Jessica Anya Blau: The Trouble with Lexie

June 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

The Trouble with Lexie: A Novel – Jessica Anya Blau – HarperCollins – paperback – 9780062416452 – 336 pages – $14.99 – ebook versions available at lower prices.

I interviewed Jessica Anya Blau in 2014 about her previous book, The Wonder Bread Summer, which I found to be wonderfully entertaining and fun to read. Her latest novel, The Trouble with Lexie, displays Blau’s signature wit and fast paced story telling. But it is a complicated book with a seriously flawed and emotionally scarred main character, who faces a very challenging situation in her life.

The book’s opening is pretty compelling (as book openings should be!):

The problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the
Klonopin. And it wasn’t even really that she had stolen
them . . . the problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had
fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin.
And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.

Lexie is an engaging and sometimes irritating main character. As we watch her try to figure out her life, I suspect most readers will want to reach into the pages of the book and tell Lexie directly when she is about to make a big mistake. But she is on her own path and we must follow along as she makes her way toward and through disaster.

Lexie James makes for a terrific main character. She is funny and thoughtful, comes from a decidedly untraditional family, and as a relatively young adult, has figured out how to conquer her panic attacks. She is also engaged to a truly nice guy, and has a job as a counselor at a prestigious private school (presumably in Massachusetts).

But with the wedding fast approaching, Lexie is faced with doubts about her future and who she really wants to be. She falls into a wild love affair with an older married man, a typically bad decision that readers know will have serious consequences.

Most of us have been in similarly fraught situations at one time or another, always convincing ourselves that we’re different and “everything will work out” when we know that is not really true.

Lexie’s story is an example of that central human foible, a form of hubris that makes us believe we can beat all the odds when we want something so much we know we cannot possibly attain. What makes this novel work is that despite knowing that she is headed for a cliff, we end up liking Lexie so much that we want to believe there is a better future for her, and by extension for ourselves. You will have to read the book to find out how this one turns out, no spoilers here.

I very much enjoy talking to Jessica about her books, her characters and stories, and hope you will find our conversation as enjoyable and entertaining as it was for me.

Eugene Mirabelli: Renato After Alba (a novel)

June 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Renato After Alba – Eugene Mirabelli – McPherson & Company – hardcover – 978-1-62054-026-8 – 192 pages – $24.00

Eugene Mirabelli has been writing novels since the late 1950s. His first book, The Burning Air, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1959. Over the years, his style has changed and matured as he developed his voice as a novelist. I was introduced to Gene’s work by his current publisher, Bruce McPherson, who is the kind of publisher who hands you a book and says, “you need to read this.” Over the years, I have made many literary discoveries by following Bruce’s recommendations.

Renato After Alba is the sequel to Gene’s 2012 novel, Renato, the Painter. It is warm, painful, and and highly personal. This book is called a grief novel for a reason. Do not be afraid to pick up this short novel, and dive into this writer’s exploration of sadness and beautiful sorrow. It is moving and entertaining, and revelatory, and as the best fiction does, will make you feel deep emotion in a transformative way.

Artist Renato Stillamare’s beloved wife of fifty years dies unexpectedly, leaving him heartbroken and dazed. The novel is a pastiche of fragments, much like a collage, with the artist trying to discover where all the pieces of his life and memories belong. He recounts stories of the members of his Sicilian-American family, conversations with friends, family members, and even new people in his life. All of it is an effort to rebuild a life without Alba, or with the memory of her, in a way that will enable Renato to continue living. There is humor, and pain and discovery, all the things in life that make it worth living, and a book well worth reading.

One of the pleasures Writerscast has brought me is the opportunity to read great books and to talk to their authors about writing, art and life. Meeting Gene Mirabelli through his writing and in conversation has been a singular pleasure for me.

“For anyone who loves the work of James Salter or William Trevor, Eugene Mirabelli is another writer to treasure, and Renato After Alba is one of the best books I’ve read in ages — a beautiful, profound and exhilarating novel about what sustains us in the face of inevitable loss.” — Elizabeth Hand, author of Hard Light and Generation Loss

As Robert Gray reported in Shelf Awareness:

November 4, 2016 was proclaimed Eugene Mirabelli Day in Albany, N.Y. In her proclamation, Mayor Kathy M. Sheehan noted that in his most recent book, Renato After Alba–a sequel to his 2012 novel Renato, the Painter (both published by McPherson & Co.)–the 85-year-old author “touches upon universal aspects of human existence by creating lovably flawed characters who subtly express the full range of human emotion and experience, from great joy to crushing loss, from deep love of life to rage against the inevitability of death. All written with clarity and cleverness and craft.”

Eugene Mirabelli is the author of nine highly acclaimed novels — five of which feature members of Renato’s extended family and his friends. Visit Eugene’s website is here. Publisher McPherson & Co. website is here.

Elizabeth Hand: Fire

May 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Fire (Outspoken Authors Series) – Elizabeth Hand – PM Press – paperback – 978-1-629632-34-6 – 128 pages – paperback – $12.98 (ebook version available at $9.99)

Over the years, I had heard of Elizabeth Hand, and knew she was a writer to be reckoned with, but I had never read her science fiction and mystery novels or stories. She was just not on my radar. Now, having read this fantastic short collection of some of her fiction and nonfiction, I have belatedly begun to understand the scope of her work and enjoyed the opportunity to experience her powerful writing.

Fire is a short book that packs a big punch. Maybe it is the ideal introduction to Hand’s work, and maybe that was PM Press’ intention in publishing it. The title story was written especially for this book. It is a powerful post-apocalyptic short story set in a world – our own – approaching global conflagration.

In a useful essay, “The Woman Men Couldn’t See,” Hand examines the work and life of Alice Sheldon, who wrote some stunning science fiction novels under the pseudonym “James Tiptree, Jr.” in order to conceal identity from both readers and her bosses at the CIA. In another nonfiction contribution called “Beyond Belief,” Hand talks about how she went from being a troubled teenager to a serious writer. Other pieces include some of her short fiction, a bibliography of her writing, and PM’s own interview with the author (which I tried to not replicate in my own conversation with Elizabeth).

After seeing Patti Smith perform, Hand became involved in the nascent punk scenes in DC and New York. She worked at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Hand is the author of a number of novels and three collections of stories and her work has been recognized by the Nebula, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Tiptree, and International Horror Guild Awards. Her novels have been chosen as notable books by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Hand is a regular contributor to the Washington Post Book World and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and lives with her family on the coast of Maine.

Talking to Elizabeth Hand was great fun for me. She is as good a conversationalist as she is a writer, and has alot to say that I think listeners will find interesting.  I hope this interview with Elizabeth Hand will be a useful and meaningful contribution to our literary landscape. Now that I have become familiar with her work I intend to add Elizabeth Hand’s fiction to my ever expanding list of “must-read” books. Thanks to PM Press for introducing me to this wonderful writer’s work.

Brad Watson: Miss Jane (a novel)

March 10, 2017 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

Miss Jane: A Novel – Brad Watson – W.W. Norton & Company – Hardcover – 9780393241730 – 284 pages – $25.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

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 hope you will enjoy listening to our conversation about this amazing and wonderful book.

David Wilk talks with editor/writer Richard Marek

April 5, 2015 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks

Marek photoPublishing Talks began as a series of conversations with book industry professionals and others involved in media and technology about the future of publishing, books, and culture. As we continue to experience disruption and change in all media businesses, I’ve been talking with some of the people involved in our industry about how they believe publishing might evolve as our culture is affected by technology and the ebb and flow of civilization and economics.

I’ve now expanded the series to include conversations that go beyond the future of publishing. I’ve talked with editors and publishers who have been innovators and leaders in independent publishing in the past and into the present, and will continue to explore the ebb and flow of writing, books, and publishing in all sorts of forms and formats, as change continues to be the one constant we can count on.

It’s my hope that these conversations can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in publishing and writing, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds. This new interview reflects my interest in the history of independent literary publishing, an area in which I have been active for a long time. And this particular conversation reflects some longstanding personal relationships as well.

Richard Marek’s career in publishing began as an acquiring editor at Macmillan; he went on to World Publishing in 1967, and became Editor-in-Chief at The Dial Press in 1972. He acquired the manuscript of a first novel called The Scarlatti Inheritance by the then unknown author named Robert Ludlum, worked on it with him for over two years, and of course it later became a national bestseller. Marek edited Ludlum’s next eight books, including The Bourne Inheritance. He acquired and edited books by more than 100 writers, including James Baldwin, Mira Rothenberg, John Yount and David Morrell. In 1978, he was given his own imprint (“Richard Marek Publishers”) at G.P. Putnam’s, and moved it to St. Martin’s Press (“St. Martin’s/Marek”) where, among many other books, he acquired Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs and Robert Greysmith’s Zodiac. In 1989, Marek became President and Publisher of E.P. Dutton, where he edited a number of bestselling books.

After Dutton became a subsidiary of Viking/Penguin, Marek moved to Crown as Editor-at-Large and thereafter became an independent editor, evaluating manuscripts, editing and ghostwriting, which he calls “a glorious and rewarding career.”

In the past 10 years, he has edited some 120 books, working for publishers, agents, and unrepresented writers. And he has also become an in-demand ghostwriter. He reports that he enjoys writing mornings and editing during afternoons.

Richard is now the ghostwriter of fourteen books, fiction and nonfiction, among them Trisha Meili‘s I Am the Central Park Jogger (a national bestseller), James Patterson’s Hide and Seek (a national bestseller), Brian Weiss’ Same Soul, Many Bodies, Ilanna Rubenfeld’s The Listening Hand, David Grand’s Emotional Healing at Warp Speed, and David Hackworth’s Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts.

And I am happy to say that I have had the opportunity to publish a lovely novel authored by Richard and his wife, the writer Dalma Heyn. It’s a love story for grown ups called A Godsend.

Dick is an active member of the Independent Editors Group – more about him and that organization here.

For this Publishing Talks series, I thought it would be fun and valuable to talk to Dick about the past, present and future of publishing from his unique perspective. His long and successful experience in commercial and literary publishing as editor, publisher, and now writer, provides him with an amazing depth of knowledge and an unending well of anecdotes and stoies. What he has to say during our conversation in his home will not disappoint. He is a great conversationalist with important things to say about book publishing.

Silence of Lambs

scarlatti inheritance

Tony Vanderwarker: Sleeping Dogs – a Novel

April 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

sleepingdogs4-217x300Sleeping Dogs: A Novel – 978-1940857039 – Paperback – AuthorPress Publishing – $16.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

Tony Vanderwarker had a successful career in advertising before he decided to write fiction. I think advertising is an interesting training ground for a novelist, since in so many ways, advertising is about telling stories that are powerful and compelling and of course get across their emotional content very efficiently. Everyone seems to want to be a writer these days, and I think there are a lot of really good books being written and published by late blooming authors, who had successful careers in one field or another, but who always really wanted to write. And doubtless there are more than a few that are not so great.

Tony Vanderwarker has a great story to tell – not just in his novel, Sleeping Dogs, but in how this book came to be written. And he’s written another book about the writing of Sleeping Dogs called Writing with the Master (Lyons Press). Tony was lucky enough to have met John Grisham, who was a neighbor, when their sons played youth football together. They struck up a friendship, though Tony never talked about his own writing with his world famous author friend, until one day he did, and Grisham offered him the incredible gift of his mentorship and working assistance with the writing of Tony’s novel. Vanderwarker gives full credit to Grisham for teaching him how to be a real novelist, no small feat for anyone.

In Sleeping Dogs, Vanderwarker tells a terrific story based on the fact that there are at least eleven known Cold War era nuclear warheads scattered around the U.S. from various accidents and crashes from the period when America kept a fleet of B-52s constantly aloft to defend against a Soviet attack. In a non-stop action packed story, Howie Collyer, who has been obsessed with danger posed by the lost nuclear weapons, comes across an old B-52 pilot who can verify the location of one of the bombs.

Unbeknownst to Collyer, he is being tracked by a sophisticated terrorist cell whose aim is the locate the bomb and use it for their own gruesome purposes. And he is also being pursued by a secret unit of the Pentagon whose job is to quash any information about the lost nuclear weapons. Collyer gets help along the way from a nursing home nurse and a buddy in the CIA, but his family is at risk and so is he at every turn, after he kidnaps the old pilot to try to uncover the location of the bomb he thinks is closest to and therefore most dangerous to the safety of the U.S. east coast.

It’s one of those books you don’t want to put down, not just because the story is gripping and the twists and turns exciting, but the characters in this book are believable and sympathetic, and it’s easy to root for them to win against all the different bad guys they are faced with.

With a book like this, I prefer to not give away too much of the story when talking to the author, so readers can enjoy the discovery of the story and characters for themselves, and in this case, because Vanderwarker’s backstory is so interesting, it was easy to spend most of our time talking about the writing of the book and how it was for him to work with the well known Grisham. This should be a good conversation for anyone interested in the writing process and what it takes to tell a great story. Tony Vanderwarker is a fine storyteller and writer, Sleeping Dogs a novel I can heartily recommend.Grishamtony-vanderwarker

E. Ethelbert Miller: The Fifth Inning

June 21, 2012 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1604865219 – PM Press – Paperback – $15.95 (ebook versions available at lower prices)

E. Ethelbert Miller  is a writer and literary activist.  He is currently the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).  Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.  Ethelbert is also the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at Bennington College.  He’s published more than ten books, in both poetry and prose, has edited a number of anthologies, and his writing is widely anthologized.  He’s won all sorts of awards and recognition for his writing and for his longstanding work in support of writing as a community and cultural effort.   In addition, for several years he hosted the popular weekly radio program Maiden Voyage on WDCU-FM, as well as Vertigo On The Air on WPFW.

Ethelbert has long been a favorite poet of mine, whom I got to know years ago when I lived in Washington, D.C., where Eth still resides.  We’re of a similar age and share various passions, not the least of which is baseball.

So it is no wonder that I jumped at the chance to read his memoir, The Fifth Inning, and then to talk to him about it on Writerscast.  This is a terrific book, unusual in its shape and structure, which is both poetically charged and carefully built.  Ethelbert allows himself to write honestly and purely about his own life, his insecurities, pain and suffering, but without ever becoming self indulgent or overwrought.  There is always hope, and the sense that something good, or even great, will come from all this “stuff” we go through in life.

Thinking of a baseball game, the fifth inning out of nine is, of course, the turning point.  After the fifth inning, a game can end early but still be considered an official game – a life lived, though abbreviated.  So here he is, in the fifth inning of his imagination, looking back at the beginning of the game, and at the present where it’s about to start the last stretch toward the end and the final score.  It’s a good time to take stock and get ready to see what you can do to get past the hitters coming up to bat.  When you’re pitching you need to pace yourself, remember what worked and didn’t work in the early innings, and use what you have learned to keep the hitters off stride and getting the outs you need to win the game.

Poets’ memoirs are sometimes brittle and too carefully built to sustain a personal story.  Ethelbert is not that kind of poet.  He’s active and alive in every moment, and brings his readers right into his head and heart.  This is a beautifully constructed and written piece of personal writing that I hope will find a audience far beyond the literary community.  What Ethelbert has to say about being human and growing older is important for all of us to hear.

Ethelbert’s website is here, well worth a visit.  And I wanted to mention that this is a Busboys & Poets book published by PM Press, a publisher I hope readers will learn about and support.  Buy the book direct from the publisher to support independent publishing and alternative culture.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk Interviews Betsy Lerner

December 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks, The Future

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

A few weeks ago I read a piece by Betsy Lerner in Publishing Perspectives, the excellent online newsletter about the publishing business edited by Ed Nawotka.  It was called “Should I Tweet” and was adapted from the new updated edition of Betsy’s book “The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice for Writers.”  It’s a great piece, that says some important things about marketing and publishing aimed at writers (but good for everyone else in publishing to read too), and instantly made me want to talk to her (and buy her book).  This little quote from near the end of the essay really grabbed me:

“I’m not saying that everyone can or should be creating a personal literary dynasty, but it’s essential for authors to be thinking about how to market themselves. Always has been. Sometimes they cry, “but I’m no good at marketing,” or “Isn’t that the publisher’s job?” I think publishers should help authors think about what they can do early on in the process, whether it’s creating a blog, developing mailing lists, or getting speaking engagements lined up. If you’re lucky enough to be signed up without a platform, start working on one! Marketing and selling books is not for the faint of heart. Whitman knew that. Palahniuk knows it. Jay Conrad Levinson preaches it.

But no one knew it better than P.T. Barnum, “Without promotion something terrible happens,” he said. “Nothing!”

Betsy is herself of course, a terrific writer, as well as being a successful agent.  I admire her blog, where she extends the work she did in The Forest for the Trees.  She is funny and smart, entertaining and instructive, and obviously talented.  Her opinions are definitely worth knowing, and her advice for writers is always great stuff.  She’s a poet, and was for many years a successful commercial editor, and then became an agent with a great list of client writers; she is a partner at the Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.  She wrote another book called Food and Loathing about her issues with eating and depression. She received an MFA from Columbia University in Poetry and was the recipient of a Thomas Wolfe Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, and was one of PEN’s Emerging Writers in 1987. She also received the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize for Editors Under 35.  And Betsy also gives talks on every aspect of the publishing process from her perspective as a writer, former editor and agent.

We had a great conversation about books, publishing and marketing, during which I learned a few things and gained some valuable insights.  A key point she makes is how important it is for writers to understand their role in the publishing process.  While we are certainly in a period of heightened difficulties, the challenges writers (and publishers) face today are really not that different from what they have always been.  The specific tools we use may change, but the principles of marketing books remain the same.  Writers are in fact entrepreneurs, and not just “writers” and they must always be engaged in the public process of publishing, in a measure most likely equal to their own actual abilities.  And she also reminds us of the central matter: that the quality of the work must always be the focus of everything.  Everything else is secondary.

After talking to Betsy, I’m now looking forward to reading The Forest for the Trees – and sooner rather than later.

Mary Sharratt: Daughters of the Witching Hill

March 11, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction

daughterscover

978-0547069678 – Hardcover – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – $24.00

I really enjoyed reading this book and came to admire its author, not only for her writing skills, which are very good indeed, but because she was able to so deeply and movingly inhabit her characters in a place and time so foreign from our own.  Mary Sharratt’s novel is transcendent in many ways.   It centers around the years leading up to the 1612 Lancashire, England, witch trials that resulted in the executions of nine supposed witches.  Mary Sharratt has brilliantly imagined her story, in which witchcraft is real, albeit not evil in the way the accusers made out.  It’s much more complicated – in fact this witchcraft is the folk medicine and healing power of the local spirits of pre-Christian England.  Never preachy, Sharratt gives us a countryside where politics and money separate people from one another, and crushing poverty is the lot of so many.

Widowed mother Bess Southerns supports her family and friends by healing the sick, telling fortunes, and blessing those facing misfortune, conjuring charmes that combine forbidden Catholic ritual, medicinal herbs, and guidance provided by her spirit-friend, Tibb.  Bess is always careful, knowing the dangers her powers create for her but eventually everything unravels in a series of events that finally gets Bess, her family, friends and supporters into inevitable trouble with the law.  Sharratt has crafted a beautiful historical novel that brings this era to life and gives its people she writes about a deep and complex life that many will find surprising.   The conflicts between religions, as well as the conflicts between class are here, as well as mystery and suffering and beauty too.  The book is set in the English countryside where the author, an American, currently lives.  It’s clear to me that Mary Sharratt has allowed this place to inhabit her, as much as she it.  She has put together a beautifully crafted story, full of complexity and compelling characters, and even knowing how the book must end, I was hooked from beginning to end.

As a reader I was transported there with her, and found her story uplifting, painful, and beautiful all at the same time.  This is a wonderful book.

In my interview with Mary, we talked about her experience as an American living in the English countryside, and how she came to write this book.  We talked about the story itself, her characters, their lives, the nature of English witchcraft of the 16th century, power and politics and the warp and weave of her excellent story.