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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

Video: Ken Burns on the Making of "The Roosevelts"

RooseveltsKen Burns is known for telling epic stories about events and achievements in American history, from Prohibition to the Civil War to baseball. But rarely has he focused on personal history as he does in his latest documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, which profiles the entwined, influential lives of Theodore, Eleanor, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Burns recently visited us at Amazon to discuss the seven-part series, which began airing on PBS in September and is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (The series is accompanied by a book of the same name, written with Geoffrey Ward).

"If these people really did influence us more than any other family--and I can make that argument--we want to know where they came from," Burns told me during our interview. "Their empathy is borne of certain sufferings that they each experienced ... They're all wounded people."

10 Books We Missed in High School … and Later Loved

Blame it on Cliff Notes, or our English teachers, or laziness, but there are plenty of classics that even our well-read crew of editors never read when we should have. Our friends at SheKnows.com asked us to come up with a list of books that we didn't get to until after high school. Sheepishly, we admitted that the list was a long one. Here are ten that we loved, even if we discovered them a bit late.

MobyMoby Dick

Reading Moby Dick in my early twenties, and once again in my late twenties, was a revelatory experience for me. For many reasons, it’s a book that I think about often. Here’s the line I’ve been considering lately:  “whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” –-Chris Schluep

King Lear

Shakespeare and high school kind of go hand-in-hand. I remember reading Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and a few others. But my most rewarding experiences with the bard have been when I’ve sat down on my own and cracked open a play or even one of his sonnets. Yes, you have to be in the right mood for something like this—but as a friend of mine recently commented: “it’s been 500 years and no one has figured out yet how to do it better.”  –-Chris Schluep

Crime and Punishment 

I shied away from Crime and Punishment in high school because it was sooooo long and seemingly complicated--but when I spent a summer abroad in college, I was desperate for something long and complicated and. . . in English. Never mind that C&P is, of course, a Russian novel, the English-language version--which I found in a used book store--meant I could have periods of respite from Spanish conversation with my non-English-speaking hosts and friends. –-Sara Nelson

Fahrenheit 451 

After graduating, I went on a time-consuming, extracurricular tear on some classics that apparently weren’t classic enough for my high school: Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. But best of all was Bradbury, and of all his indispensable books, Fahrenheit 451 appealed most to my Cold War brain. –-Jon Foro

GrapesGrapes of Wrath

I took the long way around to The Grapes of Wrath: starting with Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, I worked through Wallace Stegner and other giants of western lit, eventually to Timothy Egan’s Dust Bowl classic, The Worst Hard Time. Steinbeck was the logical end of this journey, humanizing much of the suffering that formed the West, as well as the nation. –-Jon Foro

A Separate Peace

As the father of two teen boys, I’ve become something of an expert on the dark side of adolescence. Like Lord of the Flies and other sinister takes on coming of age, Knowles explores that fine and sometimes dangerous line between growing up on your own terms — or on someone else’s. –-Neal Thompson

Brave New World

I think I might’ve wrongly assumed that since I’d read 1984 I could skip Huxley’s take on a dystopian utopia. What was so remarkable about reading it years after high school was seeing how frighteningly prescient Huxley was in predicting their weirdness of life in a future society — like ours. –-Neal Thompson

FliesThe Lord of the Flies

Maybe it was my mom’s screams at my brother and me (“You’re just like ‘Lord of the Flies’ you two!”) that kept me away from this classic for so long. But thank god I finally discovered the book that explained the madness of boyhood to me, and so much more. Sorry, ma! –-Neal Thompson

To Kill a Mockingbird

I somehow lumped this in with some of the other books boring me to death in high school (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, anyone?) but when I read it as an adult I understood why so many people consider this their favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird is everything you need to know about innocence lost, injustice, kindness, and love. You can’t help but be changed by it. –-Seira Wilson

Catch-22

I had no idea that a story of war could be serious and funny at the same time until I read Catch-22. Joseph Heller introduced me to the brilliance of satire and ingrained in me the utter impossibility of truly “winning” a conflict of politics and belief, when human life is the currency being wagered. –-Seira Wilson

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>Read the original story at SheKnows.com

 

Peter Heller (The Painter) Interviews Bill Roorbach (The Remedy for Love)

Peter heller and meThe only thing better than interviewing one of my favorite authors? Having two of my favorites talking books with each other--at a bar.

Peter Heller (author of The Dog Stars and The Painter) recently shared a drink or two with Bill Roorbach at City Park Grille in Petoskey, Michigan--a Hemingway hangout--after which he asked Roorbach about his new novel, The Remedy for Love.

Heller previously had this to say about Roorbach's latest: “I’m not sure there’s another American writing today who can lay down a love story, or any story, with the depth and freshness of Bill Roorbach ... leave it to him to tease out the subtle nuances in the progress of love while stoking a tale that is as gripping as any Everest expedition.”

I'll step aside and let them have at it...

~~

Peter Heller: I took to The Remedy for Love right away, maybe because it’s a shipwreck, desert-island kind of story, albeit inland in Maine, and those are my favorites. Are you a fan of Defoe, Conrad, Coetzee? Or any of the epic non-fiction survival narratives like Shackleton’s?

Bill Roorbach: I love those kinds of stories, and all the ones you mention. Robinson Crusoe was a mainstay of my youth, and the Coetzee version, whoa. Speaking of youth, “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad. I think you’d call it a novella now, a long story based on the author’s own experience.You know it, right? This kid goes to sea on a coal boat and somewhere in the far southern ocean the boat catches fire. But that’s just half the adventure--the rest is getting back to England, which the protagonist manages, much as Conrad did. You can’t rest for a second reading that thing. And that’s just what I was going for, but boiled down to a simple situation--nothing unusual for Maine--that spirals out of control. Add a woman. At first, it’s just about one person trying to help another as snow starts falling, and then it's a disaster. Yet it’s a disaster with certain comforts.

IndexPH: Eric and Danielle are tailor-made not to get along, maybe even to hate each other. Was that fun for you, to throw them into that cabin and bring down the Storm of the Century?

BR: It was fun and painful in equal measure. I liked how Eric’s sweet nature and sense of duty is what gets him involved, and then how her mistrust makes him question his own motives. There he is being helpful, but he needs help, too, and doesn’t even know what he needs.

PH: I was constantly surprised as I read The Remedy for Love. And I’m not easy to sneak up on. Did the characters surprise you as well?

BR: I was surprised writing these two people, for sure. They found ways to reveal depths I hadn’t known about when I started in. I kept having to revise to catch up with them. Several times I had to stop and do several days of research, just to know what Danielle knew, or to understand her experience. Eric, same, though his revelations are quieter. I was also surprised by the way the storm in my story kept growing. Ten years ago, I don’t think anyone would have believed in this storm, least of all myself. But after Katrina and Sandy and all the typhoons that have wreaked havoc in Asia recently, and after recent winters in Maine, well, we’re all just waiting for it to happen.

PH: Well, I loved reading the book, as I said--had to get up and put on wool socks.

BR: I had the same experience, writing in the summer. I’d look up from my keyboard and be surprised there was no snow outside, that it was warm and safe. Like waking from a dream and realizing you haven’t really been thrown off a cliff.

PH: The Remedy for Love, which is so compact and intimate, seems like a departure from Life Among Giants, which is so multi-layered and covers so much time. Is this a purposeful shift?

BR: Life Among Giants took a long time to write for many reasons, but one reason was the huge cast and the grand sweep of time. When it was time to start a new book, I resolved to write one with just two main characters, one main setting, and make the central action happen in just a few days. The manuscript of Life Among Giants was huge, too, and it would take a while to come back from the various stages of editing. I used those months to start The Remedy for Love, one section at a time, and then used the even longer months of waiting for Life Among Giants publication day to keep drafting and stay sane. By the time the Giants paperback tour was done, The Remedy for Love was in production!

PH: You live in a not-large town in rural Maine. The setting of the book is beautifully rendered and you have a way, with this attention to very particular detail, of immersing the reader. The peripheral characters feel very real as well. And what happens when you walk into the local café after a book like this is published?

BR: Luckily, there are no cafés here! But seriously, Woodchurch, the town in the book, only somewhat resembles my town. The people in Remedy are thoroughly fictional. And most all of the action takes place deep in the woods, anyway, so I avoid trouble. Still, I’m sure people will be guessing.

PH: Do you spend a lot of time in the woods? Have you ever feared for your life there?

BR: I spend a lot of time in the woods, yes. Always have, since I was a little boy and didn’t have to home till dark. Now it’s a long walk or ski every day pretty much all year, and a lot of hiking and swimming, that kind of thing. My scares are usually more comic than life-threatening. Once I got lost in the fog and got off trail as it was getting dark. I didn’t mind the prospect of sleeping in the woods, but I didn’t want to miss dinner. So I did the Boy Scout thing of making straight lines by sighting on trees (you know, you pick three trees that form a straight line, walk forward one tree, and find another tree ahead in a straight line, and so on—this keeps you from going in circles, which is how people stay lost) and finally crossed a road, but miles from my car. Once, though, well, I should have feared for my life, but was too dazed to think that way: I’d taken an epic fall skiing far back in the woods here on a very cold morning, like ten below, all by myself, no phone in my pocket, no service out there anyway. I hit my face, snapped my neck back, and I knew I was hurt, even though there was no pain, but I couldn’t get up, couldn’t make myself move—things just weren’t working properly. After a long time in that weather (my sweat freezing), I started to go to sleep. I finally told myself I had to move, and then I did, got back on my feet and skied home a couple of miles. The pain didn’t start for a few days, happily, and the end of the story is a spinal fusion, three vertebrae in my neck. Titanium in there now…

PH: Why the title? This is a great love story that subverts itself from the start. You must have loved Frank Zappa.

BR: I love Zappa. Suzie Creamcheese and Sheik Yerbouti. Hours in Jimmy Naphen’s attic analyzing every nuance of note and word, and appreciating the strange combination of comic lyrics with very serious music. But this title comes from Thoreau. His remedy for love is to love more. Who knew old Henry had ever had a broken heart?

PH: What’s next?

BR: I’m working on the pilot script for Life Among Giants, which is in development at HBO. Still a lot of hoops and hurdles before we’ll get it on TV, but at least I’m getting paid. And also, main project, working on a new novel, which I’ve been calling Lucky Turtle. Takes place mostly in Montana, so I’m getting back out to your territory, also the territory of my youth. And a book of stories, which Algonquin will publish in 2016, The Girl of the Lake.

PH: Danielle reminded me so much of a woman I dated in the late 90s, whose wounded mercury and magic almost killed me. Who was your Danielle?

BR: What’s that? You’re breaking up. And I’ve got to cook dinner anyway. Thanks Peter, great talking! 

~~

>See all of Roorbach's books

>See all of Heller's books

How I Wrote It: "Dark, Dirty, Fierce" - Merritt Tierce, on "Love Me Back"

Tierce_headshot_800Who knew the life of a waitress could be so brutal, compelling, and nasty. Merritt Tierce's gripping and gritty debut novel Love Me Back is the story of Marie, a single mom in Texas who can't seem to stay away from the drugs, sex and bad choices that have created an obstacle course between her and adulthood. Fiercely written and uncompromisingly blunt, Tierce (a National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree and a Rona Jaffe Award-winner) is a bold writer and a powerful new voice.

~

Ten words that describe Love Me Back?

Dark, dirty, fierce. Woman, mother, sex. Men, appetites, sex. Restaurants.

Reader

I wrote it for myself, and for Marie (the book’s narrator). I don’t write with an imaginary reader in mind, or to satisfy anyone other than myself--I write to make sentences that sound whole and original. I read for the same reason: not to find out what happens next but to hear the best words in the best order. When I say I wrote it for Marie I mean that I was inside her mind and I was trying to tell her story in a respectful, honest way. To the extent that Marie is a version of my younger self, especially in the first few chapters of the book, I wrote the book for all three of us--a way to salvage whatever was important about all that. Writing is the alchemy that refines the joyless experiences of my youth into something of value.
 
Tierce Space

I have a cedar closet that I’ve converted into a writing space. It smells wonderful and it’s small, about two feet deep and four feet wide. I love small spaces and I love being hidden away from the world. I put a rocking chair in there and my husband installed some reinforcements under the closet’s shelf so I can climb up and dream-nap. There are string lights and a paper lantern. On the walls I’ve posted many beloved talismans--handwritten notes from friends, drawings my kids made for me when they were little, some favorite photographs--as well as strong ideas I’ve had over the years, one per notecard.
 
That space is where I go when I can’t write anywhere else in my house. We have seven pets and three children, so our home is rarely quiet. If I’m not at home I can be exceptionally productive in transit. Something about being confined to an airport, or on a train/plane surrounded by strangers, opens the vault. Constraints provoke creativity.
 
Tools

I usually write on my MacBook Air. I write in Word (although I’m recently enamored of Pages), but I never write with the document in typical manuscript layout--portrait orientation, double-spaced, etc. I can’t stand to see that on my screen. The words look vulnerable and weak and I instinctively want to herd them closer to one another. I have a template I use to make the document look more like a book: landscape, two columns, justified, Garamond 13 pt, specific margins and spacing, among other elements I conform. If I could make the white background more page-colored I would. I often set the View mode to Focus so all the toolbars and rulers and menus disappear.

When I write by hand I like Pilot .38 pens. They are hard to find in stores because the tip is so fine, which is what I love about them. And while I’m more disturbed all the time by the firearms violence in this country, it’s not lost on me that I write with a .38 and I do believe that words are extraordinarily powerful. My pen is my weapon.
 
Soundtrack

I need either complete silence or loud, loud, engulfing sound. I finished one of my last drafts of Love Me Back at a goth club in Dallas. I sat in a high-backed red velvet chair at The Church and slipped right into flow state.
 
Fuel

When I’m really writing, especially something new, my body seems to enter a version of suspended animation--I suppose temporarily suppressing its normal operations to push more blood to my brain. I don’t become tired or hungry or thirsty until I’m out of the grip, and then I find I am behind on all kinds of systems maintenance.
 
Inspiration

I love weeding. I took a class on Chekhov from Allan Gurganus, and one of his many wise prescriptions was that we [writers] should all garden. I hadn’t had the yard or time to do that until after I graduated from Iowa, but over the past couple of years I have discovered he is absolutely right. I love visiting my plants every day and weeding is so restorative, for both my head and the flowers. Sometimes I’m disappointed if there aren’t any new weeds.
 
Frequently I fall asleep when I sit down to write, which used to frustrate me. I felt like it was a sign that I wasn’t disciplined enough to just force my mind into a keen, industrious state. But I’ve realized that my brain is actually taking a bath. It’s soaking itself in some sleep to wash off whatever film of clamor or preoccupation has built up. When I awake from these naps I can hear myself more clearly.
 
Walking is a great generator as well. I’ve written about this in a story called Everything I Did in Madrid. In that story, a writer can only have ideas while running--once the heart starts beating hard it gives up the good stuff.

From the Archives: How I Wrote It - A Conversation with Ken Follett

KenFollett_credit Barbara FollettWith the recent publication of Edge of Eternity, the third book in Ken Follett's massively epic Century Trilogy, I thought I'd re-share this conversation I had with Follett two years ago, when he published the second book in the series, Winter of the World.

We discussed his obsession with the Twentieth Century and his admiration for Stephen King.

~

I have vivid memories of my dad loaning me his copy of Ken Follett’s 1978 break-out bestseller, Eye of the Needle. I was in eighth grade and it was my first stab at a fat, hardcover grown-up book, which triggered a lifelong taste for literary spy thrillers. (Trevanian’s Shibumi and The Eiger Sanction were other teenaged discoveries). Not content to remain a contemporary thriller writer, however, Follett has explored other genres and eras in his varied and ambitious career, most notably the wildly successful Middle Ages stories of Pillars of the Earth and its sequel, World Without End.

Based on the success of World Without End, Follett began planning another long historical story that would mix real and fictional characters, “something with the same kind of scale and sweep,” he told me. The result is The Century Trilogy, an epic exploration of the wars and turmoil of the Twentieth Century. Winter of the World, the second book in the trilogy (the sequel to Fall of Giants), goes on sale today. I recently spoke with Follett by phone about the origins of the trilogy, how he brings his concepts and characters to life, about re-reading Dickens, and clipping photographs from magazines.

Why the Twentieth Century?

It struck me that this is actually the most dramatic century in the history of the human race. We had most of the terrible wars that we've ever had, we had revolutions, and we had enormous change, on a scale that’s never been seen before. And yet, of course, most of my readers were born in the Twentieth Century – so it’s where we all come from.

Once you’ve decided what the period is going to be, what’s next for you as far as creating the characters and the story?

FollettIt occurred to me almost immediately that this wasn’t one book, and it occurred to me to split it into three, and for each book to be based around a war--so it’s the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. So that gave me the structure. And then I worked for about six months on the overall concept--reading and research--and loosely planning the whole trilogy. And then I focused on the first book, Fall of Giants, and read in much more detail about the period, and began to block out the story. 

[For research, Follett relied heavily on The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, by Erik Hobsbawm; History of the First World War and History of the Second World War, by Basil Liddel Hart; and Orlando Figes's works on the Soviet Union. "He includes a great deal of colorful detail, which of course is exactly the kind of thing that the novelist wants to get hold of."]

Continue reading "From the Archives: How I Wrote It - A Conversation with Ken Follett" »

October is National Reading Group Month

Ggr_logo_rightOctober is National Reading Group Month and it's nice to see some of our favorite books of the past year make the annual "Great Group Reads" list.

Sponsored by the Women's National Book Association, each year a committee selects a list of books for reading groups and book clubs.

Below is this year's list, with the publisher in parentheses. (*An asterisk denotes a book that our editors had selected as a Best Book of the Month pick.)

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)*
Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent (Back Bay Books)*
LilyCataract City, by Craig Davidson (Graywolf Press)
Children of the Jacaranda Tree, by Sahar Delijani (Atria)
The Commandant of Lubizec, by Patrick Hicks (Steerforth Press)
Euphoria, by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press)*
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press)*
Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe (Soho Press)
Marching to Zion, by Mary Glickman (Open Road Media)
Neverhome, by Laird Hunt (Little, Brown)
The Orphans of Race Point, by Patry Francis (Harper Perennial)
Painted Horses, by Malcolm Brooks (Grove Press)*
Prayers for the Stolen, by Jennifer Clement (Hogarth)
The Promise, by Ann Weisgarber (Skyhorse Publishing)
RosieThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion (Simon & Schuster)*
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books)
An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay (Black Cat)
What Is Visible, by Kimberly Elkins (Twelve)
Where Somebody Waits, by Margaret Kaufman (Paul Dry Books)
The World of Rae English, by Lucy Rosenthal (Black Lawrence Press)

The list was selected by a 26-member committee composed of writers, reviewers, booksellers, librarians, publicists and dedicated readers, whose goal is to bring attention to underrepresented titles from independent publishers, small presses, and lesser-known midlist releases from larger houses.

For more general information, visit NationalReadingGroupMonth.org and wnba-books.org.

You Said It: Customer Reviews of Amazon's Best Books of the Month

Now it's your turn. Here's what a few Amazon customers are saying about five of the books we selected as the Best Books of September. We should point out that since all of these are books that our editors deemed “best” of the month, we’re only including 5-star reviews. To get the full range of opinions--after all, everybody's got one when it comes to books--click through to the book page.

~

BoneThe Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Loved this, says K. L. Cotugno

Impossible to quantify. He writes like no other. Today he said there must be five elements to make a novel work: style, character, plot, structure and ideas. At least, I think that list is accurate. And that is what makes his work so involving. He can carry you away or center you, and the dystopian future he envisions, frightening as it may be, is truly believable. (Read the full review.)

~

A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, by Matt Richtel

Amazing, says Kristine Lofgren

More than a story about a tragedy, it is a tale with a cast of characters that will change the way you look at people and will absolutely change the way you look at the technology in your life. Richtel isn't encouraging people to step back into some 17th century tech-free zone. But he is encouraging readers to look at their own behaviors and find the courage to be honest with oneself. Highly entertaining, endlessly informative and gorgeously written. (Read the full review.)

~

FrenchThe Secret Place, by Tana French

Literary Fiction That Just Happens to be a Mystery, says Bonnie Brody "Book Lover and Knitter"

I found it difficult to put the book down. Ms. French has a magical way with words, a unique gift of narrative that is solely her own. At times I wanted to call it magical realism but it is not quite that. The novel grabbed me from the beginning and didn't let me go, even when it was finished. Ms. French wants to show the complexity of human nature and she navigates the internal and external worlds of her characters with a shimmering quality. (Read the full review.)

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CosbyCosby: His Life and Times, by Mark Whitaker

Bill Cosby IS a very funny fellow!, says Deborah

Basically, I was THOROUGHLY caught up in this book. It's a long read, over 500 pages but completely worth it … The author does not ignore Cosby's human faults, and even Cosby doesn't want to dwell on them, but they are noted. This has become one of my favorite all time books, ....and now I'm going to find all my old Cosby recordings and play them again. I encourage you to do the same. (Read the full review.)

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WhatifWhat If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Essential Reading, says R. Eisenberg

Randall Munroe treats each question as if it had the gravity (a lot of gravity questions here- sorry) of your typical 'is there intelligent life in the universe?' (or on Earth, for that matter) yet maintains the attitude of early Bill Cosby- 'Why is there air?' This is one of the most captivating and thoroughly enjoyable books I have seen in a long time. (Read the full review.)

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11Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandell

A near-perfectly crafted text in terms of structure and style, imbued with a haunting depth of feeling and heart, says B. Capossere

“Quiet” and “lovely” are not usually words one reaches for when describing a post-apocalyptic novel. Not with the reverted-back-to-savagery cannibals; the road-raging-mohawk-sporting highway warriors; the gleeful told-you-so rat-a-tat of survivalist gunfire, or the annoying mumblespeak “braiiinnnnss” from the shambling zombies. But quiet and lovely are exactly the words I’d use to describe Station Eleven, the post-apocalyptic novel from Emily St. John Mandel that is happily missing all the above and shows the modern world ending with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a gentle murmur. (Read the full review.)

Ma, Pa, Yo, and Up: Celebrating Two-Letter Words, with Roz Chast

101Last week, cartoonist and illustrator Roz Chast was named a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction for her illustrated memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? She's also recently collaborated with singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) on his quirky-cute book, 101 Two-Letter Words, which goes on sale next week. (Sept. 29, Norton)

101 Two-Letter Words is an ode to Scrabble-friendly words such as et, id, and aa (a type of lava). Each of the 101 words is accompanied by a four-line poem by Merritt, and a cartoon by Chast, who calls herself a fan of Merritt's music and who recently told the Wall Street Journal that the collaboration "was so much fun."

That's how we'd describe the book, too--so much fun.

Here's a sampling...

 9780393240191_il_1

 

A few no-brainer two-letter words: at, go, hi, no, up.

A few of the more obscure ones: ka, oe, qi, xu, za.

 

9780393240191_il_2

 

Merritt explains in the book's introduction that, as a musician who's often on the road, he plays a lot of Words With Friends on his phone. He started writing these poems as mnemonic devices to help him remember the two-letter words that were acceptable in Scrabble.

 

9780393240191_il_3

 ~

RozWith the Magnetic Fields, Stephin Merritt has written, produced, and recorded ten albums, including 69 Love Songs, which was named one of the 500 best albums of all time by Rolling Stone.

Roz Chast has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker since 1978. Her cartoons have been collected in What I Hate, Theories of Everything, and The Party After You Left. She also illustrated The Alphabet from A to Y, with Bonus Letter Z, the best-selling children’s book by Steve Martin.

> See all of Roz Chast's books

Books-to-Film: Jonathan Tropper's "This Is Where I Leave You" -- Watch the Movie Trailer

When Jonathan TropTropperper's novel This Is Where I Leave You was published in 2009--and soon after named one of Amazon's Best Books of the Year--our reviewer, Daphne Durham, described the book as "wickedly funny ... as much about a family's reckoning as it is about one man's attempt to get it together."

Tropper's protagonist is now being portrayed by Jason Bateman, in the film of the same name, which is releasing this weekend. It also stars Tina Fey and Jane Fonda.

Listen to Durham speak with Tropper in this audio podcast.

At the time, Tropper described his protagonist as a man "dealing with the complete unraveling of his life ... he just wonders how much further he has to sink before he starts climbing back up."

In her review, Durham called Tropper "a master of the cutting one-liner that makes you both cringe and crack up.

"But what elevates his novels and makes him a truly splendid writer is his ability to create fantastically flawed, real characters who stay with you long after the book is over."

How I Wrote It: Lin Enger, on "The High Divide"

LinSet in the 1880s, mostly in the wilderness of the Montana Territory, Lin Enger's second novel, The High Divide, tells the sweeping story of a man on the run, from both his family and his past. It's also the story of the bloody history of the northern plains, the slaughter of bison herds and of the native Plains Indians. The High Divide (on sale 9/23) is one of our Best Books of the Month editors' picks in literature and fiction.

~

Origins

This novel comes from three places:

First, from my lifelong fascination with the American bison, the buffalo, an interest I attribute to a family legend dating back to 1884, when my great-grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, supposedly shot and killed one of the last wild buffalo in Dakota Territory. The animal was drinking from the stock tank behind his sod barn.

The second source (related to the first) was my discovery some fifteen years ago of a bit of history I found remarkable, and remarkably ironic. I came across it in a book called The Time of the Buffalo, by Tom McHugh. In 1886, William Temple Hornaday, curator and chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., realized the museum possessed not one good specimen of the American bison.  Aware that the animal was near extinction, he organized in the fall of that year an expedition into Montana Territory to collect specimens--a hunt that resulted in the “harvest” of 25 bison, which Hornaday then fashioned into a lifelike panorama that stood on display in the Smithsonian until 1957.

Third, and entirely unrelated to the first two--and for reasons I cannot fathom--I’ve long wanted to write a novel about children forced to go in search of a missing father. And it was this father I invented, and his wife and their children, who became the focus of the novel.

I should add: my best stories come from the collision of two or more very divergent ideas.

HighReader

I didn’t know it when I started, but by the time I finished the novel, I was writing to remind readers in this forward-leaning country to pause, take an honest look back, and remember how we came into possession of the continent we occupy. It is not a noble story, and those who lived it--those on every side of the struggle--suffered all kinds of losses. And in fact the story has never ended. As a third-generation immigrant, I couldn’t tell it from a Native perspective, but I was able to tell it from the point of view of a soldier caught up in the Indian Wars, and from the perspectives of his wife and his sons, who (like the families of all war veterans) fall into the category, you might say, of collateral damage.

Space

Not exactly by choice, I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself?  Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886. I also wrote in other places: coffee shops, libraries, hotel rooms, anywhere. Writing a novel is such an immersion experience--you have to take it with you; it refuses to be left at home.

Since finishing the book, my wife and I have downsized into a smaller house, and I recently acquired a standing desk (salvaged from a library) that I’ve placed along the empty east wall of our bedroom. That’s where I’m writing the next book.

Tools

I write first drafts with a mechanical pencil on narrow-lined, spiral-bound notebooks. Then I type that draft into a MacBook and start the work of rewriting and revising. For this book, I made an effort to complete the first draft quickly; I was teaching full-time and had only one or two hours a day, but I was still able to finish the draft in about six months. At every writing session I filled between two and four notebook pages with a very small cursive script. When I write letters or academic prose, I work on the laptop keyboard, but when I write fiction I need the personal connection of my fingers gripping the pencil, the lead script scratching its way onto the lined paper. Often, I am able to move more deeply into the world I’m making if I take off my glasses (I’m very near-sighted) and bend my head right down into the words as they appear. Anything to erase the distance between myself and the story, which seems to exist as a thing apart from me.

Words

As a professor, I read all the time--books I’m teaching, student papers and stories, masters’ theses.  I’m always having to push my own work aside. And so when I can finally turn my attention to it, when I’m finally looking at a space of time ahead of me, writing time--especially summers--it doesn’t take much to prime the pump; the flow is there, and the writing comes pretty fast and joyfully. Which is not to say it isn’t hard work. It is. But hard work can be fun, draft after draft of it before scenes and characters have taken on the lives I envision for them. I wrote five drafts of this novel, and not one person read it until I was satisfied that it was finished.

But what am I reading now? The Grapes of Wrath. An old college friend recently told me he’d just read it for the first time, and that shamed me into giving it another try. Wow. Steinbeck’s vision, his compassion, his encyclopedic rendering of a place and time, it’s blowing me away. When I’m working on a first draft, though, I don’t have the mental space to read other people’s fiction--or to read much of anything besides what is required of my teacher-self. Once in revision mode, I’ll read again, preferably fiction writers whose sentences I admire: James Welch, Cormac McCarthy, James Salter.

Inspiration

My inspiration was the research I did in order to get things right--or try to. I read books about the bison, about Native American history and culture, about the Indian Wars of the late-nineteenth century, about the settlement of the West. The temptation, of course, was to keep on reading and put off the writing, because there was never a time when I thought, “Yes, now I’m ready: I know everything I have to know.” Never happened. I just had to plunge in and trust I wouldn’t drown.

Temptation

I have this terrible inclination, as soon as the writing starts going well, to push away from the desk, notebook, or laptop, and go do something absolutely unnecessary--make something to eat or mow the lawn. It’s like some part of my self doesn’t want the writer part to see the project through. So I have to be constantly on guard against this urge. On the other hand, when I find myself struggling with a scene or a sentence or a plot turn, beating my head against a wall and unwilling to give up until I find the answer, that’s when I have to force myself to leave the writing for a few minutes and go for a walk. And if I do that--just step away--many times the problem will dissolve, almost by itself, and I can return to my desk with a clear path ahead.

~

Lin Enger is an Iowa Workshop graduate, the author of the novel Undiscovered Country, and the recipient of a James Michener Award and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. His short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ascent, Great River Review, Wolf Head Quarterly, and other journals. He teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Visit his website: www.lin-enger.com.

 

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