Sunday, September 30, 2007

Philip Roth senior editor Tom Nissley spoke with Philip Roth about his new novel, Exit Ghost, his long relationship with his fictional surrogate, and the difficulties of aging for novelists.

The first two exchanges from the interview: Your last book, Everyman, was about the deterioration of a man's body. Your new one, despite the minor outpatient procedure that begins the action, seems to be much more about the dissolution of a man's creative force. Is that the way you see it?

Philip Roth: I'd say it's in part about the dissolution of his creative force. He also has suffered the consequences of a prostate surgery for cancer, so as you remember the book begins, he's coming down to New York to try to get some help from a procedure that will alter his incontinence. Prostrate surgery very often results in incontinence and impotence, and in Zuckerman's case it's resulted in both. So there is once again a man of years suffering physical ailments, or the consequences of them. You're right, however, that what he feels happening to him is that his mind is becoming, in his word, "disordered," and his memory's shaky, and some of this causes difficulties in the book. It seems like they play off of each other. With Jamie, the young writer he meets, there seems to be a relationship between his impotence and his creative interest in her.

Roth: He's interested in her as a character, you're perfectly right about that, but it's because he's fallen prey to sexual enchantment, and she is not interested in him in that way, and so he goes off and writes scenes between the two of them that don't take place in reality but are enactments of flirtation doomed by his condition.

Read the entire interview.

Learn more about Exit Ghost.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Phoebe Damrosch

For Publishers Weekly, Amy Boaz interviewed Phoebe Damrosch about her new book, Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter.

Their first exchange:

What prompted you to write this book about your experience at Per Se?

I never thought I would be writing a book about waiting tables. I was getting an M.F.A. at Sarah Lawrence when I got a job there — it was so demanding, 70 hours a week. I was writing a lot about my life at the same time, creative nonfiction about food and waiting tables. Any waiter can relate to that, but Per Se is a very different kind of restaurant. The training is so intensive — it’s like being paid to go to culinary school. We had an 18th-century dance specialist teach us how to move in the dining room. It was an exciting idea and the more I wrote about it, the more I realized that I could go on and on writing about the restaurant. At a Barnard College writer’s conference, I heard the agent Molly Friedrich speak — she was so powerful I thought: I want this woman on my side! She passed my idea to [agent] Paul Cirone, and by the end of [my] conversation [with him,] he had sold me on writing the book.

Read the full Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 28, 2007

Andromeda Romano-Lax

Andromeda Romano-Lax worked as a freelance journalist and travel writer before turning to fiction. Among her nonfiction works are travel and natural history guidebooks to Alaska and Mexico, as well as a travel narrative, Searching for Steinbeck's Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja's Desert Coast.

Her latest book is a novel, The Spanish Bow.

From a Q & A at her website:

Q: What inspired you to move from the world of nonfiction and journalism to fiction?

A: Turning to fiction was a huge departure for me. For a decade, I’d made a living from nonfiction and was perhaps one of the few journalists or freelance writers who doesn’t secretly dream of writing a Great American (or Spanish) Novel. Not counting childhood attempts, I hadn’t completed a short story before I started this novel. No one was more surprised than me when the novel — and fiction — took over my life.

On the other hand, I’d already written many travel books, and what I loved best about this novel was that it allowed me to travel not only geographically, but through time. I don’t mean that in the lightest metaphorical sense. As both writers and readers know, being inside a novel feels astonishingly real, sometimes more real than life itself. It was a revelation to me: I can do anything and go anywhere I want. I can follow my curiosity anywhere. That new awareness flooded me with new ideas and new interests.

It also made me feel connected to past generations in a way I’d never felt. The week in March 2004 when Madrid’s Atocha train station was bombed, I’d just finished writing a scene in the novel about a 19th century terrorist bombing in Spain, and I could still recall our own visit, five months earlier, to the real Atocha station. Another episode in the book, about Spain’s war disasters in Morocco, as well as the nation’s confusion and frustration with diminishing Empire, reminded me of the American experience in Vietnam and Iraq. Being able to live in several worlds over the last five years – a fictional world as well as real worlds of both present and past – helped me find more personal meaning in current events. I hope I’ve been able to share that sense of meaning and connection with my readers, while entertaining them.
Read an excerpt from The Spanish Bow, and learn more about the book and author at Andromeda Romano-Lax's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Spanish Bow.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 27, 2007

L. Sandy Maisel

L. Sandy Maisel is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government and Director of the Goldfarb Center of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College and the author of American Political Parties and Elections: A Very Short Introduction.

He answered a few questions at the OUP Blog, including:

OUP: The US has a strictly two party system, in contrast to many European countries, which generally have multi-party systems. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this, and could America ever have a multi-party system?

L. Sandy Maisel: The easier question to answer is the second. It would be very difficult for the U.S. to have a multi-party system; many basic laws would require changing. For instance, most American elections are run in single-member districts, with only one winner. This system encourages two parties; systems in which more than one representative is elected at the same time, often by proportional representation, encourage multi-party systems. Similarly, our system with separation of powers and a single executive, a President chosen independently, encourages a two-party system. There is one big prize to shoot for, nor compromising with positions in the cabinets to those who contribute to winning coalitions. Changing either of these basic aspects of our institutional framework would be very different.

How one catalogues the advantages and disadvantages of a two-party system compared to a multi-party system depends on one’s values. Let me give some examples. A two-party system creates umbrella parties, in which party members are trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of the population, but most citizens like some of what one party stands for and some of the other. A multi-party system makes it more likely that citizens will find a party that is “right” for them — but then governing involves compromising among factions in a legislature. Some would see each of those variations as advantageous, others disadvantageous. In a two-party system, compromising is often done within one party; in a multi-party system, it is often done between or among parties. Which is better depends on an individual’s point of view.

Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Ann Packer

Ann Packer is the author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and a new novel, Songs Without Words.

From a Q & A about Songs Without Words:

Q: Songs Without Words deals with the anxieties of contemporary parenting (Liz is a stay-at-home mom who feels tremendous guilt about not recognizing her daughter’s cry for help). Is this a common fear among parents: the fear of helplessness, of missing warning signs from their children? And have you had personal experience with teen depression?

A: I think fear in general is incredibly pervasive among my generation of parents: of missing warning signs, of making poor choices, of doing the wrong thing. The idea of not seeing something until it is too late and your child is really in trouble: the specter of that — really, of the regret it would create — is very powerful. It could be depression we’re afraid of missing, or it could be something very different — though of course with depression the stakes are terrifyingly high. As for me and teen depression: I don’t think I have any experience as an observer — certainly not as an adult observer — but I was a depressed teenager myself, though not nearly to the same degree as Lauren.

Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

John Leland

Michael Yessis, co-editor of World Hum, interviewed John Leland about his new book, Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They’re Not What You Think).

Part of the interview:

World Hum: What do most people think are the lessons of “On the Road”?

John Leland: Well, I think that Dean Moriarty is one of the most captivating and compelling characters in American literature. Most of us read the book when we’re young — I read it at 18 or 19, and I suspect that you did as well.

I did.

And we’re just captivated by that character. We want to follow him out on the road, and throw down what we’re doing and go out in search of kicks and chicks and bombing around the country because he does. And I think that is a huge, huge part of “On the Road.”

But within the book are other stories. Any good book contains a number of narratives, and there’s Sal’s story. He really outgrows Dean and puts some distance between the two of them. He starts off just as we do, utterly captivated by this Moriarty character. And then over the course of the book Sal goes from being an apprentice to really being the older character. And I think a more in charge figure. So there are lessons about growing up and making your way in the world, lessons about work and money and love and sex and family.

Read the entire interview.

The Page 69 Test: Why Kerouac Matters.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 24, 2007

Richard Lyman Bushman

Richard Lyman Bushman is Gouverneur Morris Professor of History, Emeritus, at Columbia University. His From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690—1765 won the Bancroft Prize in 1967. His other books include Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1984), winner of the Evans Biography Award; King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (1985); and The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992).

Knopf published his acclaimed Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (2005) on the two hundredth anniversary of Smith’s birth.

Michael Kress interviewed Bushman for Beliefnet. The start of the interview:

Can you explain your book's subhead, "Rough Stone Rolling"?

These are words Joseph Smith used to describe himself, and then Brigham Young repeated them. I was drawn to them because I think they capture the incongruity of his inadequate preparation for any kind of leadership role and the rough style of personality and method that continue to the end of his life. And I think it points out the incongruities of a person with so little background who achieved so much.

How did someone with those incongruities create such a lasting institution?

It's the great puzzle of his life. Those who study prophetic figures in history -- American as well as ancient history -- point out the immense energy that floods into a person who comes to believe that God is speaking through them and that they are chosen instruments for some divine purpose. That confidence of Joseph Smith gave him all sorts of powers he might otherwise not have commanded. It overcame the intimidation he might have felt because of his lack of education and social standing. He just boldly went forward with these extravagant plans for a church and a city of Zion and a temple, and I think that sprang from his confidence that God was with him.

He also had a knack for speaking to the deep religious issues of his time -- one of these being a hunger to return of biblical powers. This is a Bible-blazing people, and it's quite obvious that all the gifts that are promised in the New Testament and the tradition of direct revelation had petered out by their time, and there were a lot of people who wanted these returned. And Joseph Smith gave them what they were looking for: a prophet speaking for God.

Read the entire interview.

The Page 99 Test: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Dave Zeltserman

In July 2007, Bethany K. Warner at Word Nerd interviewed Dave Zeltserman, author of Bad Thoughts.

Part of the Q & A:

Word Nerd: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?

Zeltserman: Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson. The book completely changed my view of writing. This was probably the first unreliable narrator that I came across-in this case what appears to be a down-on-his-luck decent guy who turns out to be out of his mind. The way Thompson suckered you into this guy’s private hell was remarkable, but more than that I never saw a book before that took the kind of chances that this book did. It opened my eyes to the fact that there are no set rules if you can make it work. The ending was mind blowing — the train of thoughts coming from both sides of a schizophrenic personality as they intersect. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Thompson was one of the great pure writers of the last 50 years. Reading that book changed my whole outlook on writing, and really freed me to write the way I wanted to.
Read the entire interview.

The Page 69 Test: Bad Thoughts.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fay Weldon

Anna Metcalfe interviewed Fay Weldon for the Financial Times.

Weldon has produced 27 novels as well as short stories, plays and essays. She has written frequently for radio and television, including the Bafta award-winning television series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971). Weldon currently teaches at Brunel University and lives in Dorset with her husband, the poet Nick Fox. Her latest novel, The Spa, is due out in the U.S. in early 2008.

A couple of the questions and answers:

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

Julian Fellowes’ Snobs.

* * *

What books are currently on your bedside table?

Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan; Herman Melville’s White-Jacket; J.S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women.

Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 21, 2007

Declan Burke

The Rap Sheet's J. Kingston Pierce recently grilled the Irish author Declan Burke under a bare bright bulb.

Their first exchange:

What crime novel would you most like to have written?

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” Life-changing moments are few and far between, and it’s even rarer that you appreciate them as such at the time. Reading the first paragraph of The Big Sleep was one of those moments; I honestly did know that nothing would ever be the same again. I rate Chandler as Hemingway with a sense of humor. If I can sneak in a second, it’d be any of Elmore Leonard’s novels, preferably Get Shorty. Hell, why not sneak in a third? Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. And Alistair McLean’s When Eight Bells Toll. Is that five? No? OK, The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula, by Barry Gifford.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Craig McDonald

Craig McDonald is an award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer. His short fiction has appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and several online crime fiction sites.

His debut novel, Head Games, was published by Bleak House Books in September 2007.

From a 2006 interview with Things I'd Rather Be Doing:

What is it about crime fiction that appeals to you? Is it really, as Bruen, Lehane, Pelecanos and others have said, the best way currently to address social issues in fiction?

Tony Hillerman is credited with saying that contemporary fiction is about not much happening to people you can’t care about. Good crime fiction is really what used to be called good fiction. It has great dialogue, convincing characterization and a compelling story – a plot. Good crime fiction offers everything that what currently passes for so-called “literary fiction” lacks. James Crumley and Daniel Woodrell both came out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and they’ve both chosen to write crime novels.

Crime fiction is indeed perhaps the most potent fictional format to explore “social issues.” On the other hand, I think increasing numbers of crime writers are unfortunately too focused on that aim. My sense as a reader and reviewer is that increasing numbers of crime and mystery writers are straining beyond nuanced social commentary and instead aggressively freighting their books with political dogma. There seems to me to be more preaching and vitriol in more sectors of crime fiction now. Overt partisan politics are exerting themselves and in ham-handed fashion. It may make those authors feel good, but it doesn’t entertain or even edify. Left or right, I don’t like to be lectured to in a novel. I also think those books are going to date, and furiously.
Read the entire interview.

The Page 69 Test: Head Games.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Austin Grossman

Robert Thompson of Fantasy Book Critic interviewed Austin Grossman, author of Soon I Will Be Invincible. Here is the introduction and the first couple exchanges from the interview:

2007 has been a good year for book releases. I’ve had the pleasure of reading fantastic offerings from established authors, personal favorites and talented up-and-comers. One novel though that really took me by surprise was “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, a fun, humorous and intelligent glimpse into the world of superheroes and supervillains. The mastermind behind this excellent debut is Austin Grossman, a videogame designer (Deus Ex, System Shock, Thief, Clive Barker’s Undying) who talks about the inspiration behind “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, the gaming industry, Chip Kidd and much more in the following Q&A. So, much thanks to Mr. Grossman for his time and effort in doing the interview, and especially for writing one of the most enjoyable books of the year…

Q: For starters, I read that you felt ‘stifled’ as a storyteller when working in the videogame industry, so you took a few years off to pursue a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and started writing a novel, the recently released “Soon I Will Be Invincible”. Obviously with your videogame background, which includes Thief: Deadly Shadows, Clive Barker's Undying, Deus Ex, System Shock, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, etc. you had plenty of material to draw from, but instead you chose to write about superheroes/villains. Why?

Austin: In retrospect I think “stifled” is surely the wrong word – for what was such a rich experience – but yes, working collaboratively in a medium with so many formal storytelling constraints meant exercising a lot of discipline.

But yes, left to my own devices I still picked superheroes – why? Maybe because I'm constitutionally incapable of writing a “straight” story. Maybe because it's the genre where the marvelous and the everyday live closest together – you can write about impossible things happening to recognizably normal people and it fits, which is a lovely tension to be able to exploit in a novel.

Q: It’s safe to say that artistic ability runs in the family as you have a twin brother, Lev Grossman who is also a novelist/writer, and a sister Bathsheba who is a sculptor. Regarding your novel, how important was it to have your family’s support and experience, specifically your brother’s as a writer?

Austin: I suppose I'll never have the experience of being the only writer in a family – I should mention that my mother is a novel and short story writer, and my father is a poet. In the end I didn't get a huge amount of practical advice from them, but what they mainly gave me is something to write against – voices to hear my own voice in contrast to. I tried to write the things they'd never ever think of writing. A writer once told me, “You know you're really writing your best when you look at the page and think, 'My family can never see this” – no less true when there are writers in the family.

Practically speaking my brother Lev helped see the thing to publication – he saw it in its early stages and told me it was worth finishing in the first place, which helped enormously; and he introduced me to his agent, who encouraged me and helped me find my agent. So I was enormously lucky in having someone to show the book.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Valerie Martin

Anna Metcalfe interviewed Valerie Martin for the Financial Times.

Martin was born in Missouri and brought up in New Orleans. She has written seven novels and three collections of short stories.

Her celebrated 1990 work, Mary Reilly, retells the Jekyll and Hyde tale through the eyes of a housemaid, and became a film starring John Malkovich and Julia Roberts. Property: A Novel, set on a plantation, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003. Martin’s latest book, Trespass, is out now.

A few of the questions and answers:

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

Martin Amis’s Experience. The bit about the teeth. That really got me through the flu.

* * *

What was the last book you couldn’t finish?

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.

* * *

What book do you wish you’d written?

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 17, 2007

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson's 1999 novel, The Mighty Walzer won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for comic writing; his Who’s Sorry Now (2002) and Kalooki Nights (2006) were long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

He has described Kalooki Nights as "the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere."

An interviewer from the Financial Times asked him a few questions, including:

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

Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband.

* * * * *

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Jane Austen. An American author said recently that had Philip Roth and Jane Austen had a child, I’d have been their offspring. I’d like to check out the family resemblance.

Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ian Rankin

Andrew Bolger of the Financial Times recently took Ian Rankin to lunch to talk about the latest Rebus novel and other aspects of the writer's life and career.

One thing Bolger learned:

Rankin is careful to leave the door open for further books about Rebus – or perhaps Siobhan Clarke, the detective’s female sidekick. “If I have got anything new to say about Rebus, and I have got anything new I want to discover about Edinburgh, then who knows? Siobhan could be the main cop, I could write about Rebus’s early years, or he could come back and do cold cases – there’s a cold case unit in Edinburgh staffed by retired CID guys.”
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl is the New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow and the editor of the Modern Library editions of Dante’s Inferno (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales. The Dante Club has been published in more than thirty languages and forty countries around the world. Pearl is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School and has taught literature at Harvard and at Emerson College. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

From a Q & A with the author at the publisher's website:

Q: The Poe Shadow can be read as a celebration of Edgar Allan Poe. Which came first, an enthusiasm for Poe, or your idea for the novel?

MP: My high school English teacher in junior year, Dr. Robert Parsons, assigned us some Poe stories, including The Black Cat and The Purloined Letter. Being an animal person, I had trouble with The Black Cat! I got hooked instead by The Purloined Letter, a Poe story with detective C. Auguste Dupin. I had already been a Sherlock Holmes fan, and it was eye-opening for me to “discover” Sherlock’s prototype in the form of Dupin. So my entrĂ©e to Poe was through his detective stories, and from there I read more. When it came time for me to decide on what to write as a second novel, Poe returned to my mind. If it were not for those first interactions with Poe, I would probably have been less likely to be committed to studying literature in high school and then college, and then less likely to ever write fiction. I still have my high school copy of the collected Poe — missing its covers and pretty worse for the wear. On the pages of The Purloined Letter, I wrote in big letters: RATIO SENTIAN. I was taking notes from my teacher and trying to write “ratiocination,” a word I had never heard.
Read the entire Q & A.

Visit Matthew Pearl's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Poe Shadow

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 14, 2007

Aurelie Sheehan

Aurelie Sheehan is the author of a collection of short stories, Jack Kerouac Is Pregnant, and two novels, The Anxiety of Everyday Objects and History Lesson for Girls.

About History Lesson for Girls, from the publisher:

In her follow-up to the critically acclaimed novel The Anxiety of Everyday Objects, Aurelie Sheehan presents a moving coming-of-age story set in the disturbingly reckless and often hilariously tacky 1970s. In 1975, Alison Glass, age thirteen, moves to Connecticut with her bohemian parents and her horse, Jazz. Shy, observant, and in a back brace for scoliosis, Alison finds strength in an unlikely friendship with Kate Hamilton, the charismatic but troubled daughter of an egomaniacal New Age guru and his substance-loving wife. Seeking refuge from the chaos in their lives, the girls escape into the world of their horses. Rich in humor and heartbreak, History Lesson for Girls is an elegy to a friendship that meant everything.
From Aurelie Sheehan's interview with Jessica Lee Jernigan:
To what extent, if any, is History Lesson for Girls autobiographical?

Aurelie Sheehan: The novel is inspired by some of my own experiences, but the story and the characters are fictional. Some similarities are that I had (have) scoliosis, I rode horses as a kid, and I grew up in Connecticut in the seventies. Most importantly for the novel, I would say, is that I had a friend who was very important to me. When I think back on it now, her importance to my life and survival as a teenager is hard to overemphasize.

At the same time, in order to write the novel, I had to distance the characters in the book from my own personal history, not just because I didn’t want to write memoir, but really so that the characters and story could lift off the page and become real. It wasn’t until they’d become truly imagined characters — going off and doing their own things without my permission and that sort of thing — that I could really write this story.

Why didn’t you want to write a memoir? Why turn your own experiences into fiction? Your choice is paradoxical, given how important the idea of personal history is in your novel, from the title to the closing line.

AS: Yes, the idea of personal history is very important to me, and some nonfiction is done in a way that I find really inspiring — I love some of the kinds of surprising “narratives” that can be found in, say, boiling a cup of tea or sharpening a knife, narratives that don’t rely on traditional story arcs to find meaning. And indeed, I have written a series of personal essays myself, so I am familiar with the process of plumbing one’s own life directly. (“The Seven Sisters” was in the Pushcart Prize XXIII anthology, one called “Romance” was in the Alaska Quarterly Review, and I’m in the process of writing an entire book called One Hundred Histories, which are basically short narrative “histories” of objects or concepts.)

I came back to fiction for this novel for various reasons. One, I wanted to write intimately about lives that didn’t necessarily go well at every juncture, and I didn’t want to cannibalize the lives of people I know and in some cases love. Two, I wanted to use form in various ways that had to be fiction. For instance, the “Lost Heroine” narratives are, to me, a second way of telling the story of these two girls and their shared psyche. Ideally, or for me anyway, this narrative exists in a kind of parallel reality alongside the lives of Alison and Kate. Three, I wanted to use an accelerated narrative arc, playing out the consequences of certain kinds of societal injustices and sadnesses in a dramatic fashion.

You’re right when you say that the novel concerns itself with history, and yet to play with these notions with freedom (ironically, yes, to be free of actual history), I wanted to lift the story out of my own life and place it just to the side. This way, I’ve been able to underscore, with the eye of some distance, how a young person can reconcile various intrusions of faux and fateful history (the bicentennial, the pressure of her parents’ own histories), with a history that seems to be largely ignored, the story unfolding under her sneakers at this very moment in time. I wanted to reveal a secret history, an ignored history, the history of girls.

And I do use a kind of faux-memoir technique, which is the adult narrator retelling this story. My goal was to allow the importance of the story to occur to her with greater reality as she tells it to the reader, as she tells it for Kate.

Lest I go on and wind this answer into the entire history of my life, I will quit now. But this question — the question of fiction and nonfiction, and the line between the two — is fascinating to me, aesthetically and otherwise.
Read the entire interview.

The Page 99 Test: History Lesson for Girls.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Matthew Brzezinski

Matthew Brzezinski's new book is Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age.

Brzezinski is a former Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and has reported extensively on homeland-security issues for the New York Times Magazine and other publications. He is the author of Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure on Capitalism’s Wildest Frontier and Fortress America: On the Front Lines of Homeland Security.

The political scientist Ray Taras, whose scholarship includes many publications on Russian and East European politics, interviewed Brzezinski about his Russia books:

Taras: I've assigned Red Moon Rising as a required text in my class on Russian Foreign Policy this semester, just as I assigned Casino Moscow to students in my Russian Politics class a few years back. Both books are very accessible, but Red Moon Rising required a lot of historical research and is in no way a sequel to Casino Moscow. What made you put on a historian's hat at a time when Russia's politics are intriguing the world?

Brzezinski: Part of the reason is personal. I'm ten years older, I have three kids, and no longer run around the world looking for trouble the way I once did. So, I suppose the shift to history is a way of growing up; a compromise that still allows me to write about exciting subjects and not worry about orphaning the kids. The historian's hat also gives one an astonishingly broad perspective that is often lacking when covering current affairs. I find that big-picture view, that distance, intellectually liberating.

Taras: Three famous Russians who helped make the Soviet Union into a superpower have names beginning with the letter K. In terms of their importance to making Russia a military juggernaut, in what rank order would you place Mikhail Kalashnikov (of AK-47 fame), your main man Sergei Korolev (rocket scientist), and Igor Kurchatov (nuclear bomb maker)?

Brzezinski: I would have to go with my main man for the following reasons: Kurchatov, to be sure, was very important. But his atomic bomb was largely pilfered from stolen US blueprints, (which reduces his contribution) and of limited initial military value since Soviet bombers could not reach US soil. Also, Sakharov's hydrogen bomb very quickly replaced it. As for Kalashnikov, his assault rifle has probably killed more people than any other weapon since WWII. (I just read that there are an estimated 100 million AK-47s in circulation today.) But it has not done much to enhance Russia's global reputation. Korolev, on the other hand, almost single handed put the Soviet Union on the map as a superpower equal to the US with his rockets. Before Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's historic space flight, the USSR was considered a second-rate power. After those (peaceful) achievements it was considered America's equal, militarily and technologically. Many, in fact, thought it was ahead of the US. For that reason, I have to go with Korolev.

Taras: Another man with a K name figures prominently in Red Moon Rising -- Sergei Khrushchev. How much of what he told you did you believe?

Brzezinski: There is always a self-serving element in all memoirs or recollections. Everyone tends to see things in a way that either puts them in a good light or pushes their agenda. Whenever possible you try to weed that out from all source material. But often, you only have one witness to certain events and part of the point of this book was to tell Soviet side of the story, since it had never been fully told before. So Khrushchev represents that other narrative, the flip-side to what we all grew up reading about in our history books. We may not like some of the things he remembers, or even find them plausible, but we should at least hear them so that we can better judge.

Taras: You capture the ethical problems involved in the American commandeering of Nazi rocket scientist Werner von Braun after the war and putting him at the head of a U.S. counterpart project. Can appearing on Walt Disney, as he did, whitewash any evil doer's reputation? Can you tell us what you really think of the decision to appoint von Braun as head of the U.S. space flight program?

Brzezinski: Though I've tried to keep my antipathy toward von Braun in check throughout the book, I am not a big fan of that decision. Tens of thousands of prisoners -- slave laborers -- died under the most horrible conditions building his V-2 rockets in WWII. That more than his membership in the SS or Nazi Party, which many people joined for career purposes, should disqualify him as the American prophet of peaceful space exploration. Having said that, I also understand why he was made the head of the program -- the stakes were so high and the US was so far behind that everything else was secondary. Realpolitik, I guess.

Taras: Finally, is the fast-and-loose Russia described in your first book gone for good under Putin's rule? Which Russia would be better prepared to take on another precedent-setting initiative in space -- fast-and-loose Russia or Putin's law-and-order Russia?

Brzezinski: I think that for the foreseeable future we can expect a "managed democracy" in the Putin vein. Historically, brief periods of reform and liberalization (and inherent chaos) in Russia are followed by long periods of clampdown. That said, a resurgent and energy rich Russia is very eager to show the world that it is back and wants to be a major player again. A breathtaking space stunt would go a long way to showing that.
Learn more about Red Moon Rising at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Lisa See

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain.

Her new novel is Peony in Love.

The start of a Q & A at the author's website:

Q: How do you compare Peony in Love to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan?

A: I think of Peony in Love as a kind of reverse mirror image of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Snow Flower takes place in rural Chinese villages in the 19th century and was about poor, uneducated, bound-footed women, who lived in seclusion and longed to be heard. Peony in Love takes place in a thriving city in the 17th century. These women are from wealthy families and highly, highly educated. They have bound feet, but they don’t live in seclusion. Like the nu shu writers, they also long to be heard. Peony in Love is based on the true story of three women who were married to the same man – one right after the other – who together wrote the first book of its kind to have been published anywhere in the world. These women were part of a larger phenomenon. In the 17th century, there were more women writers in China who were being published than altogether in the rest of the world at that time. And while there were hardly any women being published in the rest of the world back then, there were thousands of women being published in China.

Read the entire Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: Peony in Love.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, September 10, 2007

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Anne-Marie Slaughter is Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Bert G. Kerstetter '66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Her most recent book is The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World.

Slaughter responded to a few questions about The Idea That is America which were put to her by the political scientist Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at The Ohio State University:

Grant-Thomas: You say the "values underpinning the idea that is America" are liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, and faith. But you present no public opinion data to support that claim, no focus groups results; you don't comb through any interview transcripts. So, on what do you base this assertion? What do you say to the person who insists that you include, say, capitalism, self-interest, a belief in manifest destiny, and the development of national strength in that mix of foundational values?

Slaughter: My argument is that these are values that are celebrated in our founding documents, speeches, poems, anthems, and memorials. The first four are, I think, uncontroversial -- the pledge of allegiance speaks of liberty and justice for all; the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence declares that "all men are created equal," and most Americans take pride in the view that we were the first democracy in the world (although our founders understood democracy rather differently than we do today, as I argue in my chapter on Democracy.) Tolerance, humility, and faith are certainly less commonly cited, though it is impossible to have democracy without tolerance and religious tolerance was perhaps the earliest lesson that our founders had to learn to survive as thirteen distinct colonies. I argue for humility as a deep part of our belief in progress and also as a deep part of the religious faith of many Americans, as well as a value that many of our greatest leaders -- Washington, Lincoln -- have espoused. I argue for faith -- a blend of religious and enlightenment faith -- because it is impossible to go back to our founding documents, as well as the greatest speeches of presidents like Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, or Woodrow Wilson, or Ronald Reagan, and not be struck by the role that faith in both god and man play. Indeed, it is one of the attributes that people from other countries have long remarked on when they encounter America. Americans also have a remarkable faith in America itself.

In the end, though, mine is a personal rather than a strictly empirical claim. I make clear that I hope that the book will serve as a catalyst for a broader conversation among Americans about what our values are and how we should live up to them. Other values certainly could be added to the list; many readers may dispute the ones I chose. Above all, I try to hammer home the point that identifying our values is not a claim that these attributes always characterize our behavior. Far from it; each chapter documents noted periods in our history when our actions have been almost completely at odds with the things we profess to value. Still, our history, culture, and public discourse claims repeatedly that liberty, democracy, justice, equality etc. are the things we value; ultimately the gap between that kind of rhetoric and the lived reality for a majority or even a minority of Americans becomes an engine of change.

Grant-Thomas: The Bush Administration is unsparing in its references to liberty, democracy, equality, and justice in framing its foreign policy, not least in Iraq . And yet you find key aspects of that foreign policy deeply troubling, perhaps even "un-American." Please explain.

Slaughter: This is a key question. A frequent criticism of my book is that focusing on our professed values rather than the actual consequences of our actions is precisely the approach to foreign policy that has allowed us to invade Iraq and to declare that we can seek primacy in the world because we are a force for good. I take the point. But throwing out values because a particular administration has misused and even abused them is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. What I seek to do in the book is to define our values as specifically as possible with reference to our own history and particularly with reference to the many times in our history when we have not lived up to our values -- as we are not now in many places in the world and certainly not at home with Guantanamo and our overall policy of denying detainees the right of habeas corpus. Moreover, politically it does not work to reject values in favor of a more realist approach based on power and interest. The neo-con revolution that has destroyed our reputation in the world was a violent rejection by conservatives against the realism of the Nixon-Kissinger years. The vast majority of the American people believe that America must stand for something in the world beyond power and interest.

Grant-Thomas: You are critical of the "overheated rhetoric and intense partisanship [that] has replaced genuine debate in contemporary America." But doesn't that heat reflect, at least in part, the seriousness with which many "liberals" and "conservatives" take these struggles over the meaning and implementation of our values? You denounce gay marriage and school prayer as "wedge issues" that deflect attention from truly critical concerns like health care and education. What do you say to those, like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, who suggest that the former issues engage our core "values" even more fundamentally and consequentially ways than do the latter?

Slaughter: My focus is on political values rather than social values. The founders understood "the free exercise of religion" and "freedom of worship" as delineating a private sphere for moral choices, although they strongly believed in the value of religion as a moral force in society. A country of multiple religious faiths and the equal right to be an agnostic or an atheist is a country that must accept multiple conceptions of the good and the right. Put this way, our political values determine the sphere within which our moral or social values can be debated. That is precisely why opponents of abortion define it as the "right to life," because our political values include the right to life and liberty; while supporters of the right to have an abortion frame it as the right to choose, which is again protected by liberty. De Tocqueville said that in America every political question ultimately becomes a judicial question; I would add that every social or moral question ultimately becomes a political question. But the depth and passion with which debate these issues does not excuse the hatred and vitriol that characterizes so much of the debate. As the great historian Gordon Wood has pointed out, our founders equated civility with civilization itself. The tone of so much of the debate presumes that a person who disagrees with us is not just a person who takes a position different from our own, but a stupid or bad or malicious person. That personalizes politics, and ultimately destroys the substantive debate.

Grant-Thomas: Insofar as it has become commonplace for liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike, to employ the rhetoric of democracy, liberty, equality and faith to their own, often divergent, ends, then isn't it fair that other countries judge us according to the consequences of our foreign policy rather than by the values we claim to champion? For all I know, or you know, President Bush may intend the every best for Iraqis. But that means little to the tens of thousands already dead, with who knows what still to come.

Slaughter: I invite other countries to judge us not by what we say are our values, but by how well our actions live up to our words. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "America, put your creed into your deed," which is a wonderfully succinct version of my argument. Indeed that is why I wanted to write the book, to argue that our values are the deepest source of our strength and identity as a nation but only as long as we actually live up to them, or at least try to live up to them. And to point out the many times in our history when we have fallen short but groups of Americans have rallied to change the course of the nations by insisting that we mean what we say. I also wanted to tell foreign audiences a different story of America -- one that shows the darker sides of our history rather than constant triumphalism, but at the same time an account that takes pride in our efforts to try to live up to our values over the course of our history.

Grant-Thomas: Your book strikes me as a call to Americans to be more consistently guided by the better angels of our ideals, and to hold our leaders accountable to those ideals. But the United States incarcerates a greater proportion of its population than any other, supplies the vast majority of the world arms, does less to help its poor than any of its European peer nations, and provides less development assistance as a proportion of gross national income than virtually any. Americans are not clamoring to change any of these trends; on the contrary, 4 in 5 Americans insist that the United States is the "best country in the world." If you were Secretary of State in the next administration, what practical steps would you suggest to nudge us forward in the face of our collective complacency?

Slaughter: The book is indeed a call to Americans to hold our leaders accountable to how well they live up to the values they preach on our behalf. But I don't think we do that by continually criticizing what we do wrong without simultaneously offering a narrative of hope. That, in my view, accounts for the success of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope and indeed for much of the support for him as a presidential candidate. But more generally, the polls on all the candidates demonstrate that a substantial majority of Americans think that the country is going in the wrong direction -- economically and politically. Americans are now recognizing that our health care system is worse that that of other nations -- amazingly, given our typical assumption that everything we do is the best. They are recognizing that our public education system is broken. And most know that we made a terrible mistake by invading Iraq, whatever their view on what we should do now. It is not unusual for the citizens of any country to think that theirs is the best in the world -- certainly the French and the Chinese would poll similarly. That can be read as love of country rather than a superiority complex. But what we need to do is to mobilize Americans precisely on the basis of their love of country -- to rally them on the grounds that we can and must do better, to live up to our heritage, to live up to our values, to live up to our potential. Be honest about our mistakes, recognize the value of humility, but don't wallow or grovel -- get back on track and move forward.
Read an excerpt and learn more about The Idea That Is America at the publisher's website.

Watch Anne-Marie Slaughter on the Colbert Report.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Renee Rosen

From a Q & A at debut novelist Renee Rosen's website:

Which writers have influenced you the most?

I think it’s more a case of which writers haven’t influenced me. I believe that everything I read – even the downright bad stuff – influences me in that sometimes it’s just as helpful to see the things I don’t want to do with my own work. As for individual authors who inspire me, a few automatically come to mind. I’m a huge fan of nuance and I think no one captures that element better than Mona Simpson. I also can’t get enough of anything written by Michael Cunningham, Susan Minot and Rand Richards Cooper. I also love Hemingway and Raymond Carver – their prose is so crisp and clean. Every word is so precise and never interferes with their storytelling.

Read the entire Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: Every Crooked Pot.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Eric Stone

Eric Stone's second Ray Sharp thriller is due out this month.

Bethany Warner interviewed Stone at Word Nerd. The first question and answer:

WN: Your second novel featuring ex-pat journalist-slash-detective Ray Sharp ("Grave Imports") comes out in September. How and why did you decide to do a series of books?

STONE: Actually, in the second book Ray has given up journalism and taken a job with a corporate investigations firm. I figured that would give him greater scope for getting involved in, rather than simply reporting on, the sort of investigations that might lead to interesting stories. It allows him to be an immediate participant, rather than simply trying to affect change through reporting his observations.

As a reader, I've always loved series books, at least to a point. I like seeing how the characters develop and change from book to book. If I like the character, or even if I don't but I find them interesting for some other reason, I want to know what's going to happen to them next. People are more interesting to me than the specifics of a crime or whatever tale they get caught up in. I'm mostly interested in crime or politics or economics or anything else, from the standpoint of what impact it has on people, or on a specific person.

As a writer, a series is a real challenge of my skills to try and keep it fresh. I want my characters to learn from their experiences and be affected by them as the continuing personal saga progresses. There's nothing worse than a static series character, or one who is bogged down by all the baggage they bring along from previous books. It's a juggling act to give a series character a personal life - which is important in order to give them context - but not have that get in the way of the story. I might have to kill off some girlfriends or colleagues along the way. I don't know if I'd be capable of doing that after a dozen or so books, but I'd be happy to find out. I figure that people buy series books because of the character, but they like each book in the series because of the story and how it affects the character.

As for how the series came about, the first three books (I just finished the first draft of the third one) and the planned fourth book in the series are all based on true stories that I covered as a journalist, or know well from my work as a journalist, in Asia from 1986 to 1997. I wanted to fictionalize the stories in order to better show the impact of these big, real events and issues on regular people. Making them a series, with a central character to act as the eyes and ears of the reader, gives them a continuity and focus that I think makes them more accessible and entertaining to a broad range of people.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, September 7, 2007

Karna Small Bodman

Karna Small Bodman served in the White House for six years, first as deputy press secretary and later as senior director of the National Security Council. At the time of her departure, she was the highest-ranking woman on the White House staff.

She is also the author of the political thrillers Checkmate and its forthcoming sequel, Gambit.

Last month The Rap Sheet caught up with the author. Ali Karim provided a little background, then turned it over to Bodman who explained more about her pre-writer experiences and the story behind her books.

Her account opens:

I was scheduled to be in the staff car with White House Press Secretary, Jim Brady, on March 30, 1981--the day of the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan. I was Jim’s deputy at the time. At the last minute, Jim said, “You know, there’s a lot of work to do here, a ton of press calls to return. Why don’t you stay back--I can handle this one alone. It’s no big deal--just a speech to some union group over at the Hilton. I’ll be back around 2:30.” He never came back.

As we all remember, when Jim and President Reagan walked out of the hotel, John Hinkley fired six shots in three seconds, combat style, with two hands using a devastation bullet that was supposed to explode inside the victim. It didn’t explode, because he was using a smaller gun--a 22. Later, after surgery, we learned, but never announced to the country, that the bullet was lodged one inch from the president’s heart.

That day, along with many others, will always be seared in my memory and when I sat down to write my first novel, Checkmate, I spent a lot of time reflecting on those personal experiences, figuring out that I had a lot of material for a series of political thrillers. Authors are always asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Of course, any daily newspaper gives a writer a veritable Petri dish of plot points, but I decided that “being there” is even better.
Read more of The Rap Sheet entry "Being There."

The Page 69 Test: Checkmate and Gambit.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Michelle Gagnon

In Michelle Gagnon's debut thriller The Tunnels, "[a]n old, abandoned tunnel system beneath a prestigious New England college becomes the gruesome stalking ground of a serial killer…. The crime scenes are grim and otherworldly. The bodies of two female students are found mutilated and oddly positioned in the dark labyrinth beneath the school-haunting symbols painted on the walls above them."

From a Q & A with the author:

Q: Where did you get the initial idea for The Tunnels?

A: I originally set out to write a coming of age story set on a college campus. It was largely going to be based on my freshman year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where a number of dramatic events occurred: the University President’s office was fire-bombed, there was a student hunger strike, bullets were fired on the hill outside my dorm room. Various national and international organizations claimed responsibility for all the drama; in the end, it turned out to be largely the actions of two students who wanted to stir up unrest. Tragically, one of them was found murdered the following summer. I wanted to tell that story from the perspective of several different students, some intimately involved with what was going on, others just experiencing the madness from the periphery. But every time I hit the fifty page mark, the story stalled on me. I shifted gears, tried telling it from a different character’s perspective, tried opening with a different scene: nothing worked. Then one night, I took it in a completely different direction. The end result was The Tunnels.
Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Robert Wilder

Robert Wilder, who tried out the Page 99 Test on his last book, Daddy Needs A Drink, has a new book out: Tales From the Teachers' Lounge.

Greg Toppo interviewed Wilder for USA Today. Here's part of his intro and their first exchange:

In his first book, Daddy Needs a Drink (2006), author Robert Wilder offered a comic, slightly R-rated memoir of parenting. In his new book, Tales From the Teachers' Lounge (Delacorte, $23), Wilder, a longtime English teacher, reflects in similar fashion on his 18 years of teaching — most of them at Santa Fe Preparatory School, a private day school in New Mexico's capital. Wilder, 41, began his 12th year at Prep last week.

Q: The book is full of vivid flashbacks of your own education. In one, you describe a Catholic school nun named Sister St. Ignatius, recalling that you and your classmates "were terrified of upsetting this huge sexless monster." Can you tell us more about her?

A: Years ago, my wife bought me a wind-up toy of a ruler-wielding nun who shot sparks from her mouth. This nunzilla figurine was not unlike my own first-grade teacher, Sister St. Ignatius. She was definitely the valedictator of the "learn through terror" school of pedagogy. On our first day, she dramatically dropped Dick and Jane books on our desks and commanded us to read them. None of us knew how, of course, so we were all terrified that she'd send us to "Purgatory" — the boiler room in the basement that some kind soul had painted red (probably just to haunt our dreams). Most of us spent the first few weeks either crying or trying desperately not to soil ourselves, or both.

Read the entire interview.

Learn more about Tales From the Teachers' Lounge.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Sanford Levinson

Sanford Levinson holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School.

His many publications include Torture: A Collection and Our Undemocratic Constitution. He is a regular participant at the group blogs "Balkinization" and "Open University."

Levinson responded to a few questions about Torture: A Collection which were put to him by the political scientist Cary Federman, author of The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence and a professor in the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University:
Federman: Can one make a principled argument that torture by a dictator is essentially different from torture at the hands of representatives of a democratic government, in the name of legitimately attempting to extract information that could save lives?

Levinson: I don't think this makes a substantial difference. Even dictators may have the genuine interests of their society at heart, and even the leaders of democratic governments may be motivated by the desire to get re-elected by appearing to be "tough on (suspected) terrorists." It's also a way of fooling ourselves in believing that our doing things that we identify with brutal dictators is all right because our motives are purer.

Federman: You say that we are doomed to contemplate torture. Are we, post 9/11, doomed to torture? Is there anything edifying about it at all? I mean, in the sense that it can prevent further murders.

Levinson: There's nothing "edifying" about torture. The real issue is whether we're willing to do it even if, by stipulation, it would prevent a death of an innocent person. Most people would say we can never know that with sufficient certainty. But others, and I am one of them, would say that it is such a departure from any acceptable human-rights norm as to be unacceptable even to save an innocent person (though, as a matter of fact, I think that most people would, albeit reluctantly, accept torture if convinced that it could save, say, thousands of lives).

Federman: You seem to suggest that torture warrants aren't such a bad idea. Can you explain your position?

Levinson: It isn't such a "bad idea" as some of its critics portray it. That is, even if one rejects it, as I do, one has to recognize that Dershowitz is responding to a serious reality, which is that states torture. The real question is whether an "ex ante" (before the fact) warrant would reduce torture more than an "ex post" (after the fact) system of prosecution. Dershowitz correctly notes that governments are notoriously unwilling to prosecute "wrongdoers for the state"; moreover, juries may be unlikely to convict. One should take the idea seriously and explain what is wrong with it, as against simply condemning Dershowitz as an insensitive lout, which he is not.

Federman: The philosopher Michael Walzer says that government officials always operate with dirty hands. What is your position on rendition, that is, the policy of sending suspected terrorists to countries that will use torture, so that the United States keeps its hands clean?

Levinson: I think that rendition is a fundamentally dishonest and corrupting policy precisely inasmuch as it allows US officials to lie to the public and pretend that we're really not implicated in the reality of torture. And, of course, there is little doubt that the US has violated both national and international law in its use of "renditions," which has contributed to the contempt directed at the US around the world.
Read more about Torture: A Collection at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue