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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

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

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

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

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

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


Roddy Doyle, on Reviving Jimmy Rabbitte in "The Guts"

DoyleIn his acclaimed 1987 debut The Commitments, Roddy Doyle introduced the lovable character of Jimmy Rabbitte, a working class Dubliner who manages a scruffy R&B band. (Along with The Snapper and the Booker prize finalist The Van, Jimmy's story is known as The Barrytown Trilogy.)

At the time, Ireland was in the midst of an economic recession, though it had little effect Jimmy and his mates. Now, as Ireland's economy has again slumped into a recession, Doyle started wondering how that downturn might be affecting Jimmy and his family and friends. "I started thinking: well, what would they be doing now in this new recession? ... How would they be getting on?" Doyle said. "So I decided to add a quarter century to his age."

In The Guts, Jimmy is 47 and learns he has cancer of the bowel. Doyle, now 55, has seen his own friends fight cancer and other illnesses, and sometimes losing. He wanted to capture a man fighting not only against cancer but against the challenges of middle age.


>See all of Roddy Doyle's books

Spotlight Interview: Lisa Moore, Author of "Caught"

MooreLisa Moore, the best Canadian writer you’ve possibly never heard of, lives and writes in Newfoundland, in the rugged northeast corner of North America, closer to Greenland than New York. The quirky characters and history of her remote province have inspired her celebrated short stories and novels, which have been nominated for numerous literary awards, including the Man Booker Prize.

Moore’s latest, Caught, published last year in Canada and a finalist for the Giller Prize, was recently selected by Amazon’s editors as a Best Book of the Month “Spotlight” pick.

Speaking from her home in downtown St. John, Moore explained how the true story of a band of 1970s Newfoundland pot smugglers inspired Caught, which features a likeable escaped convict named David Slaney, who traverses the continent en route to another drug deal that, he hopes, might redeem him.

Moore grew up hearing the stories about the local drug runners who tried to smuggle bales of pot into Newfoundland, stories full of awe and bravado that elevated the smugglers to folk hero status. In creating David Slaney, Moore also found herself admiring her character’s chutzpah, so at odds with a tradition-bound Newfoundland society built around fishing.

Caught“I kind of fell in love with him,” she said of Slaney. “He’s much more adventurous than I am. I sort of want to be like him.”

In Moore’s hands, Slaney comes across as a decent man with a hunger for a better life, willing to take huge risks to taste freedom. She found herself rooting for her potentially doomed character. “He had a vision,” she said. “A vision that ran counter to the status quo.”

The book’s title refers to the many ways in which her characters--Slaney’s co-conspirator, Hearn, his pursuer, detective Patterson, and the beautiful young Ada—are “caught.”

“Everyone comes to terms with not hitting the mark, not really being free,” she said.

As her characters make compromises and come to terms with the limits on their freedom, the questions she tried to explore were: Is the pursuit of an unfettered life worth the risks? Can it be achieved alone, or can we only be free if we trust others to help us?

“The book is about freedom, but also about trust,” she said.

Moore spent four years on Caught, about the same amount of time each of her five novels has taken. Over the years, while raising two children, she’s learned to write “on the fly”—writing in notebooks in cafes, in the line at the bank, while traveling, early in the morning.

She’s currently working on a collection of short stories.


> See all of Lisa Moore's books

Fitness Guru Tony Horton on "The Big Picture"

Tony3When I moved to Seattle in 2008, I was a self-employed writer, struggling to finish my next book. I had no friends, I worked long hours in a basement prone to flooding, and I quickly learned that Seattle summers are beautiful but short, that running in the rain gets old fast. So I made a new friend, Tony Horton, whose infomercials for his P90X workout DVDs were late-night TV staples. Those DVDs--some weightlifting, some yoga, some goofy banter--became my constant companions, the most "human" interaction I'd have all week. (My kids: "Where's dad?" My wife: "Downstairs with Tony.") With Tony's help, I beat the dreary Seattle winter blues. I learned the power of the pushup and the pullup, and how a good workout and a good night's sleep could help me finish a book.

Now, Tony's got a book of his own (that's him on the left, not me), which I was thrilled to find inside recent mailing from Harper Collins. It's the first time he's written about the broader philosophy behind his popular fitness workouts. And it's one of our Best Books of the Month in business & leadership. Now 55, and looking as buff as ever, he spoke to us via email about The Big Picture.

In a nutshell, describe your goal for writing this book... Who did you write this for? Who’s your target audience?

TonyI wrote this book for that massive demographic of people who are doing nothing and wasting their time with things that don't work. I'm providing simple rules that inspire you to stay accountable. At the same time, I wrote it for the people who might already be well on their way in some ways, but need a little fine-tuning in others. This demographic includes a lot the folks who’ve discovered fitness using my programs, like P90X, P90X2, P90X3, and TMT. Are the physical aspects of your life working? Great! Let’s work on the mental and emotional—and while we’re at it, let’s put some thought into your bigger role on this spinning blue marble called Earth. So, to paraphrase John Fogerty, I wrote a book for everyone--except maybe the Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai and a few other enlightened souls. They don’t really need my help.

I think it’ll be reassuring for readers to learn that you’ve had your share of challenges and setbacks. Was this difficult to share, or are you comfortable discussing your personal journey?

Absolutely! This is the book I've wanted to write for ten years. Anybody and everybody these days can write a diet book or an exercise book. If those books comprehensively changed lives then I wouldn't have had to write this one. The problem is, they just provide one, maybe two keys for a door with many, many locks. I wanted to write something that bridged the gap between fitness and self-help. If I had to dig deep and use my own story to illustrate that, so be it. Lead by example, I say!

Your success seems to be a perfect example of perseverance. Have you always had confidence that you’d find your way? Or, like most folks, did you have your periods of wallowing? Sadness?

Sure. Like any life, there was some sadness. I wouldn't say I was wallowing in it but I had my ups and downs well into my early 40s. But the formula came together about that time I began to follow my own rules. When that happened, everything got better. In a way, this goes back to your previous question. I’m not afraid to share the darker aspects of my past with other people who are sad. Hopefully, it’ll help them cut back on the wallowing. The Big Picture is a wallow-free zone!

Was there an “aha” moment when you learned that having a plan could make all the difference?

Probably around the time my first big workout program Power90 hit, but it wasn’t an “aha” moment as much as a slow lifting of the fog. Things came into focus, the bits and pieces of the plan were solidified, the struggle diminished, and the confidence and success were realized. It was as though the plan had been there all along, but it went from an intuitive thing to a tangible set of rules.

This is your first non-workout book – can you describe the difference between being a fitness coach to, sort of, a life coach?

Being a fitness coach comes relatively easy to me. It always has. But with the increased responsibility of becoming a life coach there's a lot more pressure to get it right! That said, I’ve discovered that a lot of what I teach people about fitness can apply across the board, so that’s a big help. For example, finding balance (law 9) is crucial for fitness. I’m talking muscle balance, aerobic/anaerobic balance, core balance, the usual deal. But how’s the balance in the rest of your life? Are you balancing relationships with personal time? Work with play? Pushing your self with taking it easy? You need to find balance in every aspect of your life.

Tony2You strongly believe that eating well and exercising are the keys to a happy life. Can you briefly sum up your personal philosophy on the link between health and happiness?

It's very rare that people who don't move and eat garbage are as happy as they pretend to be. Yet, a vast majority of people who exercise, have a sense of adventure, use their body in interesting ways, and consume the right foods to feed the organs and the brain, they're living authentic, interesting, productive, altruistic lives.

Do you think habits and healthy routines are keys to achieving success with your 11 laws? Why do you think many Americans seem more addicted to bad habits than good ones?

For part one, the answer is yes, absolutely, but it’s hard to achieve for a vast majority of people. As for part two, bad habits are easy and discipline is hard—and “easy” is where people gravitate. A good work ethic requires a painstaking daily effort. Easy typically leads to a life long list of problems but the discipline of having a plan leads to an extraordinary rewarding life. In the long run, the easy way makes life harder and the harder way makes life easier.

How many times a day would you estimate you say (out loud or in your head) “do your best, forget the rest”?

That’s my number one rule! I would say it depends on the day. If I'm with a large group of people who've done one of my programs, I’d say 20 times, at least. But typically, if I'm not shooting a workout or speaking to a large group, once or twice a day.


Author Michael Connelly on Bringing Harry Bosch to the Screen

Black-echoIn 1992, a seasoned crime reporter named Michael Connelly published his first novel, the story of a body in a drainpipe, a bank robbery, and police corruption, based partly on a true crime that had occurred in LA. Featuring Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch, a Vietnam vet turned LAPD detective, The Black Echo won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel, established Connelly as a new voice in the mystery/thriller world and Bosch as one of the more complex characters in modern crime fiction.

Now, more than a dozen novels later, Bosch is coming to the little screen. Amazon Studios has produced the first episode in a hoped-for series entitled Bosch, co-written by Connelly and with Titus Welliver (who has also appeared in Argo and The Good Wife) as Connelly's maverick detective. In the pilot, Bosch investigates the murder of a 13-year-old boy while facing accusations that he, too, is a murderer.

The pilot episode is available for free. (More Amazon Studios pilots can be viewed at; Amazon solicits votes from viewers to determine which pilots will become a series.) Bosch is already finding an audience: the pilot has received more than 3,000 five-star ratings.

Recently, we spoke with Connelly by email to find out how it feels to see Bosch brought to life.


ConnellyYou’ve been down this road before, with The Lincoln Lawyer. But Bosch is your man, your best-known character. Any parental concerns about setting him loose onto the screen?

There were many concerns initially. My process in the past was to do due diligence on the producers interested in my stuff and then hand it off to the people I thought most likely to be loyal to it. That worked very well with The Lincoln Lawyer. But with Bosch I had a twenty-year investment of creativity and he is really the character I am all about as an author. So when it came to making a deal my terms were pretty simple and unalterable: If you want Bosch you have to take me, too, and I am going in to safeguard how this character will be presented and I am going to have a say in every decision I want to have a say in. I got lucky and found a partner who said that’s a deal, we want you to have a say.

Describe your role in the process. As executive producer, did you sit on set and drink coffee, or were you actively involved in the development (in addition to the writing)?

I was very involved in most dimensions of the project. It began with the writing but went into casting, production, locations. I was the one who suggested Titus Welliver as an actor to play Bosch. I found every location in the opening sequence, right down to the house the suspect Harry is following comes out of. So it was really great because I was not demanding to do these things. I was invited. The showrunner, Eric Overmyer, and our fellow executive producer, Henrik Bastin, wanted this level of involvement from me. We want readers of the books to look at this and feel it is right in line with the books.

There are risks to bringing a well-known character to TV or film. (See Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher). What was your biggest fear about the page-to-screen translation?

You know what’s weird is that I had so much involvement in all aspects of this that it left me without an out. If people don’t like it or the critics trash it, I can’t point the finger and say Hollywood ruined my book. I have to point the finger at myself because what we did here is what I want. I regret nothing about this pilot or the choices we made. I think it’s a loyal and pretty wonderful adaptation of Harry Bosch and his Los Angeles. So to me the risk is what if I am wrong. But it’s still a risk I am willing and happy to take.

Bosch2I’m sure there’s never a perfect match between an author’s image of his hero, and the actor’s portrayal. But is there anything about Bosch that you thought Titus Welliver particularly captured?

The biggest challenge of this whole thing was making the jump from a very internal character on the page to an actor on screen that can communicate those internal goings on. Harry doesn’t say a lot in the books, but he feels a lot and he observes and thinks a lot. How do we get that on the screen without Harry talking and describing his every thought? It was hard but I think we found the answer in Titus. I knew it from the first day I met him. From the first hour. He has an internal intensity that comes out in subtle ways but it does come out. His look doesn’t necessarily match the Harry of the books. His eyes are not piercingly dark but those eyes are metaphor in the books. Here we have the real thing, a flesh and blood character whose eyes certainly convey that inner darkness and pain and resolve. There is a lot going on there and that’s what I wanted. I think in just this one episode he has taken on an ownership of Bosch and I am really looking forward to seeing where he goes with it. In fact, I can’t wait.

BoschFinally, do you have any favorite book-to-screen detectives or other characters?

I think number one on my list is the controversial portrayal of Philip Marlowe by Elliott Gould. I loved The Long Goodbye (1973) and watch it every year. Another one I watch is Steve McQueen as Bullitt (1968) which many people don’t realize was based on a book. I also love the 1980 adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble in which Robert Foxworth played the ne’er do well Sgt. Valnikov. I thought that was great and he was perfect. There’s Paul Newman as Harper (nee Archer in the Ross MacDonald books). More recently I thought Russell Crowe’s embodiment of Bud White in L.A. Confidential was a fantastic realization of the character in James Ellroy’s novel. I could go on and on. I love it when a character from a crime novel really comes to life on film. Last one: William Petersen as Will Graham in Manhunter (1986), based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon.

Exclusive Excerpt: The Letters of Ernest Hemingway

HemingwayIn this second collection of Hemingway's correspondence, general editor Sandra Spanier and her team of Hemingway scholars--Albert J. DeFazio III and Robert W. Trogdon--have essentially crafted a portrait of a young man becoming an artist. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 2: 1923-1925 features 280 letters, many of them never before published, and a significant proportion of them dealing with Hemingway's time in Europe, particularly his ex-pat days in Paris and his bullfighting days in Spain. Other letters explore Hemingway's influential relationships with Sylvia Beach, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Gertrude Stein.

Our thanks to Spanier, and Cambridge University Press, for sharing these two letters. The first was sent to Ezra Pound, in which Hemingway describes the infamous, painful loss at a Paris train station of a briefcase containing years of his writing. (It was never found). In the second letter, to his friend Gregory Clark, Hemingway reveals his views on bullfighting. "You see it isn't sport," he wrote. "It's a tragedy."


To Ezra Pound, 23 January [1923]

Chamby Sur Montreux


23 Janvier

Hem1Dear Ezra—:

We have the intention of joining you. How is it? What do you pay? What is the hotel? Can I, like Northcliffe on the Rhine, preserve my incognito among your fascist pals? or are they liable to give Hadley castor oil? Mussolini told me at Lausanne, you know, that I couldn’t ever live in Italy again. How the hell are you any way? e sua moglia? How long are you going to stay? Answer any of these that seem important.

I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenilia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complet by including all carbons, duplicates etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons.

You, naturally, would say,“Good” etc. But don’t say it to me. I aint yet reached that mood. I worked 3 years on the damn stuff. Some like that Paris 1922 I fancied.

Am now working on new stuff. We have 6 to 8 months grub money ahead. I have laid off the barber in order that I wont be able to take a newspaper job no matter how badly St. Anthonied. The follicles functioning at a high rate of speed. I am on the point of being thrown out from all except the society of outliers like yourself. It is several weeks since I would have dared show at the Anglo-American.

The lire appears to be dropping. Evidently Douglas is a greater man than Mussolini. Dave O’Neil the Celto-Kike has just bought two left boots for 18 francs (a mistake at the factory)—the salesman telling him he wont be able to tell the difference after a few weeks.  Dave is jubilious. The boots, of course, are very painful.

Hadley sends you and Dorothy Pound her love—as I do—write me—Immer (as they used to say in the Rhenish Republic)



To Gregory Clark, [c. mid-July 1923]

Dear Greg—

The Star has stopped coming, nothing since the last of May—So I haven’t been able to follow you up the Labrador and feel uneasy as hell. How does it go I wonder? Christ I hope you have a good trip and the stuff pans out. Wish I were along with you. Bet you’re hitting ‘em in the eye with the copy.

On my own hook am just back from a trip through Spain. Travelled round from Madrid to Seville to Ronda, Granada, back to Madrid and out to Aranjuez and back with a bunch of bull fighters I got to know living at the Aguilar the bull fighters pensione in Madrid. It’s some Metier. I went down to Spain after that alone. Sure have got the stuff. Some very good stories will come out of it some day.

Gee I’d love to take you to a bullfight. You’d like it better than anything I’ll bet. You see it isnt sport. It’s a tragedy. A great tragedy. And God how it’s played!

The tragedy is the death of the bull—the inevitable death of the bull, the terrible, almost prehistoric bull that runs with a soft, lightrun, can whirl like a cat, is death right up until he is absolutely dead himself and is stupid and brave as the people of any country and altogether wonderful and horrifying.

You never imagined any such power. Well the whole thing is his life and death and the horses, picadors and occasional toreros he takes off with him are only incidental. It’s not like the French duel. I saw 3 matadors badly gored out of 24 bulls killed.


Credits: The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 2: 1923–1925, edited by Sandra Spanier, Albert J. DeFazio III and Robert W. Trogdon © 2013. The Ernest Hemingway Foundation and Society and The Hemingway Foreign Rights Trust. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

(Photos courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.)


How I Wrote It: Drew Chapman, on "The Ascendant"

AcendantDrew Chapman cut his teeth as a television screenwriter, and that style of writing--character driver, fast paced, tightly plotted, and cinematic--comes through on every page of his debut novel, The Ascendant. Featuring a braniac bond trader with a bad attitude and an unlikely crew of cyber warriors, The Ascendant is a story for an Edward Snowden/WikiLeaks/NSA-fearing generation.

After years of writing for the screen, and being confined by the strictures of the medium, Chapman decided to explore the freedom of writing a novel. Initially, he planned to self-publish the book, but first showed it to a few publishers. Simon & Schuster snatched it up, and Chapman is now writing the second book in a planned trilogy. (TV rights have been sold to Fox, with Chapman attached to write and produce.)

Watch Chapman discuss how he created his likeable, renegade hero, and how recent cyber events have shown him that the fictional scenarios he'd crafted aren't so far-fetched after all.

How I Wrote It: Gary Shteyngart, on "Little Failure"

GaryWhen he started writing his first-ever memoir, Gary Shteyngart says he thought he knew plenty about his own life story. As he began researching his past--an awkward childhood in the Soviet Union, his family's move to the United States, his early struggles to become a writer--he discovered another story altogether.

"By the time I finished, I realized just how little I had known," he said.

This discovery comes late in his funny, sad, true story of love, hope, and family, Little Failure. (The title comes from his mother's telling nickname, a Russian/English mashup, failurchka.) There's a tender melancholy to the story, a sweetness. Instead of mocking his immigrant parents and their unreasonable expectations for their Americanized misfit of a son, Shteyngart ultimately comes to understand them better. 

"If I had spent part of my youth feeling rage and unhappiness toward my parents, the rage of a Little Failure, by the time I finished writing this book I felt nothing but sympathy and sorrow and love," he says. 

Describe Little Failure in one sentence.

Soviet fur-covered asthmatic immigrant recreates his world through English words and finally learns to breathe.

Who did you write this book for?

GaryThis is a Twentieth Century story. In 1979, my loving but bickering parents, my beloved grandma and I moved from the USSR, a waning superpower, to the United States, the world's last superpower. This book is the story of my family’s experience, the experience of jumping out of a black and white Soviet film into a pool or pure American Technicolor. I want other Americans to know this story, how surreal, heartbreaking, and spectacular being an immigrant in America can be. Here are the horrors and wonders of immigration, from being the Commie “Red Gerbil” of Hebrew School to the intensity of flying through the air on my first highway overpass in a sedan that could have passed for a truck back in Leningrad. I also wrote it for all the people who have ever felt they let their parents down, as I did. At a recent reading a young teary-eyed woman asked me to sign the book "To a Little Failure, unemployed paralegal." The expectations of immigrant parents--Little Failure was my mom's nickname for me--can be so demanding that sometimes it's hard to see their love shining through. But the love is there. So, lastly, I did write it for my parents. Their life stories, their histories, indeed, our entire family history, is so much larger than just who I am as a person and as a writer. The past is bigger than all of us and this book is an attempt to uncover and celebrate a difficult but necessary journey.


I write mostly in a little house in Upstate New York. I write in bed, typing on a Mac Air, propped up by at least four pillows. There are tons of trees outside my window, and the blue jays go nuts on warm days. If I squint I can see a few very minor hills in the distance. To break up the routine I visit the sheep farm next door. There’s nothing more peaceful than looking at sheep after a few hours of writing. Unfortunately, the best friend of the sheep, an Australian shepherd dog, often comes out to chase me away.


I am too embarrassed to tell you that I listen primarily to the German electronic music band Kraftwerk while writing. The steady beats keep me typing away. Don’t judge me please! (Sample lyric: “Vee are zeh robots, tum tum tum”)


When I was a little boy my grandma back in Leningrad wanted me to be a writer so badly she paid me a slice of my favorite cheese for every page I wrote. Even today, Random House pays me in cheese, so I keep a fresh wheel of it by my bedside as I work. When you’re this lactose tolerant, cheese can be the best motivator. For those who can’t eat cheese, I suggest dark chocolate. For those who can’t eat dark chocolate, key lime pie.


Napping is an important part of getting work done. I am a huge admirer of pro-siesta cultures. You eat some cheese, you take a nap, you visit the sheep, and the words just come tumbling out.


When I was in my twenties I saw a book on the architecture of my hometown, St. Petersburg, Russia, in a bookstore. The photo of one church in particular led me to an awesome panic attack, and when I returned to the city of my birth and visited the church, I had a dreadful bout of anxiety as well. Little Failure is structured as something of a mystery--why does this one church incite such feelings of dread in me? The answer isn’t revealed until the last chapter when I revisit St. Petersburg with my mother and father and find out more about myself and my parents than I had bargained for.


> See all of Gary Shteyngart's books

> See the scrapbook Gary recently shared with us

> Watch Gary and his "husband" James Franco, in one of the funnier book trailers ever produced

How I Wrote It: Paul Lynch, on "Red Sky in Morning"

Paul Lynch's darkly beautiful and grimly funny Red Sky in Morning is the kind of story where a man drains blood from a heifer's sliced-open neck, mixes it with oats for breakfast, then pins the cow's vein back together. It's the kind of story where a man catches an eel, bashes it's head, then eats it raw. The kind of story where the threat of bloody violence is always nearby.

Lynch's Coll Coyle, a frightened and frightening man, flees his home after a murder. At his heels, across the bleak Irish landscape and ultimately across the Atlantic, lurks his diligent hunter--even more ruthless than Javier (of Les Miserables). Gorgeously written--like an Irish version of Daniel Woodrell--this is the kind of story where vengeance becomes a raw, animalistic obsession. Lynch displays a bold, unique voice, and a flair for poetic brutality. 


My writing desk — Paul LynchWho did you write this book for?

I wrote this book for myself. I wanted to write a book that I would like to read. There is no point writing a book to please others. Sometimes, I like to imagine the perfect reader--the reader who not just understands what I am about, but soaks up every word as if it were written for them. I have been fortunate in that I have got to meet such readers now and again. 

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

“Night sky was black and then there was blood, morning crack of light on the edge of the earth.” The ideal first sentence contains within it an intimation of the whole book. That’s what I was hoping for.  


I have a black, battered Ikea desk. I keep on it my Collins dictionary, my Roget’s thesaurus, stacks of books and notes, my laptop and printer. There are little notes posted to myself all over the place. I particularly like the catchphrase of Leonardo Da Vinci, taped to a book: Ostinato Rigore! (Which means, pretty much, Relentless Rigor). The wall to my right is a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelf rammed with books. While I read almost all my newspapers online, I’m not a big fan of e-books because I like to see what I’ve read and remember it. Books are a way of making memory physical. On very cold days, I’ll move to an armchair beside the fire and write there. Sometimes, if the light is really good, I’ll write at the kitchen table. Anywhere but in bed.


I need my trusty Mac laptop to write. I can’t work with anything else. I’m used to the feel of the keys. I also like, more than anything else, Apple’s Pages. I’ve tried other software but it doesn’t work for me. I write in Times New Roman, 12 point, and arrange the margins so that the screen looks like a page from a book. This spurs me on to make the writing as perfect as I can make it.


Large parts of Red Sky in Morning were written listening to Wayne Shorter’s classic 1965 album Speak No Evil. I find that jazz loosens up the deep place of my mind, lets me find my own strange rhythms. Generally, I find the knottier the jazz, the better. Anything with singing is a distraction. Listening to classical music tends to have the unconscious effect of making my writing too smooth.


Coffee. Coffee. Coffee. I’m not quite Balzac, but I can’t start without a strong espresso. After an hour and a half or so, I need another. Nothing else, mind, and certainly not alcohol. Can’t imagine anything more ridiculous than drink-writing.


I read continually and don’t understand writers who say they don’t read while working on a book. For a start, a book takes me about two years to write, so there’s no way I am depriving myself of reading during that time. Another thing is that reading other writers is continually inspiring--reading great writers reminds you how hard you have to work. Most  mornings, before I start, I’ll read a passage from a great poet, or some Shakespeare. It’s a little hamstring stretch before going on a run.


How I Wrote It: Jim Harrison on "Brown Dog"

After writing about Brown Dog, aka B.D., for more than twenty years, Jim Harrison has collected six B.D. stories into a collection called Brown Dog (one of our Best Books of the Month for December). These novellas--one of which has never been published--span nearly a quarter century, and it's an enormously satisfying reading experience to spend so much time with Harrison's hard-drinking, maddening, loveable, horny, scrappy B.D. We asked Harrison (via email) to discuss his most enduring fictional character.

Harrison, Jim - credit Wyatt McSpadden~~

B.D. is a (mostly) likable f**kup, maddening but worth rooting for. He's very familiar to me (he's my brother, he's me), and I wonder: has that always been the idea--to craft a recognizable, all-Id, Everyman Screwup?

Yes he is, but he's comparatively free. Part of being free seems to be being broke. You don't have to worry about money all the time if you're willing to just get by on a little food and a six-pack. I don't think of him as a "f**k-up" but as someone who lives within the limits of his environment quite well. His is in a tough place. I remember a miner out on strike years ago who fainted from hunger while playing in a park with his kids.

You've been writing about B.D. for many years. Has he evolved? How?

I don't think of Brown Dog changing. That's more an upper + middle-class tactic, where they're always saying, "I've changed." He's not involved in that kind of psychodrama. In his world it's about pussy or getting a drink.

There are strong female characters in these novellas, as in many of your books. Is there a source for that apparent understanding of women? Have you learned about the female perspective from the  women in your life?

I was raised around strong females, with my mother and her four sisters, my own two sisters, and then having a wife and two daughters who are very strong. Plus female dogs, horses and chickens, so I'm used to them. You can't help but absorb their perspective, plus I read so many female novelists that it naturally gets into my system.

BDThe Upper Peninsula… is it your Yoknapatawpha County? What is it about that region that inspires you? And what is it about the country, the woods, that gives you so much to write about?

I'm not sure about Yoknapatawpha County. I revere Faulkner above any other 20th century writer, but I must say I don't think of the Upper Peninsula in quite that way. What I like is its immense expanse of woods, gullies and water, what with being bordered on the south by Lake Michigan and on the north by Lake Superior. It's a rich community in that mental sense of a vast number of people just trying to get by. You don't have to hear about the grand ambitions of our society in that culture. If a guy has a pickup that works, he doesn't get stuck too often and he can afford a few drinks he's a success. He doesn't complain about a hangover because he'd be ignoring the fact that he can afford to get drunk. There are thousands of places to fish and hunt. What more could one want?

Where would you rather be, walking in the woods or writing at your desk?

Both. I'd take a hundred walks a year and rarely see another human being but see an endless array of songbirds because of that vast arboreal thicket. This is all I want besides dinner. Of course I write, though I'm getting a little tired of it at my advanced age, so I begin the day by walking with my dog. Then I invariably write. I do a book a year because I don't know what else to do. It's my profession.

The novellas in Brown Dog span over 20 years of work. Why collect them into a single volume now?

The idea of collecting the Brown Dogs came from my Canadian publisher, Sarah MacLachlan. I said "Why would you want Brown Dogs in Canada?" and she said "We have more Brown Dogs than you do". This character is universal. I've met Brown Dogs in France, in country bars. They have no real complaints because they're free men and are living as best they can under the conditions they've set up. Brown Dog is the Chinese ideal of having a life where nothing much happens. This is a better thing than people realize.

Finally, can you describe your desk and work space? What are the "essentials" that you always have within reach while writing?

At my desk. I have to face a bare wall so I'm not diverted by my highly suggestible mind. When I need a break I look out the window or go outside, sit in a chair and stare at my wife's flower garden, with vegetables mixed in so you have both beauty and something to eat. It's kind of a simple life, but if I lived in New York I'd never get any work done because there are too many temptations.


Photo credit: Wyatt McSpadden

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