Kamran Pasha: Shadow of the Swords

August 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1416579953 – Washington Square Press – Paperback Original – $16.00 (e-book edition $9.99)

I love reading really good historical novels.  I’m actually not sure how I found out about this book, but I knew I wanted to read it when I learned that the author, Kamran Pasha, is a Muslim writing about the Third Crusade from a Muslim perspective.  That’s definitely a fresh concept.  It turns out that Pasha is a terrific writer, and a deft story teller.

It’s almost impossible for Western readers not to think about the Crusades from the Christian side.  The Third Crusade, headed by Richard the Lion-Heart, is one of the best known stories ever told, and our knowledge and understanding of the great Muslim ruler Saladin is without doubt cast by the Western version of the story.  In Shadow of the Swords, we see things very differently, and not just the Muslim side, there are intriguing Jewish and female characters who are integral to the storyline in many fascinating ways.

Some of the characters and events in this book are based in reality, others are made up, but they are always consistent and believable.  By inserting the fictional Miriam, daughter of the historical Maimonides into the story of Richard and Saladin, Pasha is able to link their personae and the real historical events of the battles between them into a much more personal context, which helps bring these complicated characters to life.  We realize as the story unfolds that through their opposition, the two main characters will come to know, understand, and appreciate the other, both literally and figuratively.  Which is a lesson our modern society could stand to learn too.

Kamran Pasha is a prolific writer.  He has created novels (his first book was Mother of the Believers, another historical novel), television (Kings), video games (Blood on the Sand), and is now currently working on a theatrical film as well.  He came to writing through an interesting career – he holds a JD from Cornell Law School, an MBA from Dartmouth and an MFA from UCLA Film School. He spent three years as a journalist in New York City before he went to Hollywood to become a full time creative writer.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and talking to Kamran Pasha was a terrific experience I hope you will also enjoy.   And do enjoy this serious, well written and very compelling novel.  It’s literate, well written and packed with interesting ideas that lives up to its billing as an “epic novel.”  Pasha blogs passionately about many current issues at his own website, well worth a visit.

Dale Pendell: The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse

August 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1556438950 – North Atlantic Books – Hardcover – $21.95

This is an amazing novel.  Consider it a work of “ecological science fiction” as some have called it.  I found it captivating, terrifying, incredibly emotive and reading it becomes almost a spiritual exercise.  Pendell posits a worldwide collapse of population from a biological war gone amok.  More than 95% of humanity disappears, almost overnight.  He actually does not spend much time on this part of the story, horrific as it is, because that catastrophe is really just the lead in for the much bigger story of what happens next.

Aside from the critical principle of understanding, that modern human society will simply collapse, that going back to prior technologies becomes impossible because people no longer have the knowledge or skills, to live the way our ancestors did, and critically, cannot relearn them overnight in the face of societal collapse, the central tenet of this novel is that climate change will have been unleashed by what modern society *has already done* to the natural world.  The computer models of planetary climate change are simply not able to fully contain and predict the massiveness of what is about to happen to the planet and the natural world that inhabits it.

The novel is essentially a brilliant imagining of what might or could be the future of the planet over the next hundreds, thousands of years, based on the supposition that humans have already begun this process of change.  It’s a rich set of interlocking stories, mostly focused on the area that is known today as California, a bio-geographic landscape that author Pendell knows well, and imagines changing in profound and sometimes painful ways for the reader of his story.

This is a very unusual novel – really the main character is the planet and there are no traditional heroic human characters at its center.  While we might search for and find labels for it (“dystopian” or “utopian,” “science fiction” or even “parable”), I’d rather think of it as a kind of vision-telling, a myth in the making, that seeks to change the way we think about ourselves.  Indeed, there is a great deal of suffering and difficulty in the book, and at the same time, a powerful sense of continuity, what truly sustains.   As the great poet Gary Snyder (who is a fictionalized character in the book, as it happens), says about the novel: “Civilizations and technologies die or are lost, but human ingenuity–families, tribes, and villages, the musicians, shamans, philosophers, and people of power–live on.”  I’d add that not only does human ingenuity live on, so does Gaia, our planet home, adjusting and re-adjusting its inner and outer being, regardless of which or how many humans may be hanging on for dear life.

In my conversation with Dale, we talked about his background as a writer, poet, biologist, and how this brilliant vision of a book came into being.  It’s an interview and a book I’d recommend to all my friends and colleagues – it’s impossible to read and not do alot of thinking about the future, as well as what we need to do about it – right now.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Deborah Emin

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses. How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and its economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

I learned about Deborah Emin from an article about Sullivan Street Press and her “throwback” program called the Itinerant Book Show.  Deborah and colleagues (they call themselves “bookies”) travel to towns in the midwest as far as Iowa bringing books they select to events in art galleries, bars, coffee shops and the like.  Because they are featuring only books they have read and liked, it’s pretty easy to understand how they are connecting successfully with audiences.  And as she points out on the Sullivan Street website,  the real key is what Deborah as a publisher and writer can learn about audiences.  Face to face, one to one.  It’s invaluable intelligence for anyone concerned with understanding how a literary community works.

All of this resonates for me.  Her story reminded me of work some of us were doing more than thirty years ago, bringing books by new authors and publishers to booksellers and audiences around the country.  In the late 1970′s what was then called the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (still going strong and known as CLMP) sponsored a number of grassroots efforts to bring independently published poets and writers into bookstores, which involved personal visits to bookstores, libraries, schools and even bars to sell books.

There were programs in North Dakota (where a budding young writer named Louise Erdrich interned), Rochester, NY, Minneapolis-St. Paul (where I was) and other locales, all sharing a commitment to connecting innovative new writers to new audiences, sometimes, one person at a time. Many then young publishers still publishing today, were introduced to their audiences through those early efforts.

So is everything old new again?  I think the spirit of independent publishing continues.  Writers find their readers, and readers their books one at a time, after all.  The magic of literary discovery still requires the kind of personal effort that Deborah Emin and the Itinerant Book Show put forth.  Which is also the kind of personal connection forged by booksellers with their customers.  Whether the books are printed by hand on custom paper using handpresses, or created digitally using HTML or ePub, learning about a book you will love is ultimately about a deep connection between the writer, and the reader, with one or more intermediaries making the hand off.

Sullivan Street Press consists of Deborah Emin, an editor and writer, Ron Lebow, a computer technologist, a business development professional and also a writer.  It’s a pretty interesting and obviously fertile group of minds and talents.  The work they are doing is challenging and rewarding, and offers valuable lessons for publishers of any size and ambition.

Gayle Brandeis reading from “Delta Girls”

August 15, 2010 by  
Filed under AuthorsVoices

978-0345492623 – Ballantine – Paperback – $15.00 (also available as an e-book at $9.99)

Writerscast is proud to present the third in a series of authors reading from their work, called AuthorsVoices.   I hope you will agree that hearing these works read aloud by the original authors adds to your experience of the writing.

I love getting a sense of the author’s distinct sense of her or his own words. With writers touring in support of their books less frequently now, these podcasts should provide readers with an opportunity to hear some of our best contemporary authors reading from, and sometimes performing their own works.

Gayle Brandeis’ Delta Girls was a great discovery for me.  I loved her writing, her characters, and the pace and flow of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the way Gayle set up the alternating stories of the two women, Izzy and Karen and of course brought them together with what was for me a very surprising climax to the story.  In this reading from the novel, Gayle reads the opening two chapters, where the two characters are introduced and their ultimately intertwining stories begin.

Gayle has a terrific website where you can learn more about her and her work.  Her’s her brief bio as a writer:
Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt).  It’s great hearing her own voice here speaking the words she has written.

Gayle Brandeis: Delta Girls

August 10, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0345492623 – Ballantine – Paperback – $15.00 (also available as an e-book at $9.99)

I think I have been lucky lately – I keep finding new novelists I have never heard of before, whose work turns out to be really good.  Literary discovery is very exciting.  Gayle Brandeis is one of those novelists whose work is completely new to me.  Delta Girls is her third novel for adults, and she has one other for young adults.  Her social awareness as a writer has been recognized for a previous novel (that I now want to read) called The Book of Dead Birds – it won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, which I consider high praise indeed.  One of Gayle’s great accomplishments in Delta Girls is to include a strong undercurrent of social awareness in a way that enhances the story and does not in any way intrude on one’s enjoyment of the novel and its characters.

Delta Girls is a terrific novel (great cover too, and yes, I do think the overall book package does contribute to the experience for the reader).  Its construct is unusual – each chapter is the alternating story of two characters whose relationship is not divulged until nearly the end of the book.  First is Izzy, who with her nine year old daughter Quinn, is constantly on the move as an itinerant fruit picker in California.  As the story opens, they arrive at a pear orchard in the Sacramento River Delta.  As with all her stops, Izzy has no intention of staying very long. But the orchard, its locale, and the family that owns it has a strong attraction for both Izzy and Quinn, and they both allow themselves to become involved and attached to the orchard and its people.   We know that Izzy has a secret in her past, and that she has worked hard to stay away from the public eye, but events occur that put her in the middle of developments in the Delta and she will have to risk everything to save the ones she loves.

In the alternating narrative of the book, we meet Karen, a rising young star in figure skating with a pushy mother and a powerful and attractive new skating partner.  Nathan is sexy, dangerous, and deeply attractive to Karen.  As she reaches her 18th birthday, events come to a head in an unexpected and very public way.

Each main character is faced with a sudden thrust into the spotlight, and of course their narratives become more connected — but you will need to read the book to find out the surprising way their lives will intersect.

This is a very satisfying novel to read, with great characters, and of course the pear orchard and the Delta of the Sacramento River is a terrific backdrop for the book.  The author’s deep love for her characters as well as her understanding of the power of place, and its influence on people’s lives show constantly throughout the novel.

Gayle is a thoughtful and accomplished writer whose work I am really pleased to have discovered.  It is writing I want to explore more deeply.  Talking to her about this book was a pleasure I am happy to share here.  You can visit Gayle’s website here to learn more about her work.

Justin Kramon: Finny (A Novel)

August 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0812980233 – Random House – Paperback – $15.00 (also available as an ebook at $9.99 or less)

Finny is a wonderful first novel, a coming of age novel (and more), at the center of which is a wonderful character – Delphine “Finny” Short of course.   This is Justin Kramon’s first novel, and he is a very good writer.  He’s been writing and publishing short stories up to now, in literary magazines like Glimmer Train, TriQuarterly and elsewhere, but I think his future lies in the longer form a novel affords.

This novel begins when Finny is 14, and continues on through many more years of her life, with many adventures, and a large cast of really well drawn characters.  Many reviewers have mentioned Dickens as a comparative, and that is apt, as Justin himself makes clear that the Dickensian model was on his mind when he was writing this book.  He does very well with the large story arc, which gives the author enough room to really explore the inner life of his major characters.

Life is complicated, relationships that seem to have promise fall apart, and sometimes we have to deal with surprises in the way things actually work out.  As Finny says herself about life, it is “hilariously funny and devastatingly sad. And only if you saw both things could you ever have a realistic idea of the subject.’’  It’s hard not to agree with the author and his character on this point, especially after spending time with Finny and her life story.

So even though there’s much in Finny’s life that is difficult, sad or disappointing, in both family relationships, love life and friendships, overall, her character comes through as positive about life and how she has lived it, somewhat idiosyncratically, and with a good bit of humor.  That’s probably true of the author as well, and it’s a compelling journey for the reader.  There’s a lot of richness here, and a thoroughly enjoyable novel it is.

I also enjoyed talking to Justin about his book, its characters, how he came to write this novel, his work as a writer and where he is going in the future.  He’s got a really good sense of himself as a writer,an engaging personality, and a fine command of his craft at this early stage of his career.  I think there’s much more good work to come from this novelist, work I will certainly be looking forward to reading.

I do also want to mention Justin’s website, which is one of the better author or book sites I have seen lately.  There’s alot of fun stuff there, especially fun is the section called “Finny’s World” where the characters in the novel are drawn as imagined by artist David Ostow.  It’s definitely worth a visit.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk Interviews Adam Hodgkin

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses. How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and its economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Adam Hodgkin is one of the three publishing and technology experienced founders of Exact Editions, which started as a digital publishing solution for magazines to run on the iPhone (and of course now on the iPad as well).    Exact Editions enables magazine publishers to sell “in-app” subscriptions, and notably, preserves the notion of the designed page, something that has been a concern for many publishers of illustrated books as well.  I’ve been reading the Exact Editions blog for some time and have been impressed with Adam’s understanding of the emerging digital publishing universe.  Something he wrote recently caught my attention immediately, as I have long been interested in the ways that authors, publishers and readers will learn to connect with one another in the online environment.  Here’s what Adam wrote about the Apple environment upon which EE is built:

“The Apple e-commerce system works extremely well in my view and with the freemium method that we are adopting at Exact Editions it works in a way in which the ratios between ‘sampling’ and ‘purchasing’ are extremely informative. And as we get more data and get on top of it and learn how to do SRO (SampleRevisionOptimisation – a bit like SEO and it will be an equally dark art) the business of presenting the right amount of content to optimise sales will be established. We currently recommend working at about 8-15% exposure, but its guesstimatory at this point. Amazon must know quite a lot about this from their system, but I am not sure if they have issued any guidance to publishers.

The Apple system is better than most physical bookshops because it can put ‘samples’ in the hands of thousands (many thousands) of potential subscribers/purchasers much more efficiently than can be done with printed paper pages. The economics of this are pretty compelling even if the ‘sample’ to ‘purchase’ ratio is as low as 1%. And in most cases its quite a bit higher than that.

Will probably blog something a bit more informative about this in the next few days. But just let me say that I am simply ASTONISHED by how much more takeup there is for the iPad than for the iPhone. More in absolute terms, by quite a margin, even though there are maybe 40X as many iPhone/IPod touches in the market than iPads.

The iPad is turning out to be a hugely strong reading environment. Absolutely no question about it. And its darn easy to buy stuff on it that you might want to read.”

I thought it would be interesting to talk to Adam about Exact Editions and some of the things he and his colleagues have learned through the experience of working in the Apple environment, not only with magazine publishers but now as they are expanding into working with book publishers as well.  My discussion with Adam covered his background and experience in traditional publishing, technology, and some of the lessons learned by the Exact Editions team in their work in digital publishing apps and proved to be as compelling as I had expected.