An Evening with Fredrik Backman

13178730_10154861148128626_5560856837219276285_n-2 (1)She just smiled, said that she loved books more than anything, and started telling him excitedly what each of the ones in her lap was about. And Ove realised that he wanted to hear her talking about the things she loved for the rest of his life.
Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Swedish author Fredrik Backman (author of A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and Britt-Marie Was Here) at his very first event on his first book tour in the United States. Fredrik arrived in Chicago on the evening of Tuesday, May 10, spent the following afternoon in the Simon & Schuster booth at Book Expo of America (BEA) signing books and chatting with booksellers, librarians, and other publishing industry people, and then, with his publicist and agent, battled rush hour traffic to speak to a sold-out crowd in Lake Forest.

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115073_hrFredrik’s novels, bestsellers in Sweden, the United States, and dozens of other countries, hit the sweet spot for readers looking for fiction that’s charming, humorous, and a bit quirky — but not corny. They’re the kind of books that people fall in love with and give to all their friends. One of Fredrik’s editors told Publishers Weekly: “I think Fredrik is different from the dark crime writers and doing something different from writers in general . . . He has such a distinctive voice and point of view. He might be the herald of a larger trend in Scandinavian literature, but I think he’s doing his own thing.”

Readers all over the world respond to Fredrik’s wit and wisdom. A customer at Lake Forest Book Store showed me her dog-eared copy of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, with many favorite passages underlined.  I wonder if she underlined my favorite quotation from the book: “Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.”

Fredrik delighted the audience at our event with funny anecdotes (shopping at Ikea with his father) and with serious commentary (developing three-dimensional characters). Here are some highlights of our conversation.

a-man-called-ove-9781476738024_hrFredrik Backman on:

How to say “Ove”:
Pronounce it like “Hoover”, the vacuum cleaner.

How he develops his novels:
I start out with characters. Some writers start out with a story, and fit the characters into the story as they go along . . . I start at the other end, with characters . . . people that I find funny or interesting.

britt-marie-was-here-9781501142536_lgBritt-Marie:
My wife, when she read the manuscript, said “You’ve never written anything about a character who’s so much like you.” She’s passive-aggressive, while Ove’s active-aggressive. I wanted to write a coming -of-age story, this great adventure where someone leaves their home, but those stories are always written about 20-year-old men . . . and I wanted to write a coming-of-age story about a 63-year-old woman, because she’d never left home.

The secret to writing a bestseller:
I don’t know — I really wish I had an answer. People think I have a formula (“this is how you write a bestseller”) — I have no idea. The only thing I figure is that probably I like the same things a lot of other people like. I don’t have original taste in things. The TV shows and movies I like are things that millions of other people like. There are a lot of really, really talented, gifted brilliant writers and if you ask them, what books do you like, they say, “Oh, there’s this French drama that no one’s ever heard of”, or “Oh, there’s this monk who wrote a book, there are only three copies and I have one of them”. I’m not capable of writing anything hard for people to understand.

To become a bestseller, it doesn’t mean that this many people thought your book was the best one they ever read. It means this many people thought it was OK.

Swedish literature:
We like crime.  Probably because we don’t have a lot of it in real life. There’s, like, two people in Sweden who have guns. If you’re going to write crime you start with a very, very nice place, an idyllic place. Because then it becomes much scarier when someone does something horrible.

The movie version of A Man Called Ove:
You have to view it as an interpretation — it’s like someone making a cover of a song. My mom hasn’t said it out loud, but it’s very obvious she liked the movie more than she liked the book. From my dad’s reaction, I could see that my mom has had a long-time crush on the actor who plays Ove. She said, “Wasn’t it wonderful when he . . .” and I said, “I know, I wrote that! I made that up . . . in my head”.

snipp20snapp20snurr20and20the20gingerbread20by20maj20lindmanThe classic Swedish picture books about triplets Snipp, Snapp and Snurr and Flicka, Ricka and Dicka:
You’ve lost me.

I couldn’t believe neither Fredrik nor his agent, who was on tour with him, had heard of Maj Lindman’s charming children’s books, which were published in the United States in the 1930s and are still in print: “Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr were three little boys who lived in Sweden. They had blue eyes and yellow hair, and they looked very much alike.” I’ve just ordered a copy of one of my favorites (Snipp Snapp Snurr and the Gingerbread) and will be sending it as a thank you gift for Fredrik to share with his children — who will soon be old enough for one of the most memorable characters in children’s literature, Swedish tomboy Pippi Longstocking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai

512bpnaxg3rl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“We’re living in this terrible world with wars and broken hearts and starvation, but some of us are compelled to make art, like that’s supposed to help anything.”
The narrator in Rebecca Makkai’s short story, “Peter Torelli, Falling Apart”

Rebecca Makkai’s short story collection, Music for Wartime, was originally scheduled for publication on July 14, 2015 — the same day, her publisher learned, that Go Set a Watchman would hit the shelves. Short story collections, regardless of their literary merit, have a tough enough time attracting  readers’ attention without competing with the year’s most talked-about book. So Music for Wartime came out on June 23, and Makkai’s job as a salesperson for her book — which was 13 years in the making — began.

Makkai, the author of two acclaimed novels (The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House), is one of today’s most accomplished writers of short fiction. The Kansas City Star says: “If any short story writer can be considered a rock star of the genre, it’s Rebecca Makkai. She has had a story selected for the annual Best American Short Stories anthology in four consecutive years.” Music for Wartime includes those four stories, along with 13 others. Divergent in tone, style, and subject matter, the stories all address the same question — “what it means to be an artist in a brutal world,” as Makkai put it.

Rock stars don’t have any trouble filling arenas with screaming fans. Literary stars, on the other hand, are relieved when a bookstore has to set up extra chairs to accommodate readers who have come to hear a favorite author. Makkai’s appearance last week at Lake Forest Book Store (her hometown store) was her last bookstore event promoting Music for Wartime. On Thanksgiving, I’m sure she’ll be feeling gratitude that she can now turn her full attention to writing! She graciously took time out from a residency at Ragdale (a writers’ retreat), where she is working on her third novel, to discuss her short story collection.

10738849Here are some edited highlights of my 45-minute conversation with Rebecca Makkai.

I though we could start out by talking about short stories in general. I have to say, having been a bookseller for a long time, short stories can be a hard sell. I absolutely love them — I’ve always loved them. But the minute you tell a customer about a book of short stories, you can see the look on their face — “Oh no, not short stories!”

They always get critically recognized — it’s a matter of the commercial sales. My first experience a couple of years ago — which is proof of this — was when I was working on Small Business Saturday. Sherman Alexie started this initiative to get authors in bookstores the Saturday after Thanksgiving, to handsell books. I’ve done it here, and last year I did it at City Lit in Logan Square, and this year I’m going to Women and Children First down in the city.  I started to realize, selling here and selling in Logan Square, that I could not move a story collection to save my life.

You should have gotten a bonus if you did.

There was one guy, who came in shopping for his girlfriend who wanted to be a writer. That was the one person, who bought three story collections.

You’ll notice, they didn’t put “stories” on the cover (of Music for Wartime) — sneaky move!

I think part of the reason is there’s no hook for people the way there is with a novel. If someone wants to pitch a book to their book club, if it’s a novel, they can say “It’s the story of a woman who buys a bookstore, and this happens to her, and this happens to her”, and people get involved, and they want to hear more about it. With a story collection, you can’t pitch the plot that way.

And I have to add — tonight is the National Book Awards, and good news for the short story: two collections are on the short list: Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles and Karen Bender’s Refund.

And last year, the one that won was a book of short stories — Redeployment, by Phil Klay.

You always hear about how people’s attention spans are shorter today, in the Internet Age . . . you can read a story in 15 minutes, versus investing all that time in a novel.

I don’t think that’s true. Look at what people watch on TV. The age of the little 30-minute sitcom is over. People want epics. They want to binge-watch seven hour-long episodes of something. I get it, I write novels too. But I feel that people are missing out if they don’t read short stories. They’re missing out on what can be done — the avant-garde of literature.

You can take so many more risks with a short story.

Yes, think of something like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”. You cannot maintain that for 300 pages. No one wants to read a 300-page novel about a cockroach. But you can do it for 15 pages. You can be experimental with form, with language in a short story in a way that would be unsustainable or unbearable in a 300-page novel. So when people miss that, they’re missing, I think, what literature can do.

I’ve made my peace with it because every year I watch the Oscars, and when they start with the awards for short films, I go make popcorn.

Getting back to Kafka, you have a couple of stories that sort of remind me of his. This collection is so great because of that — the stories are all different in terms of tone, subject matter, and style. There’s magical realism, there’s humor, there are family legends — there’s so much variety here, but there’s something binding them all together. Every story is about somebody who’s creating something. Can you talk about how you assembled this group of stories and how you chose which ones to include?

Part of the reason this wasn’t my first book  and that I focused on my novels first is that I couldn’t understand how to put the stories I’d written into a collection. I feel like a story collection should be more than just a pile of stories and more than just a sum of its parts — it should be like an album, that adds up to something more.

Very early on, before I’d published my first novel, I sent out a really incomplete collection — someone had gotten me an introduction to a publisher — and they very wisely passed on the collection, because it didn’t come together at all. But the editor who wrote back took the time to say, “I could see these stories eventually coalescing around a theme. I notice the themes of both music and war are really prominent in these stories.” I was thinking about that letter years later, and the title, Music for Wartime, came to me. I liked that it sounded like an album, like an old LP of World War I songs.

The idea that those themes could coexist, and the themes I was already writing about, the stories I was already writing about artists and music, and the stories I was already writing about refugees and dissidents and interrogations and war, that they were really speaking to the same question. I think of it as a question rather than a theme, the question being, “What does it mean to try to make beauty, to make art or order in the midst of a brutal and chaotic world?”

auth-ph-13-cropped-jpeg1-300x400There are some stories interspersed that are almost like memoir snippets — I assume they’re fictionalized family history?

Overtly fictionalized nonfiction . . . It’s already  in many ways a collection about the line between fiction and reality — there’s a story about a reality TV show, for instance. So it felt right that these stories went in there — I was taking the story I’d been told, acknowledging that I don’t really know what happened, and then working with my uncertainty to create a piece of fiction. But it’s very clear that that’s what I’m doing, rather than passing them off as fiction, or passing them off as nonfiction, kind of laying bare the process a little bit.

Can you share a little about your family history? 

My father was a refugee in 1956 following the failed Hungarian revolution. There are three stories in here that are about his parents. These are the pieces that I thought fit into a collection of fiction rather than a nonfiction account. Her mother was a really well-known Hungarian novelist. She wrote something like 40 novels — which I haven’t read because they’re written in Hungarian. My grandfather — and they were only married for a few years — was a member of Parliament and was in many ways, at least for a while, on the wrong side of history and was the author of the second set of anti-Jewish laws in Hungary. Later, he did other things that sort of contradicted that, but it’s not entirely clear to me why and what the pivot point was for him. So they’re fascinating people . . . ultimately, I’m going to be writing something longer about them — a sort of nonfiction investigation.

What do you think makes a great short story? I know you teach writing — if a student were to ask you what makes a story successful, what would you say?

What literary fiction is trying to do in the contemporary age is really different from what it was trying to do, say, 200 years ago. The contemporary project is largely concerned with how much people can change over the course of a narrative — over the course of a novel, over the course of 20 pages. Our question is really one of character development — which is where literary fiction tends to differ from certain genre fiction, which is much more about the conventions of plot, or establishing an alternate world. So when short stories fail, it’s almost always because the character doesn’t change, or only changes once. You need a change to set the story in motion, but you also need a change at the climactic scene of the story, you need an ultimate change for that character, a reason that the story has been told. It can happen in three pages, it can happen in 25 pages, it can happen in 320 pages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Never Asked for Wings — Author Interview

9780553392319

Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight, just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction correct their flight paths all at once.

Four years ago, Vanessa Diffenbaugh published her first novel, The Language of Flowers, which became a surprise bestseller — and a staff and customer favorite at Lake Forest Book Store. It’s rare that a new author builds an audience so quickly. Kathryn Stockett  comes to mind — but it’s been more than six years since The Help was published and there’s no new book on the horizon.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s much-anticipated second novel, We Never Asked for Wings, has just arrived in stores. Her whirlwind publicity tour included two events in the Chicago suburbs: an evening reading and discussion at Highland Park Public Library and a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon. Quite a few of the attendees had met Vanessa when she visited Lake Forest for a luncheon in September 2011, just a couple of weeks after The Language of Flowers was published. That event — one of Vanessa’s very first —  was a benefit for the Allendale Association, a local organization serving troubled children and adolescents.

Few authors are lucky enough to be sent on publisher-sponsored publicity tours. As author Justin Taylor points out in an article entitled “On the Total Weirdness of the Book Tour”, both reading and writing (“these two vast solitudes”) are fundamentally private activities, yet book tours attempt to transform them into social events:

Every art form has its peculiarities but the strangest thing about writing . . . is that its fundamental attribute is solitude. Plays, concerts, operas, movies take dozens if not hundreds to make, and are seen by thousands (or millions) in their turn. Even the painter, who might work alone or with assistants, eventually sees his work on a wall in a room in the company of that of his colleagues.

I’m sure authors get tired of answering the same questions at event after event, but in my experience they are all unfailingly gracious, even with inane queries — “Do you write in longhand or on a computer?” “How can I get my book published?”. Most attendees ask more insightful questions, often about the story behind the book. I’m always interested in what the author is currently reading; the “what’s on your nightstand?” question always asked in the New York Times Book Review “By the Book” column. When I interview authors, I try my best to ask them a few questions they haven’t been asked multiple times.  Last week, Vanessa was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule to chat with me.

I asked Vanessa what readers ask her most frequently. She said, without any hesitation, that readers are most curious about how her personal life ties in with her fiction. Vanessa has spent her adult life working with disadvantaged youth, as a mentor, teacher, and foster parent. Her experiences have inspired her characters — Victoria, the young woman aging out of foster care and facing life alone in The Language of Flowers and Alex, the bright and precocious teenager trying to get to know his parents, and himself in We Never Asked for Wings  and her motifs: flowers, birds, and feathers.

Vanessa mentioned that the natural world plays an important role in how her characters make sense of their lives. Alex’s knowledge of bird migration, for example, draws him closer to his grandparents and helps him understand why they returned to Mexico. Vanessa’s brother-in-law is a climate scientist at Stanford whose help was invaluable as Vanessa planned Alex’s science project inspired by his grandfather’s feather collection. In the Q and A session after Vanessa’s reading, she mentioned that she’s always been a nature lover, having grown up in a small farming community.

When Vanessa began writing We Never Asked for Wings (a long and difficult process that took more than three years and involved a complete rewrite) she intended the book to focus on the dichotomy between educational opportunities for wealthy and poor children, not on illegal immigration. In an interview on MomAdvice/Sundays with Writers, she says:

For me, it is especially interesting that I wrote a book about immigration because I had no intention of doing so! I was thinking about economic and educational inequality, and themes of motherhood and family. But as I got deeper and deeper into this novel, it struck me that I had created a community of characters in which immigration status would be an issue. It would be disingenuous to write about a low-income community in California and pretend that every citizen in the book would be documented. That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live in these communities.

I was particularly curious about the abandoned housing project by the ocean where Alex and his family live. I could visualize the muddy expanses and decrepit buildings of Eden’s Landing, but I couldn’t find any information about the Landing on the Internet. Actually, Vanessa told me, the setting of We Never Asked for Wings was based on Columbia Point, a housing project on a peninsula in Boston that was razed in the 1980s. She initially planned on setting the novel in Boston, but as a native Californian, her heart was in the area she knows best.

The other question I was especially interested in was why she decided to write We Never Asked for Wings as a purely realistic novel, with none of the magical realism that characterized The Language of Flowers. Her answer, which surprised me, was that she thought the book was entirely realistic. What I, and other readers, saw as fantastical events were not, according to Vanessa — they were caused by the power of suggestion.

Vanessa pointed out that her book contains two coming of age stories — Alex’s, of course, but also his mother’s, as Letty learns to become an adult and a parent. The flashbacks to Letty’s troubled teenage years and Alex’s first experience with love will appeal to teenage readers who are ready for adult books. One of my colleagues mentioned that her son, a high school student, was enjoying We Never Asked for Wings, finding himself interested not only in Alex’s story but the immigration issues raised in the novel.

And guess what? Vanessa was called to the podium before I got a chance to ask her what’s on her nightstand. I recommend, though, that you add We Never Asked for Wings to the stack on your nightstand.

An Unabashed Sales Pitch for Author Events

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly reading from The Tilted World

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly reading from The Tilted World

Author events are often memorable experiences; when things go right, they can be magical. (I dislike calling them “readings” or “signings”. Yes, author events almost always include reading and signing — but events that truly connect readers and authors involve much more than that.) There’s something very special about meeting an author and hearing him or her read from and discuss a beloved book.  I feel very fortunate I’ve had the chance to hear some incredible authors read from their work — Chris Bohjalian, Ann Hood, Elizabeth Berg, M.L. Stedman, Jan-Philipp Sendker, Gillian Flynn, Bob Spitz, Melanie Benjamin, Lisa Genova, Robert Kurson . . . too many to list. I’ll never forget choking up as I listened to Richard Russo describing how his mother’s example taught him to fall in love with reading.

However . . . so much can go wrong with author events. Maybe hardly anyone shows up, and it’s embarrassing and awkward for all involved. Perhaps the author reads . . . and reads . . . and reads, not noticing that the audience is shifting in their seats. Maybe the author gives a terrific presentation, reads a lovely teaser from the book, answers some interesting questions . . . and then everyone departs without buying the book. Or possibly we’ve misjudged the size of the crowd, and we run out of chairs — or worse, books.  And there are the inevitable  problems that prevent authors from arriving at the venue: flight cancellations, traffic jams, weather issues (which have included flooding and blizzards), and family emergencies. We organized an event with ornithologist David Sibley and his plane suffered a bird strike. You just can’t anticipate everything that might happen.

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Anton DiSclafani at a luncheon in her honor

Almost without exception, authors are gracious and delightful people, surprisingly skilled at public speaking and answering questions from readers. (I say “surprisingly” because I imagine many of them are introverts and need to make a huge effort to be outgoing.) I’m sure they hear the same questions over and over: “What’s your writing routine””; “Where do you get your ideas?”; “What have you been reading lately?”; “What’s your next book about?”; ad infinitum — but they nearly always respond warmly and enthusiastically.

At a booksellers’ conference, I once was seated at a lunch table with six or seven authors. They spent the entire meal one-upping each other with tales of their most humiliating events. I had a few anecdotes of my own to add — including the time the author told the audience not to buy the book from our store, because it was “cheaper on Amazon”.

Without getting involved in a discussion about Amazon (which is far beyond the scope of this blog post), let me say one thing: Amazon does not bring authors to your community. Publishers decide which authors to send on tour and then pay for them to come to a bookstore, library, or community center near you. Someone from your local bookstore coordinates the arrangements with the publisher,  finds a location, orders the books, publicizes the event — and then crosses his or her fingers that you show up,  and maybe even buy the book the author is promoting. More often than not, author events are free. I’ve attended more than I can count, and I don’t think I’ve ever left thinking that I wasted my time — even when I thought the event was close to disastrous. There’s always something to learn.

I know not everyone is lucky enough to live in an area where author events are frequently held. I am envious of New Yorkers, who seem to have dozens of events to choose from every day of the week. As publishers’ budgets get tighter, fewer and fewer authors are sent on tour. Some authors go on the road at their own expense, organizing their travel and gratefully accepting invitations from book clubs. There are very few prima donnas among authors. (We did have a request from one well-known author for a particular brand of tea, but that’s unusual.) I hope you have the chance to go to an author event soon — it’s the best entertainment bargain available!

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Back to School — 10 Favorite Campus Novels

I’ve always been drawn to novels set in the academy. I like the parochial closed world in which incompatible people are forced to come to terms with one another. I like the relatively high tolerance for oddity and the relatively low threat of physical violence. I like characters who speak in complete sentences, use lofty vocabulary and sprinkle their repartee with literary references.
Cynthia Crossen, “Back to School” in the Wall Street Journal

September used to be the traditional “back to school” month, but August has become the new September. (I would love it if someone could provide me with a good explanation of this phenomenon — but if it has anything to do with football schedules, I don’t want to hear it.) College students are moving into dorm rooms, children are buying new backpacks and sneakers, and teachers are preparing classrooms and lesson plans.

9780525426684MLast week, when I visited Lake Forest Academy’s campus for Lake Forest Book Store’s author event with Rebecca Makkai, the school was feverishly getting the campus ready for the upcoming year. But in the beautiful Little Theater in the historic Armour House, where tea with Rebecca took place, no sounds of construction could be heard. The audience was enraptured with Rebecca’s reading from her new novel, The Hundred-Year House.

Just back from a book tour on the East Coast, Rebecca was on her home turf. A native of Chicago’s North Shore, she has taught at Lake Forest Academy, as well as at Forest Bluff Montessori School and Lake Forest College.

The Hundred-Year House has received rave reviews from the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, NPR Books, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, People, and many more publications — and was selected as one of Oprah’s top “summer reads”. I loved Rebecca’s debut novel, The Borrower, and was thrilled when our Penguin sales rep gave me a bound galley of The Hundred-Year House. I sent him the following mini-review:

Once an artists’ colony, now a luxurious private home, the “hundred-year house” has a profound effect on its residents and visitors. Using an innovative narrative structure — the book begins at the dawn of the 21st century and travels back in time to 1900 — Rebecca Makkai draws us in to a world filled with artists, poets, academics, heirs and heiresses . . . and perhaps a ghost. Rebecca’s gorgeous writing enthralled me from the first page. She lives and works in the Chicago suburb where our store is located and where the story takes place, but I would have been just as mesmerized even if I hadn’t been curious about her portrayal of our town.

What I didn’t mention is that academia and campus life (specifically, inter-departmental politics at a small liberal arts college) are integral to The Hundred-Year House. I’ve always enjoyed novels set on campuses — it must be nostalgia for my school days. I think the first adult book I ever read that took place at a school was The Catcher in the Rye, when I was 12 or 13, and I remember wondering if there really was a Pencey Prep. (No, but the McBurney School did exist.)

So, in the spirit of “back to school” (which really should be next month, but nobody asked me), here are 10 of my favorite campus novels, old and new:

The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch
A coming-of-age story about a young man who leaves his political career and devoted girlfriend behind to spend a year studying at Oxford. This is Finch’s first contemporary novel–he’s best known for his Charles Lenox Victorian mysteries.

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s semi-autobiographical debut novel is set at Princeton (which he attended, but did not graduate from): “From the first he loved Princeton—its lazy beauty, its half-grasped significance, the wild moonlight revel of the rushes, the handsome, prosperous big-game crowds, and under it all the air of struggle that pervaded his class.”

2e5fadd2709fcd35faa8523e11a328bdThe Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I have zero interest in college baseball, but I savored this story of students, faculty, and administrators at fictional Westish College in Wisconsin. It’s one of my all-time favorites. The Melville references are a bonus.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Portia Nathan is an admissions officer at Princeton, involved in a stale relationship with an English professor. The novel was made into a movie starring Tina Fey — of course, the book is better.

Straight Man by Richard Russo
Russo is one of my favorite authors, and Straight Man is Russo at his best. It’s a smart and touching satire about an English professor at a little-known university.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher9780385538138
I just read this one — it came out yesterday!  It’s a hilarious (and short) novel made up of letters of recommendation that English professor Jason Fitzger is constantly called upon to write.

Moo by Jane Smiley
Even more satirical than Straight Man, Moo pokes fun at every aspect of university life.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Since the publication of The Goldfinch, there’s renewed interest in Tartt’s first book — a very smart literary mystery that moves backwards in time.

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
This surprisingly insightful novel follows four young women through their college years at Smith and afterwards. It’s a familiar formula (remember Mary McCarthy’s The Group?) but Sullivan makes it fresh.

9780375701498Old School by Tobias Wolff
Prep school novels are tough. Most of them don’t ring true to me. This one, about a scholarship student at an elite boarding school in the 1960s, is beautifully written and authentic.

Last December, Rebecca Makkai was kind enough to spend a few hours at Lake Forest Book Store as our guest bookseller for a day. (Author Sherman Alexie spearheaded this program, which brought authors into independent bookstores to sell books.) Rebecca highly recommended Virgins, a prep school novel by Pamela Erens, which I promptly bought . . . and haven’t read yet.  It will be my back to school book!

 

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The Tilted World — Book Review

9780062069184When Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin visited our store last fall as part of their tour for The Tilted World, I mentioned in my introduction that they were the first husband-wife writing team we’d ever hosted. In fact, they were the first writing team we had ever hosted. Sure, we’ve organized events for pairs of authors and illustrators. But two people who collaborated on a novel? That was a first.

Not many novels have been written by co-authors, and very few by co-authors who are married to each other. The only work of fiction I could think of that was written by a married couple is The Crown of Columbus by Michael Dorris and Louise Erdrich. A little Internet research showed me that I am hopelessly out of touch and that there are a number of couples writing fiction together. Many of them combine their names and write under a shared pseudonym: Nicci Gerrard and Sean French write crime fiction under the name “Nicci French”; Alexandra Coelho and Alexander Ahndoril write novels together as “Lars Kepler”; and Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio are “Michael Gregorio” in the literary world.

Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who wrote a series of ten police procedurals about detective Martin Beck in the 1960s and 1970s and are considered the forerunners to Stieg Larsson, are common-law spouses. Maybe that’s why they didn’t come up with a joint pen name?

These collaborative novels all have one thing in common: they are plot-driven and suspenseful. The Tilted World is no exception. The book grabbed me from the first page, when the protagonist, bootlegger Dixie Clay Holliver, finds what she believes to be a baby’s coffin in the swollen creek near her home in rural Mississippi. The stream was called “Gawiwatchee” (“Place Where the World Tilts”) by the Indians — “or so Jesse’d said”. Jesse, Dixie Clay’s husband, is not known for his honesty.

Dixie Clay is a bit of a stock Southern female character — she’s plucky and determined, doing what needs to be done in the face of hardship. Remember Scarlett O’Hara? She saves her husband from two  federal revenue agents who are investigating the moonshine operation:

Now she aimed the Winchester . . . She remembered the years of hunting alongside her father, remembered shooting a panther out of a pin oak. She visualized that shot, and visualized this one. She squeezed the trigger. The pie plate rang and danced  on its cord and the birdseed exploded, then bounced on the floor and rolled still. She used the diversion to scuttle behind the sassafras, the last shelter before the downhill slide to the front gallery forty feet away.

I found myself more interested in Dixie Clay’s nemesis and eventual love interest, Prohibition agent Teddy Ingersoll. Ingersoll’s history as an orphan and World War I soldier brings texture to his character. Jesse, and his girlfriend, Jeannette, are villains through and through. Jesse has one blue eye and one green eye, hinting that he has two sides to his personality: one charming and smooth-talking, the other ugly and violent.

Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin reading, October 2013

Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin reading, October 2013

The Tilted World takes place in 1927, during Prohibition and the Great Flood that decimated the South. In the authors’ note at the beginning of the book, Fennelly and Franklin comment that the flood, “largely forgotten today . . .  is considered by many to be the worst natural disaster our country has endured.” Certain disasters — the sinking of the Titanic, the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake — have taken hold of the popular imagination, while others — the Peshtigo fire, the sinking of the Eastland in Lake Michigan, the Galveston hurricane — have become footnotes to history. It’s interesting to contemplate why that is. In the book’s acknowledgments, Fennelly and Franklin cite John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America “as an amazing work of research and journalism, to which our novel is indebted”. I’m adding it to my reading list.

Revenue agents, bootleggers, murderers, and abandoned babies, all set against the background of a flood of Biblical proportions, create a dramatic page-turner filled with tension. It’s also a literary novel, filled with enough religious imagery and symbolism to satisfy this aging English major.  The Tilted World, like all the best historical fiction, leaves the reader with the gratifying feeling of having learned something new about a particular time and place. The novel also places the flood in context, showing how this massive disaster would shape American politics and race relations in the 20th century.

Fennelly and Franklin are both enormously talented writers.They met as MFA students at the University of Arkansas, and, says Franklin, “We both teach in the Ole Miss MFA program, which Beth Ann also directs. In other words, she’s my boss.” Franklin has written several other novels and a collection of short stories, all set in his native Deep South; Fennelly, a Northerner, is the author of three poetry collections and a nonfiction book, Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother.  Franklin’s evocation of the Southern atmosphere and Fennelly’s poetic depiction of maternal love combine beautifully in The Tilted World.

The authors with Beth Ann Fennelly's proud mother!

The authors with Beth Ann Fennelly’s proud mother!

How did Fennelly and Franklin write the book? Did they write alternating chapters, or did they actually sit and write together? When we hosted our reading with the two authors, that was the first question that was asked in the Q and A session. In an essay that’s reprinted in the paperback version of The Tilted World, Fennelly addresses this question at length. The short answer is: they did both. They started out with Tom writing from the point of view of Ted Ingersoll and Beth Ann writing from the point of view of Dixie Clay. But things changed:

One day, Tommy out of town, I realized I couldn’t push further with Dixie Clay until I knew what Ingersoll was up to. I wrote an Ingersoll scene, and it was liberating to give myself permission to get to know this character, too. Thereafter, we started mucking things about in each other’s pages, coloring outside the lines . . . And then we took our collaborating further, because we began crafting scenes together, kneecap to kneecap in my tiny office, talking and writing together, stringing words into sentences. That’s when the novel really started cooking– and finally became fun to write — when we adopted the method we called “dueling laptops”, writing side by side on the same passages at the same time, then reading aloud and discussing and jointly moving forward.

Will Fennelly and Franklin collaborate on a novel again — perhaps a sequel? I want to know more about Dixie Clay’s father. And maybe this time Fennelly’s name will come first, since she is her husband’s boss . . .

To read more reviews of The Tilted World, check out the stops on TLC Book Tours.

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Monday Match-Up: And the Dark Sacred Night & Three Junes

www.randomhouseI see skies of blue,
And clouds of white.
The bright blessed day,
The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,
What a wonderful world.
“What a Wonderful World”, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss; originally recorded by Louis Armstrong

Julia Glass has been a heroine of mine ever since she arrived on the literary scene in 2002, with the publication of her debut novel, Three Junes. I hate to use the term “late in life”, but recognition of her talent has come later in life than it does for most published writers. Glass was 46 years old when she won the National Book Award for Three Junes — seven years older than Flannery O’Connor (one of my favorite literary heroines) was when she died. An article in New York magazine (“Cinderella Story”, January 2003) explores Glass’s unexpected success:

So it was a stunning upset in the literary world in late November when Glass won the writer’s equivalent of the Best Actor Oscar — the National Book Award for fiction — which she jubilantly dedicated in her acceptance speech to “late bloomers.”  . . . As novelist and awards judge Bob Shacochis puts it, “Three Junes is an anti-hip book, an anti-cool book. It was like choosing a 25-year-old single-malt whiskey.”

“Julia is incredibly brave,” says Deb Garrison, the Pantheon editor who bought the book and shepherded it through publication. “To be a first novelist in your forties, writing without a book contract and no steady income, to just say, ‘This is what I have to be doing.’ ”

“Julia Glass is an update on those wonderful writers from the nineteenth century that we admire so much, like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters,” says Shacochis, who pored through almost 300 submissions for the book awards. “I couldn’t put it down because it had such emotional power.”

Glass’s new novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, is certainly a work of emotional power. The story centers on Kit Noonan, a middle-aged man my grandmother would have described as a “sad sack”. He’s an unemployed art historian with a specialty in Inuit art. Kit suffers from a lack of energy and purpose; he lost his academic job for failing to turn his manuscript in on time. His wife, Sandra, is convinced that his inertia is caused by an identity crisis. Kit was raised by a single mother, Daphne, who has steadfastly refused to give him any information about his birth father. Sandra sends Kit from his suburban New Jersey home to Vermont, where Kit’s ex-stepfather, Jasper, lives. Sandra believes that Jasper, who was married to Daphne during most of Kit’s childhood, knows the truth about Kit’s father.

coverIt doesn’t take the reader long to figure out who Kit’s father is, so I’m not giving anything away by revealing the fact that Kit’s father was Malachy Burns, who died of AIDS in Three Junes. Readers of Three Junes will recognize Malachy in the very first chapter, which takes place at the Vermont arts camp where Daphne and Malachy met as teenagers. Readers will also recall Malachy’s mother, Lucinda Burns. In an interview, Julia Glass says the character of Lucinda was the inspiration for And the Dark Sacred Night:

It grew initially out of my sudden yearning to revisit a character from Three Junes: Lucinda Burns, the mother of the music critic Malachy Burns. She’s a character I had a tough time getting right, but once I did (well, I hope I did!), I fell in love with her and was sad to leave her behind. Lucinda led me back to a teeny-tiny subplot of Three Junes involving a baby born to a 17-year-old single mother in the late 1960s. And the Dark Sacred Night is, in the smallest of nutshells, the story of that grown-up-baby’s search for his father. In a roundabout way, this new character gave me the way to delve deeper into Lucinda’s life. Inevitably, she led me back to Fenno McLeod, the character who seems to come back to me again and again, always just when I think I’ve sent him packing for good.

It’s easy to see why Glass is attached to her characters and revisits their lives. More than any other contemporary novelist I’ve read, she creates complex characters that seem real: imperfect, sometimes likable, sometimes annoying, but always interesting and fully textured. Even the minor characters in the novel — Jasper’s on-again, off-again girlfriend and employee, Loraina, and Lucinda’s overscheduled daughter, Christina, for example — are well-developed and have important roles to play. Glass also excels at capturing poignant moments in ordinary life. The scene in which Lucinda brings her husband, Zeke, home from the hospital after he’s suffered a stroke, is heartbreakingly and vividly rendered:

Christina helps her father out of the car while Lucinda wrestles with the walker, unfolding and locking its cheap metal wings. Each of the women holds onto one side while Zeke fumbles for a grip.

Even though she knows he’s stooping to keep his balance, to meet the demands of this crablike contraption, Zeke seems disturbingly smaller to Lucinda. He dozed on the half-hour drive from the rehab center, and now, still, he says nothing.

Once inside the front door he glances around. He spots the hospital bed. “Christ, it’s come to this,” he says. Though it sounds like, “Frise, come to fuss.”

Music is a thread that runs through the novel. Kit says he “cannot imagine a childhood without music”. Daphne is a classically trained cellist who once dreamed of a  career as a performer, now supporting herself as a music teacher, and Malachy was a flutist who came to be a well-known music critic. Both the opening and closing chapters of the book take place at the music camp where they met.  Music is a bridge to the past; at the concert at the end of the book, Daphne recalls, “‘There was a concert like this one when I was here.'” The novel takes its title from the Louis Armstrong song, “What a Wonderful World”. Fenno McLeod, an old friend of Malachy’s, recalls a discussion about the meaning of the song:

Do you know that song, “What a Wonderful World”? We hear it so often that it’s become about as moving as a beer jingle. But it’s beautiful . . . What I mean is that the past is like the night: dark yet sacred. It’s the time when most of us sleep, so we think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are. But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past.

The characters in And the Dark Sacred Night are trying to make sense of the mysterious past and how it connects to the sometimes confusing present. Glass suggests that Kit’s lack of knowledge about his origins has almost paralyzed him. I wonder, though, if Kit’s inability to take charge of his life is really rooted in his fatherlessness, or if it’s simply his genetic makeup. The plot depends, to a certain extent, on the reader believing — as Sandra does — that Kit’s life will be transformed once he learns about his father. As much as I love the characters and the writing in the novel, I have trouble with this premise. I think Kit is a just a passive person by nature. Recalling his attempts to do first-hand research with Inuit artists, he says:

He did like driving though the wilderness, through the brief, bright flowering of the tundra . . . but when it came to striking up a conversation with the artists he met, asking them to talk about their work, he turned shy and formal. He learned little beyond what he needed to know. Kit had no clue how to ask the startling question that would yield the unexpected revelation.

And the Dark and Sacred Night isn’t really a sequel to Three Junes, but once you’ve read one, you will want to read the other, because the characters are so compelling. Fenno McLeod’s family — particularly his mother, a collie breeder in Scotland — will win your heart. (It’s interesting that Jasper Noonan is a dog breeder as well.)  I wonder if Julia Glass has sent her characters “packing for good”, or if we will see more of them in future novels?