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.

Brad Meltzer: The Fifth Assassin

April 22, 2013 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Fifth_assassin978-0446553971 – Grand Central Publishing – Hardcover – $27.99 (ebook versions available at lower prices, paperback edition due out in August 2013).

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.Brad_Meltzer

James Howard Kunstler Reading from an Unpublished Novel

March 20, 2013 by  
Filed under AuthorsVoices

225px-Jim_w_mustacheGenetically and biologically, we humans must still be heavily pre-literate, so the oral transmission of ideas, art and culture is powerful for us; we listen and concentrate on the words differently than we are used to doing when we consume written texts.  I have always enjoyed hearing writers read their work.  The author’s voice carries intonation and meaning that adds to the impact of the work and makes me feel closer to the writing.

So it’s a great pleasure to feature one of my favorite writers, James Howard Kunstler, in the AuthorsVoices series here at Writerscast.  Kunstler is the author of a long list of really interesting books.  He started out as a novelist, publishing novels on a variety of topics and settings through the nineties, when he switched to publishing nonfiction books about social and geographical issues, focusing on the suburbanization of America for the most part.  The in 2005, Grove Atlantic published his The Long Emergency, a brilliant and troubling book about climate change and the ”converging catastrophes of the 21st Century.”

In February, 2011, I interviewed Jim about the post-apocalyptic World Made by Hand series of novels that are his imaginings of what life will be like in the world after the collapse he predicted in The Long Emergency.  At that time, he had written and published two books in the series, World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron.  That interview can be found here. The third book in the series is still in progress, and it is from that novel that Jim is reading in this recording.

Kunstler’s excellent and active website is here.  He blogs weekly and always has something interesting to say.  You can read about his newest book, Too Much Magic, here; this book tells us how and why the long emergency is already upon us.  The world in the novels he imagines may get here sooner than we think.TooMuchMagicJacket72dpi

Francesca Lia Block: The Elementals

November 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1250005496 – St. Martin’s Press – Hardcover – $24.99 (ebook versions available at $11.99)

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.

In our lively and interesting conversation about The Elementals, we were very careful not to give away any of the critical story line of the novel that would spoil it for readers.  Enjoy….

Craig Johnson: The Cold Dish (The Walt Longmire Series)

August 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0143123170 – Penguin Books – Paperback – $15.00 – ebook editions available

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.

Author website here.  A&E Longmire site here.

The book series:

The Cold Dish

Death Without Company

Kindness Goes Unpunished

Another Man’s Moccasins

The Dark Horse

Junkyard Dogs

Hell is Empty

As the Crow Flies

Jessica Maria Tuccelli: Glow (a novel)

May 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0670023318 – Viking – Hardcover – $25.95 (ebook versions available)

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.

Alex Gilvarry: From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant

March 27, 2012 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0670023196 – Viking – Hardcover – $26.95 (ebook and audio book versions available)

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.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Lou Aronica of Fiction Studio Books

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I talk to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  How will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us better understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing, books and reading culture, and how we can ourselves both understand and influence the future of books and reading.

Lou Aronica is a long-time editor and publisher who left commercial publishing some years ago and then built a new career as a writer.  In fact, I interviewed him in 2011 about his excellent fantasy sci-fi novel, Blue.  Lou has been very successful as a writer and freelance editor.  But over the past couple of years, Lou has continued exploring his publishing interests, most recently by founding a digital-first publishing imprint called Fiction Studio Books.

(I do recommend visiting his site and reading what he has to say about publishing in general and what Fiction Studio is all about).

Fiction Studio offers a different and in many ways unique model for writers.  Lou is bringing to bear the most important traditional values of publishing – editorial and author development – that so many publishers today are no longer able or willing to provide in commercial publishing.  By concentrating on quality and eliminating the overhead costs of print publishing, he has been able to begin to sketch out a workable structure for digital publishing of mainstream fiction that may be a useful model for the future, where the publisher provides real value and services that make sense for authors and readers.  Lou calls this a “publishing culture” that benefits the books and the writers he publishes.

Importantly, Fiction Studio is selling a significant number of books, enough to make it a profitable business and not just an experiment in digital publishing.  In its first year of existence, the imprint issued 14 titles.

Lou and I have often talked informally about the book business and the future.  Typically I have learned alot from him and his experiences, past and present and always enjoy our talks.  I think what he is doing now with this publishing program is tremendously important and should be inspirational to both publishers and authors.

Our conversation here covers a wide range of ideas and concepts drawn from his experience and reflecting his expansive vision of what a born-digital publishing company can and should look like.  We talked about trends in digital publishing, how the role of the publisher is changing, the importance of editing and developing writers in the new digital marketplace, what makes a publisher meaningful and valuable to authors and to writers, ebook pricing models, and  much, much more in this very wide-ranging conversation.  To learn more, go to the website and read his essay about why he is publishing and the very active and interesting blog written by Fiction Studio authors as well.

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