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
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.
Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Post*45) – 978-0804784160 – Stanford University Press – Hardcover – $27.95 (ebook versions available at substantially lower prices)
This book has turned out to be one of the most influential on my recent thinking about publishing and how it should work, proving that history can tell us a great deal about both the present and the future. Grove Press was immensely influential in changing American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s, and remains meaningful today, with its massive backlist representing the golden age of the literary avant-garde of that time. Its longtime owner and spiritual leader, Barney Rosset, has been an almost mythic hero to many who got into publishing because of what he accomplished with Evergreen Magazine and Grove Press. How a publisher could become so powerfully influential makes for a terrific and inspiring story.
Grove’s accomplishments and innovations are legion and well documented by Loren Glass in this book. While Counterculture Colophon is written as an academic history, and sometimes Glass falls prey to academic terminology that may put off the non-scholarly readers, I was happy to overlook the academic jargon and focus on the compelling story he tells of Grove and what it has meant for modern publishing.
This heroic and sometimes tragic saga reminds us of what it means to be a passionate and committed publisher. It’s difficult for anyone alive today to believe that up until the 1960s it was illegal to publish and sell literary books that included sexually explicit content. Battles were fought – and finally won at great expense - by Grove Press against the US government and many local jurisdictions over DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William Burroughs’ notorious Naked Lunch. These cases literally led to “the end of obscenity” and created the groundwork that has enabled modern literary publishing to flourish in our time.
Rosset and Grove, together with myriad editors and publishers in Paris, London, San Francisco, and New York, were at the heart of a revolution in publishing, both in content and in form that in many ways inspired and led directly to an equivalent revolution in the overall American culture, that reverberates today. Grove was at the heart of political, cultural and literary ferment in North America, introducing new voices not only from here, but from around the world, to American readers. Rosset more or less invented the trade paperback, and was a leader in introducing trade books to be used as supplemental reading for college courses, of course hitting its stride at the very moment that the Baby Boom generation went to college. The magazine and press brought an emerging set of writers to an emerging generation of readers, inspiring and changing the way millions read and thought about writing, politics, theater and art. Grove Press was as much a cultural institution as it was a publisher.
And, importantly, what this book most strongly highlighted for me is the meaning and power of a publisher’s brand. It is widely accepted that most publishers today have no identity with readers. Grove Press and its house literary journal, the Evergreen Review, were made into powerful and coherent brands that recognized the publisher as enabled it to introduce formerly unknown writers and artists to their audiences. Using graphics, typography and a consistently subversive publishing program, Grove was able to become a recognized brand for readers, the power of which, seemingly very few publishers have understood or been able to duplicate.
Counter Culture Colophon is a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary literature and of course, publishing. Loren Glass was able to interview Rosset and many other principle players in the story of the press. And for many, it will be a truly inspiring tale.
Loren Glass is a Professor of English at the University of Iowa. There is a really nice video of Glass speaking about Rosset and Grove at the Chicago Humanities Festival here. (55 minutes)
Sean Davis grew up in Oregon, joined the Army after high school, went to art school for awhile, had an unsuccessful relationship with an attractive woman, and was working at an unsatisfactory job as a highway worker on September 11, 2001. The next day he walked into the Oregon National Guard recruiting office and re-enlisted, on the working assumption that he would be contributing to the greater good and giving himself a sense of direction and meaning. He had no idea he would soon end up on active duty in Iraq on the front lines of the war trying to figure out how to be a sensitive warrior in a strange country.
Davis is a talented writer and exceptional memoirist with a keen eye for details and a wry sense of humor. In Iraq he lost his best friend in an ambush and was himself critically wounded. He returns home after a lengthy period of recovery to deal with the aftermath of his experiences and suffers through what we now know is so common for the veterans of our seemingly endless recent wars, alcohol and drug dependency and a minimally helpful support system. Somehow, Davis managed to rediscover the interior place where his art comes from and was able to rebuild his life. He now has a family, an advanced degree, is actively an artist and a writer, and has created a nonprofit organization (A Rock or Something Productions: “veterans getting veterans into the arts”) to connect other veterans to the healing power of the arts.
Davis recounts the seeming insanity of daily life in the war zone with humor and clarity, and clearly cares deeply about the civilians he encountered in Iraq as well as the men and women with whom he served. As an example, the wax bullets in the title were what was used in training exercises in Kuwait prior to active deployment – to save money. Evidently it escaped the thinking of military planners that in the plus 100 degree temperature there, the bullets would melt, fouling the soldiers’ guns, wasting time and endangering their lives. This is not the only example of how things go wrong for US soldiers and the Iraqi people in the midst of the war, which Davis describes with a soldier’s sense of black humor.
His description of what happened to him after he returned home is terrifying and powerful. When he does rediscover himself, we are right there with him, joined with his indomitable spirit to become someone better, someone who can be alive and present and fully engaged in the beingness of humanity.
The Wax Bullet War is a beautiful book, incredibly moving and compelling. I’d recommend adding it to the short list of great books about war and specifically about the real experiences of soldiers who fight and then must live their lives in time of peace. Put aside some quiet time to read it and let it sink in. Sean Davis website. Publisher Ooligan Press website.
Sean Davis bio: Sean Davis is an artist, writer, and returning veteran of the Iraq War. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Portland State University and an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. His previous work includes the novel Motivation and Toleration, published under the name Ian Avi, as well as contributions to the Portland Mercury, Nailed Magazine, and Split Infinitive. He has appeared on 60 Minutes and is one of the cofounders of Hubris Press in Portland, where he lives with his wife and daughters.
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.
Lee Gutkind is a long time writer and teacher of writing. He is the author or editor of more than 25 books and is also the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, a literary magazine that publishes narrative nonfiction exclusively. In many ways, he is a central figure in the growing category of creative nonfiction, a category of writing that has become significant only in the past thirty years.
True Crime is a collection, mostly but not all first person narratives of some very scary stuff. I think true crime writing can be much more disturbing than even the scariest fiction stories, mainly because we know these stories are true, and that the suffering we are reading about was experienced by real people. At the same time, what makes these experiences meaningful to us is the writers’ ability to transform direct experience into compelling narrative. They’ve still got to tell a great story or else the experiences they write about, regardless of their factual existence, will not have truly deep or meaningful impact on readers.
While this sometimes painful to read book is not what I usually am drawn to read, since my goal with Writerscast has always been to broaden my reading, with Lee Gutkind’s True Crime, I have certainly succeeded in going beyond my regular literary consumption. This is a powerful collection of narratives, almost all of which really do achieve the status of literary works, by virtue of their success in the transformation of direct experience into story telling. There is some excellent writing here, and stories well worth reading.
If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Girl Fighting, by Laurie Lynn Drummond, a former Louisiana police officer who is now (a very good) writer. Perhaps the most powerful and emotionally wrenching piece for me is Gabrielle Giffords Shooting: A Fatal Chain of Events Unfolds, a retelling that made me cry; perhaps the most painful and thought provoking is Spectacle: The Lynching of Claude Neal, but there are many others that moved me, and there were no stories I did not find interesting to read.
I can recommend this book to anyone interested in contemporary American writing. Don’t mistake this book for journalism, recounting of violent crimes to entertain. This book is about the nature of violence and the varieties of human behavior we experience but sometimes do not understand.
Received a few days after I posted this interview: Open Road Media is pleased to announce the ebook publication of six classic works by Lee Gutkind, hailed by Vanity Fair as “the godfather behind creative nonfiction,” available on March 11, 2014.