Saturday, February 28, 2009

Michelle Boisseau

Michelle Boisseau is professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where she also serves as associate editor of BkMk Press. She is the author of four books of poetry, including the newly published A Sunday in God-Years.

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

Q. Where does the title come from?

I'm not sure I remember how I came up with it. But it came out of a notion that if you step back, way back in time and look down on earth from a god's-eye view, all human history, really every event on earth, might look like it happened on a Sunday afternoon when God was taking a nap. Strange as it might sound, I find comfort in taking a long view. Holding in your hand a fossil imbedded with the shell of creature that existed 450 million years ago you connect yourself to lost ages and to what literally endures, connect to the time before the tongue or the eye had evolved, when even the master of our world, the sun, was a youngster.

Q. Which is the first poem you wrote for the book?

Funny thing, in a sense, the first poem for this book is a poem in my last book, Trembling Air (Arkansas 2003), the poem "Haloes Stippled with Crosses, Roses ... ." This poem and the long poem "A Reckoning" in A Sunday in God-Years were originally part of another very long poem which I decided at one point wasn't working. Most of it got composted and from that soil grew these other poems. All along I felt discomfort handling this slippery material. Where do I get off writing about this stuff? A middle-class white woman whose family were slave-holders, who benefitted from the system which caused, and continues to cause, devastation? I spent a lot of time reading and staring out the window and throwing out false starts and being frustrated.

In his The Slave Trade Thomas describes how gold in the art of middle-ages came from Africa, from secret trade routes that were also associated with slavery. This fascinated and horrified me. I have a great love for the Italian art implicated —Giotto, Martini, Fra Angelico. I might read their sacred images ironically, but I find their work moving. I started to think about how beauty is mixed up with suffering. I don't mean beauty as the very pretty, but beauty as a force, the kind of mysterious force you feel emanating from a Fra Angelico or a Mozart concerto. What does it mean when something beautiful is entangled with evil? Does it mean anything? What's my responsibility in writing about it? How can a poem consider how the White House and Capitol were built with slave labor without just belaboring the obvious. The nasty Medicis made possible amazing art. Thousands (millions?) of kids across this country owe to a Carnegie Library some of the best moments of their childhoods (I know I do), for the quiet and dignity they found in going to a lovely library that was built by a horrible man. Slavery and genocide built the empires on which the modern world lives.

As did the ancient world.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 27, 2009

Abraham Verghese

Abraham Verghese is the author of Cutting for Stone.

From his interview with Tina Brown at The Daily Beast:

TB: Can you tell me a bit about what the genesis of this book creatively for you and how you saw the weaving of its characters and themes as you set about writing it?

AV: So there were two things that came together for me. The one was I’ve always thought that the study of medicine—the appeal that an adolescent has for what they see as the great mystery of what people learn in medicine—I’ve always thought that had never been quite celebrated in a book as well as I would have enjoyed seeing it. I wanted to write about the sense a young boy has of the wonder of medicine and how it’s some secret ritual that if you could only learn it, it’s like buying X-ray spectacles and suddenly you could see through people.

TB: You very much gave me that feeling. It’s amazing how with some of the details you suddenly see the kind of X-ray vision into people’s bodies and how that must be like.

AV: Yeah, I always thought it extremely appealing. Then the second idea was the image of a nun giving birth in a mission hospital. You know, there’s something so attractive about nuns—we’re drawn to them, this idea of someone living their life wedded to Christ and all the sacrifice that comes with that.

TB: Did you know any nuns when you lived in Ethiopia? [read on]
Read the complete interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Amos Oz

Amos Oz is Israel’s best-known novelist and a strong political voice. He has written 27 books. Among these, his memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness (2003) explored his childhood and his mother’s suicide.

His latest book is Rhyming Life and Death.

Two exchanges from his Q & A with Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times:

What book changed your life?

Initially the Bible, as it was my first encounter with stories. Later it was a story collection by [American writer] Sherwood Anderson called Winesburg, Ohio which opened my eyes to subject matter that could be found even in the tiniest place.

* * *

Who are your literary influences?

The great 19th-century Russians, especially Chekhov, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner and [Israeli author] Shai Agnon.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wang Gang

Wang Gang is a critically acclaimed novelist and screenwriter in China. His novel English, due out from Viking in April, is based on his experiences growing up in western China. He lives in Beijing.

From his interview with Andrea Wong at Shanghai City Weekend, in anticipation of the Shanghai International Literary Festival:

Do you have a daily writing routine? What do you do when you get writer's block?

I don’t write everyday. I write by paragraphs. When I get writer’s block, I usually listen to music and drink. Sometimes I get drunk.

What does it mean to be a writer?

I use words to express true emotions instead of academic knowledge like a scholar. Of course, the basic requirement for authors is to criticize themselves and to question their own sins before they criticize and question others’. This is the biggest difference between me and other Chinese writers.

What's your favorite English word?

Mercy and lots of other words: compassion, kind, soul, and most of all, love. They all intensely capture what my novel is about, and what’s important to me. During the Cultural Revolution, cruelty happened everyday. That’s why Love [the protagonist of English] always yearned and thought in desire. These words are opposite to reality. Their meanings give us a hint of what Chinese people and Chinese authors lack. We need what these words express. If humanity truly wants less bloodshed and less killings, then not only China, but any country in the world, should experience and understand more these words used in “English.” Including America.
Read the complete Q & A.

Also at Shanghai City Weekend: an interview with China historian and The China Beat blogger Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories. His debut story collection, Drown was a national bestseller and won numerous awards. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times called Díaz's novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao “a book that decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction's most distinctive and irresistible new voices.”

From his Q & A with Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times:

What book changed your life?

I would say Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island, which I read when I was seven, because it turned me into a reader. But Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon also transformed me as a reader and as a person, when I was a callow youth of 18.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

I was afraid of being a writer at first. The practical, immigrant side of me said it was a ridiculous thing to do. It was only when I held a copy of my first book, Drown, in my hands that my resistance was blown apart.
Read the complete Q & A.

Read about Díaz's 5 most important books.

The Page 99 Test: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 23, 2009

Joe Gores

Joe Gores is the author of Spade & Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon.

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

Q: Apart from the fact that you're a Dashiell Hammett expert, what was the chief inspiration to write a prequel to his classic novel, The Maltese Falcon?

A: It was a comment the Hammett scholar Rick Layman once said about The Maltese Falcon that first grabbed me: that it was "America's first existential novel." I thought yes, that's exactly right: you don't know anything about the past of these people: they just appear full-blown as if they sprang from the head of Zeus. So I became fascinated by that idea: who is Spade, where did he come from, why he can essentially say to the fat man, "If you'd stayed away from me you would have been okay, but when you cross me then you have to deal with me now, because this is my town."

The way it came about is that that I'd met Professor Layman who'd written a number of fabulous books on Hammett, and the first really good biography of Hammett, called Shadow Man, (because one of the operatives at Pinkerton's detective agency where Hammett worked said that he was a great shadow man, he could follow anyone anywhere and no one would ever see this lanky man
tailing them). Through Rick Layman, I met the family, including Jo Marshall, Hammett's surviving daughter, and in 1999 I wrote her a letter asking if she thought a prequel to The Maltese Falcon would be a good idea. She said no. So my agent, Henry Morrison, told me just to forget about it.

Then in about 2004 the Hammett family was in San Francisco for a literary event and Jo Marshall got me in a corner and asked me if I'd like to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon and I said no, I'd like to write a prequel, and she said "Oh, I guess I just wanted to see all of those wonderful characters again." And I said "but they're all dead." She said "oh, that's right!" So from there we began.

For my own part, I wanted to find out for myself who Sam Spade was when he started out—how did he become this iconic figure? Every private eye who I've known, including myself, thinks Sam Spade is the ideal detective. Hammett himself said "he's who all private detectives would like to be and in their more egotistical moments, think they are." I have always thought you learn more of the private detective procedures in Hammett's "Op Stories," but Spade is the gold standard. I think of him as the Continental Ops' older brother—the guy who really knows how to do it.
Read the complete Q & A.

At The Rap Sheet, read Mark Coggins' account of Joe Gores' visit to the “M” Is for Mystery bookshop in San Mateo, California, to discuss and sign Spade & Archer.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chris Cleave

Chris Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper in London. His first novel, Incendiary, was published in twenty countries; won the 2006 Somerset Maugham Award; was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize; won the United States Book-of-the-Month Club's First Fiction Award; and won the Prix Spécial du Jury at the French Prix des Lecteurs 2007.

From a Q & A about his new novel, Little Bee:

Is the novel based on a true story?

No, but there’s one true story in particular that made me determined to write the novel. In 2001 an Angolan man named Manuel Bravo fled to England and claimed asylum on the grounds that he and his family would be persecuted and killed if they were returned to Angola. He lived in a state of uncertainty for four years pending a decision on his application. Then, without warning, in September 2005 Manuel Bravo and his 13-year-old son were seized in a dawn raid and interned at an Immigration Removal Centre in southern England. They were told that they would be forcibly deported to Angola the next morning. That night, Manuel Bravo took his own life by hanging himself in a stairwell. His son was awoken in his cell and told the news. What had happened was that Manuel Bravo, aware of a rule under which unaccompanied minors cannot be deported from the UK, had taken his own life in order to save the life of his son. Among his last words to his child were: “Be brave. Work hard. Do well at school.”

Did you have a personal reason to write the novel?

Yes, there was a chance encounter that really shook me up. Around fifteen years ago I was working as a casual labourer over the university summer vacation, and for three days I worked in the canteen of Campsfield House in Oxfordshire. It’s a detention centre for asylum seekers – a prison, if you like, full of people who haven’t committed a crime. I’d been living within ten miles of the place for three years and didn’t even know it existed. The conditions in there were very distressing. I got talking with asylum seekers who’d been through hell and were likely to be sent back to hell. Some of them were beautiful characters and it was deeply upsetting to see how we were treating them. When we imprison the innocent we make them ill, and when we deport them it’s often a death sentence. I knew I had to write about it, because it’s such a dirty secret. And I knew I had to show the unexpected humour of these refugees wherever I could, and to make the book an enjoyable and compelling read - because otherwise people’s eyes would glaze over.
Read the complete Q & A.

Read an excerpt from Little Bee.

Visit Chris Cleave's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tiffany Baker

Tiffany Baker has a graduate degree in creative writing from UC Irvine and a PhD in Victorian literature.

Her recently released debut novel is The Little Giant of Aberdeen County.

From her Q & A with Hilary S. Kayle for Publishers Weekly:

The story is told from the viewpoint of Truly Plaice, whose large stature is the result of a glandular disorder. What inspired you to feature such an unusual character?

I started with the character—it was like tuning in a radio, and I got the Truly station. Then I wanted to have a woman in a small town who was an outsider. What if she was so big that you couldn't possibly miss her, she couldn't be overlooked—and yet somehow in this town, everybody had overlooked her. I played with the juxtaposition of a woman who is so large, but who is simultaneously invisible, and the story took off.

There is a wonderful contrast between Truly, and her dainty, beautiful sister, Serena Jane. How did you develop that relationship?

I have two sisters and I know about the rivalries that go on. I made a game with myself of upping the ante for Truly. What could make it even worse for her in this small town? What if her sister was incredibly beautiful? It allowed me to explore appearances and that what you see is not necessarily the truth [of who you are].
Read the complete interview.

The Page 69 Test: The Little Giant of Aberdeen County.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sandra Novack

Sandra Novack’s fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, and Mississippi Review, among other publications. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, and holds an MFA from Vermont College. She is the author of the novel Precious.

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

Precious is your first novel. How long did it take you to write, and what was the process like? Had the premise been swimming around in your head for a long time, or did the plot evolve as you wrote?

It was a bit of both, I suppose. The idea of the novel had been with me, though the plot evolved as well. I didn’t, for example, have any sense that Natalia would come back home, nor did I know until quite late what had happened to Vicki Anderson, the girl who goes missing at the novel’s opening. In part, I make a lot of choices in favor of structure—structural parallels, variations on theme and image. When I began the novel the possibilities of the world seemed rather endless, but every choice made on the page laid a new constraint and began to shape and to hone the world. That said, the story is and has always been inspired by an event from my life, that when I was seven, my sister ran away from home. So the idea of disappearances and probably the image of the girl riding off on a bike were always there, for a very long time, as was the town’s general setting and shape.

Your author’s note at the front of the book states that there are autobiographical elements of the story. Was it a vulnerable experience putting pieces of your life out there on the page? Have you ever considered writing a memoir?

It was hard to write from a place within me that had been silent for so long. After my sister left, that event was so painful my family stopped talking about her—it was too difficult, understandably so—but when you stop telling stories people can disappear even more. Writing is a great counter force against that negation, even if it is fiction that I’m crafting. I felt vulnerable in a way because of the emotions that writing stirred in me. But this is also the truth: I don’t know my real sister well. I might even say I don’t know her at all; I don’t know reasons for things, for why she left. So it could never be memoir, and I’ve never been a person very interested in writing “truth” or “real” life, anyway. I find life too messy. Things happen in our lives and we don’t always know why, ever. What fiction gives me is...[read on]
Visit Sandra Novack's website.

The Page 69 Test: Precious.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Daphne Uviller

From a Q & A with Daphne Uviller, author of Super in the City:

Q: Were you actually the super of a building?

A: For ten long years. In exchange for only paying maintenance (i.e. not market rate) on an apartment in the building my family co-owned, I was the super for the whole place.

Q: Was it worth it?

A: Definitely. I didn’t have to suffer a Mrs. Hannaham living downstairs, the way Zephyr does in my novel. My parents were pretty easy tenant/owners. I’m not saying I jumped for joy every time my mother called to say the heat wouldn’t go on or wouldn’t go off or was rattling the walls like a felon with a tin cup, but I accepted it as part of the job. And I got to live in the greatest apartment a 23-year-old government employee could ever hope to occupy.

Q: Any particularly bad experiences?

A: Once, coming home after doing some errands, I was carrying my college diploma, which I’d just had framed. But I was also carrying...[read on]
The Page 69 Test: Super in the City.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tom Perrotta

At The New Republic's blog, Greg Veis interviewed Tom Perrotta, author of Election and other fine novels. The introduction and a couple of their exchanges:

Hillary Clinton got Flicked. Sarah Palin and Kirsten Gillibrand, too. In fact, it's now fair to say that any ambitious female politician with the ability to make men see starbursts--or at least whose hair is blond--will invite comparisons to Tracy Flick, the hyper-driven and not a little bit demented student body president Reese Witherspoon made famous in Election.

Rare is the character who receives a second life as a cultural phenomenon--and that fate was particularly unlikely in Flick's case. The film made just under $15 million when it disappeared from theaters in the summer of 1999. And the book that inspired it, written by Tom Perrotta, went unpublished for a few years before finally coming out in 1998. But Flick, dogged as ever, gradually worked her way into the political consciousness. (Alexander Payne, the film's director, said that President Obama has told him on two separate occasions that it's his favorite political movie.) Now Perrotta is grappling with what Flick's resurrection means, and not all of it is good. He sat down with us to discuss.

What's it like seeing a character you created 15 years ago take on a new life?

Well, there's certainly a flattering aspect to it--not a lot of characters become a cultural shorthand. The thing that strikes me is that Tracy really has become an all-purpose point of comparison for a certain type of female politician: She's either an all-inclusive character, or people aren't thinking hard enough.

Right, there isn't a Tracy Flick equivalent for male politicians.

There is a slight worry that references to her are colored by a certain type of sexism, that she's become a cudgel. But I also think that there were already a number of other cultural references points for men. What I was responding to with Tracy was new: a generation of hard-charging women, the daughters of first-generation feminists and unapologetic achievers. This was the late 80s and early 90s, and they were different than the girls I had grown up with, more willing to compete. The only other cultural reference points for women like that then were movie stars and entertainers. People like Madonna. Who was it going to be in politics? Golda? Indira? Thatcher? By default, there are few female political touchstones.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Josh Bazell

For The Rap Sheet, Ali Karim interviewed Josh Bazell, author of Beat the Reaper.

Part of their dialogue:

AK: As I was reading your book, I wondered if you, like your intern “hero,” Peter Brown, have a medical background.

JB: I wrote Beat the Reaper during the last year of med school and the beginning of my internship. I’m now a resident in psychiatry, with a couple of more years to go.

AK: Tell us a little about your childhood. Were you always a reader, and if so, which books cast a shadow over your life?

JB: Yeah, I read constantly growing up, and before that my grandfather read to me. Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll were early presences. Then I discovered then-modern books like Jaws and The Godfather and couldn’t believe people could write serious books with that much sex and violence, and I decided at that point to become a novelist. Lucky Jim was a huge influence also.
Read the complete interview.

The Page 69 Test: Beat the Reaper.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 16, 2009

Deborah Heiligman

From Rick Margolis's interview with Deborah Heiligman, author of Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, at School Library Journal:

What’s the biggest misconception about Darwin’s work?

People still think that somehow we evolved from monkeys. Darwin thought that apes and people had a common ancestor way back when and that the tree of life branched out. We are definitely related to monkeys, but we didn’t come from a monkey. Even though that’s really just a technicality, it’s what gets a lot of people crazy about evolution.

Has writing this book given you any insight on how science and religion can coexist peacefully?

That was a big reason why I wanted to write the book. I believe there are these misconceptions, and if people would just talk about them, like Charles and Emma did, they’d find they have much more in common than not. What really upsets people is that they think Darwin was an atheist and that everybody who believes in evolution believes the same thing. If I were devout, that would horrify me as well.

What did Darwin believe?

Darwin really didn’t know if there was a God or not. His belief...[read on]
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit Deborah Heiligman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gwendolyn Zepeda

Gwendolyn Zepeda is the author of a short-story collection called To the Last Man I Slept with and All the Jerks Just Like Him and the children’s book, Growing Up with Tamales, a 2009 Charlotte Zolotow Award Highly Commended Title.

From a Q & A with the author about her new novel,
Houston, We Have a Problema:

1. What gave you the idea for this book?

I was in a friend’s office, telling him I couldn’t decide what to write next. He had a Magic 8- Ball on his shelf. I took it and asked, “Should I try to write a novel?” It said the answer was unclear. I was annoyed and wished I knew a real psychic who could tell me for certain what to do. Then the idea came to me: What if someone based all her decisions on fortune- telling, signs, and superstition?

2. Are you Jessica Luna? How similar is your life to hers?

I’m not Jessica. There are a few similarities. I grew up in Houston, I work in insurance, I’ve worked for nonprofits, and I’m sometimes superstitious. Like everyone else, I’ve had doubts about the direction my life is going. But besides that, we’re pretty different. I’m older than her. My mom’s white, and I grew up with my dad and his family. I have two younger brothers, no sisters. I’ve been married, and I have three sons. I’ve been dating the same guy for five years now. Most strikingly, Jessica has way more time to go out drinking and dancing than I do.
Read the complete Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: Houston, We Have a Problema.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Brad Gooch

Brad Gooch is the author of the acclaimed biography of Frank O'Hara, City Poet, as well as other nonfiction and three novels. The recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities and Guggenheim fellowships, he earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and is Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

From a Q & A with Gooch about his new book, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor:

Who were O’Connor’s favorite authors?

Poe, Joyce, Gogol, Faulkner, Mauriac, Bernanos, Conrad, Lardner.

Who did she think was overrated?

She wasn’t very kind to some of her fellow Southern writers--McCullers, Capote, or Williams. She thought To Kill a Mockingbird a “wonderful children’s book.”

How did being a Catholic living in the Bible Belt influence O’Connor’s work?

She was mesmerized by the Bible thumpers. Only two Catholic priests appear in her stories.
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 13, 2009

Adrian Desmond & James Moore

From Michael Barton's interview with Adrian Desmond and James Moore about their new book, Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins:

2009 is the Darwin Bicentenary, as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species. Why has it taken so long to discover the moral motivation behind Darwin’s theories of sexual selection and human origins?

The Descent of Man hasn’t been read, much less read carefully. Over and over, scholars have called it `two books’ crushed together (and it is unwieldy, over 900 pages). That’s one reason. Another is this: only in the last generation have Darwin’s private notebooks, letters and marginal jottings become fully available. Without these, it was difficult to trace the development of his views on human origins. Above all, though, there has been great reluctance to see Darwin as more than a heroic `genius’ uncovering pure gems of `truth' beyond the vision of ordinary mortals. To most of his admirers, Darwin was a `great scientist’ getting on with a great scientist’s proper job, not a Victorian gentleman with a moral passion making all life kin by solving that contemporary `mystery of mysteries’, how living species originate. But historians today see Darwin quite differently: they emphasize the social and historical context that made it possible for Darwin or anyone to craft a theory from available cultural resources. One such resource in Darwin’s world was anti-slavery, the greatest moral movement of his age. Our thesis is that the anti-slavery values instilled in him from youth became the moral premise of his work on evolution. Many scientists and philosophers think that explaining genius and its insights as we do saps the power of science and, given the challenge of creationism, is an act of treachery. The reluctance to dig beneath the surface of Darwin’s books into the social and cultural resources of his times is as dogged as ever.

And why is Darwin’s moral motivation important?

This is perhaps the most radical and upsetting idea: that there was a moral impetus behind Darwin's work on human evolution - a brotherhood belief, rooted in anti-slavery, that led to a 'common descent' image for human ancestry, an image that Darwin extended to the rest of life, making not just the races, but all creatures brothers and sisters. In his family `tree of life’, all share a common ancestor. It’s vital to realize that Darwin’s science wasn’t the `neutral’, dispassionate practise of textbook caricature; it was driven by....[read on]
Read the complete Q & A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Judith R. Hendricks

Judith R. Hendricks' new novel is The Laws of Harmony.

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

Q: The Laws of Harmony is your fourth novel. What do you know about writing now that you wished you had known when you started out as a novelist?

A: I wish I'd known that each book is utterly different and it's always like starting over. That probably would have saved me from panic on many occasions. I wish I'd known that you have to be gentle with yourself and patient with the story. No matter how many times I've thought I'd never find my way through the maze, or how many times I've been ready to quit in frustration, things have always worked themselves out . . . and I mean that literally. The knots have unraveled with very little help from me. The problem is that what I know now I could only learn through the experience of writing four novels. And still, I forget.

Q: To what extent do you actively resist writing works that can be categorized by genre or theme? For example, The Laws of Harmony seems to introduce and combine mystery, romance, self-discovery, and all things culinary.

A: I enjoy reading certain genres, such as mysteries, but when someone who's a school teacher or a cab driver keeps stumbling over dead bodies, there's a part of me that thinks, Oh come on. You just solved a murder last month. What are the chances? When I write, I like to include different elements in the story because real life is a fascinating pastiche of mystery, romance, self-discovery and—at least for me—all things culinary.
Read the complete Q & A.

The Page 69 Test: The Laws of Harmony.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Alice Schroeder

From a Q&A with Alice Schroeder, author of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life:

When did you first meet Warren Buffett, and what was your first impression?

His company, Berkshire Hathaway, bought a company whose stock I followed while working as a Wall Street analyst. I sent him a letter asking to bring some clients to Omaha to meet with him. He called me back in person. I was immensely flattered and impressed that someone like him would call me. He came across as down-to-earth and grandfatherly.

Because you were essentially handpicked by Buffett to write his biography, was it ever difficult to remain objective throughout the process?

By the time I started the book I’d known him for five years. My initial awe gave way to curiosity as I began to understand him as a human being. He became a fascinating puzzle that I wanted to solve. Gradually, I realized that writing the book meant putting my relationship with him on the line. Whether your subject will do future interviews with you, how he will react to what you’ve written, whether he or his powerful friends will approve of you afterward — until you accept the worst outcomes to these questions, the relationship is steering the writing. As somebody once put it, you have to write as though both you and your subject are dead. That’s a tall order, but I tried.

What does the title–The Snowball–signify? [read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bernardine Evaristo

Award-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Blonde Roots asks: What if the history of the transatlantic slave trade had been reversed and Africans had enslaved Europeans? How would that have changed the ways that people justified their inhuman behavior? And how would it inform our cultural attitudes and the insidious racism that still lingers—and sometimes festers—today?

From Evaristo's Q & A with Elizabeth Floyd Mair of the (Albany) Times Union:

Q: This is an unusual idea for a novel. How did the idea first come to you?

A: I wanted to write about slavery, or more specifically, Britain's involvement in the slave trade, which was, by the 1730s, Europe's largest slave-trading nation. We are all now familiar with America's slave history, but Britain's own history, which was considerable and of incredible economic benefit to the country, has been overlooked. Slavery is a subject that elicits very strong, often inflexible responses, and I wanted to find a way to explore this history afresh. I came up with the idea of inverting the history so that Africans enslaved Europeans. As with all my books, "Blonde Roots" began with the germ of an idea that I pushed to see if it had book-length potential. The more I wrote, the more I found there was to write about, and it became an adventure that was not only about transatlantic slavery but also about its legacy in the form of modern-day racism.

Q: How does the legacy of slavery differ today for blacks in the United Kingdom and blacks in the United States?

A. [read on]
The Page 69 Test: Blonde Roots.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley is University Professor of the Social Sciences and Acting Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. He also teaches at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and Slate, among other publications. His books include Honky; Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America; and The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.

From Conley's interview with Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski about his latest book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety:

What do you think it represents that our new president, Barack Obama, refuses to give up his BlackBerry?

The BlackBerry for Obama is just the tip of the iceberg for him. We had the man in the gray flannel suit who quit work at 5 p.m. in our last president. Obama reflects more accurately how professionals of his generation are living, both in keeping the BlackBerry, and because he works at home, which happens to be the oldest home office in the United States, the White House.

The Obamas are going to be an interesting first couple with a career woman in the White House, as opposed to Laura Bush, who was again a throwback to the 1950s, when only 17 percent of moms worked outside the home. And they have an interesting solution as well, which is to import Michelle's mom to have an extra adult to manage the kids. So we're going to identify with Obama in a way that we couldn't with Bush.

You talk about how educated professionals, especially parents, have this feeling they should be everywhere at once. What do you mean?

It's great that work is flexible and there's an increased amount of autonomy for career professionals. But we are also ruled by this abstract boss called "the work" or the "in box." In past economies, whether we're talking about modern industrial capitalism or the craftsman, people were limited by daylight and raw materials and were producing something real and physical. Knowledge workers are not limited by any of those pesky things as long as there is an electric plug, your phone is charged or you have a wireless connection for your laptop. There is work you could be doing 24/7, or feel like you want to do, or should do.

If you're out making social capital -- connections -- which are increasingly important, maybe you feel guilty you're not home with your kids. If you're home with your kids, maybe you're not completely there because you're sneaking the BlackBerry under the dining room table. Or you're somewhere else in your head because you're thinking about the 101 things that you have to respond to before midnight. We have autonomy but we have also been boxed in and pulled apart by it.
Read the complete interview.

The Page 99 Test: Elsewhere, U.S.A.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Michael Wiley

Michael Wiley’s The Last Striptease (St. Martin’s Press) received the Best First Novel award from the Private Eye Writers of American and St. Martin’s in 2007 as was nominated for a Shamus in the same category in 2008. His Bad Kitty Lounge is forthcoming.

From his June 2008 Q & A at Sons of Spade:

Q: What makes Joe Kozmarski different from other PIs?

He’s not so different. But I like to think he’s very good at being who he is. I’m a big fan of classic hardboiled detectives, and when I decided to write a PI novel I wanted my guy to play in that line. Joe Kozmarski is a forty-three year old Polish-American ex-cop working in present-day Chicago. He has an ex-wife and a current lover. His eleven year old nephew lives with him. He has high standards for himself and he constantly fails to live up to them. He’s a man of 2008 and a detective of the 1930s.

Difference for the sake of difference doesn’t make for an interesting character. Not that there’s anything wrong with difference. It just isn’t necessary, even in a character-driven genre like the first-person PI novel. If a PI is well written, he or she will be fresh, interesting, funny, real. That’s what I’m aiming for.
Read the complete interview.

Visit Michael Wiley's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Last Striptease.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Striptease.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is the co-author of Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals.

From her interview with Jill Owens for Powell's Books:

Jill Owens: How did Animals Make Us Human get started?

Temple Grandin: It's a sort of sequel to Animals in Translation. I wanted to approach things in a different way. In Animals in Translation, we approached things through how animals think, what they fear, emotion systems, different things in the brain. In this book, we broke it down by species.

I want to make sure I give my co-author, Catherine Johnson, credit. She came up with the brilliant idea of linking things like stereotypic behavior back to the core emotions that Jaak Panksepp figured out years ago, which are controlled by subcortical brain systems. When we started looking at the literature on the stereotypes, I said, "Wow! This really makes sense." That's what the first chapter's about.

Animal behaviorists tend to talk about motivation in a very abstract, vague way. So what exactly is this motivation? A light went on in everybody's head, and we realized it would be the core emotions. Those core emotional circuits have been mapped. They're subcortical, and they're the same in all mammals, including people. Birds have emotions, but their brains are set up differently, so let's just stick with mammals for now.
Read the complete interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 6, 2009

Patrick McCabe

Patrick McCabe is best known for the 1992 novel The Butcher Boy, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and a later novel, Breakfast on Pluto (1998).

His latest novel is The Holy City.

From his Q & A with Anna Metcalfe of the Financial Times:

What book changed your life?

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan. It’s very close to my own experience in the early 1970s. I didn’t think that a weird, dangerous, hippy world could be written about in that way.

* * *
Who are your literary influences?

JP Donleavy (when I was a kid), Harold Pinter, Nikolai Gogol and Paul Muldoon.
Read the complete interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Linda L. Richards

ITW contributing editor Cathy Clamp interviewed Linda L. Richards about her new Kitty Pangborn novel, Death Was In The Picture.

The interview opens:

Tell me a little about the story and what Kitty's all about.

Kitty Pangborn is secretary to a drunken Los Angeles gumshoe named Dexter Theroux. She doesn't care about solving cases. It's the Depression, there's not a lot of money to go around: she cares about getting paid. But her drunken boss spends so much time messing up, Kitty finds herself helping him out, just to make sure clients don't drop him and so her paychecks keep coming.

This is Kitty's second outing. Readers first met her in 2008 in Death Was the Other Woman. In Death Was in the Picture, Dex is hired to keep tabs on a movie star. Before his first day on the job, though, the movie star is charged with a murder that takes place at a party that Dex attended. In figuring out what happened, Kitty and Dex realize that they are embroiled in a conspiracy of moralities and that the hands putting everything into motion may be at the very highest reaches of both film making and organized religion.

I'm a HUGE fan of Noir detective stories. Tell me a little more about your influences for creating a hard-boiled story set in California.

The Kitty Pangborn stories are set in Los Angeles, although the most recent book, Death Was in the Picture, is set partly against the world of 1930s filmmaking and Hollywood.

I was greatly influenced by the work of Raymond Chandler - whose stories are mostly set in Los Angeles and environs -- and Dashiel Hammett, whose stories are mostly set in San Francisco. That being the case, it seemed to me that Kitty had to be a Californian. Since I was raised in Los Angeles and have spent only limited amounts of time in San Francisco, it really had to be L.A.
Read the complete Q & A.

Linda L. Richards is the editor and co-founder of January Magazine and a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet.

View the Death Was in the Picture trailer.

The Page 69 Test: Death Was the Other Woman.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Jennifer Rardin

From Jennifer Rardin's (2007) Q & A at The LoveVampires Site:

Vampires are hugely popular in our culture. Why do you think that people have such an enduring interest in vampires?

I think the fascination lies in the blood. If we were into long, boring essays by aspiring professor types we could probably find reams written on that very detail. But maybe it's too basic to cheapen with a lot of talk. So we'll just say there's Power in blood. Beauty in its function. Vulnerability in its loss. Intimacy in its sharing. We recognize that. And we can't seem to turn our backs on creatures whose survival depends on it.

How many Jaz Parks novels do you plan to write?

Twenty-two and a half. Kidding! We have five planned at the moment. If readers respond by buying the series in masses and droves we'll seriously consider expanding it. Especially if we figure out what droves actually means.
Read the complete interview.

Learn more about the author and her work at Jennifer Rardin's website, MySpace page, and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: the Jaz Parks Series.

The Page 69 Test: One More Bite.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Maria Semple

Maria Semple has written for television shows including Arrested Development, Mad About You, and Ellen.

She recently applied the Page 69 Test to This One Is Mine, her first novel. And she graciously responded to a few questions I sent her way, including:

Zeringue: Some book browsers decide if they're going to buy a book by reading page 1 or page 69 or page 99. For (many) others, it's the cover that proves critical. Your book jacket features Kimberly Brooks' painting "Mulholland Drive." Was that picture something you had in mind while writing the novel? If not, what sort of art were you thinking of for a book jacket? What do you hope the cover will convey to the person browsing the bookshelves?

Semple: I'm really glad you asked this question. Little, Brown had made up a cover of the book which was very dark. Black, in fact, with a deflated smiley-face balloon in the lower corner. I got what they were going for, and liked it. But it was so dark-- figuratively and literally. And I'm not a fan of dark art. Isn't that just so lame-sounding? But it's true. When I'm flipping through the TV channels, I'll skip past dark images and at least pause on bright ones. When I was working in TV, one of my perennial notes was to make the sets brighter. Not so much dark wood and shadows. It's comedy!

Back to the cover. I was going to let it go, figuring that the publisher knew best and authors famously have no say in their covers anyway. But then, our babysitter, Cari, came over one night and she was carrying a book-- God bless her, she's a big reader and would always be clutching Eat Pray Love, She's Come Undone, The Starter Wife, etc. I had this flash-- Cari would never walk through my front door carrying a book with a black cover!

So I called my editor and told her the idea I had always had for the cover: a painting of a woman looking straight at the viewer. One of my favorite museums is the National Portrait Gallery and I adore portraits. I figured it was in keeping with my title-- This One Is Mine-- that the husband would commission a portrait of his wife. That it's kind of a messed-up, weird, controlling, but still very nice thing to do.

My friend, Kimberly Brooks, who lived down the street from us in Los Angeles, is a fabulous painter and paints great portraits. I suggested we use one of Kimberly's paintings. My editor said they didn't like putting images of people on the covers of books, especially people's faces. It deprives the reader of the delicious process of imagining the character. Which I agreed with totally. I broke the news to Kimberly, who happened to be starting a new painting where a woman was sitting by a pool and shielding her face. She proceeded with her painting and, when it was done, we showed it to Little, Brown. Everybody loved it.

During the copy-editing phase, I was able to slip in a line where Teddy comes to the house and sees a portrait of Violet. She explains it's her, by the pool, and that David had it commissioned. So that's a little something I threw in for careful readers.

Zeringue: Part of Darren Star's blurb reads, "Maria Semple writes like a cross between Dorothy Parker and Nathanel West." Before I read Star's comment, I thought of This One Is Mine as a cross between Bruce Wagner and Tom Perrotta (who also blurbed the novel). (Now, I like Star's formula more than mine.) Do you think of your book as at the intersection of other writers' work, dead or alive?

Semple: It's hugely flattering to be associated with any of those writers. But I must say, I think you got it right. In my wildest dreams, I'm a cross between Tom Perrotta and Bruce Wagner. I love both of their writing so much. I'd like to think This One Is Mine is a domestic novel with some take-no-prisoners harshness thrown in.

Zeringue: Violet and David Parry, a married couple, and David's sister Sally, are the main characters in the novel, with Jeremy White and Teddy Reyes in the orbits of the women. The name "Reyes" (the king) is so clearly ironic that you're explicit about that in the story. The significance of the other characters' names is not so obvious. Parry this question: are the editors of the Cliff's Notes for This One Is Mine apt to spend too much or too little time unpacking those names for meaning? How important are these names for you?

Semple: I'm really into names. I always loved the name Violet. I've started many things over the years with the main character named Violet. So I finally got to use it. I wanted a simple, power name for the husband. David seemed good for that. As for Parry, I was looking for something nondescript. The character David is from a pretty unspectacular middle-class background. Usually, I'm looking for names that a reader can grab onto and remember. But in the case of David Parry, I wanted something almost generic.

Zeringue: One reviewer wrote that "in an excellent twist, David becomes the most interesting and sympathetic character in the book." While I agree that the twist is excellent--the reviewer perceptively calls it "unbelievably believable"--I'm not sure David is the most interesting or the most sympathetic character in the book. In your reckoning, who is the most interesting and sympathetic character in the book?

Semple: It's funny how most of the critics grapple with the "likeability" of the characters. There seems to be a suspicion about rich people having actual problems. What are they belly-aching about? They're rich! Fuck them. Maybe this speaks horribly to me as a person, but I think all of my characters are sympathetic! Or, I should say, it never concerned me one way or the other. I was just trying to write what I thought was real.

In a way, I think Teddy is the most sympathetic character in the book. I love LOVE Teddy. I think he's funny and trying really hard. He wasn't born with the advantages of the other characters but he's doing his best to live in a moral way as dictated by AA. He slips all the time, and gives into his impulses. But he quickly tries to right himself. And he surely is sacrificed by Violet. Which is sad.

This brings me to something so funny about getting a book published. You're there writing your book in a bubble, trying to make it true and compelling and have internal logic, etc. I didn't have an agent, didn't have a publisher. It almost didn't occur to me that anyone would read it. I just worked really hard and loved doing the work. Then the book comes out and it's all "Wow, you've taken a bunch of hateful people and made them sympathetic." Really? Because I had no idea. All I can say is, thank God I didn't set out to do that, or I'd never have been able to pull it off.

Zeringue: This One Is Mine is a satire yet there is a great deal of realism in it and no farce; it's a comic novel, but the desires and yearnings that actuate the characters are authentic and all-too-human. Do you think of your characters as just like real people but more so? Did you ever think: I've actually known a person who behaved much more outrageously in this situation than did my character, but readers would never buy it?

Semple: Definitely. You come across nutjobs all the time who you'd never write about, because nobody would ever believe it. Outrageous acts alone don't make compelling characters. Lots of novice writers think that because crazy shit happened to them, the screenplay or book will write itself. But the work is to get inside the character's heads and make him or her believable.

I am very grateful you said this about This One Is Mine because what you describe is exactly what I was going for. I wanted to push my characters' actions as far as I could while still making them grounded and psychologically authentic. Of course Violet could have embarked on a reckless affair with a white knight. It would have been easier to write, but it wouldn't have been as much fun as her falling for Teddy, a shockingly unlikely paramour. I knew I had to work extra hard to sell it with details. And hey-- a few people say, "No way would Violet ever be attracted to Teddy." But most people do believe it-- they're shocked, but they believe it-- which makes for a much wilder ride. And if all I've done is give someone a wild ride, that's enough for me.
Learn more about the book and author at Maria Semple's website.

See January Magazine's Author Snapshot: Maria Semple.

The Page 69 Test: This One Is Mine.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 2, 2009

Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I've Been Silent About.

From her conversation with James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief, Barnes & Noble Review:

James Mustich: At the beginning of your new book you write: "It is such a strong part of Iranian culture to never reveal private matters: we dont wash our dirty laundry in public, as Mother would say, and besides, private lives are trivial and not worth writing about." Yet, while in the long run the themes of Things Ive Been Silent About resonate with those of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the new work is a far more personal book. What was the impetus for overcoming your native reticence?

Azar Nafisi: It is difficult to pinpoint why you write a book; whatever conclusions you draw about its motivations are those that you think about later, after the fact. At first, when I started writing the new book, I did not want it to be this personal, for there is also a personal reticence that resonates with the native one. In fact, I wasn't going to write this book at all! After Reading Lolita I was going to write the book that I have called The Republic of Imagination; that was my main destination after Reading Lolita. But I have always been obsessed with my parents, especially with my mother, and especially after we left Iran. I was writing the acknowledgments to Reading Lolita when she died; that diverted me completely. It took me back to her, and what her loss meant to me, and set me to ask myself how I could retrieve so many things in our relationship -- things that had been left undone or unfinished. I still did not intend to focus so much on our personal lives; I was trying to put my relationship with my mother and her non-relationship with her mother within a wider historical context. But as I started writing more, I got more and more personally involved. Memories were coming, I had my own notes, I had my fathers memoirs. And then Father died a year later. I realized that I wanted to go deeper into these relationships. So that is how I ended up writing this book.
Read the complete transcript of the interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li's new novel is The Vagrants.

From an interview at about her earlier short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers:

Question: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers presents readers with a stunning vision of China, past and present. When you think of your homeland, what thoughts or images come to mind? What are your feelings about China today?

Yiyun Li: I have always said that there are two Chinas. The first is a country filled with people, like my family and many others, who try to lead serious and meaningful lives despite the political, economic and cultural dilemmas they face. The second is a country with a government controlled by one party, made rich from corruption and injustice. I love the first China but do not love the second. So when I think about China today, I always have mixed feelings.

Q: When did you come to America, and what brought you here?

YL: I came to America in 1996 to attend the University of Iowa. I had planned to pursue a Ph.D. in immunology and hoped to stay in the medical science field as a researcher.

Q: But instead of becoming an immunologist, you became a writer—that is quite a switch! How did that happen?

YL: I had never thought of becoming a writer nor had I written anything before I came to Iowa. But once there I stumbled into a community writing class, which led to more writing classes, and I began to seriously consider changing my career.
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit Yiyun Li's website.

--Marshal Zeringue