Friday, February 29, 2008

Sophie Hannah

From a Q & A between Ali Karim and Sophie Hannah at The Rap Sheet:

AK: You are a renowned poet. How did you find yourself working in the crime-fiction field?

SH: I’ve always wanted to write crime fiction. One of the reasons why it took me so long was that I wanted to wait until I felt I could write a really good crime novel. When I was 18, I wrote two really bad crime novels, and it was obvious that I couldn’t do it at that point in my life. But I knew it was something that I always wanted to do, as I am an obsessive crime reader. I read practically nothing but crime fiction. I just love the crime-thriller genre.

AK: So what books have you favored in this genre, and who influenced your evolution from reader to writer?

SH: I think it’s easier to say who you like, rather than who you are influenced by. I am huge fan of Agatha Christie. Apart from Enid Blyton with her “Secret Seven” books, Christie was the first crime writer I read; in fact, I read all her books and I collect her work. Then I went from Christie to Ruth Rendell; I read all of hers and again collected all her books. Those two writers have been my biggest influences.
Read the full interview.

Sophie Hannah is a bestselling poet and novelist who regularly performs her work both in the U.K. and abroad.

The Page 69 Test: Hurting Distance.

The Page 69 Test: Little Face.

My Book, The Movie: Little Face and Hurting Distance.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sean Chercover

Sean Chercover's terrific debut crime novel, Big City, Bad Blood, captivated readers last year.

Julia Buckley asked him a few questions about his craft, including:

I’m curious about the name of your protagonist, Ray Dudgeon. In my world (the world of teaching Shakespeare), a dudgeon refers to a holder for a dagger, as in Macbeth’s famous speech: “I see thee still, and on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood.” Am I raving here, or were you inspired by Shakespeare in choosing the name?

Shakespeare rocks, and the Scottish play is right up there with Hamlet for me. Ray had a number of names along the way, before I settled on Dudgeon. I like surnames that have independent meanings as words. Some of my favorite classic PIs have names that do double duty by describing the character. Spade, Archer, Hammer. And for some reason I wanted a two-syllable word that started with D. I was flipping through the dictionary, and I hit upon dudgeon. As a fan of the bard, I was familiar the meaning that Shakespeare used – the handle of a dagger – which seemed to fit with Ray’s underlying rage and the violent world he inhabits. And the modern usage of the word also fits. Ray was once a reporter, but he quit journalism when he couldn’t come to terms with the ethical compromises that were being forced upon him. You could say, he left “in high dudgeon.” So I was actually inspired by the dictionary, but the Shakespeare connection was a nice bonus.
Read the full interview.

The Page 69 Test: Big City, Bad Blood.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Brian Fagan

From a Q & A with Brian Fagan, author of the new The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations:

Why is ancient climate change important today?

I’m struck by how lamentably ignorant most people, even scientists and other scholars, are about ancient climate change. A lot of chatterers talk about a new climatic future, but they forget that humanity has been \living with unpredictable climatic shifts for tens of thousands of years. The ways in which ancient societies coped with sudden events like El NiƱos or lengthy droughts are both diverse and fascinating, and have much to teach us about how people handle climatic change, maintain sustainability, and modify their behavior. We have much to learn from our forebears, even if we do live in a different climatic era.

Are you arguing that climate change was a major player in human history? Surely this has been argued before?

Yes, it has, nearly a century ago, by a school of geographers who insisted that climate change “caused” major developments like agriculture. This kinds of linear climatic argument, that climate change like drought led inevitably to something historical, became known as climatic determinism—dirty words to generations of archaeologists. Now things are very different, for we now have access to extremely fine-grained climatic data like tree-rings, which now extend back 10,000 years in parts of Europe. For the fist time, we can accurately assess the impact of climate on ancient human societies, and understand that it was one of many players that affected history, and at times an important one.
Read the entire Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Thomas Cobb

From a Q & A with Thomas Cobb, author of Shavetail:

What inspired you to set your novel in America's old west? The landscape and time period has obviously been heavily researched. How did you go about researching for this book?

Much of my research was simply growing up in the middle of the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. The landscape of Shavetail is the landscape of my early life. Though I live in New England now, a part of me never left the desert.

I did to a lot of research on the 19th century Army and hope that I got a lot of it right, though I know I made mistakes. At one point I had to stop researching because it was becoming obsessive and interfered with the writing. I made myself recognize that the people who really knew life in the 19th century Army are all dead now.

* * *

Your characters are relatable to today's reader, though they deal with issues that are unique to their place in history. Did you employ any methods to make characters of historical fiction relevant to modern readers? Are any of the characters in Shavetail based on anyone in your own life? Some of the characters in Shavetail seem to be treated with more compassion than others. While writing, did you feel any particular attachment to certain characters?

I don't believe that you need to modernize historical characters because you modernize them automatically. When we look at history, we look at it from our own point of view, with our own knowledge and prejudices. We can't think like the ancient Egyptians or the Greeks or medieval French peasants, because we know only what we know. So, the characters in Shavetail, while I struggled to make them as historically plausible as I could, are really modern characters, because I'm a modern writer. I can mimic some of the voice of a nineteenth century author, but I can't really adopt the view point because my knowledge base is so different from theirs.

All of my characters are a combination of myself and some others. And I will never admit that any particular character has any of the traits of anyone I know, though, of course, they do. And I love my characters -- I love Ned and Brickner, pretty much equally, though they are terribly different. Lt. Austin is the character who probably has the most in common with me. Since in my other life, I am a college professor, I try to hide that academic side as much as I can when I write. Austin is only of the very few characters I've written who allows me to indulge that side of me.

Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Shavetail.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 25, 2008

Richard Zoglin

Richard Zoglin's new book is Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America.

Jamie Malanowski interviewed him for

The introduction and opening exchanges:

Richard Zoglin, a former colleague of mine at Time magazine, has written an excellent piece of history of entertainment history called Comedy At The Edge, about stand-up comedy in the 1970s. Not only has Richard been a longtime observer of the stand-up scene, but he is a top-notch reporter, and the book captures the broad history of this phenomenon, while offering rich and insightful details about the comics themselves. Here Richard answers some of our questions:

PLAYBOY: Your book is subtitled How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. Okay—what was so special about what happened in the 1970s, and how did it change America?

ZOGLIN: I think the stand-ups of the late '60s and '70s really articulated and even helped shape the attitudes that we identify with the social and cultural revolution of the time: suspicious of authority, expressing a new freedom of language and sex, calling into question the hypocrisy and outmoded morality of old '50s-era America – all the hits of the counterculture years. How did these comedians change America? They reshaped our sense of humor -- and our sense of humor is what defines us today, provides the framework for how we look at the world and at ourselves.

PLAYBOY: Like a lot of writers who've looked at comedy during this period, you give a lot of credit to Lenny Bruce for laying the groundwork for so many of those who Followed. However, unlike many critics, you don't think he was quite as funny as those who followed in his footsteps. Care to elaborate?

ZOGLIN: I really tried to take a fresh look at Lenny. I’ve never really laughed that much at his stuff, and I still don’t. I don’t think he was a great craftsman of comedy the way Carlin or Klein were - guys who tackled some of the same subjects Bruce was talking about and really shaped them into sharper satiric bits. But the more I listened to Bruce, the more I realized why he was such a monument for the younger guys. First he showed that a comedian could be a social commentator and a rebel; the stuff he did about race and sex and middle-class morality and such was just so advanced for the time. It was really an inspiration. And second, he showed that stand-up comedy could be intensely personal – not just a guy telling jokes, but a guy providing a raw, uncensored look inside his psyche. And I think that was a revelation for the younger comics and something they decided to build on.

Read the full interview.

Learn more about Comedy at the Edge.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff 's short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Hobart, and Five Points as well as in the anthologies Best American Short Stories 2007, Pushcart Prize XXXII, and Best New American Voices 2008. Her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, which was released earlier this month, has reaped very enthusiastic reviews and endorsements ... like Stephen King's: "The Monsters of Templeton is everything a reader might have expected from this gifted writer, and more ... I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end, and there is no higher success than that."

From an interview with Groff conducted by the Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg:

The Wall Street Journal: How did Stephen King get onto your book so early?

Lauren Groff: He chose a story of mine for "The Best American Short Stories 2007," which he edited. It's a resetting of Abelard and Heloise in 1918 during the flu epidemic titled "L. DeBard and Aliette." Aliette is a girl stricken by polio who later goes on to become an Olympic swimmer. Anyway, he loved the story, thank goodness. My editor, Pam Dorman, had worked with him on earlier books, and asked if he would like to see my book. He wrote it up and created amazing buzz right from the beginning. (Ms. Groff's short story is online at The Atlantic.)

WSJ: What was the impact?

Ms. Groff: There is no name in American literature more recognized than Stephen King, so it helped immeasurably. In Sarasota, Fla., we'll be doing a reading together. (The March 27 event will be on the University of South Florida's Sarasota-Manatee campus.)

Read the full interview.

The Page 99 Test: The Monsters of Templeton.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jennifer 8. Lee

Jerome Joseph Gentes interviewed Jennifer 8. Lee for Publishers Weekly.

One question from the interview:

How did your search for the fortune cookie’s origins evolve into this broader social and cultural history?
Cookies weren’t the main story in the beginning. I had all these discrete chapters on different subjects like cookies, General Tso’s chicken and so on. The Powerball incident [in which several winners had all chosen the same numbers from a fortune cookie] gave me a larger narrative to hang the other, smaller stories on. Then I saw that I could trace the cookies back and tell the history of Chinese food going forward. I couldn’t make everything fit. I would have liked to have done more, say, on woks or the Chinese-fast-food chain, Panda Express.

Read the entire Q & A.

Visit the website for The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

Writers Read: Jennifer 8. Lee.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lee and Bob Woodruff

Bob Woodruff was named co-anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight in December 2005. On January 29, 2006, while reporting on U.S. and Iraqi security forces, he was seriously injured by a roadside bomb that struck his vehicle near Taji, Iraq. Lee and Bob Woodruff published In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing in early 2007.

From a Q & A with the Stanford School of Medicine’s Paul Costello :

Bob, right after the IED went off you had a “white light” experience. What do you make of that?

Bob: I can only explain what I saw. And that was just me floating down below me. It only lasted about a minute. I didn’t see much beyond that. It’s probably the way it’s going to look when I do it again, and this time go the other direction.

So do you think that that’s the line of demarcation between life and death?

Bob: I don’t think we can really know until something happens later on. I will say that it looks pretty comfortable to me and I don’t really have much fear of death because of it.

Neither of you is from a military family. Now you’ve been thrust in a military environment. What was it like for you at the hospital, Lee?

Lee: At first it was disorienting, and then I really relaxed into it because, in the end, doctors are doctors and hospitals are hospitals and people are people. We began to feel the rhythm of the “ma’am” and the “sir” and all of that. And understand how truly lucky and grateful we were to have had this happen in the arms of the military because there was no better place for Bob to be.

Read the entire interview.

The Page 99 Test: In An Instant.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tom Rob Smith

Following his recent rave about Tom Rob Smith's debut thriller, Child 44, Ali Karim interviewed the author for The Rap Sheet. A few of their exchanges:

AK: I understand that Child 44 was inspired by the real-life Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. How did that come about?

TRS: I was researching “Somewhere the Shadow.” The short story is about a future world where serial killers can be rendered safe by a neuro-surgical procedure. In order to understand what that procedure might be, I had to try and find out what lay behind these crimes, how these people might be “made safe.” I stumbled across the real-life case of Andrei Chikatilo and I thought it would make the great basis for a story.

AK: Has your reading often taken you into the crime/thriller genre? And if so, what sort of books have appealed to you?

TRS: Most of my reading for Child 44 has been non-fiction, rather than, say, other thrillers. More generally, I’ve never really been particularly loyal to any genre. There isn’t any kind of book I wouldn’t read. I guess I feel a little under-read compared to many crime/thriller lovers. I’ve read everything by Thomas Harris: my copy of The Silence of the Lambs literally broke apart, I read it so many times. Thomas Harris is an incredible writer. Hannibal Lecter is a great character. I’ve also recently really enjoyed Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, Lee Child, [and] Scott Turow.

AK: What is it about serial killers that you think appeals to modern readers and filmgoers alike?

TRS: There is the puzzle element: killers leaving clues and detectives trying to piece those clues together. That side is always fun, but a serial-killer story can also cut into society in an interesting way. The case embodies something of the society in which the crimes happen -- whether its issues of racism, or corruption, or [as] in Child 44, the political ideologies of the time.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Andrew Nagorski

Andrew Nagorski is a senior editor at Newsweek International and author of several books, including The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II.

From Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg's interview with Nagorski for the Wall Street Journal, November 2007:

The Wall Street Journal Online: How did you choose this topic?

Andrew Nagorski: Having served in Moscow twice, I was a bit skeptical about doing anything related to the Great Patriotic War. There is so much propaganda and so much information that has been sanitized. My agent, a militant history buff, said look, this battle has never gotten its proper due.

There is more than just a military history here; there are so many personal stories that could be told. I began doing some interviews and looking at what was coming out of the archives, and I realized this was fascinating on every level. I felt I would learn a lot by talking to people. Also there were people willing to open up near the end of their lives. It was a chapter of the war that deserved to be told. How were the Russians able to lose nearly 2 million killed, wounded or taken prisoner in such a short period and continue fighting?

Mr. Nagorski: Stalin considered his manpower his most expendable element. The reason that the losses were so colossal was that Stalin's mistakes leading up to the war were colossal. In Putin's Russia, the cult of Stalin has been somewhat revived. My book shows that in the beginning of the war, he was really a disaster. And he almost led his country to defeat. The purges of 1937 and 1938 meant that the officer corps was decimated. As a result, much less experienced officers were leading the military when Hitler attacked. And Stalin refused to believe everyone who told him that Hitler was getting ready to attack. So he didn't allow his army to prepare properly. Huge numbers surrendered or were killed in those early days.

Read the full interview.

Read an excerpt from The Greatest Battle, and learn more about the writer and his work at Andrew Nagorski's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Rick Moody

Anna Metcalfe interviewed Rick Moody for the Financial Times. Moody has published four novels, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. His novel The Ice Storm (1994) was adapted into a feature film. Moody's Right Livelihoods (three novellas) was published in 2007.

A few exchanges from the interview:

What book changed your life?

Moby-Dick. I read it when I was 15 and until then I thought American literature was drudgery – you had to read it to improve yourself, like doing sit-ups.

* * *

What book do you wish you’d written?

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. It’s in its own little universe.

* * *

Which literary character most resembles you?

John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. He is a failed poet: complicated, melancholy, but a sublime human being.

Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 18, 2008

Laura Wiess

From a Q & A with Laura Wiess about her second novel, Leftovers:

Did you draw inspiration from any real life events or acquaintances when you developed this story?

One incident I drew from emotionally happened in my senior year of parochial high school. My friend and I had some free time in the afternoon, so we headed for the cafeteria. The radio was playing on the PA, and over in the corner a crowd of jock guys from assorted grade levels were standing in a closed circle, clapping, stomping, jeering and yelling, "Go! Go! Go!" My friend and I were like, What the...? and walked over to take a look.

We peered through the crowd and saw another senior, a quiet, stocky kid who'd been tormented his entire high school career, trapped in the middle of that raucous circle. His school uniform was disheveled, his necktie knotted up around his forehead and he was dancing frantically to the music, face beet-red, sweating bullets, desperate-eyed and unable to escape through the closed ranks.

Now, I was no angel and probably caused my share of heartache making it through, but when I saw this I freaked and without even thinking, elbowed through the crowd, grabbed this kid's arm, said, "Come on," and we plowed right out of there. I was so angry that I don't know what I would have done if the circle hadn't dissolved in grumbling and let us pass.

Which begs the question why? Why did they let him go then, when they wouldn't before?

Was it because someone had stood up for him, or because they were just looking for something to do, and figured they'd pass the time torturing him until it became inconvenient? Maybe they knew they could start back up on him later, when he was alone again, or maybe it was something as simple as deflating the mob mentality. Who knows? I still don't.

Anyhow, we went and sat in the courtyard, me furious, him humiliated and exhausted. We'd never spoken to each other before but that afternoon we hung out talking (and I'm pretty sure we each cut some classes to do it), about the different ways he'd been tormented, from the jock girls whining "Ewww!" and shrinking away whenever he walked by or changing their seats in class so they wouldn't have to sit next to him, to rougher locker room crap and just generalized cruel, constant mocking.

He was funny, kind, shy, lonely, smart and interesting. Maybe a little scarred from a rocky home (and school) life. He was also visible but powerless, and his normal days at school were hell on earth.

We became friends for the rest of the year, stayed in sporadic touch for a long time afterward, and lost track of each other about seven years ago, when he and his family moved, and left no forwarding address. I hope he's reaping the happiness in his adult life that was denied in his teen years because he didn't deserve that kind of treatment.

I also drew on knowing kids who came from party houses where almost any activity short of wrecking the place was fine, houses where the parents were hardly ever home, and from houses where at least one parent was always there to supervise. Kids who were encouraged to be whimsical, creative, adventurous, and kids who were constantly being groomed, molded, criticized, punished and pushed to be better, faster, more perfect, we have expectations and you must conform and fulfill them NOW.

Intense stuff.

So, inspiration came from many places: stories, research, journals, news, memories, triumphs, tragedies, imagination...all combined, simmered and fictionalized.

Read the full Q & A.

Visit Laura Wiess's website.

The Page 69 Test: Such a Pretty Girl.

My Book, The Movie: Such a Pretty Girl.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Katie Estill

Katie Estill is a graduate of Kenyon College and has an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is the author of two novels, Evening Would Find Me and Dahlia's Gone.

In 2002, Dan Wickett interviewed her for the Emerging Writers Forum.

One exchange from the interview:

Dan: There is a love triangle within [Evening Would Find Me]. Do you believe it is easier, or even a better way, to write of a relationship of love with the utilization of a triangle, as opposed to a "simple" boy-girl relationship?

Katie: Better, easier? I don't know. There was no other woman in "Romeo and Juliet," one of the world's most renowned love stories, although perhaps the lovers' families acted as that third constituent. The triangle is an ancient, archetypal geometric form, and it's energy is that of the flame. Clearly, most stories and novels are propelled by conflict. So in that sense, yes, a story based on a love triangle is organically fueled by conflict. Such a love story also forces us to acknowledge both the power and limitations of love. It compels us to face our own shadows and complexities. It disallows the false stupor of romance, which promises everything will turn out nicely in the end. In a triangle, you cannot love without knowing you're causing someone else pain. In the end you're making ruthless choices. Artists develop this ability to be ruthless, either with others or, more productively, with their own work. But that's the basic truth of our existence and all life. When we eat a pork chop or break off a stalk of celery - we're destroying life in order to live. To pretend this isn't so is an illusion, but we need to honor the life we take.
Read the full interview.

Learn more about the author and her work at Katie Estill's website.

Dahlia's Gone has been nominated for the Hammett Prize by the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers.

The Page 99 Test: Dahlia's Gone.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Steve Hockensmith

New at Gumshoe Review, Gayle Surrette interviews Steve Hockensmith, author of Holmes on the Range, On the Wrong Track, and the brand new The Black Dove.

One exchange from the interview:

Gumshoe: From the first book, I've been intrigued with the Amlingmeyers and the books. What was the genesis for a cowboy Holmes? It certainly seems to work -- the Wild West and the Victorian Era being so close in feel with the clash of old traditions and customs with the new technological marvels? But what drew you to this era and these characters?

Steve: The thing that intrigued me in the beginning was that the Wild West and the Victorian Era are actually the same, chronologically: They overlap almost perfectly. And yet everyone views them so differently. One's rootin', tootin' and...well, *wild*. The other's supposedly repressed and oh-so "civilized." So I wanted to show those two opposites colliding. And who better to represent the Old West than an illiterate cowboy? And who better to represent the Victorians than Sherlock Holmes?

But there's a simpler explanation, too: It's all about my dad. He's both a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and a huge fan of Western movies, so I grew up to both myself. And since I ended up being a writer, maybe it was inevitable I'd try to mix the two.
Read the entire interview.

Visit Big Red's blog to learn more about Steve Hockensmith and his writing.

The Page 69 Test: On the Wrong Track.

My Book, The Movie: Holmes on the Range.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 15, 2008

Helen Dunmore

Anna Metcalfe interviewed Helen Dunmore for the Financial Times. Dunmore has published 10 novels, as well as poetry collections, short stories and children’s books. Her latest novel, now out in the U.K., is Counting the Stars; her latest children's book available in the U.S. is The Tide Knot.

A few exchanges from the interview:

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

Rachel Cusk’s The Country Life. There’s a beautiful description of a girl who’s driving a car without knowing how to.

* * *

What books changed your life?

Fairy tales by Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. They made me realise how many worlds could be created in one volume.

* * *

What book do you wish you had written?

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. But I don’t wish I had written it. I’m just glad someone did.

Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Joshua Henkin

From an interview with Joshua Henkin where he talks about his new novel Matrimony, teaching writing, and the writing life:

The novelist Dani Shapiro describes Matrimony as "at once sprawling and economical." The prose and the scenes are very tight, yet the book takes place over the course of twenty years and is set in numerous locations--New York City, western Massachusetts, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Iowa City. How does a writer cover this amount of territory while keeping a novel's focus? Did you map the book out in advance?

I'm not a map-things-out kind of writer. I believe it was Mary McCarthy who said that she writes in order to find out what will happen, and I'm that way myself. I always start with what I believe is the beginning--it's important to me to be writing forward--even if it turns out that I'm grossly mistaken. In the case of Matrimony, I started with a college reunion because that was where I thought the book began. Now there is a college reunion in the novel, but it comes twenty years and nearly three hundred pages into the book. My next novel I've mapped out a little more, but even that's a very tentative mapping out, and I want to make sure that I allow myself to veer from the path I've staked out for myself. This is a tension that any writer faces--between planning out too little and planning out too much. If you plan out too little, you can end up writing a lot of pretty sentences about mountains and sunsets that don't go anywhere. If you plan out too much, you can end up injecting characters into a preordained plot and you get what a friend of mine calls Lipton-Cup-a-Story. What I try to do is to set my fiction in situations where something important can take place--where there's potential for conflict--but not to know too far in advance how that conflict will play out. That way the imagination can take over.

How would you summarize Matrimony?

Jonathan Franzen once said that the better a novel is, the more difficult it is to summarize. The protagonist in Martin Amis's novel The Information says something similar. He's a writer himself and he's being interviewed about his novel and the interviewer keeps asking him what his novel is about. Amis's protagonist, who, like many Amis protagonists, is a pretty difficult fellow, says something to the effect of, "It's 150,000 words, and if I could have said it in any less I would have." I sympathize. But if I had to describe Matrimony, I'd say it's about the twenty-year history of a marriage (it's about two marriages, actually--arguably three) and that it's about love and friendship, and the pleasures and perils that attend to those things. More generally, the novel is about what it's like to be in your twenties and thirties--even your forties in some cases--when you're waiting for life to begin and you find to your surprise that it already has begun and that the decisions you make have consequences that you're not even aware of yet. This is particularly pronounced in the case of my protagonists, Julian and Mia, since they get married at twenty-two, right out of college, and find themselves a year later living in Ann Arbor among friends for whom marriage is the last thing on their minds. College towns can perpetuate an eternal adolescence--I know; I've lived in a lot of them. And there's a real divide between married people and single people, the way further down the line there's an even bigger divide between people who have children and people who don't. So Julian and Mia have done what seems like the supremely adult act--getting married--even as in other ways they are far from fully formed. This is certainly true professionally. Julian is struggling to finish his novel; Mia is slogging away on her psychology dissertation. In that sense, the book is about what happens when life calls even when you're not ready for it to come calling.

Read the full interview.

The Page 69 Test: Matrimony.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Meredith Hall

The opening exchange from a Creative Nonfiction interview with Meredith Hall, author of Without a Map:

Q...The two pieces that have appeared in Creative Nonfiction [“Shunned” and “Killing Chickens”] both revolve around pretty traumatic experiences; I wonder if this is something that is typical of your work? It seems that your work is beautiful in the way that it is an explanation or a kind of reasoning out of what happened and why, and how one can live in the aftermath of it. I wondered if this is the way you approach writing in general — a way of gaining perspective?

Hall...Actually, I think a couple things are going on. One is there are moments in my life, not large events so much as very distinct moments, that tug at my memory and tug at my desire to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and understand. But, mostly, as a writer they catch my attention. I know they're big moments; I know they're moments that are waiting to be exploded into a larger understanding, and I can't do that in my head so I end up doing it on paper. But I'm very aware that they hold some potential for a discovery beyond the moment itself.

You know Charles Simic, my colleague at University of New Hampshire, in a very beautiful essay called “Reading Philosophy at Night” — he's an insomniac — he talks about what it's like to spend long, long nights awake reading philosophy, immersing himself in the struggles of Being. One of the things he says is, “making meaning is a matter of my existence; I circle perpetually the same obsessive images.” I think we each carry obsessive images, so for me these moments are a cluster, a handful — there aren't a lot of them. And so these two essays [“Killing Chickens” and “Shunned”] happen to be two of these moments — I don't have a lot more of them. There may be three more that I haven't written yet and would like to.

So I think probably all of them, those obsessive images, I suspect, for each of us, are about difficulties in our lives. They get hazy in our memory of happiness or times we are at peace in our lives. And these images are jarring to us because we're not yet at peace with them. I think writing is a way, in part, to come to terms with them. These are stories I have not told friends; these are not stories I talk about and so there's an instinct to finally share these with strangers. These are stories I've made a decision to share with people. My friends who have read these pieces are learning these things about me for the first time.

Another part of this is that I have also, in my life, been very privileged and very blessed to have experienced great passages of richness — wonderful things have happened in my life — and I have a desire, as a writer, to share these experiences, but I have a harder time doing it. I'm not sure how to write “the joy of mothering” or “the joy of my connection to the wilderness.” These are things that are profoundly important to me, they have shaped me, they are me, but, I don't know how to write them in ways that are compelling. I plan on pulling these essays together into a collection and I want those other — in fact — larger and more pervasive segments of my life to be represented in those essays; but I do have a hard time as a writer finding meaning beyond simply conveying, yes I was happy. So, I think, by default, it is those more distressing times in our lives that yield more material.

Read the full interview.

Meredith Hall has won the $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award from A Room of Her Own Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and notable essay recognition in Best American Essays. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, The Southern Review, Five Points, Prairie Schooner, and several anthologies. She teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire.

The Page 69 Test: Meredith Hall's Without a Map.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Doris Marie Provine

Alex Coolman of the Drug Law Blog interviewed Arizona State University professor Doris Marie Provine about her 2007 book, Unequal Under Law: Race in the War on Drugs.

One exchange from their dialogue:

Talking about the more subtle form of racism, you use the term “aversive racism,” from the field of psychology. My sense toward the end of your book is that you’re suggesting perhaps there needs to be a jurisprudential strategy that takes aversive racism into account.

Yes, that’s right. I realize, of course, that what judges do does not automatically translate into social change. In the law and society movement, we’re always talking about the gap between “law in books” and “law in action,” and certainly you can make that same connection between what courts say and what courts are able to do, and that gap has been explored. Nevertheless, I think it’s also true that courts give people ideas, and they reinforce ideas that are already in civil society. For example, with regards to something like gay marriage, the more there is a judicial recognition of some kind of civil union, the more it becomes part of the civic discourse.

I’m saying that one place to begin a more realistic discussion about racial disadvantage and racism would be through judicial decisions like the [Edward James] Clary case that really push the issue of unconscious racism. Because the only way you deal with unconscious racism is to confront it. It doesn’t go away any other way, and so it disturbs me that we’re in this period of denial about what’s going on. It is a shame that the Clary case got very short shrift on appeal.

What we have now is an impoverished dialogue in places of power. You almost can’t help but notice that when you read the language the Sentencing Commission and others use in talking about the mandatory minimums and other harsh things Congress did as they confronted crack in the mid-1980s, and in describing how they have refused to change the law significantly. These officials carefully stick to the script that “it could be perceived to be” racist that we have this crack-powder disparity. Not that it is racist to maintain these laws, but that “it could be perceived” to be so by some unnamed and possibly over-sensitive people. This charade persists because the prevailing idea defines racism in terms of intention. It is fighting words to call anyone an intentional racist. So we avoid this term, then, presto, racism almost doesn’t exist. But of course we have these impacts that “some people perceive” to be about race. You know, it’s crazy. We ought to be saying, “Well wait a minute. Let’s dig into this. There’s got to be some unconscious emotional stuff going on here that led us to intolerable results. We can blame people a generation ago for setting this up, so we can talk about this more openly. They drastically over-reacted to the crack phenomenon in part because it was perceived as a Black drug. We need to change the law.” I’d like to see that kind of dialogue get going in criminal law reform.

Read the entire interview.

The Page 99 Test: Doris Marie Provine's Unequal Under Law.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 11, 2008

Janet Hope

Janet Hope is the author of Biobazaar: The Open Source Revolution and Biotechnology.

Two exchanges from a Q & A with Hope at's Technica newsletter:

Describe your latest project.

Biobazaar explores the idea of developing and distributing all kinds of biotechnology inventions in a way that parallels the production of open source software programs such as Linux. The point of open source biotechnology would be to shore up competition in an industry (or collection of industries, since biotechnology is a broad enabling technology) that is becoming increasingly dominated by a few powerful players, with adverse consequences for ongoing innovation. Open source gives people access to the tools they need to innovate for themselves, but because software and biotechnology are so different, it's not obvious exactly how the open source approach would translate from one context to the other. Biobazaar teases out all the challenges and implications of applying open source principles in a new setting.

Part of my motivation in writing the book was to give practitioners (scientists, investors, policy makers and others) an opportunity to assess the potential of open source biotechnology in relation to their own individual circumstances. More broadly, I wanted to expose the many assumptions — some justified, others not — that underpin our current understanding of how technological innovation works and how best to support it. Even if you don't buy my argument that open source biotech would be both feasible and desirable in some areas — even if you aren't that interested in open source or biotech per se — the topic offers a vehicle for examining those assumptions in a fresh light.

* * * *
What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?

Pretty much any new technology has the potential to make people's lives better (for a given value of "better" — easier, healthier, more fun, more aware, more connected to other people, etc). Of course, it's not the technology itself that brings about the improvement so much as the way it's deployed within society. This means it's crucially important who can gain access to new technologies and on what terms, who reaps the benefits, who bears the costs and risks (there are always some), and so on. Too often the groups in society that introduce or advocate for new technologies are not the same as those that will cop the consequence if things go wrong. That's not an argument against change — it's just that we should be prepared to take broader, non-technical issues into consideration when we're trying to assess whether change equals progress.
Read the full Q & A.

Learn more about Biobazaar.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jennifer Donnelly

From a Q & A with Jennifer Donnelly about her new book, The Winter Rose:

Q: The Winter Rose opens in May 1900. What drew you to this time period?

A: All of history is fascinating to me, but 1900 is extraordinarily compelling. It’s when the Old World became the New World, when we began to recognize ourselves as modern people. Queen Victoria’s reign ended. The West had been through the Industrial Revolution. Women were beginning to demand the vote. Labor was making its voice heard. Artists challenged notions of acceptable subject matter, and social reformers demanded a more just society. The very foundations of the modern welfare state were being laid in this period, and there was a breathtaking sense of newness and possibility.

Q: How did you think of making your heroine a female doctor?

A: Did you know that a hundred years ago, a pregnant woman often made out her last will and testament before going into labor? Imagine giving birth in 1900, facing unbearable pain without any hope of relief, and knowing there was a good chance that neither you nor your baby would survive. Childbearing was an extremely risky business in the 19th century, and I wanted to know how women coped with it, and how doctors delivered children without drugs, monitors, or the battery of modern tools and devices today’s obstetricians have. India Selwyn Jones, my main character, showed me the answers to those questions.
Read the full Q & A.

Visit Jennifer Donnelly's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Nicholas Carr

From an interview with Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google:

You write that the computer is escaping its box. How so?

Computers used to be self-contained devices. If you wanted to do something with your PC, you had to buy a piece of software and install it on your hard drive. That began to change when the World Wide Web arrived in the 1990s. Suddenly, if you had a network connection and a browser, you could tap into millions of web pages that were stored not on your PC but on other people’s computers. The PC began to turn inside out — what was important wasn’t what was inside its case but what was outside it.

But that was just the start. Today, a far more radical change is under way, thanks to the proliferation of very fast broadband connections. Rather than just using the Internet to visit web pages, you can use it to run very sophisticated software - the kind of software that you used to have to run on your own drive. Computing is breaking out of its old beige box and moving onto the Internet.

The World Wide Web, you say, is turning into the World Wide Computer.

Right. Now that they’ve been connected with fiber optic cables, all the machines hooked up to the Net are merging together into one giant, incredibly powerful computer - the World Wide Computer. Our own personal PCs, not to mention our cell phones and gaming consoles, are turning into terminals hooked up to that big shared computer. They get most of their power and usefulness from all the software and information that’s floating around out on the Net.

In The Big Switch, I draw a parallel to what happened with the invention of electric utilities a hundred years ago. Before the electric utility, people had to generate their own power to run their machines - with waterwheels or steam engines or just their own muscles. But as soon as the wires for the electric grid were strung, they no longer had to worry about producing their own power. Power was delivered to their home or their office over the network, and all they had to do was plug an appliance into the socket in the wall. That’s what’s happening to computing today. It’s turning into a service supplied over a network. It’s becoming a utility.

Read the full Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 8, 2008

John Harvey

Ali Karim interviewed John Harvey for The Rap Sheet.

The opening exchange of their conversation:

Ali Karim: So, the most obvious question first: Why did you decide to bring back DI Charlie Resnick in your latest work?

John Harvey: I hadn’t written about him at length for 10 years, but had given him walk-on roles in several other novels as well as having written several short stories in which he featured, so his fictional life had been continuing during that gap, which meant it wasn’t too difficult to pick him up at the start of Cold in Hand. I knew what he’d been involved in, both professionally and personally. Also, I’d been living in Nottingham again for two years, more or less, immediately prior to writing, so I felt I had got to know the city again--and had spent enough time there to register some of the changes that had occurred. I was interested in writing about Resnick as he approaches retirement (to no small degree inspired by K.C. Constantine’s wonderful book, Blood Mud) and also in writing in a little more detail about his relationship with his fellow officer and now live-in lover, Lynn Kellogg. Lastly, prompted all too sadly by the premature deaths of several close friends, I wanted to see if I could write well and convincingly about grief.
Read the entire interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Richard Price

Mark Athitakis interviewed Richard Price, author of seven novels including the forthcoming Lush Life, for Washington City Paper.

The opening exchange:

Washington City Paper: I know a little about what you were doing in the mid-’80s. You were teaching in the Bronx and had gone through your own history of addiction. Was there a moment where it crystallized for you and you thought, I need to write a novel about this?

Richard Price: I discovered what you see of the world when you have a police escort, and that seemed…different. I don't want to use the word "refreshing," but it was so different than what I had been writing about previously, which was my navel. I just became obsessed with seeing human behavior in extremis. And that was because I was writing a script for Sea of Love, this police movie. I knew nothing about police.

The second thing was that I had gone through my own period of a sort of pedestrian, ’80s-style cocaine habit, which had been five years gone—no, more—but still, it was kind of haunting. And I had been teaching at this rehab center in the Bronx, teaching writing to these kids who had been falling down on crack, which was not around when I was doing coke, thank God. And I started seeing the devastation that was taking place. And it also brought me back to the Bronx to teach there, where I started writing. I had been wanting to write another book, but screenwriting is its own crack. It involves other people, which is very seductive to an isolated novelist. There's a lot of money. I became seduced by that, and the worst thing you could do is get good at it.

When this all came together, I didn't have a story. But there was one experience when I was in Jersey City, and I was with Hudson County homicide detectives. A kid was killed at some kind of burger franchise—not a McDonald's, but something like that. And another kid had surrendered—came in with a minister and a politician, so it was a very smart surrender. The kid had no criminal record whatsoever. I went with the cops to interview the arrested kid's family, because the cops didn't want to get in a situation where they find out later on that there was a motive that justified it or made it less of a guaranteed win for the prosecutor. So what they do is talk to whoever they can, do research on the guy they just arrested, because they don't want to make their boss look like a horse's ass in court a year from now. So I went with them to the parents' house.

To make a long story short, the parents were very—they would barely turn their head from the TV, they're very unresponsive. And their kid had just been arrested and had never been arrested. The homicide detective saw a photo of him in a cap and gown, he said, “Can I borrow this picture?” He wanted to do more research on this kid, but he wanted to have the picture so he could show it around. You never want to show somebody's friends a mug shot and ask them more burying questions. So, this is a user-friendly picture.

"Can I borrow this?"

"Well, that's not him."

"What do you mean that's not him? That's his brother. Jesus, they look like twins."

"They are."

So just on a whim, they guy looks up the twin, and the kid had a huge, long record. And right there it's a Dickensian moment—The Prince and the Pauper, The Man in the Iron Mask, "Which Twin Has the Toni?" So all of a sudden I had my story—two brothers. In real life what happened was the kid who actually surrendered did do it. And he was a thug just like his brother, he was just smarter so he never got caught. And he was also smart enough to blue-ribbon his own surrender. That's the moment where it all came together for me, because I had been spending a year in Jersey City primarily going out with these cops, absorbing the world and thinking about writing stuff. I had everything but a story. I knew the world I wanted to write about, I knew the neighborhood, I just didn't have the building address. That night I got the address. From there I was off to the races.

Read the full interview.

See my 2006 post, "A novel for fans of HBO's The Wire."

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Steve Mosby

Declan Burke interviewed Steve Mosby at Crime Always Pays.

Their opening exchange:

What crime novel would you most like to have written?

That’s an easy one for me, assuming I can get away with a thriller: GREEN RIVER RISING by Tim Willocks. I love everything about that book, from the set-up to the characters and the journey they go on. From about the fifth chapter to the last, it’s almost non-stop action and violence, and yet it also creates a really powerful emotional connection between the reader and the characters involved. It shows the best and worst of people in a setting that rapidly descends into hell, and it’s one of the few books I can read again and again. Superb stuff. Although, like most books I really admire, I tend to think ‘there’s no way on earth I could ever have written that’.
Read the entire Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: Declan Burke's The Big O.

The Page 69 Test: Steve Mosby's The 50/50 Killer.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan's memoir, She's Not There, published in 2003, was one of the first bestselling works by a transgendered American; until 2001 she published under the name James Boylan. Her new memoir, I'm Looking Through You, was published January 2008.

From a brief interview with Dick Donahue at Publishers Weekly:

PW: The press material about your new book talks about “what it means to be haunted.” What does it mean?

JB: There are all kinds of ways of being haunted. Even people who don’t believe in ghosts know what it means to be haunted: you’ve had an experience that you can never quite get over and because you’re often thinking about it you’re never quite living in the present. Or perhaps you’re haunted by someone you hope to become, a future that seems impossible or unimaginable, but that you can’t stop hoping for. When I was young I was haunted by the person I hoped to become, and now that I’m older I’m haunted by the boy I used to be. To some degree I think people are haunted because they can’t make peace between the people that they are and the people that they’ve been. Learning to see your life as one continuous story rather than “before” and “after” is one of the ways people make peace with their ghosts, and it’s one of the ways to stop being haunted.

Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: I'm Looking Through You.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 4, 2008

Olen Steinhauer

Mark Baker interviewed Olen Steinhauer for the Wall Street Journal.

Part of the interview:

The characters in your books -- Communist Party members, dissidents, militia officers -- would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe, but practically unknown to an American. How were you able to understand your characters well enough to give them plausible emotions and motives?

This is the great challenge of fiction. As I was writing, I never asked myself what a typical East European person would do in a particular situation. I always asked myself what I would do in that situation if I had grown up in that society. As people, we're all motivated by the same things. As I was writing about the 1989 revolution in the final novel, "Victory Square," I asked myself whether anyone really gets emotionally worked up over a revolution itself. I think the answer to that is that no one does. People get worked up about love and hate and personal things -- how they personally feel about their dictator, or how a revolution will affect or change their own lives. These are things that I could understand.

Eastern European communists and bureaucrats are usually portrayed as one-dimensional: gray, stony-faced and committed to the cause. By contrast, your characters are more human, filled with inner conflict and even doubt about the rightness of the cause. Do you think you succeeded in creating realistic characters?

If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago, I would have said that what I was writing was a kind of Western fantasy of life in Eastern Europe under communism. I didn't live there. My first interest has always been in writing fiction. But recently I've had a couple of older readers, people who lived through those times, come up to me and say "you got it right, that's how it was back then." My favorite character was actually Brano Sev [an officer in the People's Militia who epitomizes the classic, stoic supporter of the regime]. He's the one I most wanted to be since on the inside he's emotionally conflicted but still acts. In a way, he's the most idealistic of the characters. His methods appear completely perverted until you get inside his head, and then you understand his reasons.

Read the full interview.

The Page 69 Test: Liberation Movements.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Manil Suri

From a conversation between Manil Suri and Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Hours:

MC: I’m Michael Cunningham, and I have the privilege of talking to Manil Suri about his remarkable first novel, The Death of Vishnu. Who are some of your literary influences? Do you identify yourself particularly as an Indian writer?

MS: Both of these questions are kind of loaded questions, because first of all I’m never quite clear in my mind what is meant by a literary influence. How do you interpret that?

MC: I would say, any piece of writing that stays with you, and in some way influences the kind of writer you are, whether it be Henry James or Jacqueline Susann, both of whom I claim as influences.

MS: OK, well that’s good, because I certainly grew up on a lot of Jacqueline Susann-type novels. But more serious writers I would have to say, the one that comes to mind is V. S. Naipaul. I’ve just read one book of his, A House for Mr. Biswas, and the thing that stayed with me out of that novel was the way his characters speak. And they speak in English, but you can tell they are speaking an Indian language. It’s their intonation, or, I don’t know how he does it, and that’s certainly something I would love to be able to do. So that’s something that definitely did stay with me. I’ve read several Indian authors, naturally, growing up in India, Rabindranath Tagore comes to mind, R. K. Narayan. Both of those, I don’t know if they were influences, but certainly I liked them a lot. Another person I would say, completely different, is Paul Bowles, and the journey that Mr. Jalal makes might have been influenced by something I read of his. You also asked about whether I consider myself an Indian writer, and again that requires some sort of definition. Being a mathematician, I’m always looking for definitions. But, I think yes, I think I am, certainly I’m writing about India in this book, writing as an Indian I think. There are some books written by Indians which go overboard, bend over backwards trying to explain things to foreign readers. I certainly have tried to make things clear, but on the other hand I think I’ve resisted the temptation to, what should I say, be too careful about what I put in and what I don’t put in, so that people aren’t unduly disturbed by anything that they might not understand. So yes, but I don’t want to say anything more, because there’s this raging controversy as to what constitutes an Indian writer and what doesn’t. But I think I am, yes.
Read the full interview.

Manil Suri's new novel is The Age of Shiva.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Ha Jin

Ha Jin was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Waiting and War Trash; Waiting also won the National Book Award. His other books include the novel The Crazed; three short story collections: The Bridegroom, which won the Asian American Literary Award, Under the Red Flag, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and Ocean of Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award; and three books of poetry. His latest book is A Free Life.

From his recent "Ink Q & A" with

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

Lolita. Just curious to see what she is like as a middle-aged woman now.
Read the entire Q & A.

Learn more about his most important books (and his interest in Nabokov's work).

--Marshal Zeringue