I’ve been a subscriber to Jesse Kornbluth’s excellent newsletter, HeadButler, for awhile now, and have very much enjoyed his approach to books, music and art (politics and culture too). In many ways, he represents to me the quintessential New York intellectual: smart, well read, opinionated and caring about the future of humanity and our civilization. He’s a writer of screenplays and a number of interesting and successful nonfiction books, and he has long been involved in the emerging forms and formats of online digitally-based culture, going back to his days as editorial director at AOL.
Married Sex is his first novel. It is short, extremely well written, and completely compelling. Jesse has brilliantly portrayed his characters, both male and female, and pinpoints them for the reader in very few words. It’s also a fun book to read. Sex with intelligence, you might say.
Without giving away very much of the story, let’s just say that the focus is on a couple who have been together a long time in a committed, deeply sexual romantic relationship. Then something happens that changes everything. You have to read the book to find out more. I think you will enjoy this book a lot. I love this line about it from Kirkus: “A libidinous fairy tale with an unusual Prince Charming.”
And I also think you will enjoy listening to my conversation with Jesse as well. He’s funny and trenchant, and we had a great time talking to one another about the book, his work, and how this book fits into his life. And oh yes, let’s get this settled right away – it’s a novel, not a memoir.
I often recommend Jesse’s newsletter and website to friends, HeadButler.com, what he calls “a cultural concierge site.” I’ve discovered and sometimes rediscovered a number of books and records through his literate and intelligent recommendations. It’s all free, based on the perhaps dubious concept of readers buying things he recommends from Amazon.
Jesse Kornbuth was the Editorial Director at AOL, was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and New York magazines and is the author of four nonfiction books, including Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken. He has written several screenplays for ABC, PBS, and Warner Bros.
I happened across this young, tattooed writer sitting in a publisher’s exhibit space at Book Expo earlier this year, and since it was Counterpoint, a publisher whose work I deeply respect, I shook his hand and took a copy of the book.
It took me a couple weeks before I started reading this novel, and then I was immediately captivated. Our Town is a great story, interestingly constructed, and really well written. The author plays with voice and perspective throughout, there are shifts in narrative viewpoints, and as it is telling a story through time about a number of different characters, all that prismatic dancing really worked for me.
This is McEnroe’s first novel, and there are inevitably some rough patches, and maybe even some missing pieces (I would have liked a bit more writing about the main characters’ children, for example). The novel traces the life of a minor Hollywood actress, Dorothy White, her husband Dale, and their children, Dylan and Clover. It’s a feat of imagination on the part of author McEnroe, to inhabit place, time and people whose lives he could never possibly have experienced in any direct way. I thought he captured that hazy, sometimes glowing world of Hollywood in the fifties and sixties quite brilliantly.
There is an incredible amount of sadness and pathos in this novel, unavoidably, as the lives that are traced here are broken in so many ways. These are people who are trying to be real but who are trapped in the imagery of pop culture, not strong enough themselves to find themselves in the trappings of fame and celebrity, unable to be self aware enough to become whole, or even close to whole. Their tragedies are inevitable by products of impossible aspirations.
McEnroe captures the desire, and the striving and the power of hope throughout. From what I can tell, he has his own demons to wrestle with, but as they motivate him to go deeper into his own understanding, his sure handed talent will serve him well. Our Town is a terrific novel – I resisted the hackneyed impulse to say “first novel” by the way – demonstrating that the author has a terrific set of writing skills and the promise of much more to come. Definitely a book to read and ruminate on.
Kevin Jack McEnroe lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. He received his MFA from Columbia University.
“From Lou Reed to Joan Didion, the tale of the young and the not-so-young Hollywood starlet has been treated with a gimlet-eyed intelligence. What makes Kevin Jack McEnroe’s Our Town so striking is not just his fierce intelligence —although there is certainly that— but his masterful flexibility of tone. Written with both razor-keen irony and surprising, startling depth of sympathy, Our Town is magnificent.” —Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine
I have been reading and enjoying Lorna Landvik’s wonderfully funny books for a long time. I can’t remember how I discovered her writing but am guessing it might be the fact that she is from Minnesota that got me to try out one of her early books. And then since her books so perfectly capture the Minnesota social landscape and ethos, I kept going and read most of her novels. I come by my Minnesota interest because part of my family is from Minnesota, and I lived in St. Paul for a few years in the seventies, and I maintain a strong interest in the North Country and especially its literary life (oh and their baseball team too — see my recent interview with former Minnesota Twin Jim Kaat).
I suspect Landvik gets typecast by many readers as a “women’s” writer – her books are rich with female characters and speak to and for women’s social ethos. And in a book business that lives and dies by book categorization, maybe she is typecast also because her books are funny, and have titles that sound like they come from a female centric universe (Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, Your Oasis on Flame Lake, Patty Jane’s House of Curl). But it’s a mistake for any reader to overlook Landvik as there is a lot going on in these books. Landvik is certainly entertaining – her background as a stand up comedian and actor informs her writing and her stories. But comedians and comedic novelists are usually mining something deeper, and Landvik’s humor leverages a clear understanding of human nature and both our fallibility and the strength that allows us to live through pain and grief and the difficulties of daily life.
Best to Laugh is Landvik’s most recent novel, published last year by the adventurous University of Minnesota Press. It’s her most autobiographical novel, for sure. Her main character in this book, Candy Pekkala is half Korean and half Norwegian (unlike Landvik). She goes to Hollywood to follow her dream to be a stand up comedian (as Landvik did). The book follows her adventures in La-La land as she falls in with her neighbors in Peyton Hall, a class LA building that houses a cast of interesting and compelling characters, who all become Candy’s family as she becomes the success she has aimed to become. The combination of “old Hollywood” and less romantic 70’s era Los Angeles makes for a terrific backdrop. And the characters are picture perfect. Candy, her friends and family are impossible to resist.
In real life, Landvik did work as a stand up comedian in Los Angeles, temping at places like Atlantic Records and the Playboy Mansion (writing film reviews for Hugh Hefner’s private VHS tape collection) while pursuing her showbiz dream. Despite her success as a comedian, Landvik eventually turned to writing, which she turned out to be pretty good at doing. She still likes to perform – her ‘Party in the Rec Room’ is performed once a year at the wonderful Bryant Lake Bowl theater in Minneapolis (yes, theater in a bowling alley!) This is an all-improvised show based on audience suggestion. Landvik describes it this way “While I enjoy a meaty, dramatic role, to me there’s nothing more satisfying than making a roomful of people snort beer up their noses as they laugh.”
You might find yourself doing the same while reading Best to Laugh.
Anne Enright is an Irish fiction writer who has been widely praised for the lyrical quality of her prose and for eccentric characters and heartfelt renderings of modern family life, received the 2007 Man Booker Prize, the British Commonwealth’s most prestigious literary award, for her novel, The Gathering (2007). In that year’s competition, her book was considered a longshot for the prize, but nonetheless was was selected unanimously by the panel of judges. The Gathering was also named “Irish Novel of the Year” at the 2008 Irish Book Awards.
Subsequently, Enright wrote and published more novels, including The Forgotten Waltz (2012) which won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, about which Francine Prose said in her NY Times review, “a nervy enterprise, an audacious bait-and-switch. Cloaked in a novel about a love affair is a ferocious indictment of the self-involved material girls our era has produced.”
Enright went to college at Trinity College, Dublin, and took an MFA in writing at University of East Anglia in England, but soon after ended up working in television production in Ireland, which she did successfully for several years. She then turned to writing, first short stories, and then novels, at which she clearly excels. Since the Man Booker prize raised her profile exponentially, she has won numerous awards and traveled widely in support of her novels.
Enright’s newest book, The Green Road, is about a very modern Irish family, splintered and scattered, but always focused on the mother, the unhappy and complicated Doraleen. The family lives in County Clare, the farthest eastern shore of Ireland, as Enright says, the last stop before America, a place of immense beauty and also loneliness and struggle for those who continue to live there. And there is a real green road there, the old path along the water.
For the first half of the book, Enright alternates voices and scenes, from County Clare to New York to Africa to Dublin as she introduces us to the children in the Madigan family. And then the scene shifts back to the home turf of the family, as the children return for their mother’s birthday, together for the first time in many years. And this is where the heart of the novel lives.
It’s a beautiful book, one that has stayed with me after I read it, and even after I had the opportunity to talk about the book, the characters and the writing process with author Enright. She is an incredibly accomplished writer, able to convey immense depth about characters, a places, or events, with an economy of language and a piercing eye. We had a lively and interesting conversation while she was in New York on her book tour. And I am really pleased that she was willing to read two sections of the book, as hearing the author’s voice in this particular instance is terrifically important as her tone and intonation helps us feel the book more deeply.
I also had the pleasure to welcome her to the United States as she is now the first official Irish Fiction Laureate. This recording is of a wonderful conversation with one of our best living novelists, about a novel I am happy to recommend to all readers. And here is a terrific piece she wrote about the writing of the book for The Guardian (which we did talk about in our conversation). While I could not find a website for Ms. Enright but here is a pretty nicely done fansite for her work. And for those of you who have become fans of Enright’s work, this interview in the Paris Review about The Forgotten Waltz will be of interest as well. Publisher WW Norton has a page for the author here.
Jeffrey Lewis has had a really interesting life and career path. He went to Yale, where he was the Class Poet, graduating in the mid-sixties, and went to law school at Harvard. His first career was in law enforcement – he was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan. Then he left New York to work on the now famed television show, Hill Street Blues, embarking on what became a terrifically successful career in television and film writing. And then he more or less left television to write serious literary fiction.
In the past few years, Lewis has published a total of six novels. The four that make up the “Meritocracy Quartet” were originally published between 2004 and 2008 – Meritocracy: A Love Story in 2004, The Conference of the Birds in 2005, Theme Song for an Old Show in 2007 and Adam the King in 2008.
Before writing fiction, Lewis won a number of awards including two Emmys, the Writers Guild Award, the Humanitas Prize, the People’s Choice Award, and the Image Award of the NAACP, as a writer and producer of Hill Street Blues. His work for television and film includes projects for HBO, Showtime, the BBC, TNT, and many of the major film studios. His last screenplay, before turning full-time to writing fiction, was Paint, set in the New York art world, and is the last unfinished project of the great director Robert Altman.
He lives in Los Angeles, California and Castine, Maine.
The four books in the “Meritocracy Quartet” take place in successive decades and are meant to document and explore what these periods meant to the post war baby boomers. Each novel in the series stands alone, but together, they are a powerful and really striking portrait of the inner and outer lives of the cultural elite of this generation.
Lewis is a wonderful writer. His work is clear, never over wrought and expressive of the emotional lives of his characters. The books all take place in environments Lewis lived in, periods he lived through. It would be all too easy to try to read these novels as romans a clef, but I think they are much more than that. As a true novelist, transforming the lived experience to find its meanings, both for himself and for his readers, Lewis becomes an alchemist of the soul, his words then, taking us to places far beyond. These books are really an impressive accomplishment, and well worth the effort to read all four together, at once, for a deeply rewarding experience.
“Lives are not seamlessly sewn together, but rather forged by coincidence, necessity, and expectation, a fact that Lewis brilliantly conveys. . . . Lewis’ memories portray a modern, American life.” (San Francisco Book Review)
I really enjoyed talking to Jeff about these books and his work as a writer.
I genuinely enjoyed this evocative coming-of-age novel. I thought it captured the current generation of almost-thirty somethings really beautifully. It’s well written and well structured and very sympathetic on a number of levels for a wide range of readers.
The book starts with the central character in this faceted story, Sam Turner, in the summer he is fifteen, the crucial and in some ways defining moment in his life. Just as he connects with Suzie Epstein, the gorgeous girl next door, his mother abandons his family without warning or explanation. While his older, hard working brother Michael, who is a freshman in college and their attorney father both appear to accept her absence as a matter of course, Sam cannot. He is confused, and more deeply hurt by his mother’s departure and struggles to understand how she could simply disappear and leave her family behind. And at the same time, Suzie’s family suddenly moves away as well. This sense of loss is something he will carry with him throughout the rest of the story.
From this opening, the rest of the book covers the years as Sam and his friends (and brother) grow into adulthood. As one might expect, life is complicated, shit happens, good and bad, and life goes on. Author Antalek navigates this territory brilliantly, telling the stories of the key characters in alternating voices.
Suzie has her own family issues, and remains separated from her old friends for many years. Then a chance meeting with Michael reunites her with Sam and her former best friend Bella, whose first love was Sam. The Grown Ups explores the complicated process of growing up in the modern world. And through it all, we come to understand and appreciate the way her characters handle what it means for them to take on the mantle of adulthood. For most of us, it seems this is how growing up really works, accidents mixed with intentions to create being, meaning, and love. This book is a rewarding read, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. And I felt the same way talking to author Antalek about her book. We had a very fun time talking together about the writing of this book, her characters and life in general.
Robin Antalek is also the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010) which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book. Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown and was been featured in several collections, including The Beautiful Anthology, Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema, and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-2013. Her short fiction has appeared in 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. Robin has received three honorable mentions in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters and New Fiction Writer’s contests as well as an honorable mention for the Tobias Wolf Fiction Award.
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. There is a perfect summary of the book on her very active website in case you want to know the story without any risk of 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.
This book is a fun read and I recommend it no matter what kind of fiction you like. It’s a funny book with a solid heart and great characters. And I am very happy that I recorded Mary Kay reading an excerpt from the book to add to the Authors Voices series. Since last year the book is out in paperback from Picador – 978-1250056054 – $16 (and ebook versions are still available at lower prices). I like the new cover too.
This is a wonderful novel, set in a period and place I have long been drawn to, the northern plains of the late 19th century. In The High Divide, Enger tells the story of a family – father, mother and two young sons – who are living a typical hard life in Minnesota. One day Ulysses Pope, the father walks out and when he fails to return, his family must try to cope, and of course, try to understand why he left and where he has gone. Driven by a desperate need to know more, the two sons set out to find him, leaving their mother, Gretta, at home to worry about her family, and then herself to set out on her own journey, now to search for her missing family.
Their searches lead them to the rough frontier country of Montana, that still reverberates with the terrible era of conquest of American Indians and destruction of the buffalo, massive changes in land and culture. Gretta must grapple with the possibility of losing her husband to another woman, and the boys must decide where their loyalties lie, and what they must do to save their family. Ultimately, the father’s secret must be uncovered, his story told, and the family come to terms with their history, in order to be able to go on. In my discussion with Lin, we covered alot of interesting territory. I very much enjoyed our conversation and the opportunity to talk to him about this excellent book and his thinking about writing.
The High Divide is a confidently told and powerful story, set in a period when modern terms of psychological awareness and emotional understanding did not exist. All the characters are ultimately trying to come to terms with the damage done by war and violence. Enger is fully in command of his story and characters, and pulls the reader through to a well earned climax. I really enjoyed this book, and am happy to have discovered a writer whose work I will now be following with interest.
I grew up in Minnesota, have spent most of my life in the state, and now live in Moorhead, where I teach English at Minnesota State University. Over the years I have received several awards for my fiction: a James Michener Fellowship, a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, a Jerome travel grant, and a Lake Region Arts Fellowship. I have an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. My first novel, Undiscovered Country, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2008. My short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ascent, Great River Review, American Fiction, and other journals. During the 1990s my brother, the novelist Leif Enger, and I had a great time collaborating (as L. L. Enger) on a series of mystery novels for Pocket Books.
“The High Divide is a deeply moving, gripping novel about one man’s quest for redemption and his family’s determination to learn the truth. Written with lean, crisp prose, Enger seamlessly blends historical events with the personal, and deftly pulls the reader into America’s Great Plains during the 19th Century. The narrators’ voices are captivating, and I was spellbound by the author’s ability to express the human condition and especially the complicated bonds between fathers and sons. Layered with meaning, this remarkable novel deserves to be read more than once. The High Divide proves Enger’s chops as a masterful storyteller.” —Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise
“The High Divide, a novel about a family in peril, is haunting and tense but leavened by considerable warmth and humanity. Lin Enger writes with durable grace about a man’s quest for redemption and the human capacity for forgiveness.”
—Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon
“Lin Enger sets out from the conventions of the traditional Western and brings the reader into new emotional territory, that of the soul of an exquisitely drawn, American family. Told with caring patience and precise language, The High Divide is a novel to get lost in.”
—James Scott, author of The Kept
This is a very fine mystery set in an unusual locale – rural Pennsylvania (fracking country). I don’t usually read mysteries, but one of the pleasures of doing interviews with writers has been that I have been sent books by publishers that I would normally never have even looked at on my own. It’s fun to pick up a book, to start reading a few pages and then to be thoroughly hooked. That happened for me with Tom Bouman’s fine first novel. I really liked the portrayal of his main character, the local policeman, Henry Farrell. He’s terrifically drawn and is a compelling, complicated, extremely human character. And I liked the way Bouman worked his way slowly into the depths of the story. And I really loved the way he wrote about the people who live in this isolated rural county in Pennsylvania.
Bouman’s interest in the outlaws and eccentrics who inhabit this world, his appreciation and even love for those who have kept to themselves, and to older forms of relationships among family and neighbors is palpable and powerful.
The book revolves around a body found in the woods and the search, naturally enough, for the killer. This novel is well worth spending some time as the story unravels. Great characters and fine writing make for a terrific read.
Author website here. Bowman used to work in publishing – he was an editor – and now lives in northeastern Pennsylvania with his family. As of this writing, he is attending law school, so it may be a little while yet before he publishes his next book. And here is a terrific piece that Bouman wrote for Modern Farmer about rural crime fiction (that is a genre I did not know even existed!) I am hoping we’ll see a new book from Tom Bouman before too much time passes.
Somewhat surprisingly, since I try to pay attention to music and songwriters who write fiction, I had not heard of Willy Vlautin before receiving a copy of The Free to read. I’m really glad to have discovered his work. Vlautin is one of a number of contemporary songwriters and musicians who have taken to writing short stories and novels. He’s the founder and writes songs for the Portland, OR based alt-country band Richmond Fontaine. And he writes songs and plays with another interesting band called The Delines. His songs tend toward storytelling, so it is no surprise he is also interested in long form fiction.
His four novels have gained an incredible amount of praise from a wide variety of sources. He writes really well, has a great ear for dialogue and tells terrific stories. Judging from The Free, which focuses on Iraq veteran Leroy Kervin, who came back from the war with a traumatic brain injury. He is unable to find a way to make a new life, and tries to commit suicide, but ends up in a coma – and much of the novel’s story takes place in an alternate reality story that goes on in his coma state.
There are other important characters whose lives are connected to Leroy; Freddie McCall, a hard working man who can’t make ends meet, and is trying to put his family back together, taking big chances to make things work under challenging circumstances. There is also the wonderful Pauline Hawkins, a nurse at the local hospital, who takes care of almost everyone in her life, including her very challenging father, And there is a young girl who connects with Leroy in some interesting ways as well.
The Free is an intriguing mix. It’s realistic, yet much of the book takes place in a fever state. Vlautin loves the hard working characters who inhabit the lower middle class of Washington State and Oregon, but the narrative arc of the story is entwined with a mysterious underground terrorist organization (called The Free) inside of Leroy’s unreachable mind. Vlautin also has a clear view of the politics and economic realities that shape their lives and their struggles to live in our post modern capitalistic world, so his stories are heartfelt and empathetic.
This is a terrific book, with great narrative drive. Vlautin knows how to weave a compelling story with characters that are fully drawn and captivating. Since reading this book, I’ve made a point to listen to a lot of his music as well, and am now a big fan. His other three novels are also on my list of books to read when time allows. And Vlautin has a lot to say, listeners to this podcast will find out. He thinks and talks about contemporary life in America, and so many of the people in it who are struggling just to find a way to live. Willy is a troubadour and a soulful, skillful writer who deserves to be widely read. I for one am ready to hear a lot more from him.
Alert: we had a good time talking, so this discussion runs slightly longer than usual Writerscast podcasts, almost 35 minutes. Enjoy!