Chris Offutt: My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir

June 6, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

my-father-the-pornographer-9781501112461_lg9781501112461 – Atria Books – 272 pages – Hardcover – $26.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices

Chris Offutt’s father, Andrew Offutt, left behind an unusual legacy – a massive quantity of pornography he wrote over a long swatch of his life. Besides being at one time a respected insurance agent, and subsequently a successful but still minor science fiction writer, Andrew Offutt spent years writing pornography, and made himself the “king of twentieth-century smut.”

During the 1970s, after Grove Press and other publishers had helped break down the barriers to legal publishing of pornographic and erotic literature, the floodgates of erotic writing opened up to meet a formerly unreachable demand. Several specialized, but relatively small commercial publishers created a mini-industry to satisfy an emerging market for written pornography and erotica of all kinds. During the height of the popularity of these books, some writers were able to make reasonable livings by turning out massive quantities of what was essentially pornographic pulp fiction.

Andrew Offutt was one of these writers, but unlike so many other high volume writers,  he was singular in his commitment to good writing and real plot lines, among other features of traditional fiction. As one might imagine, Andrew Offutt was an unusual man, and a strange and awkward parent keeping secrets about his work and the toll it took on his psyche.

Chris Offutt therefore grew up in a highly unusual world. His mother was the typist for all his father’s books. The family lived in the Kentucky hills, where most kids grew up hunting and fishing, and learning the pleasures of traditional country woodcraft.

Andrew Offutt was more than a little eccentric, and was a fiery and unpredictable father. When he closed the door to his home office, he demanded silence and to be left alone to concentrate on his writing, terrifying and controlling his family. And Offutt took the entire family with him when he went off to science fiction conventions, where he was a sought after figure, playing the role of the exotic sci fi novelist. In the seventies, Chris’ parents were evidently active swingers at these conventions.

During this time, Andrew Offutt wrote an incredible number of books – in total, more than four hundred novels, including pirate porn, ghost porn, zombie porn, and secret agent porn.

In 2013, after his father died, Chris Offutt returned to help his mother move out of his childhood home. In order to make sense of his father and his own childhood, Chris took on the herculean task of reading and organizing his father’s manuscripts and the vast trove of memorabilia, journals, and letters that accompanied them. It was only through the lens of his father’s writing that he was finally able to bring some closure to his understanding of this difficult and sometimes brilliant man. And at the same time he was able to gain a better understanding of himself as a person, father and of course, his own life as a writer.

This book is a remarkable literary and personal effort of psychic and literary exploration, truly one of the best memoirs I have read. Perhaps because my own father was similarly a writer who made his living through his work with words, this book meant a lot to me.

It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with Chris Offutt about his courageous and beautifully written memoir, and his own creative work as a writer.

Chris Offutt was born in 1958 in Lexington, Kentucky and grew up in the small town of Haldeman in the same state. He went to Morehead State University, and then to the University of Iowa, where he earned an MFA from the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. His first short story collection was Kentucky Straight, published in 1992. Along with fiction and memoirs, Chris has also written comics and journalism for several magazines and newspapers. In recent years, he has written for television as well (Weeds and True Blood).

Chris has received awards from the Lannan Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He received a Whiting Award in Fiction and Nonfiction.

“Chris Offutt owns one of the finest, surest prose styles around, ready and able to convey the hardest truth without flinching. Now Offutt enters the darkest and most mysterious of places—the cave of a monstrous enigma named Andrew J. Offutt—armed with nothing but his own restless curiosity. Spoiler alert: He makes it out alive, walking into the daylight to bring us a deeper, funnier, more tender and more heartbroken truth—and his masterpiece.” —Michael Chabonchris offutt

I’m as impressed as Michael Chabon is with this fine book.

And Offutt knows how to give a great interview too.

David Wilk Interviews Richard Grossinger of North Atlantic Books

GrossingerHead-400x0

Publishing 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 publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context 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.

Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of independent publishers in an effort to document the extraordinary period of the past 40 years, which has been a sort of golden age of innovation and creativity, as publishing has literally been redefined. The number of great publishers established during this time in almost every category of publishing is pretty incredible.

One of the presses that has had a special impact on my own work is North Atlantic Books, founded by Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough, as a transformation of their literary journal, Io, which they began together in 1965 as undergraduates at Amherst and Smith Colleges respectively. Richard and Lindy have been important mentors, friends, and colleagues to me for more than forty years, and their influence on my thinking about writing, ideas and books has been profound.

Since both Richard and Lindy are writers and editors with their own individual interests and styles, I thought it would make sense to interview each of them separately for this Publishing Talks series of conversations. Each of these conversations can stand independently or together. They tell two versions of an almost mythologic story, which I hope listeners will find as compelling as it was for me when I spoke to them.

Io is one of a number of influential literary magazines established in the sixties and seventies, publishing poets, film-makers and visual artists, many of whom were related to what has become known as the New American Poets, with influences ranging from Black Mountain College and the New York School to hermeticism and mystical spirituality. Io was singular in that it was most frequently a one-subject magazine, and this led eventually to the establishment of North Atlantic Books, which was incorporated in 1974 as a non-profit literary publisher in California.

Richard Grossinger was born November 3, 1944, and grew up in Manhattan. He graduated from Amherst College in June 1966 with a B.A. in English. That same month he married Lindy Hough, who attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

He received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan for an ethnography incorporating economic and ecological studies of fishing communities in Eastern Maine and subsequently taught anthropology and other subjects at the University of Maine and Goddard College.

Io published 23 issues through 1976 before merging with North Atlantic and converting its publications to anthologies thereafter. Richard and Lindy served as the co-publishers of North Atlantic Books from 1974 onward, and Grossinger now functions mainly as acquisitions editor, while the press is run by its staff and board of directors.

Grossinger is the author of many books including Planet Medicine, The Night Sky, Embryogenesis, New Moon, Migraine Auras, On the Integration of Nature, and The Bardo of Waking Life.

This is the “official” description of North Atlantic Books, taken from its website:
North Atlantic Books is a nonprofit publisher committed to an eclectic exploration of the relationships between mind, body, spirit, and nature. Founded in 1974 by Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough, NAB aims to nurture a holistic view of the arts, sciences, humanities, and healing. Over the decades, it has been at the forefront of publishing a diverse range of books in alternative medicine, ecology, and spirituality. NAB is the publishing program of the Society for the Study of Native Arts and Sciences, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization that promotes cross-cultural perspectives linking scientific, social, and artistic fields. With more than one thousand books in print, NAB has operated from Berkeley, California, since 1977.

My conversation with Richard Grossinger was recorded in December, 2016. This interview runs 52 minutes.

More about Richard Grossinger here.

Richard’s history of North Atlantic Books is on his website here. Companion interview with co-editor and co-publisher Lindy Hough is here.

9781623170134_0175eb72NorthAtlanticBooks

Mary Volmer: Reliance, Illinois (a novel)

May 2, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Reliance-Illinois-Cov-2-400x6009781616956721 – 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.Mary-Volmer

David Wilk interviews John Ingram of Ingram Content Group

635697242304436339-IngramPublishing 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 publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context 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, my latest in this series of interviews with publishers and editors is a conversation with John Ingram, the chairman of Ingram Content Group Inc., which is now both the largest wholesaler in the book industry, and with its Lightning Source digital printing division, also the largest printer of print on demand books in the world. In addition, with the recent acquisition of Perseus Distribution, Publishers Group West, Legato and Consortium, Ingram is the largest distributor of independent publishers in all markets worldwide. Ingram also operates IngramSpark, which is now a major provider for self publishing authors.

Clearly Ingram is now pivotal to the book industry, as a key supplier of services, logistics and infrastructure to virtually every element and category within the business.

John Ingram deserves significant credit for recognizing the need for ongoing innovation and change in the book supply chain. Ingram Book Company and Lightning Source are both technology oriented operations, and with John’s leadership, the company has invested in a long list of important initiatives that have made major contributions to the growth and development of book publishing and distribution.

While many look at logistics and supply chains as boring necessities, I’d argue that they are very often the key elements of business success, and Ingram’s dedicated focus on invention, improvement and efficiency have been critical to keeping book publishing workable in a period of massive disruption.

John is a graduate of Princeton University, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in English in 1984. In 1986, he received his master of business administration degree from the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University.

John joined the family business, Ingram Industries Inc., in 1986, serving as the Assistant Treasurer and later as President of Tennessee Book Company (which became part of Ingram Content Group in 2009). He later served as President of Ingram Book Company, Vice President of Purchasing for Ingram Micro Europe, and Director of Purchasing for Ingram Micro Inc.

It is no small thing to foster innovation and experimentation inside a large company. It requires committed leadership and a willingness to both imagine a future and risk failures, learn from experiences both good and bad, constantly being aware of the broader picture of your industry and cultural trends, yet still maintaining focus on the core elements of your own business. None of this is easy.

I wanted to talk to John about some of the ways he and the Ingram companies have been able to manage change, and also to tap into his vision – how he sees the future of publishing and book distribution unfolding over the next few years. It is my pleasure to present this conversation with John Ingram for Publishing Talks, as part of my effort to document the key elements of a changing media environment as the book business moves into the future.logo@2xlogo@2xPrint

 

A.J. Hartley: Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows

April 4, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

sekret-machines-chasing-shadows-cover_1024x10249781943272150 – To the Stars Media – Hardcover – 704 pages – $24.95 – ebook editions available at lower prices.

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.sekret-machines-chasing-shadows-digital-bundle_1024x1024

BehindSekretMachines-9steeeplejack-lead-768x1024

David Wilk interviews Robert Pennoyer about the Whiting Awards

March 30, 2016 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 12.46.29 PMPublishing 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 publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context 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.

It’s well known to all that literary writers more often than not struggle financially. This is especially true for writers early in their careers. According to most research, fewer than five per cent of writers who identify as “professional” are able to make their livings directly from writing.

Aside from the National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for writers, there are few programs that provide direct support to emerging and early career literary writers. That is why the Whiting Awards, given annually by The Whiting Foundation since 1985 have been so meaningful to literary culture, and of course, to the writers who have received this form of support.

The Whiting Foundation provides $50,000 to each of ten writers every year. Writers cannot apply for these awards–instead, Whiting accepts nominations from 100 individuals in the literary arts, and then an anonymous panel of six toils in secret throughout the year to read the work, and then argue over who should be selected based based on the criteria of early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come.

Overall, more than $6.5 million has been awarded to 310 poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, and playwrights to date. This is an incredible program that has had a remarkable impact on American literature. Some of the now recognizable writers selected over the course of the last 30 years include David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson, Susan-Lori Parks, Mary Karr, Tony Kushner, Michael Cunningham, Alice McDermott, August Wilson, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Deborah Eisenberg, Ben Fountain, Justin Cronin, Tobias Wolff, Jonathan Franzen, Terrance Hayes, Ian Frazier, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, all of whom were “emerging” when their awards were given.

Every time I see a new list of Whiting Award winners, I feel compelled to explore their work, as I am sure I will find some whose writing will affect my imagination and attract me to continue to follow them in the future.

The recently announced 2016 winners are:

Brian Blanchfield, Nonfiction
Alice Sola Kim, Fiction
J. D. Daniels, Nonfiction
Catherine Lacey, Fiction
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Poetry
Layli Long Soldier, Poetry
Madeleine George, Drama
Safiya Sinclair, Poetry
Mitchell S. Jackson, Fiction
Ocean Vuong, Poetry

So how did the Whiting Awards come about? The history of the Whiting Foundation is a fascinating story. I had the good fortune to publish the memoir of attorney Robert Pennoyer in 2015, As it Was, in which he recounts the story of the Whiting Foundation and its programs. Bob was one of the first trustees of the Whiting Foundation, as his firm had represented Flora Whiting, who was quite an amazing and brilliant woman.

As Bob writes, “In 1921, before IBM had even acquired its name, she had had the good fortune to sit next to Thomas J. Watson, Sr., at dinner. He told her, “My dear, I have a new company that’s going to be making things.” She invested in the stock when it was almost worthless and held on to it for almost fifty years. When she died, in 1970, she left $10 million to the foundation that she had established, with no restriction on how it should be used.”

At the outset, the foundation supported the humanities, but as its endowment continued to grow, it had to create some additional programs; Bob’s wife, Vicky was a poet, and she suggested that creative writers were in need of some meaningful support. The trustees agreed, and then hired Gerald Freund, who had worked with the MacArthur Foundation to establish their “genius” awards, to design a program to support emerging writers, and thus the Whiting Awards to Writers began.

I am pleased to present here my conversation with Bob Pennoyer, recorded in his office in New York City, talking about the Whiting Awards. His first-hand accounts of the history he has lived are unmatched. In fact, Bob’s book is full of such fine storytelling. Bob has been an attorney with the Patterson, Belknap law firm in New York City since 1958. Before that he served as counsel in the Defense Department (where he has the pleasure of testifying in front of Senator Joe McCarthy) and was in the US Navy during World War II.

Bob Pennoyer was president of the board of trustees of the Whiting Foundation for many years. In the 1960’s, Bob was a founder and trustee of Exodus House, a halfway house for addict rehabilitation in East Harlem and he has served as a trustee of Union Theological Seminary, Carnegie Institution in Washington, Columbia University and is currently serving as trustee of the William C. Bullitt Foundation and trustee emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library and Museum.

“…The spirit that flows through these pages may be modest, but it is also filled with an irrepressible optimism and a faith in simple values that are both uplifting and marvelously contagious. As It Was is a lesson in a life well lived, and a tonic for dark and troubled times.”
— Scott HortonScreen Shot 2016-03-30 at 1.04.16 PM

David Wilk Talks with Wendy Burk of the University of Arizona Poetry Center

March 22, 2016 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

Wendy-Burk_2013_Photo-by-Cybele-KnowlesPublishing 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 publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context 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.

I first visited the University of Arizona Poetry Center more than 35 years ago, and am happy to have had the opportunity to visit this great place again a few weeks ago. The Poetry Center has thrived and grown over the years, and is now housed in a beautifully designed modern building on the campus of the university, with a spectacular poetry library, rooms for teaching, readings, and even an apartment for visiting poets. Tucson and the university are lucky to have this fantastic resource in their community.

Founded in 1960 by poet and Walgreen heiress Ruth Stephan, with the goal of connecting people to poetry “without intermediaries,” the Poetry Center has grown from a somewhat humble beginning to become an exceptionally vibrant organization, bringing poets from all over the world to the beautiful Tucson environment.

Stanley Kunitz was the first poet to read there in 1962, and since then hundreds of poets have come to Tucson to read their work and interact with the community. The Poetry Center recorded most of their readings, and having spent considerable time and energy to digitize its collection, these readings are now available online in the Voca program, a mind boggling and wonderful resource for anyone interested in the range of modern poetry.

Founder Ruth Stephan’s mission statement from 1960 is still the guiding force behind everything the Poetry Center does: “Poetry is the food of the spirit, and spirit is the instigator and flow of all revolutions.” The Poetry Center is a living archive, a place where the spirit of poetry serves its community.

The Poetry Center sponsors numerous University and community programs, including readings and lectures, classes and workshops, discussion groups, symposia, writing residencies, poets-in-the-schools, poets-in-the-prisons, contests, exhibitions, and online resources, including standards-based poetry curricula, most of which is open to the public.

In October 2016, the UA Poetry Center will feature eight world-class poets as they address Climate Change & Poetry in a series of investigative readings to address this question: what role does poetry have in envisioning, articulating, or challenging our ecological present? What role does poetry have in anticipating, shaping–or even creating–our future?

The Poetry Center has an exceptional staff, many of whom are poets and writers themselves. When I visited there, I had the great pleasure of talking to Wendy Burk, the librarian of the Poetry Center, and to look around the building. I spent a good deal of time browsing the amazing collection of books, broadsides and photographs in the library too, and since then, I have spent many enjoyable hours listening to some of the great poets included in the Voca archive.

Wendy is the author of Tree Talks: Southern Arizona (Delete Press) and the translator of Tedi López Mills’s Against the Current (Phoneme Media), both forthcoming in 2016. She is the recipient of a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Projects Fellowship and a 2015 Artist Research and Development Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. We talked together in her office at the UA Poetry Center.

Robert-Creeley_12-1963_by-LaVerne-Harrell-ClarkLucille-Clifton_10-1975_by-LaVerne-Harrell-Clarkfrancine-j-harris_and_Tarfia Faizullah_09-03-2015_by-Cybele-Knowles

Photos courtesy of The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Copyright Arizona Board of Regents

Robert Creeley, 1963, by LaVerne Harrell Clark

Lucille Clifton, 1975, by LaVerne Harrell Clark

Francine J. Harris and Tarfia Faizullah, 2015, by Cybele Knowles

Wendy Burk, 2015, by Cybele Knowles

Johanna Skibsrud: Quartet for the End of Time (A Novel)

March 6, 2016 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Quartet for the End of Time PBK_9780393351828.indd9780393351828 – W.W. Norton – 480 pages – paperback – ebook versions available at lower prices.

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 BonusI talked to her about this book and the Bonus March story for Writerscast in 2012.Johanna Skibsrud

Joy Harjo: Crazy Brave – A Memoir

February 8, 2016 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, Poetry, WritersCast

crazyBrave_mech2.indd978-0-393-34543-8 – W.W. Norton – paperback – 176 pages – $14.95 (eBook versions available at lower prices)

Joy Harjo has been one of my poet heroes for a really long time. I have been reading her poems for so many years I have lost count. Her writing is inspiring, mystical, deeply human and politically explosive. The perfect word to describe Joy’s work is “unflinching,” which she is with herself and with her commitment to following poetry and spirit wherever it takes her.

Recently I read her very personal memoir of self becoming called Crazy Brave, and was stunned by the language, heart and soul of this book. This is the story of Joy Harjo’s becoming a person, unfolding into poetry, and discovering her true self.

The writing in this book is literally transcendent, as Harjo recounts the her earliest memories and family life.

Here are the basics: Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. Her mother remarried a deeply abusive man, and Harjo was lucky to escape to an Indian arts boarding school and from there went on to get her BA from the University of New Mexico and eventually an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Crazy Brave is about all of this, but it is really the telling of her path into poetry, the words that saved her, the voice that enabled her to become. It’s a beautiful, power-full, magical book I urge you to read as soon as possible. This is a book whose inner song will stay with you for a long time. Joy Harjo once said this about her own work: I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.

It was a heartfelt pleasure for me to speak to Joy Harjo about this book and her work as a writer. If you’ve never read her poetry, you can find some of her work online, including reading her fine poem, She Had Some Horses.

And here, a poem I really love:

Perhaps the World Ends Here

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.

“Perhaps the World Ends Here” from The Woman Who Fell From the Sky by Joy Harjo. Copyright © 1994 by Joy Harjo

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David Wilk talks with John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive Press

January 26, 2016 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

Dalkey4Publishing 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 publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the larger context 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.

The latest in this series of interviews with publishers and editors is my talk with another old friend, John O’Brien, founder of Dalkey Archive Press and the Review of Contemporary Fiction. The journal began in 1981 and the press was launched in 1984. It’s a remarkable and singular enterprise, committed to publishing internationally as almost no other American publisher. Today the press and journal are based in Victoria, Texas through the auspices of the University of Houston at Victoria, and in Dublin, Ireland, with offices at the Trinity University.

If you are interested in the history of the press as explained by John himself, there is an excellent descriptive piece about Dalkey on its own website here. John places the Review (RCF) and the press (Dalkey) as coming literally from his own interest in writers of substance who were and still are not often included in the mainstream of literary culture. In that way, John and his publishing have always been self identified as outsiders, but of course through his own critical and publishing efforts, and other circumstances, no small number of the writers that have either been covered in RCF or published by Dalkey (or both) have reached a meaningful level of recognition and significance over these many years of the his work.

It is no small thing to have been at this work for so long, and so well. The internationalist tendency here is a strong one, from Luisa Valenzuela to Wallace Markham, to Flann O’Brien and many others, John has helped introduce an incredible range of writers from all over the world to North American readers, and vastly expanded the literary landscape for many of us. His commitment to a range of American writers like Paul Metcalf, Gilbert Sorrentino, Doug Woolf and many others, has been nothing short of heroic.

Writing on the Press’ own website, this is what John says about his goals for Dalkey and RCF: “I wanted the Press to define the contemporary period, or at least what I saw as what was most important in the contemporary period. Further, I wanted these books permanently protected, which is why from the start the Press has kept all of its fiction in print, regardless of sales. And as with the Review, I wanted the books to represent what was happening around the world rather than more or less being confined to the United States. Like the Review, Dalkey Archive Press was and is a hopelessly quixotic venture.”

In 2011, Dalkey Archive received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, and in 2015 John O’Brien was made a knight in the Orde des Arts et des Lettres for his contributions to publishing French literature abroad. Not bad for such a “hopelessly quixotic” operation.

John and I have many interests in common and count each others as friends and fellow travelers in literature and writing. Having this conversation about RCF and Dalkey, programs I believe have incalculable value to our literary culture, was a true pleasure for me, and one that I will always treasure.

Length alert: this is a longer conversation than most (68 minutes), but I hope will be well worth the time spent in listening. Thanks!647362dalkey logo

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