Tilar J. Mazzeo: Irena’s Children: A True Story of Courage

October 17, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

Irena’s Children: A True Story of Courage – 9781476778501 – Gallery Books – Hardcover – $26 – ebook versions available at lower prices.

Author Tilar Mazzeo is a terrific storyteller, who took on the task to tell the world about an inspiring, heroic and terrifying story with this book, the true story of one woman who, with a network of associates, saved 2,500 Jewish children from the Nazis during World War II. The main subject of the book is Irena Sendler, who was a young social worker in Warsaw, living in a socially and politically progressive milieu, when the Germans began World War II by invading Poland.

Poland, of course, was quickly defeated by the larger and more modern German army. The conquered country’s resources, human and otherwise, were turned toward the use of the German war effort, with hundreds of thousands of Poles used as slave laborers as their country was occupied by a brutal military regime. And the Germans then began their concerted efforts to destroy the large Jewish population of that country. While many Poles opposed the Nazis, with partisans fighting them from the outset of the war, some Poles were active collaborators with the Fascists, and many more simply did their best to survive under impossible conditions.

Some Poles risked everything to rescue Jews from the near total eradication of that community that the Germans sought.

Irena Sendler and a close circle of her friends and work associates undertook what we now can recognize as an heroic effort to save some of the children of the Warsaw ghetto. For almost four years, they took immense risks and dangers upon themselves and their families, to rescue innocents from the horrors they could see were happening all around them.

While everything in this book reads like a terrifying, fast-paced novel, Mazzeo has pieced together a completely true story of unimaginable heroism by many “regular” citizens of Poland. Irena Sendler, together with the help of a network of local people and the Jewish resistance, was able to save upwards of 2,500 Jewish children from likely death in the brutal concentration camps to which most Polish Jews were sent. Irena herself went back and forth into the Jewish ghetto, sneaking children out in a myriad of ways, and then found refuge for the children with local Polish families, convents, churches and farmers.

It was an incredible effort. Irena Sendler knew the terrible risks – she was at one point brutally tortured by the Gestapo – but also knew she could not fail to act.

It is incredible that she and so many of her cohorts survived the war. But then, of course, she and Poland had to survive the takeover of her country by the Soviets, and that meant that the story of her wartime heroism could not be told until long after the war had ended. Mazzeo’s effort here to celebrate and tell this amazing story is extraordinary, and much appreciated. Irena Sendler and her network of heroes serves as inspiration and constant reminder that we “regular citizens” must be prepared to face moral choices at any time, sometimes with dire consequences. So many good people were killed in this terrible war.

It is impossible to read this book and not wonder how any of us would have responded then. And of course we must each ask our selves honestly, how will we respond when our time to act is upon us?

I really enjoyed reading this book. It brought up powerful emotions and important questions. Mazzeo is both a fine writer and a terrific researcher, and in this book displays both those talents in full flower. We had a really interesting conversation about this book. There is so much in it I did not want to discuss in detail, so readers will be able to have the full experience of the book for themselves, but we had much to talk about nonetheless.

Tilar Mazzeo is the Clara C. Piper Associate Professor of English at Colby College, in Waterville, Maine. She is the author of numerous works of narrative nonfiction, including the New York Times bestselling The Widow Clicquot.

There’s a wonderful portrait of Sendler, written while she was still alive here and a website devoted to her life and story called Life in a Jar.irena-sendler-in-a-nurses-outfit-during-wwii_6110710895_o-226x30067071f_6a1d197c9c954c6184997bd0cfee928b-mv2

Clara Bingham: Witness to the Revolution

September 19, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

witness-to-the-revolutionWitness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul
9780812993189 – Random House – Hardcover – $30 – (ebook versions available at lower prices)

There have been many books written about the politics and culture of the sixties, but I don’t think there has ever been a book quite like this one.

Clara Bingham is a journalist who grew up just a bit too young to join in the festivities of what is now known as “The Sixties.” That term is actually a misnomer, as most of us know, since the decade of turbulence and strife really started in the mid-sixties and ended, more or less, with the close of the Vietnam War in 1975. However it is measured, and measuring time periods in history is never easy or altogether clear, that time was full of energy, social discord, cultural change, political engagement, joy and tragedy.

Ms. Bingham had relatives and family members who were old enough to participate actively in the youth culture explosion of that time, and we are lucky that their experiences inspired her interest in this historically significant era. She took upon herself a seriously daunting task, to try to understand what happened in the culture through the words of some of its key participants. It’s an altogether brilliant, inspiring effort.

She has chosen to focus on a single year to create a lens through which to see America in the throes of cultural upheaval. The book covers the period from August 1969 to August 1970, during which there were nine thousand protests and eighty-four acts of arson or bombings across the country. It was an incredible year, one that included so many key events of the time, both at home and abroad, including the rise of the Weather Underground, the invasion of Cambodia, Woodstock, May Day in New Haven, and the massacre at Kent State – and so much more.

As an active member of the counter culture myself in those halcyon years, this book brought back many memories, and reminded me of some of the things I’d forgotten about, as well as some of the people who were so important to us in those years. There’s so much in this book, there are some events and people I had not even thought about for almost 45 years. The first-hand accounts included in this book are important and powerful. These reminiscences can help us understand an era that is so much with us still – both culturally and politically. This book can help us understand why America is still in the throes of cultural and political upheaval, and is so culturally divided. While there were many failures in the sixties, and many terrible things done in the name of good intentions and beliefs, we are awash in the cultural forces unleashed then. The baby boomers who created the youth culture of the sixties are aging out of the population now, but the effects of that time continue to reverberate today.

There is so much of importance to be found in this book. I was really pleased to have a chance to speak to Clara about Witness to the Revolution. It’s an incredible effort and I hope it will help spur further conversations about the Sixties and what we can learn from that incredible era.

If you want to listen to Clara reading from the book, there’s a short segment over in Author’s Voices.clara-bingham2

George Gmelch: Playing With Tigers, A Minor League Chronicle of the Sixties

August 1, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

george-gmelch-playing-wth-tigers9780803276819 – University of Nebraska Press – 288 pages – Hardcover – $26.95 (ebook versions available at roughly similar prices)

Today, George Gmelch is a successful anthropologist, with a number of books to his credit. But when he was a young man, he was a very good baseball player, with the typical dreams so many shared of becoming a professional baseball player and making it to the Major Leagues. Growing up in an all-white suburb in California in the late fifties and early sixties, George led a fairly sheltered childhood, playing ball and having fun. In 1965 he signed a contract to play professional baseball with the Detroit Tigers organization and so began a four year period of coming of age, during which George experienced the challenges of life in baseball’s minor leagues.

While learning to be a professional athlete, he also became aware of the realities of race and class; minor league baseball in the nineteen sixties was often played in small towns in the south where segregation was still in effect, despite the advances of the civil rights movement. And as an adolescent on his own with other boys in the cocoon like world of pro sports, he also had his first experiences of sex and romance, living, traveling and playing ball. Somewhat unlike most of his teammates, George paid attention to the events of the era, including the Vietnam War, the rise of the counter culture, and civil rights protests.

Playing with Tigers is a memoir certainly unlike most others written by baseball players. The sixties was a time of turmoil involving young people of all backgrounds and professional baseball was not immune from its disruption. George was likely more socially aware than most of his compatriots, and his direct experience of racial issues ultimately led to the end of his professional baseball career.

To write this book, George relied on the journals he kept as a player, as well as letters from that time, and in addition he used his skills and experience as an anthropologist to interview thirty former teammates, coaches, club officials – and even some former girlfriends. This is a unique story, documenting a socially disrupted period in American history through the lives of many of the young people who lived through it. We get to experience first hand the naivete, frustrations and joys of a young man trying to find his way in a complex time. And clearly, some of the motivation for writing this book was unfinished business, events, relationships with people, his baseball experience, on which George wanted to gain some closure.

I read alot of baseball books, as many listeners know. Among the many I have read the past couple years, I found Playing With Tigers extremely compelling, and one I had fun reading. I very much enjoyed the opportunity to speak with George Gmelch for the second time – in 2013, George and I talked for Writerscast about another of his baseball books, Inside Pitch. In addition to being an intensely personal memoir, Playing With Tigers opens a door to a period in our history that deserves a lot more exploration than it seems to have been given. George has some great stories and a deep understanding and love for the people and places he’s experienced. This is a fine book and you do not need to know anything about baseball to like it.

George Gmelch is a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco and at Union College in Schenectady, New York. His books include In the Ballpark: The Working Lives of Baseball People, with J. J. Weiner (Bison Books, 2006), and Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseball (Bison Books, 2006). He is the editor of Baseball without Borders: The International Pastime (Nebraska, 2006). His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Society, and Natural History.baseballtalk_gmelchGmelch

Kate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses: A Novel

July 5, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

26073155 (1)9781620409015 – Bloomsbury USA – 416 pages – Hardcover – $26 – ebook versions available at lower prices, paperback scheduled for February 2017

I found out about Kate Tempest more or less accidentally, through an odd set of search results one day while fooling around on YouTube, and therefore I must thank the seemingly strange, but often wonderful algorithms of its search tools. What a discovery! After seeing and hearing Kate’s poetry performances, I immediately bought her books and was completely enthralled.

I don’t seem to have too many poetry friends who know about Kate’s work, and that is a shame. She is British, and young, and very modern in affect. But she is an old soul, with a deep and powerful intellect, and her voice is one that I find both compelling and mesmerizing. I think she is simply a great writer, and stands out for the power of the words she marshals as well as the intellection that informs those words.

If you have not heard or seen Kate Tempest, or heard of her work, I’d urge you to visit YouTube now, and spend some time with her work. You might want to start with the incredible poem “Progress” (which you can also read to yourself in her book Hold Your Own). The video of her performing this poem gives you just a taste of what her work is like. It’s a remarkable commentary on religion and meaning. Tempest has got a lot to say and says it powerfully and clearly, with an almost religious (or in this case anti-religious) fervor. It’s totally captivating to listen to her syncopated rapping poetry. She has got the fever.

Kate has expanded her narrative abilities, moving from hip hop poet to playwright and now to novelist, an amazing journey that not very many poets or performers have undertaken. Usually poets are best at short bursts of ideas, or word paintings, they are not often masters of narrative, and while there are certainly poets who have written novels, novelists who write poetry, and songwriters who tell great stories, it’s not am easy thing to move from these genres to the more expansive form a novel takes, and the concentration on detail and complexity of characters as well.

From what Kate told me when we talked, she conceived this story first for one of her rap albums, and then carried the novel around with her while she toured with her band, alchemically transforming the story from poetry to prose, somehow managing to find the time and emotional space to get it down whole whilst on the road (and then later rewrote and rewrote to get it done).

The book is told in flashback from a powerfully lyrical opening scene, and it takes the reader some time to get her bearings and then to figure out who the various major and minor characters are, how they are related, and how they interact. But as the story unfolds, we begin to understand the journey, and these characters become indelible and specific, telling a story that is compelling and intense – and morally ambiguous. This is a modern wrapper around an ancient story, impossible to put down as it moves forward with breathless energy and heart felt imagination.

I really enjoyed talking to Kate about this novel and her work as a writer and performer. We talked in the New York office of her publisher, Bloomsbury USA.

Kate Tempest was born in 1985. She grew up and still lives in South-East London. She started out as a rapper, and a poet, and began writing for theatre in 2012. Her work includes Balance, an album she made with her band Sound of Rum; Everything Speaks in its Own Way, which is a collection of poems published by her own imprint Zingaro; GlassHouse, a forum theatre play for Cardboard Citizens; and the plays Wasted and Hopelessly Devoted both written for Paines Plough theatre and published by Bloomsbury Methuen. Her epic narrative poem Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Everybody Down, her debut solo album, came out on Big Dada Records in 2014, and is the direct precursor to her novel The Bricks that Built the Houses.  Her most recent collection of poems is Hold Your Own; it’s based on the myth of the blind prophet Tiresias (I recommend you find and read this book; the language is fantastic).

“As Tempest’s gorgeous streams of words flow out, they conjure a story so vivid it’s as if you had a state-of-the-art Blu-Ray player stuffed in your brain, projecting image after image that sears itself into your consciousness” – New York Times

From Brand New Ancients:F-KATE-TEMPEST-IMG_0786-793x700

In the old days,
the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves

but how can we explain
the way we hate ourselves?

The things we’ve made ourselves into,
the way we break ourselves in two,
the way we overcomplicate ourselves?

But we are still mythical.

Chris Offutt: My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir

June 6, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

my-father-the-pornographer-9781501112461_lg9781501112461 – Atria Books – 272 pages – Hardcover – $26.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices

Chris Offutt’s father, Andrew Offutt, left behind an unusual legacy – a massive quantity of pornography he wrote over a long swatch of his life. Besides being at one time a respected insurance agent, and subsequently a successful but still minor science fiction writer, Andrew Offutt spent years writing pornography, and made himself the “king of twentieth-century smut.”

During the 1970s, after Grove Press and other publishers had helped break down the barriers to legal publishing of pornographic and erotic literature, the floodgates of erotic writing opened up to meet a formerly unreachable demand. Several specialized, but relatively small commercial publishers created a mini-industry to satisfy an emerging market for written pornography and erotica of all kinds. During the height of the popularity of these books, some writers were able to make reasonable livings by turning out massive quantities of what was essentially pornographic pulp fiction.

Andrew Offutt was one of these writers, but unlike so many other high volume writers,  he was singular in his commitment to good writing and real plot lines, among other features of traditional fiction. As one might imagine, Andrew Offutt was an unusual man, and a strange and awkward parent keeping secrets about his work and the toll it took on his psyche.

Chris Offutt therefore grew up in a highly unusual world. His mother was the typist for all his father’s books. The family lived in the Kentucky hills, where most kids grew up hunting and fishing, and learning the pleasures of traditional country woodcraft.

Andrew Offutt was more than a little eccentric, and was a fiery and unpredictable father. When he closed the door to his home office, he demanded silence and to be left alone to concentrate on his writing, terrifying and controlling his family. And Offutt took the entire family with him when he went off to science fiction conventions, where he was a sought after figure, playing the role of the exotic sci fi novelist. In the seventies, Chris’ parents were evidently active swingers at these conventions.

During this time, Andrew Offutt wrote an incredible number of books – in total, more than four hundred novels, including pirate porn, ghost porn, zombie porn, and secret agent porn.

In 2013, after his father died, Chris Offutt returned to help his mother move out of his childhood home. In order to make sense of his father and his own childhood, Chris took on the herculean task of reading and organizing his father’s manuscripts and the vast trove of memorabilia, journals, and letters that accompanied them. It was only through the lens of his father’s writing that he was finally able to bring some closure to his understanding of this difficult and sometimes brilliant man. And at the same time he was able to gain a better understanding of himself as a person, father and of course, his own life as a writer.

This book is a remarkable literary and personal effort of psychic and literary exploration, truly one of the best memoirs I have read. Perhaps because my own father was similarly a writer who made his living through his work with words, this book meant a lot to me.

It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with Chris Offutt about his courageous and beautifully written memoir, and his own creative work as a writer.

Chris Offutt was born in 1958 in Lexington, Kentucky and grew up in the small town of Haldeman in the same state. He went to Morehead State University, and then to the University of Iowa, where he earned an MFA from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. His first short story collection was Kentucky Straight, published in 1992. Along with fiction and memoirs, Chris has also written comics and journalism for several magazines and newspapers. In recent years, he has written for television as well (Weeds and True Blood).

Chris has received awards from the Lannan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a Whiting Award in Fiction and Nonfiction.

“Chris Offutt owns one of the finest, surest prose styles around, ready and able to convey the hardest truth without flinching. Now Offutt enters the darkest and most mysterious of places—the cave of a monstrous enigma named Andrew J. Offutt—armed with nothing but his own restless curiosity. Spoiler alert: He makes it out alive, walking into the daylight to bring us a deeper, funnier, more tender and more heartbroken truth—and his masterpiece.” —Michael Chabonchris offutt

I’m as impressed as Michael Chabon is with this fine book.

And Offutt knows how to give a great interview too.

Mary Volmer: Reliance, Illinois (a novel)

May 2, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Reliance-Illinois-Cov-2-400x6009781616956721 – Soho Press – 368 page – Hardcover – $27.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices

Mary Volmer’s novel, Reliance, Illinois is a beautifully written historical novel that takes place in midwestern America in 1874.

The story revolves around thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch. She comes to the town of Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who is being married through an in the Matrimonial Times, but there was no mention of a daughter to the suitor involved. So Madelyn’s entire life in Reliance is based on the fiction that she is Rebecca’s sister.

Madelyn is thoroughly unhappy in her new home, and is emotionally wounded by her mother’s deception, so she soon leaves her mother and her new family to work for Miss Rose Werner, the daughter of the town’s founder, a strong and independent figure who stands out in this small conservative town.

Miss Rose is not only an early suffragette, she is also the supplier of black market birth control devices to women in the town. Miss Rose sees Madelyn as someone she can help mold into her vision of a modern woman. But for the most part, Madelyn, whose face is strongly birth marked, simply wants to feel beautiful and loved. She pines for William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.

As the story unfolds, and events in this small town become increasingly fraught, Madelyn learns secrets she could never have previously imagined, and becomes a woman who is ultimately in charge of her own destiny.

There’s a tremendous amount of historical research underpinning this wonderful story, great characters, and quite a bit that will resonate for modern readers (yes, there is an election in the town, which I found interesting to read about in our current election season).

I was very taken by this book, and am looking forward to reading more by this excellent writer. I hope my conversation with Mary Volmer will help listeners discover a new voice in American fiction.

I agree with this reviewer’s sentiments:
“Mary Volmer’s Reliance, Illinois grabbed me from the first page. Staggeringly beautiful prose, a poignant story, the whip smart heroine Maddy who I rooted for all the way. Volmer brings a universal theme of the reliance—all of us who search for it—to be found in ourselves. Do yourself a favor, clear your schedule and drink in Volmer’s radiant Reliance, Illinois.”
—Cara Black, New York Times bestselling author of Murder on the Quai

Mary Volmer’s first novel is Crown of Dust, which takes place during the Gold Rush in California. Her  website is here.Mary-Volmer

A.J. Hartley: Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows

April 4, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

sekret-machines-chasing-shadows-cover_1024x10249781943272150 – To the Stars Media – Hardcover – 704 pages – $24.95 – ebook editions available at lower prices.

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be working with musician Tom DeLonge and the energetic staff of To the Stars Media, helping them develop their book publishing projects. To the Stars is an independent production and publishing company that creates trans-media projects, all done with a tremendous level of creativity and imagination.

To the Stars began its publishing program last year with the wildly successful young adult novel, Poet Anderson: Of Nightmares, co-written by DeLonge and best selling novelist Suzanne Young (The Program series).

The newest project from this team is a thriller called Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows, that reflects Tom DeLonge’s specific interests in UFO’s and secret government programs. Tom is best known as the former leader of Blink-182 and founder of Angels and Airwaves. He is also a serial entrepreneur, film maker and writer, who is an authority on UFO’s and government involvement with them (this Billboard article and interview with Tom is a must-read).

The Sekret Machines project includes some forthcoming nonfiction books as well as this series of novels that is a collaboration between DeLonge and best selling YA and sci fi novelist AJ Hartley. Between them, they have created a thrilling and complex weaving of four stories told from multiple perspectives.

Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows is fiction based on secrets drawn from the the mostly hidden realities of alien contact known to our military and intelligence communities. It’s an exciting and engrossing story, the first in a trilogy that promises excitement and action for anyone interested in great storytelling and compelling characters.

AJ Hartley is a prolific writer of fiction for all ages, as well as being an accomplished Shakespearean scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His novels for kids include the wonderful Darwen Arkwright series, among others, and the YA novel called Steeplejack is coming from Tor this spring.

I have now read several AJ Hartley books, and have concluded that he is one of the best new writers I have come across in a long time. His work is really remarkable, and the collaboration with the effervescent Tom DeLonge has resulted in a really terrific novel. I had the opportunity to speak with AJ about the writing of Sekret Machines and his collaboration with Tom while we were both visiting To the Stars in Encinitas, California in February, 2016. We had a great time talking about this very cool project.sekret-machines-chasing-shadows-digital-bundle_1024x1024


Johanna Skibsrud: Quartet for the End of Time (A Novel)

March 6, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Quartet for the End of Time PBK_9780393351828.indd9780393351828 – W.W. Norton – 480 pages – paperback – ebook versions available at lower prices.

I’ve been interested in Canadian writer Johanna Skibsrud’s work for several years, in fact since interviewing independent publisher Andrew Steves of Gaspereau Press. The small Nova Scotia based press was the original publisher of Skibsrud’s first novel, The Sentimentalists, selected for the prestigious Giller Prize in 2010. It was a major literary event in Canada for such a tiny press to be recognized for publishing a fine novel that ultimately became a commercially successful book.

Skibsrud is a prolific and multi-talented writer. Her short story collection, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories was published in 2011 and shortlisted for Canada’s Danuta Gleed Award. She has also published two books of poetry: Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (2008), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry by a Canadian poet, and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being (2010), which was short-listed for the 2011 Atlantic Poetry Prize.

Skibsrud now teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, returning to Canada with her family every summer. Since I had the good fortune to be visiting Tucson in January, 2016, I interviewed Johanna there about her newest novel, The Quartet for the End of Time.

This book is inspired by and structured to follow Oliver Messiaen’s chamber piece of the same name (Quatuor pour la fin du temps). Messiaen’s piece was composed and first performed in 1941 while he was a prisoner of war in a German prison camp. His beautiful and haunting composition was in turn inspired by a text from the Book of Revelation:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….

Skibsrud’s novel is centered on a single moment of betrayal and how it affects the four characters whose stories are woven together during the period of the Bonus Army march and the 1930s, leading up to and then through the period of World War II.

The novel’s beginning is about Bonus Army marcher and World War I veteran Arthur Sinclair, who is falsely accused of conspiracy and then disappears. The mystery of this event will affect his son, Douglas and also Alden and Sutton Kelly, the children of a U.S. congressman who become connected to Arthur and Douglas while the marchers are camped in Washington, D.C. The book then follows these characters as they live through the period of massive social change that took place during the period leading up to and during World War II.

This novel is thoroughly compelling, beautifully written, complex in form and lyrical in language. I think Johanna has succeeded in her effort to imagine a story of loss and love through the lens of a complicated period of modern history. Tim O’Brien said this about the book, praising “…its intimate and completely compelling portraits of human beings struggling to do the right thing under ambiguous moral circumstances.”

I very much enjoyed talking with Johanna Skibsrud about this book and her work as a writer. She is as intelligent and interesting to talk to as she is to read. This interview was recorded in her office at the University of Arizona. If you want to learn more about this author’s work, I recommend visiting Johanna’s website.

And if you’re interested in the Bonus March, which is a far too little known, and truly disheartening episode of American history, you might also be interested in Georgia Lowe’s novel, The BonusI talked to her about this book and the Bonus March story for Writerscast in 2012.Johanna Skibsrud

Joy Harjo: Crazy Brave – A Memoir

February 8, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, Poetry, WritersCast

crazyBrave_mech2.indd978-0-393-34543-8 – W.W. Norton – paperback – 176 pages – $14.95 (eBook versions available at lower prices)

Joy Harjo has been one of my poet heroes for a really long time. I have been reading her poems for so many years I have lost count. Her writing is inspiring, mystical, deeply human and politically explosive. The perfect word to describe Joy’s work is “unflinching,” which she is with herself and with her commitment to following poetry and spirit wherever it takes her.

Recently I read her very personal memoir of self becoming called Crazy Brave, and was stunned by the language, heart and soul of this book. This is the story of Joy Harjo’s becoming a person, unfolding into poetry, and discovering her true self.

The writing in this book is literally transcendent, as Harjo recounts the her earliest memories and family life.

Here are the basics: Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. Her mother remarried a deeply abusive man, and Harjo was lucky to escape to an Indian arts boarding school and from there went on to get her BA from the University of New Mexico and eventually an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Crazy Brave is about all of this, but it is really the telling of her path into poetry, the words that saved her, the voice that enabled her to become. It’s a beautiful, power-full, magical book I urge you to read as soon as possible. This is a book whose inner song will stay with you for a long time. Joy Harjo once said this about her own work: I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.

It was a heartfelt pleasure for me to speak to Joy Harjo about this book and her work as a writer. If you’ve never read her poetry, you can find some of her work online, including reading her fine poem, She Had Some Horses.

And here, a poem I really love:

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo


Ursula Le Guin: Late in the Day (Poems 2010-2014)

January 16, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, Poetry, WritersCast

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin has had a long and wonderful career as a writer. Her extraordinary work has influenced many other writers, particularly in science fiction, for which she is probably best known, but Ursula has also written extensively about the art and craft of writing, as well as children’s books, and books for young adults. She is also a poet of some note, with four poetry collections published. Altogether she has had published almost fifty books and more than a hundred short stories.

Ursula was born and raised in Berkeley, California, where her parents were the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and the writer Theodora Kroeber, author of the very famous book, Ishi. She went to Radcliffe College and did graduate work at Columbia University. Ursula married Charles A. Le Guin, a historian, in 1953; they have lived in Portland, Oregon since 1958.

Le Guin’s best known fantasy works, the six Books of Earthsea, have sold millions of copies in America and England. Her first major work of science fiction was The Left Hand of Darkness, whose radical investigation of gender roles and literary complexity have made the book a classic and a must read work of literature. Among her books for children, the Catwings series has become extremely popular. She also published a translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, after forty years of working on it and practicing Taoist principles in her life.

Three of Le Guin’s books have been finalists for the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and among her honors are a National Book Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, SFWA’s Grand Master, the PEN/Malamud Award, and in 2014 she was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

While Le Guin is no longer writing fiction, she continues to write poetry, as she has done virtually her entire life. With the appearance of this new collection of poems from 2010-2014, Late in the Day, published by the excellent PM Press, I had the opportunity to speak with her about her writing and her recent writing. In these poems she explores a variety of poetic forms, all of which she easily masters. The poems are most often about relationships, connecting to the natural world, to myth, story, and of course, other humans, always with a careful eye and a deft understanding of the complexity of all things.

And the Afterword on poetic form and free verse is itself a small masterpiece of explication and joy. Ursula Le Guin is truly one of the great writers of our time. It is my great honor to have had the chance to speak with her here for Writerscast. If you are not aware of Ms. Le Guin’s work as a poet, this new collection of sharp and compassionate compressed expression is definitely worth your time to read. We talked about many subjects, including writing, her career, Oregon, the recent occupation at Malheur, a place with which she is very familiar, and of course the poems in this book, one of which she was kind enough to read aloud for us.

There is an excellent interview transcription with Ursula by Choire Sicha in Interview Magazinethe author’s own website is a rich source of material by and about her great body of work.detail_744_le_guin_enlarged


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