Brando Skyhorse’s spectacular debut is a novel created from a series of interlocking stories, all of which take place in the mostly Mexican Echo Park neighborhood of East Los Angeles. Like the rest of Southern California, Echo Park is in a constant state of flux, being invented and reinvented constantly as new populations arrive and are absorbed into the diverse culture of the city.
The opening line of the book sets the stage: “We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.”
Each of the stories here focuses on the story of one character, and as the stories unfold, we realize that all of the characters we are meeting are entwined with each others lives, and particularly with the central tragedy that gives the book its name, the shooting of a three year old girl during a weekly afternoon Madonna dance party hosted by a group of local moms and their young daughters.
It took me some effort to keep track of all the characters and how they are related (it probably would have helped to have had a family tree), but all of them are so brilliantly written, I ended up caring about them enough not to worry too much about the details of their relationships. Every one of the characters in this novel experiences pain and loss and redemption. Each is in one way or another transcendent. Brando’s love for all of them, and for the community they live in and which lives in them, is palpable.
It’s no accident that this book has so much to say about identity, and how individuals make their own, both because of and in opposition to their surroundings. The author, Brando Skyhorse, grew up with five different stepfathers. He grew up most of his life believing he was Native American and only learned he was Mexican as an adult. Born and raised in Echo Park, Brando graduated from Stanford University and from the MFA Writers’ Workshop program at the University of California, Irvine. For ten years, and until recently, he worked as an editor in New York publishing.
In our conversation, we covered a wide number of issues, the background and basis for this novel, how it evolved over the years he wrote it, and much about the characters and locale of the book. We talked about identity, and what it means for fiction, for this author.
I really liked this book and recommend it highly to anyone who who likes modern fiction. And I am not alone – in March, 2011, Brando received the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award for a distinguished first book of fiction. I’m looking forward to reading many more of his books.
Visit the author’s website for more information, appearance schedule, etc.
Summer Brenner is an economical and elegant writer whose fiction I have become very attached to (I read her noir novel, I-5, which I think is a terrific book, and interviewed her for Writerscast in December, 2009. Her latest book, published by the very fine Southern California based independent literary press, Red Hen, is a collection of stories called My Life in Clothes. It may as well be considered a novel, as the stories are interlocked and related enough to make one, marked by Ms. Brenner’s characteristically beautiful writing throughout.
That she was a poet first is evident in the carefulness and precision of her language; she writes a gorgeous and transparent prose that is warm and fluid and easy to inhabit. The Economist gave My Life in Clothes a terrific review, and called this book “a fierce and funny slip of a thing,” and while I love the allusion to clothes in that comment, I think this book is much more than a “slip.” Brenner loves her characters and tells their stories effortlessly. It’s the retelling and and reimagining of her own life after all. Clothes are the reference point throughout.
The story begins with Moshe Auerbach, a Lithuanian refugee who comes to America, then follows his family line to Atlanta and then the protagonist and her friends and lovers in California from the sixties onward. Along the way we meet Marguerite, the protagonist’s mother, whose fixation on clothing and appearances is a key element of the book and her cousin Peggy, whose own interest in clothes and what they mean for self image is profoundly meaningful for her in every respect.
Brenner’s writing shines. She’s funny, poignant and sharp. Here’s just one of the many great turns of phrase she manages in this book: “Peter and I used to sit for hours with rod and bait, our legs dangling over the pier, sipping beer, waiting for something to happen,” she begins one story. “Most of the time, nothing did. But that didn’t matter. We were looking for an excuse to do nothing and preferred if it had a name. Fishing is the best apology ever invented.” There are many more – I highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates wonderful writing, and stories well told.
Brenner is a prolific and diverse writer. She has published a dozen books of poetry, fiction, and novels for children. Another recent title is Richmond Tales, Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle, a novel for youth, which received a 2010 Richmond Historic Preservation award. Gallimard’s “la serie noire” published another of Brenner’s crime novels, Presque nulle part which PM Press will release by its English title, Nearly Nowhere, in 2012.
In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking 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. We must wonder now, 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 can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.
These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.
Dzanc Books is an amazing collaboration of a number of relatively young writers, editors and literary activists. Founded only a few years ago (2006), it has now brought under its very broad umbrella, a large number of really interesting literary groups and activities, taking advantage of its nonprofit status to raise money for its work. Here’s a brief description of all the projects they are involved with now (taken from the Dzanc website):
• Publishes innovative and award-winning literary fiction, including short story collections and novels.
• Supports several editorially-independent imprints and literary journals, including Black Lawrence Press, OV Books, Keyhole Press, Starcherone, Monkeybicycle, and Absinthe: New European Writing
• Publishes The Collagist, a monthly online literary journal launched in August 2009
• Recognizes the best stories, poems, and non-fiction published online each year through the Best of the Web anthology series, now in its third year
• Provides low-cost writing instruction to beginning and emerging writers by connecting them with accomplished writers through the innovative Dzanc Creative Writing Sessions
• Funds the Dzanc Writers-in-Residence Program, which places published authors in public schools to teach creative writing to elementary and secondary students
• Conducts the yearly Dzanc Prize, which recognizes a single writer for both literary excellence and community service, as well as an annual short story collection competition
• Offers the Disquiet International Literary Program, a writing conference held in Lisbon, Portugal
• Creates internship opportunities for students looking to gain valuable experience in independent publishing
Dzanc has been on my radar for a while, and I subscribed to their really interesting e-book club, which is not only a cool idea for an independent press to undertake, but is also a great way for readers to easily find some new writers to read and enjoy. This particular project represents some great new thinking about ways that digital technology can create new opportunities for publishers to interact with readers. But Dzanc’s nonprofit model, and ability to foster new projects across a broad range of literary activities, and to almost amoeba-like, absorb new energy and ideas into its structure is a powerful organizational model that may offer hopeful lessons for literary writing across the country. Another corollary may be McSweeney’s, which has a similar umbrella approach to innovative and energetic literary projects.
I talked to Matt Bell, who is not only Editor for Dzanc Books, The Collagist and of Dzanc’s Best of the Web anthology series, but is himself a very interesting writer, author of How They Were Found, and three chapbooks and a number of magazines and anthologies. His book reviews and critical essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Book Review, and The Quarterly Conversation. We discussed the plethora of Dzanc activities, their overall business model, and in particular their digital publishing program, all of which I think is valuable for anyone thinking about how publishing and writing are evolving into a new and vibrant future.
I have read a number of truly fine books over the past couple of years, most of which I have talked about on Writerscast. It’s important to me that I’ve only been writing and talking about books I really liked. A few of these wonderful books have just bowled me over, and Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale is one of those. It’s a tightly woven story and powerfully interior, paradoxically, as it is set in a variety of geographic locales (all familiar to the author and therefore quite beautifully described).
Reading this book, I found myself propelled by the force of the story, and enthralled with the main character Cassandra Brooks, a single mother of two boys, daughter of a professional dowser, who is blessed and cursed by visions (Cassandra in Greek mythology had the gift of prophecy) and conflicted about her own ability to find water underground (the last name Brooks is no accident either).
The book opens with a chilling and frightening event – Cassandra is walking the woods for a client and comes across a hanged girl, who is to her, not an apparition. But when she brings the local sheriff to the scene (he is a former love interest – it’s a typical small town in upstate New York where everyone knows everyone), there is no sign of the hanged girl. But they find another girl, and that launches the story’s trajectory which ultimately forces Cassandra to confront long buried secrets in her past and some very real and dangerous possibilities for her in the present.
While the story is set in upstate New York, near the Delaware River, a significant part of the book takes place in the beautifully drawn islands of Maine near Mt. Desert – more water, more mystery, more danger for Cassandra and the reader.
Morrow is a terrific writer, and has written a number of very fine novels, but this one may well be his best book thus far. The Diviner’s Tale is a bit of a mash up, taking elements of mysteries, thrillers, and even supernatural novels, merging them into a dark melange that stands alone as an original work of modernist fiction. I liked what Joyce Carol Oates said about it – “luminous and magical…a feat of prose divination.” Well put indeed.
This book is a great pleasure to discover.
And talking to Brad was a pleasure as well. He knows himself, his work, and what it means. He talks fluently about this book, and the story of how the novel was born is definitely worth hearing. I hope you will enjoy our conversation as thoroughly as I did.
The author’s website is worth a visit too – you get a chance to read some of his stories and find out more about his many projects (I knew Brad first as the editor of the extraordinary and long lasting literary magazine Conjunctions, now up to issue #55, and which has managed to retain its sense of discovery over many years and many different literary styles and genres).
Lou Aronica’s Blue is an unusual novel, combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, romance and serious fiction, to create a moving story that focuses on the relationship between a daughter and her father in a terrifically moving and affecting way. Lou is an experienced and skillful writer who deftly manages to tell a story that is full of sadness and emotion and manages to avoid the deeply sentimental that might otherwise overtake the reader. Which is not to say it is not a story that will affect the reader – and some may find it difficult going, to say the least.
Reviewers and interviewers must always be careful in describing any novel’s storyline, to avoid ruining the book for prospective readers. For those who don’t want to know too much, let’s just say that Blue takes on family relationships in the face of grave illness in a beautifully imagined way. There is plenty of sadness in this novel, but Aronica succeeds in the true storyteller’s art, the transformation within a story to something greater than the experience itself.
The book is set in a contemporary suburban Connecticut much like the one the author actually lives in, so the characters and settings are all familiar and well told. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Chris Astor and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Becky, and her mother, from whom Chris is now divorced. Facing the greatest challenge of their lives, they must all learn to trust each other, and ultimately to believe in imagination and its transformational power, in order to come to terms with what is happening to them.
Blue is a remarkable and uplifting novel. I think Lou Aronica has succeeded in his goal for this book (from his website): “I wanted to write a novel that conveyed my feelings about the incomparable value of imagination and hope. Blue puts its characters through the wringer, but it is at its heart an extremely optimistic novel.”
Full disclosure: I am happy to say that Lou is someone whose friendship I value. I do want to say, also, that even if I just like a book and don’t love it, I’m unlikely to want to write about it and certainly won’t want to talk about it with the author. I feel my responsibility as an interviewer requires that I really get into a book in order to be able to ask meaningful questions about it and talk about it intelligently. I don’t love every book I read, but I truly do deeply enjoy and admire every book I write about here and talk about with their authors. For me, there is no question that Blue is a terrific book and my conversation with Lou reflects that assessment. This is a book I am happy to recommend to readers, and I think it will be especially moving to anyone who is the parent of children of any age.
The Child Thief by well known illustrator and writer Brom is an absolutely stunning book. It is the Peter Pan story retold in a brilliantly imagined fashion that is completely captivating. So, yes, I did love reading this book. It is immersive, scary, and dark, but it is also wildly creative, and mashes up some of our most powerful mythological story lines to create its own narrative drive and a world inside, aside, and connected to our own that is fantastic (literally) and wonderfully psychological, and even political.
I really do not want to tell too much about the world that Brom has created, its characters or the story line as it is so much fun to discover it on one’s own. The genesis for the story was Brom’s discovery of a line in James Barrie’s original Peter Pan he found frightening but crucial, where Barrie mentions that Peter Pan would “thin out” the Lost Boys when the island population got too big. This single statement sheds a very dark light on the entire construct of the mythology of Neverland. And as he says about the character of Peter Pan himself, who kidnaps children and kills pirates (among others) – he is not really such a nice character as we imagine him now: “And more chilling is Peter’s ability to do all these things—the kidnapping, the murder—all without a trace of conscience: “I forget them after I kill them,” he (Peter) replied carelessly.”
In The Child Thief, Peter is indeed a boy who will never grow up, but his existence is oh so much more complicated than the movie and stage versions we know. Peter travels to modern day New York City to find new members for his tribe, who fight real battles in a Neverland that is now a part of Avalon and includes a great deal of real danger – even just to get there requires a frightening and challenging journey (a true rite of passage for the lost adolescents Peter has convinced to join him).
Brom’s Avalon is going through a very difficult time and there are many painful moments in this book. Death and suffering are everywhere here – this is not a book for the faint of heart or those looking for escapist fiction. By conjoining the world of Avalon to our own, and especially to the painful and bloody history of the conquering of the North American continent by European soldiers and settlers, the author has brought us face to face with the darkest elements of the modern industrial society to which we have evolved. Even at the end he avoids the easy and satisfying resolution of his story that many readers may be seeking. It’s not entirely a dark ending, but neither is it thoroughly uplifting. Personally, I loved the ambiguity throughout the book.
Brom is indeed a terrific artist – there is a section of his beautiful, evocative and sometimes chilling illustrations of all the characters in the middle of the book that is truly compelling. You can see more of his work at his website.
It was a pleasure to have a chance to speak with Brom about his work and specifically about this book. It’s so richly imagined and has so many layers, it’s easy to talk about. Brom is a wonderful story teller with a great deal to say. This is a compelling book for anyone who loves to get lost in a fully imagined alternate universe – and this one happens to be very familiar and therefore powerful, as it shatters all of our expectations so beautifully.
The Witch of Hebron: a World Made by Hand novel - 978-0802119612 – hardcover – Atlantic Monthly Press – $24.00 (e-book edition available)
This is an unusual podcast for me as it covers two books, World Made by Hand and the next in what looks to be at least a trilogy for author Kunstler, The Witch of Hebron. I had heard of, but never read any of Jim Kunstler’s books before these two, which I read much the way I read science fiction and fantasy novels when I was young, voraciously, entering and imaginatively inhabiting the world the author has created, joyfully, and always wanting more.
These two books are set in a fictional town in a real region of upstate New York, near the Hudson River, several hours north of Albany, in a period that Kunstler has dubbed The Long Emergency. That is the title of his most recent and best-selling work of nonfiction, a book I subsequently read and now believe is one of the most important books of our time.
In The Long Emergency, Kunstler describes why our current civilization is inevitably going to collapse. This is by no means a joyful prediction, but as his novels illustrate, the world ahead as we might imagine it, is not completely grim or devoid of joy and earthly human pleasure either. It is a post-fossil fuel world, and therefore much, much larger – humans do not travel thousands of miles in a day any longer. Governments have, for the most part, collapsed along with the great powerful corporations that have come to dominate our landscape. There is effectively no interstate commerce. Agriculture based on human and animal power is the dominant feature of daily life for most people.
There is a rise in human suffering, but a massive decline in human population, and during the period in which these novels are set, relatively soon after the collapse of modern civilization, there is a great deal of rediscovery of the tools and methods on which human life was built over the many centuries preceding the 21st. There are still many who remember how things were, and their beings are marked by what they knew, and lost, and now, as they are relearning how to live, by rediscovery of a different set of values. The younger generations know nothing directly of the world we now take for granted. Their lives have always been slower than ours, more physically challenging, and much more about adaptation to one’s direct physical environment. In addition to the daily necessities, it is personal relationships, family, community and local culture that this world revolves around. It is a world made by hand, and sometimes much rougher and more painful for being so, but there is a palpable sense of redemption and concern for what is good and right that underlies the world that Kunstler has imagined, that gives meaning to the struggles his characters must face throughout these two books.
Kunstler is a terrific writer and storyteller. These are fully imagined characters living in a plausible future. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, and since it won’t be published for some time, I have been reading Kunstler’s older novels (most of which are sadly, out of print). When we talked, I had not read The Long Emergency, so our conversation is focused solely on the two novels which followed it. I’d recommend to anyone who has not read these books to start with the fiction as I did, and then go back to the nonfiction. It’s important for us to have an understanding of where we are headed, and I think it helps us to face the difficulties ahead if we can imagine ourselves into a better place, just as Jim Kunstler has done with A World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron.
Do visit Jim’s website, which continuously presents valuable information about where we are and what we can do about it. Make sure you take a side trip to the mini-site for these novels, which is a beautifully put together experience in and of itself. A great author biography here. We had a fantastic wide-ranging conversation about the novels, the world they are set in, and how these characters and their stories illustrate the future Kunstler has so beautifully imagined and portrayed.
Writerscast is proud to present the fourth in a series of authors reading from their work, called AuthorsVoices. I hope you will agree that hearing these works read aloud by the original authors adds to your experience of the writing.
I definitely enjoyed reading this novel quite a bit. Corinne Demas is a very fine writer. I think the word that comes to mind for me is “deft.” There are a number of characters here, all of whom are important, and the way the story is told reminded me of an ever tightening spiral, as we start from the seeming mundane outside and move ever closer into the lives of these people around a series of events that provides the structure of the book. This is a very well put together novel.
Corinne Demas is a talented and accomplished writer – she’s written adult novels, short stories, children’s picture books and chapter books, a play and she writes poetry as well. In addition, she teaches full time at Mt. Holyoke.
This selection from The Writing Circle should give listeners a good sense of the writing of a book I’ve been enthusiastic about recommending to readers. My recent interview with Corinne is here at Writerscast. And Corinne’s own website will tell you much more about her and her excellent body of work.
I can’t say enough good things about Jaimy Gordon’s writing, up to and including Lord of Misrule, this year’s winner of the National Book Award. Although she has been writing for the past 40 years, producing five wonderful, interesting novels and a number of smaller works during that time, for the most part Jaimy’s audience has been small. Perhaps this is fitting for someone whose work does not easily fit the standard categories of commercial fiction, as the structure of the publishing and bookselling machinery has not provided much room for many writers and books outside the mainstream for quite some time.
That said, Jaimy Gordon is simply a terrific writer and Lord of Misrule may well be her best book yet. It’s set in a mythical down-and-out racetrack Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia. There are five main characters, all from disparate and desultory backgrounds, but all connected by their wishes, dreams and aspirations, which drive them and the novel forward. And the book is constructed of four sections, each named for a particular horse in a particular race. The story unfolds almost magically, and it’s one of those books that is literally impossible to put down. I was hooked early on and loved the ride the author took me on, peopled by wonderful down and out Runyonesque characters who speak amazing dialogue in the voices of Appalachian region horse people, and of course beautiful horses throughout.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the book that gets across a bit of the style of the book (and you can download a PDF excerpt of the novel at the publisher website here):
“They were all looking for a van like a Chinese jewel box, like no horse van that had ever been seen on a backside, something red and black and glossy, with gold letters, LORD OF MISRULE, arched across each side. All the same when a plain truck with Nebraska plates rolled in . . . they knew who it was. They were watching, though the van was unmarked and dirty white, one of those big box trailers with rusty quilting like an old mattress pad you’ve given to the dog. The van bounced and groaned on its springs along the backside fence, headed for the stallman’s office. Red dust boiled around it. They blinked as it dragged two wheels through the puddle that never dried, the puddle that had no bottom. . . . They peered through the vents when the van went by and saw the horse’s head, calm, black and poisonous of mien as a slag pile in a coal yard . . .
The van stopped, woof, down comes the ramp and a kid, unhealthy-looking like all racetrack kids, worm white, skull bones poking out of his skinny head, stood at the top of the ramp with a small black horse that couldn’t even stand right: Lord of Misrule . . . rocked on the flat floor of the van like a table with one short leg. And those legs – they were so swelled out from long-ago bowed tendons on both sides that they were one straight line from knee to ankle, drainpipes without contour. ”
I’ve been reading (and admiring) Jaimy’s work for a long time, since her first published work Shamp of the City-Solo was thrust into my hands by her publisher Bruce McPherson probably in 1975. It’s a thrill to see her work recognized more widely and gratifying to know that this excellent writer will now always have a much larger audience for her writing. She and this new book are getting great coverage in all sorts of media. Here’s an excellent profile of Jaimy by Chip McGrath in the New York Times: Writer Races to Victory From Way Off the Pace. There have been many others, many of which have focused more on the storyline of “obscure writer finds sudden fame” than on her book and writing career.
I wanted to spend a good amount of time talking in detail with Jaimy specifically about this book, Lord of Misrule, along with something of the story of how this book came to be published (it’s a good story, reflecting much about the nature of independent publishing and serious fiction – discussed in more detail in my companion interview with publisher Bruce McPherson).
Luna Park is an outstanding first graphic novel by historian and novelist Kevin Baker. Baker is certainly well-known for his best selling New York City based trilogy of historical novels (Paradise Alley, Dreamland and Strivers Row). And recently he was the consultant for the History Channel’s extremely fine mini-series, America: The Story of Us, as well as being the author of its companion book.
Luna Park is centered on a former Russian soldier, Alik, who fought in Chechniya now living in Coney Island, working as the enforcer for a small time Russian mobster. He is addicted to heroin, and haunted by his memories of the horrors of the war and his own part in it. He desperately loves the prostitute Marina, whose daughter is held captive by the mob boss as a way to keep her under his control.
Alik comes up with a desperate plan he has convinced himself will save Marina, her daughter and himself. It’s at this point that the story takes a turn, as Alik discovers he is destined to repeat his past lives repeatedly, including a few pasts the present Alik does not know he had. There are flashes from present- day run down Coney Island to the Russia of 10 years ago during the Second Chechen War to an earlier time period in Coney Island, when the area was at its peak as an amusement park that really was amazing to behold.
Baker keeps us traveling with him throughout, even though the story is complex, the pain palpable and the suffering of the characters in their struggles seems to never let up. The work of the artist Danilej Zezelj is perfectly suited for this story. His art is dark, powerful and energetic, and adds tremendously to the strength of the story. DC Comics deserves praise putting Baker and Zezelj together, it’s a terrific collaboration.
Kevin Baker and I talked at length about this, his first graphic novel, both in the context of his work as a fiction writer and historian, and of course his deep interest in the City of New York, especially its seamier areas like Coney Island, as well as how writing a graphic novel in collaboration with an artist is different from other types of writing. we were able to range widely about a number of other subjects, making this conversation one I hope listeners will particularly enjoy.