In the early 1970s I lived in the more or less rural county outside Durham, North Carolina. It was a far different cultural milieu than I had ever experienced previously, surrounded mostly by farmland and people who had grown up as native North Carolinians. To someone like me, raised in the urban and suburban northeast, North Carolina was, at that time, still very much the traditional Old South, resisting so much of the cultural change that was sweeping America then.
But it was not long after this that things began to change significantly in the South, as increasing numbers of transplants came to places like Durham, Charlotte and many other towns and cities in North Carolina.
John Manuel, who was a classmate of mine in college, got to North Carolina himself in the early 1970s and has stayed there as a writer and cultural observer with considerable skills in both. John is the author of two fine books, The Natural Traveler Along North Carolina’s Coast (John Blair, 2003) and The Canoeist (Jefferson Press, 2006). His environmental journalism has been published in Audubon and many other magazines and his short stories have appeared in the Savannah Anthology and the New Southerner.
John’s novel, Hope Valley, is set in the same general area in which I lived when I was there, and both the geographical setting of the book and its characters will feel both familiar and comfortable to anyone who spent time there or in other parts of the South during the late 20th century, a period of immense change and disruption.
The story centers on Hurley and Opal Cates, who in their retirement live on a small farm on the edge of the growing orbit of Durham. Hurley is committed to caring for his property, particularly its large lawn, and also the house he built for his son, Buddy. But Buddy sells his house to a young female couple, creating a bit of a crisis for the Cates family. Despite many challenges, the two families learn how to co-exist, despite their vast cultural differences.
Much of the novel involves the ways that Hurley and Opal and their new neighbors learn to live together. But things are not so easily resolved, and this sometimes sad and also uplifting story becomes a parable about the difficulties that face modern America today. The book carries a warm and loving message about acceptance and change, and the meaning of respect, mutuality and yes, the valley of hope we all desire for our families and communities.
Hope Valley is a well conceived and beautifully written book that I hope will reach a wide audience, not just in the south. My conversation with author John Manuel reflects my deep appreciation for his book, and John’s quiet, sincere belief in humanity and our future. Learn more about John and his work at his website. You can find the book at most online retailers and also at independent booksellers in North Carolina, for example, the wonderful Regulator Bookshop in Durham.
I originated the Writerscast series of conversations with writers at least in part, to remind myself to keep reading book length prose. I didn’t want to miss out on discovering great books and finding new writers to read. In this era of too much noise and stimulus, reading a novel or a serious work of nonfiction can be a wonderful pleasure, as well as a reward for escaping the rhythms of daily life. It does take time, and sometimes finding time to read is difficult. But there are some books that are completely fulfilling to spend time with. Having the opportunity to read a novel like Brad Watson’s Miss Jane was a deeply rewarding experience, and one I will not soon forget. Discovering books like this one is a special experience for me.
This is the kind of novel that you don’t come across that often. It is not action packed. In fact, it is more quiet than any novel I have read in a very long time. And it is fully engrossing.
I really love this book and have found myself talking about it to people all the time. It is that special. The writing is luminous, and the characters are as alive and present as if they were in the room with us as we read. I cannot imagine it is possible to not fall in love with this book.
But enough rhapsodizing about the book. I need to give you just a bit about the story, so you have a sense of what it is about. Miss Jane is based on the life story of Brad’s own great-aunt. Because he did not know her at all really, he had to imagine her life in rural, early twentieth-century Mississippi, born with an unusual and not talked about genital birth defect, that would prevent her from having either sex or a marriage. But just as Brad’s real aunt lived a full and long life, so he imagines Miss Jane to live, alone, but with family and other relationships as well. Her life was completely her own, and while it was not her choice to be made the way she was, it was her choice completely to live a complex and deeply experienced life of her own.
Brad Watson is a truly fine writer. The reviews for Miss Jane bear that out. He is the author of two collections of stories and the novel The Heaven of Mercury, which was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award. His fiction has been widely published in magazines. Most recently, Brad was selected to receive the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year for 2017 and Miss Jane is included on the 2017 longlist for the Wellcome Book Prize. He teaches at the University of Wyoming, Laramie.
I very much enjoyed reading this well written and humorous novel. It’s set in Cambridge (“our fair city” MA), and depicts the sort of culture clash that has occurred all over America as livable cities are reinhabited by the latest version of what we used to call yuppies. These newcomers to city neighborhoods have completely different values – and economic realities – than the folks who grew up there. It’s a rich environment for fiction too. So this is a novel that will likely resonate for many readers on a sociopolitical basis, in addition to its deft handling of the relationships between the sexes. And because Cronin comes from public radio – she was a producer and writer for the much loved and missed Car Talk – the setting of this novel is one that many of us whose industries have undergone wholesale modernization, can appreciate as well.
Is there a category of novel for “late Baby Boomer” coming of age stories set in the present? I am not well enough read to say. The publisher calls this a “coming of middle-age novel,” which seems apt. I do think that especially for readers of “a certain age” this book could become a favorite. And you don’t have to struggle with a changing neighborhood or have issues with your love life to appreciate the joyfulness and humor of this novel.
Louie and I had a fun time talking about her book, her work and the way she was able to inhabit her male main character, a feat of imagination and courage for any novelist.
Louie Cronin is a writer, radio producer, and audio engineer. She worked as a producer/writer for Car Talk on NPR for ten years. Her fiction and essays have been published in a variety of magazines and journals. She is not the technical director for PRI’s The World and lives in Boston with her husband, the sculptor James Wright.
I found out about Kate Tempest more or less accidentally, through an odd set of search results one day while fooling around on YouTube, and therefore I must thank the seemingly strange, but often wonderful algorithms of its search tools. What a discovery! After seeing and hearing Kate’s poetry performances, I immediately bought her books and was completely enthralled.
I don’t seem to have too many poetry friends who know about Kate’s work, and that is a shame. She is British, and young, and very modern in affect. But she is an old soul, with a deep and powerful intellect, and her voice is one that I find both compelling and mesmerizing. I think she is simply a great writer, and stands out for the power of the words she marshals as well as the intellection that informs those words.
If you have not heard or seen Kate Tempest, or heard of her work, I’d urge you to visit YouTube now, and spend some time with her work. You might want to start with the incredible poem “Progress” (which you can also read to yourself in her book Hold Your Own). The video of her performing this poem gives you just a taste of what her work is like. It’s a remarkable commentary on religion and meaning. Tempest has got a lot to say and says it powerfully and clearly, with an almost religious (or in this case anti-religious) fervor. It’s totally captivating to listen to her syncopated rapping poetry. She has got the fever.
Kate has expanded her narrative abilities, moving from hip hop poet to playwright and now to novelist, an amazing journey that not very many poets or performers have undertaken. Usually poets are best at short bursts of ideas, or word paintings, they are not often masters of narrative, and while there are certainly poets who have written novels, novelists who write poetry, and songwriters who tell great stories, it’s not am easy thing to move from these genres to the more expansive form a novel takes, and the concentration on detail and complexity of characters as well.
From what Kate told me when we talked, she conceived this story first for one of her rap albums, and then carried the novel around with her while she toured with her band, alchemically transforming the story from poetry to prose, somehow managing to find the time and emotional space to get it down whole whilst on the road (and then later rewrote and rewrote to get it done).
The book is told in flashback from a powerfully lyrical opening scene, and it takes the reader some time to get her bearings and then to figure out who the various major and minor characters are, how they are related, and how they interact. But as the story unfolds, we begin to understand the journey, and these characters become indelible and specific, telling a story that is compelling and intense – and morally ambiguous. This is a modern wrapper around an ancient story, impossible to put down as it moves forward with breathless energy and heart felt imagination.
I really enjoyed talking to Kate about this novel and her work as a writer and performer. We talked in the New York office of her publisher, Bloomsbury USA.
Kate Tempest was born in 1985. She grew up and still lives in South-East London. She started out as a rapper, and a poet, and began writing for theatre in 2012. Her work includes Balance, an album she made with her band Sound of Rum; Everything Speaks in its Own Way, which is a collection of poems published by her own imprint Zingaro; GlassHouse, a forum theatre play for Cardboard Citizens; and the plays Wasted and Hopelessly Devoted both written for Paines Plough theatre and published by Bloomsbury Methuen. Her epic narrative poem Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Everybody Down, her debut solo album, came out on Big Dada Records in 2014, and is the direct precursor to her novel The Bricks that Built the Houses. Her most recent collection of poems is Hold Your Own; it’s based on the myth of the blind prophet Tiresias (I recommend you find and read this book; the language is fantastic).
“As Tempest’s gorgeous streams of words flow out, they conjure a story so vivid it’s as if you had a state-of-the-art Blu-Ray player stuffed in your brain, projecting image after image that sears itself into your consciousness” – New York Times
In the old days,
the myths were the stories we used to explain ourselves
but how can we explain
the way we hate ourselves?
The things we’ve made ourselves into,
the way we break ourselves in two,
the way we overcomplicate ourselves?
But we are still mythical.
9781616956721 – Soho Press – 368 page – Hardcover – $27.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices
Mary Volmer’s novel, Reliance, Illinois is a beautifully written historical novel that takes place in midwestern America in 1874.
The story revolves around thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch. She comes to the town of Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who is being married through an in the Matrimonial Times, but there was no mention of a daughter to the suitor involved. So Madelyn’s entire life in Reliance is based on the fiction that she is Rebecca’s sister.
Madelyn is thoroughly unhappy in her new home, and is emotionally wounded by her mother’s deception, so she soon leaves her mother and her new family to work for Miss Rose Werner, the daughter of the town’s founder, a strong and independent figure who stands out in this small conservative town.
Miss Rose is not only an early suffragette, she is also the supplier of black market birth control devices to women in the town. Miss Rose sees Madelyn as someone she can help mold into her vision of a modern woman. But for the most part, Madelyn, whose face is strongly birth marked, simply wants to feel beautiful and loved. She pines for William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.
As the story unfolds, and events in this small town become increasingly fraught, Madelyn learns secrets she could never have previously imagined, and becomes a woman who is ultimately in charge of her own destiny.
There’s a tremendous amount of historical research underpinning this wonderful story, great characters, and quite a bit that will resonate for modern readers (yes, there is an election in the town, which I found interesting to read about in our current election season).
I was very taken by this book, and am looking forward to reading more by this excellent writer. I hope my conversation with Mary Volmer will help listeners discover a new voice in American fiction.
I agree with this reviewer’s sentiments:
“Mary Volmer’s Reliance, Illinois grabbed me from the first page. Staggeringly beautiful prose, a poignant story, the whip smart heroine Maddy who I rooted for all the way. Volmer brings a universal theme of the reliance—all of us who search for it—to be found in ourselves. Do yourself a favor, clear your schedule and drink in Volmer’s radiant Reliance, Illinois.”
—Cara Black, New York Times bestselling author of Murder on the Quai
Mary Volmer’s first novel is Crown of Dust, which takes place during the Gold Rush in California. Her website is here.
Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be working with musician Tom DeLonge and the energetic staff of To the Stars Media, helping them develop their book publishing projects. To the Stars is an independent production and publishing company that creates trans-media projects, all done with a tremendous level of creativity and imagination.
To the Stars began its publishing program last year with the wildly successful young adult novel, Poet Anderson: Of Nightmares, co-written by DeLonge and best selling novelist Suzanne Young (The Program series).
The newest project from this team is a thriller called Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows, that reflects Tom DeLonge’s specific interests in UFO’s and secret government programs. Tom is best known as the former leader of Blink-182 and founder of Angels and Airwaves. He is also a serial entrepreneur, film maker and writer, who is an authority on UFO’s and government involvement with them (this Billboard article and interview with Tom is a must-read).
The Sekret Machines project includes some forthcoming nonfiction books as well as this series of novels that is a collaboration between DeLonge and best selling YA and sci fi novelist AJ Hartley. Between them, they have created a thrilling and complex weaving of four stories told from multiple perspectives.
Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows is fiction based on secrets drawn from the the mostly hidden realities of alien contact known to our military and intelligence communities. It’s an exciting and engrossing story, the first in a trilogy that promises excitement and action for anyone interested in great storytelling and compelling characters.
AJ Hartley is a prolific writer of fiction for all ages, as well as being an accomplished Shakespearean scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His novels for kids include the wonderful Darwen Arkwright series, among others, and the YA novel called Steeplejack is coming from Tor this spring.
I have now read several AJ Hartley books, and have concluded that he is one of the best new writers I have come across in a long time. His work is really remarkable, and the collaboration with the effervescent Tom DeLonge has resulted in a really terrific novel. I had the opportunity to speak with AJ about the writing of Sekret Machines and his collaboration with Tom while we were both visiting To the Stars in Encinitas, California in February, 2016. We had a great time talking about this very cool project.
I’ve been interested in Canadian writer Johanna Skibsrud’s work for several years, in fact since interviewing independent publisher Andrew Steves of Gaspereau Press. The small Nova Scotia based press was the original publisher of Skibsrud’s first novel, The Sentimentalists, selected for the prestigious Giller Prize in 2010. It was a major literary event in Canada for such a tiny press to be recognized for publishing a fine novel that ultimately became a commercially successful book.
Skibsrud is a prolific and multi-talented writer. Her short story collection, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories was published in 2011 and shortlisted for Canada’s Danuta Gleed Award. She has also published two books of poetry: Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (2008), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry by a Canadian poet, and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being (2010), which was short-listed for the 2011 Atlantic Poetry Prize.
Skibsrud now teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, returning to Canada with her family every summer. Since I had the good fortune to be visiting Tucson in January, 2016, I interviewed Johanna there about her newest novel, The Quartet for the End of Time.
This book is inspired by and structured to follow Oliver Messiaen’s chamber piece of the same name (Quatuor pour la fin du temps). Messiaen’s piece was composed and first performed in 1941 while he was a prisoner of war in a German prison camp. His beautiful and haunting composition was in turn inspired by a text from the Book of Revelation:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….
Skibsrud’s novel is centered on a single moment of betrayal and how it affects the four characters whose stories are woven together during the period of the Bonus Army march and the 1930s, leading up to and then through the period of World War II.
The novel’s beginning is about Bonus Army marcher and World War I veteran Arthur Sinclair, who is falsely accused of conspiracy and then disappears. The mystery of this event will affect his son, Douglas and also Alden and Sutton Kelly, the children of a U.S. congressman who become connected to Arthur and Douglas while the marchers are camped in Washington, D.C. The book then follows these characters as they live through the period of massive social change that took place during the period leading up to and during World War II.
This novel is thoroughly compelling, beautifully written, complex in form and lyrical in language. I think Johanna has succeeded in her effort to imagine a story of loss and love through the lens of a complicated period of modern history. Tim O’Brien said this about the book, praising “…its intimate and completely compelling portraits of human beings struggling to do the right thing under ambiguous moral circumstances.”
I very much enjoyed talking with Johanna Skibsrud about this book and her work as a writer. She is as intelligent and interesting to talk to as she is to read. This interview was recorded in her office at the University of Arizona. If you want to learn more about this author’s work, I recommend visiting Johanna’s website.
And if you’re interested in the Bonus March, which is a far too little known, and truly disheartening episode of American history, you might also be interested in Georgia Lowe’s novel, The Bonus. I talked to her about this book and the Bonus March story for Writerscast in 2012.
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.