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.
I loved reading this book. It has a great sense of humor, it’s complex without being too serious about itself, and a story that grabs you from the beginning and won’t let go. Mary Kay Zuravleff is a terrific writer, original and entertaining. And there’s a lot going on to keep you thinking throughout. Man Alive! tells a great story. Rather then me bending myself into a pretzel to tell you about it without giving away too much, here’s the author’s own short summary (from her terrific website – just like her writing, a busy and interesting place to visit):
The one-paragraph version, no spoilers:
All it takes is a quarter to change Owen Lerner’s life. When lightning strikes the coin he’s feeding into the parking meter, the pediatric psychiatrist survives, except that now he only wants to barbecue. The bolt of lightning that lifts Dr. Lerner into the air sends the entire Lerner clan into free fall, and Man Alive! follows along at that speed, capturing family-on-family pain with devastating humor and a rare generosity. This novel explores how much we are each allowed to change within a family—and without.
I’m late getting this interview posted. I talked to Mary Kay shortly after Man Alive! was published in late 2013. I wish I had known about her work before, but at least now I know I have two more books of hers to read. And I am looking forward to her next book. It’s not often you can have this much fun with a novel. Talking with her about this novel, as well as how she works as writer, was a distinct pleasure, and very entertaining. She is as fun to talk to as it is to read her work. Alice McDermott called her writing “exuberant.” I can’t think of a better word myself.
Mary Kay’s previous novels were The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls. She received the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children. Mary Kay serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.
Tony Vanderwarker had a successful career in advertising before he decided to write fiction. I think advertising is an interesting training ground for a novelist, since in so many ways, advertising is about telling stories that are powerful and compelling and of course get across their emotional content very efficiently. Everyone seems to want to be a writer these days, and I think there are a lot of really good books being written and published by late blooming authors, who had successful careers in one field or another, but who always really wanted to write. And doubtless there are more than a few that are not so great.
Tony Vanderwarker has a great story to tell – not just in his novel, Sleeping Dogs, but in how this book came to be written. And he’s written another book about the writing of Sleeping Dogs called Writing with the Master (Lyons Press). Tony was lucky enough to have met John Grisham, who was a neighbor, when their sons played youth football together. They struck up a friendship, though Tony never talked about his own writing with his world famous author friend, until one day he did, and Grisham offered him the incredible gift of his mentorship and working assistance with the writing of Tony’s novel. Vanderwarker gives full credit to Grisham for teaching him how to be a real novelist, no small feat for anyone.
In Sleeping Dogs, Vanderwarker tells a terrific story based on the fact that there are at least eleven known Cold War era nuclear warheads scattered around the U.S. from various accidents and crashes from the period when America kept a fleet of B-52s constantly aloft to defend against a Soviet attack. In a non-stop action packed story, Howie Collyer, who has been obsessed with danger posed by the lost nuclear weapons, comes across an old B-52 pilot who can verify the location of one of the bombs.
Unbeknownst to Collyer, he is being tracked by a sophisticated terrorist cell whose aim is the locate the bomb and use it for their own gruesome purposes. And he is also being pursued by a secret unit of the Pentagon whose job is to quash any information about the lost nuclear weapons. Collyer gets help along the way from a nursing home nurse and a buddy in the CIA, but his family is at risk and so is he at every turn, after he kidnaps the old pilot to try to uncover the location of the bomb he thinks is closest to and therefore most dangerous to the safety of the U.S. east coast.
It’s one of those books you don’t want to put down, not just because the story is gripping and the twists and turns exciting, but the characters in this book are believable and sympathetic, and it’s easy to root for them to win against all the different bad guys they are faced with.
With a book like this, I prefer to not give away too much of the story when talking to the author, so readers can enjoy the discovery of the story and characters for themselves, and in this case, because Vanderwarker’s backstory is so interesting, it was easy to spend most of our time talking about the writing of the book and how it was for him to work with the well known Grisham. This should be a good conversation for anyone interested in the writing process and what it takes to tell a great story. Tony Vanderwarker is a fine storyteller and writer, Sleeping Dogs a novel I can heartily recommend.
A debut novel set in Boston, Girls I Know has an unusual narrative structure that sometimes feels like a love song to the city of Boston as much as a novel about the protagonist, tortured failed graduate student, Walt Steadman. Walt is a classic nebbish – dropped out of graduate school writing a thesis on an obscure poetic subject, making his living now as a sperm donor and doing odd jobs.
Walt is painfully obsessive – as a way to channel his feelings of failure and indirection. He goes to the same small coffee shop for breakfast almost every day, where he befriends the owners and their daughter, Mercedes. He loves Boston in an obsessive way too. The real story of the novel begins when Walt is survives a terrible shooting at his favorite restaurant which leaves four people dead, including his friends.
Now he is forced to confront himself and in his recovery, try to find the self he has buried in his self indulgent lifestyle. The girls he knows are both complicated – the effervescent Ginger Newton, Harvard undergraduate – another obsessive, but a much more active one, she is writing a book called Girls I Know about women and their jobs and the heartbroken and speechless Mercedes, whose parents are now dead. How he interacts with these two “girls” on his path to self discovery and redemption are what this book is really about.
I liked this book much more than I initially thought I would (coming of age stories are not usually my forte as a reader). Trevor is a very good storyteller, and his characters are all interesting and well drawn. And his Boston comes to life throughout the book. Trevor knows his way around characters and places and his writing is strong. His collection of short fiction, The Thin Tear In The Fabric Of Space, won the Iowa Short Fiction award in 2005. Author website here. Kudos to this independent publisher, Sixoneseven, for doing an excellent production job and a serious effort to market and promote a very good book.
It is wonderful these days to come across a novel with big ambitions. It is even better to come across one that succeeds so brilliantly as The Son, which is only the second novel by Philipp Meyer. His first book, American Rust, was published in 2009.
The Son is rooted in Texas, which gives Meyer the chance to be epic, as the place itself, so large and so much a part of the romantic history of the American West, enables story telling on a grand scale. There are three generations of stories in the novel, told in three separate voices, all of members of the same family, living out the story of European America. It’s a terrific story, complicated and sometimes challenging to keep straight whose voice you are hearing, which period you are in, but I was hooked from the outset of the book and could not put it down. Admittedly, I am a sucker for stories that show American Indians as real people, not as stick figures, and which admit (and celebrate) the complexity of human beings rather than trying to judge them from the perspective of the present.
Meyer is a terrific writer throughout. To be this good so early in his career may put alot of pressure on him going forward. It is difficult for any writer to continually come up with great stories and tell them well. Talking to Meyer here about his work, and about how he came to write The Son, I gained a good deal of respect for this writer and his literary vision. The next book I am reading this summer is American Rust and I am going to be looking forward to Meyer’s next book, which I hope to be reading in the not too distant future. Philipp Meyer is the real deal, a great writer telling stories of America that help is define who we are in this late era of the American Empire.
*Note to listeners – Meyer and I had an unusually long conversation, this interview runs a bit more than 42 minutes, I hope well worth your while to hear all the way through.
Brad Meltzer is an incredibly active writer, author of myriad best sellers in both fiction and nonfiction, creator of television shows, host of History Channel’s excellent show Decoded – which is fun, compelling and full of amazing historical detail. He’s also a comics fan and author of many critically-acclaimed comic books, including a nice run of Green Arrow stories, Identity Crisis and Justice League of America, for which he won the important Eisner Award. Sometimes one wonders if he ever sleeps.
Brad quite evidently has a voracious appetite for history, and especially for the kind of stories in history that fascinate so many of us. And as an unstoppable researcher, he gets into places that most of us simply never have the time or the chutzpah to find. What makes his fiction so compelling is that Meltzer is able to combine his passion for history with great storytelling and a clean, brisk writing style that propels his stories forward. And he does write characters we can relate to and enjoy as well, so there’s another reason to find and read his books.
The Fifth Assassin is a sequel to the earlier, and very successful The Inner Circle,a book I am sorry to say I have not read. That book introduced the Culper Ring, an informal organization founded by George Washington to defend the presidency of the United States. Each of these two books (and the next book, which will complete the trilogy these books have begun) can be read on its own. Being new to the story did not pose any problems for me in reading and enjoying The Fifth Assassin, though I am sure I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the first book first. Many of the characters in the new book were introduced in the first – and of course some of them are killed off in the second book, as there are other secret organizations out there, dedicated to much darker aims the Culper Ring must fight.
It does help that I am familiar with and enjoy the Decoded series (disclosure – I work with History Channel on book projects, one of which is a book based on Decoded that will be published by Workman in Fall 2013). The Fifth Assassin is linked to a number of historical mysteries covered in the Decoded’s two seasons on History. This novel has a pretty complicated plot, the details of which I will leave for readers to discover for themselves. There have been four presidential assassinations before now – Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. What if there was a secret organization whose members were responsible for all of these murders? And what if there was a present day plot to add another president to the list of the dead? And what if the plot is being acted out by mysterious players whose aims are difficult to fathom and therefore difficult to stop?
Beecher White is Meltzer’s hero, and an unlikely one at that. I think he enjoyed creating a sympathetic hero who does not have any special powers other than his knowledge of history and ability to think – and act when needed, which of course any hero must do.
This is a wonderfully fun book which I enjoyed a great deal. Meltzer is incredibly skilled at plot creation and keeping his story moving organically, so we don’t feel manipulated or ever question the motivations or actions of his characters, i.e., we do not feel the hand of the plot maker at work, which is a terrific skill I greatly appreciate in a time when so many storytellers struggle to give their stories the kind of credibility and natural narrative movement that Meltzer seems to find so effortless to accomplish.
I’d recommend reading The Fifth Assassin, and then listening to this discussion about the book. I think it will add to the experience for readers. Brad Meltzer’s website is here and it’s worth a visit. If you get a chance to hear him read from or talk about his work in person, it’s worth the effort to see him. And Decoded, the television show, is in reruns on History’s H2 – if you have not seen them, take a look, there are some fun, thoughtful and compelling episodes. Brad Meltzer is a terrific writer, and great fun to to speak with, it’s a pleasure to have had the opportunity to talk to him about this book.
Francesca Lia Block has been one of my favorite writers for many years. I first discovered her through an early novel called Girl Goddess #9, and her outstanding series of novels under The Weetzie Bat rubric. She’s best known and identified as an author of YA or Young Adult books for girls and young women, but I’ve always thought that was a reductionist labeling that, as with other excellent writers, unfairly tends to limit her readership. Francesca is certainly not limited in her imaginative powers and writing ability, and her work can and should be read by adults who appreciate great storytelling and imaginative, edgy fiction. And if you love Los Angeles, as I do, there is no one better at capturing its modern day heart and soul.
The Elementals is a haunting and powerful novel about a young girl, Ariel Silverman, who is obsessed by the murder of her best friend, Jeni. She goes to Berkeley for college, the same place where Jeni was killed the summer before. While Ariel tries to live the life of a college freshman, she cannot set aside the mystery behind Jeni’s death, and spends much of her time trying to understand what really happened to her friend. She comes into contact with a number of strange and interesting characters. And meanwhile, her mother is wrestling with breast cancer, and Ariel feels like she no longer can rely on her for support. And maybe needs to find her own path anyway.
The book is both myth and mystery, rich in realistic detail and simultaneously an almost fairy tale like storytelling. This is one of my favorite novels of the year.
Francesca grew up and still lives in Los Angeles. She has written novels, short stories, screenplays, and teaches writing. She recently edited an anthology of her students’ fiction called Love Magick, which I am pleased to have published. Visit Francesca’s website for more about her many books.
What a great discovery! This is really about an entire series of novels, not just this first book, The Cold Dish (which is exceptional, by the way). As soon as I started reading this novel, I was hooked, and knew I would be reading and enjoying many more of Craig Johnson’s novels. Out of the seven he has published thus far, I’ve read four this summer, and I would have read more of them if I had not been distracted by a very busy period with lots of intense work. So I am actually looking forward to this fall and winter when I can sit by the proverbial fire and read three more really good books.
As Craig said when we talked, this series of books is driven by his characters, and it’s true enough, everyone in these books is vividly drawn and incredibly alive. That’s what got A&E Television to buy the books to turn into their latest successful television series, a story Craig definitely enjoys telling. Walt Longmire, the Sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, is one of the great modern heroes, full of flaws and the kind of intrepid it’s impossible not to love. And unusually for me, at least, I don’t mind at all the way these books have been adapted for television. A&E wisely kept them character based, and while it is plainly impossible for any video medium to be as imaginatively rich as a great novel, they’ve done a terrific job with Longmire.
Author Johnson is plainly having a great time writing these novels, and well he may. He’s created a cast of characters it’s impossible not to be attracted to. The Cold Dish introduces us to Walt Longmire, a twenty-five year veteran sheriff in the least populated county in Wyoming, his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, and his favorite deputy, Philadelphia-born Victoria Moretti. Longmire is not an altogether happy man, having lost his beloved wife, and now lives alone in what might loosely be called an unfinished house. His daughter is away in law school and he is mostly alone. His peaceful unhappiness is interrupted by the death of Cody Pritchard, a young man who had previously been involved in an ugly incident of rape two years earlier with three other high school boys, all of whom had been given suspended sentences for raping a local Cheyenne girl. He’s shot at long distance by an unusual and historic 45-70 Sharps buffalo rifle. Thus starts an adventure that can only be called gripping and powerful. As one reviewer said: “Longmire faces one of the more volatile and challenging cases in his twenty-four years as sheriff and means to see that revenge, a dish that is best served cold, is never served at all.”
Johnson is a fine literary writer taking on a popular form and making it his own. The Longmire series is the kind of book series readers love, and it’s just as attractive to those who are seeking adventure between book covers. Talking to Craig about his books was a true pleasure for me. Craig lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population 25, where he truly lives the kind of life he writes about.
The book series:
The Cold Dish
Death Without Company
Kindness Goes Unpunished
Another Man’s Moccasins
Hell is Empty
As the Crow Flies
Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s outstanding first novel, Glow, opens in the fall of 1941, in Washington, D.C., and traverses back and forth through time and place to Hopewell County, Georgia in 1836, and then across the century following. We start with Amelia J. McGee, a young woman of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent, an outspoken pamphleteer for the NAACP, whose husband has been hauled off to jail as a draft protester, sending her daughter Ella, alone with her only her dog as company, on a bus home to Georgia. This desperate act, meant to protect her daughter, turns out to be disastrous, as the girl, almost at her destination, is snatched by two drifters and then left for dead.
Ella is rescued and cared for by Willie Mae Cotton, an ancient root doctor and former slave, and her partner, Mary-Mary Freeborn, who live deep in the Takatoka Forest near Ella’s ancestral home. While Ella heals, in a fluid and beautifully told story, we learn the history of her people and those who are caring for her.
Tuccelli is a lovely writer, and her almost magical ability to capture the voices and stories of the diverse characters in this novel is striking. She does not shy away from pain and suffering, but manages to find transcendance and hope for her characters against tremendous odds. The people in this novel are powerfully real, committed to family, to the land, and to the personal histories that make them who they are.
Tuccelli is a fine writer and also a terrific writer to interview. It’s of course impressive and a natural issue to discuss, that she is not from Georgia nor does she share any personal history with the people and place she has made her own in this novel. There are some truly compelling characters in this book that I will never forget. I had a great time talking to her and hope you enjoy our conversation as well. Her excellent website is well worth a visit.
Brilliantly composed as a satire on a broad swatch of contemporary American life, Alex Gilvarry’s From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant will sneak up on you and whack you straight across the face. Even if you see it coming. I loved the writing, which is smart and slick, beautifully evocative, from a writer clearly in love with language and its many powers. For a first novelist, Gilvarry displays considerable writing chops, on top of his comedic skills and ability to skewer so many elements of the popular culture we have so taken for granted.
This book is structured as the unreliable narration of its main character, Boyet (Boy) Hernandez, who is a Filipino fashion designer come to New York to make his way in the world. The first two thirds of the book is his almost hapless story of the road to success (many wild and crazy people and events along the way), where we come to know and care about, but not necessarily love Boy, who is sometimes so self-involved and full of shit, even as he is talented and appealingly immature (I want to say “jejune” but he’s not quite that bad).
But things turn dark, when Boy is arrested and sent to Guantanamo and both privately and publicly humiliated as a suspected terrorist. This is where the author can turn his powerful satiric eye onto the political and cultural state of America at perhaps its worst. There is nothing more frightening than to see a true innocent (naif is the right word here) caught in the web of the modern anti-terror police state. While Boy is eventually freed, and as readers we are relieved, his life can never be the same – his glorious desire-fueled run into the heart of American pop culture has been destroyed, and he must become a new and immensely different person, and this is not necessarily for the better, in his case.
Ultimately, for this author, it feels as if there are two Americas, co-existing, but on different planes of existence. Both are heightened realities, in which most of us seem to live without really understanding what they mean. In many ways, this novel, with its humor, pathos, narrative power, and its ability to pinpoint cultural weaknesses and failures, can do more to help us understand the necessities of political and culture action than any of even the best nonfiction treatises that address the manifold issues of the early 21st century.
But don’t worry about the politics, just read this book for the wonderful novel it is, and draw your own conclusions about what you want to do after you read it. You might just want to listen to this interview then to hear more from Mr. Gilvarry about his book and how work as a writer (and editor – Alex is now the editor of the book review collaborative Tottenville Review, which I recommend you visit). I had a wonderful time talking to this author and hope you will also enjoy the conversation.
Also, visit Alex Gilvarry’s website for more information and news about this book and his work.