guy you fooled around with a year ago who didn’t call afterward. In Keret’s world, he’ll be flawed and you’ll be flawed, and whether or not it works out isn’t really the point. The point is to go along for the ride, however brief, and lose yourself inside other people’s moments.

To celebrate the English-language publication of Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, we’re thrilled to share two excerpts with Omnivoracious readers: an exclusive audio version of the title story, read by none other than Ira Glass (squee!); and, after the jump, the full text of “What Animal Are You?”

"Suddenly, a Knock..." - read by Ira Glass

Continue reading ""Suddenly, a Knock on the Door": Ira Glass Reads a Story by Etgar Keret" »

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