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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

How I Wrote It: Walter Isaacson, on "The Innovators"

Isaacson"We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation," says Walter Isaacson, whose new book explores the overlooked collaborations and breakthroughs that would eventually give us the personal computer and the Internet. 

In The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, one of our Best Books of the Month, Isaacson shows how lone geniuses like Steve Jobs (the subject of his bestselling 2011 biography) didn't single-handedly create the digital age in which we now live.

[*Scroll down to see a video of Isaacson discussing The Innovators.]

Tell me about the the origins of The Innovators

I began working on this book almost fifteen years ago. It grew out of my fascination with the innovations I’d been part of when I ran digital media for Time Inc. and also from my biography of Benjamin Franklin, who was an inventor, publisher, postal service pioneer, and all-around information networker and entrepreneur. Plus I was an electronics geek as a kid (my father and two uncles were electrical engineers), and I loved soldering circuits, sorting transistors, and building ham radios (WA5JTP). I realized, leaving aside Al Gore jokes, that I didn’t even know how the Internet had been invented. My initial plan was to focus on that. But when I interviewed Bill Gates, he convinced me that the simultaneous emergence of the Internet and the personal computer made for a richer tale. I put this book on hold early in 2009, when I began working on a biography of Steve Jobs. But his story reinforced my interest in how the development of the Internet and computers intertwined.

InnovatorsHow is this book different from your previous books?

I wanted to step away from doing biographies, which tend to emphasize the role of singular individuals, and once again do a book like The Wise Men, which I had coauthored with a colleague about the creative teamwork of six friends who shaped America’s cold war policies.

We don’t often focus on how teamwork is key to innovation. There are thousands of books celebrating people we biographers portray, or mythologize, as lone inventors. I’ve produced a few myself. Search the phrase “the man who invented” on Amazon and you get 1,860 book results. But we have far fewer tales of collaborative creativity, which is actually more important in explaining how today’s technology revolution happened. It can also be more interesting.

What’s the first line and what does it say about the book?

"The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them.” It conveys that I don’t want merely to generalize about innovation. We talk so much about innovation these days that it has become a buzzword, drained of clear meaning. Instead, I set out to report on how the most important dozen or so innovations of the digital age actually happened and to tell the tales of the people who created them. What ingredients produced their creative leaps? What skills proved most useful? How did they think and collaborate? Why did some succeed and others fail?

Tools

I’m a gadget freak. I use an iPhone and a Blackberry and sometimes a Samsung smartphone. I have a MacBook Air and a Dell PC and an iPad. I like to be able to write and research on any of them, wherever I am. So one of my most useful tools is Dropbox, which allows me to summon from the vasty cloud any of my documents, interviews, drafts, and outlines on any device, anywhere, anytime.

Soundtrack

New Orleans funk -- Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, Jon Batiste.

How do you relax and recharge?

Long swims to clear my mind.

Research

I love combining archival research with doing my own interviews. There are historians who are better than I am at mining archives and journalists who are better at pursuing reporting leads, but I like to combine both approaches. I’m lucky that I’ve known and been gathering string on most of the players in the digital revolution over the years--ever since my days at Time in the 1980s and 1990s when we put many of them on the cover--and I can get them to sit down with me. I also love to ferret out the academic papers, journals, and oral histories as well as go see the actual artifacts, such as Colossus at Bletchley Park, Charles Babbage’s reconstructed engine at London’s Science Museum, the Mark I at Harvard, and the delightful cornucopia at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

What surprised you?

The important role of women in the digital revolution, from Ada Lovelace to Grace Hopper to Jean Jennings. They deserve more recognition.

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> See all of Walter Isaacson's books

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Rumors of Tears: An Interview with Nicholas Sparks

Ns1If Stephen King is the King of Horror, Nicholas Sparks is, well, the King of Love. There’s no mystery to it, Sparks insists: “I just put people on dates and let them fall in love.”

Across seventeen novels, nine of them adapted for film, that boy-meets-girl formula, which he's explored every angle, has worked amazingly well for Sparks. He’s become one of the world’s best selling and most beloved authors, and he hasn’t slowed down a bit. The film adaptation of his novel The Best of Me opens Friday, and a screen version of The Longest Ride is coming next year.

“What I’m most proud of in my own career is: I never got lazy,” Sparks said during our interview earlier this summer at Amazon’s Seattle campus.

He’s also never tired of writing about love, “the emotion that pretty much drives most of the goodness in the world." Though he tries to walk a line between drama and melodrama--"almost like threading a needle”--he acknowledges some critics think he crosses into mawkish sentimentality. His goal, learned from his hero, King, is to simply tell the best story he can, and let readers decide. And if he makes readers feel something? Then he's done his job.

“I’ve heard rumors that some people have actually shed tears over some of my novels,” he joked.

The interview is a long one--almost 45 minutes--but fans will enjoy hearing Sparks talk about his work habits, and how sales of The Notebook seem to spike whenever Ryan Gosling takes off his shirt.

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>See all of Nicholas Sparks’ books

>See Amazon's exclusive book-and-DVD combo of The Notebook

>Visit our Facebook page for more Nicholas Sparks news and deals this week


 

Lawyers, Guns, and Money: Best Mysteries & Thrillers of the Month

GrishamI've always thought Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" sounded like the setup to a Graham Greene novel: I was gambling in Havana / I took a little risk ... I'm the innocent bystander / Somehow I got stuck / Between the rock and the hard place / And I'm down on my luck ... Now I'm hiding in Honduras / I'm a desperate man." In the spirit of desperate, hardluck gamblers,here's a roundup of the lawyers, guns, and money found among our editors' picks for October's best mysteries and thrillers.

Lawyers

Gray Mountain, by John Grisham

When Samantha Kofer's New York law firm downsizes her, she reluctantly heads to rural Virginia to work for a legal aid clinic, where she confronts the ecological tragedy known as mountaintop removal. Turns out Big Coal and its thugs will do anything to protect it's black gold. Even murder.

Bones Never Lie, by Kathy Reichs

Two murders and a kidnapped child pull forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan into Charlotte NC's Cold Case Unit, and back to a disturbing case from her past: a psychopathic murderer who eluded capture years ago but now seems to have resurfaced.

PloughmenGuns

The Ploughmen, by Kim Zupan

In this magnificently dark and graceful debut, a 77-year-old contract killer awaiting trial gets talking with the young deputy assigned to guard him, the two men sharing cigarettes and stories and developing an uneasy bond. In a style that's both menacing and moving, Zupan writes with a restrained beauty, whether he's decribing Montana's plains or a gunshot in the back.  

Spark, by John Twelve Hawks

Jacob Underwood is a professional assassin who kills on behalf of multinational corporations. He also suffers from a neurological condition that allows him to do his job without remorse or emotion. That is, until he's assigned to kill a female colleague who's disappeared.

Money

Sometimes the Wolf, by Urban Waite

WolfTwelve years after being sent to prison on drug charges, ex-Sheriff Patrick Drake is released on parole, into the hands of his son, Bobby, now a deputy in father's old department. When two very bad dudes show up in the Pacific Northwest town of Silver Lake looking for cash they believe Drake hid before going to prison, Waite unfurls a dark and violent tale that's equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard.

A Sudden Light, Garth Stein

While not technically a mystery-thriller, Stein's novel of a dysfunctional old-money timber family is packed with mystery--and ghosts. A father has brought his 14-year-old son to the crumbling family mansion outside Seattle, in hopes of convincing his father to sell to developers. Instead, the boy discovers family secrets that might just save them all.

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More great mystery-thrillers: Parted

Last Winter We Parted, Fuminori Nakamura

The Boy Who Drew Monsters, by Keith Donahue

The Life We Bury, by Allen Eskens

The Girl Next Door, by Ruth Rendell

You, by Carolyn Kepnes

Cobra, by Deon Meyer

Brood, by Chase Novak

Tunnel Vision, by Aric Davis

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! 

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>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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.)

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