Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin is a writer and lawyer currently living with her family in Seattle, WA. Most recently, she worked as a litigator in the New York and London offices of a corporate law firm but now devotes herself full-time to writing fiction.

Her recently released debut novel is The House Girl.

From Conklin's interview with NPR's Rachel Martin:

On the 19th-century character Josephine Bell and the 21st-century character Lina Sparrow

Conklin: Josephine is a house slave on a failing tobacco farm in Virginia and she's an artist. She's running from the circumstances of her enslavement, basically, from her master, whom she calls Mister, and her mistress, whom she calls Mrs. Lu ... [Lina's] job is to find a lead plaintiff to lead this slavery reparations lawsuit that her law firm has decided to take on as sort of a special project for a big client of theirs. And so her role is to find a face for the lawsuit — a descendant of an American slave who can speak to the nature of the harm, in lawyer-speak, who can sort of represent this massive, really, you know, unimaginable harm that was slavery in America.

On how her novel addresses revisionist history

Conklin: As I was doing the research, you know, I read a lot of slave narratives, and the thing that just struck me is that, you know, 250 years of slavery and there are so few accounts of what their lives were actually like. And I started thinking a lot about who writes history, and what are the voices that we don't hear, and so that was one of the influences that went into me setting up that situation where [Josephine's mistress] Lu Anne Bell takes credit for Josephine's art and then, over the years, over the decades, Lu Anne achieves a fair amount of fame when, in fact, Josephine was...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Tara Conklin's website.

The Page 69 Test: The House Girl.

Writers Read: Tara Conklin.

My Book, The Movie: The House Girl.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 29, 2013

Adrian Raine

Adrian Raine is the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and a leading authority on the biology of violence. After leaving secondary school to become an airline accountant, he abandoned his financial career and spent four years as a prison psychologist to understand why some individuals become violent psychopaths while others do not.  His new book is The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime.

From Raine's Q & A with Maia Szalavitz for Time:

Are there differences between criminals who commit impulsive acts of violence and those who plot and plan, as in the Boston [Marathon bombing] case?

There’s a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is the seat of emotion. We find that part of brain to be structurally and functionally impaired in those people who will go out and lack remorse and empathy and use violence, [such as we see with] the more predatory, cold-blooded psychopaths. They know what they are doing and that it potentially could lead to someone being killed, but they don’t have those feelings that hold the rest of us back.

In contrast, with the more hot-blooded [types], we think it’s the other way around. Emotions are running out of control and the amygdala is overly responsive to mildly provocative stimuli. They lack the prefrontal regulatory control. The prefrontal cortex is right above the eyes, just behind the forehead and it’s involved in planning and regulating and controlling behavior. We think the more hot-blooded [types] are lacking the normal regulatory control of the prefrontal cortex and that’s why they act out impulsively.

Many people are concerned about focusing on the biology of violence, given historical abuse of such research. What do you say to these critics?

You can go back to the Holocaust. We can recognize the bad use made of biological research, which fueled disastrous social policies, and focus on the dark nightmare. It makes people skittish and you have to recognize and realize that and say we need safeguards on how this research is used and that has to be uppermost in everyone’s mind.

But the counter side is...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s latest book is Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories.

From her Q & A with Powells:

What fictional character would you like to date, and why?

I'd like to date Bone from Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone. Provided that I, too, were 14 years old — it would be a little Mary Kay Letourneau to date him now, at age 31. Maybe Russell Banks will write a sequel where Bone is an adult man on a Jamaican schooner and suitable as an imaginary love interest? Because I love that character. His put-on swagger and his anger and his complete vulnerability.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?

For several years I worked as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic in New York City, a job I really loved and repeatedly failed at. At first I'd considered training as a vet tech, before it was revealed to me that none of my love for animals was translating into skill with animals or knowledge of their organ systems. "Don't feed your rabbit for 12 hours before the surgery," I'd blithely tell our clients, and then, remembering that this instruction was for cats, not rabbits, and that in fact I'd just given life-endangering instructions to the owner of Mister Flopper, I'd have to...[read on]
Noah Charney also interviewed Russell for The Daily Beast.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is also Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University, and a fellow of the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He won the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics.

From his Q & A with Jesse Singal for The Daily Beast:

It seems like overconfidence is one of the big targets of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Unfortunately, there’s some evidence that people are more drawn to those who exhibit this tendency, even when it isn’t warranted (such as political prognosticators). How do we get around our ingrained tendencies to be attracted to those who loudly proclaim easy answers?

This is most difficult where it matters the most, in running a democracy. People like leaders who look like they are dominant, optimistic, friendly to their friends, and quick on the trigger when it comes to enemies. They like boldness and despise the appearance of timidity and protracted doubt. Here, the hope for the selection of qualified leaders is in serious and critical media, but the incentives of popular media favor mirroring the preferences of the public, however misguided.

Prospects are quite a bit better for the selection of good leaders in organizations. In business enterprises as well as in politics, the more assertive and confident individuals have a big advantage, especially if they are also lucky and achieve a few early successes. But organizations are better placed to evaluate people by substantive achievements and by their contributions to the conversation. They can apply slow thinking to the selection of leaders, and they should.

Do you see any resistance to the ideas in Thinking, Fast and Slow from people who don’t want to acknowledge how error-prone the human brain can be under certain circumstances?

Amos Tversky and I encountered this kind of resistance to our early work, which was focused mostly on errors of judgment, rather than on intelligent performance. Some people chose to infer that we believed humans to be...[read on]
Learn about Kahneman's favorite experiment that demonstrates our blindness to our own blindness.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 26, 2013

Jessica Soffer

Liz Moore interviewed Jessica Soffer for Tottenville Review about Soffer's new novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots. The start of the Q & A:


In your novel you write about food with a sense of nostalgia and warmth and fondness. It seems like the antidote to suffering. Do you have your own fond, familial memories of food? If so, what are they?


I come from a long line of people who believe in the curative powers of food. My father was born in Baghdad, Iraq in the 1920s and his mother was a healer. She believed in eating for one’s well-being, to strengthen and fortify and enrich the body by eating particular things. Iraqi Jews of that time also believed in eating by color: yellow fruits and vegetables for happiness, rose petals for love, shunning black and unlucky foods, such as the skin of eggplants. When my father came to the United States, he was forced to abandon his family, his Jewish faith, his national pride, and so food and the flavors of his childhood were the way he reestablished a home in New York, by replicating his mother’s recipes.

Growing up, the smell of his cooking is my strongest memory: of cumin and cardamom and cloves. There was nothing processed in our home: no sandwich meats or soda or chips or, heaven forbid, gummy fruit snacks. There was no cough syrup during cold season. There was ginger and garlic and terribly smelly teas. Notions of how to properly nourish the body were innate to him: drinking room temperature liquids to avoid shocking the system, well-spiced stews to warm the limbs, and lots of citrus to cleanse were things that he did intuitively, without fanfare or explanation—and how I learned to eat, and live. In a way, the two are inextricable: we eat in order to live. It’s the most obvious thing in the world. And yet, I think that a childhood like mine, with such emphasis placed on eating for one’s well-being is likely to turn out a person particularly attuned to...[read on]
Visit Jessica Soffer's website.

Writers Read: Jessica Soffer.

My Book, The Movie: Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Christina Baker Kline

From Christina Baker Kline's interview with Roxana Robinson about Kline's new novel, Orphan Train:

RR: Could you talk about how this book started – what gave you the idea for it?

CBK: About a decade ago, visiting my in-laws in North Dakota, I came across a nonfiction book printed by the Fort Seward Historical Society called Century of Stories, 1883-1983: Jamestown and Stutsman County. In it was an article titled “They called it ‘Orphan Train’ – and it proved there was a home for many children on prairie.” My husband’s grandfather, Frank Robertson, and his siblings featured prominently in the story. This was news to me – I’d never heard of the orphan trains. In the course of researching this family lore I found out that though orphan trains did, in fact, stop in Jamestown, N.D., and orphans from those trains were adopted there, the Robertson clan came from Missouri. But my interest was piqued, and I knew I wanted to learn more about this little-known period in American history.

RR: What was it that was most compelling to you about the idea of an orphan train?

CBK: I think I was drawn to the orphan train story in part because two of my own grandparents were orphans who spoke little about their early lives. As a novelist I’ve always been fascinated with how people tell the stories of their lives and what those stories reveal – intentionally or not – about who they are. I’m intrigued by the spaces between words, the silences that conceal long-kept secrets, the elisions that belie surface appearance.

My own background is partly Irish, and so I decided that I wanted to write about an Irish girl who has kept silent about the circumstances that led her to the orphan train. I wanted to...[read on]
Learn more about Christina Baker Kline's work at her website.

The Page 69 Test: Bird in Hand.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Christina Baker Kline & Lucy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan's books include In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and the newly released Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

From Pollan's Q & A with Rachel Khong in The Daily Beast:

Is the way we’re eating going to bring about end of the world?

The way we eat now is having a profound effect on climate change, which certainly threatens to bring about the end of the world as we’ve known it.

For better and worse, the industrial food system has made food very cheap. The poor can eat a better diet than they once could. It used to be that only the rich could eat meat every day of the week. Now just about everyone can, three meals a day. Fast-food chains make it easy. It’s not very good meat, and most of it is brutally produced, but it is within reach.

But meat has a tremendous carbon footprint: beef in particular because it takes so much grain to get a pound of beef. It takes about 15 pounds of grain to get 1 one pound of beef, and that grain takes tremendous amounts of fossil fuel—in the form of fertilizer, pesticide, farm equipment, processing, and transportation. All told, it takes 55 calories of fossil-fuel energy to get one calorie of beef. The average for processed foods is 10 calories of fossil fuel per calorie of food.

Before World War II every calorie of fossil-fuel energy put into a farm—in the form of diesel energy for tractors, and in fertilizer—yielded 2.3 calories of food. That’s nature’s free lunch—the difference between that 1 calorie in and the 2.3 out, which is the result of solar energy. Now, it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food. It’s absurd that we’re now running an energy deficit with food, the production of which is theoretically based on photosynthesis. It should be the one area in our lives that is carbon neutral or even better, because plants are really the only way to take energy from the sun.

Our goal should be to eat from the solar food chain to the extent we can and not from the fossil-fuel chain, which is...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes's latest novel is The Mystery of Mercy Close.

From her Q & A with at the Guardian:

You wrote your latest book, The Mystery of Mercy Close, in the grip of what you have previously described as a nervous breakdown. Does it feel miraculous that it got written at all?

It does. I'm amazed. I really, really thought I'd never be able to write again. I had long months of catatonic, unable-to-get-out-of-bedness and then long months of this incredible fear, in the grip of panic. So the book was written very peculiarly. There was no steadiness to it. It took much longer than anything else I've written … I veered off into making cakes for about a year. I was wondering quite seriously: "Could baking be my job?" And I'm still not 100% so anything I managed to produce is a miracle.

It must have been terrifying to feel like that...

I've always been prone to depression, and I've been very public about my alcoholism even though I haven't had a drink in 19 years. I thought because I was addressing my issues on a daily basis I wouldn't be one of those people who suddenly blew, but I did. I can still feel the fear. It was very primal. It wasn't anxiety – I was terrified and everything looked different. It felt like I'd landed on another planet and it was horrific. I was just so frightened all the time. But all I was diagnosed with was...[read on]
Learn about Keyes's heroine from outside literature.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 22, 2013

Michael Suk-Young Chwe

From an interview with UCLA political science professor Michael Suk-Young Chwe about his new book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist:

How did you get interested in Jane Austen?

I saw the movie Clueless (with Alicia Silverstone) with my kids a while ago (incidentally, the film includes a scene nearby our house), and Clueless was based on Austen's Emma. When I read Emma, I was surprised to see how much game-theoretic reasoning Austen engaged in. I then read the other novels and began to see how Austen developed a theory of strategic thinking: how people take actions anticipating the actions of others.

What do you mean exactly by strategic thinking?

For example, at the very beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet sends her daughter Jane off to Netherfield on horseback because she anticipates that because of the rain, Mr. Bingley and Caroline will ask Jane to stay all night, thus increasing Jane's acquaintance with Mr. Bingley. Mrs. Bennet takes an action (having Jane go on horseback) anticipating the action of the Bingleys (they will ask Jane to stay). Strategic thinking is the essence of manipulation, and indeed Elizabeth Bennet calls her mother's action a "good scheme."

Austen's novels are full of manipulation and scheming, aren't they?

Yes, in fact there are over fifty strategic manipulations specifically called "schemes" in her novels. Austen is obsessed with...[read on]
Listen to the interview.

Visit the Jane Austen, Game Theorist website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Katharine Weber

Katharine Weber’s novels include Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, The Music Lesson, The Little Women, Triangle, and True Confections.

From a Q & A about her memoir, The Memory Of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family's Legacy of Infidelities, with Caroline Leavitt:

[The Memory Of All That] defies labeling--though it's the story of your family, it's also the story of so many other things, so you can't really call it a traditional memoir. Can you talk about how you stretched and changed the boundaries of the genre?

The book really isn't a traditional memoir, is it? It is not my story in any complete or historical sense. It is my sensibility and my awareness of this vast cast of characters in my family, starting with my mother and father, but it is certainly not the story of my life in a traditional sense. At the same time, even though there is a great deal you won't learn about me from this book, in some essential ways, it really is very intimate and personal. These are my people, and these are my experiences of my people, and here is more of their story which I have researched in the writing of the book. So in a certain sense, it is a researched group biography hybridized with a very personal memoir strategy. Is that stretching and changing the boundaries of the genre? I had no idea I was writing the book this way when I set out to do it. Though I did want to use my father's enormous FBI file as an organizing element with the contrast between my memories of childhood in contrast to the FBI 's way of telling the same story about my family. I thought the book would be much more about the ways we tell our stories.

How would you say writing this book changed you? Did anything surprise you? Did you have something in mind and then the book took on a life of its own?

I do think writing this book changed me, and in some unexpected ways. For one thing, it really expanded my capabilities as a writer in some practical ways. I knew how to write a novel, or at lest, after five novels I knew how to teach myself how to write each of those novels and will know how to teach myself to write the next novel, and the next. But I didn't know how to write a book like this, a book based entirely on actual people and actual events, an amalgamation of what I experienced and remembered about them, what I knew about them, and what I discovered as I researched these many very different family members and their stories. I kept getting deep into the material and losing my perspective, feeling that every tiny fact and discovery had equal value and weight for the story, which wasn't the case.

If I had been writing fiction, I would have...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Katharine Weber's website.

The Page 99 Test: Triangle.

Writers Read: Katharine Weber.

The Page 69 Test: True Confections.

The Page 99 Test: The Memory of All That.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Megan Marshall

Megan Marshall's latest book is Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.

From a Q & A about the book at the author's website:

What’s new in Margaret Fuller: A New American Life?

Margaret Fuller’s life story is as dramatic and inspiring as any I can think of–she was a brilliant thinker and writer, the comrade of Emerson and Thoreau, a pioneering journalist and daring feminist who lived out her ideals on a global stage. Then all of this ended for her in shipwreck and scandal at age forty. Writing a biography that captured the drama yet was true to the facts and conveyed the full complexity of Fuller’s ideas was the challenge I set myself.

Relying on scholarship of the past three decades, which has made Fuller’s letters, journals, and all her published writing easily accessible, I drew connections between private correspondence and public testimony that helped me recreate key moments in her life in vivid new ways—her controversial relationship with Emerson, her secret love affair with Giovanni Ossoli, her anguish over leaving her infant son with a wet nurse in the Italian countryside while she covered the Roman revolution as the first woman war correspondent. All of these episodes stood out to me clearly, at last, as I worked directly with her words from so many sources.

And there were important new finds as well: a letter Emerson wrote two weeks after Fuller’s death listing Thoreau’s findings at...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Megan Marshall's website.

Marshall's first biography, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.

The Page 99 Test: The Peabody Sisters.

Writers Read: Megan Marshall (October 2007).

My Book, The Movie: Margaret Fuller: A New American Life.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 19, 2013

Matthew Specktor

From a Q & A with Matthew Specktor about his new novel, American Dream Machine:

Tin House Books: American Dream Machine is set strongly in Los Angeles. It portrays the city in a way that’s incredibly vivid–it looks like LA, it feels like LA, a city that is famously hostile to writers. What role does place play in your writing?

Matthew Specktor: LA seems to have suffered over the years as the object of satire, derision, and hostility. In fact, with the possible exception of Chandler, it’s hard to think of a great writer who’s treated Los Angeles without pronounced ambivalence. Less Than Zero, The Day of the Locust, Play it As It Lays, The Player, What Makes Sammy Run. These books all organize themselves around a pretty jaundiced view of LA, or certainly of Hollywood. That’s fair: they’re all great books, and I think literature isn’t where you go for false optimism. At the same time, I wanted to treat Los Angeles very differently. I grew up here, and I wanted to shower as much thoughtful affection upon it as I could, the way that Philip Roth did upon Newark or Saul Bellow did upon Chicago, etc. I wanted to paint a more comprehensive picture of this place in its warmer, and more human, dimensions. To address not just glamor and disillusion, but also the more homely aspects of the movie business, which in so many respects isn’t much different from any other.

THB: The book is about a talent agency, and the movies. To what extent did the movies influence the book?

MS: I went to the movies a lot when I was a kid. I went to screenings and saw films when they weren’t especially appropriate, for instance I remember a Woody Allen double bill of Bananas and Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sex taken in when I was seven or eight years old, and I think I saw A Clockwork Orange when I was eleven. I grew up on, in, and around the Los Angeles of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby. There was always a sense of intimate relation, because of my parents’ work, the people who made the movies were...[read on]
Visit Matthew Specktor's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage is the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded.

From her Q & A with Randy Dotinga about how the Boston Marathon bombing compares to the 1920 Wall Street attack:

Q: What struck you as you learned about this week's bombing in Boston?

A: We think of these kinds of mass bombings as being symptomatic of the terrible things about our own contemporary world, at least since Oklahoma City. But this kind of event has been going on as long as technology has existed to set off bombs in crowded places.

Q: Was this fact of history the reason you wrote the book?

A: I set out to write that book because I came across a mention of the 1920 bombing, which killed 38 people and injured hundreds more people, many of them quite seriously. I was shocked that I had never heard of this. What's going on that allowed this big event to be lost to history?

The other thing that surprised me was how many people at that time were saying "Ah ha! Of course. We all knew this would come."

I thought, "What? How did they assume that?"

I began to look not only into anti-Wall Street history but also the long history of anti-capitalist bombings that had been going on for 30 to 40 years, going back to the Haymarket bombing in 1866 [in Chicago], the most famous of them all, all the way up to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910, the bombing at a Preparedness Day parade in 1916 in San Francisco, and a series of coordinated bomb attacks in a number of different American cities, including...[read on]
Visit Beverly Gage's Yale faculty webpage, and learn more about The Day Wall Street Exploded at the Oxford University Press website.

Learn about Beverly Gage's five best books about terror in America from another era.

The Page 99 Test: The Day Wall Street Exploded.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Emily Raboteau

Emily Raboteau's new book is Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora.

From her Q & A with Clarence V. Reynolds at Mosaic:

CVR: You stated that among the things that inspired you to write Searching for Zion was the fact that you were interested in what the metaphor for Zion means in the African Diaspora and, on a more personal level, you were searching for a way of finding and talking to your father. Would you care to explain more about the things that motivated you to begin this project? How did you happen upon this broad topic for a book?

Emily Raboteau: Yes, I see the book as engaging and extending my father’s scholarship. He’s a historian specializing in African-American religion. I had an understanding through his work but also through the lyrics of some Negro spirituals and reggae songs such as “Go Down Moses” and “Iron, Lion, Zion,” of Zion as a black metaphor for freedom. After encountering and writing about two groups of black Jews in Israel — the Ethiopian Jewry (so-called “Falashas”) and the African Hebrew Israelites (so-called “Black Hebrews”) — and the exoduses they had made to get to the Holy Land, I found I wanted to continue writing along this theme. I then sought out other black communities that had left home out of feelings of disinheritance to find the “Promised Land” elsewhere using the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Exodus as motivation. My subjects included Rastafarians from the Caribbean living in Ethiopia, African-American ex-pats living in Ghana, Hurricane Katrina transplants from my own family, and others. Their personal journeys, which were often about the retrieval of history, often sounded to me like the search of the orphan for a lost parent.

CVR: After ten years of journeying, how would you describe Zion for yourself?

Raboteau: If I may continue to think of Zion as a metaphor for liberation, then I would describe it as a place I aspire to enter daily, rather than a place on a map where I might arrive. The Promised Land that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of right before he died was...[read on]
Visit Emily Raboteau's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: Searching for Zion.

The Page 99 Test: Searching for Zion.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Robert M. Neer

Robert M. Neer is an attorney and Core Lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University.

His new book is Napalm: An American Biography.

From Neer's Q & A with Mark Thompson for Time:

What is the bottom line in your new book, Napalm: An American Biography?

Napalm was born a hero but lives a pariah.

Its story shows how defeat on the battlefield, grassroots protest, vilification in popular culture, regulation under international law, development of alternative weapons, and the rise of a global civilian culture can constrain military power.

Why did you pick that particular subtitle, “An American Biography”?

First, because this is napalm’s life story, from its birth on Valentine’s Day 1942 to President Barack Obama’s signature on his first full day in office of the first U.S. treaty to limit its use.

Second, because it is an American weapon: it was invented in America and has been used longer, more widely, and to greater effect by the United States than any other country.

Third, because this is a story of America, from global authority at the end of World War II to...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 15, 2013

Jessica Brody

Jessica Brody's latest novel is Unremembered.

From her Q & A at RT BOOK REVIEWS:

At the beginning of Unremembered Violet doesn’t remember anything. But it is not only her past, she has to relearn everything from the type of food she likes to how to use a cell phone. Violet’s mind is like a clean slate. How did you put yourself in her position while you were writing her story?

This was probably the most challenging aspect of writing the novel. Especially after writing so many contemporary novels where pop culture references are such integral parts of the storytelling. To get into the headspace of an amnesiac, I watched a lot of documentaries and movies about amnesia. But to achieve that extra authenticity of a truly “blank slate,” as strange as it sounds, as I was writing, I tried to look at the world around me as though I were an alien visiting the planet for the first time. Which is a game I often play with myself. I call it the “alien test.” If aliens came to Earth, which things about our life would seem really weird to them? What would they think was cool and “inventive” and what would they swore made no sense at all? This is very much how Violet sees the world.

Her memories may be gone, but Violet does retain some remarkable talents. Why did you choose to make her a genius at math and languages? Is her intelligence really important if she has no context to use it?

Without giving away too many spoilers about the plot, I will say this: the people who “made” Violet the way she is, did have very specific reasons for doing so. On a more personal level, the “abilities” I gave to Violet as a writer were fairly aspirational. I’ve always loved math and languages. And I’ve always fantasized about being a walking calculator and speaking multiple languages. It’s one of the reasons I loved the show Alias so much (which was a huge influence for me when writing this trilogy). But that’s kinda the rub, isn’t it? What good are her skills if...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Jessica Brody's website and blog.

Writers Read: Jessica Brody (October 2009).

My Book, The Movie: 52 Reasons to Hate My Father.

Writers Read: Jessica Brody (August 2012).

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer's latest novel is The Interestings.

From her Q & A with Edra Ziesk at Salon:

EZ: I’ve heard you talk about how your books don’t start with the picture of a character, but with an idea. What was the genesis of this book?

MW: In The Interestings I wanted to write about what happens to talent over time. In some people talent blooms, in others it falls away. And, relatedly, there are other ideas in here, like about the quiet envy people can have even for those they love and what happens to friendship over years and decades.

I’m surprised I hadn’t thought to do this book earlier, because my experience as an adolescent at “this” camp [a similar camp she went to in a similar setting at age 15] was the spark for so many things. There are junctures in life, times when things change. This was one for me.

In the novel you have characters with no real talent, characters with a little, characters who abandon their talent or neglect it and one – Ethan – with a singular, creative mind, a true gift. Ash, Ethan’s wife and a feminist who wants to expand opportunities for women in theatre, isn’t highly talented. Was this intentional?

I think of Ethan as a real creative thinker whose stuff originates with him and who has the ability to go very deeply with it. Ash has a talent, but it’s of a more familiar type. You can’t turn feminism plus a minor talent into a big thing. It’s painful for some of these characters to recognize the ceiling of their talent. If you have money plus a modest talent [as Ash does] and access – that can allow you all kinds of big things.

The book is set – or begins – in the 70s. Why? Could it have been set at another time?

It’s set in the 70s partly because...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new novel is Americanah.

From her Q & A with Kate Kellaway for the Observer:

You write brilliantly about love. What do you think makes a love last?

I wish I knew… if I did, I would market it. Lasting love has to be built on mutual regard and respect. It is about seeing the other person. I am very interested in relationships and, when I watch couples, sometimes I can sense a blindness has set in. They have stopped seeing each other. It is not easy to see another person.

Have you experienced love at first sight?

No, but I would like to.

You write with satirical precision about the way black people are patronised in the US and the UK – often in a well-meaning way. How widespread is this condescension? One of your characters – Kimberley – describes all black people as "beautiful".

It is very widespread. There is a deep discomfort about the subject. People struggle to be honest and ordinary. I wish race didn't matter. I wish that Kimberley – who is a character I love and not a racist – didn't think all black people beautiful. It is worse in...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 12, 2013

Ronlyn Domingue

Ronlyn Domingue is the author of the newly released The Mapmaker’s War. Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, The Independent (UK), and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org and The Nervous Breakdown. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

From Domingue's self-interview about The Mapmaker’s War at The Nervous Breakdown:

Your second novel is The Mapmaker’s War: A Legend. What’s your elevator pitch?

Margaret Atwood meets Beowulf.

So what’s it about?

A mapmaker, exiled for treason, who must come to terms with the home and children she left behind. It’s an exploration of good and evil and the choices that lie between. There’s adventure involved—a quest, of course, to find a dragon—and war and peace and love and betrayal. It’s told in the spirit of legends, like Beowulf, an account of a remarkable person’s life and deeds. However, unlike old tales of this kind, Aoife (pronounced ee-fah) tells her own story—and her own truth.

Why was the novel written in second person?

Aoife wanted it that way. I’m being literal here. Once the writing began, after years of thought and waiting, she was insistent about how the story would be told. For me as a writer, characters have their own minds and wills, and it’s best if I respect both. But from a craft perspective, the point of view works for this particular story. She’s speaking to herself, writing to herself. Most people have the experience of talking to themselves in second person. “You did ____.” “You are _____.” “You should _____.” Aoife takes herself beyond confession—which is...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Ronlyn Domingue's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: The Mapmaker's War.

Writers Read: Ronlyn Domingue.

My Book, The Movie: The Mapmaker's War.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Carl Rollyson

Carl Rollyson, Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and Jill Craigie to studies of American culture, genealogy, children’s biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history. His latest books are Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, a biography of Dana Andrews published in September 2012, and the biography American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath, released in January 2013.

From the author's Q & A with Gerald J. Russello for the University Bookman:

There have been several biographies of Plath already. Why select her for a new one?

One reason for a new biography is that there has not been a biography of Plath in twenty years. Since then a number of new materials have become available, and mine is the first to make use of the new material.

For example, I had access to her husband Ted and his sister Olwyn Hughes’s papers in the British Library, which others did not. Ted kept diary notes of the last week of Sylvia’s life, which enabled me to document the days before her suicide. I could get into some of his own feelings, because after the fact he made all sorts of statements about their getting together again had she not killed herself. But Sylvia herself had written that off as a possibility, which I learned in the papers of Al Alvarez, a close friend of hers.

Olwyn had tried to establish Sylvia’s romantic interest in Alvarez, which was not something he had ever acknowledged quite so explicitly in his own writings or to other biographers. But what I concluded from my long interview with him was that in a sense he was continuing to protect her, even after her death. He finally said “she was in love with me.” It occurred to me that was an awkward position for him to be in, and he acted very chivalrously. Not only that, but here was someone who saw her brilliance but was being very careful.

Another new source was the research I was able to do into Sylvia’s time at Smith College. Aurelia Plath, her mother, donated a lot of material to Smith, including letters between her and Sylvia, and my book has a much bigger picture of her mother than earlier studies because of this material. Sylvia portrayed her mother as possessive or difficult, but when I read Aurelia’s letters at Smith and talked to her close friend, Richard Larschen, Aurelia became much more of a person to me. These materials reveal that she was happy that Sylvia went to Smith and got a Fulbright. Aurelia also wrote letters to Ted (they are in his papers at Emory University) saying that many times she wanted to...[read on]
View the video trailer for American Isis, and learn more about the book and author at Carl Rollyson's website, blog, and Facebook page.

The Page 99 Test: American Isis.

My Book, The Movie: American Isis.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Mary Roach

Mary Roach's new book is Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

From her Q & A with Mindy Farabee at The Daily Beast:

In Gulp, you write, “People who know anatomy are often cowed by the feats of the lowly anus.” The book as a whole ends on a note of awe and respect reminiscent of your feelings for space travel at the close of Packing for Mars.

Yeah, very much so. I think this is a losing battle, but I would love people to come around a little bit from the general position of disgust and revulsion they have for their insides, especially the below-the-waist portion of their insides. Every step of the way, I was kind of floored by how effortlessly complex and amazing it all is, and I would like to impart a little bit of that to people. You go through life with these things inside you—these guts, these organs—and you never see them and consequently you never think about them. Until something goes wrong, and then you think about them all the time.

One of the themes running through the book is how that disgust can cause our minds to get our bodies backwards. This has led to some kooky theories and practices, as with Sir Arbuthnot Lane, the Scottish surgeon who went around cutting out people’s colons as a cure for constipation.

Exactly. Our understanding of our bodies is very simplistic and intuitive. It’s not like everybody can take an advanced biology/physiology class—there’s no reason why people should know this stuff—but [then] we’re very susceptible to somebody coming along and saying the colon is a revolting, disgusting thing, and you’d be better off without it. It’s like, wait a minute, who says it’s revolting and disgusting? In what way? It’s life saving. It’s vital to how we thrive, and who we are. The arrogance of...[read on]
Learn about Mary Roach's six favorite books.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Steph Cha

Steph Cha is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles, California.

Follow Her Home is her first novel.

From the author's Q & A with Michael Haskins for The Big Thrill:

Philip Marlowe is mentioned in the book’s synopsis and a few of its reviews; are you a big reader of Marlowe and other noir books?

I first read THE BIG SLEEP for a class on American Detective Fiction my freshman year of college. I loved its darkness and style, the ambiance-driven exploration of Los Angeles. I read all of Chandler’s novels over the next few years, along with a lot of Hammett and Mosley and Ellroy. Since selling the book, I’ve gotten more into contemporary noir. I love what women like Gillian Flynn and Denise Mina are doing with the genre.

What made you decide on noir or did it just fall into place?

Well, I like what noir can do. Noir – good noir, anyway – will tell you all you need to know about a place and time. It’s a great way to explore social issues, and to show, in general, the kinds of consequences that can spring from any given action. I love the genre, and I wanted to write something dark and atmospheric, with some stylistic flourish. With dead bodies too, of course.

What writers have influenced you?

Chandler is the obvious one, and as mentioned above, Hammett, Mosley, and Ellroy too. I read a lot and would like to think that all of my reading informs my writing, but I guess my writing has little in common with...[read on]
Learn more about Follow Her Home, and visit Steph Cha's website and Twitter perch.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Steph Cha and Duke.

My Book, The Movie: Follow Her Home.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 8, 2013

Marlene Zuk

Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk's new book is Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

From her Q & A with Alison George for New Scientist, reprinted in Slate:

What is driving the tendency to idealize the way ancient humans lived?

There is this caricature that organisms evolve until they get to a point when they're perfectly adapted to their environment, then heave this big sigh of relief and stop. Anything that happens to them after that is disastrous.

You see this attitude in what can be referred to as "paleo-nostalgia"—the notion that we were all better off before agriculture, or civilization, or the Industrial Revolution. It's not to say life has been unmitigatedly getting better. But it's more helpful and accurate to see that all organisms are constantly evolving. There has been no point in our past when we were perfectly adapted to our environment.

I'm not dismissing the idea that you need to look at our evolutionary heritage to think about what's best for us healthwise. But when you start plucking out pieces in an oddly specific way, you can run into trouble.

Are paleo diets, which usually involve eating lots of meat and avoiding grains or dairy, examples of this type of specific selection?

These are predicated on the idea that there was a certain way humans ate 100,000 or 15,000 years ago—the era people want to hark back to varies. I think everybody agrees that we evolved eating certain things and we're going to be very unhealthy if we subsist on Diet Coke and Cheetos. But it gets...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, April 7, 2013

James Salter

James Salter's new book is All That Is, his first novel since the late 1970s. The book details the life, loves, and losses of a naval veteran who served in WWII and who became a book editor after the war, when publishing was a more genteel pursuit.

From his Q & A with Laurie Gold at Publishers Weekly:

What was the impetus for this book?

It was a period I wanted to write about—after the war. Publishing in an era that’s now past, a much more leisurely era. Business was conducted by mail. Everything was letters back and forth, so the entire pace of writing was different. It was in an era, of course, long before cell phones and faxes; the relationship between editors and writers was a little more intimate. Books were sold in bookstores. There were no big retailers. There was no Amazon. The whole scale of life was completely different. You could compare it to town life as against city life. The publishers, as I remember at the very beginning of my career, wrote letters with their fountain pens. A letter is different from a phone call or fax. It’s a different kind of intimacy. That pervaded the entire business of writing and publishing. The humanity of it was much more evident. You had writers sleeping on couches in the publishers’ offices... Faulkner was correcting his proofs on a table in the hallway. It was the family doctor as opposed to the way you encounter medicine today. Intimacy and a certain dignity. I don’t mean that’s absent now. But it’s under pressure. And the scale of publishing is different. The...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Hanna Pylvainen

Cafe Americain staff member K. Tyler Christensen interviewed Hanna Pylvainen about her novel, We Sinners.

Part of the Q & A:

CA: You said that when you were writing the novel that you didn’t think you were writing anything that anyone would ever read. Was that something you told yourself to get the writing done, or did you really believe that?

HP: During my time at Michigan, I didn’t submit a single story anywhere. I had never published anything before, and didn’t particularly see why that would change. I never finished a revision of a story and wondered what magazine or journal might want it –– I was writing the book I had wanted to read. Everything else, as they say, was gravy.

CA: I grew up in a pretty large family, there were 7 of us, and we were often crammed into small places, and living on top of one another. You write about the chaos of growing up in a large family very well, for example, in “Pox” there’s a lot of unrest; you have this large family living in this tiny apartment, and out of their van (an oversized vehicle until you put a set of parents and 9 kids inside). Of all things, the family gets the chickenpox. As the first story in the novel, what is being foreshadowed by a story about an entire family getting the chickenpox?

HP: There are many contagious elements to the family life of the Rovaniemis, but specifically, I would point to the moment at the end of the chapter “Pox” when the daughter, Brita, overhears her parents forgiving each other in the ritual blessing of forgiveness. The real “pox” is the guilt and the forgiveness –– that is the epidemic no character can avoid, or entirely be free of, whether they stay or go.

CA: I love that in each of the stories we get to see...[read on]
Visit Hanna Pylväinen's website and Facebook page.

Writers Read: Hanna Pylväinen.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, April 5, 2013

Jennifer Gilmore

Jennifer Gilmore's new novel is The Mothers:

From her Q & A with Sybil Steinberg for Publishers Weekly:

You and your husband have embarked on a similar quest to Jesse [the narrator of The Mothers, who desperately wants a child] via open adoption. How close are the events you describe to your own life?

It’s obviously true that we’ve made a protracted adoption journey. But a lot of it is fictionalized because I wanted to examine open adoption and how fraught could be, and also to look at issues of race and class and how in our culture they are viewed and affected in the adoption process. I saw a lot of mixed couples, and I wanted to describe which of them were rejected and which were embraced.

Was it hard for you to revisit all the frustrations, indignities and heartbreaks of the open adoption process, or was it cathartic to get it out of your mind and on paper?

I really don’t feel that writing is therapy. However, to be working on the novel as events were happening --as opposed to just suffering through them--was very important to me.

Why did you fictionalize your experience rather than relate it as nonfiction?

I really feel like a novelist and I felt that I could...[read on]
Writers Read: Jennifer Gilmore.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Keith O’Brien

Keith O’Brien's new book is Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County's Quest for Basketball Greatness. From his Q & A with Jeff Duncan for nola.com:

Where did the inspiration for this story come from for you? How did a reporter from Boston stumble upon a high school basketball team from Scott County, Ky.?

The most interesting stories are within subcultures. And there is no doubt that Kentucky basketball is a fascinating subculture. Unlike most every other state, Kentucky has no classifications for high school basketball - no 5A, 4A and so on - that divide schools into divisions based on their size or talent. In Kentucky, every March, all 270 high school basketball teams enter the postseason. Only 16 make it to Rupp Arena. Crowds of 20,000 fans or more fill the arena to watch kids play basketball. And the boys and men who get there will literally kneel down and kiss the floor. They shed tears; they weep. They believe that just making it to Rupp and playing before these adoring crowds will change their lives -- even though, of course, it usually does not.

How familiar were you with Kentucky's passion for the sport of basketball before spending eight months there? And were you surprised in any way by the zeal once you moved there for the fall and winter?

I grew up in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. So I was familiar, at least in passing, with the Bluegrass. I knew, in Kentucky, I'd be able to tell a story that would convey the power and meaning of basketball in rural America. What surprised me, though, was that there was a flip side, a dark side, to this passion. The kids and their families were often under so much pressure to win. The fans could be merciless, attacking teen-agers for their failures and shortcomings. It's one thing to criticize college players - say, Coach John Calipari or his players at the University of Kentucky. It's quite another thing to do the same thing to a 16-year-old kid. There should be...[read on]
View the video trailer for Outside Shot, and visit Keith O'Brien's website and Facebook page.

See O'Brien's six favorite books about people who have beaten the odds.

The Page 99 Test: Outside Shot.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gail Carriger

New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger writes to cope with being raised in obscurity by an expatriate Brit and an incurable curmudgeon. She escaped small town life and inadvertently acquired several degrees in Higher Learning. Carriger then traveled the historic cities of Europe, subsisting entirely on biscuits secreted in her handbag. She resides in the Colonies, surrounded by fantastic shoes, where she insists on tea imported from London.

Her Parasol Protectorate books are: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless, Heartless, and Timeless. Soulless won the ALA's Alex Award and has been turned into a graphic novel. Carriger's young adult Finishing School series begins with Etiquette & Espionage and follows the exploits of Sophronia who discovers her dreaded lady's seminary is a great deal more than anyone realizes.

From Carriger's 2013 Powell's Q &A:

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?

Let It Steep: Chronicles of a Wierdo between Tea Breaks

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands, and why did you read it?

These days I'm really into rereading some of my past favorites. It's like visiting old friends. I just went back to Sorcery and Cecelia, a deliciously fun and very polite romp by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

Not unless you count going to Boston Worldcon to meet Tamora Pierce.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.

Oh, this is an easy one. At the Denver Worldcon in 2008 (an all-around awesome trip), the hotel I stayed at (across from the Convention Center) had, in my book, the perfect breakfast. It was a little stew pot of tomatoes with spinach topped with two poached eggs and toast tips. (I ordered it without the ham.) I've been trying to...[read on]
Learn more about author at Gail Carriger's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Soulless.

The Page 69 Test: Changeless.

Writers Read: Gail Carriger (November 2010).

Writers Read: Gail Carriger.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ronlyn Domingue

Ronlyn Domingue is the author of the newly released The Mapmaker’s War. Its sequel, The Chronicle of Secret Riven, is forthcoming in 2014. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in ten languages. Her writing has appeared in The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books), New England Review, The Independent (UK), and Shambhala Sun, as well as on mindful.org and The Nervous Breakdown. Born and raised in the Deep South, she lives there still with her partner, Todd Bourque, and their cats.

From Domingue's Q & A with Caroline Leavitt about The Mapmaker’s War:

The Mapmaker’s War takes place in what feels like an ancient period of history. Aoife is out of step with her time, but ahead of it, too. One reason she becomes a mapmaker is to define her life in some way. She’s aware women are meant to be only wives and mothers, and she doesn’t have much interest in either role, especially when she’s young. How do you perceive her struggle with these expectations?

It’s not that she’s opposed to marriage or motherhood. It’s a matter of choice. She writes, “You had no inclination to become what every woman you knew became. A wife, mother, domestic. You didn’t begrudge them their roles if they were freely chosen. Yet who can choose freely when the options are few?” She wants the opportunity to direct her own life and use the capabilities she has. She struggles against the coercion of custom and tradition, the limitations which usually don’t take into account an individual’s potential beyond gender. But readers will see her evolve with her circumstances. Aoife isn’t quite the same woman as Wyl’s wife and mother to his children as she is as Leit’s spouse and mother of their daughter.

There’s a major theme in the novel about the concept of choice, individual and collective. Why is that so significant?

As Aoife’s story emerged and I reflected on the details of her life, I kept thinking about a book I read, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover. It was a difficult read because it’s about war and genocide, an exploration of man’s inhumanity to man, but Glover includes examples of soldiers and civilians who didn’t give in to violence and cruelty. Most of the book is a complete horror, but when I finished, I had a clear, distinct thought: We choose...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Ronlyn Domingue's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 69 Test: The Mapmaker's War.

Writers Read: Ronlyn Domingue.

My Book, The Movie: The Mapmaker's War.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 1, 2013

Mike Rose

Mike Rose is a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the author of many books, including Lives on the Boundary, The Mind at Work, and Possible Lives. His latest book is Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education.

From Rose's Q &A with Hector Tobar for the Los Angeles Times:

You're the author of several books about working people and education. Especially about people whose talents are ignored, or who are seen as "problems" by many educators. How did this life-long interest of yours come about?

Well, their story is in many ways my story. My parents were Italian immigrants who were drawn west by the classic 1950s California dream, traveling to Los Angeles to create a better life. They, and all of my family, worked blue-collar and service jobs, and like many working-class kids, I didn’t do so well in school. I drifted along and was tracked into a general-vocational curriculum in high school. Then my senior English teacher turned my life around and steered me toward college – where I struggled before finding my way. So the lives of children migrating here from Mexico or Central America or Asia, or men and women doing physical work, or people in adult school, or the freshman who struggles in college – they all reach something deep in me. But I have to say – because it rarely gets said – that these people’s stories are also intellectually rich: the unacknowledged linguistic gifts of the immigrant kid, the brains it takes to do physical work, the cognitive intricacies of an adult figuring out algebra. All this is as worthy of research as landing a robotic explorer on Mars.

"Back to School" is about "second chancers" and the schools that serve them. Could you tell us a bit more about the wide variety of students you found at the adult schools you've visited and what kind of challenges that presents to the people who run those schools?

In an adult school in L.A., you’ll find everyone from the precocious 18-year old who could not stomach another day of high school to the newly arrived immigrant from Belarus or Taiwan or El Salvador, to a wide range of people in their 30s and 40s who quit high school to join the workforce and raise a family, to older folks who just want the stimulation of a classroom. You’ll find an even wider range of students in our community colleges, talking one minute to a young woman fresh out of high school with her sights set on transfer to UC, and the next minute to a guy who spent years behind bars and is getting his life together in an automotive technology program. I don’t think our policymakers fully understand the challenges of...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue