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.

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….

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