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YA Wednesday: Exclusive "Divergent" Photos

This Friday, the film adaptation of Divergent will finally (finally!) open in theaters across the country.  There've been teasers along the way in the form of trailers and photos from the set, but now we will get to see it all put together.  Will it meet expectations?  Exceed them? Disappoint? 

I managed to get a seat at an advance screening last night and the audience around me laughed, cheered, and clapped at the end.  It was pretty cool. To be totally honest, I went into it thinking I probably wouldn't like the movie much, and possibly not at all, but I ended up loving it from the opening shot to the end.  I thought Summit did an amazing job recreating Veronica Roth's Chicago and the tension between Four and Tris came off like a genuine older boy/younger girl attraction you might see unfold in a high school hallway rather than a brutal training ground (the brutal training ground making it much more exciting, of course).  I'm eager to hear what other fans of the series think.

Whether you are dying to see it, or still on the fence, here's an amuse-bouche to Friday's big fête--two exclusive photos of author Veronica Roth on the set of Divergent. 

Veronica Roth (center with the green accents) and the cast of Divergent

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Photo by Jaap Buitendijk. TM & © 2014 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

 

Author Veronica Roth with Divergent Director Neil Burger (wouldn't you love to know what she's talking about??)

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Photo by Jaap Buitendijk. TM & © 2014 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Case Closed? Art, Cannibals, and the Fate of Michael Rockefeller

Savage-Harvest-jacket-omni“I think I can make it.” In 1961, while on an expedition to collect pieces for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art, Michael Rockefeller and his traveling companion were plunged into the warm waters off New Guinea. The billionaire scion tied two empty gas cans to his body for floatation and swam for shore, and by most accounts, he made it. But what happened there, when he encountered members of the Asmat tribe--a culture marked by ritual violence and cannibalism--has been long debated. Did he disappear into the tropical jungles, or was he rendered and eaten by the tribesmen, as many speculated and the Rockefeller family long denied? Award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman has stepped into Rockefeller’s boot prints and Asmat society, interviewing generations of warriors in an exhaustive and engrossing attempt to solve the mystery. The result, Savage Harvest, succeeds not only as a captivating and sensational puzzle, but also as a (seemingly unlikely) modern adventure and a fascinating glimpse of an anachronistic people pulled into the 20th century by the tensions of global politics. So, did he make it? Read our Q&A with Hoffman and decide for yourself.

Learn more about Savage Harvest, an Amazon Best Books of the Month selection for March 2014.

 



What drew you to the mystery of Michael Rockefeller?

I began traveling to remote places at about the same age as Michael.  In my 20s I saw Dead Birds, the film he first worked on, and his story resonated with me and never left me.  Not only his disappearance, but his curiosity and need to go in the first place.  His death took on the quality of myth - Michael disappearing in an alien realm that was difficult to penetrate for us Westerners - an idea echoed by the press accounts of the time.  Wrote a LIFE photographer, after a day of searching for Michael: "they say if a man falls in the mud he cannot get up without help..."  Which I knew not to be true - the Asmat had been rolling in that mud and spreading it on themselves and walking in it and living in it for 40,000 years.  

By the time I began thinking about the story as a possible book project, I had traveled as a reporter to some of the furthest nooks and crannies of the world, and I saw those distant places as real places full of real people with real stories that, with effort, weren't alien at all, but penetrable, untangleable.  And there was enough about Michael's disappearance that I believed there was more to know; I believed it wasn't a myth, but a real person who vanished in a real place and that I might be able to pierce it with patience and persistence.


Savage-Harvest-MRBeardedYour book opens with a horrifying, detailed depiction of what might have happened to Michael Rockefeller in 1961, if he had been killed by cannibals. How did you conduct the research for this?

That description is based on the Dutch priest Gerard Zegwaard’s seminal examination of Asmat head hunting practices, published in the American Anthropologist in 1959.  Zegwaard was the first Westerner to spend any time among the Asmat and he spoke the language and delved deep.  Cannibalism was an offshoot of head hunting, an all-important sacred ritual necessary to keep the world in balance and for restoring life in the community, and it was conducted according to formal charters and prescriptions.  It was not random.  If Michael was killed by the men in Otsjanep, as I argue, what happened would have closely followed standard Asmat ritual practice.   

You write, “If I asked anyone about cannibalism, they would acknowledge it. Sure, we used to eat people, now we don’t. They didn’t want to talk about it.” Given the central roles that vengeance and violence played in Asmat culture, is it possible that cannibalism existed in the 1960s, or even later?

Head hunting and ritual cannibalism were still the rule in Asmat in the early 1960s, when Michael disappeared, and there were scattered reports of it well into the 1970s.  

The Rockefeller family resisted the idea that Michael was murdered, and even traveled to New Guinea, in part to dispel the worst rumors. What were the factors that influenced this resistance?

I can’t speak for Michael’s family, but I think they clung to the idea that he disappeared at sea because the Dutch government never told them otherwise and actively denied what it was in fact investigating, and because, of course, the idea of anything else is pretty horrifying.  And they wished to keep everything private, as well.  

Savage-Harvest-SauerDid you seek assistance from the Rockefeller family for the book? Did they participate at all?

I made various efforts to contact Michael’s twin sister, Mary, which all drew a blank.  We have since made contact, but no one from the family helped in any way.

Rockefeller’s disappearance occurred at the moment Asmat society (and similar cultures) was being exposed to the modern world. What were the factors in play, and was Michael’s fate a consequence of that upheaval, at least in part?

Yes, in every way.  Michael was in the wrong place at the wrong time; he personally was not the target, but he was traveling in a culture under siege, one in which all of their most sacred and meaningful activities, the very things that defined them as human beings, were being suppressed, sometimes violently, by a growing tide of Westerners backed up by modern firearms.  Had the Dutch patrol officer Max Lepre not killed the four most important men in the village of Otsjanep in 1958, Michael would be alive today.  And his murder might have become public knowledge at the time if the governments of the Netherlands, Indonesia and the United States hadn’t been engaged in a geopolitical struggle over the future of western Papua.  

What was the most dangerous or uncertain moment of your own research?

I only felt in danger once when we were in rough, difficult seas crossing the mouth of the Betsj River.  I never feared for my personal safety from the people, but they intimidated me at first and it was not easy physically or emotionally to be among them at first.  They were hostile to questions about Michael Rockefeller and that was difficult.  I had to learn their language and live with them for a month before I came to understand them.  

Are your heroes journalists, anthropologists, or adventurers? Or journalist-anthropologist-adventurers?  Who are they?

Interesting question.  I’d say I admire most those people who can combine adventure with beautiful writing, whether they call themselves anthropologists or journalists or whatever.  People who can capture not just the physical essence of a place, but the complex emotional lives of human beings, themselves included.  People like Wifred Thesiger or Tobias Schneebaum or even George Orwell.

What were the five (or more) books most influential to your own work?

So hard to narrow it to five!  Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons (beautiful story and narrative with simple, precise writing); John Hersey’s Hiroshima (perfect prose with deep reporting); Capote’s In Cold Blood (the edge of the envelope of the line between fact and fiction); for this book in particular I thought often of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down and the way he was able to get inside the heads of the Somalians who attacked the Americans, which I try to do a bit with the Asmat; and last, again for this book, I often thought of lots of great thriller writers in terms of pacing.  It is a complex story, but it’s also a murder mystery and I wanted it to read like one.  

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Amazon Asks: Jean Hanff Korelitz on her "fab four" of books, how Greek mythology changed her life, and Sylvia Plath's cow

You Should Have Known You Should Have Known is Jean Hanff Korelitz's new novel about a super successful marriage therapist who finds out her own husband has been keeping big -- and we do mean big -- secrets. Best known as the author of Admission, which became a film starring Tina Fey, Korelitz once again writes as if she's a fly on the wall, or a spy under the bed, in our complicated, modern, urban lives. We asked this observant writer to answer some of our favorite questions.

What's the elevator pitch for your book?

A marriage counselor -- with some very harsh opinions on how women fool themselves about men -- has no idea who her husband of nearly two decades really is.

What's on your nightstand/bedside table/Kindle?

I always have an audiobook on my iPhone and a printed book in progress. I've just finished Lawrence Wright's fascinating book about Scientology, Going Clear, and Deborah Michel's Prosper in Love, which is a really delightful Trollope-esque novel, set in the LA art world. I was in Ireland last week and someone told me about a long out-of-print novelist named Mrs. Victor Rickard. I asked him to recommend one of her books and I've just ordered an old edition: The Light Above the Cross Roads (1917)

Top 3-5 favorite books of all time?

My fab four forever: Pride and Prejudice, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev and (wild card) Frederick Forsyth's The ODESSA File (still thrilling, still moving -- yes, you read that right.)

Important book you never read?

Proust. Is it really important? Sigh. OK, I'll read it.

Book that changed your life?

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths. An early grounding in Greek mythology is an incredibly powerful tool to have in life. Also, when I turned the last page in 1969, when I was 8 years old, I became an atheist. It answered questions I didn't know enough at the time to ask, and it answered them for life.

Book that made you want to become a writer? Favorite book(s) as a child?

I suppose Black Beauty comes as close as any. I read it again and again, and I always cried at the end.

Jean Hanff Korelitz What's your most memorable author moment?

On the set of Admission in May, 2012. I was watching a scene in which Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin, and Paul Rudd were all at a birthday party. Lily Tomlin introduces herself by her character's name -- Susannah Nathan -- and I suddenly had this memory of the morning I made up that name. I was sitting on my bed, in my pajamas, with my laptop. It was completely surreal.

What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

Going back in time and changing things so that horrible events don't happen. I'd be amazed if anyone wanted anything else.

What are you obsessed with now?

Woody Allen. Don't get me started.

What's your most prized/treasured possession?

Apart from personal things related to my family? A small drawing of a cow by Sylvia Plath, which my husband gave me a couple of years ago. Plath is my favorite poet (apart from my husband, who is also a poet!), and having something she made by hand means the world to me.

What's the best piece of advice you ever got?

A magazine editor once told me that an interview I'd turned in was bland because I'd failed to ask the next question. She said: "You always have to ask the next question, and then the next question, and then the next..." She was right. Ironically, sometimes you get the most interesting responses when you let the silence become uncomfortable.

The worst?

Well, no one precisely advised me of this, but when I was in my twenties there was real pressure to publish a first novel when you were young. There were so many novels by my contemporaries about fresh-out-of-college characters getting wasted in nightclubs, and they were massive bestsellers, while my own first and second novels were being rejected by everyone. But the truth is that I became a better writer as I got older, and I also had more to say. What I tell people now is that writing fiction isn't like being a ballet dancer or a fashion model, who have to be successful when they're young or not at all -- we have time to get better and write more interesting books. When I did start to have novels published in my thirties very few people read them, and if you'd told me that I'd be in my fifties before I had any kind of a readership I would have been full of despair. But now, I'm sort of happy it happened this way, and I appreciate every single reader because of how long it's taken for me to actually have readers.

Author crush - who's your current author crush?

Sheri Fink, author of Five Days at Memorial. She's so brave.

What book do you wish you'd written?

For reasons that will be obvious to every writer on the planet, I wish I'd written The Goldfinch!

What's favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

There's always a book to finish reading...

What do you collect?

Having recently moved from an enormous house in New Jersey to a small Manhattan apartment, I'm no longer allowed to collect anything. Unfortunately.

YA Wednesday: Lauren Oliver--To Play or Not to Play

Panic344Lauren Oliver's new book, Panic, is her first return to realism since her best-selling debut, Before I Fall, and our spotlight pick for the Best Young Adult Book of March. Panic tells the story of Dodge and Heather, two teenagers, caught up in a high stakes rite of passage game (called Panic) played in secret each year in their small, poor town.  As I read, I found myself wondering if I would have entered the competition as a teenager, at what point I would likely have quit, and would I even think about it now.   I asked Oliver her thoughts on this and here's what she had to say about the question of to play or not to play...

My new book, Panic, is about a small, rundown town called Carp, in which a sense of isolation, an almost institutionalized boredom, and the social competition native to every American high school combine in one explosive, legendary game.

I didn't grow up in a rundown town--far from it--but my town was certainly small, and we were certainly bored. We did a lot of stupid things in high school: we drove too fast once we got our licenses, and I resolutely and universally refused to wear‎ my seatbelt, for reasons I no longer remember. We mixed whiskey and vodka and chugged it (not recommended). We scored fake IDs in the city, cut class, smoked cigarettes, and bounced from party to party on weekends, looking for something to do.

I wasn't just an inveterate bad-decision maker, though--that was just a pastime. I was also an excellent, ambitious, and enthusiastic student, nerdy and more than a little insecure, trying to conceal my fears and frustrations beneath an attitude of recklessness and indifference.

Would I have participated in Panic back then? Heck yeah. Because Panic, the game, is about more than resistance to fear; it’s about the promise of escape. ‎And although the kids of Carp have real problems to outrun, they're also (like many teens; like myself, at that age) trying desperately to outrun themselves, to escape their identities, their anxieties, their creeping sense that they've inherited a life that is broken or misshapen in some way. Paradoxically, the reason I was so reckless in high school was because of my fears, not in spite of them.  I was hoping that if I could pretend to be fearless I might not only become fearless, but the very things I feared would never come to materialize.

I'm less afraid now than I was at eighteen, and also far less reckless, though I have a deeply ingrained adventurous streak that now finds expression in activity, travel, and experimenting with new things. I'll be the first to hop on a rock-climbing wall or jump out of a plane, fly across the world armed with just a passport and a sense of fun; sample fried insects (not, like, off the street, but in places where people eat insects)‎ or monkfish liver. I've built a life I love. I'm no longer plagued by the insecurities and fears that used to eat at me constantly, the suspicion that if I let my guard down for a second, everyone would know how weak I really was.

Would I play Panic now?‎ Absolutely not. I'm not running from anything. I don't need money to escape. And I'm lucky enough to say there's really nothing I could win that I don't already have. ---Lauren Oliver

 

Getting to Know Nickolas Butler and "Shotgun Lovesongs" — a Big Spring Books Selection

Shotgun LovesongsShotgun Lovesongs may just be the sleeper hit of the season, so evocative is it of the kind of small town American life we don't get enough of in literature these days. The story of a mill town and four guys who love it, leave it, and come back to it forever changed but still somehow the same, it doesn't just tug at the heartstrings; it lodges itself in the heart. And that's one reason I selected it as my Editors' Pick in our Big Spring Books feature.

I spoke with 34-year-old Nickolas Butler about the setting and character choices he made and how his debut novel has already changed his life. 


Sara Nelson: You grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is near the setting of your novel: a fictional town called Little Wing. Are we to assume the book has elements of autobiography?

Nickolas Butler: Well, I think there's a little bit of me in everyone, including Beth [a Little Wing native married to Henry, the seemingly most solid of the four guys.] If I had to describe the book in a nutshell, I'd say it's about friendship and decency and love, and about a place, a very specific place: rural Wisconsin.

SN: I keep describing Leland -- the one who goes off and becomes a famous musician -- as a "Springsteen-esque" character, but apparently you had a younger model, closer to home?

NB: I say that the book was inspired by Justin Vernon [who won the 2012 Best New Artist Grammy as Bon Iver ], but I want to be careful to say I haven't seen him in 18 years. We went to high school together; he was a year younger. But I don't want to make the relationship seem like something that it's not.

The thing is, though, that in Eau Claire, there was just no example for succeeding in the arts before he made it. To have known somebody as a normal human being, a teenager, and then see them experience a wonderful kind of success that you know they worked really, really hard for just gave me a huge amount of confidence to move forward and try to be a writer.

SN: So, are you the most like Leland, then, in that struggle?

NB: I don't know anything about writing music. I'm not musical at all, but I do understand the pressure of hitting a certain place in your life and feeling like, "If I don't make a go of being a writer now, with a kid or two in the family... I'm gonna have to figure something else out." That's why I felt a huge amount of pressure when I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop to make sure I was using my time effectively, to come out of the program with a book that was as good as I could [make it]. Which is basically the same kind of pressure that Leland is feeling when he's recording his first album.

SN: The book is organized around four weddings that bring the friends together. Why did you choose that organizing principle?

NB: What happened was that my wife and I had a two-year period when we were averaging six weddings a summer. I'm not even exaggerating. Weddings were just foremost in my mind. I was going to these weddings. I was sitting in the pews of churches and as a writer/observer, I was thinking about the little dramas and thinking that this would be good for a book somehow.

SN: Throughtout the book, and not just because of the marriages, these four old friends each change and come together and apart a number of times. The novel, in fact, starts with a situation between Leland and his old friend Kip, a scene that could destroy a friendship forever...

NB: When you first see Kip, he starts off, well, as sort of a villain, but then you see that he's trying to become a better human being, but he's just awkward. He's probably like a lot of us. He just doesn't always do the right thing and then realizes what the right thing is, afterwards -- and feels bad about it.

SN: How have your old friends, and the community in Eau Claire, responded to the book?

NB: So far, the reaction has been very positive. Everybody's just really excited. Both my wife and I have these deep connections in the community and people that we knew are just really supportive. I'm really grateful. It's like I just kind of woke up inside my best dream; I can't believe this is happening. It's like I'm 12 years old and I woke up playing 3rd base for the Minnesota Twins.

Guest Essay: Rene Denfeld on Translating Life into Fiction for "The Enchanted"

The Enchanted"Write about what you know," they say. Author Rene Denfeld, who has several nonfiction books to her name, took that advice to heart when writing her powerful debut novel, The Enchanted. Told from the perspective of a death row inmate, the story, in large part, is about the inmate in the next cell and the work of "the Lady," an investigator who is trying to help him avoid execution. Drawing upon her own experiences investigating death penalty cases, Denfeld brings us inside the prison walls, deep into death row, and beyond.

We asked her to tell us about how her own experience influenced her writing, particularly with "the Lady." Here's what she had to say.


The EnchantedNot long ago, I was interviewing a man on death row.

He appeared angry with me, and I asked why. He turned haunted eyes towards me and said, "You brought the outside in."

For decades, he said, he had been trying to forget there was an outside. It was the only way to cope with being locked in a fetid prison cell. Now here I was, smelling of fresh air, with the bloom of winter sun on my cheeks, and he was furious.

I had reminded him of the greatest thing he had lost: hope.

In my job as a death penalty investigator, I spend a lot of time talking to men like this: men in prison cells, waiting for death.

My work is very much like that of the character of the lady in my first novel, The Enchanted. Attorneys hire me to investigate the lives of their clients--men and women facing execution.

Like the lady, I track down long-ago family members, and childhood friends. I find teachers based on pictures in ancient yearbooks. I dig up forgotten records in mildewed file rooms, and often locate witnesses starting with nothing more than a first name.

And most importantly, I spend time with the clients, making a safe place for them to tell me their secrets.

My job is painful and difficult, but I love it, because I get to learn the answers to the most critical question of all --"Why?"

Why are people the way they are? Why do people do such terrible things to each other? Why do some survive bad childhoods, while others succumb to rage and violence?

It fascinates me that for all our focus on crime--the movies, the novels, the television shows--we so seldom dig deep to find out why. We spend a lot of time in our culture telling each other what's wrong with people, but rarely do we stop, and just listen.

Like the lady, I find that most of the people I interview have been waiting a lifetime for someone to listen. Poverty, crime, and abuse have created vast swaths of the population who are silenced. They are our caste of invisibles, unseen and unheard.

Until, sometimes, their actions speak for them--and then it is too late.

For me, listening led to this novel. I listened to the voice of the narrator much as I have learned to listen to the voices of men on death row, their family members, and the families of their victims.

I feel honored to be entrusted with the truths of others, as real and painful and beautiful as they can be. Each secret told is a gift, the chance to truly understand another person.

I have been brought to my knees by the raw courage that can exist in victims and survivors. I've been humbled by the naked humanity of the penitent. Mostly, I've been astounded at the ability to find joy and hope and celebration even in the most despairing of circumstances.

Writing The Enchanted, there were times when I recognized myself in the lady. I also come from a difficult background. Like her, I've used my hardships to make room in my heart for others. But she made it clear that she was her own person, with her own story. She was not me--none of the characters are.

And yet, we share a comon humanity. We all have pain and sorrow. We all share the unquenchable human need to be heard, to be seen, and hopefully, accepted--to find a reason to let the outside in.

How I Wrote It: Willy Vlautin, on "The Free"

VlautinThe characters in Willy Vlautin's quietly brilliant new novel, The Free, embody the embattled middle class: they're wounded (physically, emotionally, financially), they're just getting by, they're hardworking.

Of course, the title is comentary in itself. None of them is free. Not the night-shift worker at the veteran's home, who's lost his home and family; not the brain-damaged Iraq War vet; not his nurse, who's also caring for her mentally ill father. They're the people who "make the rich guys richer."

Yet, strangely, the book is infused with hope. Unwilling to give up, they fight, with what little strength they've got left. Like this exchange:

Wounded vet (in a dream): "You know, my uncle said a person can only see so many bad things before it ruins him."

Girlfriend: "I hope that's not true."

With so many beautifully sad and sadly beautiful moments in this book, I still can't figure out how Vlautin did it... He made me believe they were all going to be okay.

~

Origins

This book started as a series of issues I couldn’t stop thinking about, worrying about. The increasing expense of healthcare and how that affects the working class, soldiers coming home war with long term injuries, and the difficulties of taking care of someone with a long term illness or injury. All heavy and difficult subjects and the book about killed me as I was so worried about getting things right. There’s a lot of moving parts in this one, three stories going on at the same time. That being said, I always try to cut myself some slack here and there. I put Leroy and Jeanette on a boat in one of the most beautiful places in the world, I put in the great Fado singer, Amália Rodrigues, and I’ve always had a thing for nurses so I put in a pretty great nurse, Pauline Hawkins.

VlautinAudience

I dedicated the book to the patron saint of nurses, Camillus de Lellis. I wrote it for him almost as a distress call in hopes he would look after the sorts of people who are in the book: the wounded soldier, Leroy, the nurse, Pauline, and Freddie the working class guy who’s drowning in medical debt. Camillus de Lellis was a remarkable man. He was a soldier who was an alcoholic and gambleholic. He suffered a leg wound that would never heal and he ended up destitute in a pauper’s hospital. After a time he became an orderly, then a nurse and then a priest. He helped start what we now know as the Red Cross.

Challenges

As a fan I tend to like novels that follow one character through a journey. Often I’m pulled out of the story when it switches points of view. My greatest dread as a fan is when I start wondering why the writer did this or that. Even thinking about the writer isn’t a good thing for me as a fan. But this story needed the three main characters and so I worked as hard as I could to make sure the transitions from character to character went as smoothly as possible. I always try to write about things that are important to me, things that haunt me or scare me or worry me. Things I can’t shake. This book is the same as my others in that regard but the subject matter was more out of my comfort zone. I write about a brain damaged soldier, health care in the US, and in some degrees religion. All heavy and heated subjects, so it was a difficult book. It took me just six months to put down the first draft but then I spent three years editing it. I think I did thirteen full re-writes before I even showed it to anyone.

Space

I have it made in that regard. I rent an office in a part of Portland called St. Johns. The room is on the second floor and two of the windows look out across the street to a bar called Slims. It opens first thing in the  morning so I can watch people drink and smoke for breakfast but I don’t have to. It’s the best. The room has free heat and I have a desk and a couch and the side window looks out at an old movie theater. The street outside has five old man bars, a bookstore, a taqueria, a record store, and donut shop. It’s heaven. I always write pretty good there, to me I feel like the luckiest person alive when I get to work there.

Soundtrack

I’ve never been able to write to music. I day dream too much for it to work. I just start drifting off when there’s a song I like playing. But even so a few years back I made a loop of instrumental music, atmospheric mood music. Not quite whale sounds but close. I wrote an entire novel to this 45 minute loop and it was a blast. It was probably the most fun I ever had writing, but the poor novel was so damaged and beat up and off kilter that I pulled the plug on it after the first edit. It had too many holes and dents to save. Like my mind when I listen to music, the story just sort of drifted off into the ether. It was fun as hell to write that way, but I learned my lesson.

Fuel

For me it’s all about not getting tired. I can go pretty good until 2 or 3 PM and then I start falling asleep. If I’m not doing good then I call it a day but if I’m on a hot streak I hit the nearby donut shop for coffee and donuts and then I plow on through until I can’t think anymore.

Words

I used to not be able to read anything similar to what I was working on, but I’ve changed over the years. Now I can read most anything and still stay focused on my work. But every book I write, towards the end of the editing process, I read both IRONWEED by William Kennedy and FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner. Both of those books are my guide. I read those and realize I still have a lot more work to do. They make me want to try harder and my hope is always to get closer to writing a book as good as either of those.

Temptation

When I’m writing fiction I try to live pretty clean. I don’t usually drink, I try to eat better and go running. It’s a long haul writing a novel. I spend so many hours sitting in a room that I have to keep my shit together. I try not to look at the internet but it’s hard not to as it seems like I’m always looking something up. When I used to write at the horse track the temptation was that I wanted to bet every race they had going on the TV’s. Gambling’s all about discipline though. I only let myself bet four races a day. Most times I was betting to break even and buy myself lunch for free but at times I’d get carried away. Nothing like being broke, having a bad day writing, and then losing fifty bucks ‘cause some long shot nosed out your horse.

~

>See all of Vlautin's books

>Listen to this free audiobook from Audible, in which Vlautin reads excerpts from The Free and discusses his characters--accompanied by Vlautin's own music.


 

Graphic Novel Friday: Hidden Gems with Cliff Chiang

Once I saw that artist Cliff Chiang was the latest subject of TwoMorrows Publishing’s Modern Masters series, it did not take me long to geek out. Now on its 29th installment, Modern Masters is a line of oversized books (usually topping 100 pages) that spotlights iconic artists working in the field of comics. In an original long-form interview, they chronicle an artist’s career, technique and process, influences, rare art, and lesser known works. The Cliff Chiang volume does not disappoint—especially in the latter, and it led me down a fun rabbit-hole.

Comic fans will be familiar with Chiang’s work thanks to his breakout effort on Wonder Woman with writer Brian Azzarello. The duo continue to produce one of the best superhero comics on the stands, the go-to book in DC’s New 52 initiative, and a character-defining run for the sometimes maligned Wonder Woman. Chiang’s bold, deceptively simple lines frame the Amazonian with strength and nobility, and the book is never short on action panels. What his Modern Masters story revealed for me, however—besides his refreshing loyalty to DC—was his first-ever collaboration with Brian Azzarello on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it series Doctor 13.

Dr13Originally serialized in Tales of the Unexpected in 2006 and 2007 and later collected in Doctor 13: Architecture and Mortality, the story follows the titular protagonist and a very kitschy band of weirdos as they battle even stranger threats. Fans of D-list heroes will appreciate seeing Infectious Lass, Anthro, Andrew Bennett (from I, Vampire), Haunted Tank, and others battle Nazi gorillas and break the fourth wall to confront DC writers like Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid. Unfortunately, the trade paperback is out of print, but I scored a copy from Amazon’s third party marketplace and read it in tandem with Modern Masters.

Hidden gems like Doctor 13 make comic collecting so rewarding. Finding an unsung first collaboration between two marquee creators recalls rifling through a longbox at a convention. I love that Modern Masters led me there—and it’s not the first time! Comic readers are encouraged to seek out this great series (recommended: the Art Adams and Chris Sprouse issues) to learn more about artists they admire and do a little longbox digging of their own.

--Alex

The "Just So Nu?" Stories: A Wonderful Collection by the Best Writer You Never Heard Of

Out of the Bronx Every once in a while, you come across something that rings so true, so familiar, so painful and so funny, it makes you wonder… Did the person who wrote it live in your house, your parents' house, or maybe just (just?) inside your head?

The stories in Out of the Bronx -- a chronicle of a dysfunctionally charming, or charmingly dysfunctional, family in the 1940s and 50s -- are all like that. And even if you're not Jewish, have never been to the outer boroughs (or, in fact any borough) of New York City, and think times have changed (Ha!), I predict you'll find plenty, as my father used to say, to hang your hat on. (If only we still wore hats...)

The following excerpt is from "Lou's Death," the sixth of ten stories.


Lou, seated between Gloria and Rose in the back seat, spent the entire taxi ride home grousing. "I never should have listened to you. Thirty-five dollars for a useless check-up! Plus cab fare!"
"It wasn't useless, Daddy," said Gloria. "You have a bad disease. You really have to start taking care of yourself."
"If he wants to die," said Fanny, seated in one of the two jump seats, "let him. Who'll miss him?"
"I will," said Gloria.
"I won't," said Fanny. "With his gambling and his shylocks, he's probably better off dead."
Lou was too exhausted to defend himself. It was Joel, sitting on the second jump seat, who lost his temper and shouted at Fanny, "Once and for all, will you shut your trap?"
Everyone was shocked, Fanny most of all.
"Good for you, Joel," said Gloria.
"You see?" said Fanny. "Everyone in this family hates me."
"Can you blame us?" Gloria asked. "You don't have a drop of compassion—except for yourself! Can't you find an ounce for your own father?"
If hair could actually stand up on a person's head, Fanny's would have reached the roof of the taxi at Gloria's words.
"Listen, Miss Fatty Sachs," she said, "and listen good. And you, too, Mr. Goody-Goody Joel Sachs. I'm older than both of you, and you're not allowed to talk to me like that. I'm sick of being criticized by children!"
"Be nice to each other," said Rose. "We're a family. In a family, people are supposed to be nice to each other."
"Since when?" asked Fanny. "The four of you may be a family, but I'm not part of it. I never have been."
Rose ignored her and turned to Joel. "What am I supposed to feed him if I can't fry his hamburgers in Crisco?"
"It isn't necessary to fry hamburgers, Ma. You can broil them. Emily never fries anything except an egg once in a while."
"Emily?" said Lou with a sneer. "She's a rotten cook! I remember her food at your wedding. It was from hunger. Anyway, who ever heard of a bride cooking the food for her own wedding? I never heard of a wedding without a caterer."
"You didn't even give me a wedding," said Fanny, "so what are carrying on about? You refused to lay out a penny!"
"If I was the richest person in the United States, I wouldn't pay for anything that has to do with Harvey. As far as I'm concerned, he's not worth a penny."
"That's a nice way to talk about my husband," said Fanny.
"He hits you, doesn't he?" asked Rose.
"Who told you that?"
"Nobody has to tell me. I've seen the bruises on you."
"He hits her?" asked Lou. "That piece of garbage hits my daughter?"
"Is that true, Fanny?" asked Joel. "Does Harvey hit you?"
"You should keep your mouth shut, Ma," said Fanny.
"When you shut your mouth, I'll shut mine."
"Is it true, Fanny?" Joel repeated.
"We hit each other," said Fanny. "I get my shots in too, believe me."

Reprinted by permission of Asahina & Wallace. c. Jerome Kass  2014

National Reading Month: Kate DiCamillo on the Power of Stories

KateDiCamilloMarch is National Reading Month and today is World Read Aloud Day, so we are kicking it off with a guest post from children's book author Kate DiCamillo that brought a lump to my throat (yes, I'm a total sap but don't judge 'til you read it...).

Probably best known for her novels Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, DiCamillo has had quite a year already.  At the start of 2014 she was named the new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, a post voted on by a panel of booksellers, the Children's Book Council, and the Library of Congress.  Then when the Newbery award winners were announced at the end of January, DiCamillo took home the medal for Flora & Ulysses (an Amazon Best Children's Book of 2013), marking her third time as a Newbery recipient (she won the medal for Tales of Despereaux in 2004 and an honor for Because of Winn-Dixie in 2001).  DiCamillo is a powerhouse advocate for reading and getting books into the hands of children and, as you'll see in her post below, she does it with immense grace, gratitude, and always a touch of humor.

When I was nine years old, my mother checked Beverly Cleary’s Ribsy out of the public library, and read the book aloud to my brother and me.  We read a few chapters of the story every night.  The three of us sat side by side on the flowered sectional couch in the Florida room.  The Florida room had orange shag carpet.  Its walls were paneled in cypress, and we could see Lake Minnehaha from the large bank of windows that faced south.

On the floor, stretched out parallel to the couch, was our dog Nanette.  Nanette’s flank rose and fell as my mother read, and the dog would raise her head off the floor and look at us every time we laughed. 

We laughed a lot. 

Ribsy is a funny book.

There was a lamp by the couch.  And as the darkness outside grew darker, as the lake disappeared into the sky, as more of the story got told, the light by the couch seemed to grow brighter.

We were a pack of four: my mother, my brother, the dog and me.  In the book, Ribsy the dog was lost.  But we were all safe inside.  We were together.

That was over four decades ago.

Nanette is gone and my mother is gone.  My brother and I live far away from each other. 

But every time I see the cover of that book, every time I see a picture of Ribsy, I am transported back to that time, to that cypress-paneled room, to the flowered couch, to the lamp and the laughter and the safety.

Reading together is a very particular kind of magic.

When I meet teachers and librarians who tell me that they read aloud to their classrooms, I always try to make a point of thanking them.

Reading a story together brings us together: large groups, small groups, packs of four and packs of two.  When we read together, we come in from the darkness, the cold.

It occurs to me as I write these words, as I remember the darkness outside that room in Florida, that I never explicitly thanked my mother for reading to us.

So, I will thank her here, now, in the best way I can, by encouraging other people to do what she did for me, and for my brother.

I will ask you to read aloud to your students, your children.  Read aloud to your husband, your wife.  Read aloud to your dog.

Push back the darkness.

Sit down beside somebody you love. 

Turn on a light.  Open a book.

--Kate DiCamillo

For more on Kate DiCamillo, you can check out our Omni interview with her about Flora & Ulysses (before it won the Newbery) and here are *some* of her books:

FloraUlysses160 Winn-Dixie MagiciansElephantTaleDespereaux160 EdwardTulane BinkGollie160

    MercyWatson160 LouiseChicken160 MercyWatsonPrincess160TigerRising160

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