Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Edwidge Danticat

Jennifer Gonnerman interviewed Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I’m Dying.

Their first exchange:

JG: What was the hardest part of your book to write - and why was it so challenging?

ED: The hardest part was reading the government documents involved in my uncle's death.

Every encounter he had with a government official seemed so unfriendly, so distant, so cold. You have a feeling that no one was responding to him as a person, as a human being. It was also very difficult to write about my father's death. Obviously there was so much emotion involved.

I had been with my father just a few days before he died. This is not in the book but when I left him to return to Miami with my daughter before he died, he said to me, "When you come back, you might be able to see me, but I won't be able to see you."

Soon after that, he stopped eating and drinking and he died seventy-two hours later.
Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peter Pouncey

Peter Pouncey was born in Tsingtao, China, of English parents. At the end of World War II, after several dislocations and separations, the family reassembled in England, and Pouncey was educated there in boarding schools and at Oxford. He is a classicist, former dean of Columbia College, and president emeritus of Amherst College.

From a Q & A about his first novel Rules for Old Men Waiting, at the Random House website:

Rules for Old Men Waiting deals largely with wars of the twentieth century. What is your first memory of war?

I have written in a memoir that I’m working on, called The Broken Times, about coming to myself near the pleasantly peaceful city of Victoria, British Columbia, on the southern point of Vancouver Island. We had washed up there, looking across the water at Mount Baker, at the outbreak of World War II, and were there through the war. It was fine for us children, but a desperately anxious time for our mother: “Bereft of her husband incommunicado with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in the far west of China, of her father and brother in a Japanese interment camp near Shanghai, and of her own mother in the blitz in London, my mother listened in the kitchen to the BBC news, hearing the Axis extending its reach through the world on an ever-widening front. We three children listened with her in silence, sensing her fear, and fearing it.”

How do the wars of the twentieth century relate to our times?

There is no question that the follies of 20th century are the same as our own. The scale of consequences rises: recently we celebrated 150 years since the Charge of the Light Brigade. On that day English cavalry charged the Turkish artillery batteries in the Crimea, and only 195 out of 600 returned. On the first of July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, there were 67,000 British casualties before lunch — waves of perhaps the finest volunteer force ever assembled sent as infantry across level ground into the teeth of modern machine guns, some of whose barrels became red-hot with the ceaseless slaughter they were dishing out. The pattern is in fact invariably the same: the generals and politicians almost never know what they are sending their men into. It was the same with Athens, in the middle of the war that would destroy her: she decides in 415 BCE to send another expedition to conquer Sicily. An army of 40,000 prime troops and a fleet of 200 ships were comprehensively destroyed. Jingoistic slogans seem almost always to win out over considered thought.
Read the entire interview.

The Page 99 Test: Rules for Old Men Waiting.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Woody Holton

Jennifer Gonnerman interviewed 2007 National Book Award Nonfiction finalist Woody Holton, author of Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

The opening exchange of the interview:

JG: What was the hardest part of your book to write - and why was it so challenging?

WH: Unruly Americans devotes a lot of attention to the people who bought up the government securities that had financed the Revolutionary War. I argue that these bond speculators played a huge, albeit indirect, role in bringing about the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Discussing this topic with friends, I quickly discovered that my enthusiasm for it was not infectious. You have to be pretty weird to get excited about government finance.

It occurred to me that I could make the topic a lot more appealing to readers if I could find a compelling story about a single bond speculator; then that one guy could stand in for all the rest. For years I searched in vain for a speculator who left sufficient documentation. Near the end of the writing -- almost too late -- I found my speculator. It is Abigail Adams. Twenty years before becoming First Lady, in June 1777, Adams discovered this incredibly lucrative investment. And she was still buying bonds in the 1790s, when her husband was vice president.

Read the full interview.

The Page 69 Test: Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 26, 2007

Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman

Steve Evans interviewed Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman for By Common Consent.

Terryl Givens is a Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, and author of many books and articles, including The Latter-day Saint Experience in America, The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy, By the Hand of Mormon, and People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture.

Richard Bushman is a Professor of History Emeritus at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, and more recently, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.

A brief segment from the interview:
BCC: There have always been sensitive topics in the Church. Historically, BYU and BYU Studies haven’t been particularly friendly to discussions of such things. Do you see your publications as opening the discussion up beyond closed doors? Are BYU and BYU Studies willing to host discussion and publish on topics that they historically haven’t?

TG: I have never set out self-consciously to push the envelope or challenge the orthodox boundaries of Mormon studies or historiography. I don't think I have engaged in particularly controversial questions, but neither have I deliberately avoided them. Its just that I find myself fully occupied trying to address questions that I find personally urgent: was there more to Mormonism's contentious relations with the mainstream than traditional historical accounts tell us? How does one explain the potent capacity of the Book of Mormon to draw millions into its orbit, while simultaneously outraging other millions? Is there really such a thing as Mormon culture? What kind of philosophical and theological depth do we find when we examine Joseph Smith's thought? Generally, I find much more to celebrate than to deplore when I attack these questions.

As for BYU and BYU Studies, I think in an environment where dissident and alternate voices proliferate in very formal settings, there has been a tendency for many participants in the dialogue to define themselves against the "other," and this has resulted in more polarization than I would like to see. Recent efforts of some to organize Mormon Studies around facile categories like "faithful scholars" and "New Mormon Historians" and the like aggravate rather than ameliorate this problem. Mormon intellectual culture is not a two party system.

RB: I don't see many signs of a shift yet.

BCC: The zeitgeist at the LDS Archives seems to be one of opening and liberalization. It would seem that this is also the case at BYU. Why do you think that is?

TG: No one reason. The internet has made our cloistered guardedness of the past impossible; perhaps generational changes, shifting opinions about the value of scholarship to the church, the professionalization of Mormon history writing, the widespread scholarly interest in Mormonism, more moderate coverage by the media and the openness of publishers to let Mormons tell their own story, all have conspired to make the church less suspicious and guarded.

RB: The Archives are now quite open to serious scholars. Even the historians that we label as anti-Mormon work there. There is probably a realization that little is gained by hiding historical materials.

Read the full interview.

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

The Page 99 Test: People of Paradox.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Steve Hockensmith

Cameron Hughes ( interviewed Steve Hockensmith, author the "Holmes on the Range" mystery series.

Part of the introduction and their first exchange:

"[Hockensmith's] books are funny, original, and rather than plots driving the characters, the characters drive the plot.They paint a great picture of the old American West and manage not to romanticize it while not making it overly dour either. I want the books to sell to see Hockensmith's take on places like 19th century Hawaii and Cuba and the real thuggish nature of the Pinkerton's. What’s particularly amazing is that in the field of Sherlock analogues, he manages to make his two protagonists completely different and interesting...."

Why westerns?

Why not?

Actually, I can think of a really good reason why not: The Western genre’s a sales killer. So let me take this opportunity to make an announcement to the world.

I don’t write Westerns!

Except, of course, I do.

Sorta kinda.


It always annoys me when some pretentious wanker insists his new novel/movie/TV show/whatever isn’t science fiction even though it’s about mutant clones battling aliens for dominion over the earth. “Yeah, it takes place a thousand years in the future, but it’s really about people” blah blah blah. So I don’t want to be a hypocrite by trying to distance myself from the Western. My heroes are cowboys, for chrissakes! The first book takes place on a cattle ranch in the 1890s. The bad guys in the second book are train robbers. Come on!

But I do truly believe that my books are, first and foremost, mysteries. They just happen to be historical mysteries in which the setting is the 19th century West.

Does that sound lame?

See, this is a little dance I do because I suspect there are a lot of mystery readers who’d never touch a book they thought was a Western. I wish I didn’t have to worry about that, but I do. So I end up feeling ambivalent about my connection to a wonderful American storytelling tradition that I, personally, have great fondness for. Sad, eh?

So let’s start again.

Why Westerns? Because I grew up with them, probably. Both my dad and my granddad were huge Western fans, so when I was a little kid I didn’t just know who John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were -- I knew Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and Lash La Rue and Red Ryder and Gabby Hayes and Smiley Burnette and on and on to infinity. I was always a history buff, too, so the reality behind the fantasy was fascinating to me, as well. And I guess all that just stuck with me through the years. Blame it on nostalgia ... or arrested development.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Laurence Bergreen

Laurence Bergreen is the author, most recently, of Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu.

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

Q: It's surprising that for such a well-known person, so little has been written about Marco Polo. Why do you think that is?

A: It is an unlikely situation. And I was as surprised as anyone else to find that this was the case. There are books for young readers, and a vast trove of scholarly articles of varying usefulness, but next to nothing for the general adult reader, despite Marco Polo's fame. Even now, I'm not sure of the reason for this oversight, but I think Polo's unique and unclassifiable personality, reflected in his work, has something to do with it, as does his incredible range. He covers so many countries, continents, cultures, and languages that it is difficult to approach him in his cross-cultural entirety. In addition, Marco Polo did a fine job of speaking for himself. He seemed to need no introduction, but that was five hundred years ago. Now his work needs background and context to explain the circumstances out of which this unique work arose.
Read the full Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chandra Prasad

In Chandra Prasad's novel On Borrowed Wings, a quarryman's daughter enrolls in 1930s Yale having adopted the identity and gender of her recently deceased brother.

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

Women have long posed as men in order to gain access to restricted opportunities. Are there any particular stories, fictional or otherwise, that inspired you in the writing of this book? What has your own experience taught you about such social boundaries as race, class, and gender, and what did you hope to explore in this book with regard to these issues?

Since childhood I've been intrigued by women who utterly defy rules and expectations. The more drastic the story, the more fascinated I am. Anne Bonny and Mary Read are two women who successfully posed as male pirates in the 1700s. Both were known to be fiery, fierce, and quite terrifying. In 1916 Adeline and Augusta Van Buren became the first women to motorcycle their way across America. Several times along their journey, they were arrested for wearing men's clothing, which seems absurd now. Then there was Katie Sandwina, a spectacularly powerful circus strongwoman who was born in the late 1880s. She could carry her husband above her head using only one hand. These are just a handful of examples. There are so many extraordinary women who have tread radically into male territory. They make me realize that once certain boundaries are crossed, they fade, even disappear. Again, I don't really want to impose this notion on the reader. But I do hope that Adele's experience offers food for thought on how far women have come.

Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 22, 2007

Jennifer Lee Carrell

Jennifer Lee Carrell has won three awards for distinction in undergraduate teaching at Harvard, where she taught in the History and Literature Program and directed Shakespeare for the Hyperion Theatre Company. She is the author of The Speckled Monster, a work of historical nonfiction about battling smallpox at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Her debut novel is the recently-released Interred With Their Bones.

From the author's 2003 interview with Barnes & Noble:

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?

by J.R.R. Tolkien. The fine detail and vast scope of his world are astounding, but the greatest lesson The Lord of the Rings taught me is the paradoxical necessity of frayed threads, mysterious gaps, and unfinished edges. Like the real world, Middle-earth is deliberately, teasingly, seductively incomplete -- unknowable and therefore seemingly infinitely rich in its history, languages, geography, zoology, culture. The story at hand gives the sense of being no more than a brief exploration through a world whose horizons are endless: "All experience is an arch where through gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move," as Tennyson put it. Shakespeare teaches a similar lesson: Even his minor characters seem to have rich back-stories. The sense of full stories roiling in the shadows makes the plot at center stage shine all the brighter.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 21, 2007

M.G. Vassanji

M. G. Vassanji is the author of the acclaimed novels: The Gunny Sack, which won a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; No New Land; The Book of Secrets, which won the very first Giller Prize; Amriika; The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which also received the Giller Prize; and The Assassin's Song.

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

Q: Please talk a bit about the horrible violence that shook western India in 2002?

A: The violence took place in the state of Gujarat in early 2002. It followed an incident in which a train compartment carrying Hindu Nationalist activist-pilgrims caught fire and some 60 people were literally burned alive. The activist pilgrims were returning from the site of the 16th-century Babru Mosque, which had been demolished in 1993 by activists claiming it to have been an ancient Hindu site.

Following the burning of the train compartment, attributed to Muslims but never actually proved, a pogrom took place in Gujarat in which Muslim households were targetted and attacked in various places, goaded on by the right-wing Gujarat government, and encouraged by the police. The worst kind of violence imaginable took place, against women especially.

Following this violence (euphemistically called "riots") and basing its decision on the Indian Human Rights Commission, the US State department refused a visitor's visa to the Gujarat Chief Minister, Mody.

Q: How did you decide to write about this period?

A: I used this violence and its terrible destruction as a point from which to bring out the history of a shrine up to its destruction.
Read the entire Q & A and learn more about the novel.

Read Ray Taras' review of The Assassin's Song.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Rick Atkinson

Jamie Malanowski, managing editor of Playboy and author of The Coup, interviewed Rick Atkinson, author of the recently-published The Day of Battle.

Here's Malanowski's introduction and the first exchange from the interview:

Rick Atkinson is one of my favorite writers. Twice a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with The Washington Post, Atkinson is also the author of several books on military subjects, including The Long Gray Line, a narrative account of the West Point class of 1966; Crusade, a history of the Persian Gulf War; and In the Company of Soldiers, an account of the Iraq war, written from his perspective as an embedded reporter. An Army at Dawn, the first volume of a three volume history of the American army in the European theater in World War II, won him a third Pulitzer in 2002. Day of Battle, the second volume, has just been published to great reviews, which enthusiastically praise his masterful use of language and the adroit way he moves his focus between a grand overview and telling close-up. We’re delighted that Rick took time to answer some of our questions.

Today it often seems that what many younger Americans remember about the war is limited to Pearl Harbor, Omaha Beach and Hiroshima. Your book is book is about America’s second act in the war in Europe, if you will, the war in Italy. As with a lot of second acts, what happened there tends to get overshadowed. What should Americans know about our war in Italy?

First they should know, and hopefully never forget, that 23,501 Americans were killed in action in Italy between Sept. 1943 and May 1945, and that total Allied casualties exceeded 312,000. The Italian campaign was both a milestone on the road to victory in World War II and a stepping stone toward a free, stable Europe. It was a campaign of liberation that worked as planned by unshackling Italy from both the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini and his alliance with Nazi Germany.

Read the full interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 19, 2007

Maud Casey

Maud Casey lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland. She is the author of two novels, The Shape of Things to Come and Genealogy, and a short story collection, Drastic. Her stories have appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Confrontation, The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Sonora Review, and The Threepenny Review.

From a Q & A about Genealogy at the publisher's website:

You suffered writer's block while working on Genealogy. How did you recover your ability to write? Did it inform your depiction of Samantha's inability to write poetry?

There wasn't one particular moment of recovery. It was a series of meltdowns (five, six?) and recoveries. One time I fled my apartment and left town. When I returned, my apartment was filled with gas. I'd forgotten to turn the oven off. Was I trying to Sylvia Plath my novel? Who knows? There was at least a year and a half of thinking: I can't do this but I can't not do this so what do I do?

One thing that helped a lot was listening to music — Bill Evans, Chopin, and the Staples Singers, in particular. The music filled the space usually taken up by the annoying voices in my head ("Give it up loser"). Music and teaching. Thinking and talking with students about other, better writers buoyed me.

And yes, my writer's block became the reason for Samantha's. Now here's something I can really write about: writer's block.
Read the entire Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: Genealogy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Michael Largo

Michael Largo is the author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die, The Portable Obituary: How the Famous, Rich, and Powerful Really Died, and three novels.

From a Q & A with the author about The Portable Obituary:

What is this new book about?

I believe the manner of death is the most concise summary and perhaps the true epitaph of a person’s life. In many obituaries, and in many biographies, the true cause of death is often omitted, though in fact reveals the most poignant snapshot of an individual’s life. It’s not the last words but the last days that tell of the life lived before. I agree with Matthew Arnold when he said, “The truth sits upon the lips of dying men.”

Who's included in the book?

There are over 1,000 famous people in The Portable Obituary, primarily included because we’re often fascinated with celebrities who seem larger than life, but aren’t allowed to know how they really handled death. I wanted to see if their famous deeds and accomplishments influenced their process of dying. On one level, I wanted to know if their death matched the courage, adventure, hardship, joy, or actions they portrayed in life. After working on The Portable Obituary I found that life, famous or not, can only be fully understood backward.
Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A. J. Jacobs

A. J. Jacobs is the author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

Jana Riess of Religion BookLine interviewed Jacobs for Publishers Weekly. One exchange from their Q & A:

RBL: How — or rather, why in the world — did you come up with the idea for this book?

Jacobs: I grew up in an incredibly secular home. I'm Jewish in the same way that the Olive Garden is Italian. I had no religion whatsoever. But I'd become increasingly interested in the role of religion in our world, so I decided to dive in head first, and try to actually live the Bible as literally as possible. I wanted to follow what the Bible says and get into the minds of the ancients who wrote it. I wanted to figure out what was relevant and good for me, and what was maybe not so relevant.
Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Eric Nuzum

Bill Eichenberger of the Columbus Dispatch interviewed Eric Nuzum about his new book, The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires From Nosferatu to Count Chocula.

One exchange from the interview:

Q: After several viewings, what do you find most annoying (or offensive, infuriating or ridiculous) about the movie Nosferatu? Or of vampire movies in general?

A: For Nosferatu, I'd say that it became tedious because it simply isn't very scary. There are two reasons for this: First, while it scared the pants off people in the 1920s, our contemporary idea of "scary" is much different. Also, any scary movie becomes less scary the more times you've seen it. Fear is tied to the unknown; the more you know something, the less scary it is to you.

For vampire movies in general? That's kind of like asking, "What's the purplest thing about magenta?" All vampire movies are bad. They don't age well. What was once alluring becomes kind of silly later on -- sort of like acid-washed jeans or Chia Pets.

Read the entire interview.

The Page 99 Test: The Dead Travel Fast.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 15, 2007

Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta's latest novel, The Abstinence Teacher, is out this month from St. Martin's Press.

From a 2004 interview with Perrotta conducted by Barnes & Noble:

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?

I read The Great Gatsby in high school and was hypnotized by the beauty of the sentences and moved by the story about the irrevocability of lost love. I've reread it several times since then and have discovered lots of other layers -- Nick's idolization of Gatsby, the perverse Horatio Alger narrative of Gatsby's rise in the world, Fitzgerald's keen eye for the hard realities of social class in America -- and I still maintain that even if there's no such thing as a perfect novel, Gatsby's about as close as we're going to get.
Read the entire interview.

Learn more about The Abstinence Teacher.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Yann Martel

Anna Metcalfe interviewed Yann Martel for the Financial Times.

Martel is the author of the Booker prize-winning novel Life of Pi. His other books include a collection of short stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, and his first novel, Self.

He is a scholar-in-residence in English at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada. Born in Salamanca, Spain, Martel is a Canadian citizen.

A couple of the questions and answers:
What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. It’s incredibly funny in its approach to the grimness within it.

* * *

What book do you wish you’d written?

There are books I feel I could have written. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima; Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.

Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Janet Fitch

Janet Fitch is the author of the critically acclaimed and bestselling novel White Oleander and Paint It Black.

From a September 2006 interview:

Question: After the tremendous success of your debut novel, White Oleander, what was it like to sit down and write your next book?

Janet Fitch: Easy, then hard. I thought that I was handling the success very well -- I was just a writer, doing what I do, just keep on the way I always had.... The book was a separate entity; it went off and did well for itself, groovy. I had no idea what an impact it would have on me.

When you have a big book, there seems to be three stages (if you don't count the 'nothing will change' stage). Stage one -- you think you're Godzilla. You can do anything. You can eat cars, you can crush cities. You take on huge ideas, and make a terrific mess. Stage two -- you shrink to about the size of a single cell. You can do nothing, you stink, you're a fraud. You can't admit to anyone what's happening to you. Stage three -- you go back to basics. You remember that you can do a few things. Then a few more. Gradually, you regain a somewhat human size, and you're working again, scarred and humbled but grateful. It was a bizarre and none-too-comfortable ride.

Q: Los Angeles is the setting for both of your novels, but you treat it as much more than a backdrop. Why does LA have such an important presence in your novels? Do you think you would have written the same novels if you had set the stories in another city?

JF: Los Angeles definitely inspired these stories. When Faulkner was asked why he wrote about Mississippi, he said that it wasn't because Mississippi was so special; it was only the place he knew well enough to write about. LA is my home town, a very specific culture, a very specific landscape -- emotionally, historically, mythologically and physically. LA is for dreamers, people who want to remake themselves, and it's the absolute epicenter of culture clash, the great intersection of the 21st Century.
Read the entire interview.

The Page 99 Test: Paint It Black.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mark Coggins

In August 2007 Julia Buckley interviewed Mark Coggins, author of four August Riordan novels including Runoff, due out in November.

Part of the interview:

How did you choose the name August? Is it your favorite month, or perhaps were you inspired by the adjective august, which would suggest something “baronial, brilliant, exalted, or grandiose?”

Well, I knew I wanted the last name of the character to be Riordan as a sort of homage to a character in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely. For the same reason, I also knew that I wanted the first name to start with A. I finally picked August because I thought it was somewhat unusual and I liked the ring of it. And the fact that I was born in August didn’t hurt!

Cool. You’ve written three books and are about to publish a fourth. Are they all August Riordan books?

They are, but the second one — which is being reprinted by Bleak House Books this month — is a little different. It’s titled Vulture Capital and, as you might guess, has to do with the venture capital industry. Unlike the other books, Vulture is not told from Riordan’s (first person) point of view. It’s told from the point of view of a venture capitalist named Ted Valmont in an objective third person point of view. This is the same point of view that Dashiell Hammett used in The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key.
Read the entire interview.

Learn more about Mark Coggins' books and check out his blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mary Beard

Mary Beard has a Chair of Classics at the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow of Newnham College. She is classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of the highly enlightening and engaging blog "A Don's Life."

Geoff Manaugh interviewed her for BLDGBLOG about the The Wonders of the World -- "a small series of books that will focus on some of the world's most famous sites or monuments," which Beard edits and has contributed to -- and other topics of interest ... including her new book:

BLDGBLOG: You've also got another forthcoming book, published by Harvard, about the Roman Triumph – about Roman military processions. Could you tell me more about that? Is it similar in tone to the Wonders of the World series?

Mary Beard: In a funny way, although it’s a longer book, and it’s heavily footnoted, it’s written partly for the same kind of audience. It’s for the specialist as well as the intelligent ignorant.

What the book is saying is: look, here is a Roman ceremony which, much in the same way as these monuments, has been reworked and reappropriated throughout history. You know, Napoleon does the Triumph, every blasted princeling in the Renaissance does a Triumph, Mantegna paints the Triumph – it's still a cultural form that we share with the Romans. So how can we make sense of it? Particularly now, how do we think about celebrating military victory – and what form is possible, legitimate, in bad taste, in good taste...?

This relates, of course, to how we now package the Romans. Certainly for the last hundred years or so, they have been seen as the poor relations of the Greeks: Greek culture, we believe, was intellectual and self-reflexive, whilst the Romans were thugs who built roads and won battles. It’s a convenient dyad for us but, in many ways, it undermines and disguises so much of what’s really interesting about Roman culture.

One of the things I'm wanting to say about the Triumph goes like this. Here you've got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism. The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after – but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is, who really has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

For example, there are constant anecdotes, which I think are very loaded anecdotes, about how risky a celebration it is, and how the celebration can always go wrong. There's one General, Pompey, in the sixties BC, who decides to outbid all of the previous triumphant Generals. Instead of having his chariot yoked to horses, he decides to have it pulled by elephants. It looks fantastic – it looks kind of divine (that’s how the god Bacchus drove his chariot) – until he comes to go through an arch and the elephants get stuck in the arch. So he reverses a bit, and he tries it again – and they still can’t get through. They finally have to unhitch the elephants and bring up the horses – and you think: why is this anecdote being told? Not only is this obviously a humiliating moment – wouldn’t you feel a real fool if it happened to you! – but it’s also being told as a way of saying, remember, glory has to be carefully negotiated. Where is the boundary between glory and foolishness?

Another question is: who do you look at when you’ve got this great procession? Who's the star of the show? Is it the General in his chariot? Well, sometimes it is – but sometimes it's the victims. Sometimes military victory makes stars of the defeated. That was also a problem in the gladiatorial arena: who was the star? Well, it was the gladiator, not the emperor. In the Triumph those exotic but pathetic captives regularly stole the show, or were said to, and Roman poets and historians recognized this, and wondered about it, and played with it, and they turned it into a metaphor just like we do. And that is so topical today. Take Saddam Hussein's execution – you know, what was the upshot of those films? Who won?

Militarism often goes hand in hand with everything which undermines militarism. The Romans were actually – if you know how to read them right, and if you’re not expecting them to be Greek and to talk about it in the same way – they’re actually looking at the nature of military victory, and military display, and they’re wondering about it some of the same ways that we do.

So that's what the book is about – or, at least, those are some of the questions that have driven it.
Read the full interview.

The Page 99 Test: The Roman Triumph.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Michael Stusser

Michael Stusser's “Interview with a Dead Guy” columns, which appear in mental_floss magazine, have just been published in The Dead Guy Interviews: Conversations with 45 of the Most Accomplished, Notorious, and Deceased Personalities in History. He is a frequent contributor to Seattle Magazine and Law & Politics. His “Accidental Parent” column (ParentMap magazine) recently won the prestigious Gold Award from the Parenting Publication of America. Stusser has also authored several board games including “The Doonesbury Game” (with Garry Trudeau), “Hear Me Out” and “EarthAlert.”

The Dead Guy Interviews is entertaining as well as edifying; as the publisher puts it, "this collection of conversations is incredibly funny, but each interview is also based on serious research, so in addition to laughing, readers actually learn real history."

Stusser answered my questions about his book:

Zeringue: How much research did you do to give what appear to be an accurate historical pictures of your subjects?

Stusser: Oh this is serious stuff. My chief researcher is Anne Kaiser, who spent 25 years at Harvard University as manager of the Program on Information Policy. It took us 2 years to do the research for 50 interviews (we cut 5), and another year for final fact-checking. She’d make sure I didn’t ask Darwin how he came up with his theory of relativity or da Vinci about painting the Sistine Chapel. I also write the “Interview with a Dead Guy” column for mental_floss magazine, and so the staff there does all the fact-checking – and, let me tell you, nerds don’t mess around.

Zeringue: As far as I can tell, you do a fine job of separating the apocryphal from the historically accepted facts. And you do it in an engaging way; for example, you badger Catherine the Great about the rumors of her dalliance with the Love that Dare Not Neigh Its Name, thereby raising -- and clearing up -- a rumor that most historians consider unfounded. Of those figures you interviewed, who benefits most from (or suffers worst because of) a widely believed but untrue legend?

Stusser: Napoleon’s not as short as you might think. I mean, he’s short (4’6”), but I thought they’d bring him out in a thimble or something. Hell, he’s the same size as Alexander the Great. Also, Joan of Arc wasn’t hearing voices – she was wearing an early version of the iPod. Plus, Mozart’s not so bad…. (He paid me to say that.) Also, Sun Tzu is actually an incredibly peaceful warrior – he’d love Bono or Angelina Jolie. Even though he wrote The Art of War, he’s all about conflict as a last resort. His new book is The Art of Golf, so you know he’s mellowed over the years.

Zeringue: Who is the vilest dead person you interviewed?

Stusser: Not surprisingly, the French. Napoleon you might expect – but Coco Chanel was not only a Nazi-lover, but a pain in the ass. Plus, she’s upset they haven’t asked her to judge “Project Runway.” And Salvador Dali isn't vile, exactly, but he's a superfreak, for sure. What’s strange about him is that he’s so flabbergasted how normal everyone else is. “Nothing of what might happen ever happens!” he kept saying. “Why are bath tubs always the same shape? Why, when I ask for grilled lobster, am I never served a cooked telephone?” An odd bird, to be sure.

Zeringue: Who is the nicest dead person you interviewed?

Stusser: Cliché as it sounds, I’d have to say honest Abe; he’s an incredibly bright fellow and a great President during the roughest of times. He’s also got a helluva sense of humor. When we were talking about an opponent who called him two-faced, he said, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d be using this one?”

Zeringue: I run the Page 69 Test and the Page 99 Test: which test would more likely pull in the busy book browser and make her want to read more?

Stusser: I'd say Page 99 (with Charles Darwin). But every page should stand up - so I'll let you choose.

Zeringue: Was there anyone who you thought would be an interesting subject but decided to abandon after your research?

Stusser: At the beginning we had 50 interviews lined up, but there were some cancellations. Apparently, Jesus is miffed about being constantly misquoted, not to mention my request to turn my water filter into a wine dispenser. We had Gandhi all set to chat when my idiot intern offered him a foot-long sub during one of his frickin’ fasts. And Helen Keller - don’t get me started…. Oh, and the reason Elvis refused to be interviewed? He’s not dead yet. I’ll give you a hint: The Golden Nugget, Reno…. We also had to cut some folks because, quite frankly, they were boring. Aristotle, anyone ... don't get me started....

Zeringue: Is there going to be a volume 2?

Stusser: With your help and folks buying this one! There are still plenty of dead people to interview. It's not like they're going anywhere....

Zeringue: These interviews would make great sketch comedy. Any plans to bring them to the stage or screen? If you're camera-shy, I can see Jon Stewart playing the role of Michael Stusser....

Stusser: We will be introducing two Dead Guy Interviews next month via YouTube - Genghis Khan and Sigmund Freud both stopped by the studio. And you can hear audio samples on my MySpace page.

Zeringue: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book but no one has asked? And what's the answer?

Stusser: What was the best piece of advice you got from a dead guy?
I was talking to Ben Franklin at Starbucks the other day and he said, “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75. When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” He also said that the best way to avoid flatulence is to drink perfume, so take it for what it’s worth.
Read more about The Dead Guy Interviews at the Penguin website and visit Michael Stusser's website and MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Noah Charney

Noah Charney is the author of The Art Thief.

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

How did you get interested in the art theft field? What attracts you to the subject? How do you think you can bring improvement to this field?

Research to write my novel, The Art Thief, is what led me to the field. I realized there was no field, and that surprised me. I am most interested in the field from a practical standpoint — how the academic study can help to inform contemporary law enforcement and art protection. I feel that academics should always have a strong answer to the question of why one should bother studying any specific field. If the answer is simply that it is interesting and its study expands our knowledge of a field, that is okay. But it is much more important to study things with practical ends, and the most important reason to study history is to learn from past mistakes, so as not to repeat them. I hope that the study of the history of art crime can teach us how better to confront present day problems.

I was attracted to the field for the same reason that it fascinates a popular audience: the intrigue of unsolved mystery, crime, and the art world. As an art historian, this dark side of the art world, and the mixture of crime and mystery with art history was irresistable, from an entertainment and superficial perspective. But in greater depth the field proved even more interesting, and there are elements of psychology to art crime that make it unique. Finally, the absence of scholarly material, mixed with the immediate practical applicability of the field of study, made it an easy choice.

Treating art theft as a scholarly discipline: what challenges does it pose?

The greatest difficulty has been the lack of standard primary sources which would be used for solid scholarly research. In science, compiled statistics and in humanities, primary source documents, often manuscripts, would provide the backbone for research and theses. These do not exist, or at least not in their standard forms, in art crime studies. Most police departments have never, and still do not, file art crime cases in a distinct manner from other cases. Art thefts are compiled with general stolen goods. However art crime is drastically different in all ways from general stolen goods, and is actually more akin to kidnapping than to general theft of reproduceable goods, such as a car or a DVD player. Artworks are unique and irreplaceable and owners develop strong personal attachments to them, which a cash equivalent will not satisfy.

To do a really proper study of art crime, we would need to go through every police file of every department worldwide and first separate stolen art from general stolen goods, then identify based on the files alone which thefts featured art as the primary target, and which saw it as a secondary target (for instance when a house is burgled, and anything of obvious value is taken). This is a first, impossibly daunting step. But we can stop the bleeding if police departments from now on file stolen art separately from other stolen goods.

Only the Carabinieri take art crime seriously and only the bureacracy behind the Carabinieri Division for the Protection of Cultural Heritage provides praise-worthy support. While the Carabinieri has over 300 art agents full time, Scotland Yard has only 6 and the FBI has only 8. Both the FBI and Scotland Yard have achieved success through the efforts of one man at a time, the art squad directors (now Robert Wittman and Vernon Rapley, respectively), who have achieved great successes with virtually no support from administrators and their own governments.

So, lack of statistics and the material best suited as the root system for a scholarly study makes this field particularly challenging — too often I have to rely on being told something as a “fact” with no available empirical evidence or statistics to back it up. This has been most difficult in trying to write a Cambridge PhD, which expects only the most thorough scholarship, in great detail and depth. I have come up with a wide spectrum of knowledge, but most of it is from opinion and personal experience, with little that is solid to put in my footnotes. For this reason, I am considering that this field may not yet be ready for a PhD or at least not a Cambridge PhD, and it would be to the benefit of all if I write a general survey history of art crime, instead of a PhD in one specific subsection of the field. I have yet to decide if I will finish the Cambridge PhD, as too many other, more important tasks are being asked of me, tasks to which I, and this new field of study, am better suited.
Read more of the Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: The Art Thief.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, October 8, 2007

David Mizner

David Mizner is the author of Hartsburg, USA, about which the Kirkus reviewer wrote:

"[An] engagingly warm novel that humanizes the country’s culture wars…. [Hartsburg] could have been a slapstick satire, as it details a school-board campaign pitting a born-again Christian with a questionable past against a failed screenwriter who has returned to his Ohio hometown, bringing some of his Hollywood values with him. Though Mizner has fun with his characters, he is more concerned with illuminating them than with making fun of them.... This is fun to read.”
John Kenyon interviewed Mizner at Things I’d Rather Be Doing.

The first two exchanges from the interview:
TIRBD: What was it about a school board race in particular that appealed to you as a venue for exploring the political and social issues you deal with in the novel? Is it better suited than a city council or county supervisor race?

DM: A school board race, of all local races, seemed the most logical venue for examining the so-called culture war. Schools are often where the hot buttons gets pushed: homosexuality, sex-ed, religion, race. Schools are also a target of intense fear and focus: our children are there. The anxiety hovering over our children lends itself to drama. And ridiculousness. When I started writing the novel, I thought the candidates’ children would play a bigger role in the novel than they ended up playing. In fact, it becomes a joke in the book: a school board race from which young people and their interests are absent.

Reviewers have pointed out that you have written one of the most well-balanced books about the so-called red/blue split, offering well-rounded portraits of both sides. Being a liberal, which did you find harder to do: write about the warts of your own side or to look for the positives in the other?

It was definitely more of a challenge to write Bevy and her friends and family, simply because I’m less familiar with conservatives. I’m glad reviewers thought I was fair to both Wally and Bevy -- the book would be a disaster if there wasn’t something like

Balance -- although the people who reviewed the book are probably liberals themselves. I’m hoping to get reactions from conservatives, especially religious conservatives. To the extent that I managed to be fair to Bevy, it was because I like and relate to her. I'm similar to Bevy in some ways. We’re both disorganized and are always struggling to hold back disorder. And when I wrote the book, I was living on an island in Maine, isolated, and I couldn’t help but infuse Bevy with my loneliness -- that happened by accident. I guess it's a cliché that all your characters are you, but it’s true for me. To write a believable book, I knew -- or, I guess, figured out along the way -- that Bevy needed to be just as much me as Wally.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Margaret Coel

Margaret Coel is the New York Times best-selling author of the acclaimed Wind River mystery series set among the Arapahos on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation and featuring Jesuit priest Father John O'Malley and Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden. The latest is The Girl with Braided Hair.

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

What made you choose the mystery genre?

I simply followed the old maxim: write what you love to read. Since I always loved curling up with a good mystery, I thought it would be fun to write one.

I enjoy reading mysteries that offer something more than a puzzle. I want to be transported into another world and learn something new. For that reason, I enjoy Tony Hillerman's look at the Navajo world, Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian world, Thomas Harris's Seneca world, James Doss's world of the Utes, Ann Ripley's garden universe and John Dunning's book world. What fun to read!

Aside from mysteries, I'm an eclectic reader. I delve into history, biography, poetry, and lots of novels. I always try to "read up." That is, I try to read the best novels I can find because I'm always trying to improve my own craft.

What's it like to write novels? Where do you get your ideas?

Writing novels is the most fun I've ever had.

Many of my plots come straight out of history. The Eagle Catcher was about the way Indian people were defrauded of their reservation lands; The Story Teller dealt with the ledgerbooks — the books written in pictographs by the Plains Indians; The Lost Bird was about the heartbreaking way in which Indian babies were stolen from their parents; The Spirit Woman is all about the story of Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who went on the Lewis and Clark expedition; The Shadow Dancer weaves in the story of Wovoka, the prophet of the Ghost Dance Religion of the 1880s. I'm fascinated by the way past injustices percolate into the present and must be dealt with on new terms.

And just reading the newspaper every day gives me more ideas for plots than I could ever dream up on my own. The plot for The Dream Stalker came from articles about the federal government's efforts to build nuclear waste storage facilities on Indian reservations. I hit upon the plot for The Ghost Walker after reading about illicit drug labs on reservations.
Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: The Girl With Braided Hair.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Edmund White

Earlier this year Mark Doten interviewed Edmund White about his book, My Lives: An Autobiography.

Here is Doten's preface and their first exchange:

The name Edmund White conjures up a number of images. There’s the Midwestern boy fumbling his way to a gay identity (A Boy’s Own Story); the ultra-libidinous, ultra-liberated gay cruiser (The Beautiful Room Is Empty, The Joy of Gay Sex); the erudite man of letters, as comfortable in Europe as America (Jean Genet; Fanny: A Fiction); and also the clear-eyed and stricken chronicler of the devastation of the AIDS crisis (The Farewell Symphony; The Married Man). His latest book, My Lives: An Autobiography, investigates all of these identities, casting new light on his seventeen previous books and also marking a vital new turn in his career. The power of My Lives is derived in great part from its unusual structure: ten chapters that cut crosswise through his life by subject, including “My Shrinks,” “My Father,” “My Genet,” “My Hustlers,” and “My Master.” The last of these, which details his very, very sexy and very, very graphic love affair with a much younger man identified as “T.,” prompted him to write, “I can imagine some of my friends reading this and muttering, ‘T M I -- Too Much Information,’ or ‘Are we to be spared nothing?’”

Well, no. We’re not. And it’s White’s refusal to spare himself and us that makes this book so remarkable, offering a meditation by turns witty and elegiac on White’s numerous lives -- lives charged with sex, loss, and friendship.

I sat down with White in his Chelsea apartment to talk about the book. My laptop recording device immediately went on the fritz, but, fortunately for posterity, White was kind enough to dig out his own mini-cassette recorder and some spare batteries, and so we began.

Why arrange My Lives by subject rather than chronologically?

I guess because I had written about that in my fictional trilogy, plus The Married Man, which was also autobiographical, plus having two books written about me, plus having written numerous autobiographical short stories, I felt like I had kind of worked this vein. And I was trying to come up with a different approach that would come up with new material for me. I felt if I delved into the stream of my life by topic rather than chronologically, that a couple things would happen. One would be that I would have to group everything together and finally have a summary, a conclusion about it. And secondly, I would probably come up with thoughts I’d never had before. For instance, in the first chapter, “My Shrinks,” I don’t think there’s anywhere in all of my writing where I talk about what psychoanalysis meant to me. And here there’s about a two-page summary where I weigh the pros and cons of having been on the couch for 25 years.

Read the full interview at Bookslut.

The Page 99 Test: Hotel de Dream.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Charles Griswold

Charles Griswold is Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. His new book, from Cambridge University Press, is Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration.

Eduardo Velásquez, political philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University and author of A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There is No Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless, interviewed Griswold about Forgiveness and forgiveness.

Velásquez: Why is forgiveness in need of a "philosophical exploration?" Such questions are laden with assumptions, additional questions embedded within them. So in an effort to be clearer: Would a philosophical exploration make us better able to forgive? And if so, why don't prevailing common sense understandings of forgiveness suffice?

Griswold: Forgiveness warrants philosophical analysis for the same reason that such virtues as courage and justice do: our intuitions about the topic are not only conflicting, they often don't stand up to reflection. A philosophical exploration of forgiveness would help us to know when we are forgiving rather than, say, excusing or condoning or simply giving up our anger for some other reason, and in that sense would help us forgive. Such an analysis would help us know what to aim for, and help us to analyze what it is that we are doing. This is not a small achievement, given the debates and disagreements that plague every part of the topic of forgiveness.

Velásquez: It is likely that not a few readers picking up this book at the local bookstore or scrolling through the web pages of their favorite on-line distributor will think that Forgiveness is a philosophical exploration of a theological virtue. And yet you make clear at the outset that in "the present book I offer an analysis of forgiveness as a secular virtue" (p. xv). Would you explain the differences and the reasons for your treatment of forgiveness in secular terms?

Griswold: I focussed on forgiveness as a secular virtue (that is, one that does not require belief in the existence of a divinity) for several reasons. First, I am convinced that it can be understood as a secular virtue, but that hitherto we have lacked a careful analysis of what that virtue is in both interpersonal and political contexts. Our habit of thinking of forgiveness in religious terms has blinded us to the alternative, one that therefore warranted consideration. Second, we live in a world that is marked by a vast array of religions and non-religious ethical views, and common ground may be found in an ethics that does not commit to any one religion; I attempted to spell out one bit of that common ground. And finally, I wanted to understand forgiveness as part of a non-perfectionist ethical outlook. A secular framework is conducive to that end.

I did not explore the differences between religious (specifically, Christian) notions of forgiveness and the secular at much length, but said enough to indicate that their conceptual logic is quite different. I also pointed out that the vocabulary for forgiveness used in the New Testament represents a distinct choice, as other terms were available in ordinary Greek at the time and their meaning was interestingly different. I also noted my sense that Christian "forgiveness" itself has an evolving conceptual history, one that has not been well explored, at least not philosophically. What we think of as Christian "forgiveness" is, I suspect, a relatively recent development in that tradition. Pre-Christian and pre-Judaic Western notions of forgiveness -- some non-religious, some religious -- also have not been at all well explored. Vast areas of the general topic, then, invite further exploration. I decided to break off one piece -- forgiveness in a secular context -- and explore it carefully and thoroughly.

Velásquez: Chapter Four departs from a consideration of interpersonal forgiveness to tackle one of the salient issues of our time, namely, "political forgiveness." You offer a controversial response to the question of whether forgiveness ought to be a political aim. Apology, not forgiveness, should be the political goal. How do we understand the differences between apology and forgiveness, and why does (do) politics seem to demand the former and not the latter?

Griswold: Apology in the political context is not 'personal' in the way that the request for forgiveness is when made in an interpersonal context. The criteria defining it are lower and in that sense less demanding, as befits the fact that it may be offered by a person representing the offender (which itself may be a corporate entity or collectivity of some sort), and indeed that it may be offered to a collective entity of some sort. A successful apology nonetheless depends on ideals shared by interpersonal forgiveness, including truth telling and the taking of responsibility. I also note that injecting notions of personal forgiveness into politics may politicize the moral exchange in a way that is corrupting (think of compelled performances of contrition and reformation). And finally, I explore modes of reconciliation that lie elsewhere on the spectrum, including some traditional ceremonies of reconciliation in Africa.
Read an excerpt from Forgiveness and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 69 Test: Forgiveness.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

David Blixt

David Blixt is a Shakespearean actor-turned-author. Here is the beginning of his interview with St. Martin's Press, publisher of his first novel, The Master of Verona:

St. Martin’s Press: The Master of Verona, ten words or less.

David Blixt: Shakespeare’s characters meet Dante’s in early Renaissance Italy. Problems ensue.

SMP: Where did your ideas come from for The Master of Verona?

DB: The original idea came from a line of Shakespeare’s text at the end of Romeo & Juliet. From there on it was a blending of historical fact, Dante’s poetry, and Shakespeare’s people and events.

SMP: How did you come to combine so many famous artists' work -- you reference Dante and Giotto and Petrarch... and, of course, you have so many characters from Shakespeare -- in The Master of Verona?

DB: When I was doing research on Verona, I discovered that the three men generally credited with starting the Renaissance – Dante, Giotto, and Petrarch – were all in Verona at nearly the same time. Dante and Giotto were friends, and Petrarch went to university with Dante’s son. So, in combining characters from Shakespeare with these real historical figures, I was able to craft a novel as much about art as warfare, romance, and destiny.
Read the entire interview.

The Page 69 Test: The Master of Verona.

--Marshal Zeringue