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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

XKCD Webcomic Creator Randall Munroe Asks: "What If?"

WhatifWhat if I swam in a pool of spent nuclear fuel?

What would happen if lightning struck a bullet in midair?

How long could the human race survive on only cannibalism?

Could you get drunk from drinking a drunk person's blood?

If there was a robot apocalypse, how long would humanity last?

These are the kinds of questions Randall Munroe receives daily from his millions of loyal, curious, and sometimes worrisome fans, at his crazily popular webcomic site, xkcd.

A former NASA roboticist--who now has an asteroid (4942 Munroe) named after him--Munroe responds to fans’ bizarre questions using computer simulations, military research, complex math equations, and consulting with experts. His responses, complemented by his stick-figure drawings, are mini masterpieces that often predict the annihilation of humankind, or at least a really big explosion.

Monroe's new book, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, is a Best Books of the Month selection that’s currently ranked #1 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Which helps explain the overflow crowd that came to hear him speak today on Amazon’s Seattle campus, where he was greeted like a rock star. (He's also recently been on NPR and the Colbert Report.)

MunroeBefore a very appreciative audience--more than a few of them engineers--Munroe explored a few sample questions from the book, including: What if you tried to build a periodic table made of brick-sized chunks of each corresponding element? Ultimately, he explained in his very deadpan delivery, by the time you got to the seventh row of the elements, you would've ignited a series of explosions that kept igniting more explosions. "Within the first few seconds you’ve had several Hiroshimas worth of energy released,” he said, revealing a drawing of a giant mushroom cloud over the United States.

Munroe also explored a scenario involving the fastest possible means of delivering an Amazon package across the country, by drone. After a complex series of calculations, the result was also a massive explosion and a mushroom cloud. “There is no conceivable reason to deliver a package this fast,” he said.

The What If? blog grew from a physics lecture Munroe once gave to high schoolers at MIT. As he watched the students tune out, in the same way he'd tuned out in boring classes, he decided to find ways to make science more interesting. But he admitted that his ultimate goal isn't really to teach, but to learn.

“The real reason I’m doing this is: I really want to know the answer to these questions,” said Munroe (who asked not to be photographed during his visit. That's his self portrait to the right.)

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AnimorphAsked about his five favorite books, Munroe semi-seriously cited the Animorphs series--particularly books #5 and #26. "So I guess that's two..."

He also mentioned these three:

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

    "I felt like it was one of the books that nailed the vibe I was going for with writing What If ... It's a what-if scenario: what if people disappeared overnight."

Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter

    "I've read it many times, each time understanding a little more of what I was reading as I was growing up."

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.

    “As someone who grew up in the country, it was just mind blowing, in terms of explaining how cities actually work ... It corrected all these misconceptions I had about cities, some of which I learned from playing Sim City.”


 

 

Ink in the Veins: Books by Newspaper Reporters

SimonFrom 1997 to 2002, I worked as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, capping a fifteen-year stretch in newspapers. One thing I loved about the job was getting paid to tell a story every single day, and to read great stories by writers I admired: crime stories, courtroom dramas, political intrigue, heartwarming features, longform investigations, profiles, and even the obits--I’m still a sucker for the well-crafted summary of a well-played life.

At the Sun, I had the privilege of working alongside an exceptional group of writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to aspiring novelists. And in the years since, I’ve watched many of them transition from daily journalism into books. Leading the way at the Sun was David Simon, who, before going on to produce The Wire and Treme, was a helluva reporter who wrote two classics of immersive, journalistic nonfiction: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (both of which became television shows).

Simon is now married to one of my favorite writers, novelist and Baltimore Sun alum Laura Lippman, who told me by email that her success as an author “is rooted in the good habits I learned at The Sun and other newspapers.”

"Reporters in general are well-suited to publishing," Lippman said. "Deadlines, a commitment to clean copy--they're second nature to most of us. Or should be."

BobTwo of Amazon’s recent Best Books of the Month were penned by former Baltimore Sun colleagues: Bob Timberg’s amazing memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy, about his recovery from horrific injuries sustained in the Vietnam War--and his decision to become a journalist despite his disfiguring wounds; and Dan Fesperman’s timely thriller about drone warfare, Unmanned.

This two-fer from Baltimore comes on the heals of other books by Sun alumni: Cheryl Tan's recent Singapore Noir, David Folkenflik's Murdoch's World, and the latest from Sarah PekkanenThe Best of Us. Coming this fall is a memoir by David Greene (now at NPR), which will find a spot on my shelf beside other books by Sun reporters, former and current, including: Del Wilber, Sujata Massey, Stephen Hunter, Robert Ruby, Scott HighamScott Shane, Raffael AlvarezJim Haner, Fraser Smith, an Tom Waldron. (An honorable mention to Brigid Schulte, Washington Post reporter/author and wife of Sun alum Tom Bowman, now NPR's Pentagon correspondent. And Lippman pointed out that Russell Baker, William Manchester, and Anthony Lukas worked at the Sun or Evening Sun, too.)

DanI asked Fesperman for his thoughts on reporters becoming authors. “By the time I quit newspapers for good I was writing a lot of long-form narrative stories, which meant I had to set scenes, present characters and even develop a sense of pacing, dramatic tension, and so on. All of that was great practice," he told me. "But I think the most underrated skill you develop as a journalist is learning to be a careful observer and a good listener, even an eavesdropper at times.”

Of course, the Sun is hardly alone in employing reporters who also write great fiction or nonfiction. During my years as a journalist (in New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Philadelphia, and Baltimore) I collected plenty of books by colleagues. I spent my first year after college sitting across from mob writer George Anastasia, at the Philadelphia Inquirer. More recent reporter-turned-author colleagues include Doug Most, Michael Hudson, and Beth Macy, who I recently interviewed about her bestselling book, Factory Man

We’re writers, after all. We tell stories. And most of the journalists I’ve known have yearned, at least now and then, to break free from the confines of the daily paper. Still, it's always seemed to me that the Sun in particular was a fertile breeding ground for authors.

LauraLippman agreed... "I've always thought there must be a reason that so many Sun reporters (my father included) wrote books 'on the side'," she said. "Part of it, I think, was that some people got to The Sun and didn't really have a burning desire to go further in newspapers. It was a good paper in a good news town. So if you removed the usual ambition of onward and upward through the newspaper hierarchy, I think it freed up one's ambitions to pursue other things. Novels, in my case."

In Lippman's case--and in mine--she got an unintended boost from the Sun toward writing novels. "I've always been grateful that I had a falling-out with the powers-that-be there because it forced me to choose books over newspapers, and that turned out to be a good choice for me,"  she said.

(Disclosure: When I started researching my first book, an angry editor told me it wasn’t possible to write a book and still be a good reporter. And I thought: but wait... David Simon? Bob Woodward? I soon left the Sun and started writing books full time, which may partly explain my devotion to books by writers with beats and bylines in their past.)

 

How I Wrote It: Beth Macy’s “Factory Man” and 5 Books for Labor Day

BethBeth Macy's Factory Man is the inspiring story of brash and feistyJohn Bassett III, who strives to save his family’s embattled furniture company by fighting back against the cheap Chinese imports that had contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of factory and mill jobs in Southwest Virginia.

Macy is an award-winning reporter who writes about outsiders and underdogs. (She and I worked together at the Roanoke Times for a spell.) She’s also the daughter of a displaced factory worker, and her passion for this story shines through on every page. Factory Man has received rave reviews--Bryan Burrough in the New York Times called it “a great American story”--but Macy is most proud of the support from factory workers who thanked her for telling their story.

“No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America,” she said. “The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light.”

In advance of Labor Day weekend, I spoke with Macy via email about the writing of Factory Man. I also asked her to recommend some books that inspired her.  

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FactoryWhat sparked your initial interest in the story of Bassett Furniture Company?

I set out initially in late 2011 to write a newspaper series on the aftermath of globalization in Henry County/Martinsville, Va., which had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a decade. I was inspired by the work of freelance photographer Jared Soares, who’d been documenting what he saw there: textile plant conveyor belts-turned-food pantry delivery devices and the like. Early in my interviews, I heard there was a third-generation furniture maker named John Bassett III who’d singlehandedly bucked the trend and fought China to keep his factory in Galax, Va., going, saving jobs and his family legacy. When I heard he said things like, “The [expletive] Chi-Comms aren’t gonna tell me how to make furniture!” my story Spidey sense went on high alert. He’d done the counterintuitive thing, and he’d done it during a time of huge cultural/economic change. I knew right away his story was BIG, the kind of piece where you could thread together history, economic relevancy and even memoir (I’m the daughter of a displaced factory worker myself).

How did you convince John Bassett III to cooperate and give you access?

Polite persistence and baby steps. He was going to give me 15 minutes of his time the first time we met, but I won him over by being prepared: I knew all about the family feud with his brother-in-law, about his insanely twisted family tree. I knew but didn’t quite understand how he’d taken on China. And we all know how irresistible it is to be listened to by someone who’s genuinely curious. Something like 700 phone calls later and dozens of visits and not a few arguments — including one in which we very nearly came to blows — we’re still talkin’.

What was his reaction to the book? How have employees responded?

He calls it “Peyton Place” meets “Gone With the Wind.” He gives me no credit for all the business analysis and anti-dumping case sorting-through I had to do — all the economists and business professors I interviewed, including going to Indonesia to interview the replacement workers. He had trouble initially with some of his family secrets being unearthed, as well as some details about his wealth. But he’s come around. He enjoys the attention he’s getting, and he’s no dummy: He understands that the book could help him sell more furniture! He also wants this country “to kick ass and take names” again, and he thinks he’s the guy to tell ‘em how to do it.

I was at a signing at the Galax Fiddlers Convention last weekend, and the Vaughan-Bassett veneer department showed up and gave me a commemorative plaque they’d made, embossed with galax leaves and tiny strips of walnut and white pine veneer. I think they see “Factory Man” as job security; surely, he can’t close the factory now, right? They appreciate that someone bothered to tell this story from the ground up.

What can other smaller, family-owned businesses learn from Bassett?

Relentlessness, in a word. When the guy at the top cares enough to sleep (or not sleep) with a legal pad next to his bed so he can jot down (or better yet call an employee) an idea that has just occurred to him for the betterment of his company in the middle of the night, that work ethic trickles down. He’s in his factory every day, communicating constantly with employees, challenging them to change and improve over and over again. It’s a live-wire organization, and I think the investments he makes in that factory (mentally, fiscally, emotionally) make it a fun place to work.

How long did you work on the book, and what one thing surprised you the most about what you learned?

I had 11 solid months to turn in the first draft, then the back-and-forth editing continued for another six months or so (between my day job duties). Surprises? There were so many, mostly revolving around just how rich the material was — the maid who wore two girdles, the corporate pilot landing without landing gear, all the “Mad Men” in the mountains behavior. The overarching theme I was left with, though, was this palpable desire that people in the ghost town of Bassett, Va., still have to tell their story. No one in Washington had noticed, or cared, or even bothered to look and see what all those free-trade policies had wrought on mill towns across America. The people of Bassett wanted that story told, and it was an honor to help bring it to light. You should see the “Factory Man” Facebook discussion group started by one reader — in the span of week, there were thousands of heartfelt comments on it: memories and grievances, hot political debates and loads of nostalgia (old pictures of factories and gathering spots, as well as the grassy fields where the factories once stood). Twenty-thousand jobs evaporated in that one county alone, and along with them dozens of gathering spots, from factories and restaurants to mom-and-pop shops. And here was this unlikely virtual watering hole helping reunite people again. “This book has literally set my soul on fire,” one reader posted.

Factory Man has been compared to the work of Laura Hillenbrand, Katherine Boo, Michael Lewis, and David Simon – congrats, and: who’d you write the book for?

Thanks, that’s truly humbling company. I wrote the book for those 20,000 people I mentioned above. I wrote it for my mom, who soldered airplane lights when the economy was good and babysat other people’s kids when it wasn’t. She didn’t whine, she didn’t take any crap, and she could stretch a dime farther than anyone I’ve ever known. She didn’t have the benefit of higher education, or the social capital that comes with it, that I’ve enjoyed. But she was my first editor, and every bit of grit and heart I have as a reporter — I got it from her.

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Recommended books:

Hairstons1. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang — from the ground up, this journalist chronicles the largest migration in human history, documenting the heartaches and triumphs of young rural women migrating to China’s cities, trying to do right by their families and experiencing the growing pains associated with entering the working/middle classes. 

2. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Weincek — an astonishing social history of race in the Southern Piedmont, told through a single family (black, white and mulatto) grappling to understand the legacy of slavery and its contemporary relevance. 

3. The Hard Way On Purpose, by David Giffels — the Akron-bred journalist writes hilarious, painstaking and moving essays about his decision not to flee the Rubber Belt when most of his contemporaries did just that. A beautiful portrait of a region on the mend. 

4. The Unwinding,” by George Packer — The New Yorker writer’s illuminating take on America’s recent economic history, told through a series of portraits of hard-working Americans and corporate greed-heads, in the style of John Dos Passos. 

5. Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder — the journalist’s profile of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti is a portrait of a fascinating (and fiery tempered) do-gooder, interspersed with telling exchanges between the interviewer and the interviewee and woven with spot-on narrative and surprisingly complex social/medical/business analyses. 

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> Visit Macy's website

> Follow her on Twitter


 

Smoking Gun: 5 Crime Novels Elmore Leonard Might Have Loved

LeonardA year ago, we lost a legend of American crime and suspense writing.

Elmore Leonard died on this day at the age of 87, after a six-decade career that produced dozens of crime novels, westerns, and short stories, many of which found their way to big and small screens (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Justified).

Today is also the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, whose posthumously-celebrated pulp and horror stories inspired such writers as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, who once credited Lovecraft with having "an incalculable influence on succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction."

In honor of Leonard and Lovecraft, here’s a look at some recent and upcoming books that both men might’ve appreciated--menacing, suspenseful, and smart, with tough-talking characters both flawed and hardened, set in not-so-friendly locales, from dive bars to mob hangouts, rural cabins to reservations, from the Deep South to Duluth.

Kent

Windigo Island, William Kent Krueger

Two teenage girls disappear from an Ojibwe reservation called Bad Bluff. When one of them washes up dead on the shore of Lake Superior, former sheriff turned private investigator Cork O’Connor vows to find the other girl. His search takes him to dark places and in the path of some very bad men.

Quake

Brainquake, Samuel Fuller

B-movie director Fuller, who died in 1997, left behind this pulpy, violent, throwback of a novel about a "bagman," Paul Page, who's paid to transport cash for the mob. He also has a rare brain disorder that causes seizures. When he witnesses the murder of a gorgeous mob wife, well... think Tarantino.

Cain

One Kick, Chelsea Cain

As a child, Kick Lannigan had been kidnapped and held captive for five years. Now, at age twenty-one, she's a kick-ass investigator trained in guns, explosives, and martial arts (think Lisbeth Sander)--and the obvious choice for a wealthy arms dealer who needs help finding children who have been abducted.

Ace

The Forsaken, Ace Atkins

In Jericho, Mississippi, flawed but earnest county sheriff Quinn Colson sets out to prove that the nameless black man who 36 years earlier had been accused of rape and murder, who was hunted down by a self-appointed posse and lynched, was innocent. But is Colson as innocent as he seems?

Girl

The Good Girl, Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, a young inner-city art teacher, leaves a bar with a handsome, smooth talking stranger. Instead of a one-night stand, Mia finds herself in a rural Minnesota cabin, the victim of a kidnapping gone awry, regretting the biggest mistake of her life and hoping her wealthy family can find her.

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40And don't miss the latest from Dean Koontz (The City); C.J. Box (Shots Fired); Tim Weaver (Never Coming Back); and an excellent new thriller by Dwayne Alexander Smith (Forty Acres).

And here are six more Leonard-esque novels, coming soon:

 

How I Wrote It: Karen Abbott, on Maverick Women and the Civil War

Karenabbott_photo_gal__photo_1719461246While sitting in Atlanta traffic years ago, Karen Abbott noticed the bumper sticker on the pickup truck in front of her: "Don't blame me, I voted for Jeff Davis." She realized that many southerners not only felt residual pride for their long-ago Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, but that they were "still fighting the Civil War down here."

From those origins comes Abbott's new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, the story of four female spies, two from each side, including one who disguised herself as a male soldier in the Union army. The book is a thrilling look at the forgotten role subversive women played in the Civil War. "They didn't have political discourse. They didn't have access to the vote. What could they do?" Abbott said.

With playfulness, enthusiasm, and a bit of naughty, Abbott gives us an energetic and witty new take on the Civil War. It's a story as much about women's rights and breaking marital shackles as it is about espionage and subterfuge. Her curiosity is contagious, as is her admiration for the maverick women who "longed to be useful" in a man's war.

Abbott is the bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose. We spoke with her at the annual Book Expo America in New York, in late May of 2014.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy goes on sale Sept. 2.

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>See all of Abbott's books

>Visit her website

>Follow her on Twitter

Even More End-of-the-World Books: Customer Picks

StandLast week I wrote about a few doomsday books out this summer, including Emily St. John Mandel’s forthcoming Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki’s California and Ben Winters’s World of Trouble.

I also asked for some suggestions from our Omnivoracious readers and Facebook followers. We received a handful of shout-outs for Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which was also on our original list) and lots of love for Stephen King's The Stand. On Facebook, Terry said King "brings it in that book" and Malina called The Stand "a must!" 

Here are more suggestions from our friends of dystopian fiction:

  • Michele: HELLO??? How about The Passage by Justin Cronin!
  • BlindTodd: I think "Blindness" always stands out to me as a book that shows us just how fragile society is.
  • Laura: Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh is very good.This follows a group of friends as resources become scarce and society starts to crumble. An interesting different view of what might be our end.
  • Patsy: Alas Babylon
  • Dave: #1: Walter Miller, "A Canticle for Leibowitz." #2: George Stewart, "Earth Abides."
  • June: The HAB Theory by Allen Eckhert. I read it in the 70's , long before global warming became an issue. It utterly moved me. I was running around for weeks telling people "we are doomed!" Warning, do not read the book's last sentence ahead of reading the entire book. actually, really should not have said that, 'cos now you will not be able to resist......
  • Elizabeth: On The Beach
  • Sarah: 1984 by George Orwell, The Stand by Stephen King ... can't pick just one!
  • Stacy: The Chemical Gardens series, Z for Zachariah, The White Mountain trilogy
  • Aaron: Samuel Delany's "Dhalgren" or maybe Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun"
  • Ralph: How could you leave out "The Stand" by Stephen King, and "Swan Song" by Robert R McCammon?
  • David: "Rescue Party" - Sir Arthur C. Clarke. (Actually a short story, but still...)
  • Ryan: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.
  • Andi: My absolute favourite? Z for Zachariah. Doesn't even matter that it's theoretically a kid's book.

 

Chip Kidd, on Designing Haruki Murakami's 5-Fingered Book Cover

Murakami2 Murakami-kidd

“You know, in a sense we were the perfect combination, the five of us. Like five fingers.”

So declares Ao Oumi--better known as Blue--to Tsukuru Tazaki, otherwise known as Colorless. They and their other three friends--Aka (Red), Shiro (White), and Kuro (Black)--were inseparable in high school. But that changes abruptly when, during the summer break of Tsukuru’s sophomore year of college, the other four suddenly cast Tsukuru out. They forbid him to ever contact any of them again, for no apparent reason, and thus begins his agonizing journey to find out why.

When considering the design of Haruki Murakami’s masterful Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, I wanted to make something that not only demanded to be held, but decoded too. I guess you could say the same thing about 1Q84, but this was going to be completely different, because it’s such a different book. Just logistically, the title is so much longer, while the text itself is so much shorter. That demanded a smaller trim size, which also bulked the book out to feel like a box that needs to be opened.

The five fingers analogy is only mentioned that one time, but it really stuck with me. I decided to make Tazaki the ‘thumb,’ the anchor that unifies the other four yet is separated from them. When you first look at the book, you may or may not see the hand, but  it doesn’t really matter. What you definitely see is that there is something going on behind the facade. The ‘fingers’ are actually windows, holes that give onto an entirely different scene that relies on the visual iconography of Tokyo’s subway/rail system--a universe unto itself where Tsukuru finds solace and eventually a livelihood as an engineer. The friends become train lines, and Tsukuru intersects each them, one by one.

As with every book by Mr. Murakami, this was a thrill to work on. I was able to design the interior too, and I should add here that along with Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, there is definitely something weird going on with the page numbers. I can’t really say what it is, but if you search carefully enough--definitely a theme of the story--you’ll come to understand.

--Chip Kidd 

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1Q84

How I Wrote It: Ben Mezrich, on His New Novel, "Seven Wonders"

BenaboutBen Mezrich is best known for his bestselling geeks-to-riches nonfiction stories, particularly Bringing Down the House and The Accidental Billionaires, both of which became major motion pictures. In Seven Wonders, on sale Sept. 2, Mezrich returns to his roots: fiction. Don't worry ... there are still geeks.

Seven Wonders features an Indiana Jones-type character, Jack Grady, an adventurous anthropologist who sets out to learn who murdered his estranged mathematician brother, Jeremy, who had uncovered some ancient mysteries and modern conspiracies during his research into the Seven Wonders of the World.

The first in a planned trilogy, writing Seven Wonders was a liberating experience for Mezrich, freeing him to write a thriller and at the same time indulge his lifelong obsession with mythology and ancient cultures. "I loved every minute of it," he said. "I felt untethered--although a lot of people have felt that I've been untethered all along."

Mezrich spoke with us during a visit to Seattle.

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>See all of Mezrich's books

  Seven

Amazon Music Book Club: Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy on Self-Help Books & Graphic Novels

Thanks to our friends at the Amazon Music Notes blog for this "Book Club" Q&A with Travie McCoy, frontman for Gym Class Heroes, discussing self-help books and graphic novels. Amazon Music Book Club explores the literary influences on today's musicians.

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image

Reading has a formative effect on a person, inspiring how they see the world and understand their place within it. This seems even more pronounced for artists, who take pieces of everything they experience with them into their own creations. With that in mind, we want to know how reading and literature influence your favorite musicians and the songs they’ve written.

Travie McCoy, frontman New York City’s rap/pop/rock outfit Gym Class Heroes, has always loved books and has been interested in stories and how they can be told from an early age. Although literary references only occasionally pop up in his songs, McCoy--who’s currently working on his second solo album--is deeply influenced by what he reads. We spoke with Travie about his history with reading, how much self-help books can actually help and his love for graphic novels.

What sorts of books were your entry point into reading as a kid?

I loved Roald Dahl books and anything by Shel Silverstein. Where The Sidewalk Ends and stuff like that. I also loved Where The Wild Things Are. But I think Shel Silverstein was my favorite. He actually came to my school and spoke when I was younger and it blew my mind. It was really awesome. Those types of books were my sh*t. And then we’d have book fairs and the Choose Your Own Adventure books came out, which I loved. I loved graphic novels, too. Hellboy, which I am still a fan of.

What’s your most memorable reading experience from your childhood?

There is a book called The Contender by Robert Lipsyte. That was the first book I read without anyone telling me to or having to write a paper on it. I just picked it up and read it. It was a really cool book. It was about this kid who got out of the ghetto and became a boxer. It was really intense. I finished it and I was like, “Whoa, I read a book!” I didn’t have to and there was no consequence if I didn’t, so it was awesome.

Do you still feel that sense of wonder when you finish a book now?

Kind of! It feels good to have the last few pages left and knowing you’re about to finish it. The last five or six pages is always completely good stuff so I get the trembles when I get there. It makes me happy. That’s the best feeling.

Is there a certain type of book you’re drawn to now?

I love self-help books. When you’re younger you think you know everything and then there are these people who are older and have been through everything you’ve been through and have written books about it. I started buying them. I’ve always drawn to the self-help section of any bookstore.

Do you find that they really do help you?

Yeah. There was a book a friend of mine gave me that started my self-help journey. It’s a book called Meditation In Action. It’s a book about how to deal with stress while you’re actually in the situations. You think about meditation as being in a peaceful place, but this is more dealing with the workplace or other people on a daily basis. It was a cool book. I read it three or four times.

What are you currently reading?

A friend of mine gave me The War of Art. Going into writing the record I’m writing now I hit a wall and he was like “Yo, if this book doesn’t help you I don’t know what will.” It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s been super helpful as far as when I do get writers block. I have tricks now to get out of those times or getting my mind off knowing that I do have writers block.

As a fan of graphic novels, could you suggest a good place for readers new to the genre?

Frank Miller. He did the Sin City series. They’re really easy to read and the illustrations are amazing. I thought the books would be ruined in the movie and the movie just made me more excited to read more Frank Miller. The story is really bold. There’s not a lot of words but the ones that are there are really powerful. If anybody wanted to jump off into graphic novels those would be the starting point.

Does the books you read directly influence your songwriting?

Yeah, of course. Anything I find valuable and knowledgeable sticks with me, and I think that knowledge is passed on, whether it’s in conversation or song. I think the last time I put something I read directly in a song was on Gym Class Heroes’ album The Quilt. There was a song called “Drnk Txt Rmeo.” I took some lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and twisted them. I don’t know if anyone has actually caught on to that yet. It was pretty fun.

Is there a certain book you would recommend to fans of your music?

There isn’s a certain book, but anything by Shel Silverstein, if fans of my music want to understand where my writing is coming from. They were funny, a lot of them had rhymes to them, the stories were great. My music is telling stories a lot of times and adding some humor and rhymes. Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl helped a lot with that.

Dystopian Fiction: 8 Doomsday Books and "No More Avatars"

A flight from Moscow to middle America. Passengers carry a flu virus that explodes “like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth.” In a blink, the world looks like this: “No more ballgames played under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities ... No more cities ... No more Internet ... No more avatars.”

That’s Emily St. John Mandel’s take on doomsday, in her forthcoming novel, Station Eleven. As in other pre-apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic novels, survivors have become scavengers, roaming the ravaged landscape or clustering in pocket settlements, some of them welcoming, some dangerous. What’s especially touching about the world of Station Eleven is the author's homage to the small pleasures that were erased by the apocalypse. (St. John Mandel's editor at Knopf, Jenny Jackson, called the book “a love song for right now.”)

Station Eleven will be published September 9 amid a cluster of other summer dystopian novels, including Edan Lepucki’s California and Ben Winters’s World of Trouble, the third book in his “Last Policeman” trilogy. Coinciding with recent troubling global events--plane crashes, ferry sinkings, ancient sectarian conflicts flaring anew--those books have made me realize how writers continue to push the sub-genre of the end-of-the-world book into new literary heights. Here's how those books stack up against each other, and against a couple classics. This is hardly a definitive list, of course. It doesn't include Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam Trilogy (a new boxed set goes on sale August 12). And I steered clear of zombies. If you’re a doomsday fan, send us your suggestions, and we’ll follow up with a customer list. If we’re all still here, that is.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel (Sept. 9)

What the heck happened? The Georgia Flu--named for its country of origin--wiped out more than 99% of the population.

Now what? Twenty years later, a roving theater troupe, the Traveling Symphony, performs Shakespeare for wasteland communities. And there’s this culty prophet dude who calls the flu “the great cleansing” and says things like “we are the light. We are pure.” Watch out for him.

California, Edan Lepucki

What the heck happened? Seems like a slow-building combination of environmental cataclysm, loss of fossil fuels, illness, and social collapse.

Now what? A married couple, Cal and Frida, learn that Frida is pregnant and decide to leave the relative safety of their wilderness home and try to make it in one of the settlements. Which means they have to deal with other humans, both nasty and nice.

World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

What the heck happened? A ginormous asteroid is barreling toward Earth. We don’t stand a chance, and everyone knows it.

Now what? As most humans prepare for the end with parties, prayer, or suicide, a quixotic police detective decides to leave his well-stocked safehouse and look for his missing sister in bleak small-town Ohio. He brings along his dog, Houdini.

A History of the Future, James Howard Kunstler

What the heck happened? You name it: pandemics, environmental disaster, no more oil, plenty of social and political chaos.

Now what? The people of Union Grove, in upstate New York, continue to strive for a simpler "world made by hand" pioneer lifestyle. (This is book 3 in the "World Made By Hand" series.) But then, on Christmas Eve: a gory double murder. 

Lock In, John Scalzi (on sale Aug 26)

What the heck happened? A contagious virus causes "lock in"--known as Haden’s syndrome--in 1% of the population. They’re alive and aware, but can’t move.

Now what? A murder at the Watergate Hotel lures two detectives into an investigation of some complicated truths about Haden’s syndrome, and crimes possibly nastier than murder.

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller

What the heck happened? Similar to Station Eleven, a super-flu killed off 99.7% of humanity--including the wife of our man Hig.

Now what? Hig and his dog and their plane reluctantly venture outside their safety zone, hoping to find someone who doesn’t want to kill them. Maybe even start a new life. Maybe even find love.

The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker

What the heck happened? The earth’s rotation is slowing, the days and nights growing longer. Pretty soon, it's going to get really cold and dark.

Now what? As the world begins to panic, 10-year-old Julia tries to keep living her life, even as her comfortable suburban family unravels. Coming of age is rough when the Earth is dying.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

What the heck happened? Something nuclear. Doesn't matter. The Earth is dying, a cracked, parched, ash-dusted and dangerous place.

Now what? Total bummer. A father and his son walk through a wasteland, dodging psychos and cannibals. All they have is their love for each other, and the thinnest strand of hope.

~

Good luck out there, readers. Carry water.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

October 2014

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