Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ana Siljak

Ana Siljak is Assistant Professor of Russian and East European History at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada.

Her new book is Angel of Vengeance: The "Girl Assassin," the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia's Revolutionary World.

Siljak responded to a few questions about the book which were put to her by the political scientist Cary Federman, author of The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence and a professor in the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University:

Federman: Can you tell the readers of the Campaign for the American Reader what your book is about and what prompted you to write a book on an assassin?

Siljak: The book is, on the simplest level, a story about Russia's first female terrorist and her dramatic, history-making trial. I had come across a shorter version of Vera's story in a book on Russian revolutionary women, and I decided almost on the spot that this was a great subject for a book. I wanted to know how an ordinary person like Vera decides to kill a government official, and I wanted to know why a jury would acquit a confessed assassin.

When I began to delve more deeply into the background, I realized that the superficial drama was just the tip of the iceberg. And so the book became a more complicated tale of nineteenth century Russia: of noblewomen turned terrorists, of literature and life in Russia, of reform and reaction in a rapidly modernizing state on the outskirts of Europe. I had uncovered an entire world of revolutionaries, and I just had to describe this fascinating cast of characters that sought (and ultimately achieved) the destruction of an entire society.

Federman: Vera Zasulich was a female assassin. What I found most interesting was that she was not the only female assassin in Russia at the end of the 19th century, though female assassins remain a distinct minority in all countries. How do you account for this? Is there something about the Russian political order that produces female assassins or is there something about females within the Russian political order that made them choose assassination and revolutionary activity?

Siljak: In part, Russian women became revolutionaries because the ideology of Russian socialism was decidedly feminist. In my chapter on the "new people," I describe how socialist utopias sought to liberate women from the shackles of traditional roles and give them opportunities to pursue self-fulfillment. There is no doubt that women like Vera, who wanted to do something in the public sphere, were very limited in their choice of profession: they could become governesses, teachers, or midwives. Socialism, as Vera herself put it, allowed a girl to be "equal to a boy."
But this is only part of the story. Most of the memoirs of female socialists do not dwell on this aspect of their turn to socialism. Instead they, like their male counterparts, were swept away by the quasi-religious promise of the socialist movement: that the existing oppressive and miserable social order could be swept away, and a whole new world of peace and prosperity could arise to replace it. Indeed, many women rejected purely feminist ideals as petty, especially in the face of the suffering of the Russian masses, male and female. Socialism would resolve the "woman question," much as it would resolve every other.

A final note on this question -- women were a minority in the Russian socialist movement as well. But everyone (myself included) is fascinated by them because they seem exotic -- we think women are not supposed to be ruthless assassins!

Federman: The other great shock of your book is that Vera was found not guilty, but not because of her state of mind. She was thought sane and not responsible, a peculiar pairing. Can you tell us about the trial and its verdict?

Siljak: There is a complicated answer to this question, and a simple one. The complicated answer has to do with the particular formulation of Russian law at the time. In Russia, as in some other European countries, intent was a crucial component of guilt. Thus, it was not enough to prove someone had committed a particular act to determine whether he or she was "guilty" of that act. State of mind was crucial. For instance, Vera was charged with murdering Trepov, even though Trepov did not die, because as her indictment put it, he survived "only for very particular reasons, unforeseen by the defendant." For the very same reason, the jury found Vera "not guilty." She never denied that she shot Trepov, but her attorney skillfully argued that she did not "intend" to kill him. It was a kind of "crime of passion," in which a distraught and tormented Vera sought to call attention to Trepov's crimes.

The simple answer is that she had a very good lawyer. Alexandrov very eloquently framed the story as one of a young, innocent girl attacking an inhuman, brutal tyrant. After Alexandrov made his case, I think the jury simply thought Trepov got what he deserved.

Federman: The killing of Trepov is a strange affair. He certainly wasn't a minor official, but he was not the only symbol of government oppression, either. And his crime, the torture of Bogoliubov, was hardly exceptional. How, then, should we understand the assassination? Was it a shot for human rights in Russia by the oppressed or the act of a mentally unbalanced person (who you describe, at various points, as "depressed," "bitter," and having "dark moods)?

Siljak: Certainly, Vera's lawyer did his best to suggest that Vera shot Trepov because her sensitive, feminine soul was tormented by Trepov's barbarous act against a political prisoner. In the trial, Vera's act was presented as a dramatic, but isolated case. In truth, Trepov was merely the first target in the Russian revolutionary "turn to terror," which sought to create the preconditions for revolution by assassinating key figures in the government. Other revolutionaries were plotting Trepov's death, Vera just beat them to it. Alexandrov left much out of his account of the attempt on Trepov's life because he correctly surmised that the truth would not go over well with a jury.

For Vera and her comrades at the time, terrorist attacks on government officials were the key to undermining the power of the state. A series of assassinations, carefully planned, would terrify government officials, undermine the authority of the Russian bureaucracy, and (they supposed) empower the oppressed masses to rise up against the existing social system. So terrorism was a calculated strategy, and, for a time, Vera supported it wholeheartedly.

Federman: Without giving away the ending, Vera turns away from assassination. Can you explain some of the reasons for this change? Specifically, did she come to realize the futility of assassination or was it part of a larger understanding of how to change society?

Siljak: Yes, Vera becomes the first Russian terrorist to renounce terrorism. I think she did so for two reasons. The first, and perhaps most powerful, was her growing moral revulsion toward her act. Not that she had pity on Trepov -- but she felt that the act of killing a man was not one to be undertaken lightly. When the "turn to terror" was in full swing in Russia, terrorist attacks increased at an alarming rate, as did government executions of terrorists. When Vera read the news about one or the other, she felt personally responsible for encouraging so much killing on both sides.

The second reason for her turn against terror was more ideological. Eventually, she became a Marxist, and believed that revolution could only occur with the full participation of the working class. Terrorist violence was ineffective -- a few isolated individuals acting against other isolated individuals. Terrorism did not inspire the sweeping, massive, transformative revolution she desired, instead, as she put it, it was a "spectator sport."

Federman: Finally, the book is largely about the connection between the desire for revolutionary change and literature's influence on manners and thought. Zasulich herself is a writer, and all the main characters in the book live and breathe for literature. Today, however, the writer doesn't have such power to influence events. Many of us would say that is clearly a benefit, but others might view the change as a tragic loss of literature's hold on the public imagination. How do view this, in light of the life that Vera Zasulich led?

Siljak: The love for literature in nineteenth-century Russia is, I believe, unparalleled in history. Literature was politics, it was philosophy, it was religion. I might add that literature was not just revolutionary -- the conservative and religious Dostoyevsky and the pacifist and populist Tolstoy were also greatly influential in their own day.

Today, television and the internet have completely eclipsed literature in their power to influence opinion and behavior. Modern people live and breathe what they see on their screens. To my mind, this is a bad thing because of the passive nature of modern media. Books engage the imagination and inspire reflection; and they have the power to address, in depth, the political, philosophical, and religious questions of the day.

Ultimately, however, I am a firm believer that the power of literature or any other type of media is not good or bad in and of itself. Only the content can be judged. Vera was deeply influenced by the radical literature of her day, and this led her to terrorism. But one should blame radicalism, and not literature, for this fact.
[Editor's note: I added a two-part question of my own to the Q & A.]
Zeringue: What question do you wish someone would ask you about your book but no one has asked? And what's the answer?

Here is a question that I found very important while I was writing the book: "Why did the Russian terrorists embrace martyrdom so easily, even if they were self-professed atheists like Vera?"

For my research, I read a great many memoirs and biographies of Russian terrorists. Their fierce desire for martyrdom struck me again and again. Vera herself dreamt of becoming a martyr long before she embarked on the revolutionary road. In the late 1870s and 1880s, "martyrologies" of executed terrorists were published in terrorist-sponsored newsletters. In Russia, terrorists openly justified their use of "terrorism" in two ways: first, as a legitimate method of attacking an unjust and all-powerful regime, and second, as an act of self-sacrifice undertaken by individuals who willingly gave their lives for the sake of a better world.

This insight has helped me see the history of terrorism in a new way. Throughout history, terrorists have been partly driven by hate, and that is often quite clear. But what is less clear, and yet no less significant, is that they are often also driven by a passionate belief in the possibility of a peaceful and harmonious future world (however they define it), a belief that allows them to coldly sacrifice their own lives and the lives of others.
Read an excerpt from Angel of Vengeance, and learn more about the book and author at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review. Her essays and articles have appeared in numerous journals, including American Scholar, the Journal of Pacific History, Australian Literary Studies, and in the 1999, 2000, and 2006 editions of Best Australian Essays.
Her new book is Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story.

From a Q & A at the Come On Shore website:

This is the story of how you met your husband, who is member of New Zealand's indigenous population. Can you tell us a little about who the Maoris are and where they came from?

The Maori people are Polynesians. They are closely related to Tahitians, Hawaiians, Cook Islanders, Samoans, Tongans, and the other Polynesian peoples of the Pacific. They are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, and over the course of some two or three thousand years they island-hopped their way across the Pacific to central Polynesia. About 2000 years ago, in the final stage of one of the greatest migrations in human history, they pushed north to Hawaii, east to Easter Island, and south to New Zealand, across thousands of miles of open ocean in voyaging canoes. And then, for reasons that remain unknown, their long-distance voyaging came to an end. So that when the Europeans arrived in New Zealand in the seventeenth century, the Maoris had lived there in isolation for about a thousand years.

You're an American. How did you come to be in New Zealand?

I grew up in Boston and after attending college in New England I moved to the west coast, where I worked for a couple of years as a secretary. The jobs were so boring that I decided I'd better go to graduate school and somehow I got the idea to apply for a fellowship to study in Australia. I enrolled for a Ph.D at the University of Melbourne and I was about two years into the program when I made a trip back to the States to visit my family. On my return I stopped in New Zealand just to have a holiday and see what it was like.
Read the entire Q & A.

Visit Christina Thompson's website.

The Page 99 Test: Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 27, 2008

Faye Flam

Faye Flam has been covering science for The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1995. In June 2005, she started writing “Carnal Knowledge,” a weekly column about the science of sex. Her new book is The Score: How The Quest For Sex Has Shaped The Modern Man.

Tracy Clark-Flory interviewed Flam for Salon. The beginning of the Q & A:

In your book, you mention the idea that everybody -- including animals -- wants to be the male when it comes to sex. Why is that?

It has to do with a couple of common male traits that run through the whole biological world. One of them is that the sperm are smaller than the egg and for most male animals that translates into not having to invest as much energy or work into the babies. Everybody wants to do less work. It's a universal laziness.

You really only have a chance to see that sexual choice play out in these crazy sea worms that can be either male or female. Before they have sex, they fight it out, and the winner always plays the male role. Most other animals don't get the chance to fight for the right to be the male during reproduction.

There are a few animals that turn the tables and the female sticks the male with all the work. More often than not, though, the females not only have to either incubate the babies or create the eggs, but they also end up stuck with more of the work. The males can pass on their genes without investing quite as much.

What about the question of pleasure. Does that play into the male sexual advantage? [read on]
Read an excerpt from The Score, and learn more about the book and author at Faye Flam's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Score.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Brent Ghelfi

Brent Ghelfi is the author of Volk’s Game and, releasing early in July, the sequel, Volk’s Shadow.

For The Rap Sheet, David Thayer put a few questions to the author, including:

DT: I read somewhere that your main character, Alexei Volkovoy, got his name from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963). The character of Volkovoi in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel was a prison guard. Do you see Volk as a prisoner of the New Russia?

BG: I think of the prison guard in Solzhenitsyn’s story as a metaphor for Stalinist Russia: cruel, hard-bitten, [and] wasteful of Russia’s most precious asset, her people. I see Volk as less a prisoner and more a representative of the new Russia: conflicted about the past, damaged by war, crime, and corruption. Two decades on the crack pipe of political and economic transformation have left their mark on Russia, and Volk is both a product of his environment and, like millions of other ordinary Russians, one of the architects of it.

DT: Valya is my favorite among Volk’s Game’s secondary characters. Is she a permanent fixture in your evolving series?

BG: I fell in love with Valya from the first line I wrote about her. Her background as a Chechen refugee opens any number of windows into Russia’s southern wars and its troubled history in the Caucasus (a few of which we peer through in the follow-up book, Volk’s Shadow). The more I explored Volk’s relationship with Valya, the more I realized that he couldn’t be one of those characters who hop from one bed to another. She’s his lover, guardian angel, and moral compass, and he’s bonded to her.
Read the entire Q & A.

Visit the Volk's Shadow website and the Volk's Game website.

Volk's Game was recently nominated for a Barry Award and the International Thriller Writers Award for Best First Novel.

Volk's Shadow is set for release on July 8.

The Page 69 Test: Volk's Game.

My Book, The Movie: Volk’s Game.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Andrew Blechman

Joe Drabyak of Chester County Book & Music Company in West Chester, PA interviewed Andrew D. Blechman, author of Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias.

The start of the interview:

Joe Drabyak: I'm a big fan of PIGEONS: THE FASCINATING SAGA OF THE WORLD'S MOST REVERED AND REVILED BIRD, your previous volume. Sometimes I imagine that your inspiration for that work may have occurred when you observed an elderly person feeding the birds from a park bench. Were you motivated to write LEISUREVILLE – a wry mediation on the activities of older folks and retirement communities – as a means of providing equal time to those on the other end of the breadcrumbs, or did your inspiration come from elsewhere?

Andrew Blechman: The subjects of my books are actually quite accidental. I wrote about pigeons because I met a pigeon racer while ordering a tuna sandwich at my corner deli. The birth of Leisureville was also a fluke: my neighbors moved to the largest retirement community in the world. Their stories were too outlandish to be ignored. Frankly, I didn't believe it until I saw it for myself.

JD: You did considerable research on America's retirement utopias by spending time in The Villages, an age-restricted, gated community in Florida. I was astounded to learn that this development is larger than Manhattan. What was it really like to be in such a vast metropolis where everyone is so homogenous in age? [read on]
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit Andrew Blechman's website.

The Page 69 Test: Pigeons.

The Page 69 Test: Leisureville.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Tana French

From Declan Burke's Q & A with Tana French, author of In the Woods:

What crime novel would you most like to have written?

If Donna Tartt’s incredible The Secret History counts as a crime novel, then definitely that. Otherwise, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I like crime books that mess with the conventions.

Who do you read for guilty pleasures?

Eva Ibbotson – not a guilty pleasure, exactly, but definitely a self-indulgent one. She’s the fiction equivalent of a big box of good chocolates.
Read the full interrogation.

The Page 69 Test: In the Woods.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 23, 2008

Walter Nugent

From a Q & A with Walter Nugent, author of Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion:

Q: When did the United States first start to demonstrate its “habit” of empire-building? Have there been any moments in history when the country might have kicked the habit, but didn’t?

A: The seeds of the habit go back to the colonial period, when Anglo-Americans pushed back the Native occupants on all fronts. My book starts with the settlement in 1782 following the Revolutionary War, where the American negotiators, Franklin, John Adams, and Jay, pushed very hard for all the territory they could get. They succeeded in establishing our western boundary at the Mississippi, despite the fact that we had not conquered and had not occupied Transappalachia, the huge region between the eastern Mountains and the great River. Americans tried but never succeeded in obtaining Canada, either in the 1782 settlement (though Franklin pushed very hard) or in the Canadian-American war of 1812-1814. But they spread successfully westward and southward, reaching the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande, and the Pacific by 1848. Each territorial acquisition between 1782 and 1848 reinforced the imperial habit. After that march across the continent, the habit was ingrained, and empire-building proceeded offshore from Alaska to the Philippines and around the Caribbean by the early twentieth century, and since 1945 around the world.
Read the complete Q & A.

The Page 99 Test: Habits of Empire.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Christina Meldrum

From a Q & A with Christina Meldrum, author Madapple:

Q: MADAPPLE is part literary mystery, part botanical thesis. How did you decide to combine these elements? What came first, the plot or the plants?

A: The skeleton of the plot came first and necessitated Aslaug being isolated from modern society. That Aslaug and her mother would live off the land and that Aslaug would see the world through the lens of plants seemed fitting at first, if not essential. But it slowly became absolutely essential. The more I learned about plants, the more plants began to shape the plot. In the end, the plants and the plot became indistinguishable for me. And now? I can't imagine the story absent the botany.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Q: MADAPPLE combines other unusual elements as well. Norse and Celtic mythology, early Christianity, Greco-Roman mystery religions and various sects of Judaism are interspersed with references to scientific concepts such as quantum particles, parallel universes and dark matter. And all of this in a who-done-it. Why?

A: I love to read books that are entertaining but also intellectually provocative—and I hoped to write this kind of book. I was inspired by smart mysteries like Umberto Ecco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE, Donna Taart's A SECRET HISTORY and David Guterson's SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS. These books have page-turning plots, but they also are rich on a more cerebral level. I hope I accomplished this, too, even on a small scale.
Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Madapple.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Erin Hogan

From an interview with Erin Hogan, author of Spiral Jetta: A Road Trip through the Land Art of the American West:

Question: Spiral Jetta is as much a book about solo travel as it is about the land art that you visited. You contemplated this 3,000-mile excursion vaguely for a long time—was there a single moment when you finally thought, “Yes, I'm going to do this!”? If so, what triggered it?

Erin Hogan: There wasn’t a single moment that I decided to do this. In fact, I always knew if I ever had an epiphany about my trip, it would be a resounding “No! There is absolutely no way I am going to do this!” So, to make it impossible for me to back out of my own trip, I told everyone I knew that I was going to do it. It was like an insurance policy. Once I told people I was doing it, I more or less had to go, because people were asking “When are you going to take that trip?” Thus I was forced to come up with an answer and then leave at whatever made-up time I had said I would.

Q: All these monumental works tend to get grouped together under the name of land art. Do you think that is a sensible way of thinking about them, or does the variation within the group require a more nuanced approach to categorization?

Hogan: I am a fan of categories. There are exceptions and variations in every category, of course, but to organize large thoughts, categories can’t be beat. All of these works were artistic manipulations of very large landscapes, and that’s good enough to make a category as far as I’m concerned.
Read the full interview.

Read an excerpt from Spiral Jetta.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lisa Shearin

From a Q & A with Lisa Shearin, author of Armed and Magical:

Armed & Magical is set in a traditional fantasy world, replete with elves and goblins. But what's so refreshing about your novel is the first person narrator, Raine Benares, an elven sorceress. Raine has *attitude*! Why did you decide to put a heroine with contemporary sensibilities in a Tolkien-esque world of swords, horses, and magic?

Anyone looking at my bookshelves can see that I love genre fiction: fantasy, detective, action adventure, mystery, romantic comedy, crime capers, and political thrillers. I think that over the years they all just sort of merged in my head and Raine Benares and her world was the result. I simply wrote the type of books I wanted to read, but couldn't quite find. Well, that and Raine didn't give me a choice.

Mixing contemporary sensibilities with traditional fantasy was a hard line to walk. I resisted doing it for as long as I could, but I finally gave in. Raine's voice just wouldn't be forced into traditional “fantasy speak,” and third-person was out of the question—Raine let me know that in no uncertain terms from day one. Once I started writing in first-person, I immediately found her voice, and I really knew I was on to something when my other characters started coming out of the woodwork as if they heard their cue to come on stage.
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit Lisa Shearin's website and her blog.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dave White

For The Rap Sheet, Jim Winter interviewed Dave White, author of When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do.

Part of the interview:

Jim Winter: You’ve now got one book under your belt, with the second one coming out. How does that feel?

Dave White: It feels good. The first book had such a lead-up, and the two months before it came out, I was out of school and thinking about it non-stop. This one is kind of sneaking up on me, as I used the school year to keep my mind off of it. I’m glad it’s coming out in the summertime so I can really take time to enjoy the release.

JW: You went in a completely different direction with the narrative in The Evil That Men Do. Tell me how that came about.

DW: I didn’t want to write the same book. Jackson Donne is a different character in this book, and I felt I needed to take a different direction. He’s no longer a P.I., he’s just kind of pulled into this family drama. I didn’t feel like I could tell a complete story from just his point of view. We needed to know about each member of the Donne family from their point of view. This isn’t a Jackson Donne novel so much as a story of the Donne family.

JW: You also have an interesting subplot taking place back in the 1930s. Was that the impetus for the story, or did that evolve as you fleshed out the novel? [read on]
Visit Dave White's website and his blog.

The Page 69 Test: When One Man Dies.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Megan Hustad

Lilit Marcus of Save the Assistants interviewed Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work.

The first exchanges of the Q & A:

STA: How long were you an assistant?

MH: I was an editorial assistant at Vintage Books (and the Knopf Group, more generally) for two plus years. No promotion prospects there, so I made a lateral move to another company, where I toiled as an “assistant editor” for another year plus before becoming full editor.

STA: What mistakes do you see assistants make?

MH: A lot of assistants know, deep down, that they’re the hamsters of the organization. By which I mean, management’s attitude is often “Well, if this one doesn’t work out, or dies — no worries. We’ll get another one and no one will know the difference.” Assistants are eminently replaceable. Say I walked off the Vintage job during my lunch hour — they could have filled my spot with someone equally capable, if not more so, by the end of the day.

The problem for assistants then becomes: How to deal with this cold, hard fact? When people are lined up around the block for your job? That’s where the big mistakes come in. It’s a mistake to try to gain advantage by making sure your superiors feel how unique and brilliant you are. Trying to dazzle the boss…just rarely works out well.
Read the complete interview.

Read an excerpt from How to Be Useful, and learn more about the book and author at Megan Hustad's website.

Writers Read: Megan Hustad.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Robert Fate

Robert Fate is the author of Baby Shark, Baby Shark's Beaumont Blues (nominated for an Anthony Award), and Baby Shark's High Plains Redemption.

One exchange from Sandra Parshall's interview with Fate at Poe's Deadly Daughters:

Q. Kristin Van Dijk, aka Baby Shark, isn’t the kind of protagonist readers might expect from an older male writer. Where did this remarkable girl come from, and how did you end up writing in her voice?

A. Kristin Van Dijk was the key element in the story I wanted to tell, a story of love and revenge set in a time in our history before technology played such an extraordinary role in our lives.

I’ve had a computer from the beginning. I carry a cell phone. My college-age daughter carries an i-Phone and casually chats with friends worldwide. I am okay with technology (like anyone would care if I were not). But I wanted to set my story in a time thought by many to be more innocent. However, those of us who remember the ’50s know the truth of that.

I wanted to tell about a young woman whose father was absent most of her life and then brutally snatched from her when she finally had him to herself, a young woman who experiences unspeakable violence at the hands of vicious thugs, a young woman who survives. I wanted a protagonist with the strength and resolve to come back from the worst that could be thrown at her, to rise from the ashes, to seek revenge, and exact it without remorse. And, I wanted this without creating a cartoon figure. I wanted the kind of reality that some readers would turn away from, but others would grasp as necessary to the tale.

I had no choice. I needed the strength only women have. Only a woman could be the kind of protagonist I needed, a woman in a time in our history when females were beginning to assert themselves, beginning to see that anything was possible. I wanted a female protagonist loose in a man’s world, in a hostile western environment where no matter her age she would be considered a “girl.” Well, okay, I wanted a girl who looked to the future with a gun in her hand and the will to follow through, a girl who wasn’t going to stand for it anymore. That was how Baby Shark was born.
Read the complete Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Baby Shark.

Visit Robert Fate's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 16, 2008

Julie Klam

Julie Klam graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and was an intern at Late Night with David Letterman. She went on to write for such publications as O, the Oprah Magazine, Rolling Stone, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour. She was also nominated for an Emmy as a writer for VH1’s Pop-Up Video.

Her new book is the memoir, Please Excuse My Daughter.

For Granta, she talked with Marian Brown "about writing, dating, celebrity encounters and, of course, her family."

Part of the interview:

MB: Your book begins when you are thirty-years-old, contemplating a move to your grandfather’s gated retirement community in Southern Florida. Does that escapist fantasy still hold any appeal now that you’ve become a wife, mother and successful writer?

JK: I’m successful? I can’t wait to call my mother! No, I was back in South Florida for my book tour and like most Shangri-Las, it didn’t hold up to memory. It’s so humid there it makes Manhattan feel like Phoenix. You can’t exist in that place if you don’t have an Aquanet helmet-head, so I was like a sweaty flounder the whole time. Not to mention the greatest appeal of that place was my grandfather, without him there it’s just a bunch of pool rules.

Your brother, Matthew Klam, a fellow writer (Sam the Cat), who figures largely in your life story, was much more of a self-starter than you were. In fact, he often encouraged you to be more proactive in terms of your freelance writing career. How did two children from the same family turn out so differently? Were you sent different messages from your parents, and your mother in particular, because of your gender?

We all ask ourselves how Matthew ended up in our family for various reasons. I think when we were younger, he was clearly more ambitious than I was but now I’d say we’re about even. Basically, I think you emulate or identify with your same-gender parent and my Dad went to work and my Mom didn’t. I was so angry with Matt during the times I wasn’t doing anything, maybe because he knew I had something else in me and I didn’t want to see it. I adore him, though, we’re really close. I am with both of my brothers. We’re all very proud of each other.
Read the full Q & A.

Learn more about the book and author at Julie Klam's website and her blog.

My Book, The Movie: Please Excuse My Daughter.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Peter Leonard

Elmore Leonard interviewed his son Peter Leonard, author of Quiver.

The start of the interview:

Elmore: Peter it seems to me that by the time you were in your 20’s, you and I were reading pretty much the same novels . I think at that time you really began to read very seriously. Did any of those books influence you that you read, you know, over the last 20 years or so?

Peter: Yeah, absolutely. John D. McDonald. Ernest Hemingway of course. Robert Parker to a certain degree., His novels, were fun, I liked his main character. Charles Williford, James Lee Burke. Cormac McCarthy. Certainly influenced me.

Elmore: When did you start thinking about writing fiction?

Peter: I thought about it but never did anything about it. 10 years ago or so, I ended up writing a few scripts. Movie scripts. In fact, Quiver was originally written as a movie script. And I think when I was doing this, you said to me, “Why do you want to be a script writer? Being a script writer is like wanting to be a copilot. “ Which I think was a good smartass answer. And you were right, though. Because you’ve got to get in the head of the character. That’s what it’s all about. So I stopped writing scripts ‘cause nothing happened. It was kind of a dead end for me, even with your connections, and 5 years ago I started writing Quiver. Even after writing a few pages of it I realized that I liked it and I wanted to get good at it. And it was a fun, energizing experience.
Read the full Q & A.

Visit Peter Leonard's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Eluned Summers-Bremner

Eluned Summers-Bremner is an English professor and cultural historian at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her latest book is Insomnia: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books).

Lianne George interviewed her for Maclean's. Part of the Q & A:

Q: Do you believe insomnia is becoming more widespread?

A: I do. Partly because our working cycles have become globalized. I'm often working to U.K. deadlines and in Auckland, where I live, we're 12 hours ahead. Also, one didn't used to get emails from students at 3 a.m., but now we all do. People just work according to deadlines and often they don't take into account your time zone. It's just part of the reign of the market in people's lives.

Q: How else does the modern workplace feed insomnia?

A: There's a Swedish study that talks about people getting "head tired." It's where people get so tired with thinking but they can't shut it off, and because their body's not tired, it's harder for them to sleep. I suppose the more work we do with our heads, just sitting still, and the more work we do on networks and computers, the less physically tired we get and the more head tired we get.

Q: What does looking at the history of insomnia tell us about modern troubles with it?

A: Mainly that insomnia wasn't always a bad thing. And that it wasn't always as simple as we perhaps think it was. Because we do tend to think, "I can't sleep! I won't be any good for work in the morning!" We see it as something that needs fixing. Looking at the past is quite helpful in a way because it helps us to see that we've come to fear insomnia. Partly it's the way it's marketed — it's a bit like we're meant to fear depression and take anti-depressants. But I think if you look at the past, you see insomnia had all sorts of effects, some of them quite positive, and some of them were actually sought out.
Read the full interview.

Learn more about Insomnia: A Cultural History.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wendy Lee

Wendy Lee is a graduate of Stanford University and New York University’s Creative Writing Program. She worked for two years in China as a volunteer English teacher.

Her new novel is Happy Family.

From a Q & A at her website:

1. Can you talk a little about how the idea for Happy Family came to be?

I'd been reading a lot of articles about the adoption of baby girls from China, and one parent’s comment in particular stood out for me. They said one of the reasons they adopted from China was that, unlike adopting a child in the U.S., there was no chance of the mother coming back to take the child away. So I got to thinking, What if someone did take away the child? Families are already such complicated things that I could imagine a situation like that being a potential tinderbox.

2. You spent two years teaching in China. How did this experience influence your novel?

During my second year in China I was an English teacher at Hwa Nan Women’s College, which is in the city of Fuzhou, Hua’s hometown in the book. This was the first women’s private college in the country, and, in addition to being a great place to teach, it’s located in an interesting part of town. Foreigners were restricted to this area in the 1800s, so if you take a walk around the neighborhood you’ll see remnants of the British Embassy, the American Embassy, and other colonial buildings that have been turned into schools or apartments. Fuzhou is relatively modern but here it’s like you’ve stepped back in time.

In the sections about China I really wanted to give a sense of how much change that country is going through. You have young people who have grown up with cell phones and Western movies, and then there are their parents or grandparents who still remember the Cultural Revolution. A city will contain courtyards left over from the Qing Dynasty, concrete Soviet-type blocks, and skyscrapers. As it’s often said, China is really a country that’s looking forward and backward at the same time.
Read the entire Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Happy Family.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lijia Zhang

Lijia Zhang is the author of Socialism Is Great!: A Worker's Memoir of the New China.

She answered some questions from Nicole Barnes for the China Beat, including:

NB: As a freelance journalist, you seem to have a lot of control over your topics. Your articles cover the most pressing social issues--child labor, kidnapped brides, and rural suicide rates--as well as the side effects of economic growth--migrating sand dunes, sexual liberation, and the "toilet revolution". What draws you to your topics?

LZ: First of all, let me stress that I don't write for domestic publications, which means I don't have to exercise self-censorship. I am a freelancer. I chose to write subjects that interest me. Coming from a lower social background, I like to focus on the 'little people's struggle, child labour, physically and emotionally displaced migrants and rural women. I also like to write stories that illustrate the changes the society is going through; all are very human stories.

NB: You write both journalistic articles and fiction so beautifully, in your non-native English. Do you ever find that the journalist and novelist in you struggle for dominance? How do you balance the two distinct styles in your professional life?

LZ: Very good question. When I was young, I dreamt about becoming a writer and a journalist – in fact, I didn't quite understand the difference between the two. Now I do. To start with, it is too difficult to make a living from book writing, so I have to work as a journalist. Actually, I love being a journalist. People's lives always fascinate me and I do meet a lot of interesting people through my work. Also, book writing is such a huge undertaking and a solitary practice. I enjoy the social aspect of journalistic work. Indeed, they can be complimentary to each other. I wrote a long feature on the issue of trafficking women – women being kidnapped and sold as wives to farmers– and I am pondering about making that the subject of my next book.
Read the entire interview.

Visit Lijia Zhang's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Karen Abbott

Karen Abbott is the author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul,

From Melissa Lafsky's interview with Abbott at the "Freakonomics" blog:

Q: Could you describe the economics of the Everleigh brothel? What was the total income? Salaries for the Everleigh madams and their prostitutes? Food/decorating budget?

A: On a busy night, the Everleigh sisters could make as much as $5,000. They spent $18,000 per year in renovations alone, including the upkeep of a $15,000 gold piano and several $650 gilded spittoons. They allotted a budget of $2,000 to $5,000 a month for imported spirits. The sisters sold bottles of champagne for $12 in the parlors and $15 in the bedrooms, but never beer or liquor. They also paid about $800 a month in protection fees [to law enforcement officials].

The Everleigh Club “butterflies,” as they were called, pocketed from $100 to $400 each week—an unthinkable salary in other houses. “One $50 client is preferable to ten $5 ones,” Minna [Everleigh] advised her courtesans. “Less wear and tear.” A man had to pay $50 just to walk in the door, in an era when a three-course meal cost fifty cents. Dinner in the club’s Pullman Palace Buffet could cost another $150.
When the sisters retired, they had $1 million in cash, the equivalent of $20 million today.

Q: Tell us about the legality of prostitution. What was the stance on enforcement in the 1900s? How has it changed?

A: Prostitution was technically illegal at the turn of the last century, but it was also ubiquitous. Today’s image of the drug-addled streetwalker toiling under the menacing glare of her pimp wasn’t the norm back then. When the Everleighs were in business, every city with a population of more than 100,00 had a bustling red light district where dope fiends, pickpockets, and brawlers got their kicks next to lawyers, ministers, moguls, and, of course, politicians. Vice thrived, with municipal indulgence.

Brothels were considered a necessary evil; prostitutes kept “respectable” women safe from rape and the baser fantasies of their husbands. The Progressive-era reformers challenged this way of thinking, which led to a major culture war. The Everleighs were targeted because they were this gleaming, shining symbol of open and protected vice, known around the world.
Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Sin in the Second City.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jim Krusoe

Jim Krusoe has written five books of poems, a book of stories, Blood Lake, and a novel, Iceland, which was selected by the Los Angeles Times and the Austin Chronicle as one of the ten best fiction books of 2002, and was on the Washington Post list of notable fiction the same year. His latest book is Girl Factory.

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

Your books and stories are highly unusual and often border on madcap – men rowing in a lake of blood, or falling into volcanoes, or discovering women suspended in yogurt – what inspires you to push storytelling to its limits?

I’m interested in how much we need to believe in stories, and how far we will go to suspend disbelief. I can feel every cell of my body shift the minute someone says, “Let me tell you a story,” and sometimes I think: why should I believe you? — but then I do, because it’s more pleasurable than not believing. Another word for “madcap” in your question might easily be metaphor, or nightmare, in my opinion.

Girl Factory is set in a frozen yogurt store, which houses young women, suspended in vats of an acidophilus solution in the basement. Hmmm... now what started you thinking about girls in yogurt – where did that image come from?

Where the women came from exactly, I’m not sure. But the yogurt parlor itself only happened on the fifth or sixth attempt to tell a story, and there is something about yogurt that seems to be important to my imagination, maybe something in bacterial action I find inspiring. It was yogurt that allowed the story to begin, not the women. The women in the basement arrived later because I needed something that would cause me to push my limits.
Read the rest of the Q & A.

See January Magazine's Author Snapshot: Jim Krusoe.

The Page 69 Test: Girl Factory.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 9, 2008

Dorothy Hearst

Dorothy Hearst is the author of Promise of the Wolves, a BookSense Pick for June 2008.

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

Q: Can you describe your experiences with wolves in the course of researching and writing Promise of the Wolves?

A: They pretty much just walked into my apartment one day, and then wouldn't leave. Kept gnawing on my ankles until I agreed to write about them.

I've had the opportunity to see wolves both in the wild, in Yellowstone, and at wildlife sanctuaries. My first wolves were at the Cleveland Zoo. I was attending a conference for work and found out that there was a wolf habitat at the zoo, so I snuck away from the conference and hung out with the wolves pretty much until the zoo closed. The wolf expert there was nice enough to talk to me for a long time, and then directed me to a wolf-watching trip in Yellowstone. Seeing wolves in the wild was an unbelievable experience, because it's fascinating just to watch them move across a landscape and feed at a carcass -- just doing the things wolves do. I've been back to Yellowstone once since and will go again. The first time I got to meet wolves face-to-face was after I'd completed Promise. A photographer I'd met put me in touch with Never Cry Wolf Rescue, which takes in wolves and wolf hybrids that people have tried and failed to keep as pets. That's where I got the photo op with Dante, the arctic wolf hybrid in my author photo, and got to meet the other wolves there as well. I got to pet a three-month-old wolf puppy. I managed to restrain myself from smuggling her home in my car, but just barely.
Read the full Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Promise of Wolves.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 8, 2008

David Simon

For the Financial Times, Peter Aspden interviewed David Simon, author of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, and the writer-producer of The Wire.

When Aspden suggested that The Wire reminded him of Shakespeare, Simon replied:

“We stole from the earlier dramatic tradition of the Greeks. Shakespeare began the process by which thinking men and women exerted some degree of control over their actions, markedly changing their ends. Hamlet and Macbeth are concerned with the interior psychological construction of their characters. They are more Tony Soprano than The Wire.

The Wire transposed the idea of Greek tragedy by using institutions in place of the Olympian gods. And those institutions are our political and economic constructs.

“Now some people don’t want to watch that, to be told that the game is rigged. It is disturbing news. But those that do watch it will respond to the profound pessimism of the show. The people who watched Antigone or Medea were comfortable with that degree of pessimism. That was the ancient view of the world. And I’m not so sure it is so wrong in the 21st century.”

Read more about Aspden's lunch with Simon.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, The Virtues of War, Tides of War, Last of the Amazons, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Afghan Campaign, and the newly released, Killing Rommel.

From a Q & A at his website:

Mr. P., what is the new book about and what made you switch from the ancient world to the modern?

Killing Rommel is a novel about a true World War II British special forces unit (really the first special forces outfit of modern times) called the Long Range Desert Group and about their partnership with another British special forces unit, the SAS. The LRDG operated out of Cairo and various desert oases, including Alexander the Great's old stomping grounds at Siwa. Its mission was raiding and reconnaissance behind enemy lines, against Rommel and the German Afrika Korps. If you look at the cover art for the new book, the scorpion pin in the center was the badge of the Long Range Desert Group. The group's motto was "Not by Strength, by Guile."

How did you get to that subject from the ancient world?

I got there via Alexander the Great. I was researching Alexander's cavalry tactics for a couple of earlier books. That led me to Frederick the Great, to Napoleon, and to other more contemporary cavalry commanders. Sure enough, I wound up studying Rommel, who used tanks with the same dash and aggressiveness as Alexander used cavalry.

For a while I thought I might write a book strictly about Rommel. He was a fascinating personage, not just as a fighting general but as a man. I didn't know that he had been implicated in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler -- and that he had been forced by Hitler's generals to take poison or face a trial before a Nazi court.

But I couldn't find a way into the story. Nothing was ringing bells. Then I stumbled onto some books about the Long Range Desert Group. That did it.
Read the entire Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Killing Rommel.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 6, 2008

Duane Swierczynski

In the introduction to his interview with Duane Swierczynski, Mike Collins at Rescued by Nerds writes: "Take Battle Royal cross it with Office Space and add in a little Die Hard with splash of Alias and you've got some idea what to expect in Duane Swierczynski's Severance Package."

One exchange from the interview:

MC: The plot of the book is like a nesting doll. First we get the boss who may or may not be a little nuts telling his staff that they are all secretly working for an intelligence agency and that they are all about to die. Then little by little you reveal just how deep all the connections are. How much fun was the plot for this one to figure out?

DS: I honestly figured it out as I was writing it. I had the basic set-up in my head, and a hazy idea of what might happen at the end (though that changed); the rest was kind of me winging it. Same thing happened with The Wheelman. The only book I’ve only kinda sorta plotted was The Blonde, and that was because I was afraid I’d screw it up.
Read the entire Q & A.

Visit Duane Swierczynski's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Marco Pierre White

At Dining with Bacchus, I've posted a new interview up with Chef Matt Murphy of The Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans. Chef Matt, who worked in the kitchens of some famous chefs--including Daniel Boulud, Gordon Ramsey, and Marco Pierre White--shared some of his stories with me.

And his story about Marco Pierre White's professionalism and standards reminded of an interview the famous chef did with Alex Koppelman of Salon while promoting his memoir, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef.

The opening exchanges of the interview:

Why'd you write this book?

I think if you've been given a talent, you should show it off, if you've been given opportunity, create opportunity, and if you've been given a story, share your story. I think you have a moral duty to do that. And you know, I've had many chefs come up to me, young boys, and say, "Marco, I love your book," and that's good. But don't do what I did, chase something for 17 years I never wanted. It's a long journey, chasing something until you achieve it and actually you never wanted it. It's a very long journey.

What do you mean, never wanted it?

When I won my three stars, I realized that I'd worked for something all my life that I'd never wanted. I never questioned why, why was I chasing three stars. I never asked myself that question, because I thought it would give me happiness.
Read the full interview.

Visit Dining with Bacchus.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Doug M. Cummings

Doug M. Cummings, author of Deader By the Lake and Every Secret Crime, was interrogated by Julia Buckley at her Mysterious Musings blog.

Two questions from the interview:

Would you cite any particular author(s) as an influence on your mystery writing style?

I’ve always tried (and failed) to write description like John D. He could draw us into scene just by telling us how someone looked or wore their clothes. James Lee Burke is another writer who creates an incredible sense of place and character. Burke, Ross MacDonald, (and Chandler and Hammett) all have helped me understand that the hero of a crime novel, while somewhat larger than life, should nevertheless be a real person with flaws and emotional burdens. Asa Baber, the delightful and iconoclastic author and Playboy columnist, was also a significant influence. I took a short-story writing class from him a few years before his death. After reading a piece I’d written where the hero was ever so gallant and the bad guy disgustingly villainous, he made one comment: “Consider the true nature of evil.” It’s something I’ve tried to do in everything I’ve written since.

Wow! Great story, Doug. And a thought-provoking comment.

David Morrell says that you write about “Suburbia’s dark underside.” Just how dark is our underside? :)

Covering crime, you see a lot of darkness in the ‘burbs. Well-to-do families that seem happy and together on the outside until the son kills the father because he doesn’t like the way he plays the piano, or a mom who poisons and then smothers her three kids because her M.D. husband is divorcing her. Even more than that, you see the way communities, mostly wealthy communities, try to cover up the bad things and how they encourage their cops to stonewall the media. Although I have to say, I’m grateful for those experiences because they led me to write Every Secret Crime.
Read the full Q & A.

Visit Doug M. Cummings website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Alan Furst

Jamie Malanowski, managing editor of Playboy and author of The Coup, interviewed Alan Furst, author of the newly released The Spies of Warsaw.

Malanowski's introduction and their first Q & A:

Alan Furst is one of the best spy novelists of this or any era, and anyone skeptical of that assertion should immediately read his brand new novel, The Spies of Warsaw.

All of Furst’s novels take place in the days just before or just after the start of World War II; this one is the story of a French military officer stationed n Warsaw who has an interest in German tank construction and tactics. The novel’s plot is lively enough, but plot is seldom the main point of Furst’s stories. They are more about character, mood, atmosphere—a way of life that knows it is about to be obliterated by the gathering storm. Furst is a wonderful writer—his descriptions of small gestures, his observations of small moments, are specific and illuminating. We’re grateful that he took the time to answer some questions. (For more info, check out his website.)

PLAYBOY: All of your novels take place in Middle and Western Europe in the late thirties and early forties. How did you decide to focus on this period, and why does it speak to you? Do you never wish to write about, say, two Korean stewardesses on a bikini vacation in Rio in 1976?

FURST: The mid-century years saw a desperate conflict between tyranny--Hitler's Germany, and Stalin's Russia--and freedom; Great Britain and France. This was an epic struggle, which saw the Soviet purges, the murder of Jews, the Spanish civil war, and the occupation of Europe. Those who stood against it were heroic, and often enough doomed. So this was a tragic and romantic period at the same time. This is very magnetic for a novelist, and, for a novelist who writes spy novels--or novels about spies--the fact that the intelligence services of all the countries in Europe fought each other, in the salons and the back alleys, even more so.
Read the full interview.

Visit Alan Furst's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Foreign Correspondent.

Writers Read: Alan Furst

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 2, 2008

Cory Doctorow

Sarah Weinman interviewed Cory Doctorow about his YA novel Little Brother for

From the outtakes from the interview:

SW: How did you balance the need to move the story along and maintain momentum with the need to explain certain critical concepts in computer hacking – Denial of Service, infected PCs, Bayesian analysis, creation of networks, to name a few? Was it a challenge to keep the number of expository paragraphs to a minimum?

CD: Some people view exposition as a necessary evil but I think exposition, when done right, and in science fiction most of all, the right exposition at the right moment can be just as fascinating as character development or plot twists. People don't just read young adult science fiction to be entertained; they also want to know how the world works. They not only forgive you from going away from [the] main thrust of the action, they thank you for it. I wrote the book intuitively, taking as the starting point that if Marcus was a supergeeky kid, he had superheated conversations on how things -- be it computers, or the internet, or specific hacking concepts -- are explained. His whole life would be defined by explaining to people what [he is] super-passionate about.

I don't think Marcus would view this as information overload. If you're excited, if you're the right person, it's okay to explain things that are over their head. It's a privilege to be around people if they are passionate about a subject. Ennui is [a] terrible characteristic trait – people who are bored don't make interesting narrators!
Read more of the outtake and find the link to the edited interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Kate Mosse

Kate Mosse's books include the New York Times-bestseller Labyrinth and the recently published Sepulchre. She is also co-founder and Honorary Director of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, which annually celebrates and promotes the best works of fiction written by women throughout the world.

Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times put a few questions to Mosse, including:

Who are your literary heroes?

Margaret Atwood, Emily Brontë, Willa Cather, TS Eliot, John Milton, Agatha Christie.

Read the entire Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Sepulchre.

--Marshal Zeringue