Posts Tagged ‘interviews’
Long-form journalism—creative nonfiction which is longer than a traditional article but shorter than a novel—is all the rage these days. Whether you believe the genre has made a comeback or you feel it had never gone away, it’s hard to ignore the growing excitement for recently developed sites such as Byliner, Atavist, Longreads, and Longform.
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed announced its long-form section, breaking from its forte, the listicle; and just this past summer, The New York Times announced it was developing a new, long-form digital magazine.
Those who seek these medium length stories will be happy to know that Longform has a weekly podcast.
Hosted by Longform co-founders Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky, and Founder and Editor of Atavist, Evan Ratliff, the show asks nonfiction writers and editors about their assignments, creative processes, and careers. These free-flowing conversations offer invaluable insight into the world of journalism and the writers who bring you the stories.
Whether you’re a writer or a media junkie, this podcast, with sixty-five episodes in its archive, will be a highlight of your week. Here are just a few places to start, in descending date order.
Gay Talese began his writing career with The New York Times as their sports reporter in the late 50s. In the mid 60s he left to write full-time for Esquire. Talese is known for his profiles, most notably the one on Sinatra, “Sinatra Has a Cold,” which ran in Esquire in 1966.
Extra credit: Gay Talese, The Art of Nonfiction, No. 2; The Paris Review
Edith Zimmerman, Founding Editor of The Hairpin, talks about starting up the affiliate site to The Awl, running it, and handing it over to someone else. Known for unconventional approaches to writing profiles, she talks about her piece on Chris Evans, written for GQ, and what contributed to its originality.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper talks about crime reporting, her approach to perspective, trying to write a book in 30 days, and her interest in the human narrative. Her writing has appeared in GQ, Spin, New York, and on BuzzFeed.
Anyone familiar with Ann Friedman’s advice column on the Columbia Journalism Review’s website, #realtalk, won’t be surprised to hear that her episode is full of excellent tips for freelancers, like creating a weekly email newsletter and drinking with editors.
Extra credit: Ann writes a weekly column at The Cut on New York magazine’s website and recently wrote a piece about LinkedIn for The Baffler.
Emily Nussbaum, television critic for The New Yorker, talks about criticism today, how she chooses what to write about, and how Twitter helps her brainstorm.
Extra credit: Read Emily’s archive at The New Yorker. Follow her coverage on Twitter.
This post originally ran on Longreads, where I now contribute a monthly podcast roundup.
Hip hop began in the 1970s as an underground movement; today it’s everywhere. From house parties in the suburbs to national television advertising campaigns it’s recognizable, celebrated, and imitated. Snoop Dogg made headlines when he changed his name to Snoop Lion and Jay Z and Beyonce were given the same treatment as the British Monarchy when they had their first child.
Since its start on the street of New York, hip hop has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. The cash flow now includes not only music but art shows featuring graffiti as well as successful clothing lines.
1. Stuff You Should Know: How Hip-Hop Works (52:13)
In this episode of Stuff You Should Know, hosts Chuck and Josh discuss the history of hip-hop, from The Sugar Hill Gang to the present. They add their own personal history, which includes stories of attempted breakdancing and well-intentioned clothing choices. You can read more about it on their site.
2. Los Angeles Review of Books: 2pac and Biggie (1 hr.)
Co-authors Jeff Weiss and Evan McGarvey speak with host Colin Marshall about their book 2pac vs. Biggie: An Illustrated History of Rap’s Greatest Battle. They talk about the artists’ rivalry, their beginnings, how their styles differed, and why you’re missing out if you only listen to one and not the other.
3. NPR Fresh Air: Questlove (45:14)
The drummer for The Roots talks about his influences growing up, how he listens to music, and his favorite part of Soul Train. (Bonus: Also check out Terry Gross’s classic 2010 interview with Jay-Z.)
Dan Charnas, a veteran hip-hop journalist and one of the first writers for The Source, talks with Jesse Thorn about the history of the hip-hop music business and how executives and entrepreneurs turned an underground scene into the world’s predominant pop culture.
5. WBUR On Point: Fame and Fortune of Jay-Z (48:00)
Andrew Rice, contributing editor for New York magazine, spoke about his article on Jay-Z’s business acumen with James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies, professor of English at Lehigh University, and founder of Hip Hop Scholars. Together they delve into the financial side of Jay-Z’s career.
If you were around in the ’90s, you might recognize Michael Rapaport from movies like Zebrahead, Poetic Justice, and Higher Learning. In 2011, he came out with a documentary on A Tribe Called Quest. He talks to The Treatment’s Elvis Mitchell about his love of hip-hop, his childhood in New York City, and his experience filming his favorite artists.
This post originally ran on Longreads, where I now contribute a monthly podcast roundup.
For a while now we’ve been hearing about the rise of television, how shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones have surpassed the film industry when people think of quality viewing experiences. Gone are the days where writers and actors dreamed of making it big in pictures, now talent is flocking to small screen.
Here are some recent interviews that will be of interest to those who like to dig deeper.
A recent panel discussion on WBUR’s On Point featured Lynda Obst, a film and television producer whose credits include “Sleepless in Seattle” and whose recent book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business, chronicles the recent changes in the movie industry—big blockbusters becoming more common with smaller films barely being made. Alongside Obst, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing, was Sharon Waxman, CEO and EIC of TheWrap.com, a site that covers Hollywood and film industry.
Still making small films, however, is Sofia Coppola. This summer she’s back with The Bling Ring, a film based on the real life events of a group of California teenagers obsessed with celebrities; so much so that they break into stars’ homes. Sofia spoke with host Elvis Mitchell about making a true crime film and her filmmaking career so far.
Mad Men just wrapped up its sixth season and has one more to go before it’s off the air for good. Terry Gross spoke with Elisabeth Moss, better known as Peggy, about the evolution of her character, how she came to be an actress, and how much she knows about the show’s direction before shooting an episode.
Another excellent show currently on television is Sons of Anarchy, the story of a biker gang in California’s Central Valley, running drugs, guns, and their small town. “Jax” Teller, one of the heads of the club is played by Charlie Hunnam who, in real life, turns out to be British. In this interview with Chris Hardwick he talks about being approached by real bikers, his life growing up in a working-class town in North East England, and what it’s like to play a character for so many years.
Something that’s starting to get a lot of attention these days are web shows. One show that’s doing particularly well is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which, according the series’ site, “is a modernized adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice” with the story told primarily through the lead character Lizzie Bennet‘s video diary entries.
Nerdist Writer’s Panel host Ben Blacker sat down with co-creator Bernie Su, writers Margaret Dunlap, Rachel Kiley, and Kate Rorick, and writer/transmedia guy Jay Bushman to talk about the impetus for the series and how it gets made.
Bonus: Orange is the New Black
I’ve started watching the new Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, a show based on author Piper Kerman’s memoir by the same name which tells the story about the 15 months she spent in prison for a small part she played in a drug smuggling ring. Orange stars Terry Schilling as Piper; Jason Biggs as her fiancée; Laura Prepon of That 70s Show as Alex Vause, Piper’s ex-girlfriend who introduced her to smuggling; and Natasha Lyonne of Slums of Beverly Hills, But I’m a Cheerleader, and American Pie as the ex-junkie inmate who knows how to get along on the inside.
You can read an excerpt from Kerman’s book on Salon, an interview with her on The Los Angeles Times about having her book made into a show, and an interview from 2012 about the book on The Rumpus. Piper even learned a few tips that you can apply to your worklife and shared them with Fast Company. Then, check out the two books Natasha Lyonne believes capture prison life.
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.
The mark of a great comedy podcast is having to give this caveat: if you aren’t comfortable laughing to yourself in public, best to listen to this one at home alone. Every one of the now seven episodes of By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin has made me laugh out loud, often with an uncontrollable sputter. Not only that, I grin nearly the whole way through, which, I might add, makes me appear friendly during rush hour, a threat to my tough New Yorker exterior.
Actor, comedian, producer Jeff Garlin, known best to me for his role as Larry David’s manager and friend in Curb Your Enthusiasm, hosts a conversation with fellow talented entertainment industry creatives in front of a live audience at Largo in Los Angeles.
The run time is about an hour and a half, with J.J. Abrams clocking in at an hour and fifty, but however long the show, it never gets tedious. Garlin is one of the rare hosts who can keep you engaged and entertained long past the standard 45 minutes.
Whether Garlin has had the good fortune of sitting down with people who enjoy his company, or if he’s just that good at putting people at ease, every conversation has been comfortable and paved the way for mutual openness. In the first episode, Garlin draws out Larry David’s quirks, of which there are many—one being his dislike of listening to music for its own sake. In episode two, he and Lena Dunham discuss the hell that is awards shows—unless, as was the case with Dunham, you have your quick-witted mom in tow. Parenting, and family life in general, is a common topic: both J.J. Abrams and Will Ferrell like to make their kids breakfast and see them off to school. Farrell volunteers at his son’s soccer games and J.J. makes up stories at bedtime.
Even if Garlin didn’t have great timing and a knack for getting stories out of his guests, his laugh, boisterous and infectious, would be enough to get your smile going. The only downside of By the Way is its lack of an archive, having just begun in January of this year. However, if you get in on it now, you’ll be one of the lucky ones with bragging rights, able to say you were listening to it back when, because, with a bit of luck and more excellent guests, this show will be around for a very long time.
By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin
This roundup’s strongest piece of journalism goes to Stephen Rodrick, contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and contributing editor at Men’s Journal, for his piece Times, “Here is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.”
Rodrick was given full access to the filming of Lindsay Lohan’s forthcoming low budget, Kickstarter-funded film, “The Canyons,” directed by Paul Schrader and written by Bret Easton Ellis. It reads as a fair piece, which, with Lohan as a subject, is a feat all on its own. What makes it so incredible, however, is that the writing is fantastic. It truly is a lesson in feature writing, to be printed, studied, and saved.
A bit of background:
Schrader wrote “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver” and has directed 17 films. Still, some fear Lohan will end him. There have been house arrests, car crashes and ingested white powders. His own daughter begs him not to use her. A casting-director friend stops their conversation whenever he mentions her name. And then there’s the film’s explicit subject matter. Full nudity and lots of sex. Definitely NC-17. His wife, the actress Mary Beth Hurt, didn’t even finish the script, dismissing it as pornography after 50 pages.
Noir-like description of Lohan:
“She was quite pale, her skin not on speaking terms with daylight.”
This article had been so popular with #longreads fans that they begged for an interview with Rodrick on their Longform Podcast. Rodrick discusses how the assignment came about, the access he had, and how writing stories for The New York Times works.
Another great interview in Longform’s growing archive is with Charles Duhugg, New York Times reporter and author of The Power of Habit. Here he talks about journalism, best practices for writing (and life), and (again) how The New York Times works.
On his approach to interviewing for a job, which can be applied to many other things:
You want to be surprising. People love surprises. That is how we stay interested.
On using edited material for “bonus features”:
The stuff that gets cut out gets cut out for a reason. The discipline of space is always a good discipline. If it deserves to be read, it shouldn’t be on the cutting room floor… If it ends up on the cutting room floor, there’s usually a reason why.
Parul Sehgal, Editor at the New York Times Book Review, former Books Editor at NPR, explores three essay collections in an essay of her own.
Invented in France by Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century’s great oversharer; perfected in England by Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt; the essay found America very agreeable: “The United States itself — and even its name, according to some sources — is partly the outcome of the essayistic brilliance of the radical English artisan Thomas Paine,” Christopher Hitchens, one of its finest modern practitioners, wrote.
The Millions ran an argument in favor of reading fewer books in 2013:
This past year I read 56 books. That’s slightly off the pace of 60 books a year that I’ve set over the previous 12 years, but then I did read a lot of very long history books this year — yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Caro – and my wife and I did make a very time-consuming move to Canada late in the year. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Maybe the real answer is that I’m just getting tired of trying to read so damn many books.
Podcast host extraordinaire Colin Marshall sat down with Los Angeles Review of Books founder and editor-in-chief, Tom Lutz. They talk about the LA literary scene, book reviewing, and what it’s been like running the Review. You can catch Colin Marshall regularly as host of Notebook on Cities and Culture, “a twice-weekly long-form conversation with cultural creators, internationalists, and observers of the urban scene around Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Osaka, Kyoto, and beyond.”
Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow had this totally adorable–and insightful–conversation via Skype (transcribed for print) about how they collaborate. It sounds like a very healthy relationship.
Apatow: You know, the show is run differently from other shows because we’re trying to really filter everything through you. My goal is to have you do as much work as possible without getting killed. So part of what I’m trying to do is pace you so you don’t collapse. For me, a lot of the work is just having a very fresh brain and set of eyes to read things and look for where there are holes or trouble and then trying to help fix that.
Dunham: I feel like you’re constantly monitoring my brainpower and body power, even when I’m not able to tell what I’m feeling.
And Lena Dunham was on Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin. Incredible conversation.
The Bob Marley documentary “Marley,” now streaming on Netflix, is beyond amazing. I hope to have a proper writeup in the near future but, in the meantime, watch it. Seriously.
Here are a few things I came across this week that were exceptional.
Perfect Day Publishing on Late Night Conversation
I’ve mentioned The Late Night Library’s podcast, Late Night Conversation, before but their interviews continue to be amazing, so, here we are again. This Portland-based organization is devoted to spreading the awareness of independent publishing. The show, hosted by co-founder Paul Martone, features debut authors and publishing professionals from small presses. Martone has the conversational style that makes podcasts so great. He’s thoughtful, informed, and curious.
The latest episode features Perfect Day Publishing founder Michael Heald and author Lisa Wells, whose book Yeah. No. Totally was published by the press this year. I first came to hear of Perfect Day Publishing through a previously self-published book they’d reprinted after it gained some attention. Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life is one of the best books I read in 2012.
In other podcast news, Alec Baldwin talked to Billy Joel in July and I just got around to listening to it. It was pretty great.You’ll probably enjoy it more if you’re from Long Island. A personal favorite, Teju Cole was on CBC’s Writers & Company, one of the best author interview shows out there today.
This weekend I came across an article by Blake Butler on HTMLGIANT called ‘22 Things I Learned from Submitting Writing.” At first glance I expected it to be snarky. While the site is typically earnest, there’s a level of sarcasm lurking underneath. This piece from Blake, however, was truly generous. Here are a few of my favorite points:
4. Often editors who reject you are doing you a favor. Either the piece isn’t great and needs work (thus saving you face of looking back later like whyyyyy did I publish this) or taking a strong piece and making it stronger because of force of will.
5. Some pieces are you learning. Some never get it right. Don’t publish your homework.”
13. Don’t lose sight of someone you love in the midst of this.
19. Be a person, not an email address with a social profile and an onslaught.
Also of note is writer Brad Leithauser’s essay about the different ways we read fiction–mainly two ways, like a critic and like a child. He recalls the time he and his then 15-year-old daughter had a conversation about Rachel from Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel.”
I’m eyeballs deep in noir at the moment and came across this great essay by Raymond Chandler called “The Simple Art of Murder.” I’m sure many crime fiction fans have already stumbled on this, a few possibly owning a highlighted copy in their drawer somewhere, but for the rest of us…
Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should. Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.
The Los Angeles Review of Books has quickly become the place to go for in-depth, thoughtful coverage of the arts. Their front page has a triptych that changes at least twice a week. Recently, I came across their LARBart Tumblr where the work is displayed and explained.
While the name suggests heavy coverage of books, LARB has able people writing about other topics as well. Recently, they ran an interview with Ellen Lupton, one of the curators of “Graphic Design: Now In Production,” now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Ellen runs the MFA design program at the Maryland Institute College of Art and is the author of Thinking with Type.
Today, every designer is a production artist — setting type, retouching photos, and making endless updates for clients. The convergence of design and production gives us more direct control over the outcome of a project, while also loading us with an ever-growing list of skills and tasks to master. … Many designers today are using their knowledge of production techniques to become publishers, authors, editors, and instigators.
The term “graphic” has long been a point of contention in our field. … I like the word “graphic” because it connects us to the world of text, as well as to the “graphic arts” — the processes of printing and production. Typography is always about writing, and writing is a graphic phenomenon.
I usually roll my eyes at algorithms, those computer generated recommendations, but the other night while I was clicking through Netflix I noticed a British program from the 80s that was highlighted for me, The Comic Strip Presents, a sketch comedy show featuring Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson of The Young Ones and Jennifer Saunders, who later went on to create and star in Absolutely Fabulous. If you’re a fan of any of the above, you should stop reading now and add it to your queue. For those more familiar with Portlandia, this is their long lost British forebear.
Here are just a few things I’ve consumed these past few weeks that deserve some sharing.
For all you publishing junkies, Rob Spillman, editor of Tin House magazine and editorial advisor of Tin House Books, talks to Late Night Library about the book industry. For those of you who like fairy tales, WBUR’s mid-morning program, On Point, spoke with author Maria Tatar about the Brothers Grimm and Philip Pullman spoke with NPR’s Weekend Edition about his book, Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, which retells the classic stories.
For something completely different, Oliver Sacks spoke with NPR’s Fresh Air about his history with hallucinogenics. And, once again The Nerdist came through with their incredible interview with veteran broadcast journalist Larry King. If you’re interested in interviewing, King shares some tips on how to get people to open up. This is a must-listen.
A few weeks ago when I tweeted Joe Queenan’s Wall Street Journal essay, which turned out to be an excerpt from his new book, One for the Books, my bit.ly count went skyhigh. The short sentence I used, “A case can be made that people who read a preposterous number of books are not playing with a full deck,” must have struck a nerve with those who follow my feed. I know it did with me. Since reading this fantastically funny piece I’ve finished Joe’s book. As a review is forthcoming I will not go too much into it. What I can say is that it was hilarious the whole way through.
Another great essay was Ian Sansom’s piece in The Guardian about paper. He, too, has a new book out (in the UK), called Paper: An Elegy. In his article he calls for the creation of a “National Paper Museum.” Sansom, as one would imagine, produces an ode to paper but instead of getting caught up in his own feelings on the matter, he digs into history to show readers how important paper was in the past and how it still endures today. At one point he goes so far as to call paper “our second skin.”
Meanwhile, over at The Millions, staff writer Sonya Chung talks about her own conflicted feelings about digital life.
Having just finished Season 4 of Sons of Anarchy, now streaming on Netflix, I started a new show, Person of Interest, now in its second season. For fans of espionage films and police procedurals, Person of Interest is worth checking out. The show follows an ex-CIA officer, played by Jim Caviezel, and his billionaire buddy, played by Michael Emerson of “Lost,” as they try to save the lives of people who are names by a secret surveillance system. Although a tad bit cheesy, any minor flaws the show might have are erased by the endearing characters and intriguing storyline.
I came across so many great podcasts lately, I just had to do another roundup.
The Nerdist Writer’s Panel wrapped up their series of live panels, taped at the ATX Television Festival.
The Books to TV Series featured David Hudgins (Friday Night Lights), Bob Levy (Alloy Entertainment: The Lying Game, The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl), Julie Plec (co-creator, The Vampire Diaries), and Michael Rauch (creator, Love Monkey) talking about the process of turning a book into a television show. It was moderated by Meg Masters of TVLine.
In Stages of TV Writing,Noah Hawley (creator, the Unusuals), Kyle Killen (creator, Awake and Lone Star), David Hudgins (Friday Night Lights; Parenthood), Hardy Janson, and Evan Miller (Hook Ups) talk about their careers.
Late Night Library, a show that focuses on the independent side of publishing, sat down with Robyn Tenenbaum and Courtenay Hameister. The two co-founders of Live Wire!, a live public radio program in Portland, talk about producing an arts & culture variety show.
They also spoke with independent press publisher, Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books, and Liz Crain, their editorial and publicity director. The three talk the business of running a small press.
The Readers, a show between two friends about books, talked about what happens after you finish a great book. They also wonder if there’s such thing as a British Novel. This week they have a casual chat about imprints.
The other week in the New Yorker, Oliver Sacks had a story about his experiments with drugs in the 60s, all of which he treated as scientific research. On the New Yorker Out Loud he talks about it.
Everyone’s favorite comedian, Louis C.K., has a great talk about movies and television with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW’s The Treatment. Over the course of the interview, C.K. calls his daughters his heroes. Then he says money spent on entertainment is sacred. Amazing.
Three Percent, hosted by two guys working largely with translated literature, talk about book reviews, sparked by some recent events in the publishing and writing community.
Ed Champion sits down with crime writer Laura Lippman, for the release of her latest book And When She Was Good. It was a great talk about the craft of writing.
For the 100th episode of the Other People podcast, host Brad Listi did not disappoint. He spoke with George Saunders, an excellent choice.
BBC Radio 4’s Open Book did a special on Scottish crime writing–or “Tartan Noir” as the specific genre is known. Host Dreda Say Mitchell spoke with an author and a publisher. It definitely made me want to run out and read some.
CBC’s Writers & Company rebroadcast an interview with British humorist Alan Bennett. If you like British humor–Stephen Fry, John Cleese, etc., and you don’t already know who Alan Bennett is, you’ll be psyched after hearing this.
Oh and … Joan Rivers was on The Nerdist. It was incredible.
Last week at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore based in the heart of SoHo, Austin Kleon, artist and, most recently, the author of Steal Like an Artist, brought together three fascinating minds on the internet today. Joining him in conversation about creativity and curation were Maria Popova of the website Brainpickings, Maris Kreizman of the mashup Tumblr Slaughterhouse 90210, and cultural critic Maud Newton.
One of Austin’s ideas that I find most interesting is “creative lineage,” those who influence your work, whose fingerprints can be seen in your creations. For Maud Newton, Muriel Spark is woefully underrated; Maris raved about fiction writer Lorrie Moore and recommended Self Help and Anagrams; Maria named Susan Sontag along with Winnie the Pooh and The Little Prince; Austin, a fan of Midwesterners who include pictures with their writings, named Kurt Vonnegut and Lynda Barry.
Here is a profile I wrote and a Q&A I conducted with Austin early in April when his book first came out. It originally ran on The Nervous Breakdown. You can also read my riff on Austin’s analog vs. digital approach to creating, posted in March on this site.
Below are links to all the various places you can find Austin and the panel participants on the internet, along with more recommendations mentioned throughout the discussion.
“It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to” –Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist
In 2005 Austin Kleon experienced a bad case of writer’s block. Right out of college, after having studied creative writing, he was struggling to write a short story. To break out of the rut he took a Sharpie to nearby newspapers and started crossing out sentences, leaving only a few words and large swaths of black ink in his wake. Unknowingly, he created something he calls Newspaper Blackout Poems.
But as he said on the phone one Saturday morning before embarking on a major US tour to support his latest book, Steal Like an Artist — the title a riff on a popular saying in the creative world often misattributed to Picasso — “nothing comes from nowhere.” It was soon after creating these blackout poems that Kleon traced the style’s origins back 250 years to a former next-door neighbor of Benjamin Franklin’s. More recently, William Burroughs had done something similar with his cut-up technique.
Far from disappointed by his findings, Austin developed a philosophy, one that he celebrates in the book. “All creative work builds on what came before,” he continued. Whether it’s our subconscious at play or a dedicated effort, we all have influences whose work guides our own. Austin encourages us to embrace and cultivate them rather than see our mashup style as fraudulent.
“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”
Although his “family tree” is always changing, Austin named four influences who have stuck with him over time. Lynda Barry, his favorite cartoonist, showed Austin he could make a career out of pairing words and pictures. He believes her book What It Is should be required reading for high school students. Austin’s work is highly visual, the book features drawings throughout, so it was no surprise to hear him mention two other artists: Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame and Saul Steinberg, an illustrator best known for his work with The New Yorker. Acclaimed fiction writer George Saunders also made the list.
Although the influences he mentions appear cohesive, leading one to assume his work has a singular foundation, Austin says there’s no harm in variation. “Don’t worry about unity from piece to piece — what unifies all of your work is the fact that you made it,” he said.
The beauty of Steal Like an Artist is that it’s accessible, something that was important to Austin. As one can surmise from the subtitle, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, a tagline that fits neatly into today’s culture of pared down how-tos, there’s a noticeable lack of technical jargon. Instead, Austin filled its pages with thought-provoking aphorisms and bite-sized insights. Structured around these ten simple rules, Steal Like an Artist offers a list that will most certainly transform the way you think about your work: use your hands; do good work and share it with people; be nice (the world is a small town); and be boring (it’s the only way to get work done) — to name a few.
Unlike many big thought books, Steal Like an Artist doesn’t leave you stranded: putting ideas in your head without a practical plan for going forward. In the last few pages Austin offers tips on how to harness creative energy: take a walk, get yourself a calendar, start a blog, and take a nap. As an avid reader and someone who believe books hold many answers, he includes a reading list of other books that might help you along the artistic path.
Ultimately, Steal Like an Artist is an inspiring conversation, one worth returning to again and again as your creative process evolves over time.
Here are a few bonus questions I’d asked Austin after our phone call. Check out what he has to say about procrastination, serendipity, and Carl Jung.
You talk about finding one’s voice. I’m curious to know how you found yours — or if you think the search ever ends.
Voice always confused the hell out of me in school. I really had no idea what professors were talking about when they said “find your voice.” I still don’t have a handle on it real well, honestly. The closest I’ve been to understanding is through something Billy Collins said: you find your poetic voice by emulating about 6-8 different poets, and once they fit together, so you can’t tell what comes from who, you’ve discovered your voice. I don’t think the search ends, though — at least I hope not. To have one voice forever sounds boring to me.
Do you feel procrastination is an integral part to the creative process?
Oh yeah. Basically, I always have 3-4 projects I’m working on and when I get sick of one I bounce over to the other. At some point I’ll become obsessed with one and run on that energy until it’s dead, then I switch again.
As much as we like being productive, We also need time to sit around and do nothing. To stare at the wall and think, or do something routine and mundane with your body so your mind is freed up.
How do you procrastinate productively?
I like going for walks and doing the dishes — both get me ideas, but one makes me less fat and one gets the kitchen clean.
You say “Creative work is a kind of theater.” I love that. As an artist, how do you see your work — or creative work in general — as theater?
The stage is your workspace — your desk, or your studio, whatever. The costume is your smock, or your favorite sweatpants, or a funny hat you put on to think. The props are your tools — pens, welding torch, etc. — and the script is just plain old time set aside to work. You know, just like actors “get into character,” I think we can trick our minds into get into the zone, too.
You mentioned recently that you’ve been making more of an effort to step away from your computer — your chapter “Step Away from the Screen” is one of my favorites — and that you spend your time in the local university library looking through the stacks. What’s your take on serendipitous findings in the physical world versus the virtual/online world?
Yeah, you just can’t beat having books in a physical space. I call it the “serendipity of the stacks” — you go looking for a book with a certain Dewey Decimal number, and then your eye gets caught on another book’s spine, and pretty soon you’re reading that book instead of the one you went looking for.
The same thing can happen on the Internet, but it just doesn’t feel quite the same. Steven Johnson says, if you can’t find serendipity on the web, you’re not using it right.
I’d asked you about your favorite artist biography or memoir and you mentioned Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Did it change your life in some way?
I’m not sure it’s changed my life, but what I love about the book is how Jung is constantly on the edge between science and religion, rationality and mysticism, etc. it’s just a great story about one of our great minds coming into being.
Maria Popova: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr
Maris Kreizman: Tumblr, Twitter
Maud Newton: Website, Twitter, Tumblr, The Chimerist (A Tumblr about iPad reading, co-run with Laura Miller of Salon)
Perchance to Dream: an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine
Who is Mark Twain?: an animated conversation with John Lithgow at the New York Public Library
Artist Marc Johns on Pinterest
Maud Newton outlines her day at the Paris Review: Part I, Part II
Maria uses Evernote
Austin likes the show Justified, based on Elmore Leonard’s novels
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.