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About Neal Thompson

Neal is a journalist/author, an amateur photographer/videographer, and a compulsive reader-writer whose rampant tastes veer from narrative non-fiction to literary fiction to long-form journalism to memoir/biography to sports, history, food, music, and so on. He's also a dad/driver/banker/chef to two skateboarding teen sons and an avid skier and runner. Favorite way to kill an hour: a book, a bourbon, and some Miles Davis.

Posts by Neal

Amazon Asks: “War of the Whales” Author, Joshua Horwitz

Joshua Horwitz spent six years researching the story of the marine biologist and the environmental lawyer whose battle against the US Navy and its secret underwater sonar programs went all the way to the Supreme Court. The result, War of the Whales, is one of those rare nonfiction books that reads like fiction – in this case, a delightful mashup of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, Stephen Ambrose and David Halberstam.

War of the Whales was named Amazon’s Best Book of the Month “Spotlight” pick for July. In my review I described it as “a gripping and wholly original tale of the ecological side effects of national security” and “a rare trifecta of a book: important, highly readable, and stunningly true.”

I reached out to Horwitz to ask about his favorite books (duh, Moby Dick), and, as a bonus he shared a couple of cool whale photos.

Describe your book in one sentence?

Whales and submarines collide inside world's deepest underwater canyon. 

Or: Two men take on world's largest navy to save whales.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

Favorite books about whales?

Moby Dick -- what else?

Favorite book as a child?

Tarzan, King of the Apes series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

What are you obsessed with now?

How few books teenagers--including my daughters--seem to be reading for pleasure.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

My appetite(s).

What do you collect?

Daughters, apparently. (I've got three.)

Favorite line?

Where lies the final harbor whence we unmoor no more? (from Moby Dick)

What's next for you?

More reading, less writing.

What was the best piece of advice you ever got?  From whom?

From Martin Scorcese, as returning NYU fillm alum speaking to us wannabees, on editing. (He was speaking about film editing, but applies equally to text.) -- "Begin with a scalpel, end with an axe."

BBQ King Steven Raichlen on "Ensemble" Cooking

MealsFireworks won’t be the only things flaring in America’s backyards on this Fourth of July.

You’d think after centuries of cooking with fire, man would have it down. But so many backyard chefs still scorch that precious steak or salmon. We overcook, we undercook, we set good food on fire.

For many years and across many books--notably his bestselling Barbecue Bible--BBQ guru Steven Raichlen has been trying to school us. During a recent swing through Seattle, over lunch at Tom Douglas’s Bravehorse Tavern, I asked for a little help: What do men do wrong at the grill?

“They don’t control the fire, they let the fire control them,” Raichlen said, while dunking a fresh-made pretzel into a bacon peanut butter dip.

Too many guys throw a hunk of meat on the grill or cram it full of chicken pieces and hope for the best, instead of practicing Raichlen’s “30-percent rule”--keeping 30 percent of grill food-free, to provide room to maneuver in case of a flare-ups.


With a World Cup match roaring in in the background, we discussed Raichlen’s new book, Man Made Meals, which moves indoors and aims to teach guys to cook more like women. Raichlen believes women think in terms of meals while guys think in terms of dishes; women cook with a spirit of nurturing while men cook with a spirit of showing off. With his new book he’s hoping to help guys think “ensemble,” from the main dish to side dishes, from deserts to “rockin’ the bar shaker.”

In addition to the crash course in culinary literacy for guys--“What dishes should every self-respecting red blooded American male know how to do?”--there’s an activist message in Man Made Meals. If we’re careful about how and where we buy food, and how we cook, “we can have a positive impact on ourselves and our health, on the health and well-being of our families, and on the well-being of the planet,” Raichlen said.

Speaking of health and well-being... here's one of Raichlen's go-to dishes:

Baby Back Ribs

Baby Back Ribs, with Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

Shop: Baby backs are the easiest ribs to cook, thanks to their generous marbling and intrinsic tenderness. To up your game, try an heirloom breed, like Berkshire pork or Tamworth.

Gear: Your basic kitchen and grilling gear including an aluminum foil drip pan, a charcoal grill (sorry guys; you can cook the ribs on a gas grill, but you need charcoal to smoke them), a rib rack (optional), and a spray bottle.

What else: I like to smoke baby backs at a somewhat higher temperature than the low and slow guys on the barbecue circuit. Which is to say, I grill the ribs using the indirect method at 325°F rather than the 225°F of traditional barbecue. I like the way the heat melts the fat and crisps the meat fibers, giving you chewier, meatier ribs than with the lower-heat method. If you prefer your ribs to have a softer texture, cook them at 225°F for 4 to 5 hours.

Time: About 20 minutes preparation time, plus about 1-1/2 hours cooking time 

These ribs sound an apple theme--you smoke them with apple wood chips and serve them with a made-from-scratch cider rum barbecue sauce. Once you master the process, you can infinitely vary the character of the ribs by changing the seasonings. Texas style? Use a rub based on cumin and chile powder and spray the ribs with beer. Jamaican style? Use jerk seasoning and spray the ribs with pineapple juice. You get the idea. 

Makes 2 racks of ribs; serves 4 normal guys as part of a full meal or 2 big guys with corresponding appetites

  • 2 racks baby back pork ribs (4 to 5 pounds total)
  • 6 tablespoons Raichlen’s Rub #1 (recipe follows) or your favorite barbecue rub 
  • 1 cup apple cider in a spray bottle
  • Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce (page 286) or your favorite barbecue sauce
  • You’ll also need: 1 1/2 cups hardwood chips or chunks, preferably apple or hickory, soaked in water to cover for 30 minutes, then drained

1 Set up the grill for indirect grilling, place a large aluminum foil drip pan in the center of the grill under the grate, and preheat the grill to medium (325°F).

2 Place a rack of ribs meat side down on a baking sheet. Remove the thin, papery membrane from the back of the rack by inserting a slender implement, such as the tip of an instant-read thermometer, under it; the best place to start is on one of the middle bones. Using a dishcloth, paper towel, or pliers to gain a secure grip, peel off the membrane. Repeat with the remaining rack (or ask your butcher to do it).

3 Season the ribs with barbecue rub (about 1-1/2 tablespoons per side), rubbing the spices onto the meat with your fingertips. 

4 When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the ribs, bone side down, in the center of the grate over the drip pan and away from the heat. (If your grill has limited space, stand the racks of ribs upright in a rib rack.) Toss the wood chips on the coals. Cover the grill and cook the ribs for about 45 minutes.

5 Spray the ribs with some of the apple cider. This keeps them moist and adds an extra layer of flavor. Cover the grill again and continue cooking the ribs until they are darkly browned, cooked through, and tender enough to pull apart with your fingers, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer, 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 hours in all, spraying the ribs with cider once or twice more. When the ribs are cooked, the meat will have shrunk back from the ends of the bones by 1/4 to 1/2 inch. If you are using a charcoal grill, replenish the coals after 1 hour or as needed.

6 Just before serving, brush the ribs on both sides with about 1/2 cup of the Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce or the barbecue sauce of your choice. Move the ribs directly over the fire. Grill the ribs until the barbecue sauce is browned and bubbling, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

7 Transfer the ribs to a large platter or cutting board. Let the ribs rest for a few minutes, then cut the racks in half or into individual ribs. Serve the ribs at once with the remaining barbecue sauce on the side.

Raichlen’s Rub #1

Here’s a barbecue rub--sweet with brown sugar, spicy with pepper and paprika--that would feel right at home in Kansas City, Memphis, or North Carolina. Makes 1/2 cup

  • 2 tablespoons coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard, preferably Colman’s
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds

Place the salt, brown sugar, paprika, pepper, dry mustard, onion powder, and celery seeds in a small bowl and mix with your fingers, breaking up any lumps in the brown sugar or onion powder. Stored in an airtight jar away from heat and light, the rub will keep for several months.

Cider Rum Barbecue Sauce

A sweet, mellow barbecue sauce invigorated with dark rum and apple cider. Good choices for rum include Myer’s Rum from Jamaica, Gosling’s Black Seal from Bermuda, or the new Ipswich rum from Massachusetts. The recipe makes more than you’ll need. Refrigerate any excess in a sealed jar--it will keep for several weeks. Makes about 2-1/2 cups

  • 1 cup apple cider
  • about 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • Juice of 1 lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 2 cups ketchup (I like Heinz) 
  • 1/2 packed cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark rum, or more to taste
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard, or more to taste 
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 Place the cider, lemon zest, and lemon juice in a large heavy saucepan and let come to a boil over high heat. Let the cider mixture boil until reduced by about half, 4 to 6 minutes. 

2 Add the ketchup, brown sugar, rum, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, liquid smoke, onion powder, pepper, and cinnamon and whisk to mix. Reduce the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer until thick and flavorful, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, adding more rum and/or mustard as necessary. Transfer the sauce to a bowl or clean jars and let it cool to room temperature. Refrigerate the sauce until serving. It will keep covered in the refrigerator for 3 weeks. Reheat it over low heat before using.

Photo Essay: How Did the Statue of Liberty Get Built?

LibertyElizabeth Mitchell's myth-busting Liberty’s Torch--a Best Book of the Month for July--is a hoot of a story packed with entertaining cameos by Victor Hugo, Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison and more. At center stage is the maddeningly egotistical artiste, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a snobbish boor who disliked America and her "subpar" people, yet, through persistence and will, found a home for his statue in New York Harbor.

In advance of Independence Day, we asked Mitchell to share a few photos and anecdotes from her rigorously researched tale of how a sculptor’s obsession became a nation's icon.


We take it for granted that the Statue of Liberty belongs in the New York harbor. But if it were not for one driven man, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, this globally recognizable symbol would never have seen sunrise over the city.

Bartholdi dreamed up the idea of the colossus, he pitched, pleaded, sweated, and schemed to get her built. My new book, Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, tells this tale of one man battling obstacles and accidents to make his unusual vision a reality.

It helped that Bartholdi birthed this creation during an era when artist, inventors and engineers constantly tried to one-up each other. He had seen the colossal statuary in Egypt, the sphinxes and pyramids, and he wanted to also create something that would last for eternity. All he had to do was solve the mechanical feats, clear the fundraising hurdles, and keep everyone alive in the process.

1) Here is Bartholdi, looking like Dave Grohl. He was spunky, funny, emotional, and a huge egotist. He alone came up with the idea of the Statue of Liberty and set out to convince France and America to build it. He wasn’t so much in love with America as he was entranced by the idea of crafting a massive statue. He did appreciate that America had successfully created a democracy while his France struggled violently for the ideal.

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2) He originally designed the piece for Egypt, for the mouth of the Suez Canal, but the deal fell through so he went looking for other locations. At the time, America was showing new growth after the Civil War, taking on constructions like Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The cross continental railroad had just been completed. The nation seemed a likely candidate to absorb the plan that had failed elsewhere.

Torch displ#8
3) Short on funds and public enthusiasm, Bartholdi built Liberty in pieces, exhibiting a bit at a time to raise money to create more. Here is the torch being shown at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. At the bottom, Bartholdi set up a kiosk to sell souvenirs and tickets to the top.

4) Bartholdi showed the head at the Paris Exposition of 1878. It arrived on a wagon from the workshop where she was created, having wended her way through the streets of Paris. People waved and sang the Marseillaise as the massive head passed.

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5) To test the design, the statue was first put together in a neighborhood in Paris near the Parc Monceau. People could pay a ticket to climb up and look over the rooftops.

6) Liberty was inaugurated on October 28, 1886 in a heavy fog. Bartholdi himself tugged an enormous French flag from her face to reveal her to the world. A few weeks later, he ventured out in a nighttime rain to say goodbye to his creation. He told a reporter that he could no longer sense the immensity of her as he had when he was working on her in Paris. He said, “She is going away from me. She is going away from me.” She now belonged to America.

--Elizabeth Mitchell

How I Wrote It: Alan Furst, on the "special vitamins" of wartime Europe

FurstAlan Furst's thrilling and endearing new historical spy novel is once again set in Europe as the shadows of war darken the continent and its people. As with his previous novels, Midnight in Europe portrays the tense unease of a region--in this case France and, in particular, Spain--on the verge of fracture, with allegiances and loyalties in constant and dangerous flux. Heroes and villains are sometimes indistinguishable, mainly, says Furst, because most of Europe was "scared to death."

"I don't quite understand why, but that era had special vitamins. It just did," he told me. "What was it about ther '30s? I don't know, but there was this bursting of creativity that came along."

Speaking at the annual Book Expo America conference in New York, we also discussed the 1984 trip he took through Europe, on assignment for Esquire. "I came back a changed person," he told me. Interestingly, he rarely visits Europe these days, which is far different from the version of Europe he writes about. "I'm used to another Paris," he said.

Proudly "blue collar" in his approach to writing, Furst is already pounding out the next novel, two pages per day, every day. "I can't fool around and wait for inspiration," he said. Like one of his own characters, he still writes on a typewriter, a Lexmark. "Descendant of the mighty IBM selectric," he gushed proudly. "I think I write better on a typewriter." 

Brad Meltzer is Obsessed with "Ordinary People Changing the World"

RosaBrad Meltzer is a shape-shifter and, apparently, the guy doesn't sleep. Known mainly for the bestselling thrillers he's been writing since his twenties--starting with his 1997 debut, The Tenth Justice--he also writes comic books, screenplays, and hosts his own History Channel show, Brad Meltzer's Decoded.

More recently, he's shouldered the laudable task of inspiring kids--his, and ours. Meltzer's first such efforts--Heroes for my Daughter and Heroes for my Son--led to this year's Ordinary People Changing the World series, the latest of which is I Am Rosa Parks, on sale this week.

The "I Am..." books depict heroic Americans during their childhoods, as regular boys and girls. The first two, Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln, will be followed by Albert Einstein (September) and Jackie Robinson (January).

At BookExpo America in New York last month, we spoke with Meltzer about his own childhood heroes, his love of story, his paranoia, and his radical belief that "a reality TV show bimbo is not a hero." (And if you don't like my interview, check out one of the best book trailers I've seen, featuring Meltzer's family and friends trash-talking him.)

Michael Koryta, on his "Warped and Twisted Mind"

KorytaHe might seem like a nice enough guy. A clean-cut young college professor type or the guy who coaches your kid’s t-ball team. But Michael Koryta possesses a self-proclaimed "warped and twisted mind" that's capable of creating some very creepy characters and some very brutal scenes, which help make his new novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead, his best yet.

The story of a boy on the run from two assassins--and a wildfire--this is Koryta's tenth novel, which seems impossible for a guy who probably still gets carded buying beer. In this interview, taped at last month’s Book Expo America in New York, Koryta and I discussed his mentors and idols (names like Connelly, Lehane, and Koontz), his next book (it starts with a corpse in a cave) and, of course, his deceptively twisted mind. Despite the boy scout looks, Koryta seems to keep getting darker, more curious about the nature of menace in the world, and, therefore, better.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is an Amazon Editors’ Summer Reading pick and a Best Book of the Month in mystery, thriller and suspense.


Author-Lawyer Alafair Burke's Favorite "Lawyers are People Too" Books

Our thanks to Alafair Burke for sharing her thoughts on the best and worst ("hearsay!") of legal thrillers and courtroom drama. Burke's latest novel is All Day and a Night, which again features her NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher. Megan Abbott (The Fever) called it “A masterfully plotted, psychologically complex thriller."

As a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Burke knows a thing or two about the law; she now teaches at Hofstra Law School. (And as the daughter of James Lee Burke, she also knows a thing or two about the written word). Burke's next project is a first-ever collaboration with Mary Higgins Clark. Their co-authored novel, The Cinderella Murder, is coming in November.

In 2004, a major editor at a major publisher told me, “Legal thrillers are out.” Having just published my first two novels, both featuring Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, I desperately needed this death announcement to be premature.Alafair

Fast-forward ten years, and books featuring lawyers are thriving. Perhaps not coincidentally, publishers have also found a way to market books about lawyers without pigeonholing them as “legal thrillers” or “courtroom dramas.”

I first started fantasizing about writing a novel because of my frustration at the portrayal of attorneys in fiction, especially crime fiction. I was a huge fan of the genre, but found myself wanting to throw books across the room when attorneys arrived on the page, yelling “hearsay!” and “calls for speculation!” Evidentiary objections, jury selection, and cross-examinations might be real goose bump inducers compared to the average lawyer’s workday, but as ingredients for a page-turner? No, thank you.

In real life, few lawyers go to court. They delve into families, negotiating pre-nups, adoptions, and divorces. They merge and separate corporate entities. Even litigators spend a small percentage of their time in court. The vast majority of cases settle, which only happens after lawyers gather evidence, question witnesses, scour documents, and play chicken with their adversaries.

Michael Connelly understood this when he endorsed my debut novel by saying, “JUDGMENT CALLS expertly shows that the most gripping drama is not found in the courtroom but in the places where choices get made in the shadows cast by politics and corruption and human desires.”

FirmIn other words, when lawyers narrate a story, it’s still just a story, because lawyers are people too.  Here are a few of my favorite books that show the real lives of lawyers, outside the courtroom.

The Firm, John Grisham

Though Grisham’s A Time To Kill is one of the best courtroom novels I’ve read, The Firm captures an altogether different world, expertly portraying the pressures placed upon a junior associate at an elite law firm.

Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow

Turning the genre on its head, Turow tells the story of a career prosecutor charged with murder. He also masters the use of a (possibly?) unreliable narrator. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, read this back-to-back with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and draw the parallels.

TurowThe Alexandra Cooper series, by Linda Fairstein (The most recent installment: Terminal City)

It’s no surprise that Fairstein, who as supervisor for the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office broke new ground in the prosecution of crimes against women, also broke new ground in the depiction of prosecutors in fiction. Through Alex Cooper, she shows that the power of the prosecutor is not in the courtroom, but in the nearly unreviewable discretion they exercise outside of it.

The Mickey Haller series, by Michael Connelly (The most recent installment: The Gods of Guilt)

Much as Fairstein depicts the out-of-court life of Alex Cooper, Connelly delves into the life of defense attorney Mickey Haller. He’s neither true believer nor scoundrel. He’s just a really interesting guy who happens to be a lawyer.

KermitIn the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt

In the way that atmospheric novels treat geographic setting as character, Roosevelt treats the law as a character here, both villain and protagonist.

The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen Carter

I’ve got to include a book featuring a law professor at the center of a sprawling thriller. Yale Law Prof Carter provides a searing portrayal of both academic and judicial politicking.

Supreme Ambitions, by David Lat

This forthcoming novel lifts the veil on the prestigious but cryptic role of judicial clerks. The author, founder of the law-blog Above the Law (think: Entertainment Weekly for lawyers), is a rock-star among law-geeks (to wit, he coined the term “bench-slap,” which now appears in Black’s Law Dictionary).

It’s within this context that I situate my tenth novel, All Day and a Night, which tells the story of a wrongful conviction claim from the perspectives of both recurring character NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and a young defense attorney named Carrie Blank. It has been described as a combination of police procedural, courtroom drama, and psychological thriller. To defy easy categorization is the highest praise I can ask for.

    --Alafair Burke

Cheryl Tan Explores Singapore's Dark Side in "Singapore Noir"

NoirWhat I love about the "Noir" series of pulpy short story collections created by Brooklyn-based Akashic publishers is that each volume makes me hunger to visit that locale's underbelly. I've heard of spy tourists who, for example, visit the sites of Le Carre novels. (David Ignatious explores the idea in this recent post.) I could see these books inspiring a niche new travel meme, with literary geeks venturing into the alleys and red light districts of the dozens of cities in the Noir series.

I also love the pairing of geographically appropriate authors who've curated each volume: Laura Lippman for Baltimore Noir; Dennis Lehane for Boston Noir; and Joyce Carol Oates for the my home state in New Jersey Noir.

One of the latest entries in the series is Singapore Noir, comprising stories by some of the best-known writers of that ethically, culturally, linguistically diverse country. A Best Book of the Month in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense, Singapore Noir was edited by Singapore-born Cheryl Tan (A Tiger in the Kitchen), who answered a few questions about her home country's dark side.



NT: Noir? What's noir about Singapore? I thought it was sunny, safe, and squeaky clean?

CT: Oh there's definitely a sexy dark side to Singapore! In the 20 years that I've lived in the U.S. I've always been frustrated that people think of one of a few things whenever Singapore comes up: Caning, fines, strict laws. The country is much more colorful and complex than that. For starters, anyone who's ever visited Singapore will know that the best places to eat in the country are in the red-light districts. While you're sitting there having the most amazing plate of beef noodles, you'll find yourself surrounded by prostitutes and suddenly hungry men. And, although it's true that crime rates there are much lower than in much of the rest of the world, bad things do happen there, of course, even if rarely. There's a huge gambling culture--always has been, even before Sands built a multi-million-dollar glitzy casino a few years ago--and Singaporean loan sharks are terrifying! (You don't want them painting threatening notes on your front door in pig's blood, trust me.) There have been saucy sex scandals plastered across the papers there in recent years, horrific stories of maid abuse, clashes between the poor or the ordinary and the super rich (the country actually has a bar that serves up a $26,000 cocktail).

NT: Will you or the other “Singapore Noir” authors get caned for writing about Singapore’s inky pockets? 

CT: I hope not! Although, I suppose we may find out very soon. If you never hear from me again ...

In all seriousness, these stories are dark, yes--but they also show various facets of Singapore, Singaporean life, neighborhoods and quirky characters that haven't been much explored in literature outside of Asia so far. One of my favorite characters in the book is a feng shui master who doubles as a detective, for example--he pops up in Nury Vittachi's fast-paced "Murder on Orchard Road." When this master is called in to cleanse rooms where bad things such as deaths have happened, he looks around and, of course, figures out more than how to make the chi flow well again in the room. British novelist Lawrence Osborne's "Tattoo" pulls the curtain back on the very vivid world of Geylang, Singapore's main red-light district. 

And several of the stories touch on topics that have made headlines in Singapore in recent years--sex scandals, maid abuse, the growing expat population and how that's rapidly changing Singapore, the rise of the very wealthy. Colin Cheong's lovely "Smile, Singapore," follows a "taxi uncle"--what we call cab drivers--in the heartland of Singapore who's faced with a difficult decision. I also love a little detail he brings to the book--an old tradition of keeping the bone of a dead child with you so its ghost will protect you. It's details such as these that make this book uniquely Singaporean--and one that I think may be a little eye-opening.

NT: Why did you choose the “kelongs,” or old fisheries, as the site for your story, “Reel”?

CT: I've long been fascinated with kelongs, which are these fairly large fisheries on stilts that you see in the middle of the sliver of water that cuts a slice between Singapore and Malaysia. This is an old way of fishing that's rapidly disappearing--and I'd grown up Singapore fascinated with kelongs because my girlhood home on the East Coast of Singapore is not far from where most of the remaining kelongs are. It's a very romantic setting to me--this idyllic spot that's worlds away from the glitzy, modern Singapore that most people know. Looking out at them from the shores of Singapore, I always tried to imagine what life might be like when you're living in a kelong house, perched on slats of wood amid a labyrinth of tall, long stilts, out there in the middle of the water, with little else to do but wait for flotillas of fish to swim into your traps, what dangers might lurk--both in the water and out. Well in my story, something certainly does happen ... you'll just have to read the book to find out!

Spy Novelist David Ignatius Describes His Four Favorite Spy Cities

IgnatiusAs a long-time denizen of the nation's capital and a prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, David Ignatius has, for a quarter of a century, had a front-row view of US politics and the cloak-and-dagger machinations of assorted spy agencies. That insider knowledge has fueled his brainy and all-too-believeable novels, the most recent of which, The Director, is an Amazon Best of the Month pick in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense for June. The book went on sale Tuesday, and already a movie is in the works, with Paul Greengrass (United 93, Captain Phillips, two Bourne films) set to direct.

We asked Ignatius about his top spy cities--where should an intrepid spy tourist venture?--and here he describes why Beirut, Hong Kong, Berlin and Moscow are his favorites.



As a journalist and novelist, I’ve traveled the world for decades. Strangely, perhaps, I never carried a camera, so the images are stored in my head--harder to access than photographs, perhaps, but still vivid. Here’s a list of my favorite spy cities. Like espionage itself, most of them are places between two worlds, where people can hide in the ambiguity and shadow between cultures.

Spying is often described as a world drawn in shades of gray, but these spy capitals are anything but colorless. One of the pleasures of writing spy fiction is that I get to revisit these places in my memory and, I hope, take readers along in my imaginary suitcase.


Beirut was the setting of my first spy novel, Agents of Innocence, published in 1987, and it’s the city that gave my baptism as a foreign correspondent. It’s a place that haunts me still.

The center of today’s Beirut is a stunningly modern city that straddles the curve of Beirut Bay, with the often snow-capped peaks of Mt. Lebanon visible in the distance on a clear day. A visitor wouldn’t guess that this sparking downtown is built on the ruins of what was the chief battleground of the Lebanese civil war. An informal boundary known as the “green line” divided the Christian eastern half of the city from the Muslim west. It was guarded by snipers, and I still remember the terrified exhilaration of slumping down low in a taxi as it sped across this no-man’s land.

Today, this central area--cleared of its rubble and brilliantly restored--houses the chicest boutiques and restaurants in town. But if I close my eyes at night, I can remember the electricity of sneaking along the quays of the port at city center, reporting a story about the piratical characters who kept commerce operating back then in what was sometimes a free-fire zone.

To the west of the downtown, along a bend in the Corniche, there’s another ghost: The site of what was once the American Embassy. It was destroyed by a truck bomb in April 1983, in what I think of as the beginning of the war of terrorism that still envelops us. I left the embassy about 30 minutes before the bomb arrived. It’s residential housing now, no trace of the dead bodies or the brave embassy staff. But when I close my eyes, I can see the ruins of the building, like a body stripped of its flesh.

Perhaps the greatest spy haunt in Beirut was the St. Georges Hotel. The British double agent Kim Philby propped up the bar there many a night before he defected to Moscow. So did legions of spies and journalists (and probably a lot back then who were both).You can imagine Philby, slight stutter in his voice, chatting with his mates as he maintained what was until his flight the most audacious lie in the history of intelligence.

The St. Georges still occupies the best piece of real estate in the city, but it’s still in ruins from the civil war--a property dispute, evidenly, but it remains in its eerie rubble a bombed-out postcard of a Levantine playboy world that was obliterated by the civil war.

My Beirut will always have as its ground zero the Commodore Hotel off Hamra Street in the city’s western district. Journalists stayed at the Commodore, and most especially, we drank there. George and Younis and the other barmen filled up the glasses at a bar ringed (it was always whispered) with intelligence officers from Syria, the PLO, Iraq, Iran and every other nation that preyed on the ruin of Beirut. Near the bar was the infamous parrot who could imitate the sound of incoming artillery shells, which were all too frequent until the civil finally ended in 1989. The telex machines were in the lobby, and I can remember the sound of my Martini glass as it rattled atop the metal frame of the machine as I punched my telex tape to send a story back home.

To the east in Qarantina was the headquarters of Bashir Gemayel’s “Phalangist” Militia, known as the “Lebanese Forces. One of my Phalangist sources confided that he was secretly carrying on a love affair with a girl in West Beirut, sneaking her across the Green Line. A taste of Romeo and Juliet in Beirut. In a southern suburb, known as Fakhani, was the PLO’s headquarters, a place where the Fedayeen’s main activity, beyond suspicious quizzing of journalists, seemed to be smoking cigarettes.

Hezbollah now makes its headquarters a little further south; every time I go there to interview a Hezbollah official now, I remember what life feels like in a permanent war zone. And every time I travel to the modern, antiseptic airport, I remember the checkpoint on the way, where the Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lowzi was kidnapped, by Syrian secret police it was always rumored. He was found dead with his typing fingers cut off.

It may sound grim, but Beirut even in its worst days was a hauntingly beautiful city. I’d put it at the top of my itinerary for any adventurous traveler.

Continue reading "Spy Novelist David Ignatius Describes His Four Favorite Spy Cities" »

Brave Horse Sessions: Walter Kirn, on "Blood Will Out"

In literature, on the big screen, and in the daily news, we're often exposed to some version of the Great American Imposter Story (see: Gatsby, Madoff, Lance Armstrong). Rarely do we hear the dupe's side of things. In Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn boldly tells the tale of his encounter with a real-life Mr. Ripley.

Kirn is better known for his fiction (Thumbsucker, Up in the Air) and his journalism, but during a fairly rocky ten-year period in his life he befriended a man who claimed to be a wealthy Rockefeller, who was later unmasked as a con man and a murderer. In Blood Will Out, an Amazon Best Book of the Month selection, Kirn tells the uncomfortable and unflattering story of how he fell into this faux Rockefeller's world "like a complete naive, innocent school girl."

In this conversation at Seattle's Brave Horse Tavern, I asked Kirn to explain how a journalist could get so snookered, and for so long, by a liar. Because America is amid a "crisis of trust"--trust in our government, our financial institutions, our technology--Kirn feels his story may just be a story for our times. Trust, or lack of it, is "a theme that's in the air," he said.

We also discussed how he wrote Blood Will Out in a street-level storefront in Livingston, Montana. "It's nice to feel like a part of society," he told me. "Writing is a very solitary enterprise."

(Our thanks to Tom Douglas and the staff at the Brave Horse Tavern)

Facing the Guns: The Tom Robbins Kindle Singles Interview - An Excerpt

RobbinsIf you were to visit the home of Tom Robbins (Still Life with Woodpecker, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), as Mara Altman did for the just-released Kindle Singles Interview, it’d go something like this:

The Beatles song “Hey Jude” was cranked up so loud that it took five sets of knocks before the 81-year-old novelist finally opened the door. He wore his signature sunglasses along with light-wash denim jeans, a maroon pullover with brown suede elbow patches, and kelly green sneakers with socks so bright that planets may have been orbiting them. His dog, Blini Tomato Titanium, who is no bigger than the collective mass of three baked potatoes, was tucked under his arm. His wife of 27 years, Alexa, a part-time tarot reader, was away that afternoon at a training session to become a Pilates instructor.

In advance of Robbins’s forthcoming not-quite-memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie, Altman--the author of four bestselling Kindle Singles (including Baby Steps and Bearded Lady)--spent an afternoon at Villa de Jungle Girl, Robbins’s home in La Conner, Washington.

The following is an excerpt from Altman's 20,000-word interview. (Read the full interview--in which they discuss much more than mayonnaise--here.)


Over the course of our seven-hour interview, we would hang out in his writing room, retreat to La Conner Pub & Eatery for salmon burgers (extra tartar sauce) and Rainier beers, and finally end up in his den … [W]e would talk about his psychedelic journeys, his hatred of creative-writing programs, and why he refuses to call his new book a memoir. We also talked a fair amount about mayonnaise.

MaraMARA ALTMAN: Do fans ever come uninvited to your door?

TOM ROBBINS: Oh yeah, but not as much as they used to. Yeah, in the ’70s and early ’80s, before I’d done any interviews and my photo hadn’t been widely disseminated, people used to come here — particularly college kids would come from the East Coast. They’d hitchhike out here in the summer, and they usually went away disappointed because I don’t talk the way I write and because I didn’t want to sit up all night drinking tequila, which is what they expected of me.

MA: Do you deal with that a lot ­— people who have expectations that you’re going to behave or perform in an outrageous way when they meet you?

TR: Yeah, my writing is rather extroverted, but in person I’m more introverted.

MA: I wondered, too. I was wondering if I should bring Champagne.

RobbinsTR: I do like Champagne, but I don’t drink Champagne before noon.

MA: I did bring you something. I heard you love mayonnaise, so I brought you some of New York’s finest.

TR: Oh, great! Wonderful. I used to have mayonnaise tastings here every summer. At the last tasting, we had something like 25 different kinds of mayonnaise from all over the world.

MA: Which was the best?

TR: There were a couple really strong contenders. One from the Netherlands. One actually from Mexico, but usually — and we didn’t label them, it was a blind tasting, like with wine — Best Foods, and on the East Coast [it’s] called Hellmann’s, quite often won. There was no American chauvinism involved at all.

MA: I heard Japanese mayo is quite nice.


Continue reading "Facing the Guns: The Tom Robbins Kindle Singles Interview - An Excerpt " »

"The Face": An Excerpt from McSweeney's Issue #46

McsweeneysFor those not familiar with the whimsical brilliance of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, these National Magazine Award-winning publications are the Lady Gaga meat-dress version of a literary magazine--all attitude and sass and weirdness. No two issues are remotely alike. Some are hardcover, some paperback, some are multiple booklets inside a decorative case, or a cigar box, or wrapped in faux leather, or rubber bands. Others feature letters, drawings, postcards, posters, magnets. Over the years, they've hosted the work of Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, Ben Marcus, Roddy Doyle, T. C. Boyle, Steven Millhauser, Ann Beattie, and many more. Collectable and very cool.

The latest issue, McSweeney's Issue #46, is devoted entirely to Latin American crime writers. Its thirteen stories were written by some of the best crime writers of Columbia, Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela, and more. Dark, intense, disturbing, hillarious, these pieces feature a cross section of Latin American life and culture, with characters ranging from a Polish insurance broker in a São Paulo favela to a Cuban transsexual named Amy Winehouse.

The following excerpt is from a story entitled “The Face,” by Santiago Roncagliolo, translated by Natasha Wimmer. (Interviews with all of the authors can be found here; back issues here.)


“Is it her or isn’t it?”

“I don’t know, sir. It could be anybody.”

Assistant Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana frowned. Over the course of his career, he had come across all kinds of bodies: familiar and unfamiliar, many of them undocumented, some of them in an advanced state of decomposition. Sometimes they were missing bits, nothing big, fingers and such. Occasionally something had been stuffed into the mouth, or another orifice. Regulations required that every body be identified with the help of a relative or friend of the victim. But in order to be recognized, a body had to have a face. And this one didn’t.

“I hope it’s not,” said Officer Basurto, shaking his head with concern. “She was a fine singer, sir.”

“‘Is,’ officer. Make that present tense. Until the death is certified in writing, the lady is officially alive.” 

“Then who’s this?”

The assistant prosecutor shrugged. There was no room to stand up inside the trailer; the two officials were sitting across from the dead body, around a little camp table, like a couple of day trippers. They took another look at the bloody mess, the shapeless muddle of hair, skin, and bones. A few hours ago, that red blob had been a face.

Continue reading ""The Face": An Excerpt from McSweeney's Issue #46" »

Greg Iles: “Fate Reached Down and Just Stopped Me”

Greg Iles2Ever since his breakout debut, Spandau Phoenix, hit the bestseller lists in 1993, Greg Iles had been on what he calls the “hamster wheel” of success, writing a book a year, watching a dozen of them become bestsellers, but never having the luxury to spend as much time as he’d like with any of them.

Then came the pickup truck that slammed at 70 miles an hour into his Audi, crushing his ribs, ripping his aorta, and crushing his right leg. It’s too easy to compare the horrific, life-changing event to a scene from one of his novels (as many of us did when Iles’s friend and band-mate Stephen King was nearly killed … by a pickup truck.) Iles lost his right leg and spent many months in recovery. At the time, 2011, he had been on the verge of finishing the manuscript for Natchez Burning.

The accident gave him a second chance to write the book he truly wantedd to write. “It’s like fate reached down and just stopped me,” Iles said, during a visit to Amazon's Seattle campus.

It's the rare 800-page brick of a tome that's also a page-turner, but Natchez Burning is just that book. The first in a trilogy, Iles calls it the equivalent of nine mystery novels rolled into a trio.

Like many of Iles's books, Natchez Burning is set in his home town, whose motto, not so long ago, was: Where the Old South still lives. “That’s a bit of a chilling motto,” Iles said.

But the Old South has always made for good fiction, and at times Natchez Burning reads like homage to the oft-quoted Faulkner line: “The past is never dead, it isn’t even past.” Iles believes Faulkner was speaking universally–-that we’re all haunted by our pasts. Still, said Iles: “The South is a place where place, and history, are still very much a part of the fabric of life.”

Iles's own place and history are very much a part of the book. One main character, a beloved doctor accused of murder, is partly based on his father, a physician who died during the writing of the book. And the unsolved civil rights-era murders at the core of the narrative are barely-fictionalized versions of the crimes being investigated by a reporter friend. "I realized there are a lot of murderers walking the streets," Iles said.


> See all of Greg Iles's books

> Visit Iles's website. (If you hunt around, there's a photo of Iles's wrecked car)

* Author photo: Rick Guy / The Clarion-Ledger

Mona Simpson: "Some Things Really Should Be Private"

Sometimes the best “write what you know fiction” comes from the crappiest of family situations.

Over the course of her first five novels, Mona Simpson has explored the breadth of the fractured family experience, from a complex mother-daughter relationship (Anywhere But Here) to absentee fathers (The Lost Father, A Regular Guy) to a troubled marriage and a wife’s relationship with her nanny (My Hollywood). Those novels frequently mirrored Simpson’s own life story: being raised by a single mother after her father skipped out; getting divorced and raising two kids; seeking out father figures.

For her latest novel, Casebook (an Amazon Best Book of ther Month), Simpson’s goal was to craft an adult love story. But it seems her own life intruded once again, even if she didn’t realize it at first. When she began writing, she created her characters--a soon-to-be-divorced woman and her mysteriously evasive dork of a boyfriend--and mapped out the narrative, but then…  “It wasn’t feeling right,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Santa Monica.

Not until she allowed the voice and vantage of nine-year-old Miles Adler-Rich to take over did the words begin to flow. That’s when Casebook made its transition from an idea to a story--a family story. “Miles gave it an additional dimension,” Simpson said. “That voice made it a book I could write.”

Having been raised by a single mom--and as a single mom herself--the story of Miles, his mother, and her desire for a fuller life for herself and her kids became a very personal one for Simpson.

“I’m sure there’s a little of me in (Miles’s mom),” she said.

“But actually, it’s funny, I didn’t think of it until afterwards … I think there was maybe a lot of me also in Miles, in the sense that I actually grew up with a single mother and I grew up kind of watching her romances. And both being fascinated but also really scared at the implications for my life.”

(No stranger to writing eloquently about her life, in a recent New York Times story Simpson described applying to college while living near poverty with her often-depressed mom. She’s also openly discussed her relationship with brother Steve Jobs, whom her parents gave up for adoption before Simpson was born. The two reunited in 1985. Her eulogy is one of the best things ever written about Jobs.)

Writing from a boy’s point of view was something new for Simpson, but Miles is a wonderfully believable and likeable mess of a kid, a sneak and a snoop who cracks, heals, and matures before our eyes. When his parents split, Miles begins eavesdropping on his mother, listening in on phone calls, digging through drawers, clicking open computer files and emails. When his mom starts dating an allegedly wealthy man, and Miles unearths love notes, mysterious credit card receipts, and a sex diary, he realizes: “Espionage had a life of its own. Secrets opened to me when I wasn’t even looking.”

Simpson intended for Miles to start out innocently seeking information about himself, assuming like most kids that his parents were always talking about him--“and, surprise-surprise, they’re not.”

The result is more than a coming of age story. It’s a story about striving to find love after a divorce; about technology as a tool for discovering information, and hiding it; about love, fear, and revenge.

Like Miles, Simpson had observed her mother’s boyfriends and wondered what each of them might mean for her, especially financially. She also worried about her mother’s depression, and the possibility of suicide, as does Miles at one point. But at the story’s core is the messiness of familial espionage. Through Miles’s troubling discoveries, Simpson seems to be asking: what happens when we learn more than we bargained for? 

During her research, Simpson learned of a friend’s father who had another family that the friend and his siblings didn’t learn about until the dad's funeral. She also met with Los Angeles area private detectives who told her that much of their business these days is related to personal spying--a spouse opens an email, a parent sees a text on their kid’s phone, and they want to know more.

“We all, in a way, have a lot of access now at our fingertips,” she said.

Her characters each have their own complicated relationship with secrecy and privacy, and Simpson said she frequently asked herself: “How trusting do they want to be? How suspicious do they want to be?”

When confronted with troubling information about a boyfriend, Miles’s mother remains “wishful.” The boyfriend, meanwhile, is an expert at deception. And then there's Miles, who remains suspicious throughout--almost reluctantly so, since he wants his mother to get the happy ending she deserves. Even so, Miles comes to realize: “all his suspicions didn’t do much to protect them, either. In a certain way, even though he was suspicious, he also didn’t really believe he was going to find what he found.”

Simpson also wonders: how much do we really want to know?

“Some things really should be private,” she said. “There’s something essential about privacy.”

Interestingly, Simpson seems at ease sharing her life, in her novels, in stories like the New York Times pieces, and in conversations with strangers like me. I told her how much I liked the character of Miles's dad--he has a funny habit of handing fast food trash to his ex-wife when he stops to pick up Miles--and I asked Simpson who that character was to her. She explained that, since she didn't know her real father and has no memories of her parents together, the father in Casebook is the “ideal dad.”

“As someone who grew up with divorced parents, the dad is the dad I wish I had.”

Brigid Schulte on Taming the To-Do List: "Put Joy First"

Overwhelmed_book-250x405To do list:

  • Get the snow tires exchanged
  • Renew tabs on Sean’s car; schedule Leo’s practice drives
  • Call the landscaper – what’s with those weeds?
  • Get rid of the damn woodpecker poking a hole in the house at 6am each day
  • Reschedule call with Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, which you had to cancel four times

I found it fitting that it took a week of texts and emails for Schulte and me to find a window in our respective schedules. When we finally connected, Schulte was charging her dying iPhone at the booth of a Eugene, Oregon burger joint, during a brief pause between book tour duties, her son’s University of Oregon tour, her daughter’s birthday, and visits with her sick father.

But thanks to the three-plus years of research she conducted for Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, she seemed serene and relaxed, even when the burger place began playing Nirvana, threatening threatened to drown out our conversation.

Her calmness was not always so.

Schulte’s exploration of the overworked, under-joyed American lifestyle began with a 2010 Washington Post Magazine story, an assignment she initially resisted. “I didn’t really want to face how I was spending my time,” she said. “I was really afraid of what I’d find … One more thing to feel bad about.”

She also worried that the topic of leisure “seemed silly and fluffy” in contrast to the heftier political coverage of her employer, the Post, and her war correspondent husband, Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon reporter. (Years ago, I worked with Bowman at the Baltimore Sun.)

But when the magazine article elicited hundreds and hundreds of emails--from women and men, young and old, sharing the pain, rage, and madness of their overwhelmed, joyless lives--Schulte knew she was onto something. “It blew my mind,” she said. And she realized: “I was not alone.”

Her journalist instincts kicked in and Schulte began to explore the madness of the modern American lifestyle, the misplaced priorities, and the health and quality of life consequences.

She found progressive companies--even the Pentagon--that have exploited the links between employee happiness and productivity, between leisure and professional creativity. She calls for workplace changes that place a higher value on achievement than work hours. Her research taught her how to work smarter, worry less, and prioritize fun--lunch with a friend, an afternoon with the kids, a new hobby, a run or a nap--yet still be more productive.

Schulte has also discovered the value of under-scheduling her kids and protecting family time.

“I do not feel overwhelmed anymore,” she said. “I flipped the to-do list and put joy first, I put the important stuff first.”

Here are Schulte’s “Top 10 Ways to Fight Back Against the Overwhelm”:

  1. PAUSE. Step off the gerbil wheel regularly--if even for a moment, even if you have to schedule it in, to figure out where you are and where you REALLY want to go.
  2. Understand how strong the PRESSURE is to overwork, overparent, overschedule and be busy and overdo and that humans are wired to conform. Our outlandishly unrealistic cultural ideals keep us spinning in “never enough”--that we can never be enough, be good enough, do enough in any sphere.
  3. Change the narrative. Actively support big change--in workplace culture, in cultural attitudes, in laws and policies: redesign work, reimagine traditional gender roles, recapture the value of leisure and play. Make conscious unconscious bias and ambivalence. Dispel worn out myths. Talk.
  4. Banish busyness.
  5. PLAN. DO. REVIEW. As you get clearer about where you are and where you want to go, begin to imagine in those moments of pause how to get from here to there. Experiment. Assess. Try something different. Keep trying.
  6. Set your own PRIORITIES--and then set up your own network of support that lines up with your values--that you WANT to conform to! POSITIVE PEER PRESSURE.
  7. When it comes to the To Do list, do a brain dump to get everything out of your head to clear mental space. Then give yourself PERMISSION not to do any of it. Also give yourself PERMISSION to put joy, fun, play, reflection and idleness or quiet time as top priorities and schedule it in until it becomes routine. You really DON’T have to earn leisure by getting to the end of the To Do list. You never will. So flip the list. Joy first. Do ONE thing a day and do it first. The rest of the day is a win.
  8. Chunk your time. Work in short, intense PULSES of no more than 90 minutes, and take breaks to change the channel. Check digital media at specific times during the day, and use timers so you won’t fall into the rabbit hole. Technology is seductive, lighting up the same structures of the brain that light up in addiction--so find your own system to use it wisely, not let it use you, or abuse you.
  9. Set common standards at home and share the load fairly, even the kids. Remember, as parents, love your kids, accept them for who they are, then get out of their way. That way, everybody has more time to connect--which is what’s really important, not how many instruments they play and how many travel teams they’ve made.
  10. More is not more. Think inverted U curve. Like anything, some activity for kids, some novelty for the brain, some amount of hard work, some time for technology … it’s all good up to a point, but more is not better. Too much, and the benefits begin to diminish. Find your own sweet spot.

How I Wrote It: "All I need is my laptop and a comfy chair" - Alice LaPlante

LaplateWhen a respected plastic surgeon mysteriously dies in a Palo Alto hotel room, a novice police detective immediately suspects foul play--especially after discovering that the man had three wives in three different cities. With that setup, Alice LaPlante's A Circle of Wives explores the mysteries of love and marriage, trust and suspicion. Based on a true story that occurred eight years ago in Standford (where LaPlante teaches creative writing), A Circle of Wives is LaPlante's second novel. (Her first was the bestselling Turn of Mind).

In addition to writing fiction--she has another novel coming out next year, and is working on her fourth--LaPlante also writes non-fiction. She described for me her somewhat unorthodox method of starting each day with some fiction writing, and then flip flopping throughout the day. "I keep my fiction and my nonfiction on the screen, and I move between them," she said.

LaPlante also discussed recently losing her home to a fire. The first thing she reached for when the fire broke out? Her laptop.


Kindle Singles Roundup, Including Colum McCann's First Short Story in a Decade

Longform digital stories seem to be having a prolonged moment, an ongoing honeymoon in the marriage between storytelling and the digitization of the written word. Pioneered by Kindle Singles, Byliner, and The Atavist, and hailed as an antidote to the dying space alloted in newspapers and magazines for short stories, novellas, and longer works of journalism, I've enjoyed watching more and more authors experiment with the form, in both fiction and nonfiction. In the coming months, Omnivoracious will begin featuring occasional roundups of these bite-sized stories. Or is that byte-sized?

Below are five recent notable stories, available in the Singles store, including Gone, a literary thriller from National Book Award winner Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin, Transatlantic). Though McCann got his start writing short stories--he calls them "small imploding universes"--Gone is his first short story in ten years. Scroll down to read a Q&A with McCann and his publisher, Byliner.

Gone Gone, by Colum McCann

A single mother and her 13-year-old adopted son, who is deaf, live alone on the west coast of Ireland. Early one morning, the son walks down to the sea with his new wetsuit, and disappears. Investigators suspect the mother, who is racked with guilt: "A wetsuit? Why in the world? What sort of mother?"

The Death Factory The Death Factory, by Greg Iles

On the even of the much-anticipated release of Natchez Burning, Iles's first novel in five years, the author has crafted a prequel of sorts to the novel, an appetizer in which his long-running protagonist, Penn Cage, confronts more of the dark family secrets that continue to haunt him.
Baby Steps Baby Steps, by Mara Altman

This is Altman’s fourth Kindle Single, continuing her blunt, funny, and very popular explorations of the adventures in adulthood. Previously she's written about facial hair, orgasms, stand-up comedy, and diamond engagement rings. Here, she confronts the prospect of motherhood, from the expectations of others to her own ambivalence.
Brian Greene: The Kindle Singles Interview Brian Greene: The Kindle Singles Interview, by Rivka Galchen

Author and journalist Galchen (named by The New Yorker as one of 20 Writers Under 40) interviews physicist Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos), who recently launched a series of free online science courses at World Science U ( Here, he discusses string theory, Einstein, Higgs boson, and the nothingness of empty space.
Sleep Donation

Sleep Donation, by Karen Russell

When an insomnia epidemic afflicts America, an organization called Slumber Corps recruits healthy sleepers to donate sleep to insomniacs.  Though soundly in sci-fi and Orwellian terrain, the corruption and greed of the story give it an urgency that feels as if it could've been ripped from today's headlines.

Read Amazon editor Kevin Nguyen's interview with Russell.


Colum-McCann-Credit-Dustin-AkslandIn this Q&A between McCann and our friends at Byliner, McCann talks him about his heritage, his craft, and Gone.

Byliner: You grew up in Ireland, a country you’ve noted has been “shaped by books.” Last summer, Charlie Rose asked you what it means to be Irish. You answered, “We have an ability to sing, and the ability to tell a story, and the ability to live our lives out loud. … We seem to embrace a lot of different experiences. Also, we have that sort of lurking sadness.”  Was it from that lurking sadness that you pulled Gone?

McCann: I suppose Gone has several elements of lurking sadness. It exists there in the landscape too. The cottage out on the edge of the water. The single mother. The struggle against the darkness. The loneliness at the end of the year. Not your typical Christmas story, that’s for sure!  But I wanted to invert the expectations, too, and hopefully Gone does that in some way. It turns the tables. There’s a line in there about metal pipes embedded in the stone walls--in an odd way the wind moves over the mouths of the metal pipes and makes the wall sing.

Byliner: Mark Twain is famously credited with saying, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” The perfect word matters, because the relationship between the word and a reader’s understanding of it (and reaction to it) matters. But sometimes it’s very hard to put into words a specific feeling. There’s no translation that’s true enough, good enough. Tell us about how that influenced your decision to make Rebecca Marcus, the mother in Gone, a translator.

McCann: I was fascinated by the lack of a word for a parent who has lost a child. We have no word in English. I thought for sure there’d be a word in Irish but there is none. And then I looked in several other languages and could not find one, until I found the word Sh’khol in Hebrew. I’m still not sure why so many languages don’t have a word for this sort of bereavement, this shadowing. And so it seemed a good thing to turn my character into a translator. And then there was the Jewish aspect which attracted me also. There are fewer and fewer Jews in Ireland, but we still have one of the most famous Jewish characters in literary history, of course, in Leopold Bloom. So there was a direct reference to language there also.  

Byliner: Gone is your first short story in a decade. What brought you back to that form, and how does that form differ in routine from writing a novel?

McCann: I love short stories. They’re like small imploding universes. They are very tightly bound and controlled. I’d been wanting to write one for ages but just got tangled up in novels. The novel is the same in the sense that it is also a universe, but it explodes outwards with all that shrapnel going in several different directions. I don’t see too much difference in the forms except for the fact that writing short stories is like sprinting rather than long-distance running. Novels are more difficult simply because they are longer and require more juggling, but short stories are closer to perfection, if you can get the language right.

Byliner: As a writer, you create characters and their stories. How has writing helped you to "create" your own life?

McCann: Oh, I’m a complete and utter fiction. Then again, we all are. We shape ourselves by our imaginative reach. 

Byliner: When accepting the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction, you told the audience that being allowed to tell a story and listen to a story is a privilege. “Stories are democracy,” you said. “They are the purest form of engagement.” Is there one particular book that stands out for you as having engaged you and inspired your desire to write?

McCann: There are thousands of them. I hate to choose one. But Ulysses is up there. As is Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter. As is Berger’s To the Wedding. As is True History of the Kelly Gang. As is, as is, as is, as is … oh, I could go the length of my bookshelves and beyond. 

Amazon Asks: Peter Mountford, on Nabokov and Creative Sparks


Peter Mountford's debut, 2011's award-winning A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, explored the overlapping pulls of wealth, love, greed, and deceit through the conflicted coming-of-age of an alleged journalist working for a US hedge fund in Bolivia. It was a lively and, though set in 2005, timely story about power, politics, and how far people will go to achieve the lifestyle they believe they deserve.

His new novel, The Dismal Science, comes at the imperfections of capitalism from another angle. A middle-aged VP at the World Bank, who's lost his wife and becomes embroiled in scandal, tries to start his live over when he has no idea how, or even what that means. A man of habit and conviction, he's suddenly neither. "Look, this is capitalism," says the economist, before his life collapses. "We happen to think it works." 

In this smart, somber tale, Mountford seems to be saying, about capitalism and life: It works, until it doesn't.


DS-BookImage_01-shrunkWhat's the elevator pitch for your book?

The Dismal Science tells of a self-destructive and emotionally unstable executive at the World Bank whose outbursts have geopolitical consequences -- at turns tragic and comedic, the novel is a meditation on the fragile nature of identity.

What's on your nightstand?

Bossypants by Tina Fey, A Life in Men by Gina Frangello, and advance reader copies of The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner, and Funny Once by Antonya Nelson.

Preferred reading format?

Print. I don’t object to digital reading in the way that some people do, but I just haven’t bought one of those e-readers. I keep waiting for someone to give me one. Hint hint!

Book that made you want to become a writer?

Lolita. I was pretty oblivious, I’m sorry to say, and I thought that because Nabokov was Russian, that meant he was from the 19th Century and wrote enormous novels with dozens of characters. I started reading and was floored. I didn’t know that prose could be that magnificent. I read all of his published books after that, and he wrote a lot of books. These lectures on Gogol, a book on Don Quixote, etc. All for that voice, those sentences. As he puts it in the opening of Lolita: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

What are you psyched about now?

Getting back to writing soon. I’ve been out promoting this book for a while -- touring for a few weeks. But I feel all this potential energy collecting, creative equivalent to static electricity. It’s building up inside me -- shedding sparks a bit, at this point. It’s going to be fun once I can stop charging around and sit still for a minute.

Favorite line?

W.H. Auden: “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.”

What's next for you?

A novel set in Sri Lanka in 2009, at the peak of their civil war. It’s narrated by a 30-something woman who’s always been a bit of an unambitious dabbler, but finds herself in a very demanding situation, wielding a lot of power.


> See all of Peter's books; visit his website

> Read his New York Times Magazine "Lives" column

How I Wrote It: Willy Vlautin, on "The Free"

VlautinThe characters in Willy Vlautin's quietly brilliant new novel, The Free, embody the embattled middle class: they're wounded (physically, emotionally, financially), they're just getting by, they're hardworking.

Of course, the title is comentary in itself. None of them is free. Not the night-shift worker at the veteran's home, who's lost his home and family; not the brain-damaged Iraq War vet; not his nurse, who's also caring for her mentally ill father. They're the people who "make the rich guys richer."

Yet, strangely, the book is infused with hope. Unwilling to give up, they fight, with what little strength they've got left. Like this exchange:

Wounded vet (in a dream): "You know, my uncle said a person can only see so many bad things before it ruins him."

Girlfriend: "I hope that's not true."

With so many beautifully sad and sadly beautiful moments in this book, I still can't figure out how Vlautin did it... He made me believe they were all going to be okay.



This book started as a series of issues I couldn’t stop thinking about, worrying about. The increasing expense of healthcare and how that affects the working class, soldiers coming home war with long term injuries, and the difficulties of taking care of someone with a long term illness or injury. All heavy and difficult subjects and the book about killed me as I was so worried about getting things right. There’s a lot of moving parts in this one, three stories going on at the same time. That being said, I always try to cut myself some slack here and there. I put Leroy and Jeanette on a boat in one of the most beautiful places in the world, I put in the great Fado singer, Amália Rodrigues, and I’ve always had a thing for nurses so I put in a pretty great nurse, Pauline Hawkins.


I dedicated the book to the patron saint of nurses, Camillus de Lellis. I wrote it for him almost as a distress call in hopes he would look after the sorts of people who are in the book: the wounded soldier, Leroy, the nurse, Pauline, and Freddie the working class guy who’s drowning in medical debt. Camillus de Lellis was a remarkable man. He was a soldier who was an alcoholic and gambleholic. He suffered a leg wound that would never heal and he ended up destitute in a pauper’s hospital. After a time he became an orderly, then a nurse and then a priest. He helped start what we now know as the Red Cross.


As a fan I tend to like novels that follow one character through a journey. Often I’m pulled out of the story when it switches points of view. My greatest dread as a fan is when I start wondering why the writer did this or that. Even thinking about the writer isn’t a good thing for me as a fan. But this story needed the three main characters and so I worked as hard as I could to make sure the transitions from character to character went as smoothly as possible. I always try to write about things that are important to me, things that haunt me or scare me or worry me. Things I can’t shake. This book is the same as my others in that regard but the subject matter was more out of my comfort zone. I write about a brain damaged soldier, health care in the US, and in some degrees religion. All heavy and heated subjects, so it was a difficult book. It took me just six months to put down the first draft but then I spent three years editing it. I think I did thirteen full re-writes before I even showed it to anyone.


I have it made in that regard. I rent an office in a part of Portland called St. Johns. The room is on the second floor and two of the windows look out across the street to a bar called Slims. It opens first thing in the  morning so I can watch people drink and smoke for breakfast but I don’t have to. It’s the best. The room has free heat and I have a desk and a couch and the side window looks out at an old movie theater. The street outside has five old man bars, a bookstore, a taqueria, a record store, and donut shop. It’s heaven. I always write pretty good there, to me I feel like the luckiest person alive when I get to work there.


I’ve never been able to write to music. I day dream too much for it to work. I just start drifting off when there’s a song I like playing. But even so a few years back I made a loop of instrumental music, atmospheric mood music. Not quite whale sounds but close. I wrote an entire novel to this 45 minute loop and it was a blast. It was probably the most fun I ever had writing, but the poor novel was so damaged and beat up and off kilter that I pulled the plug on it after the first edit. It had too many holes and dents to save. Like my mind when I listen to music, the story just sort of drifted off into the ether. It was fun as hell to write that way, but I learned my lesson.


For me it’s all about not getting tired. I can go pretty good until 2 or 3 PM and then I start falling asleep. If I’m not doing good then I call it a day but if I’m on a hot streak I hit the nearby donut shop for coffee and donuts and then I plow on through until I can’t think anymore.


I used to not be able to read anything similar to what I was working on, but I’ve changed over the years. Now I can read most anything and still stay focused on my work. But every book I write, towards the end of the editing process, I read both IRONWEED by William Kennedy and FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner. Both of those books are my guide. I read those and realize I still have a lot more work to do. They make me want to try harder and my hope is always to get closer to writing a book as good as either of those.


When I’m writing fiction I try to live pretty clean. I don’t usually drink, I try to eat better and go running. It’s a long haul writing a novel. I spend so many hours sitting in a room that I have to keep my shit together. I try not to look at the internet but it’s hard not to as it seems like I’m always looking something up. When I used to write at the horse track the temptation was that I wanted to bet every race they had going on the TV’s. Gambling’s all about discipline though. I only let myself bet four races a day. Most times I was betting to break even and buy myself lunch for free but at times I’d get carried away. Nothing like being broke, having a bad day writing, and then losing fifty bucks ‘cause some long shot nosed out your horse.


>See all of Vlautin's books

>Listen to this free audiobook from Audible, in which Vlautin reads excerpts from The Free and discusses his characters--accompanied by Vlautin's own music.


Jennifer Senior, on Modern Parenting and "All Joy and No Fun"

EJoyight years ago, while writing a story for New York magazine, Jennifer Senior came across a researcher's finding that parenthood didn't improve people's happiness "one iota." In fact, it had a negative impact--a radical idea that stuck with her and then flared anew when she became a mom a few years later. 

In All Joy and No Fun, Senior further explores the impact our kids have on our marriages, our self confidence, our friendships, and our sanity. After interviewing moms, dads, psychiatrists, sociologists, economists, and others she concluded that the idea she'd stumbled across in 2006--that we love our kids, and they make us crazy--"was both right, and totally wrong."

She's applied some of what she learned to raising her own son. For example: "I don't have any problem saying this is not a democracy."

All Joy and No Fun was an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February.


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