Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bill James

Bill James's new book is Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence.

From his Q & A with Randy Dotinga of the Christian Science Monitor:

Q: Plenty of high-and-mighty people act appalled when the country gets obsessed by celebrity crime instead of paying attention to, say, poverty or the deficit. Why are stories of true crime are actually worth our attention?

A: Crime stories reveal things about human nature that we keep very carefully hidden most of the time. We're fascinated with crime cases because we're fascinated by what goes on in people's heads, really deep down where you can't normally get to.

We are in a long process of eliminating crime from our society, a process that was thousands of years old before the Romans. The process has come a great distance since the time of the Romans; it has come a good distance in the last 150 years; it has come some distance in our lifetimes, in the last 30 or 40 years. But the process is so slow and so gradual that one can only see the progress by staring back across the centuries.

Eliminating these terrible events from society is not one problem. It is, rather, hundreds of similar and interlocking problems, which we attack one at a time. Crime stories are the knowledge base for that campaign, that endless and eternal struggle to rid the world of events of this nature.

Q: In your years of reading about true crime, what are some of the major lessons you've learned about the justice system?

A: • Well-meaning people create injustice because they are absolutely convinced of things that are not true.

Prosecutors dig in and double down on convictions in cases in which they are just absolutely wrong. Prosecutors don't want to convict anyone who is innocent. So when they accidentally convict someone who is in fact innocent, they very often – and I would say almost always – go into denial. They begin to insist that the accused/convicted person is in fact guilty, even if the evidence to the contrary is obvious and overwhelming.

The best protection against injustice is...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Kirk Russell

Kirk Russell is the author of four novels about California Department of Fish and Game warden John Marquez. A Killing in China Basin, his new novel, introduces San Francisco homicide inspector Ben Raveneau.

From Russell's Q & A with Lenny Picker for Publishers Weekly:

Q: You succeeded in breaking new ground with your Marquez books. How do you think the Raveneau series will distinguish itself?

A: I don't know that it will. The big city detective has been written a thousand times and sometimes very, very well. I wanted to try to make a homicide inspector who fits the times and who might be real, and if he was, you'd want to know him. And I want to write San Francisco. I lived around it most of my life. There's this first book, and a second next winter, and between the two that's enough, I think, to tell if Raveneau will catch on. I'm still getting a feel for the character.

Q: What about San Francisco as a setting appeals to you?

A: The city's presence, how it sits nearly surrounded by water at the end of a peninsula, bridges reaching toward it, and the feel that it is a place you go to, not from. There's the light and the way it changes and a natural moodiness and brilliance. As a city, it's international in a way that you can't sell with a motivated Chamber of Commerce. It's a tolerant city, still carrying the gold rush fever, a place people arrive at to start over or start a new company, or in the case of crime fiction become someone else. And a homicide inspector in San Francisco can...[read on]
Visit Kirk Russell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 29, 2011

Courtney E. Smith

Courtney E. Smith is the author of Record Collecting for Girls: Unleashing Your Inner Music Nerd, One Album at a Time.

From her Q & A with Jordan Foster at Publishers Weekly:

You talk about feeling strangely annoyed when a band that you loved—the Shins—hit it big in the film Garden State. Will this ring true for casual music fans?

It's different for everyone. That's the beautiful part about the way you relate to music. Some people want to stay really small. When I was in college, I interned on a radio show that was the "alternative to alternative." People would call in and berate my friend Josh for playing their favorite bands on the radio because they didn't want other people to know about them. He'd let them talk and then explain that your favorite band didn't get into music to not be heard. They want to be successful, and you should want that for them if you're really a fan. And there are plenty of other people who, before Garden State, would have never heard of the Shins, and that movie was their introduction. So there was nothing for them to get mad about. Those were the people that the Shins might be the most out-there album in their record collections.

In terms of cool soundtracks to own for your generation, did Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet kick off the craze?

It's the one I remember. Clueless came before that, but it wasn't cool to own. There wasn't that congruency to it, and I don't know if it had a music supervisor in the same way Romeo + Juliet did. I was surprised when I was researching this section how many of the cool artists who are on the Twilight soundtracks referenced the Romeo + Juliet one. It kept coming up. I felt the cultural impact when it came out because I owned it, all the girls in my dorm owned it, and it seemed like "the thing." But...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick is the author of the 2008 Caldecott Medal-winning novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and the new novel, Wonderstruck.

From his Q & A with Sue Corbett at Publishers Weekly:

Hugo Cabret was a thick book, but you’ve outdone yourself with Wonderstruck. Will we need wheelbarrows for your next work?

I guess Wonderstruck does make Hugo look slimmer. There are 100 more drawings. But I think the size may have maxed out with Wonderstruck. I actually do feel bad, especially about kids lugging these books around.

A hundred more illustrations! Did you do them in the same miniature style as Hugo?

The illustrations are the same size as they were for Hugo Cabret – one-quarter the size of what you see in the finished book. In Hugo, that was a function of the ending – they were the size of a picture the automaton could draw so at the end you would learn that the whole book had been drawn by the automaton, but I liked the technique. When you enlarge them it loosens everything up, as opposed to the artwork of somebody like Chris Van Allsburg who paints these huge illustrations and then has them shrunk down to fit in a book. That has the effect of really concentrating his artwork and it’s glorious. This does the opposite, but I like what that does for my drawings.

Tell us about Sean Murtha, who you credit in the acknowledgments as having planted the seed for Wonderstruck.

In the early 1990s, Sean was a colleague of mine at Eeyore’s on the Upper West Side. He left to work at the Museum of Natural History, painting dioramas and building displays. He invited me to visit his workshop, which I did. Going to the museum and entering doors marked “Do not enter,” or “Employees Only,” was...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson's new novel is The Family Fang. From his Q & A with Alexandra Alter at the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog:

The literary debut about a dysfunctional family is sort of a cliché at this point, but the Fangs are bizarre enough to stand apart even from other messed up fictional families. What was your family life like growing up?

The one thing I did draw on from my parents — my parents are very insular. They didn’t have outside friends. We were each other’s best friends…My parents were distrustful of the outside world. They didn’t think much good came out of it…The outside world was this strange place that was not so much dangerous as not as interesting as what went on in the house.

How did the idea for the book come about?

In early 2008, we had this baby and I needed to write. Every little thing I did I thought, “We are going to ruin him for the rest of his life, because I don’t know what to do.” That’s when I got the idea for this book. I think I was trying to create worse parents than me.

What made you focus on performance art?

I wanted the parents to be...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 26, 2011

Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield's new book is Just My Type: A Book about Fonts.

From his Q & A with Thierry Somers for the blog of 200% Magazine:

200%: In the chapter “What is it about the Swiss” you write about the New Yorker Cyrus Highsmith who tried to “spend a day without Helvetica”. This was quite challenging as the typeface is ubiquitously present in our lives. Whenever Highsmith saw something spelled out in Helvetica he averted his eyes. He wouldn’t take any Helvetica-signed Transport or buy any Helvetica branded products.

After you had written this book, when you walk in the street, do you look at signs of shop windows and try to identify the typeface?

Simon Garfield: Sadly, yes. It’s a disease called Typomania – wherever I go, I see lettering and signs and advertising in a new way, looking behind the message, at the clothing of what’s being said. I might not enjoy a film so much if I can’t recognise the font of the opening credits. So I loved “The Social Network”: Futura – that was easy.

200%: Your background is not design journalism or critiquing, which may be the reason that your book on typefaces and fonts is very light-hearted, amusing and engaging, whereas most books on typefaces are very serious, even earnest. Do you consider it turned out to be advantageous that you don’t have such a background and could approach the subject more as an outsider?

Simon Garfield: Definitely. The world of type designs and typography, like any important and creative world, is full of little debates and spats and wars, sometimes based on elitism, most often based on heartfelt passion. So it helped that...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott is the Edgar®-winning author of six books, including Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin, and Bury Me Deep. She has been nominated for many awards, including three Edgar® Award nominations, Hammett Prize, the Macavity, Anthony and Barry Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

From her Q & A with Brendan M. Leonard at The Rap Sheet about her new novel, The End of Everything:

BML: One of the things I really enjoyed about The End of Everything is I thought, even though your book is set a little bit earlier than the late 1980s and early ’90s, you captured the whole idea of “stranger danger,” or looking over your shoulder in the way that The Lovely Bones couldn’t get into, because this is set a little bit later. You evoke Polly Klass and things like that. Were those just things you remember growing up, that kind of fear being omnipresent?

MA: I do. I remember ... there was a post-traumatic change, starting with the Adam [Walsh] case in Florida. ... I remember there being a sudden panic about it, and I remember in my hometown, there was this crazy thing, where at school, they gave everyone these signs, and I don’t remember why it was the letter E--maybe it wasn’t the letter E, but that’s my memory--in red, and you’d put it in your front window, and that was supposed to tell children that this was a safe house. If someone was following you, you’d run to that house. Even then, I remember thinking it was the craziest thing in the world, because if I wanted to kidnap a child, what would I do? I’d put a big sign in my window!

But I remember this sort of palpable (even though I lived a half-block from my school) sense of danger, that didn’t feel natural, exactly, because there didn’t seem to be anything happening to anybody; but so much [was in] the zeitgeist.

And it wouldn’t be like now, with online predators--everything would be so different now. And with how careful we are, with AMBER alerts and everything. There was such a sense of ... if you grew up in the late ’70s/early ’80s, you were allowed to do whatever you wanted. It was a very permissive time for children. “Go ride your bike for five hours, and come back.” And then that suddenly ended, and so it was like, all of a sudden, all...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Megan Abbott's website.

The Page 69 Test: Bury Me Deep.

The Page 69 Test: The End of Everything.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Julie Salamon

Julie Salamon is the author of Wendy and the Lost Boys, a biography of playwright Wendy Wasserstein, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for The Heidi Chronicles in 1989.

From Salamon's Q & A with Barbara Chai at the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog:

Why did you pick Wasserstein as your subject?

I arrived at it in the easiest way I’ve ever arrived at a topic — usually that’s the hardest part about writing a book — my editor suggested it to me. I was just coming back from a publicity tour of my last book, “Hospital,” and Ann Godoff at Penguin called me up and said, “I have no idea if this is of interest to you but it’s gotten onto my radar as something I’d like to do, and I think you’d be perfect for it.” I have to say my first reaction wasn’t wild enthusiasm. A book about a playwright just seemed a little narrow to me. It was actually right before we were going to Maine in 2008. My husband and another good friend of mine, a movie director, both said this is great. I was Googling around and pretty early on I found that article Frank Rich had written not long after Wendy Wasserstein died. It talked about all these secrets, and I thought, that’s kind of interesting. It felt like there was something very intriguing.

How did you begin your research?

The next step was meeting Andre Bishop, Wendy Wasserstein’s literary executor. He wanted to have somebody write a biography of Wendy, and he didn’t care about having any control over the book, which is astonishing. He then read several of my books – it was like an audition – and liked them. We met and talked about what the process would be. My process is always the same: I’ve done several nonfiction narratives and it’s always, “I want you to give me complete access to everything and then I’ll let you read the book when it’s all finished.” So it’s a one-sided bargain to a certain extent, but ...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews’s first novel, Summer of My Amazing Luck, was published in 1996; it was nominated for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and won the John Hirsch Award. Published two years later, her second novel, A Boy of Good Breeding, won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. Her most recent novel is the bestselling A Complicated Kindness, which was a Giller Prize Finalist and won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Her new novel, Irma Voth, will be released in September.

From her Q & A with Dan Eltringham at the Financial Times:

Who are your literary influences?

Alice Munro, David Markson, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf.
* * *

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

The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton.
* * *

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

Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, so I can let him know how profoundly disappointed I am in him.
* * *

What book do you wish you’d written?

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley.
Read the complete interview.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 22, 2011

Matthew Dunn

Matthew Dunn is the author of the debut novel, Spycatcher (aka Spartan in the UK).

From his dialogue with Ali Karim at The Rap Sheet:

AK: So tell us, where did you get the idea to pen this novel? And did you have any issue with your former employers at SIS [Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service] when you completed it?

MD: I was very clear that I wanted to write a novel that really captured the essence of what it feels like to be an operative in the field and to give the reader the feeling that they were actually on a real mission. The plot derives from my imagination, though it is grounded and inspired by real situations that I and others faced. I also wanted my antagonists to reflect the type of people that I was combating when in MI6--evil people, yes, but nevertheless highly intelligent, sophisticated, and often charismatic individuals rather than unintelligent fanatics.

SIS has to vet and approve all of my books. I’m on very good terms with them, and thankfully they made no deletions or amendments to my first novel.

AK: Tell us about your main character, Will Cochrane, as well as the mysterious Megiddo and Lana. And most writers I know mine their personal experiences to craft characters. Have you done the same here?

MD: Will Cochrane is an experienced MI6 operative and the Service’s most effective officer. He is a loner because of the extreme nature of his work and his complex and tragic background. He mentally toys with the idea of another life and love, but his problem is that he worries that if people get close to him, they will die.

Megiddo is a senior general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He’s planning a massive terrorist operation against a location in the West. It will be his “masterpiece,” and Will is tasked to capture him. For most of the book you do not see [Megiddo] but, rather like Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes’ day, you feel his presence at all times.

Lana is an Arab woman who is trying to carve out a living as a freelance journalist in Paris. She has a connection to Megiddo that goes back to the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Reluctantly, Will uses her to try to lure out Megiddo.

These characters, and all others in the novel, are fictional. But...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Joseph Lelyveld

Joseph Lelyveld is a former executive editor of the New York Times. His latest book is Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India, which was banned in some Indian states because of its very brief discussion of Gandhi's possible physical relationship with a male architect.

From Lelyveld's Q & A with Randy Dotinga of the Christian Science Monitor:

Q: What surprised you about the reaction to the book?

I was struck by the fact that hardly anybody reacted to what I considered to be the main themes of the book, what I said I was setting out to do. A lot of the reviews got tangled up in reconsideration of Gandhi by the reviewers or side issues.

I was trying to take Gandhi seriously as the social reformer he always meant to be. That's why the book is called "Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India." I wasn't setting out to challenge the traditional narrative of his life, but amplify it and consider it from another angle, how resistant India was to many of his central teachings, which remains true today. I thought that might be controversial in India, but it never was.

India maintains one of the world's largest standing armies and nuclear weapons. Gandhi, having read the accounts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, said in 1947, "God save us from this atom bomb mentality," which was an amazing thing for him to say. India had just become independent, and no one imagined it going nuclear except Gandhi. The foreboding strikes me as quite extraordinary.

Gandhi's personal values included non-violence. Indians tend to see Gandhi as a symbol of nationhood, fearlessness, and courage, but they don't...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Jillian Lauren

Jillian Lauren is the author of the New York Times bestseller Some Girls and has an MFA from Antioch University. She lives in Los Angeles with her son and husband, Weezer bass player, Scott Shriner.

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

Pretty deals heavily with addiction and Bebe's life in and out of Serenity. How did you go about constructing this book? What sort of research did you do? What drew you to the topic?

I always included details from my own life in my fiction. Though the narrative isn't autobiographical, Pretty is a collage of people I've known, places I've lived and questions I've struggled with.

Addiction is one of the themes of the book from which I drew heavily on personal experience. I've battled addiction issues for much of my life, as have many people I love. I think addiction is a trope that eloquently expresses the compulsive rhythms of contemporary culture. Addiction is also a great vehicle with which to explore the theme of faith. Substance abuse is a monstrous, ruinous thing and it's nearly impossible to overcome without a profound shift of consciousness on the part of the addict. I suppose there are ways other than faith to achieve that shift, but I personally don't know of any.

However, there are aspects of Pretty that required more formal research, such as the worlds of mental illness and religion.

The book is told from Bebe's point of view. How did you go about building a "voice" for Bebe? What was the most challenging part about being in her head?

The voice of a particular work is usually the first thing that comes to me, and that was certainly true for Pretty. I can always tell that I've got a new project brewing when there's a voice in my head clamoring to...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Jillian Lauren's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: Some Girls.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry's new book is Dust & Decay.

From his Q & A at the Simon & Schuster website:

Q. With whom in history do you most identify?

A. Charles Dickens --he wrote all kinds of stories and he loved his characters.

Q. Which living person do you most admire?

A. The Dalai Lama. I'm not a Buddhist, but here's a guy who does nothing but talk about peace, love and forgiveness.

Q. If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?

A. I'd love to be able to play a musical instrument. I've tried, and I've been told to stop doing such horrible things to those poor, defenseless instruments.

Q. If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?

A. An elephant. They're smart, big, loyal and they live a long time.

Q. Who is your favorite fictional hero?

A. Severus Snape. He sacrificed everything to help the good guys win.

Q. Who is your favorite fictional villain?

A. Doctor Doom (from Marvel Comics)

Q. If you could meet any historical character, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?

A. I'd love to sit down with William Shakespeare and talk about writing.
Read the complete Q & A.

Visit Jonathan Maberry's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award for her novel Zoo City, an urban fantasy about an alternate Johannesburg where criminals are matched with magical animals.

From her Q & A at io9:

Zoo City is a book that deals with some gritty issues about poverty and crime, and the creation of a criminal underclass. Do you think a book like that speaks to important issues in the 21st century? Is this win partly a recognition that your book is topical?

You'd have to ask the judges. But from the feedback I've had from readers on Twitter and in blog reviews and emails, that's certainly part of what resonates with them - it's also the setting, that Johannesburg is unusual, a mash-up of culture and class, third world and first, that is largely foreign and unknown to a lot of people. And I do try to tackle the issues that make me angry in my fiction, from surveillance society to xenophobia to the divides between people and the evils of autotune. It's fantastical and it has magical animals and ghosts that communicate through cell phones and emails and crime and music and refugees and inner city slums, but at heart it's a book about guilt and the possibility of redemption.

Obviously, the Clarke Award is for books published in the UK, and it's a UK-centric award, whereas your book takes place in South Africa. Do you think issues of class, race and post-colonialism play out differently in those two settings? Do you think the UK has something to learn from reading literature about former colonies?

I don't know how relevant the former colonies are to the average UK citizen/reader today. I think it helps because the British audience possibly has a better idea of South Africa (and India and the West Indies) because we had a conjoined history for a time and there are lots of saffers (hate that term) living and working in the UK.

The issues in South Africa are probably more out in the open. We wear our chaos...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman's new novel is The Magician King. From his Q & A with Barbara Chai at the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog:

You are often compared to J.K. Rowling. Do you wish to break free from this?

No, that connection is one that I invited semi-explicitly in The Magicians, so I’m the last person who should complain about it. Rowling might want to get rid of it, if she’s even aware of who I am, but I enjoy thinking of myself as being part of the tradition that she’s in, so it’s certainly not something I discourage.

Your fantasy characters are grounded in reality. When you go about your regular day, do you see magic in everyday little things?

The thing I note about magic is its complete absence from reality. The novelists who are most important to me – they’re fantasy novelists but also the modernists. Woolf in particular, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. These really meticulous, moment-to-moment observers of reality. They’re at least half of where my inspiration comes from and who I think of as my influences. I most often begin with a fantastical scene and then try to think about how it would actually play out in reality. If you’re casting a spell, what does it feel like? Do your fingertips get hot? Is there a certain smell in the air from magic? What does it sound like, what kind of light does it cast, what sorts of shadows? How long does it take? I sort of picture a fantastical scene, then try to observe it the way...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Lev Grossman's website and The Magicians website.

The Page 69 Test: The Magicians.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dana Spiotta

Dana Spiotta is the author of Lightning Field, a New York Times Notable Book, and Eat the Document, a finalist for the National Book Award.

Carolyn Kellogg of the Jacket Copy blog talked to Spiotta about her new novel Stone Arabia. Part of their dialogue:

Jacket Copy: When you were working on "Stone Arabia," did you ever feel like the cultural movement was going too fast for you to capture it within the boundaries of a novel?

Dana Spiotta: Because I had the idea that it would be 2004, that was my self-imposed boundary. So I don't have Facebook, but there's still MySpace. Wikipedia's there, but not YouTube. I like having that, I like getting the details right. Writing "Eat the Document," I liked having the challenge of writing about 1972. That's fun for me.

JC: When you talked to The Believer about "Eat the Document," you said you liked to do immersive research. What could you research for the parts of "Stone Arabia" set in 2004?

DS: I mostly did a lot of research on different kinds of people who do art -- extended, elaborate, private art -- for themselves. I was thinking about outsider artists, about various musicians who do this. Someone like Ray Johnson, who staged his own suicide. People who make their own home recordings, pre-1990, like R. Stevie Moore from New Jersey, Robert Pollard, people who have that homemade feel. Combining all those, knowing those were all the elements I wanted to put together. And my stepfather is the inspiration for Nik Worth.

JC: I saw that at the back of the book, and I found his MySpace page, but I wasn't sure if I believed it.

DS: It's true! What's funny is it seemed appropriate to me that he was...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 15, 2011

Matt Potter

From a Q & A with Matt Potter, author of Outlaws Inc.: Under the Radar and on the Black Market with the World's Most Dangerous Smugglers:

Q: The men in this book are mostly from the former Soviet Union. Are you trying to paint a negative picture of business in these countries?

A: Far from it. I’m a lifelong russophile, and I hope I’ve treated everyone in the book fairly and with respect. The men and women I met, flew with, spoke to, followed and investigated have all been honest and open with me, and if the experience of researching and writing Outlaws Inc has taught me anything, it’s that caricatures, public enemies and villains belong in the realms of fairy-tale. Family men working hard with what they’ve got… that’s reality.

Of course, some of the men in this book have done very bad things. Things I like to think I wouldn’t do. They fly, charter or order up planes, but that’s where the certainties end. Some traffick guns, some illicit substances, some both. Some bust heads, or smuggle people, or drop dangerous payloads on remote lands. Some bust sanctions. Many flit between daylight and the darkest corners of the global underworld.

As it happens, the main characters in the book are also Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Belorussians, because they were the ones in the eye of this particular hurricane – the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. But they could be, and equally often are, American,...[read on]
Visit Matt Potter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Raymond Benson

Raymond Benson is an American writer best known for being the official author of the adult James Bond novels from 1997 to 2003. His new mystery, The Black Stiletto, will be available in September.

From his Q & A with Julia Buckley:

Hi, Raymond! Thanks for talking with me on the blog. THE BLACK STILETTO has an interesting premise: that a middle-aged man, going through the belongings of his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, finds out that she is The Black Stiletto—a masked avenger from the mid-20th century, similar to Batman in terms of her legendary status.

How did you come up with this idea?

You know writers can never answer the question “how do you come up with your ideas?” ! I’m not really sure where the idea came from. I can remember talking to my literary manager/agent Peter Miller over a meal and we were discussing what I should attempt next. This was a few years ago. He kept telling me how most of the book-buying public were women, so I should come up with something that would appeal to women. Right then and there, I facetiously said, “How about a female superhero? It could appeal to the geek crowd; go for the ‘True Blood’ and ‘Twilight’ audiences.” Afterwards, I started thinking about it, and the story just flowed out of me. It was one of the easiest books I ever wrote.

You write the novel from the point of view of Judy Cooper (The Black Stiletto), her son, and an antagonist. What made you choose these particular vantage points?

It had to be from Judy’s point of view, naturally, since she’s the protagonist. Since I was telling two parallel stories, one in the past and one in the present, it made sense for the second narrator to be her grown son. So really, there are two protagonists and two different storylines. The third voice, the antagonist, was brought in primarily to...[read on]
Visit Raymond Benson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett is the author of the novel The Help. From her Q & A with Alexandra Alter at the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog:

The book was somewhat controversial when it came out, with some critics arguing that it peddled in stereotypes about race and the south.

I’ve heard there are some people in Jackson that have, as you would expect, gotten a little defensive. Look, that’s just human nature. I’m defensive about Mississippi. It’s a complicated place. Some people have bristled at how Mississippi is portrayed. To me I’m just telling the truth, but the truth is hard, that’s part of the dynamic of the story.

What’s the status of the lawsuit that was filed against you earlier this year, by a woman who babysat for members of your family and says that you based a major character in the novel on her, against her wishes?

You know, it hasn’t been resolved yet. The only word I know to use is puzzling and confusing. I’ve met this person, I think twice, maybe three times, for ten seconds…I’m confused about where all this is coming from…I don’t know this person.

What are you working on now?

I am so taken and in love with...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 12, 2011

Rachel Simon

Rachel Simon is the critically acclaimed author of six books, the best known of which are the novel The Story of Beautiful Girl (2011) and the memoir Riding The Bus With My Sister (2002).

From her Q & A with Caroline Leavitt:

What sparked the writing of The Story of Beautiful Girl? What usually sparks the writing of your novels? (I know, the truly horrific question every writer is always asked--horrific because sometimes we truly don't know!)

No single source sparks my ideas. My first book, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, was a collection of stories that came from sources as varied as single lines that came to mind as I was waking up in the morning, memories both sweet and harsh that returned after many years, and anecdotes told to me by relatives, strangers, and newspapers. My first novel, The Magic Touch, came from temping in an engineering firm and noticing that the women the male engineers tended to flirt with weren’t necessarily the prettiest, but the most full of life. Somehow this led to me coming up with the idea of writing about a woman with magical sexual powers that could restore joie de vivre to those who’d come to feel lackluster about their existence. My memoir Riding The Bus With My Sister was derived from the simple fact that my sister, who has an intellectual disability, rides city buses all day, every day; she asked me to join her and I reluctantly agreed.

I think the simple answer is that ideas can, and do, come from everywhere, but never fully baked. They are only the ingredients, and they cannot blend together without the actual process of writing. A perfect example of this is my most recent novel, The Story of Beautiful Girl.

As I mentioned, my sister Beth has an intellectual disability. When she was born in 1960, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to recommend to parents that they place children like my sister in institutions, but my parents never considered that option. I had little idea about the way people who lived there were treated.

Many years later, I wrote Riding The Bus With My Sister, and started...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Gordon Reece

From a Q & A with Gordon Reece about his new novel, Mice:

Bullying is a significant and growing problem in the United States. What is the situation like in the other countries where you've lived?

I think bullying is a growing and significant problem in many, many countries. When I researched girl-on-girl bullying, all the cases I looked at were from the UK, but when I moved to Spain I saw the same thing there. I remember seeing harrowing mobile phone footage on the news of some teenage girls beating up another girl while their friends egged them on with shouts of Mátala! Mátala! (kill her!). And here in Australia we've just had a case, also captured on a mobile phone, where an overweight schoolboy being goaded and punched by another boy suddenly snaps, picks him up, and slams him down hard onto the concrete—you could say it's the story of Mice played out in a ten-second video clip. I haven't yet visited a reading group here without meeting someone who's been bullied themselves or someone whose child has been bullied. So the United States is definitely not alone in this.

What drew you to write about this subject?

Some experiences I had when I was a trainee lawyer got me thinking about bullying in the workplace and the potential for explosive violence in individuals subjected to regular humiliation. Mice was originally to be about a young married couple who are both victims of bullying in the workplace—the husband in his law firm, the wife in the dental clinic where she's a nurse. Girl-on-girl bullying was much in the news at that time, however, and I eventually decided to substitute the couple for a mother and daughter. I also felt the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship might be more interesting to explore. I know Shelley's bullying has aroused a lot of comment because bullying is such a worrying and pressing problem today, but...[read on]
Visit Gordon Reece's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

John McWhorter

 John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University, specializing academically in language change and language contact. The author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and other books, he is a contributing editor to The City Journal and The New Republic. He has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

His new book is What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be).

From the author's Q & A with Will Boisvert at Publishers Weekly:

You spotlight the fiendishly complex Caucasian language called Archi, with its one million verb forms. Why do they need so many?

They don't. Most languages spoken by a few thousand people are so complicated they make your head swim; a Siberian yak herder's language is much more complicated than a Manhattan bond trader's. Languages develop complexity from entrenched habits. First comes a word meaning "more than one," like "bunch." People start using it for "more than one" of everything, it shortens to one sound and becomes a suffix like the English plural "s." Multiply that by 10,000 things, and you get needless complication.

You also examine how languages become simpler by comparing African-American dialect to Hebrew.

Black English is simpler than Standard English in some ways; for example, it often gets by with just "be" and drops "am," "is," and "are." That's because Black English arose when adult African slaves learned the language. Children are incredibly good at learning complexities and irregularities, but adults are not; when adult Africans came here and learned English, some complexities fell away. Similarly, modern Hebrew was revived by adults in Israel, so complex aspects of biblical Hebrew got shaved down. People think of Black English as ungrammatical, but it bears the same relationship to Standard English as contemporary Hebrew does to ancient Hebrew.

You're both a linguist and a prolific writer. Does one influence the other?

As a linguist I see...[read on]
Learn more about What Language Is at the publisher's website.

See John McWhorter's top ten list of books on race that should be more widely read.

The Page 99 Test: What Language Is.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Daniel Polansky

Daniel Polansky is from Baltimore, Maryland. From a Q & A with the author about Low Town, his first novel:

Low Town takes several noir elements – a disgraced anti-hero detective, a shadowy underworld rife with thugs and drugs, and a horrific murder that drives the plot – and arranges them in a fantasy/sci-fi setting. The result is a wholly unique mystery/thriller. Is it accurate to describe Low Town as “Tarantino meets Tolkien”?

It’s not exactly how I think of it, but it’s certainly flattering. In my mind it’s more Dan Brown meets the Old Testament.

“Low Town” refers to a poor, drug and crime ridden district of a major city in not only a foreign land but an alternate world/universe, that is populated by a diverse and colorful array of people and cultures. Were these inventions informed by people and places in the real world?

In terms of the broader world, I read a lot of history so most of it is grounded in that. I always tried to keep in mind that however alien the world of Low Town may be, the characters are all human, affected by the same fundamental drives – greed, guilt, loyalty, bigotry etc. – as we are. In terms of the characters and situations and so on, you do your best to take from your own experiences, though obviously, I’ve never knifed anyone.

Your hometown is Baltimore, which has seen its share of crime and inner city turmoil. Did life in Charm City shape your fiction writing?

I have...[read on]
Visit Daniel Polansky's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 8, 2011

Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s latest novel is The End of Everything. From her Q & A with Vince Keenan:

Q. The language is in the book is quite striking. You provide your protagonist Lizzie with a dreamy interior monologue that is frequently immediate, but occasionally provides Lizzie with the perspective of an older woman remembering that time in her life. How did you achieve that effect? Is the book set then, now, or somewhere in between?

I wanted the first chapter to be past tense and clearly from the perspective of Lizzie well past early adolescence and then we’d jump to present tense and to Lizzie at 13. I wanted to begin with a slightly larger view of the insular world of Lizzie’s head and then push us right into its center. But I have no idea how old the Lizzie of the first chapter is. Isn’t that funny? All I know is she still hasn’t fully lost all the gleam to her eye. Despite everything, she still finds enchantment and wonder in the Verver world. Which I’m glad about.

Q. You’ve written at your blog about the books of your youth that inspired you. What are some of your favorite coming of age novels?

I guess it depends how one defines coming of age, but certainly A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, and Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself by Judy Blume and all the S.E. Hinton. Later, Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. I’d add...[read on]
Visit Megan Abbott's website.

The Page 69 Test: Bury Me Deep.

The Page 69 Test: The End of Everything.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Helen Schulman

Helen Schulman is the author of the novel This Beautiful Life. From her Q & A with Alexandra Alter at the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog:

A review in the New York Observer described “This Beautiful Life” as a novel about how the Internet is stripping us of our humanity. Did you intend to make that point?

I honestly don’t agree with that. I think what Daisy does is very human; it’s extremely naked. The desire to share something that upsets one or scares or titillates is human. The Internet does many things that are extremely valuable and truly exciting. One thing I do think it does is endanger privacy, and I value privacy. In some ways, it’s a defense of privacy.

Were you worried the novel might be seen as overly moralistic, and if so, what did you do to try to avoid that trap?

I don’t feel like it’s my place to judge. The characters all made big mistakes. They’re human. …An editor early on said to me about the book, “I think fiction should teach me how to live,” and I thought, that’s not my job. I show how people do live.

Did writing this make you think differently about how we communicate electronically?

I spent so much time...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Simon Tolkien

From a Q & A with Simon Tolkien, author of The King of Diamonds:

Q1 - Almost all reviewers have mentioned your grandfather, J.R.R. Tolkien. You must have known that that was going to be a big topic of interest to a lot of people. How did you prepare yourself for the inevitable?

A - I am lucky because I have always enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, and in fact four years ago I read it aloud to my son, which took nearly a year! I think that Final Witness has given me the confidence to believe that I am more than just the grandson of a very famous man, and this means that I can really enjoy my relationship to my grandfather and be comfortable answering questions about him and his books.

Q2 - To what extent has your grandfather been an influence on your work?

A - I have always loved "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit". My grandfather's unique achievement was to create an entirely imaginary world in which his readers completely believe. At the same time he was able to tell a story in such a way that they really need to know what happens next. My novel is set in this world and is obviously entirely different from my grandfather's work. However his mastery of the art of storytelling will always be an inspiration to me.

Q3 - You also mention in your author’s note that the connection dissuaded you from writing for a long time. What finally made you decide to go for it?

A - This is a question which I have...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 5, 2011

Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini is the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

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

The Kite Runner helped alter the world’s perception of Afghanistan, by giving millions of readers their first real sense of what the Afghan people and their daily lives are actually like. [A Thousand Splendid Suns] includes the main events in Afghanistan’s history over the past three decades, from the communist revolution to the Soviet invasion to the U.S.-led war against the Taliban. Do you feel a special responsibility to inform the world about your native country, especially given the current situation there and the prominent platform you’ve gained?

For me as a writer, the story has always taken precedence over everything else. I have never sat down to write with broad, sweeping ideas in mind, and certainly never with a specific agenda. It is quite a burden for a writer to feel a responsibility to represent his or her own culture and to educate others about it. For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place, about human connections, and then expands from there. What intrigued me about this new book were the hopes and dreams and disillusions of these two women, their inner lives, the specific circumstances that bring them together, their resolve to survive, and the fact that their relationship evolves into something meaningful and powerful, even as the world around them unravels and slips into chaos. But as I wrote, I witnessed the story expanding, becoming more ambitious page after page. I realized that telling the story of these two women without telling, in part, the story of Afghanistan from the 1970s to the post-9/11 era simply was not possible. The intimate and personal was intertwined inextricably with the broad and historical. And so the turmoil in Afghanistan and the country’s tortured recent past slowly became more than mere backdrop. Gradually, Afghanistan itself—and more specifically, Kabul—became a character in this novel, to a much larger extent, I think, than in The Kite Runner. But it was simply for the sake of storytelling, not out of a sense of social responsibility to inform readers about my native country. That said, I will be gratified if they walk away from A Thousand Splendid Suns with...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks's new book, Caleb’s Crossing, takes its inspiration from the true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665.

From the author's Q & A with Barbara Chai at the Wall Street Journal:

The Wall Street Journal: How did you decide to write about Caleb’s life? When did you first hear of him?

Geraldine Brooks: It came about from trips to the vineyard before we moved there full-time. I was really intrigued to learn of the uninterrupted Wampanoag community, which is a very big part of the society there. I wanted to know more about it. I got a map from the tribe, and it showed all the sites of significance. On it was marked Caleb’s date of graduation from Harvard – I thought it said 1965 and I thought, how interesting, I wonder if he’s still alive. I realized I misread it and it said 1665 and it just blew my mind. As somebody who didn’t grow up here, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Harvard existed in 1665, much less as a place that educated Indian youth, along with these sons of the Puritan elite. My imagination was fired and I wanted to know how it came about that this young man that was from the first-contact generation on the island came to be identified as a scholar, how he became fluent in Latin (the qualification for matriculation) and what it would have been like to cross between different cultures.

I started to research it in a desultory way. Then when I had a fellowship at Radcliffe at Harvard, I really scoured the archives to see what was there. Sadly, there’s very little. The paper trail is extremely scanty on this young man and 17th century Harvard. There’s just not a lot of documents that came down to us that shed much light on it. I talked to people in the tribe and got the bare facts of his life. But what it was like to be him and all the connective tissue of how it came to be is lost to recorded history. For a historical novelist, that’s a good thing. It gives you the space you need to let your imagination work.

What’s a catastrophe for a narrative historian, is a feast for...[read on]
See--Geraldine Brooks's favorite historical fiction.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai's first story, at the age of three, was printed on the side of a cardboard box and told from the viewpoint of her stuffed Smurf doll. More recently, her stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008, 2009, and 2010, and she has been chosen by Geraldine Brooks for The Best American Short Stories 2011. Her stories have also appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, and on Public Radio's Selected Shorts. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.

Her debut novel The Borrower is out now from Viking.

From Makkai's Q & A with Sabra Wineteer for The Millions:

TM: Both this novel and most of your short stories are political. What are the difficulties in writing politically charged fiction?

RM: I don’t find it difficult so much as unavoidable. It’s funny, even when I think I’m writing a very apolitical piece (because it’s not directly about politics or revolution), it will end up being about race or class. You’d think I’d be a loudly political person in real life, but really I limit myself to voting and occasionally talking back to NPR when I’m alone in the car. And maybe that’s just what my stories will always be about, whether I want it or not – in the way that a Roth story is always about sex and a John Irving story is always about dismemberment and bears.

I think that whether I’m writing about a revolution or a bomb shelter or a public library, what I’m drawn to is the power structure – who’s in charge, who’s being oppressed, who’s working their way up that ladder. There’s a lot of drama inherent in that, and it’s not so much that I have a political ax to grind as that this is where I tend to find the story.

I do think that if someone sets out to write fiction just to prove a certain political point, though, it becomes unbearable. It’s why I can’t stand Tolstoy. I think politics can be the subject, but not the point.
Read the complete interview.

Learn more about the author and her work at Rebecca Makkai's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Borrower.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Camille Noe Pagán

From a Q & A with Camille Noe Pagán, author of The Art of Forgetting:

The Art of Forgetting is about two friends who are at times too close, and how their relationship is impacted after one of them is in an accident and suffers a brain injury. How did you come up with this idea?

I'm a journalist by trade, and two and a half years ago, I was assigned a story about brain health for Women's Health. One of the physicians I interviewed pointed out that people take supplements and follow special brain-enhancing diets—yet drive recklessly and don't wear helmets when they're biking, in spite of the fact that traumatic brain affects more than a million Americans each year.

I began combing through medical literature about brain injury—specifically how seemingly "minor" head injuries, such as a concussion following an automobile accident, could profoundly affect a person's memory, cognition, and personality. The research was so engrossing that I wasn't content to simply cover it as a journalist, and within a few weeks I'd put together what would become the plot for The Art of Forgetting.

How did your own friendships influence Forgetting?

Many readers will probably assume when it comes to friendships, I'm more like Marissa—passive, willing to go with the flow. For the most part, that's true, and I've definitely been in friendships where I was steamrolled by the other person. (No surprise, I channeled some of that hurt into Forgetting!)

The truth is, though, Forgetting was more influenced by my good experiences than my bad. My two closest friends—both of whom I've known for more than half my life—have...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at Camille Noe Pagan's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Art of Forgetting.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 1, 2011

Daniel Kelly

Daniel Kelly is an assistant professor in the philosophy department at Purdue University. His research interests are at the intersection of the philosophy of mind, cognitive science and moral theory. In addition to his work on disgust he has published papers on moral judgment, social norms, racial cognition, and cross-cultural diversity.

From a Salon Q & A with Kelly about his new book, Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust:

What exactly is disgust?

Simply speaking, disgust is the response we have to things we find repulsive. Some of the things that trigger disgust are innate, like the smell of sewage on a hot summer day. No one has to teach you to feel disgusted by garbage, you just are. Other things that are automatically disgusting are rotting food and visible cues of infection or illness. We have this base layer of core disgusting things, and a lot of them don't seem like they're learned.

But there's also a whole set of things that have a lot of cultural and individual variation about whether it's considered disgusting. For example, I like bloody steaks and my girlfriend, who is a vegetarian, finds them repulsive. The core base of what causes disgust has expanded to the point where certain kinds of moral violations, social transgressions, and even value systems of groups one is not a member of can come to be disgusting as well.

And that depends on where and how we grew up?

There's a good case to be made that the culture we grow up in can fine-tune our disgust response or calibrate what we come to be disgusted by, but people don't really need to learn how to be disgusted. The reaction is specified by nature, although it doesn't start until we are around 3 or 4 years old. There's also room for individual disparities. Maybe something traumatic happened to you as a child and Raggedy Ann dolls make you feel disgusted. That is a personal idiosyncrasy.

So what actually happens when we feel disgusted?

There are different elements of the response that are psychologically bound together, and they all tend to happen when you feel disgusted by something. The one that's probably the most recognizable is...[read on]
The Page 99 Test: Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust.

Writers Read: Daniel Kelly.

--Marshal Zeringue