Willy Vlautin: The Free (a novel)

November 3, 2014 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

18090125The Free (a novel) – 978-0062276742 – Harper Perennial – paperback – $14.99 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

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.Vlautinrichmond-fontaine_23-280x186
Alert: we had a good time talking, so this discussion runs slightly longer than usual Writerscast podcasts, almost 35 minutes. Enjoy!

Mark Chiusano: Marine Park (Stories)

October 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

9780143124603Marine Park: Stories – 978-0143124603 – paperback original – Penguin Books – $15.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices

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 Carlson38cbf333096e0a8c0b12c1.L._V336809534_SY470_

Anna Godbersen: The Blonde (a novel)

September 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

9781602862227The Blonde – a novel – 978-1602862814 – paperback – Weinstein Books – $16 -  ebook editions available

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.anna-godbersen

Jessica Anya Blau: The Wonder Bread Summer, a novel

August 17, 2014 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

WonderBreadSummerThe Wonder Bread Summer: A Novel – 978-0062199553 – Harper Perennial – paperback – $14.99 (lower cost ebook versions available)

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.

Author website here. And another good interview (from 2011) with Jessica here.

Screen-shot-2011-10-03-at-8.50.22-PMThanks to John Cheary of John Marshall Media for use of their studio, and to Nathan Rosborough for sound engineering and editing.

David Wilk talks with Andrew Lipstein about 0s and 1s

static.squarespace.comPublishing 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.  This new interview reflects my interest in the history of independent literary publishing, an area in which I have been active for a long time. And this particular conversation reflects some longstanding personal relationships as well.

Andrew Lipstein is one of the new wave of writers interested in changing the way books are published, distributed and read. When I first read about his new venture 0s and 1s, I was immediately interested (that’s “zeroes and ones” – I misread it initially as “os and 1s” and you will hear that in my interview with Andrew). 0s and 1s is a curation project, offering ebooks for download at very attractive prices selected from a limited number of like-minded independent publishers. It is diametrically opposed to the way we have been trained to think about ebook retailing, where for the most part, readers are tied to the ecosystems created by the platform owners.

For example, if you are a Kindle reader, you buy all your ebooks from Amazon, for example, and whether you know it or not, or care or not, your choices of what to read, or what to think about reading, are highly contextualized. Online ebook stores have incredible limitations, and ironically, the huge breadth of titles potentially available to readers ultimately mean a hegemonically limited selection of reading possibilities.

As Andrew states on the 0s and 1s site: “The selling of digital books has become an oligopoly, with only a few important players—& a lot of power. The world of e-reading shouldn’t be proprietary to any one brand, reader, or (set of) publishers. Selling a digital book is as simple as transmitting a series of zeroes & ones, & there’s never been a better time to take advantage of that fact.”

Personally, I think it’s an opportune moment for publishers and writers to start experimenting with alternative models of engaging with readers. Andrew and the publishers and authors he is promoting here deserve credit and support for taking a necessary step toward demonstrating how we might imagine alternatives to big box retail book selling and a better way to promote a culturally diverse and meaningful reading culture. 0s and 1s is aware of the need to explain to readers what it’s doing by selling all its ebooks at $6 each and has a very clear explanation of why this is good for authors on its website.

Andrew Lipstein is a writer too, and also curates a really interesting micro-publishing site, well worth a visit, called Thickjam.andrew_2

In many ways this project reminds me of some of the experiments in independent book distribution and marketing from the seventies (many supported by what was then called CCLM, the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines – now called CLMP -  with a grant from the Ford Foundation). Some of those projects were highly influential and in various forms lasted for a number of years. I hope we can say the same about 0s and 1s in the future.

If you’re interested in the history of CCLM and CLMP and the organization’s key role in supporting independent magazine and book publishers, there is a nice bit of history here.  The Publishing Talks interview with CLMP’s current dynamic director Jeffrey Lependorf is here.  You can find links to publishers participating in the 0s and 1s project here. One of the several distribution projects funded by CCLM and the Ford Foundation was Truck Distribution Service, started in St. Paul, MN, by yours truly, which later became the very successful small press wholesaler, Bookslinger, and another was the still flourishing Writers and Books, founded in Rochester, NY, by Joe Flaherty.

Thanks to John Marshall Media and engineer Nathan Rosborough for this recording.

Mary Kay Zuravleff: Man Alive!

May 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Man_Alive_6_Layout_1-330-expMan Alive! (a novel) – 978-0374202316 – Hardcover – Farrar, Straus & Giroux -  $25.00 – eBook versions available (and paperback to be published October, 2014)

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.mkz_MA_standing_crop-330

Tony Vanderwarker: Sleeping Dogs – a Novel

April 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

sleepingdogs4-217x300Sleeping Dogs: A Novel – 978-1940857039 – Paperback – AuthorPress Publishing – $16.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

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.Grishamtony-vanderwarker

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews DeWitt Henry of Ploughshares

February 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

Ploughshares_(magazine)_Spring_1998_coverPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and other smart people 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, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics.

Recently, the series has been expanding to include conversations about a wider range of subjects beyond my initial interest in 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 past, present and future 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.  This week’s interview reflects my interest in comic art, illustrated story telling and new technology as a platform for expanding story telling in interesting and challenging ways.

Ploughshares is one of the great literary magazines of the last fifty years. Founded in 1971 in Boston by writer, teacher and scholar DeWitt Henry and writer and bar owner Peter O’Malley, it has gone on brilliantly from very humble beginnings to publish an extraordinary range of writing. Founded in a bar called the Plough and the Stars in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ploughshares to give the young and upcoming writers of its time a voice and a platform, the magazine  has been a literal breeding ground for great writers of fiction, poetry and nonfiction as well.

One of its innovations was to invite writers to guest edit individual issues. The list of editors is pretty incredible, including Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Rita Dove, James Alan McPherson, Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, Raymond Carver, Rosellen Brown, Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, Marilyn Hacker, Mark Doty, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, and many others. Ploughshares editors have received almost every award given in American writing. Throughout its now celebrated history, Ploughshares has managed to maintain a high level of excellence in writing and has avoided being trapped by the narrowness of a particular school or narrow vision of what American writing can be. It has consistently nurtured new talent, and continues today to bring attention to new writers. And lately, Ploughshares has broadened the definition of what a literary magazine can be with an innovative series of ebooks called Ploughshares Solos.

Interviewing DeWitt Henry about the history of the magazine, bis work as editor and writer, and the current and future of Ploughshares was a great pleasure for me. Having been involved in literary publishing and distribution myself, I know how incredibly difficult it is to sustain both the artistic and structural vision in this kind of publishing. Ploughshares truly represents an extraordinary accomplishment for those who have worked on it, published in it, and of course read the magazine during the many years of its existence.

There’s an excellent history of the magazine on it website. And you might want to visit DeWitt Henry’s own website to learn more about him as well. He is am accomplished and interesting writer too. Alert to listeners, as this is part of an effort to document the oral history of literary publishing, this is a longer than usual podcast – but worth your time to listen.dhcropped-330outside_passage_160

Douglas Trevor: Girls I Know (A Novel)

October 2, 2013 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

9780983150534978-0983150534 – Sixoneseven Books – paperback -  May 1, 2013 – $15.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

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.Trevor image  Kudos to this independent publisher, Sixoneseven, for doing an excellent production job and a serious effort to market and promote a very good book.

Philipp Meyer: The Son

July 14, 2013 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Son_Cover_Low_res-210978-0062120397 – Ecco Press – Hardcover – $27.99 (ebook editions available at lower prices)

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.  052313lunchmeyer_512x288

*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.

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