Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Sandra Ruttan

In October 2008 Patrick Shawn Bagley interviewed Sandra Ruttan about What Burns Within and The Frailty of Flesh, her novels featuring series characters Nolan, Hart and Tain, and other matters. One exchange:

Your series has dealt with some heavy issues like religious fanaticism, rape and child abuse. How have readers responded?

A few people have been wary about the subject matter, but I haven't received any hate mail or strong complaints. Reviewers seemed to pick up on the sensitivity displayed in dealing with the subject matter of the first book. I don't try to exploit these types of stories for shock value, or just use them to manipulate the reader into caring more. The reality is, cops who are confronted with a murdered or missing child are usually going to find it harder to cope with than the murder of a prostitute. I've dealt with child issues in the books because I had a lot of things I needed to get out of my system after working with abused children.

I think my biggest challenge centers on the fact that I don't try to give easy answers. The conclusion doesn't come wrapped up with a bow on top. The stories center on how the events affect the protagonists, and while other lives are touched on, I don't try to give the "sexually-abused-as-a-child-in-front-of-the-fireplace-so-he-became-a-pyromaniac" answer. In a procedural the focus is more on the evidence than on the psychology, and there's almost a sense of reluctant acceptance on the part of the constables. People commit atrocious acts, and they have to see them with their own eyes. Sometimes it really gets to them, but they have to try to focus on the investigation rather than their feelings. That's a tough thing to do when you're confronted with the body of a four-year-old child, just weeks before Christmas, which is the situation Tain and Ashlyn find themselves in at the beginning of The Frailty of Flesh.
Read the complete Q & A.

See January Magazine's Author Snapshot: Sandra Ruttan.

The Page 69 Test: Suspicious Circumstances.

My Book, The Movie: Suspicious Circumstances.

The Page 69 Test: What Burns Within.

The Page 69 Test: The Frailty of Flesh.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 30, 2009

Beryl Satter

Beryl Satter is the author of Each Mind a Kingdom and the chair of the Department of History at Rutgers University in Newark. From a Q & A about her new book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America:

In the book you dispel many of our commonly held notions about how the black slums were created and the causes of white flight. Can you talk a little about both of those subjects?

Conservatives claim that African Americans simply did not know how to maintain their properties. Liberals instead blame white racism—they argue that if white people hadn’t fled racially changing neighborhoods, today we’d have stable, integrated urban neighborhoods instead of segregated black slums. Both views are incorrect. Urban neighborhoods decayed because of discriminatory FHA policies. Mortgage redlining meant that African Americans were forced to buy from white speculators at grossly inflated prices. If they bought on contract—as was typical in Chicago and many other cities—they knew that they could not miss a payment without losing their homes. Therefore they did whatever it took to make those payments. Husbands and wives both worked. They deferred maintenance. They subdivided their properties, crammed them with tenants, and charged their tenants hefty rents.

Black people made huge sacrifices in order hold on to their homes. But their white neighbors didn’t understand this. They observed black people overcrowding and neglecting their properties. Overcrowded neighborhoods meant overcrowded schools; in Chicago, officials responded by "double-shifting" the students (half attending in the morning, and half in the afternoon). Children were deprived of a full day of schooling and left to fend for themselves in the after-school hours. These conditions helped fuel the rise of gangs, which in turn terrorized shop owners and residents alike. In short, whites fled these neighborhoods not because they were irrational racists but because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools, and crime. They also understood that the longer they stayed, the less their property would be worth. But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving before their properties were paid for in full—if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date.
Read the complete Q & A.

Read an excerpt from Family Properties, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Family Properties.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Rick Steves

Rick Steves has spent 100 days every year since 1973 exploring Europe. His traveler’s library of over 50 best-selling books and videos have sold more than two million copies and his award-winning television series, Rick Steves’ Europe, is now in its seventh season.

From his Q & A with Kevin Berger at Salon.com:

What's the most important thing people can learn from traveling?

A broader perspective. They can see themselves as part of a family of humankind. It's just quite an adjustment to find out that the people who sit on toilets on this planet are the odd ones. Most people squat. You're raised thinking this is the civilized way to go to the bathroom. But it's not. It's the Western way to go to the bathroom. But it's not more civilized than somebody who squats. A man in Afghanistan once told me that a third of this planet eats with spoons and forks, and a third of the planet eats with chopsticks, and a third eats with their fingers. And they're all just as civilized as one another.

Do you think Americans are more provincial or racist than people in other countries?

The "ugly American" thing is associated with how big your country is. There are not just ugly Americans, there are ugly Germans, ugly Japanese, ugly Russians. Big countries tend to be ethnocentric. Americans say the British drive on the "wrong" side of the road. No, they just drive on the other side of the road. That's indicative of somebody who's ethnocentric. But it doesn't stop with Americans. Certain people, if they don't have the opportunity to travel, always think they're the norm. I mean, you can't be Bulgarian and think you're the norm.

It's interesting: A lot of Americans comfort themselves thinking, "Well, everybody wants to be in America because we're the best." But you find that's not true in countries like Norway, Belgium or Bulgaria. I remember a long time ago, I was impressed that my friends in Bulgaria, who lived a bleak existence, wanted to stay there. They wanted their life to be better but they didn't want to abandon their country. That's a very powerful Eureka! moment when you're traveling: to realize that people don't have the American dream. They've got their own dream. And that's not a bad thing. That's a good thing.[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Kevin Roose

From Liz Barry's interview with Kevin Roose, author of The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, in the Lynchburg News & Advance:

What was it like to interview (the late) Jerry Falwell?

It was nerve-wracking. Jerry Falwell, in my family, was sort of like Voldemort. You didn’t say his name if you didn’t have to. But I really wanted to see, “Is this guy as villainous as he appears in the media?” When I got to interview him, I actually found he was a likable guy. I didn’t agree with anything he said, but after meeting him, I understood why he had this huge following and why he had touched so many people’s lives. The Jerry Falwell that most Americans know is not the real Jerry Falwell, at least not the whole Jerry Falwell.

What’s was the most outrageous thing you saw at Liberty?

Probably the most outrageous thing I saw there was the “Every Man’s Battle” group, the group for recovering masturbation addicts. To be fair, most Liberty students that I’ve talked to about that also think it’s ridiculous and can’t believe it exists. I think it’s just one of the things where I have to pinch myself and say, ‘Yeah, I went there and it exists and it still exists and people are still going to it.’

But, you know what, more power to them. To put it in Christian terms, “I’ll let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 27, 2009

Susanne Freidberg

Susanne Freidberg is an associate professor of geography at Dartmouth and the author of a forthcoming book called Fresh: A Perishable History.

From her interview with Stephen Dubner on the Freakonomics blog:

Question: Do you find it odd that you’re doing such compelling food research as a geographer? Please explicate. Do your geography colleagues, e.g., consider you something of a black swan?

Answer: Actually I’m far from alone. Geographers have been at the cutting edge in “food studies” for a while now, and the schedule for the next annual geographers’ meeting, in a couple of weeks, is full of food-related sessions. It makes sense, given the discipline’s traditional strengths in agricultural and trade/marketplace research, and given also that we don’t pay much attention to disciplinary borders. If you want a sense of what else food geographers are up to, look up Julie Guthman’s “Can’t Stomach It: How Michael Pollan et al. Made Me Want to Eat Cheetos” (reprinted in the Utne Reader).

Question: How long have you been interested in food, and in what aspects thereof? Where did this interest come from?

Answer: I got interested in food while doing graduate research in the mid-1990’s on vegetable farming and marketing in Burkina Faso (in West Africa). I was fascinated by how people working under very difficult conditions managed to get very perishable goods to market. I was even more fascinated once I started looking at the country’s export trade in French beans to France. At the time I thought the trade deserved a movie more than a university press monograph, given all the intrigue and colorful characters involved. More generally, what I find most interesting about food (besides eating it) are all the professions, relationships, and technologies that get it to us, and how the economics of food supply are shaped by culture and politics (and vice-versa).

Question: Having only glanced at Fresh thus far, I wonder: is it written much more for a lay audience than your first book? And what are you trying to accomplish/communicate with Fresh?

Answer: Well, I am still hoping someone someday will...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jack Kilborn (aka J.A. Konrath)

J.A. Konrath is best known for his thriller series featuring Chicago Police Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels. His new book, written as Jack Kilborn, is the horror novel Afraid.

From his interview with Greg Swanson at the My Life With Dogs blog:

Joe, there’s quite a contrast between your “Jack Daniels” series and the new Kilborn title AFRAID. When you’re writing, is there a different mind-set between Kilborn and Konrath?

Yes. When I'm Konrath, I'm more playful. I have a great deal of fun writing the Jack Daniels thrillers, and I hope some of that translates to the page.

With Kilborn I try to freak myself out by going places that scare me. I'm pretty sure that also translates to the page, because people who have read AFRAID have cursed me out for giving them nightmares.

Robert Frost said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." That also works for fear. Which means I manage to scare myself a lot.

But for some strange reason, that doesn't work with humor. Maybe because when I think of a joke, it isn't a surprise to me, and humor is very much about surprise, whereas fear is a slow, suspenseful build.

That said, I did laugh aloud a few times writing CHERRY BOMB, all of them concerning the character of Slappy. I think Slappy is the greatest character I've ever written. Just thinking about him cracks me up.
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit JackKilborn.com.

The Page 69 Test: Afraid.

The Page 99 Test: Afraid.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Karin Alvtegen

From a Q & A at Edgar Award-nominee Karin Alvtegen's official website:

How does it feel to write about subjects such as shame, deceit and guilt?

I'm very interested in human psychology. Since I, myself, suffered from a deep depression and panic attacks in 1996, I know from experience how strongly our psyche affects our consciousness and our behaviour. The older I get, and the more I learn, the more I am convinced that we, ourselves, in many respects can affect how we feel by how we choose to think. However, sometimes certain conditions and other things make us loose track and require help.

I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it sometimes feels rough during my writing. I rarely work with depicting surroundings in my texts, but rather always find myself in the mind of the character I'm writing about, and at times that strongly affects me. However, since these books also aim to bring understanding into why my characters feel and act the way they do, I always end up feeling good afterwards. That's when it sometimes feels like I've learned something important.
Read the complete Q & A.

Karin Alvtegen's Missing is on Camilla Läckberg's list of the top 10 Swedish crime novels.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Karen Greenberg

From Scott Horton's Q & A with Karen J. Greenberg, author of The Least Worst Place:

When Gitmo was first opened, Rumsfeld described those interned there as the “worst of the worst.” Roughly two-thirds of those originally detained were actually released by the Bush Administration, and just before the 2006 elections we learned that in fact the “worst of the worst” were not in Gitmo to begin with. What does your study of the first hundred days tell you about the vetting that went on at the outset?

Recent interviews with troops from the early days at Guantanamo confirm that the “worst of the worst” charge was suspect from the very first encounters with the detainees. There wasn’t any reliable vetting. Although the first troops on the ground at Guantanamo were led to believe that they would be receiving the “worst of the worst,” the detainees themselves seemed from the start to be far from the dangerous men they had expected—symbolically, individuals who, according to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, were capable of chewing through hydraulic cables on board the transport planes but who it turned out arrived with rotting teeth and weakened physiques. Overall, the U.S. military was blindsided by who they received at Gitmo and by the condition in which the detainees arrived. Arriving dehydrated, and startingly thin, the detainees were mostly not only small and weak, but did not even speak the languages which the troops on the ground had been told to expect. Many came from countries outside of the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. Some did not even seem capable of any dire acts. Among the earliest arrivals, one was apparently an octogenarian; another was over ninety. One was a diagnosed schizophrenic. However possible the danger quotient of these first arrivals, the inclusion of these cases made the team at Gitmo suspect that the vetting process had been haphazard at best.

Later investigations have shown that most of the detainees were not captured directly by U.S. troops. Instead, the U.S. paid bounties to, or otherwise received the prisoners from, Pakistani boarder guards and Northern Alliance troops. There was no single profile for the detainees; instead they seemed like a ragtag and miscellaneous group. Nor did they arrive with information. The pocket litter that detainees were carrying when captured–materials that trained poice would have carefully preserved and labeled for use during interrogation–came stuffed randomly into bags but was often not separated per individual. Doubts about the identities of the detainees were registered by visiting Congresspersons and by members of the Bush Administration, but these doubts never seemed to go anywhere. Thus began the story of defending a mission that seemed in part fraudulent from the start. As the general in charge has noted in retrospect, it took a petty officer to put a detainee on the plane to Guantanamo and an order signed by the President of the United States to get him out.
Read the complete Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: The Least Worst Place.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 23, 2009

Nicholas L. Syrett

Nicholas L. Syrett is the author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities. From a Q & A at the publisher's website:

Q: What made you want to write The Company He Keeps? Have you ever belonged to a fraternity?

A: I have never belonged to a fraternity. Columbia, the school I attended as an undergrad in the mid '90s, did not have a particularly big Greek scene by the time I was there.

I was interested in writing about fraternities because I was fascinated by examples of groups of men behaving badly, gang rape in particular. It seemed to me that most of the men involved in incidents of gang rape that I read about probably would not have behaved as they did without the influence of others in the group. I ended up trying to answer the question "Where does this behavior come from?" by picking one group of men that participated in such incidents and tracing their history. That's how I settled on fraternities.

Q: Why do you think that this book is particularly timely?

A: It's timely for a number of reasons. The first is that an increasing number of schools of late have been considering either abolishing their Greek systems altogether or forcing fraternities and sororities to go coed. I hope my book can contribute to that conversation. The second reason is that the media continues to report every year on tragic cases of alcohol poisoning in fraternities, hazing gone wrong that results in injury or death, and the sexual assault of women at fraternity parties. My book explores where all of these phenomena come from. The third is that we continue to live in a society in which powerful white men are able to use their connections to forward their careers and interests. Some of those connections have been, and continue to be, forged in college fraternities.

Q: What role has homophobia played in the evolution of fraternities?

A: The short answer is...[read on]
Read more about The Company He Keeps.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mario Acevedo

Marta Acosta, author of the Casa Dracula books, interviewed Mario Acevedo about his latest Felix Gomez adventure, Jailbait Zombie.

Part of the Q & A:

MARTA: You’ve got a new Felix Gomez book coming out with the demure title of Jailbait Zombie. Did you just decide to hop on the underage, reanimated corpse bandwagon?

MARIO: No, the underage, reanimated corpse bandwagon hopped on me.

MARTA: So what’s Felix up to these days? How has he changed since first becoming vampirized and conflicted about drinking human blood?

MARIO: Felix has become a connoisseur of human blood but he’s trying hard not to be a hemoglobin snob. He’s working on a feature for Sunset magazine: Summer Picnic Wine-Blood pairings.

MARTA: You cross genres with your stories. Do you consider yourself primarily a mystery/crime writer, an urban fantasy writer, or a humorist?

MARIO: [read on]
The Page 69 Test: The Nymphos of Rocky Flats.

The Page 69 Test: The Undead Kama Sutra.

The Page 99 Test: Jailbait Zombie.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Paul Escott

From Kerry M. King's interview with Paul Escott, Reynolds Professor of History at Wake Forest University, about his new book 'What Shall We Do with the Negro?': Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America:

Where did the title come from?

It was taken from a headline that appeared in the New York Times in 1862. Once slavery became a target of the Northern war effort, the question arose in all sorts of publications. It was the major question that the war posed for North and South. The title is historically accurate, but it has raised hackles even though it's a quotation from the time. One potential reviewer refused to read the book because he was offended that that question was used in the title.

What was the Times' answer?

The Times was closely connected with the Lincoln administration, so the Times was more important than other newspapers. The Times said that freed slaves should stay in the South, so there would be little change in their status. On voting rights, the Times said it was as bizarre and ridiculous to let slaves vote as it would be to let women and cretins vote.

How would Lincoln have answered the question, what should we do with the slaves?

Earlier in the war, he...[read on]
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bryan Gruley

Bryan Gruley is the Chicago Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal.

His debut mystery is Starvation Lake.

From his Q & A with Julia Buckley:

Bryan, your new book, Starvation Lake, is set in Michigan , which is where you grew up. Is Starvation Lake based on a real place?

There is a Starvation Lake near my parents' cottage in northern lower Michigan. I stole the name, made the lake a lot bigger, and put a town on it. The physical and emotional geography of my novel's setting borrows from that beautiful part of the country, as well as the many small towns I've written about as a journalist.

The mystery immerses the reader in the world of small-town hockey, and the descriptions of hockey practices, hockey games, are some of the most exciting scenes in the book. Do you play hockey?

I've been playing hockey since I learned on backyard rinks in Detroit as a boy. Now I skate two or three times a week at Johnny's Ice House in Chicago 's West Loop. I'm not a very good player, but I play hard and try to keep learning. My pals would probably say I'm not the best student in class.[read on]
Read more about Starvation Lake and visit Bryan Gruley's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is the author of the novels Die a Little, The Song Is You and the 2008 Edgar winner, Queenpin. Her new novel, Bury Me Deep, is due out in July 2009.

From her interview with Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays:

What crime novel would you most like to have written?

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY by Raymond Chandler. Perfectly structured, gains in texture with every read and is filled with luminous strangeness.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?

That’s an interesting question because most of my favourite characters are pretty doomed, so I can’t say I’d like to take their place. I’m going with Ned Beaumont, from THE GLASS KEY. Smart, wily, loyal and a survivor. I’d feel okay in his shoes. Except for that touch of tuberculosis. Second choice: Sammy Glick.[read on]
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Michael Walters

Michael Walters is the author of the Nergui novels — a series of crime thrillers set in modern-day Mongolia described by Maxim Jakubowski in The Guardian as "a worthy new series in the making."

From a Q & A at his publisher's website:

1) Your main character Nergui is quite fascinating. Is he based on someone you know?

That would be telling... But, really, there’s no single person, though elements of Nergui’s personality draw on people that I’ve met over the years, as well as my own imagination. My impression of Nergui is that he’s a survivor who manages to adapt to whatever the world might throw at him while still remaining true to his own moral code — although it’s not always clear to others what that code is. He’s a man with a lot of history and some secrets, which I’m gradually uncovering as I write more about him...

2) Tell us about Doripalam, Nergui’s replacement as head of the Serious Crime Team? What would you say makes him tick?

I was very keen that Doripalam shouldn’t simply be a side-kick to Nergui. He’s a very capable policeman — perhaps more capable in some ways than Nergui — but he’s relatively young and inexperienced in his current role. So he’s learning as he goes, and his insecurities sometimes lead him to over-react or to misjudge situations. He sees Nergui as a mentor, but...[read on]
Read an excerpt from The Adversary and learn more about the book and author at Michael Walters's website and blog.

The Independent described The Shadow Walker, the first book in the Nergui series, as "compulsive reading...[and] the descriptions of Mongolia are richly enjoyable."

The Page 69 Test: The Adversary.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ace Atkins

Devil’s Garden, the new novel by Ace Atkins, centers on a real-life event: the infamous 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal.

For The Rap Sheet, Megan Abbott interviewed Atkins about the novel.

Part of the Q & A:

Megan Abbott: Did you have any hesitations about including Hammett as a character?

Ace Atkins: When I first thought about this project, I knew Hammett was a terrific component of the story. I just could not believe someone had not written about all these 20th-century icons--Hammett, Arbuckle, and Hearst--within a story about the trial. To me it seemed like a great E.L. Doctorow book. But when I got about halfway into the novel, I feared the book would be perceived--by those just looking superficially--as a gimmick, one of those quickie mysteries with a famous figure at the helm. But, what the hell? I mean, Hammett is a great character before he became that icon. Sam Hammett was interesting to me because of what I knew about his life at the time. So I had to get over those fears and just write the damn book.

MA: Did you set any rules for yourself about how faithful to his biography you would be?

AA: I wanted and hoped to be absolutely faithful to Sam Hammett, 1921. I did not want to write Sam Spade, Nick Charles, or The Continental Op. I wanted to write about a young man with a low-paying detective job, who was trying to make sense of a pregnant wife he barely knew and the tidal surge of political and cultural events of the period. I believe it’s an accurate reflection of Hammett’s frustration and boiling ambition at the time. I believe he was just forming a worldview that would eventually make such a huge impact in his literature.
Read the complete interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jana K. Lipman

Jana K. Lipman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Tulane University.

Her new book is Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution. She generously responded to several questions of mine:

Zeringue: For better or worse, many readers really do judge a book by its cover. Would you explain your cover and comment on how it conveys what the reader will find in the pages?

Lipman: The cover image illustrates a member of the US military patting down a Cuban base worker as he is either leaving or entering the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay in 1960 (the year after the Cuban revolution). First, there’s such friction and tension in the photograph. The US man literally has his hands on the Cuban worker, but both are determinedly looking past each other. It seemed to symbolically represent the unequal, yet interconnected, relationship between the two countries. Second, the book is about the base workers and their stories. In one image, the cover captures the awkward and often tense proximity between the US military and the Cuban men and women who worked on the base.

Zeringue: You started your research on the book well before 9/11 and the subsequent creation of the detention facilities at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO). I imagine you must be grateful for the explosion in attention to what goes on at the naval base and the communities around it. But the post-9/11 detentions are a marginal part of your robust history of the local and imported workers on the base. Are you more surprised that relatively few residents of Guantánamo (and other nearby Cuba cities) were interested in the detention of alleged Al Qaeda terrorists at the base, or that relatively few Americans are aware of the history of labor relations at the base?

Lipman: When readers think of “Guantánamo,” most probably think of the iconic images of men in orange jumpsuits and barbed wire cages, and very few know of the Cuban city of Guantánamo. The working-class history of the base demonstrates the long term consequences of US military installations around the world and the unintended consequences for both the United States and local communities. The book explains how and why the US military base in Guantánamo Bay became an enclave, detached from the nearby Cuban community and legal structures. I argue that this isolation enabled the United States to transform the base into a detention camp.

I attribute the relatively few conversations I had with men and women in Guantánamo about the detainees to the lack of contact between the community and the base for more than 50 years. One cannot see the base from the city, yet no one is alive today who can remember a time before the base. I believe that most accept the base as an ongoing reality, but also have distanced themselves from what goes on so close to their homes and families.

Zeringue: One of the many surprising things I learned from your book was that the extensive interaction between GTMO and the local population did not end with the Cuban Revolution but over the 1964 Water Crisis. Given Cold War logic—and paranoia—how do you explain the five year lag between the Revolution and the change in base policy?

Lipman: This is one of the most important points of the book. Most people in the United States and in Cuba have a rigid sense of politics defined “before” and “after” the 1959 Cuban revolution. The fact that Cuban men and women kept working on the base throughout the most volatile years of US-Cuban relations reveals an alternative history. First, it shows that the “revolution” was not defined immediately, but was rather debated and worked out within Cuba. While Fidel Castro eventually consolidated his control over the country, for many men and women in Guantánamo there was no initial inconsistency between being a good revolutionary and being a good base worker.

Second, the lives of working people often display unexpected contradictions in traditional diplomatic history. It moves foreign relations out of the State Department and high level communiqués and into men and women’s daily experiences. When workers were able to weather the initial international hostilities, they became one of the few groups who regularly interacted with both the US and Cuban governments. It wasn’t until 1964 when LBJ over-reacted to a relatively minor crisis that the United States pro-actively fired the majority of Cuban workers. Narrowly, this can be attributed to LBJ’s lack of international policy experience. However, more broadly it conveys how base workers’ stories show a far more dynamic and complex understanding of how “revolution” and “foreign relations” happened on the ground.

Zeringue: I suppose the three most famous personalities associated with Guantánamo and the base must be the eponymous "girl from Guantánamo" in the famous song Guantanamera, Col. Nathan R. Jessep (the fictional character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men), and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ("the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks," according to the 9/11 Commission Report). Much of your history is told in the stories of local workers. If you could add one character from your history to our popular consciousness, who would it be and why?

Lipman: In 1954, Lorenzo Salomón was a Cuban worker who allegedly stole approximately $1500 of cigarettes from the Navy Exchange. Typically when workers were suspected of petty theft, the US remanded them to the local courts in Guantánamo and Santiago. However, in this case, US base officials detained workers on the base for 2 weeks. When he was released, he claimed he had been beaten repeatedly, forced to stand for hours on end, given rotten food, and been severely mistreated. He eventually signed a confession that he had stolen the cigarettes, but added that in order to stop the beatings and go home, he would have confessed to killing Abraham Lincoln as well.

Base workers rallied around Salomón and sharply criticized the United States. They did not defend Salomón as “innocent,” but insisted that Cuban workers did not lose their rights to due process just because they worked on the base. In newsletters and radio bulletins, they went so far as to compare the base intelligence techniques to those used by Germany and the Soviet Union: “We could not conceive that in a naval establishment of the most powerful nation in the world, champion of democracy, things like this could happen.”

When I read these documents in the US National Archive and then the newspaper reports in Cuba, I almost jumped out of my chair. Allegations of torture and unlawful detention resonated so strongly with current events that I was truly shocked. But just as importantly, the base workers themselves were arguing that Cuban men and women did not lose their rights to due process and a fair trial just because they worked on the base. Local labor leaders like Angel Calzado and José Perez Repilado vehemently argued for the rule of law to govern the base and demanded that the US live up to its own democratic principles.

This solidified my belief that base workers were astute international actors. To my knowledge, after this 1954 controversy, the US did not try and detain any other workers on the base. In fact, the US had Lorenzo Salomón prosecuted in Santiago de Cuba, and he eventually ended up serving a 6 month sentence in Cuba. The Salomón case is a key example of how base workers forced the base to be accountable to its workers and the rule of law, and in many ways, eerily anticipated questions about detention and due process that emerged after September 11th.

Zeringue: You've said that the United States ought to close down not only the detention facilities at GTMO but the entire base itself. And yet one might guess from your book that many of the Cubans living around the base would like to see it remain if the Navy returned to past practices and hired locally and participated in the area economy. Is that a fair assessment of local sentiment? Is it possible to have an interdependent, mutually-beneficial relationship between Cubans and the U.S. Navy at Guantánamo, or is the situation an inescapably unjust one?

Lipman: This is a point where I may respectfully disagree with many of the men and women I met. Some might see improved diplomatic relations bringing more jobs, rather than closing the base. Also, as a historian, I spoke mostly with elderly men and women, and I do not have a good sense of how younger Cubans in Guantánamo feel about the base. Furthermore, Cuba’s economic troubles are intense due to both the US embargo and Cuba’s failed economic policies, and I suspect almost any opportunity to earn US dollars would be welcome.

However, the origins of the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay are rooted in 19th century US imperialism, and the base currently serves no military purpose outside extraterritorial detention. The US-Cuba relationship could easily be more productive and would benefit from increased contact and exchange. The US acquired the base through a coercive treaty based on unequal terms, and it has impeded good relations between the US and Cuba since the beginning.

The US naval base in Guantanamo Bay is a symbolic and living site of US empire. The base continues to exhibit the disturbing potential of unchecked power and hinders US foreign policy goals. I maintain that the US should close the naval base in its entirety and end this chapter of its history.
Learn more about Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Michael Morpurgo

A few exchanges from Alice Tozer's interview with Michael Morpurgo in the Financial Times:

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

A line in Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. Obama rings his wife when he gets a bill through the Senate but she replies with a comment about going to the supermarket.

* * *

What book would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, or Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

* * *
What are you most proud of writing?

I have derived the most pleasure from War Horse, because of people’s positive reaction to it, particularly since the play.
Read the complete Q & A.

Michael Morpurgo has published over 100 books including The Butterfly Lion, The Wreck of Zanzibar, Sam's Duck and The War Horse. He was named Britain's Children's Laureate in May 2003.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thomas Cahill

Thomas Cahill is the author of the best-selling books, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, and Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World.

His new book is A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green.

From a Q & A at his website:

Many readers might be surprised by A SAINT ON DEATH ROW: The Story of Dominique Green, since they were expecting your next book to be the sixth installment of your hugely popular series, The Hinges of History™. Who was Dominique Green? What about him and his story compelled you to so significantly alter the long-planned course of your work?

Dominique Green was a young man who spent twelve years on Texas Death Row before being executed. I met him only a year before his death—in Polunsky Unit, Livingston, the antipathetic Death Row facility that stands about an hour outside Houston—but he so impressed me as a remarkable human being that I could not get him out of my thoughts. My first encounter and my subsequent experience of knowing him made such an impact on me that I felt I had no choice but to write a book about him.

How did you come to befriend Dominique? After all, most historians don't find themselves visiting death row very often.

A friend of mine, Sheila Murphy, a retired judge from Chicago, was helping with Dominique's legal appeals. She knew I was going to be in Houston just before Christmas 2003 and she urged me to visit Dominque while I was there.

Did you have an opinion about death row and the death penalty before you visited Dominique? Were your feelings changed by the visit? [read on]
Read Cahill's list of six great works about justice and injustice.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo is the author of Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa.

From her Q & A with Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine:

You argue in your book that Western aid to Africa has not only perpetuated poverty but also worsened it, and you are perhaps the first African to request in book form that all development aid be halted within five years.

Think about it this way — China has 1.3 billion people, only 300 million of whom live like us, if you will, with Western living standards. There are a billion Chinese who are living in substandard conditions. Do you know anybody who feels sorry for China? Nobody.

Maybe that’s because they have so much money that we here in the U.S. are begging the Chinese for loans.

Forty years ago, China was poorer than many African countries. Yes, they have money today, but where did that money come from? They built that, they worked very hard to create a situation where they are not dependent on aid.

What do you think has held back Africans?

I believe it’s largely aid. You get the corruption — historically, leaders have stolen the money without penalty — and you get the dependency, which kills entrepreneurship. You also disenfranchise African citizens, because the government is beholden to foreign donors and not accountable to its people.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lisa Lutz

Lisa Lutz's third Spellman book, Revenge of the Spellmans (Simon & Schuster), is now in bookstores.

From her Author Snapshot at January Magazine:

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?

Work attire. I’ve always wanted a job where you can wear pajamas all day.

What’s the most difficult?

Touring. More specifically, the travelling/sleep deprivation part of book tours and the not-wearing-pajamas part.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?

Are your novels autobiographical? (My mom likes to ask that question whenever she’s at a reading.)

What’s the question you’d like to be asked? [read on]
The Page 99 Test: The Spellman Files.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Eve Pell

Eve Pell is the author of We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante.

From her interview with Frances Dinkelspiel:

How and why did you decide to write a memoir? Your book takes a critical look at upper class life with its emphasis on looks, club life, and social order at all cost. How did you family react to these revelations? Do any of them still embrace the lifestyle you lived as a child?

First off, I am a writer and that's what we do. I've been keeping notes about my family for 30 years or more--conversations, scenes, feelings.... Members of my family reacted very differently while I was working on the book: some were sympathetic and supportive. My Aunt Goody, for example, told me many stories and years before had started writing a critical book with the great title "The Sting of the Wasp" (which was never published). My father, on the other hand, hated my attitudes and though he did not live to see the book published or even read it, he didn't speak to me for years and, though he didn't tell me about it, disinherited me for writing about the family and its values.

Some of my relatives share my feelings; others, I suspect, feel that I have revealed too much-- but in good WASP style they button their lips....None of them can afford that lifestyle any more and they all pretty much have to WORK, shocking as that may be.

How did you research this book? How did you uncover new information about your family, such as the shocking news that one of your forbearers actually held a job and made a fortune in the grubby oil fields of California? What kind of documentation did you find?

For many years, I went to libraries from Boston to San Francisco seeking out genealogical and historical material. I interviewed those relatives and family friends who would talk, but not...[read on].
Read more about We Used to Own the Bronx.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Philipp Meyer

For the Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg interviewed Philipp Meyer about his new novel, American Rust.

Trachtenberg's introduction and the first exchange:

In a hardboiled debut novel that seems particularly apt during the financial crisis, Philipp Meyer sets "American Rust" in Buell, Pa., a once-proud steel town in the Monongahela Valley. Two unlikely friends are trapped in the town. Billy Poe is a former high school football star whose life is already marked by regret. The other, brainy Isaac English, could have followed his older sister to a top school, but instead stayed at home to care for his ailing father. Then, as he is finally fleeing, a chance meeting results in a brutal crime that changes the lives of everyone he knows. Mr. Meyer, 34 years old, lives outside Ithaca, N.Y. Such well-regarded novelists as Pete Dexter and George Pelecanos have publicly praised "American Rust." Spiegel & Grau, which publishes Mr. Meyer, has printed 15,000 copies, a good commitment for an author's first book in this economic climate.

WSJ: Is there a class element to violence? Poe led a violent life prior to the murder that kicks off the book.

Mr. Meyer: In my mind Poe and Isaac represented my two sides while growing up. One was a bookish kid; my parents were artists and recovering hippies. We moved to a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore where unemployment was really high. Someone was nearly beaten to death in front of our house and there were always cops and ambulances on the street. I grew up getting in fights and running from fights. But inside the house my parents listened to classical music. The poor are generally the ones shooting and stabbing each other. It makes the news when a rich kid is involved.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 9, 2009

Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney's new book is Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object.

She is also the author of Reading with Oprah: The Book Club that Changed America, now in its second edition, as well as the poetry collections Oneiromance (An Epithalamion), Something Really Wonderful, and That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness, the latter two written collaboratively with Elisa Gabbert. Her essay “Live Nude Girl” was selected for Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers.

From a Q & A at her publisher's website:

How did you begin to work as an artists' model? Do you still do it?

The really detailed answer to this question is in the book, but briefly: I was living in DC at the time, finishing up my last year of undergrad, and I had had a decent part time job in an art gallery that abruptly came to an end. I needed to find another job quickly. A friend of mine who had been working with me at the gallery, and who had also learned that her job would be disappearing, came over for lunch and we sat there eating peanut butter sandwiches and paging through the classifieds of the City Paper. (Isn’t that strange? Looking for a job in the newspaper? This was just slightly before such sites as Craigslist became a Big Deal.) I saw this ad that said “BE A PART OF ART” calling for nude models at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Georgetown, and dared my friend to call and then she double-dared me back so I called them up right then and within just a few days I was standing in a studio taking my clothes off in front of 20 complete strangers.

At the moment, since I a now have a “real job” in the traditional 9-to-5 sense, I do not have a lot of time to work as an artists’ model anymore. It’s been a little over a year since the last time I posed, and I have to say that I really miss it.

When people find out that you work as an artists' model, how do they react? How do your friends and family feel about it?

I try not to make a big deal over that part of my life (I mean, aside from writing a book about it), particularly at...[read on]
The Page 99 Test: Live Nude Girl.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Aravind Adiga

Last fall the Independent facilitated a Q & A between some of its readers and Booker prize-winning author Aravind Adiga. A couple of the exchanges:

You studied under Simon Schama in the US. Did he offer you any memorable advice about writing? Stephen Parkinson, Basingstoke

Schama was a terrific teacher. He made us read several authors whom I've never forgotten: Jules Michelet and Roberto Calasso, for instance. But the best advice I got about writing came not from him but from a friend (who claimed that he got it from the American author Richard Ford): If you want to make a living as a writer, young man, remember to marry well. (I haven't followed it, alas.)

Arundhati Roy was a compatriot of yours who like you won the Booker with her debut novel, and she has not written another in over 10 years. Could the same thing happen to you? Tim Blake, Brighton

A book of short stories that I wrote before The White Tiger – called Between the Assassinations – has just been published in India, and will come out in the United Kingdom next year. I'm working on another manuscript as well. The odds are good that you'll be asking the next Indian-born Booker winner, "Will you keep bombarding us like the last chap, or leave us in peace for a while?"
Read more of the Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: The White Tiger.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Valerie Laken

Valerie Laken's work has appeared in Ploughshares, the Chicago Tribune, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Alaska Quarterly Review, the Antioch Review, and Meridian. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, two Hopwood Awards, and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where she teaches creative writing.

Her new novel, Dream House, was inspired by her own experience buying and remodeling a home in which a murder had occurred.

From Laken's Q & A with Bobby Tanzilo of OnMilwaukee.com:

OMC: Did you write "Dream House" here?

VL: I started "Dream House" in Ann Arbor but finished it here. The novel tells the story of a young couple whose lives are upended when they discover that the historic fixer-upper they've just bought was once the site of a gruesome murder. The book interweaves their story with the story of the man who committed the murder and has recently been released from prison. It turns out that he actually grew up in the house and is devastated by the fact that his family lost the house after he was incarcerated.

The truth is, the basic kernel of the novel is based on what actually happened to my husband and me: We bought a hideously decrepit old house in downtown Ann Arbor while I was in grad school, and two weeks after we moved in, a neighbor came over and told us that a murder had occurred in the home.

The rest of the novel is fiction, but the house in the novel is a pretty close representation of the house we were actually living in while I wrote it, and sometimes I felt a bit claustrophobic living in that house both in real life and in the imaginative space of all my writing hours.

Part of me had really hoped to finish the novel before we sold the house and moved on, but the truth is that once we moved out of the house and to Milwaukee the novel became much more easy to write. There's something about getting away from the true source of any story that liberates your imagination. So I don't think the book would have been the same had I stayed in Ann Arbor to finish it.
Read the complete interview.

The Page 69 Test: Dream House.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ian McEwan

Last year Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic spoke with Ian McEwan "about letting go, growing up, and why atheists need to speak out."

The Q & A opens:

Was it hard to watch Atonement be adapted to film by other people? Did you feel possessive?

I'm fairly used to the process. I think this is the fifth or sixth of my stories or novels that have been made into films. I'm sure I'd be possessive if I allowed myself to get involved in the writing of the script. There's a lot to be said for not doing that. I did it once with The Innocent and John Schlesinger, and it was a fairly difficult process because everyone--the director, the designers, actors, everyone--had their own ideas and came piling in. And you are suddenly knocked off your perch as the God in this machine. It is better to have someone take a free run at it. But I can't quite walk away, so I like to stay involved. I like film sets, and I enjoy the collaborative process. I'm not sure if I had the worst of both worlds or the best.

One of the great things about the book is the way you get inside the head of Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl. Were you worried that film is a medium in which it is harder to get inside a character's head?

Well, it is impossible for a movie to give you what a novel can give you, which is the flavor of rolling thoughts and consciousness. But you have to do the best with what you've got, which with movies is a high dependence on actors to somehow let us feel the illusion that we can follow a thought process. And I think the casting of Briony with Saoirse Ronan was really astute. She is a very watchful girl, a completely intuitive young actress.
Read the complete interview.

Atonement made John Mullan's lists of ten of the best identical twins in fiction and the ten best weddings in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sean Doolittle

Edgar Award nominee Tom Piccirilli interviewed Sean Doolittle about his new novel, Safer.

The Q & A opens:

PIC: SAFER is a grabber of a suspense novel that falls into the "dealing with a deranged neighbor" sub-genre. Why did you make the jump from crime to suspense?

SD: This will sound coy but it really wasn't a calculated move. If anything I saw it not so much a jump in subgenre as a jump in fictional property taxes. The main characters in Safer live in a different neighborhood than the main characters in my other books. They all have college degrees and kids and SUVs and lawns--which, frankly, is probably the closest I've come so far to "write what you know." The truth is I'm much closer to a suburban English teacher than I am to an arsonist or a cop.

During the writing, did the career-minded, strategy-conscious lizard part of my brain ever think, "Hey, maybe a larger percentage of the book-buying public will relate to this suburban setting and maybe reach for this one?" Hell yeah. But it was never the first thought. The first thought is always, always, "Write a book I'd want to read."

PIC: What's the biggest difference between the crime and suspense forms for you? Or is there any?

SD: That's a good question. All the books revolve around crime and I'm always going for suspense, knowing no other way to keep reader turning pages, but you're right, there is a different feel. I could try and come up with a theory, but then we'd sit around and quickly think up two dozen different books that blow my little theory out of the water. I dunno. . .I guess I personally think of "crime fiction" as ice cream, with "suspense" and "mystery" and "thriller" all being flavors. But I'm wrong about all sorts of things.

Read the complete Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Safer.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Mary Cappello

Mary Cappello is a regular contributor to the world of literary nonfiction and experimental prose. She is the author of Night Bloom: An Italian/American Life (Beacon Press), and most recently, the Los Angeles Times bestselling book-length essay on “awkwardness,” Awkward: A Detour (Bellevue Literary Press). Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and Extraction in the Age of Chevalier Jackson will appear from The New Press in 2010, and Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, is coming out with Alyson Books this October.

From a Q & A about Awkward: A Detour:

Can you give some examples of the kind of awkwardness you are talking about?

The book treats everything from ontological discomfort to situational silence. It looks at tactlessness, stuttering, awkward go-betweens, awkward aesthetics, awkward diplomats, to name a few. It looks at the way awkwardness figures in the life and work of artists like Emily Dickinson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Henry James. It considers the awkwardness that is the result of our desperate attempts to control chaos or our futile attempts to order things when they insist on falling apart. The awkwardness of escaping feeling: you might try to numb yourself, but you’re left with a feeling, and the “feeling” is a feeling of awkwardness. One of my personal favorite sections of the book—because I couldn’t have told in advance that awkwardness would take me to it—deals with precociousness and prodigiousnesss: the awkwardness ascribed to children who know more than their child bodies or child minds are allowed to contain.

In a way, I think there’s something for everyone in this book: I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me when I say I’ve written a book about awkwardness: “That must be a book about me!” It seems that many people experience themselves as awkward but don’t admit it. Or don’t have a way to proudly claim it. For those people, I’ve manufactured “awkward” t-shirts.

On the other hand, the book isn’t for everyone because it situates awkwardness in ways that I think we don’t typically see it discussed.

I realize my description of the book may make it sound as though it’s an encyclopedic compendium of awkwardness, but it’s really not that. There are a few central themes that become more amplified, more voluble in the course of the book’s orchestration. I think of them as ever more “voluble returns,” as though the book is a vibration, and the circle of each of these themes widens or narrows depending on where it occurs in the book.
Read the complete Q & A.

Learn more about the author and her work at Mary Cappello's website.

Writers Read: Mary Cappello.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

T. C. Boyle

From Cameron Martin's interview with T. C. Boyle at The Barnes & Noble Review:

The Barnes & Noble Review: You've written several works of historical fiction, including The Road to Wellville (about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg), The Inner Circle (Alfred Kinsey), and now The Women, about the wives and mistresses of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. How much do you think readers are helped or hindered by advance knowledge of the historical figures they encounter in fiction, be it yours or others? What books of historical fiction, written by other authors, have left the biggest impression on you? And why?

T. C. Boyle: I don't subscribe to the notion that history is made by the generals and potentates, or certainly not exclusively. What interests me are the passionate oddballs whose obsessions play down through the generations, deciding what we eat (in Kellogg's case, cornflakes), codifying and thus liberating our sexual practices (Kinsey), and inventing a new sort of structure for us to inhabit (Wright). All three men were great egomaniacs (much like a few novelists I know), who created great and enduring things but at the same time, as classic narcissists, did not see or regard others except as they fit into their schemes. As far as readers' impressions of these figures go, I would think that they will be surprised by the intimate and individual take on them in my novels -- in The Women, for instance, we see Frank Lloyd Wright through the points of view of his three wives and mistress, as well as through the lens of one of his acolytes, Tadashi Sato, who, as it turns out, has written the book as a memoir of his master. Of course, in fiction there are no rules, and so one can violate historical reality if he likes -- see Philip Roth's The Plot Against America -- but in my case I've chosen to hold true to the history because the history in itself is so oddly fascinating. Not to mention hilarious and just a bit, well, sticky. Books of historical fiction that have held me spellbound include a number of works by E.L. Doctorow, especially Welcome to Hard Times and Ragtime, Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum, John Barth's The Sot-weed Factor, Robert Coover's The Public Burning and many, many others. Why? Because of their subversive reimagining of the received notions about our history, which, of course, is a kind of fiction in any case.
Read the complete Q & A.

Learn more about T. C. Boyle's The Women.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, March 2, 2009

Peter Singer

Peter Singer is an animal-rights activist, philosopher, and bioethics professor at Princeton University.

For the Wall Street Journal, he answered some questions from Alexandra Alter about his new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, including:

The Wall Street Journal: What's your biggest moral shortcoming?

Peter Singer: I don't go as far as I think I might in what I'm able to give.

How much do you give?

I give a third of my income to Oxfam and other organizations working in the field. I still feel that, as comfortably off as I am, I should be giving more. We still take family vacations to nice places. We could spend time somewhere less expensive. Also, I'm still prepared to have a bottle of wine or go to the theater or to some kind of concert. If you think about what that money can do for people in extreme poverty, it's hard to justify that type of spending.

You claim that allowing poor people to suffer and die while we spend money on unnecessary things is the same as letting a child drown because you don't want to ruin new shoes or be late for work. Isn't that analogy slightly off, since you also note that one of the reasons most of us don't give money to poor people in developing countries is that we are so removed from their suffering?

The question I raise in the book is....[read on]
Read more about The Life You Can Save.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Patrick Somerville

Patrick Somerville's first book of stories, Trouble, was published by Vintage Books in September of 2006. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, EPOCH, GQ, The Barcelona Review, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007.

His debut novel, The Cradle, hits bookstores on March 9th.

From Somerville's June 2007 with Bookslut:

How do you feel about writing sex scenes, and how do you handle it?

My basic approach to writing sex scenes so far has been to write, “They fucked,” or some variation of the same thing, and to be done with it. Which is cheap. Like most writers, I’m a little afraid of writing sex scenes, only because, like sex itself, the whole mood can go so wrong, so fast, with just one misstep. Fiction is an illusion you don’t want to be jolted out of, and I think that readers are paying extra attention when anything sexual is happening. The stakes are much higher, as are the chances of really bombing. I remember reading an airport-book by Ken Follett, who is usually pretty good, about five years ago, and I remember the female protagonist looking at her love interest’s crotch and imagining the “fire hose” inside of his pants. There goes everything. It was a good demonstration of how an inopportune metaphor can destroy about twenty-five pages of story in either direction, just because it was so bad, and drew so much attention to itself, and was so not sexy. Suddenly you’re sitting in an airport terminal, holding a book, thinking about the dude who wrote it and why he made this error rather than continuing to be immersed in the story.

My teacher Stephanie Vaughn always used to note the moments when people opted out of writing sex scenes and challenge them to at least think about why they’d done so. She called it the Victorian Curtain lowering down over the story. I think the basic idea is that drama comes from conflict and confrontation, and if two of your characters are having sex, that’s certainly a confrontation. The fear of getting it wrong is usually not enough of a reason to insert a section break and start up again when everyone’s smoking cigarettes.
Read the complete interview.

Learn more about The Cradle.

The Page 69 Test: The Cradle.