Novel Destinations — Author Interview

Novel Destinations cover. . . In our travels near and far, we’ve not only looked to novels to provide a new dimension to our travel experiences, but equally, we’ve sought out the literary places in our travels that will give us a deeper perspective on the books we cherish.
Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, Novel Destinations

If you love to read and to travel (and to read while you travel!) you will feel as though the authors of Novel Destinations wrote their informative and delightful book just for you. Subtitled A Travel Guide to Literary Landmarks From Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, this comprehensive handbook, including 500 literary sites,  is a dream come true for traveling bibliophiles. I think I used a whole pad of Post-it notes marking all the bookish places I want to visit. Like the authors (“two lifelong voracious readers who share an equally passionate appetite for exploration”), I prepare for a trip by reading novels about the area I’m preparing to visit.

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The authors at Washington Irving’s estate in Tarrytown, NY

Part of the appeal of Novel Destinations is its creative organization and beautiful design. The book is divided into two sections, “Travel by the Book”, which covers literary experiences (author houses and museums, writers at home and abroad, literary festivals and tours, and book-related lodgings, restaurants, and bars), and “Journeys Between the Pages”, which describes in depth eleven locales immortalized by famed novelists. The two authors spent years traveling the world collecting information — from locations, dates, and hours to reading suggestions and fun literary trivia and gossip.

Shannon was kind enough to answer, in detail, my questions about her top tdestinations and her favorite books, authors, and characters. She even shared a few packing tips!

Of all the “novel destinations” you’ve visited, was there one that a) surprised you the most and b) disappointed (or underwhelmed you) the most? Can you pick your very favorite literary destination — one that you’d return to again and again?

A place that surprised me is Alexandre Dumas’ Château de Monte Cristo near Paris for how completely imaginative it is. First you walk along a wooded path and through man-made grottos, then past a waterfall and a moat-encircled pavilion Dumas used as his office. Finally, you reach the castle, which looks like a confection made of stone. One of the highlights inside is the ornate and colorful Moorish Room, designed by Tunisian craftsmen Dumas brought back with him after visiting the African nation. The Château de Monte Cristo is a domain worthy of an adventure writer.

Honestly, I haven’t been disappointed in any of the literary sites I’ve visited. Moderating expectations is a good idea, though, depending on the place because each one really is unique. Some are lavish like Sir Walter Scott’s castle in the Scottish border country, whereas Edgar Allan Poe’s tiny cottage in New York City reflects his hardscrabble circumstances. Mark Twain’s richly designed and decorated house in Connecticut incorporates his love of travel, while W.B. Yeats’ stone tower in the Irish countryside contains no furnishings but plenty of atmosphere.

Hemingway Home in Key WestA literary landmark that I have returned to again and again is the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida. I’ve been there three times, taking the excellent and entertaining tour on each visit. Although I confess it’s not only the literary aspect that draws me to the Hemingway Home. There are 50 or so cats that live on the property and have the run of the house and grounds, even sleeping in Hemingway’s bedroom. A ship’s captain gave Hemingway a six-toed cat named Snow White, and some of the felines that live there today are its descendants. With the combination of a literary connection and cats, the Hemingway Home is pretty much my version of heaven.

What would your five “desert island” books be? I find it impossible to choose just one, but if you can — go for it!

71ptfhgn4clIt doesn’t seem fair to select a novel by just one Brontë sister, so I would have to go with Jane Eyre (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily), and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne). Plus while reading the books I could reminisce about visiting Brontë Country, the atmospheric moors in West Yorkshire, England.

Rounding out my picks would be two of my favorite travel books: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (gossipy and lyrical) and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the ultimate road trip memoir.

Do you read electronically when you travel, or do you carry paper books with you? What’s your favorite reading location — on a plane, a beach, a cafe, your hotel room . . .? Have you ever been stranded anywhere without anything to read?

I was slow coming around to the idea of an e-reader, but now I wouldn’t travel without one. It means you have a current read plus a choice of back-up books at the ready; it has built-in lighting, which is handy when sharing a hotel room with another person who wants to turn in earlier than you do; and it saves space. I spent the last three years trekking around the globe with a 40-litre backpack as my main piece of luggage, and there wasn’t much room to spare. And since I’ve been using an e-reader while traveling, I’ve never been caught without anything to read (every bibliophile’s nightmare!). Even if I’m somewhere with no shops around or finish a book late at night in a hotel room, I can download something .

I read printed books, too, especially when I’m in a fixed location for a while and don’t need to tote them along. On a book exchange shelf at a ferry terminal along Alaska’s Inside Passage, I found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and devoured it during the ride instead of admiring the scenery.

My favorite place to read is at the beach, with sitting in front of a roaring fire a close second—the latter is more of a fantasy, though, since it rarely happens.

Can you share any special packing tips for travelers? Anything you can’t leave home without?

m_56df5ef73c6f9f87d700d6c4Mostly my packing tips are about saving space, honed during years of living from a backpack. Some of my favorites: exfoliating soap bars (no need to carry both bath gel and a mesh scrubby; Etsy.com has a ton of varieties), a sun hat that can be rolled up (ones made of grosgrain ribbon are attractively detailed and sturdy enough to keep their shape), and Butterfly Twists folding ballet flats. And I always have a pashmina or other large scarf with me. It can double as a blanket on an airplane and comes in handy as a cover-up when visiting churches or temples.

What were your favorite books as a child?

I trace my wanderlust back to a book I read as a kid: an illustrated children’s version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. The thrilling story was like a siren’s song with its depictions of distant ports of call. I was also partial to biographies about women like Clara Barton and Marie Curie. And Nancy Drew mysteries.

If you could meet a fictional character (or two), who would you pick?

Sleuthing with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson would be a great adventure. We would then cap off a day of detecting with a stop at the Museum Tavern, a London pub across from the British Museum where Arthur Conan Doyle was a regular.

1934If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?

I once took an online quiz, “Which Classic Literary Character Are You?”, and it came up with Jo March. Which seems appropriate because Novel Destinations was partly inspired by a trip I took to Louisa May Alcott’s home in Concord, Massachusetts, with my mother, sister, and niece. Visiting Orchard House is like stepping into the pages of Little Women.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you want to know?

I would love an invitation to visit Edith Wharton at The Mount, her grand Berkshires estate. (She designed the 42-room house and elaborate gardens herself.) We would sit on the terrace and reminisce about our travels, including her journeys to Malta, the Italian Alps, and other destinations. Joining us would be Henry James, Wharton’s close friend and a regular guest at The Mount. The two once traveled together through France and toured the home of French feminist writer George Sand, whom they both admired. True literary travelers, the duo even nicknamed their car “George” in her honor.

9780345516541And finally — what’s the best book you’ve read recently (in the past year or so)?

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan has adventure and romance, lovely writing and a literary angle. It’s a novel featuring Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Osbourne, how they met and their remarkable life together, which took them from an art colony in France to the South Seas. The story made me cry at the end, which I consider the sign of a good book.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bridge Ladies — Author Interview

Look closely and you will see
Almost everyone carrying bags
Of cement on their shoulders
That’s why it takes courage
To get out of bed in the morning
And climb into the day.
Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem

Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
Betsy Lerner, The Bridge Ladies

The Bridge Ladies coverAs a child, I thought of bridge as a mysterious game that parents played, in the afternoons when I was at school or in the evenings when I was in bed. The most complicated card games I knew were hearts, gin rummy, and cribbage. Recently, I became intrigued by the idea of bridge as mental exercise for my aging brain. My half-hearted attempt to learn the game met with failure, when the teacher at the community center recommended that I repeat the beginning course. This course was very basic; in fact, the teacher spent some time explaining that there are four suits in cards, two black and two red, and that the clubs look just like puppy paws.

What did I learn? I learned that: 1) I have no aptitude for bridge, probably because of my non-mathematical mind; 2) I’m too lazy to learn something new that’s difficult for me; 3) I have newfound respect for friends and family members who are proficient bridge players; and 4) I’d rather read a book.

Betsy Lerner is a braver woman than I. She becomes a regular attendee at her mother’s Monday afternoon bridge club for nearly three years, strengthening her connection with her mother, building friendships with the other octogenarian “Bridge Ladies” — and falling in love with the game of bridge. Lerner, a literary agent and poet, writes beautifully. Her story will resonate with mothers and daughters, bridge players or not. Lerner was kind enough to answer some of my questions about The Bridge Ladies:

I found your book fascinating for many reasons, one being that both my mother and mother-in-law are avid bridge players. Until recently, I didn’t know anyone of my generation who played. (I think you and I are about the same age.) So I took a series of lessons and failed miserably. I just don’t get it. What do you think makes someone a good bridge player?

I think most people need some motivation to learn. Usually friends or spouses play and they don’t want to miss out. Unlike most card games, you probably should take lessons and you need to play a lot. And you’re right, there aren’t a lot of people out there. But there are bridge clubs in almost every city. I’m terrible at math, logic and have memory issues, but I love the game. People who are “naturals’ have an abundance of these skills. The rest of us plod along.

At first, you were bewildered by what you perceived the bridge ladies’ lack of warmth. As you got to know them better, you understood the reasons for their reticence to share personal information. Your idea of friendship and theirs seemed very different. Do you think they are typical of their generation — and if so, why?

I’m not sure I can make generalizations about women of their generation. I only know what I saw with the Bridge Ladies. That said, their generation is called “The Silent Generation.” They didn’t have a culture of therapy, confession, Oprah, openness. Children were supposed to be seen and not heard, you were meant to suffer in silence and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Bridge really did become a “bridge” between you and your mother, helping you to empathize with her. If you hadn’t had bridge to bring you together, is there anything else that you think would have done the job as well?

My daughter. They love each other so much and my mom is enormously generous and supportive of my daughter. That melts me.

I think most women of our mothers’ generation learned to play bridge in college. Thinking back on my college experience — and those of my children — I can’t imagine bridge being part of it. I’m curious — in your exploration of the game, have you found that the game is starting to appeal to young people (college age and 20-somethings)? I’ve found it interesting that knitting seems newly popular among that age group.

My mom actually learned as a newlywed. She saw it as a way to enter social life. I now know quite a few people my age who learned in college or at home. There are even high school players and they’re good.

Many of my contemporaries are now taking up bridge. You were attracted to the game, I think, because it was a way to deepen your relationship with your mother. What kind of people are interested in learning bridge as midlife adults?

Mostly people who have always been curious about it for one reason or another and decided to take the plunge. Also, I think it attracts people with new found time on their hands: divorce, unemployment, widowhood, empty nest, all kinds of life transitions might be responsible for some people taking the plunge.

You mentioned on your blog that you recently participated in the National Bridge Championships in Reno. Wow! What led you to do that — and would you do it again?

I was really curious to see what it would be like and my mom quickly agreed to be my partner so we braved it. It was terrifying and fun in equal measures.

You also mentioned that you brought copies of the book to the Bridge Ladies, and as expected, the reaction was muted. Have you had any more feedback? What does your mother think?

The ladies gave me the greatest compliment by saying that I “got them.” Parts of the book are certainly painful for my mom, but she didn’t ask me to change a word. She has always been my biggest booster for the book.

One thing that occurred to me as I read your book was this: Women of our generation seem obsessed with staying young. Women of our mothers’ age seem comfortable with who they are and aren’t interested in youth culture, although they aren’t crazy about the aging process. (As you say, “Old age is nothing if not managing losses . . .) They don’t care about keeping up with pop culture or technology. I see the merits of both attitudes — why should I care who the latest 20-something pop singer is, for example? But I feel like older people could really enrich their lives by embracing the wonders of modern technology. What do you think?

I think it’s crucial to stay current with technology and the world unless you an artist or a hermit. You don’t need to know Justin Bieber songs, but once you let the world pass you by you lose some vitality, and then more. Some of my octogenarian friends use their computers, and iphones and stay up on things and stay involved, and they are my role models. Others are retreating.

What do you think is the audience for your book? I’m sure as an agent, you always envision who would be the buyers/readers of a particular book. Do you imagine women of the “Greatest Generation” reading it?

It’s mostly for mothers and daughters, especially boomer daughters. One friend called it “The Jew Luck Club.”

One of the many things I really appreciated about The Bridge Ladies was the structure. I like how each chapter has an appropriate title and is almost an essay unto itself. Did you start out writing the book this way, or did you begin with a more linear narrative?

THANK YOU. I restructured the book over and over. It was a huge challenge to manage the four strands of the story (the stories of the ladies, the Monday bridge games, my relationship with my mother, and learning how to play). I’ve always loved coming up with chapter titles — I think of them like poem titles and hope they signal the theme or spirit of the chapter.

I recommend listening to Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Bridge Ladies on NPR, and also visiting Betsy Lerner’s terrific blog.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

 

Girl Through Glass –Author Interview

Girl Through Glass coverDancers are just flowers, and flowers grow without any literal meaning, they are just beautiful. We’re like flowers. A flower doesn’t tell you a story. It’s in itself a beautiful thing.
George Balanchine

The other girls, and their imperfections, fade away as Mira runs ahead on a stream of energy and light. Her body tells her what to do and she just goes along with it . . . Something great is growing in her, unrolling its tendrils, sprouting buds in all directions. Sometimes the song in her body is almost too loud; it fills her eyes, makes them tear up in something like gratitude.
Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

The first thing you need to know about Sari Wilson’s debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is that it’s much more than a “ballet book”. Like every memorable book, it transcends its surface subject matter and explores universal themes; in this case, art, obsession, sexuality, and family relationships. “I really wanted to write a book that wasn’t just about ballet,” Wilson said at an event at the Book Stall in Winnetka, Illinois. “The idioms and milieu of ballet make for compelling human drama.”

The world of ballet in late 20th century New York provides a fascinating backdrop for the novel’s two narratives. Mira is a young girl with a difficult family life who finds refuge in the art and discipline of ballet. Kate is an ex-dancer and college dance history professor who can’t seem to move forward and is forced to revisit her buried past. For both, George Balanchine’s ideal of feminine beauty looms large. “Ballet is woman,” Balanchine famously said. The subject of Kate’s Ph.D. dissertation was “Corporeality Subverted: The (Dis)embodied Feminine in the Aesthetic of George Balanchine, 1958-1982”.

b7160f981f4922d5ab7bf9eababa9085Doesn’t almost every little girl dream of becoming a ballerina? My dream died quickly, after several months of patient instruction from Mrs. Goneconto at the local YMCA. I was disappointed to learn at the first class that I was not immediately issued a tutu and toe shoes, and things went downhill from there. Mira and her fellow “bunheads” exist on a different level, pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits in what Wilson calls “pure devotion to an ideal”.

Wilson, whose own dance career was cut short by an injury, called herself a “recovering ballerina” in a recent New York Times piece, “My Nutcracker Recovery”. When her daughter is cast in a production of “The Nutcracker”, Wilson has mixed feelings — but as she watches her little girl rehearse, Wilson remembers her childhood passion for dance: “My own early swooning love for ballet — for the pure motion and expression of dance — floods back to me, confusing, powerful, bittersweet, and it finds me a little bit healed.”

Girl Through Glass is at its heart a coming of age story, focusing on a girl and a woman at inflection points in their lives. Wilson spent years crafting the novel, which was a creative endeavor, she points out, not unlike choreographing a dance.

How would you compare the art of writing to the art of dance?

In a lot of ways they seem inverse: dance is an art that is performance-based, completely dependent on the body as instrument for communication; writing is a cerebral art and employs written language as an instrument for art. But underneath, they share a lot: the need for discipline, repetition, and a strong desire to communicate. In the age-old days, dance and poetry were integrated, I think, but they split off from each other and became their own disciplines. But in their roots, they are very related.

Like many fiction writers, you started out by writing short stories. You mentioned that Girl Through Glass had its origins in a short story about a young ballet dancer. How would you compare the process of writing short stories with the process of writing a novel?

Writing short stories is sustainable in sprints, whereas writing novels is a marathon undertaking. For me, the novel demanded a wider range of skills—analytic and associative. Novels are aptly named—each adheres to its own rules, its own logic, they are very elastic. I enjoy the form because it can accommodate multiple dialectics and tensions.

Have you made any particular effort to connect with the ballet community? How do you think members of that community will view the novel?

One of the things that I have been really gratified about is that the ballet community has been so accepting of the novel. I have had dancers and former dancers and “recovering” dancers (my term) tell me that the novel describes their own experience. It’s not a glowing portrait of the ballet world, but it is a one told with love and passion—maybe the passion of a child who can love and be hurt deeply. I think dancers understand that the novel is full of admiration for what they do, as well as what the costs can be.

You very deftly weave the two narratives — Mira’s and Kate’s — together. Was one of them more difficult to write than the other? Did you know where the story was going when you began?

I actually didn’t know where the story was going. I first wrote Mira’s storyline. When I had finished, I realized that the novel wasn’t complete—around the same time, I started writing from this other voice, a 1st person voice, a much older voice, a bit bitter, even angry. I didn’t know who it was at the time. As I wrote her story I realized who she was and how she was connected to Mira. I realized I could use Kate’s story as a frame for ordering Mira’s story; it was only then that I felt I had a book, a novel.

You paint a vivid and accurate picture of 1970s New York City. New York has changed a great deal in the past few decades. What, if anything, has been lost? 

It’s trendy, I guess, to be nostalgic for 1970s New York, but for me it is very specific nostalgia: the nostalgia of the world through a child’s eyes that has been transformed. So it’s a journey into personal memory of a lost childhood world, a New York City of the past—a very frayed urban landscape. But what has been lost? Well, there is a great Edmund White piece about this in The New York Times ; in it he basically says it has to do with the economy and real estate. What is largely lost is the sense of freedom to fail abundantly that the city allowed people at that time—that ecosystem benefited creativity and allowed a certain kind of romanticism around art-making, but at the cost of safety.

How has ballet changed since MIra’s and Kate’s years as young dancers?

Mira’s era was a very specific era, when Balanchine aesthetic was at its very height. I think the playing field is much wider now—there are so many more different types of companies with modern and ballet cross-over. And the conversation about body image and race that is happening around Misty Copeland’s terrific rise is all very exciting and overdue.

Kate finds that the world of academia is, in its own way, as cutthroat and competitive as the world of dance. Can you comment on that?

Yes, that actually surprised me. I’m not in academia, but as I did my research I came to realize that there was an incredible amount of cutthroat competition in that world—especially at Kate’s level. Kate has made it into a pool of very talented and ambitious candidates for which there are not enough permanent positions, which makes her situation very tenuous. Not unlike the hierarchies of the dance world, in which there are very few coveted spots for soloists and principals.

Sari Wilson AP Photo credit Elena SeibertFor generations, little girls have dreamed of becoming ballerinas — and some of them have suffered, physically and emotionally, as they’ve pursued their ambitions. Certain parents (and not just ballet parents) are willing to sacrifice and also to let their children experience physical and emotional harm in the hopes of raising superstars. Adults, like Maurice, can become obsessed with the beauty of ballet. What is it about ballet that inspires such passion?

Maybe it is the kind of innocence that it requires, a kind of passionate innocence and a ungovernable belief in beauty (in the broader Romantic sense, Beauty as in Truth)? There probably will always be something captivating about noble suffering in pursuit of some truth? So much art is about this theme. Ballet displays it in the vernacular of the body and in a kind of nobility of form that can be as hypnotizing as well as destructive. It can contain, I suppose, our best and worst impulses as humans. It holds a mirror up to our inner selves, perhaps.

Thank you, Sari, for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully!

The Most (and Least) Popular Books on the Table Posts of 2015

Happy New Year! I’m writing this blog to keep track of my reading and to encourage me to think more critically about what I read — but also to help bring readers and books together. I love sharing my enthusiasm for books that have found a place in my heart. I thought that looking at my 2015 year-end blog statistics would help me plan informative and engaging posts for 2016.

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgWhen I checked to see which posts received the most views, I was surprised. The #1 post for 2015 is my review of All the Light We Cannot See  (originally posted in March 2014, six weeks before the book came out)– also the #1 post for 2014. Book reviews don’t usually get as much readership as other posts, but I guess that when the book being reviewed is a much-loved Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s a different story.

Just a few page views behind the All the Light We Cannot See review was 10 Spring Paperback Picks, which had double the page views of the #3 post (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories.) I wondered why that post was so popular, with triple the readership of similar posts — 10 Summer Paperback Picks, 10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking — and five times the readership of 10 Summer Paperback Picks –Nonfiction? I thought there had to be some reason that the 10 Spring Paperback Picks post has been so popular throughout the summer, fall, and winter.

I discovered the reason inadvertently when I googled “Girl on the Train paperback” a few days ago. I didn’t find the paperback release date — but I did learn that Books on the Table’s 10 Spring Paperback Picks shows up as one of the first Google hits when those search terms are used. Which should be a good thing, except that readers who click on that link will not find out when The Girl on the Train will come out in paperback. What they will learn is a little bit about how the book industry decides when to release books in paperback and what my favorite summer 2015 paperback recommendations were.

Here are the top 10 posts from 2015, along with my theories about why they were the most popular.

#1: All the Light We Cannot See — Book Review (2014)
Searches for “discussion questions for All the Light We Cannot See”  led hundreds of readers to my book review — I hope they weren’t too unhappy when they found my post didn’t include any questions. I’ve considered including discussion questions in book reviews, but I never have because good discussion guides are usually available on publishers’ websites. Maybe I should include links to those, along with a few extra questions?

Those who wanted to know “what happened to the diamond in All the Light We Cannot See” were definitely disappointed, as was the reader interested in “the best food to serve at All the Light We Cannot See book club meeting”. (I suggest either French or German.)

By the way – if your book club is one of those that only discusses paperbacks, keep in mind that the paperback edition of All the Light We Cannot See is due in October 2016.

9781594633669M#2: 10 Spring Paperback Picks
Everyone is dying to know when The Girl on the Train is coming out in paperback. Keep in mind that the paperback edition of Gone Girl didn’t come out until nearly two years after the hardcover publication — but several months before the movie release. The movie version of The Girl on the Train is scheduled to hit theaters in October 2016.

#3: 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories (2014)
In what may be an age of limited attention spans, are short stories making a comeback? Over the past few years, many top-notch short story collections have been published, and the last two National Book Award winners for fiction have been collections of stories (Redeployment and Fortune Smiles). Or maybe people are bewildered by short stories; Books on the Table statistics show lots of readers wondering “why are short stories worth reading?” and “why do people read short stories?”.

#4: 10 Summer Paperback Picks
People like reading paperbacks in the summer!

9780062359940#5: An Uncomplicated Life — Book Review
One reason this post was so popular is that Paul Daugherty,  the author of An Uncomplicated Life: A Father’s Memoir of His Exceptional Daughter, is a columnist at the Cincinnati Inquirer and he mentioned the review in his blog.  Another reason is that An Uncomplicated Life is a wonderful, inspiring book — don’t miss it! (It’s now out in paperback.) Daugherty’s daughter, Jillian, was married last June; in a letter he wrote to her, published on the website The Mighty, Daugherty said: ” I don’t know what the odds are of a woman born with Down syndrome marrying the love of her life. I only know you’ve beaten them.”

#6: Where They Found Her — Book Review
I’m not sure why this review got the attention it did, except that Where They Found Her is a popular book club selection. Many readers were searching for “Where They Found Her spoilers” — does this mean they hadn’t read the book and their book club meeting was starting in an hour?

Orphan #8#7: Orphan #8 — Author Interview
Kim van Alkemade’s  terrific debut novel, a paperback original, was an Indie Next pick. She provided detailed and thoughtful answers to my questions — but so did Elizabeth Berg, a much better-known author, in a discussion of The Dream Lover a few months earlier, and that interview had very low readership.  Could it be that people were looking for information about Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train (another paperback original), which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years?

#8: 10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking
Clearly, people are always looking for “discussable” books. A glance at search terms shows that they are also trying to find “book club books that are fun not depressing”, “great book club books for couples”, and, surprisingly often, “book club cocktail napkins”.

9780062259301#9: The Story Hour — Book Review (2014)
I loved this book, but I’m surprised the review made it into the top 10 because The Story Hour seems like one of those quiet and lovely books that hasn’t received the acclaim it deserves. All of Thrity Umrigar’s books are well worth reading, but my favorite is The Space Between Us.

#10: Nonfiction November : 10 Favorite Survival Books (2014)
When I’m warm and comfortable on my couch at home, usually with a blanket and a cup of hot tea, I like nothing better than to read about people trapped in the polar ice cap or shivering in a lifeboat. I must not be alone in my reading tastes because I see many searches for ” best nonfiction adventure books”  and “true survival stories”.

And here are three of my favorite posts from 2015 — which, according to the statistics, almost no one read:

Nonrequired Reading
I feel strongly about not forcing children to read books they don’t like. Maybe people disagree and don’t want to tell me? Did the Garfield photo turn people off? Or maybe the title is bad?

Books on the Table Goes to the Movies
Maybe I should stick to writing about books. I recently went to see the Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of Bel Canto (based on Ann Patchett’s book) and considered writing a post called Books on the Table Goes to the 24de28664bdf1f004be5425016536035Opera. It’s probably best I didn’t.

Jazz Age January: West of Sunset & So We Read On
Something has to be in last place — this post ranks #71 out of 71 posts published in 2015 — but this was one of my favorites! Am I the only one who cares about F. Scott Fitzgerald?

I’m interested in what you’d like to see more (or less) of in Books on the Table in 2016. Suggestions, please!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.