Archive for the ‘interviews’ Category
Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail was curious to know about New York City literary life. They were kind enough to ask me a few questions about bookstores, bars, and readings. You can read the feature in their travel section. Here are my answers in full.
What are your three favourite bookstores in NYC – please give a brief reason for each.
The best part about being a bookworm and living in New York City, and the surrounding area, is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality. Since I have so many favorites, depending on my mood–or current location–I’ll say that when visiting New York one should make sure to check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, Strand near Union Square, and St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village.
One of the first things you’ll notice about McNally Jackson is that their fiction titles are shelved by region based on the nationality of the author. It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born. The store also has a cafe where you can sit and read the books you’ve purchased or have brought with you. As one of the largest independents in the city, they host excellent events almost every night in the downstairs space. One of the liveliest stores in New York, it’s a great place to visit day or night.
If you’re looking to get lost in stacks of books, The Strand is the place for you. Started in 1927, Strand has 18 miles of new, used, and rare books. They also host many interesting events in their rare book room. Admission is the cost of the book or a $10 gift card. Definitely worth it.
St. Mark’s Bookshop, not actually on St. Mark’s Place but very close to it, opened in 1977. They’re known for a great collection of political and cultural studies books that are hard to find elsewhere. They also have a wide selection of poetry, literary journals, and zines.
Where are the best places for author readings, poetry slams or other similar literary events/performances (and what’s the best online resource where people can check for listings?)
Now you’ve tapped into one of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York City. As the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?
For this one, we’ll branch out to Brooklyn, which is a quick subway ride from Manhattan. WORD in Greenpoint devotes their entire basement to events; powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for hosting parties, not just readings; Housing Works is doing some creative programming and the crowd is usually packed with people in literary industry, whether it’s publishing or criticism; the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights is a monthly series that hosts a lineup of local and visiting authors; Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene not only brings in top authors but the storefront is a big glass window, which makes it an excellent place for those who like open spaces; Bluestockings on the Lower East Side is known for it’s LGBT events; and Community Bookstore has really ramped up their readings over the past few months since bringing the tireless Michele Filgate on board.
Two other places of note are the Bowery Poetry Club where you can find poetry slams and KGB Bar on West 4th where you can see rising literary talent, established local authors, and magazine launches.
As for finding out about events, my friend David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I started an online calendar, Book Boroughing, a little over a year ago. While it’s far from exhaustive we do include the major indie bookstore readings and some of the larger series around town. Before starting the calendar, I relied heavily on Slice Magazine’s (and still do). Time Out New York is also a great place to check for local happenings and can be found on newsstands.
Are there a couple of bars/coffeeshops where you’re likely to run into writers and other literary types – please give a brief description of each.
That’s a tough one. I think the nice part about the New York literary scene is that many local authors come out to events, so you can often run into them there. However, if you’re looking for some iconic bars, there’s the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish in the West Village, and The Half King in Chelsea, which is owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson.
Any other tips for bookish visitors to NYC – festivals, events, tours etc. – anything you can think of really that a travelling bookworm might enjoy.
My first piece of advice is to explore Brooklyn. It really is very close and the literary scene there is thriving. Nothing makes that more apparent than the growing success of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival that takes place at the end of September. Although the festival itself is on a Sunday, the events leading up to the day are staggering. There are a ton of readings and parties that take place all around the borough.
There are two annual Lit Crawls, one for New York City and one for Brooklyn. During the one-day event multiple readings, panels, and literary games take place around a designated area. Authors, publishers, and literary magazines all participate.
Book Expo America is a large publishing industry convention that takes place at the Jacob Javits Center. They’ve just opened it up to the public but, in true New York fashion, there are tons of parties and readings that take place after convention hours. During that week, while all sorts of literary and publishing types are in town, bookstores, publishers, and various publications use the opportunity to mingle with those they don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face during the rest of the year. Many of the parties are open to all.
While I’ve never been on a literary tour of Manhattan, I did come across one for Greenwich Village on the Fodors blog that is worth saving for your visit.
And finally, traveling bookworms might want to stay at the Library Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the New York Public Library, which is also a bookish place one should be sure to visit.
In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.
Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.
In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.
Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”
Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.
THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?
CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.
The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.
This sounds like a good writing routine.
It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.
Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?
Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?
Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.
How was it to plot the first book in a series?
I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).
The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.
The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”
But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.
What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?
It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.
The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?
Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?
You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?
The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.
Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.
So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.
As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.
I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?
I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.
I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.
You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?
McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.
That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.
But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)
It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.
Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.
You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?
I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).
Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.
You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.
As to what I read?
I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.
In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?
Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.
The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.
A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?
Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).
You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?
I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.
But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.
It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)
I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.
What are you working on now?
Eating some waffles.
Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.
Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.
Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!
Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!
If you were a teen in the mid 90s and had cable television, most likely you know Michael Ian Black from The State, the sketch comedy show that aired on MTV. His new memoir, You’re Not Doing It Right, is best summed up as an unflinching look at finding love, getting married, becoming a father, and dealing with all the trying moments that inevitably come with that life. Black’s humor makes this a wince-inducing, laugh-out-loud-in-public take on adulthood.
Since the 90s, Black’s been busy acting in films (Wet Hot American Summer), on television (Stella, Ed, Michael and Michael Have Issues), and has even written a few children’s books. Recently, he’s moved into stand-up and can be found talking about food on the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.
I had a chance to ask Michael about his career in comedy, his thoughts on the industry today, and what his wife thinks about his honesty. You can read the interview in full at The Rumpus. Here are some highlights:
I’ve heard you talk about how seriously you take your comedic career, The State was meant to rival Saturday Night Live, yet anyone who knows your work could easily describe it as “ridiculous”. Your sketch comedy in particular is truly absurd (in that good, over-the-top way). How do you balance these two, seemingly at odds, versions of yourself—both personally and professionally?
Michael Ian Black: To me, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. From my early work with the sketch group The State until now, I’ve thought a lot about comedy. Probably too much. In some ways, The State was more of an intellectual exercise than a comedic one. What I mean is, we were deliberately attempting to push a new kind of comedy out there. It was a reaction to what we were seeing on shows like SNL and in the observational stand-up that was out there at the time. We wanted to do a more aggressive, edgy, surreal comedy. All of that was very conscious and almost analytical. Of course I don’t know how analytical you can get about fart jokes, but we tried. The point is that silliness can be very serious. Sorry if I come off like a pretentious prick, but comedy is one of those things that, as soon as you start talking about it, you automatically sounds like a pretentious prick. Also: poetry. Also: fashion.
If you were just starting out, how do you think this environment would affect you?
Black: It’s much easier now, particularly if you don’t live in New York or LA. Because you broadcast your work so easily it’s much easier to find an audience. On the other hand, the flood of stuff that’s out there sometimes makes it hard to get noticed. I do believe that the best stuff will always eventually make itself known, though.
Speaking of, in your new book, I was impressed by how strong your voice is. How do you approach your essay writing and how does it differ from when you write sketch and stand-up?
Black: Essay and story writing versus sketch writing. All writing is basically the same: beginning, middle, end. The difference with sketches, and why sketches are actually harder, is that you generally have to establish an entire new world every few minutes with its own rules, get to the joke premise, explore that premise, and then end the thing all within tight time constraints. That’s very hard to do well. Even the best sketch shows generally fall on their faces half the time.
With essays and story-telling it’s a little different. For one thing, my current essay work is all very personal. It’s based on my life and so the world remains consistent. That makes things easier. Also, it’s anecdotal by its nature, so I usually have some idea of how it ends before I start. Finally, I don’t feel the same pressure to be funny when I’m writing anecdotally. The flip of that is that I do feel pressure to actually say something, to make some larger point about something. I don’t feel that pressure when writing sketch comedy.
Go check out the rest. In the meantime, you can buy Michael Ian Black’s memoir, You’re Not Doing it Right, at IndieBound (or find it at your local indie). You can also follow Michael on Twitter at @michaelianblack.
Kris D’Agostino’s debut novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, captures perfectly that anxious time after college graduation — the time when you realize everything you’ve been told about your education is wrong. Many of us, especially among the middle class, are raised to believe that with a college degree in hand the world is yours. For the majority of us, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
We’re never told of that in between period where we move back to our childhood homes, go on endless job interviews, possibly pick up a local retail job in the interim, and wonder when the glorious life we were promised is going to begin. In his afterword, Kris sums up the story he set out to tell: this is a coming-of-age story about a “generation’s grossly delayed plunge into adulthood.”
Instead of a position at the hometown bookstore, as was the case with me, Cal Moretti, our floundering protagonist, finds himself teaching autistic children at a local preschool, hoping to one day put his film degree to use. However, for Cal, life becomes more complicated. His father is diagnosed with cancer and his job as a pilot put on hiatus; his mom, having a tough time making ends meet, is forced to look into selling the family home; and the older brother, his younger’s polar opposite, steps in to help, putting the pressure on Cal to pitch in as well. Then there’s his teenage sister, who accidentally becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby.
The Morettis are a family to root for, and The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac is the sweetest story about family dysfunction you might read all year.
I sat down with Kris at a local coffee shop to talk about the personal nature of his story, the influence of screenwriting on his prose, and the lies we’ve been told about college graduation. You can read the full interview at The Nervous Breakdown. Here are some highlights.
The first question I have is going to be the hardest. Your first sentence is “I work with retards.” This book is so sensitive . . .
And that isn’t.
Right. I feel like that had to be a conscious decision.
Yeah, it was. Part of it was inspired by the fact that I was a huge fan of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape when I was in high school—probably college, actually. His treatment of that word, he does the same sort of thing. Not as overtly, but Gilbert has his challenged brother who they definitely use that word to describe and it came from someone who has some angst and is angry about some things.
But then, it’s also not about that. I have a problem when people get shocked about things like that. I worked at a preschool with autistic kids for eight months and there’s this weird gallows humor. I don’t know if it’s totally analogous but doctors make weird jokes about patients dying because they’re so in it. It’s not from a place of insensitivity; it’s just that sometimes things are funny and sad and I don’t like to draw black and white lines. I just think everything is gray.
I feel that when I come up to defend it, it’s many little things that equal a view of life.
How do you research the way people talk?
I don’t. I imagine people talking in my head or imagine real people I’ve heard talk about something analogous to what is going on and then take parts of that. Take two people having a fight about a relationship, I’ll think, “Wait, when have I heard two people arguing about their relationship in my presence?” and then I’ll pull little things from there.
I don’t do any research — unless I’m reading other books, taking things in, and not realizing I am.
When you read other books do you feel you pay more attention to dialogue?
Yea. I’m a huge movie person. I dropped out of film school. I consider myself way more versed and knowledgeable about film than I do about books. When I was in my MFA program at The New School I was the worst read person there. I’d be in class and everyone would be like, “And we all remember in Madame Bovary when this happened” and I’d be like, “I’ve never read that.” And all of my examples would always be movies. I think I got this reputation for being illiterate.
I thought you caught that period after college so perfectly.
That was one of the main things I wanted to do.
That anxiety. I remember graduating from college and thinking, “Wait, I thought I was supposed to have an awesome job.”
That’s exactly what I was saying. I feel like it’s so true. I talked to someone who had read the book who is 23 and it’s the same. Nothing’s changed. I was very immature, not ready for anything, when I graduated from college. I had no idea how to navigate the real world. I had no ambition to have a real job. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I mean, I had majored in literature and writing and all these people that I went to school with were putting on suits and getting these business jobs. Even they didn’t have it figured out but I had no idea what I wanted to do and I didn’t want to graduate. I was like, I’ll go back to film school and party for two more years; and that totally backfired on me.
After I dropped out of grad school the first time, I moved back home with my parents because I had no money at all and I had no job. I think I was 23. There were a bunch of people I knew who were in the same situation; it wasn’t just me. I had three friends in the same situation and we would do what I tried to portray in the book. We’d drive around in our cars and listen to music and watch movies and just talk nonsense the whole time. It was the post-college floundering around. That whole period — two…three-and-a-half years — it was the weirdest time.
Imagine that Cinderella’s been murdered, distracted by a bluebird and run over by a truck in New Never City. Now imagine her stepsister calling on Rumpelstiltskin (stripped of his villainy as punishment for rage issues) to investigate. This is the premise of J.A. Kazimer’s Curses!: A F**cked Up Fairy Tale.
Cinderella’s stepsister Asia, believing her sister’s death to be a case of foul play, shows up at what she thinks is Sherlock Holmes’s door. Only, he hasn’t lived there for a while, not since RJ, as Rumpel prefers to be called, stuffed him into the chimney and took over the residence. Asia, much better-looking then the original story had led us to believe, convinces RJ to help, but really he’s just doing it in hopes that she’ll sleep with him.
As the two dig deeper into Cindi’s untimely death, everyone becomes suspect: Prince Charming; the butler; Dru, the second and not-so-pretty stepsister; even Asia.
Blending favorite fairy tale characters with today’s cultural references and sensibilities, Curses! flips the childhood staple on its head to create a wholly adult, and highly entertaining, reading experience.
I spoke with author J.A. Kazimer for The Nervous Breakdown. We talked about reimagining stories and casting secondary characters in lead roles. Here is part of that conversation. I encourage you to read the full interview.
I’d never read a book like Curses! before, a blending of fairy tale with cheeky romance. I’m curious to know how you explain it to people.
Curses! is, as the subtitle subtlety suggests, a f***ed up version of a mesh of fairy tale characters and stories with a few twisted nursery rhymes thrown in. A friend once described it as: ‘Neil Gaiman meets Shrek and they live happily ever after…or NOT’. That kind of says it all.
Your book is fairly bawdy. Why did you choose to write it as a fairy tale?
Why, thank you. I’m a fan of bawdy. To me, fairy tales lend themselves to being told in this manner. Most of us remember our fairy tales via the Disney rose-colored glasses, which is great, but 200 years ago, The Brothers Grimm told a far different tale, filled with violence and bloodshed.
In Curses!, one of the main characters is Cinderella’s stepsister. I love the idea of secondary characters becoming leads. What made you decide to tell the story this way?
Thank you. In so many stories, I wonder, what happens to the minor characters after the hero and heroine ride off into the sunset? After writing Curses! the ugly stepsister has her happily ever after (sort of), and so does her uglier stepsister. Choosing a lesser known character allowed me to create an interesting character without any preconceived ideas about her. Readers think Cinderella’s stepsister, and the only thing that comes to mind is how ugly she is. The rest of her is all mine to craft.
Where can people find you?
In October 2009, after the opening of Greenlight Books, the idea for CoverSpy was hatched. Soon “a team of publishing nerds” were running around New York, chronicling the city’s public reading habits.
For a little over 3 years now, everyday this group goes incognito onto subways, through streets, and in parks and bars to get a read on the our literary thermometer. Using Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, they deliver the results almost in real time.
I speak with two of CoverSpy’s founders about the project’s origins, who’s reading what on which subway, and the best books they’ve ever spied.
Here are some highlights, you can read the rest at Book Boroughing.
How would you describe CoverSpy at a party?
A: CoverSpy is a project where we spy what people are reading on subways and around the city and report what we see on our website. Sometimes, especially at publishing events or hanging with fellow book nerds, we mention CoverSpy and people already know about us or maybe even follow us on Tumblr, which is an awesome feeling.
You’ve been doing this for a few years now, you must see trends. What are a few you’ve noticed?
A: When a book is on the NY Times Best Seller’s List we often see it being read around the city for months following. From Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin to Stieg Larsson’s novels, they are very popular for a time and then are read less and less, replaced by the next big hit. People on the Q train love Malcolm Gladwell, people on the F train love Jonathan Lethem and are usually carrying either an NPR or Strand tote bag. There are more self-help books on the L train.
T: People love it when we post a children’s book. They love it even more when it’s an adult reading one–like Sweet Valley Twins. That got a lot of comments.
Do you have a favorite train for cover spying?
T: Everyone’s reading on the F train, so that makes it easy.
A: The covers on the L train tend to be the prettiest, most highly designed which I appreciate. But I think the G train is my favorite because of the range of books read on it. I’m often introduced to authors I never knew existed on that line more than others.
Best book you’ve ever spied?
T: It was some steamy romance novel being read by an off-duty MTA worker—can’t remember the title.Or maybe the guy who was holding one sunflower and ten pink balloons. Again, I don’t remember which book it was. Sometimes it’s the people that stand out.
A: I get a lot of joy out of spying kids reading on the subway, so pretty much put a kid in front of me with Beverly Cleary or Harry Potter and that’s my favorite.
As someone who went to school for Music Business and who now works in book publishing, I often see the parallels between musicians and authors. It always surprised me when I first started my job search and the interviewer would ask, “Music Business? Why do you want to get into book publishing?” For me it was an easy leap, whether you’re working with a musician or a writer, it’s artist representation.
So, when I heard from John Anealio, co-host of the Functional Nerds podcast, that he wanted to have me on the show alongside a music marketing strategist, I was excited he made the connection as well.
The other guest on the show, Brian Thompson, is a “Vancouver based music industry entrepreneur, record label owner, artist manager, marketing consultant, digital strategist, brand architect, web designer, blogger, podcaster and industry speaker.” He’s one of the co-founders of Thorny Bleeder Records, “an artist development collective” that helps bands “establish and grow their profile and fan base, both domestically and internationally.”
Since being on the show with him, I’ve signed up for his email newsletter, The DIY Daily, a “daily newsletter delivering marketing advice, music industry news, social media tips & tools, tech, apps & gadgets, inspirational & motivational thoughts and much more.” Everyday, waiting for me in my inbox, are 20 great links about how artists of all kinds can use social media effectively. More than most apply to the publishing industry and are links I can forward along to my authors.
On The DIY Daily website, you’ll find a daily podcast offering a variety of marketing tips in under 20 minutes, an in-depth weekly podcast about the music business, daily quotes, and the aforementioned link roundup if you prefer to not to receive them by email.
On the show, Brian, John, Patrick and I discussed the benefits of email lists, social media, and how artists should treat themselves as a business.
You can listen to the episode here.
If you have any questions, check back on the Functional Nerds site next week. Book Publicist Jaym Gates and I will be collecting questions for a future online round table.
On the Shelf
Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer
Best known as the author of many science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as the editor of many genre anthologies, in Booklife, Jeff VanderMeer offers “timely advice in an era when the burden of production and publicity frequently falls on authors.” Booklife is an “essential reference [that] reflects on methods for being focused, productive, and savvy in the craft of writing.
Discussing a wide range of essential topics for self-promoting authors, this important guide explores questions such as How can authors use social media and the internet? How does the new online paradigm affect authors, readers, and the book industry? How can authors find the time to both create and promote their work? and What should never be done? Through good-humored encouragement, practical tips of the trade culled from 25 years of experience as a writer, reviewer, editor, publisher, agent, and blogger are shared. Including topics such as personal space versus public space, deadlines, and networking, the benefits of interacting with readers through new technologies is revealed.” [via IndieBound]
Science fiction author Lavie Tidhar is a busy man. He’s had two novels published in 2011 and will see two more this year. Along with his longform fiction, Tidhar fills his time writing short stories, editing anthologies and websites, and, of course, hanging out on Twitter. This month, science fiction publisher Angry Robot is putting out the third book in his Bookman Histories series, The Great Game. But for those of you who have yet to discover the first two, you won’t need to go back to the beginning, The Great Game is one of those few sequels that can be read as a standalone novel.
Infused with steampunk elements, The Great Game is an interwoven, alt-history tale of espionage, often with the feel of an old spy novel. Historical and fictional characters — Oliver Twist, Bram Stoker, Houdini, Jack London, and Frankenstein to name a few — mingle on the streets of Victorian-era London as a “secret shadow war” wages on between humans, a ruling class of lizards, and automatons.
In 2011, Lavie Tidhar was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for his international science fiction site, The World SF Blog, and recently, his book Osama has been nominated for the British Science Fiction Award. Lavie took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the writing process, the role of politics in science fiction, and his love of poetry. You can check out his site here and follow him on Twitter at @lavietidhar.
You’re a prolific writer — your Bookman series has come out in rapid succession and in between you’ve published another novel, a number of short stories, you’re Editor-in-Chief of the World SF Blog, and you maintain your own blog. You’ve also gained a reputation for your frequent Twitter usage. How do you balance your writing with your social media output? Your blogging, editing, and longer form writing?
I tend to do the blogs first — get up, check e-mail, have coffee, update blogs — that sort of thing. Then I can get on with writing. I’m not really a morning person, so it’s a good way for me to slowly ease into that semi-vegetative state required for writing.
Otherwise, it’s a catch-all for me, writing-wise – sometimes I have long stretches of novel writing, then I need a break and write a short story. I love short stories. At the moment I have four half-novels on the go so having to decide which one to focus on can be tricky! Generally I like working on a lot of different things, so I don’t get bored.
Are you someone who finds Twitter facilitates their writing process?
I do find Twitter quite helpful as an escape from writing. I tweet a lot, but only really when I’m writing. It’s like a lot of mini-breaks in between. I just get to be a big geek on Twitter. I was trying variations on The Wizard of Oz on Twitter a while back, came up with The Were-Wizard of Oz and thought, aha! Ended up writing that one and selling it to Ekaterina Sedia’s Beware the Night anthology.
In January of 2010 you wrote a piece for SF Signal about the growing interest in steampunk. You mention its current day relevance: the similarities between England as a colonial power in Victorian times and the US today. The title of your new book, The Great Game, brings to mind the struggle for control of Central Asia that took place between the British and Russian Empire during the 19th century. Your story involves a secret shadow war not only between nations but also between humans, lizards, and automatons. How do you use your work to draw parallels between the past, present, and future?
The Victorian era is so important, you know, in order to understand the world we live in today. Just look at the war in Afghanistan – the First Anglo-Afghan War, 1839-1842, that is. Really our world was shaped so much by that British Empire – no amount of goggles or parasols or cogs or whatever can really obscure the underlying political force of that era, the way it shaped borders, ethnicities, economics and war today.
In my own steampunk trilogy I tried to assume a better 19th century, really – an America only partially colonized by Europeans, an Africa with its intact empires and trade networks, an era where women have more freedom than they did – Irene Adler (from Sherlock Holmes) is a police inspector and becomes chief of Scotland Yard by the third book, for instance. Kind of ironic when the updated-to-our-present day TV series of Holmes makes her into a sex worker! I wonder what it says about our age. The world of the Bookman Histories is not a much better world – there’s revolution, poverty, discrimination, everything the 19th century was so good at – but that’s part of the fun, too.
Read the rest at The Nervous Breakdown
An Interview with Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Author and Illustrator of Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary
Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary is the story of 15-year-old Tina M., an Indian-American girl attending a posh private high school in California, and, like so many her age, trying to find her place in the world. A natural for self-reflection, Tina’s ripe for existentialism when her hippie English teacher introduces the subject to the class. The assignment for the year is for each student to find “true and authentic meaning and purpose” in their existence. What follows is Tina’s project. As the subtitle suggests, her search is in the form of an existential comic diary.
Interspersed with letters, as if they were written to the movement’s leading figure, Jean Paul-Sartre, Tina explores her life’s ups-and-downs — failed and newly forged friendships, tumultuous crushes, quirky family members — and her own identity. Moments of melodrama punctuate the pages: “Yes, my dear dead grandfather of French philosophical thought, the highs have swung to lows and I have fallen into something I am going to term CEM or Chronic Existential Malaise.”
Also familiar are those moments of introspection that meander into to the unknown: “I am east, west, happy, sad, normal, freakish, plain, pretty, Indian, American, and quite possibly a touch of Greek due to Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Punjab Province in 327 B.C. I live in California, but someday it might be Zanzibar or the Left Bank of Paris. Maybe the right. I have no idea. Do you see how complicated it gets?”
For anyone who was the slightest bit broody in high school, Tina is a relatable character, and, without question, a likable one. She’s everyone who has ever felt out of place, who has ever wondered if they’ll ever feel normal, and, of course, if they’ll ever find someone who understands them — friend or otherwise.
Keshni Kashyap, author and filmmaker, and illustrator Mari Araki met through a mutual acquaintance and formed an admiration for each other’s work. Together they worked long hours and, as some of the story has autobiographical elements, Mari was introduced to the Kashyap family and shown around the high school that served as a model for Tina’s.
The two were kind enough to answer a few questions about philosophy, storytelling, and the collaborative process. You can find out more about them and their work at keshnikashyap.com and mariaraki.com and you can order Tina’s Mouth through the site Tinasmouth.com.
Did you always know Tina’s Mouth would be a graphic novel?
Keshni: Yes. I started working on it as a side project, and it was always meant to be a graphic novel. I have a filmmaking background, so this distinction is important to me.
How did the storytelling process differ from filmmaking?
Keshni: Because I had a ‘diary,’ I was able to do some different sorts of things. Use the images to make certain ideas bigger or more effective (the mouth, for example) or funny or contrapuntal. I could also make a visual story feel more novelistic. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but that was my intention. In filmmaking, you really have to be careful. Voiceovers are very hard to pull off. There are also a variety of other reasons that make being experimental tricky. Producers, for example. And crews of people. With Tina’s Mouth, it was always just me and Mari.
I found the illustrations and text well balanced and the art to be a nice fit with the tone of the story. Mari, how would you describe your style?
Mari: While developing my style, I never really thought about what genre or label of artwork I was creating, but some curators have said I fit into the “pop-surrealist” category so I suppose that’s how most will identify my artwork. However, I prefer just to be thought of as an artist. This way I have no unnecessary, self-imposed boundaries to my work.
Read the rest at The Nervous Breakdown
In her introduction to Geek Girls Unite: How Fangirls, Bookworms, Indie Chicks, and Other Misfits are Taking Over the World, Leslie Simon defines a geek as “A person who is wildly passionate about an activity, interest, or scientific field and strives to be an expert in said avocation.” What distinguishes a geek from his or her close relatives—say, a nerd, a dork, or a dweeb—is that a geek “does not necessarily sacrifice social status to participate in area of expertise; instead, person will often seek out like-minded peers—in both the real and virtual worlds—in order to connect, bond, and celebrate mutual love for this area.”
With this sociability in mind, Leslie aims to unite geeky girls worldwide. She notes that geek guys have sucked up the air in the room—Seth Rogan, Mark Zuckerberg, and Michael Cera, to name a few—and that it’s time for women to claim some of the oxygen; but first, we must learn to recognize one another. This is where Geek Girls Unite, an amusing field guide to geekdom, lends a helping hand.
There are many types of geeks out there: there’s the comic book geek, the music geek, the movie geek, the comedy geek, the geek who enjoys the domestic arts, and those geeks who always have their nose in a book. Using pop-anthropology, Leslie profiles each of these types, highlighting where they can be found, their outward signifiers, and who their historical predecessors are.
Having written something of a manifesto, Leslie says, “Embrace your quirkiness!” and with Geek Girls Unite she makes it a little bit easier.
Leslie spoke with me about the impetus for the book, her research, finding geek mentors, and growing up geek.
What was the spark that led you to write Geek Girls Unite?
I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to remember what or who it was that sparked the idea for Geek Girls Unite and the only thing I got out of it was a big lump on my noggin. Odds are, I was probably standing in the middle of some weird L.A. party, feeling completely out of place and having horrible high-school flashbacks. Or maybe I watching 30 Rock, basking in the amazingness of Tina Fey and her Liz Lemon alter-ego while sucking back a glass of wine. Either way, I’m sure it was inspired by how I used to feel my quirks and idiosyncrasies held me back when, in fact, they probably helped propel me to where I am today.
You’d mentioned feeling ashamed of your geekiness growing up. I can totally relate. When I look back at what I did to fit in I cringe. How did you react to, or against, your inner-geek — and when did you finally accept that it was who you were and you weren’t going to change?
I still consider myself a work in progress but my geek evolution started happening when I was 18. Once I went away to college and realized that I could choose my friends, it was a whole different ball game. I wasn’t forced to socially cohabitate with people just because they lived in the same zip code; I could actually choose my comrades based on similar interests and outlooks. (What a concept!)
What would you tell your teen geek self if you ran into her today?
I would definitely tell her to loosen up and live a little… or a lot! In high school, I was so scared of life—scared of not doing well on a test, scared of my friends thinking I was lame, scared of getting in trouble for missing curfew, scared of disappointing my parents. I really didn’t understand the concept of unconditional love, whether it was coming from my friends, my family or myself. When you want so badly to be liked (and/or loved), it’s easy to loose focus on who you really are and what’s really important. I know that now… but it would’ve been nice to understand that a little sooner.
You can read the rest of the interview at The Nervous Breakdown
The independent bookstore McNally Jackson, located in SoHo, New York, features a regular series called “Conversations on Practice” hosted by author and musician Glenn Kurtz. Kurtz, an excellent conversationalist, invites fellow writers to sit down with him to discuss their life and work. These are some of the most engaging nights going on in New York and Brooklyn’s thriving literary scene.
The other month Salon’s book critic Laura Miller was the guest. As a fledgling reviewer and interviewer, listening to an intimate conversation about Laura’s 20 years of experience in the field and her approach to the craft was of personal interest. 45 minutes flew, not seeming nearly long enough, and I was left with more questions than I’d had walking in.
Laura was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule—she has two deadlines a week—to let me pick her brain. The final version of the interview ran in The Rumpus last week; because of space, here are a few things that didn’t make it in:
In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia you say, “A critic has to write as well as read, and while writing about a book can reveal things you’d never get from simply reading it, it can also make reading a less immediate and visceral experience.” When reading a book in anticipation of writing a review, what do you look for that you might normally pass over if reading for pleasure?
Key facts, like dates, names, places — Were they college freshmen when they first met, or seniors? At USC or UCLA? — that sort of thing. I had to overcome my tendency to skim over paragraphs with lots of capitalized words. I know I’m going to need certain facts when I sit down to write the piece, even if they aren’t the sort of thing I ordinarily dwell on.
I assume you have a lot of say in the books you choose to review for Salon. How much control do you have? Any considerations you keep in mind when deciding what to review?
Almost total. However, I do need to keep an eye on the readership for the various pieces I write, which is so easy to measure online. That’s one reason why I review more nonfiction than fiction, about three to one. I like the two genres equally, but if you could see a graph comparing the readership of my review column over the course of a month, you’d see a little mountain for most of the nonfiction reviews and barely a bump for the fiction. My employers don’t harangue me to write pieces that generate more traffic, but they don’t hire me to write pieces that only 5000 people are going to read, either.
As a general rule, the average reader of, say, Salon is much more interested in nonfiction than in fiction. Even if a nonfiction book isn’t very well written, readers can often learn something from it, and even if they never actually read the book, they can still learn things from the review. People like learning things! So while a review of a work of fiction absolutely must discuss the book as an aesthetic object, often readers are perfectly happy to read a nonfiction review that basically decants the most interesting parts of the book and serves as an alternative to actually reading it.
Are you able to read a book without your critic-mind infiltrating?
The argument I make in my book is about the value of getting beyond the idea that our initial reading experiences are Edenic and that the eventual growth of our critical faculties represents a fall from grace or innocence. There’s a further stage of growth as a reader in which you can experience both the pleasure of getting lost in a book and the awareness of the book as a work of art. You can have both experiences at the same time, without the diminishment of either one. Actually, reading isn’t the only area of life in which this can happen; it’s one of the benefits of getting older, if you can manage it. You see experiences in many layers at once. But you do have to really work at it to get to that point. It takes practice.
What was the last book you read that used symbolism well?
Pretty much every good work of fiction does this. The most recent really good novel I read was “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I suppose most readers would not peg that book as particularly symbolic. So, off the top of my head: the way that fertility serves as the epitome of female power and vulnerability at the same time in Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.”
Read Laura’s reviews, essays, and interviews at Salon
Learn more about The Magician’s Book
Buy The Magician’s Book from Indiebound
Visit Glenn Kurtz’s website
If you’re in the New York City area, you should check out McNally Jackson’s events
Aliette de Bodard, a 2009 finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, wraps up her Obsidian and Blood trilogy this November with Master of the House of Darts. The series is a “cross between a historical Aztec fantasy and a murder-mystery, featuring ghostly jaguars, bloodthirsty gods and fingernail-eating monsters.”
In all three installments, de Bodard masters the atmospherics needed to pull readers into this dark and magical world. The protagonist, Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead in charge of the Sacred Precinct, a position that can be thought of as a mix between priest and coroner, is a sympathetic character with personality flaws that transcend time and culture. Time and again he finds himself unwillingly dragged into impossible investigations and forced to confront both internal struggles and external demons.
Vivid imagery, flowing prose, and natural dialogue are at the heart of de Bodard’s writing. One of the most original storytellers out there, Aliette merges her love of mythology and her desire to bring more non-Western influences to the science fiction and fantasy realm.
Aliette and I talked about the days of the Aztec Empire, the trouble with mainstream narratives, and how to pitch a book idea on the fly.
The Obsidian and Blood series takes place during the time of the Aztec Empire. This civilization was wiped out in the early 1500s by Spanish colonizers and what’s known about them is largely taken from archaeological digs. You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that part of your motivation in writing this series was to repair the damage done to their legacy. I hope I’m being accurate, feel free to correct me. What was most important to you when you sat down to recreate this world?
What was most important to me was to present the world in a fair way: as you mention, a lot of the narratives we have around the Mexica/Aztecs are Spanish ones, and the surface ones are deeply biased. I’ve mentioned it in other inteviews, but I was always struck by how often narratives reach for the Mexica when they need a bloodthirsty, evil culture. And it seems… wrong. I have issues with caricatures; and I don’t believe every single aspect of a culture can be irredeemably evil. Plus, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the conquistadors were hardly saints or trustworthy witnesses, and when I set out to tell stories set in the heyday of the Mexica Empire, what I wanted was to avoid falling into the same clichéd depiction of the culture. I’m no Nahuatl, but I did try my best to research the culture and bring to light its achievements.
What achievements did you unearth during your research?
Once you get past the stumbling block of human sacrifices, you realise that the Mexica civilisation was a very advanced one in many respects–that they had fantastic astronomy and medicine, that their women had vast amounts of rights compared to most medieval civilisations, and that their justice system was harsh, but much fairer than its English or French equivalent, putting the onus of responsibility on noblemen (who could afford to respect the prohibitions) rather than on commoners (who couldn’t).
And what about the notion that we only have archaeological digs to go on?
Archaeological digs aren’t the only source. We have at least three major sources for the Mexica civilisation: the remaining Nahuatl people in Mexico, though they did not fare well under Spanish rule; the accounts of the Spaniards such as the Codex Florentine, who attempt to account for the civilisation they destroyed, but which are–naturally–hardly free of bias; and finally, the archaeological digs themselves, though those are made difficult because the Spanish were thorough in destroying anything Mexica they could find, and also because Tenochtitlan itself is under Mexico City, not the most propitious of places to dig.
Interview with Elissa Schappell on Nonlinear Writing, Female Identity, and Crafting While Watching TV
Elissa Schappell’s latest book, Blueprints for Building Better Girls, might at first glance look like a short story collection but upon reading it unfolds as something more complex, something interwoven, almost playful as it toys with time and perspective. Readers are taken into the lives of multiple characters as they deal with real life challenges in very real ways. In Blueprints Schappell proves that preparing girls for their teen years—and adulthood—sometimes requires more than tea parties, cupcakes, and tiaras.
In 2008, in an interview with the New York Times, you mentioned that writing Blueprints for Building Better Girls was taking much longer that you’d imagined. I’m sure you’d like to put that all behind you now that it’s here but were there moments when you considered tossing it in a drawer? What kept you going? Looking back on it now, was there anything in particular that stymied the process?
One reason it took me so long to publish this book—ten years since Use Me—was that I spent two plus years working on a novel that eventually “went to live on a farm.” I had wanted to write a sly novel of manners that was a commentary on the relationship between white liberal parents inNew York City and their nannies. It felt like a book I should write. It was never, however, a book I felt I needed to write. Which, in my case, dooms my relationship with a subject, from the start.
While I was writing that novel, I was cheating on it with these stories. I couldn’t help it. Writing is how I process the world. How I sort out what I’m thinking and feeling. In the process of writing the novel I had two kids, which completely altered the way I saw the world. It was like getting new glasses. Truth told I felt like a freak. The sort of stories I needed to read, to make me feel less alone and crazy, to make me laugh, were the stories I needed to write.
What stymied me was, that as the kids got older and I thought more about what it means to be a woman in our culture–the seminal experiences that create female identity–I felt compelled to go back and write new stories, and revise the stories I had armed with this new knowledge.
What kept me going was the idea that I shouldn’t be telling these stories. Any time I wrote something that made me think, Oh that will make some people uncomfortable, or I really shouldn’t say that, I got a charge. It’s not that the stories are radical, or shocking—they aren’t. The only way they are transgressive is that they are true. Not autobiographically true necessarily, but authentic representations of what it’s like to grow up female inAmerica at this time.
You co-founded Tin House, a successful literary journal now in its twelfth year, and are still on staff as the Editor-at-Large. You were a Senior Editor at The Paris Review and now write the monthly book column, “Hot Type,” for Vanity Fair magazine. You’ve also contributed to The New York Times Book Review. How do your roles as editor and book critic factor into your own writing? Do you find it more effective to turn that part of you off while writing fiction or tap into it?
Often when I’m reading for my Vanity Fair column I feel overwhelmed by how many marvelous books are being written right now, and I think, Really, Elissa? Think of the trees. Does the world really need one more book? And the answer is, Yes, at this point in your life, living out of your car is not an option.
I find editing others work much easier than my own. I can see as clearly as if I were wearing night goggles, where the trouble lies, where the holes are, where the forest is too dense. In terms of my own work, I’m constantly stumbling in the dark, tripping over rocks, walking into trees, stepping into bear traps.
When I’m writing non-fiction that critical part of my brain is a level-headed guide who reads the map and keeps me on the path, asks questions—Are you sure you want to make a hairpin turn here? The editor part of my brain carries a machete, and says, Honestly, if you really want the best view of the sunset, you have to hack through those bushes. The editor says, This trip was a bad idea, turn around.
When I’m writing fiction, I have to tie up the editor and stick a sock in the mouth of the critic otherwise I’d never leave the path. I’d never discover anything new or exciting to me. For me, the best view is always from the edge of the crumbling cliff.
Read the rest at The Faster Times
I’d recently seen Vanessa Veselka read from her debut novel, ZAZEN, and was moved to write a review in the hopes that others would pick up her book. But I wasn’t satisfied to end there. Vanessa was kind enough to take some time out of her busy writing and family life to answer a few of my questions. In the following interview we discuss location, metaphor, and writing in public.
Here’s a snippet, follow the link to read the rest on The Faster Times—and while there, read some great essays, reviews, and interviews from other contributors.
Portland, Oregon was instrumental (pardon the pun) in shaping the music scene of the 1990s—it brought grunge to angsty teens all across the country. ZAZEN feels like a natural outgrowth of that era. If this sounds accurate to you, while you were writing the characters did you feel its influence?
I don’t think I related the characters so much to grunge as I did the diasporas of the punk ethos I saw over the years. The Pacific Northwest though, with its cheaper rents and ‘frontierism,’ was a natural place for these various ideologies to take root, so in that way I think the characters are related to the music here. But when I was writing I was listening to way more Radiohead and Brian Eno than Built To Spill or Soundgarden. Still, music affects everything I do. I am a musician and I think in rhythms when I write. Almost all of my writing at the paragraph level is about beats and counter beats. It’s my primary editing tool. As anyone who watches me write—I mutter incessantly. What I’m doing is checking the rhythms against some sonic template I inherited from god knows where. We all have our ways, I suppose.
Not to put too fine a point on it but location is very strong in your book: Rise Up Singing, the restaurant that caters mainly to vegetarians, the cropping up of Corporate America that irks the punk kids, the anarchist farm far from the city center—it’s all very vivid, and familiar. What are some of your thoughts on location—in life and in literature?
The psychogeography of ZAZEN is wrought out of cities like Portland and Seattle, but it is also the Mission District and Williamsburg, the Lower East Side and other places too. I’ve always had dreams of amalgamated cities. When I started writing ZAZEN the city showed up already built. I never said, “I’m going to put this here so that it works for this scene.” It was more like, “Man, I had no idea there was a boarded up International district over that hill, how do I use it?” I didn’t name the city because it was very, very important to me that it be a certain kind of archetypal city and not a solid location, but rather a location that emerged out of a constellation of certain ideas, more like a set of chemical reactions whose compound always contains the same properties. The Situationists Anthology may have marked me for life. I read it when I was eighteen. It was either that or PK Dick.
The rest is here.
Courtney is a freelance writer, lover of all things literary, and a book pusher for a major publishing house located somewhere between Battery and Central Park. We sat down to discuss books, literary events, and the writing process.
What are your top 5 books at the moment?
The Missing of the Somme by Geoff Dyer. I hadn’t discovered Geoff Dyer until recently, and I am OBSESSED. He is wildly inventive and brilliant, and I say that not just as his publicist (really). I’ve never read anything like him before—he has a way of inserting himself into a story that makes it so personal and wonderful. Reading him for the first time felt like the first time I read Julian Barnes, who I also love.
Mildred Pierce by John M. Cain. The HBO series sparked my interest somewhat, and someone I like also mentioned loving the book. When it came time to place an order for 5 free books, it was first on my list. Mildred is amazing—I cant stop reading about her and want to dive in and inhabit these characters lives. I was really happy to hear, when I mentioned it to my mom, that it was a favorite of my grandmother’s. Which I can totally see. Mildred was cool, my grandmother was cool.
Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest. Haven’t read it but keep hearing about it.
All Our Worldy Goods, by Irene Nemirovsky. I read part of Suite Francaise and adored this earlier novel of hers. Knowing the fate of the author can be at times heartbreaking, but she has such a strong voice and delivers such humanity to her characters in the darkest times… it’s musical. I love her.
A Visit from the Goon Squad. It just won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and is a series of interconnected stories that visit different characters throughout their lives. I think “Goon Squad” is supposed to be a metaphor for time. So, the first story features a woman on a date who steals a wallet—she mentions another character to her date. The next story is about that side character, but ten years or so earlier… then someone is mentioned in that story, and that character is visited in the next story at a different point in time and so on. It’s great.
I saw Jennifer Egan at BookCourt recently. She was great so I urge everyone to buy her book. It seems that after work everyone is exhausted. Also, in our industry, we tend to go to events for work and reserve our energy for that. What makes you go to an author event outside of necessity?
That’s a really good question. I saw Jennifer Egan too and she was brilliant. I overheard people leaving the library saying “Jennifer Egan is just like, awesome,” and I felt the same way. I don’t know—I’ll tend to go if it’s an author I love or book I’ve connected with – Jonathan Franzen and Lorrie Moore at 92nd Street Y come to mind, or if a friend is going and it sounds interesting, I’ll tag along.
What makes you consider a book?
Publicity! And as a book publicist, I’m always impressed when a hit (or reading about the book somewhere, whether it be an interview or review) makes me want to go out and get it. We have access to so many books for free, its rare I’ll go out and buy one and that’s when you know someone’s doing their job. Two books this happened to recently is Art and Madness by Anne Roiphe, and soon to be Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest.
If you’re saying this for review purposes, it probably doesn’t apply to me. I guess when I was a reporter it would depend on where I worked. I was an arts reporter in a beach resort town, so something that would appeal to that audience would be key. I interviewed the authors of THE PERFECT MANHATTAN, whose book was about bartending in the Hamptons. I also interviewed Betsy Carter, a local resident who wrote a novel about a girl coming of age in Florida—Betsy stuck with me. She was the founder of a woman’s magazine too, and I remember on our interview her taking me around her beautiful house and showing me the old issues she was most proud of. She was great for the camera too. So to get back to the point, in that regard, it was a lot about the local connection.
Do you have any tricks for writing outside of your presumed interests?
You mean if I’m not particularly interested in the subject? I guess the same for when I’m working on a book—find something I can connect with, and start there. Then one word after the other (tomorrow they will be wrapping fish with it, as an old editor used to say)
You write fiction. What are some challenges you face? What do you enjoy?
The last complete short story I wrote was over two years ago. The last piece of fiction writing I have, aside from a few notes in a notebook here and there (I guess that happens on a weekly basis, to be fair to myself) is the start to a story I started writing in a coffee shop awhile back. It was a line about the past being a mess of knots that needed untying, like a piece of jewelry on a fine chain that was caught. That is my biggest challenge—I can somewhat easily come up with nice language, an interesting thought or scene or dialogue, but I struggle to string it together, give these lines a home, or come up with a plot (from what I hear, “plots” are important to a story!). And I struggle with the discipline to just sit there and do it. A writer I’m working with talks about how every day she sits at a computer for two hours—whether the going is good, or bad, just two hours, no more, no less. I think I would benefit from this kind of system, if I could find the time.
How do you find time?
Ha! See above. I don’t. I’m a terrible employee to myself, but great to others. So if I’m on deadline for Newsday, for example, which I write for from time to time, I find the time—whether it be lunch breaks, evenings, mornings, weekends, you name it. You find the time and cherish the rush of it. I sometimes cover Black Friday shopping for them so go to the store at midnight, and then have the story due at 5AM so you write it in less than an hour, which is a fun challenge. That’s actually less of a challenge for me, when you have that little time. When you have to do it you do it!
Do you find that writing on that tight of a deadline for a newspaper can be implemented for fiction or do you think they are two separate beasts? Like that beer and wine analogy?
I think its two separate beasts because fiction is so based in the imagination. I picture needing to sit there, let my mind wander for it to really work. But you know—when you are really “in” a story, it tends to flow I guess. Maybe I should adopt that philosophy of a deadline to my fiction, see what happens.
What’s your approach to journalism pieces?
I take a lot of notes. I don’t use a tape recorder. I find that in the conversation, whatever the subject says, the interesting things, the really good stuff, you know it when you hear it, a bell goes off—I’ll hear it in that moment so write that part very clearly and underline it. I wonder if I had a voice recorder, going back would it have that same spark or feel I felt when I first was conducting the interview live, in that moment. So I take notes, and go back to the people if I need to clarify something. I’ll go back three times if I have to, I’m obsessive about getting my facts right and telling the story the right way.
My approach to finding the start comes from an editor’s advice awhile back. I think it was his, maybe I came up with it myself. After you went to a meeting, or attended an event, if someone were to ask you, how was it? in normal conversation you would probably say, it was good—this cool thing happened…. Whatever your brain went to, that cool thing that jumped into your brain that was the most interesting, that’s your lede, your start point. The rest will hopefully flow. Though I find it to be more like putting together a puzzle.
That’s great advice. Do you find that you usually stick with the lede or does it morph into something else along the way?
I find I stick with the lede, unless an editor wants to change it but that hasn’t happened. It’s like going with your gut. You regret it if you don’t.
Any thoughts on voice? Finding it, cultivating it, etc?
I think I have a strong voice in my writing, I recognize my style and think its distinct. I find, especially if I’m trying to write fiction, that it will somewhat mimic an author I’m reading at the moment. So my suggestions to writers are read everything you can so you can absorb all the many different styles… then find your own. For some reason I don’t think this part should be hard. It’s the you—I think finding my voice is the easiest part.
I always liked that line, “write like how you speak”. It’s always been a huge help—unless you don’t speak well, that is. How does your approach to writing non-fiction differ from writing fiction?
I adore and admire fiction, but journalism comes easier to me. With fiction, I find the blank page very, very disturbing and intimidating. At least with journalism, you have real voices out there, notes, a subject. Fiction is just a completely empty canvas. What the hell do you throw on there? It’s a lot to ask your imagination to do and I really admire writers who do it so well.
Do you have a systematic writing process?
No, I think I fly by the seat of my pants. I should have one though. I’m sure coffee is involved!
I’ll second the coffee! What have been some inspiring writing books–either the intentional writing guide or a book whose writing made you want to hunker down with pen and paper?
ON WRITING WELL, by William Zinsser!!! My first Newsday assignment I was babysitting and re-read it cover to cover. That book is amazing. And of course EB White’s The Elements of Style is a great refresher, and the one you’ve been talking about Gabi ain’t bad, Bird by Bird. But I’d say On Writing Well is my bible. There are a couple of others on my shelf I’ll have to take another look at.
On Writing Well definitely has some great nuggets of wisdom in it. Where do you like to write?
My desk, or in bed. I find I always have a good idea right before I drift off to sleep, or am on the subway, somewhere/sometime where its really inconvenient.
How do you feel about writing while listening to music? I know this can be a factor for writing in coffee shops.
That’s a good idea actually—maybe it could be like helping a work-out along or making a run more tolerable. I’ve never noticed if I’ve listened to music while I write—I don’t think I usually do, especially for journalism because I’m trying to focus so much, but I bet with fiction, and getting my mind to wander, it might help relax me (and keep me in the chair). Thanks for the thought!
What do you enjoy about working with authors?
I love my authors!!!!! This is by far my favorite part of the job… more than the scheduling, etc. I love developing a rapport with your authors and finding what it is in their book that you can really connect with. Goes a long way in publicizing and developing that relationship.
Has your own writing experience affected how you approach the authors you’re working with?
I’d say yes, but maybe not as much as you think. Hmm. That’s a good question. I mean I think it certainly helps the bond. When you’re interested in writing yourself, and a big reader, a person you’re working with can definitely recognize that straight off the bat. And of course it helps when you’re developing press releases and pitching. It’s probably helped me more with editors on the other side (newspapers when im pitching) more than my authors, but I don’t know. I guess I have a tremendous respect for my authors, and that helps.
Do you read book reviews? If so, which ones?
Never. Just kidding. Like, 90% of the time?
I read the reviews my books receive, but also scan the rest in general to see what people are talking about, etc. At my company we have a system where we read all the papers in the morning marking off whats relevant to books and circulating it. Definitely keeps you up to date!
Do you read literary journals?
I read them a lot straight after college. Now I read them more if a friend or an author is featured in one, or if I am at a bookstore and one catches my eye. I’d like to read them more. Some friends work at Lapham’s Quarterly, so I read that pretty regularly.