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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy Novelist David Ignatius Describes His Four Favorite Spy Cities

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

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

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David-ignatius

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

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

Beirut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MA: Which was the best?

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

MA: I heard Japanese mayo is quite nice.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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“Is it her or isn’t it?”

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

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

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

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

“Then who’s this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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> See all of Greg Iles's books

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

* Author photo: Rick Guy / The Clarion-Ledger

Mona Simpson: "Some Things Really Should Be Private"

Mona2
Sometimes the best “write what you know fiction” comes from the crappiest of family situations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overwhelmed_book-250x405To do list:

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

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

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

Her calmness was not always so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Gone Gone, by Colum McCann

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

The Death Factory The Death Factory, by Greg Iles

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

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

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

Sleep Donation, by Karen Russell

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

Read Amazon editor Kevin Nguyen's interview with Russell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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