My good friend, long time publisher and poet Allan Kornblum passed away November 23, 2014. He was only 65, and will be missed by many. Coffee House Press, which he and Cinda Kornblum founded as the successor to the earlier and more informal Toothpaste Press, has been in Minneapolis for over 30 years now, and has become a hugely important literary organization in its local community and far beyond, with national and international reach.
Allan and I first met in the mid-seventies when we attended a range of small press bookfairs around the country, and we shared many interests, both in poetry and in book production. Toothpaste was an early participant in the tiny midwestern literary project I started in 1976 called Truck Distribution Service.
When I traveled to Iowa to sell independently published literary books to local bookstores, I would stay with Allan and Cinda in their house in West Branch (proudly known as the birthplace of Herbert Hoover). They taught me alot about the local literary community and history, and as Allan became more involved in letterpress printing, Allan beautifully produced books and ephemera for my Truck Press (and later for Jim Sitter’s Bookslinger, the successor to Truck Distribution, Allan turned out a long list of beautifully produced broadsides and small books). The list of great books published by Allan and Coffee House is pretty incredible. Visit the press’ website to learn more about what Allan and his colleagues have accomplished, and to see the vibrant work the now well-established nonprofit press is doing today. Some really excellent publishing is going on there, and has been for a long time; no better legacy for Allan could be imagined than the books this press produces.
In later years, we I did not see Allan much more than once a year at the annual booksellers’ conventions, but we kept in contact, did business together, and always shared news of each other’s work and family. I interviewed Allan for Writerscast as part of the Publishing Talks series as I think the history of independent publishing needs to be documented, and first hand accounts by those involved seem to me the best way to preserve some of the knowledge and experiences of an important era in publishing. You can listen to it here if you want to get a feel for Allan and his work.
One moment with Allan still stands out for me. Probably six or seven years ago, when Amazon was first promoting digital conversion of print books, they put on presentations to publishers and distributors to convince us to convert as many of our books as possible to digital formats. I was perhaps naively convinced aready that the reflowable ebook format would be a great boon to reading. But Allan stood up and asked the pointed question – “What happens to the carefully designed pages we create for our books in this new digital format?” The Amazon representative bluntly stated something to the effect that “designed pages don’t matter in our ebooks.” That answer did not satisfy Allan, and somewhat presciently, he told me that this lack of interest and concern for design would be a big problem for e-readers and e-reading. How right he was then, and sadly, his views then about ebook design matters are still meaningful today. As he knew so well, the interaction between the reader and the word is where the magic of reading comes alive.
This is a very fine mystery set in an unusual locale – rural Pennsylvania (fracking country). I don’t usually read mysteries, but one of the pleasures of doing interviews with writers has been that I have been sent books by publishers that I would normally never have even looked at on my own. It’s fun to pick up a book, to start reading a few pages and then to be thoroughly hooked. That happened for me with Tom Bouman’s fine first novel. I really liked the portrayal of his main character, the local policeman, Henry Farrell. He’s terrifically drawn and is a compelling, complicated, extremely human character. And I liked the way Bouman worked his way slowly into the depths of the story. And I really loved the way he wrote about the people who live in this isolated rural county in Pennsylvania.
Bouman’s interest in the outlaws and eccentrics who inhabit this world, his appreciation and even love for those who have kept to themselves, and to older forms of relationships among family and neighbors is palpable and powerful.
The book revolves around a body found in the woods and the search, naturally enough, for the killer. This novel is well worth spending some time as the story unravels. Great characters and fine writing make for a terrific read.
Author website here. Bowman used to work in publishing – he was an editor – and now lives in northeastern Pennsylvania with his family. As of this writing, he is attending law school, so it may be a little while yet before he publishes his next book. And here is a terrific piece that Bouman wrote for Modern Farmer about rural crime fiction (that is a genre I did not know even existed!) I am hoping we’ll see a new book from Tom Bouman before too much time passes.
What an incredible book. Tough, loving, uncompromising. So much power in this book, admittedly at times, very painful to read, and stunningly honest to the point of extremism. But Jowita is such a fine writer, it is impossible not to admire this book and despite all the terrible things she tells us about herself, that she is alive, and able to speak her truth is incredible.
You know that any book with a title like this is going to be amazing, but there is no way to get through this book without being thoroughly bowled over, and depending on one’s tolerance for witnessing someone else’s painful mistakes, perhaps more than in any other book you will ever read. And yes, Jowita is completely and terrifyingly honest about herself and her misadventures throughout.
It’s valuable to understand that when Jowita first wrote this story, she wrote it pretending it was a novel. She had to get through that ironically deep denial as part of her ability to understand herself, one assumes. And that is part of the power of this book, that the author is able to uncover layers of denial, fear and guilt to get to a place where she can be honest with herself, and by telling that story to the world, reach a kind of absolution, a place in herself where she can be able to reconstruct herself, not forgiving, but finding the parts of her persona that are who she is not drinking. This is very powerful reading and a book I recommend no matter what you feel about yourself or others who are drinkers, addicted, lost, or found.
Short summary: Three years after she gave up drinking, Jowita Bydlowska found herself drinking again – at the party celebrating the birth of her son. Thus begins the harrowing tale of her descent, once again, into full blown alcohol and substance abuse. You have to read this one for yourself. Go buy this book, prepare yourself for a powerful experience, and read it now. Another good interview with the author on NPR here. And Jowita’s website, worth a visit – “I was born in Warsaw, Poland. I moved to Canada as a teenager. I live in Toronto with my little family in a little house. I write, write, write (compulsively, happily, unhappily, obsessively)” here.
Ladette Randolph is both an editor and a writer; she is currently the editor of the fine literary magazine Ploughshares, whose founder, DeWitt Henry, I interviewed about that magazine’s history, and she’s written a total of four books and edited three more. She was previously an acquiring editor at University of Nebraska Press and earlier, the managing editor of Prairie Schooner. She has received four Nebraska Book Awards, a Rona Jaffe grant, a Pushcart Prize, a Virginia Faulkner award, and has been reprinted in Best New American Voices.
Ladette grew up and lived much of her life in Nebraska. In this really well written and beautifully composed memoir, Leaving the Pink House, she tells the story of her life through the houses she has lived in. At first, the book appears to be a relatively straightforward memoir of buying a dilapidated farmhouse to fulfill a dream of country living (the day after September 11, 2001), and the complication of leaving the pink house she and her husband had already turned into the house of their dreams.
But Randolph is writing to understand herself and where she comes from. Leaving one beloved house for another that is full of potential (for good and bad) spurs her into exploring her past life through the houses in which she lived. And she essentially tells herself – and her readers – where she came from, and how she became the person who is able to love and inhabit her own being in the present by exploring her life through the houses in which she lived from her early youth onward.
Randolph grew up in small towns in Nebraska; her father took his family with him as he worked to become an evangelical minister. Randolph tells us what it was like for her to experience the world through the lens of fundamentalism as she grew up and then into her early adult years. She experiences a series of awakenings, tragedies and struggles, all told without over dramatization and alternating with the mundane and always challenging work of remodeling the old house in the country and preparing to move from the pink house.
It’s an engaging and perceptive form of storytelling and much like a remodeling job itself, we learn with her as she goes through the work of tearing down and rebuilding the structure of her life. I greatly enjoyed reading this book, vicariously experiencing her challenges and accomplishments, and learning about her life experiences. Then having the opportunity to talk with Ladette about it only amplified my interest in her writing. Her active and informative website is here (and worth a visit).
Somewhat surprisingly, since I try to pay attention to music and songwriters who write fiction, I had not heard of Willy Vlautin before receiving a copy of The Free to read. I’m really glad to have discovered his work. Vlautin is one of a number of contemporary songwriters and musicians who have taken to writing short stories and novels. He’s the founder and writes songs for the Portland, OR based alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. And he writes songs and plays with another interesting band called The Delines. His songs tend toward storytelling, so it is no surprise he is also interested in long form fiction.
His four novels have gained an incredible amount of praise from a wide variety of sources. He writes really well, has a great ear for dialogue and tells terrific stories. Judging from The Free, which focuses on Iraq veteran Leroy Kervin, who came back from the war with a traumatic brain injury. He is unable to find a way to make a new life, and tries to commit suicide, but ends up in a coma – and much of the novel’s story takes place in an alternate reality story that goes on in his coma state.
There are other important characters whose lives are connected to Leroy; Freddie McCall, a hard working man who can’t make ends meet, and is trying to put his family back together, taking big chances to make things work under challenging circumstances. There is also the wonderful Pauline Hawkins, a nurse at the local hospital, who takes care of almost everyone in her life, including her very challenging father, And there is a young girl who connects with Leroy in some interesting ways as well.
The Free is an intriguing mix. It’s realistic, yet much of the book takes place in a fever state. Vlautin loves the hard working characters who inhabit the lower middle class of Washington State and Oregon, but the narrative arc of the story is entwined with a mysterious underground terrorist organization (called The Free) inside of Leroy’s unreachable mind. Vlautin also has a clear view of the politics and economic realities that shape their lives and their struggles to live in our post modern capitalistic world, so his stories are heartfelt and empathetic.
This is a terrific book, with great narrative drive. Vlautin knows how to weave a compelling story with characters that are fully drawn and captivating. Since reading this book, I’ve made a point to listen to a lot of his music as well, and am now a big fan. His other three novels are also on my list of books to read when time allows. And Vlautin has a lot to say, listeners to this podcast will find out. He thinks and talks about contemporary life in America, and so many of the people in it who are struggling just to find a way to live. Willy is a troubadour and a soulful, skillful writer who deserves to be widely read. I for one am ready to hear a lot more from him.
Alert: we had a good time talking, so this discussion runs slightly longer than usual Writerscast podcasts, almost 35 minutes. Enjoy!
The clerihew is a somewhat obscure form of poetry invented by the English writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley as an alternative to the limerick. It has a particular focus, which is to skewer or make fun of a famous person, is only four lines long, with irregular line length and meter. Rhymes follow the AABB structure with as much humorous contrivance as possible to do what needs to be done to accomplish the goal of the poem – fun at the expense of a well known individual.
I first was introduced to this form by my old friend and mentor, Jonathan Williams, whose quirky and creative sense of humor was perfectly fit for this fun form. He wrote a wonderful book called the Fifty Two Clerihews of Clara Hughes, which is well worth seeking out (produced in a limited edition and long out of print, but should be available in a few libraries, and I found a audio version of it online.)
Brits invented the form and seem to like it a lot. Auden wrote clerihews and so did Bentley’s friend G.K. Chesterton. One of Bentley’s earliest clerihews is still one of his best:
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.
And now we have another great collection of clerihews, written by the hilarious and well read Iowa City based bookseller, Paul Ingram. Paul has been a friend of mine (and of hundreds of writers) for a long time. He’s known far and wide as one of the great booksellers and talkers about books and visitors to Iowa City seek him out at the wonderful Prairie Lights Bookstore* to talk to him about books.
As he tells us in the introduction to his book, Paul has been writing clerihews for more than twenty years, mostly as the spirit struck, often on tiny pieces of paper that seemed to disappear. Thus the “lost” in the title of the book. We can only be grateful that this packrat managed to keep and find most of the poems he wrote so that we can enjoy them here. As Roz Chast says “after you read it, you will need to put aside whatever important work you are doing and write several of your own.” Clerihews are like candy.
Almost all of Paul’s clerihews are fun, hilarious, some are political, and some are much more weighty than the form suggests, like this one:
Lost all of his luster,
And most of his pride
On his final ride
It is difficult to resist consuming this book like candy. I enjoyed having the chance to hear Paul about his own writing, poetry and book selling. You will too. This is a fun book with alot to say. Like the author himself.
Paul’s book has wonderful illustrations by the Chicago artist Julia Anderson-Miller. Publisher website here.
*I interviewed Jan Weissmiller, proprietor of Prairie Lights, for Writerscast a few years ago,
Mark Chiusano grew up in Marine Park, perhaps the most isolated and least well known neighborhood of the now hip New York borough of Brooklyn. He spent some of his summers playing baseball in Switzerland.
He went to Harvard University, where he was the recipient of a Hoopes Prize for outstanding undergraduate fiction. Mark is still young – mid-twenties – but has been a prolific writer of short stories since college, some of which have appeared in literary magazines, including Guernica, Narrative, Harvard Review, and online at Tin House and The Paris Review Daily.
This first book is a collection of stories called Marine Park, after his boyhood neighborhood. It’s a diverse collection, but linked by tone, perspective, and some recurring characters. Stories revolve around kids growing up in the tight-knit neighborhood, portraits of its denizens, adventures and misadventures. Eight of the stories, perhaps the core of the book, revolve around the brothers Jamison and Lorris, as they grow up from late childhood into adults in the almost present. Overall, these are really well written stories, any one of which can stand alone, but collected, create a cohesive outlook and impact on the reader. There’s a palpable love and joy that shines through the narratives without ever falling prey to sentimentalism.
This is clearly a first book, with some stories seeming to experiment with different manners and tropes, as the author is feeling his way toward his authentic voice. But Chiusano is such a fine stylist, we tend to forgive any missteps or methodological repetitions. He is an original voice in many ways and we can expect more great writing from him as his work continues to grow.
Chiusano is now an editor at Vintage Books and is working on his next book.I’m guessing that his work, where he must spend time reading and editing other writers’ work will help make him even better than he already is. I’m looking forward to reading more from this fine new writer. I think you will find our conversation both interesting and revealing of how a wonderfully creative writer thinks about the work.
This interview was recorded at John Marshall Media, New York City in summer 2014.
Author website – where you can find a great quote about the book: “Here’s the spirit of dear Sherwood Anderson in Mark Chiusano’s Marine Park.”—Ron Carlson
Publishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture. As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how they believe publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the ebb and flow of civilization and economics.
I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing. I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.
It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.
UPDATE: as of January 27, 2015, it was announced that (sadly) Best Little Bookshop will be closing and Kieron Smith moving on to other pursuits. Still, this discussion ought to remain interesting to anyone who is thinking about bookselling and consumer interaction with books.
Kieron Smith is a long time bookseller and founder of the new online bookstore, The Best Little Bookshop. This new site takes a different approach to online retail book selling than others have done. There is much more emphasis on curation, more in-depth presentation of books and publishers, social interaction onsite from customers, and importantly, the participation of other booksellers from the outset. And the store, while based in the UK, is friendly to buyers from other countries. I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing around with BLB, and for me, it’s a great experience. I’ve discovered books and publishers I’ve never heard of and that I am interested in reading and buying. I’m looking forward to seeing how Kieron and his team integrate other booksellers into the store experience and how its community of users will influence the direction the store takes in the future.
Best Little Bookshop is clear evidence that it is possible to create new models of retail book selling online. The store launched in summer 2014, so as of now, there are still features in development, and doubtless more changes and improvements to come. My conversation with Kieron was exciting for me, as I see so much potential with this site for publishers, authors and readers, and wanted to hear first hand how the founder views the future. One interesting point – no ebooks here, just print.
Alert: this is a relatively long interview at 41 minutes. Take your time and enjoy!
Kieron Smith has over 17 years of book trade experience, starting with WHSmith Retail, establishing the multi-channel Ottakars.co.uk website in 1999, heading up the web offering at BCA and operations at Methven’s Booksellers, followed by three years outside the industry at Europe’s leading video games website GAME.co.uk. Head of online for Waterstones.com in 2006-7 and then MD of international online book retailer The Book Depository (purchased by Amazon in 2011) for five years until November of 2013. The Book Depository was acquired by Amazon.com in 2011.
Author Anna Godbersen has come up with a terrifically compelling novelistic premise – Marilyn Monroe as a mostly unwilling but still cunning spy for the Russians, whose task is to get something on President Kennedy the Russians can use. In return, her mysterious and very persuasive contact, who convinces MM that her father was also working for the cause of international communism, will connect her to the one man in the world she truly cares about.
It’s a great reinvention, weaving together known elements of Marilyn’s life and characters like Arthur Miller, Joe DiMaggio, JFK, and many others, with the addition of some invented characters and a hefty dose of imagination, Godbersen is able to draw out an entertaining and compelling thriller. In particular, I loved the way she empowers Marilyn, and shows her to be a brilliant, albeit often desperate character, who is able to far better understand the motives and behaviors of men and women than most, and to do what she must to achieve her own goals and protect those she loves.
Along the way, Godbersen draws compelling portraits of the key players in Marilyn’s life and times, and the events she lived through. Marilyn becomes human, empathetic, and strong. And she tells a great story – no matter how well you know the actual history, you will enjoy this novel and its unfolding mystery. Could Marilyn have been connected to the conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, perhaps in a surprising way? Do you really believe that Marilyn Monroe committed suicide or died of an overdose of pills? Godbersen’s version of the story we will never know for sure in some surprising ways makes more sense than the history we do know.
And the book does have a wonderful cover.
Anna Godbersen was born in Berkeley, California, attended Barnard College, and worked for Esquire Magazine. She is best known as author of a number of young adult best sellers for Alloy Entertainment, include Luxe and Bright Young Things. Author website here. More about the book here.
Discovering writers that are new to us and that we end up liking in a big way, is one of the pleasures of life. I’m fortunate that publishers and writers get in touch with me about books they want me to read for this podcast series. And sometimes, writers have told other writers about Writerscast, suggesting they contact me, a form of recommendation I appreciate. So I’m very glad that Jessica Anya Blau reached out to me about reading her novel, The Wonder Bread Summer, as it is most likely I would never have known about it otherwise.
And what a fun and complicated novel it is. The Wonder Bread Summer is a wild romp of a book, certainly a coming of age story, hilarious and sometimes scary. But underneath the nonstop breathless action of the story, there is a lot of complexity, and as her heroine, twenty year old Berkeley college student Allie Dodgson deals with issues of family, race, sexuality and friendship, she is becoming a real person, someone with agency, rather than someone to whom events happen. The story is pretty bold – Allie is working part time in a dress shop that turns out to be a front for drug dealing, and through a series of misadventures, she ends up on the run with an amazing amount of cocaine, driving her best friend’s new car, drives to LA to where she thinks her father might be, runs across her estranged mother and her mother’s new husband’s band, has sex with a famous rock star, finds her father, and deals with some real dangers. There is alot going on in this novel!
I couldn’t help but ask Jessica about the connection between Allie’s adventures in the book and her own life experiences – not that I thought or believed it was an autobiographical novel – because the events and people she writes about seem so vivid and real. This is a fun book that takes risks and rewards the reader with its intelligence and emotional depth. Oh yeah, you might enjoy knowing that the reference to Wonder Bread is a bread bag full of cocaine. Great image.
This is Blau’s third novel and I’m looking forward to reading the first two soon.
Thanks to John Cheary of John Marshall Media for use of their studio, and to Nathan Rosborough for sound engineering and editing.