I came upon Lee Rourke somewhere through my connection at 3AMMAGAZINE.COM, and I remember his first book, (great cover) called Everyday, a collection of short stories. Mr. Rourke has imagined a world void of cliche or pop culture with his debut novel, The Canal,published by Melville House. It’s great to read a story free of modern trappings, hooks, and snares, but ultimately stripped down to bare bone emotion.

The story is told from the point of view of a man who has left his job and finds himself alone on a bench alongside a canal in London. Somehow he’s taking advantage of his boredom, actually finding some comfort in the discconection that’s come from quitting his job when he realizes there is no reason to go to work.  There is a kind of casual innocence at play here, and this man is almost regressing emotionally, taking in what’s around him, while the London he sees seems to be passing him by.  Often Mr. Rourke takes us back into the narrators past, reliving childhood traumas, or events from a life that is no longer relevant.  What’s most important to the narrator is the woman he meets on the bench, and her story.  Once these two characters cross paths, we come to know only slivering pieces of information about her, and from what I can tell, she’s completely unhinged and totally unreliable.  The story isn’t so much about people, but it’s more about what people are like, as humans, from the kids who taunt our narrator, to the couple that sits enclosed behind the glass windows of an office building across the canal from where our narrator sits. From time to time our hero sits with this woman he’s just met, and sometimes he sits alone, but when they’re together the emotional temprature spikes wildly.

This is a rare story told with a surgeon’s eye, it’s particular and peculiar, the voice is scrubbed of any uplifting feelings, and it almost drowns in its own sadness and deep depression. This novel toggles between what the woman on the bench has done, and what kind of life the narrator has lived, over the enitre story were given glimpses of brutal reality and stark beauty, sometimes it floats on the surface of the canal, like breadcrumbs to be used by Mr. Rourke later in the story, and sometimes its just life, as it passes by everyone, including the reader.  -JR

JC: After the Workshop centers around Jack Hercules Shannon – yeah, Hercules, no shit – he had a story published in the New Yorker when he was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He was working on a novel, a rising star. Anthologized. He had the pedigree and the stuff to make it big. Somewhere, however, something went wrong. Twelve years later, he’s given up on that novel, and on writing altogether, scraping an income together by squiring authors around town for book signings and dinners, forgetting, when possible, what might have been.

Then he picks up an author who disappears just before a shitstorm of bad pr, and later the same day plays chauffeur/metaphorical punching bag to the literary flavor of the month, all while feeling a personal upheaval he’s been avoiding for years.

This is funny stuff. Jack wonders the snowbound streets of Iowa City hounded by a maniacal publicity manager from NYC, a hot-and -cold ex-fiance, and a former literary star now down on his own luck. They drink and scheme and lie their way from bars to book signings.

There’s a lot to like in After The Workshop, especially the hilarious cast of characters, who you know from your own workshops, bookstores, publishers, and quite possibly the comments section of this site. Lots of fun, reminescent in lots of ways to Wonder Boys.

Check back tomorrow for John McNally’s contribution to the the When We Fell In Love Series.

jc


JC: A few weeks ago, JR posted a great review of Tom Rachman’s new novel The Imperfectionists. Now that it’s released you’re no doubt hearing quite a few good things about it. Let me jump on the bandwagon by saying that The Imperfectionists is a fine book, whether it’s his first novel or twentieth.

The Imperfectionists centers around the employees of a small international newspaper based in Rome. Using each chapter as a character sketch, Rachman carves a small history of the paper:

At the behest of his editor, obituary writer Arthur Gopal is sent on assignment to interview an obscure, dying academic as information-gathering for the inevitable. Reading her texts, he becomes enthralled by her work, and despite his personal distaste for her, writes a beautiful elegiac obit for her. Herman Cohen, corrections editor, entertains a houseguest for whom he has had a hero-like worship for forty years. CFO Abbey Pineola finds herself uncomfortably seated next to the man she fired on an overseas flights, yet finds herself unexpectedly attracted to him. The onset of the internet age and the slow but obvious deterioration of the newspaper unveil a hazy future for all.

Rachman writes these scenes and scenarios with an unexpected elegance. He gets beneath the skin of his characters and reveals poignant scars and aches, wit and playfulness. Then he combines what feel like stand-alone stories such that he leaves the reader with a bigger, equally elegant whole.

This book deserves every compliment it receives.

jc


DH: Kyle Beachy’s heartland debut, the coming-of-age novel The Slide, was published by the hyper-selective Dial Press in January of 2009. The Slide takes place in St. Louis and I joined a St. Louis Cardinals fan club while I was reading that book. I’m not even a baseball fan. But I was carried away by The Slide’s uplifting regionalism.

Right now, Kyle is gearing up to teach a course in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I was able to catch up with KB between semesters and he provided the Guys with the knockout post below. Reading Kyle’s post made me wish I could audit his class.

When We Fell in Love by Kyle Beachy

My first reading of White Noise took place outdoors, in a reclining deck chair with my feet up against the log railing outside of a friend’s parent’s log home built onto a mountainside in Summit County, state of Colorado. I mention this for two reasons. First, to clarify that I was then, as I had been all of my life, plugged neatly into a world of American wealth and wasteful consumption, which made the big red DeLillo target on my back all the bigger and redder. I had also just finished college, and so (second reason) having the freedom to read this way and not have to think in terms of analysis was weird for me and sort of uncomfortable. Halfway through I realized I was underlining and writing marginalia, though I didn’t know why. It was also, incidentally, the first week of September, 2001. (If the date matters, which it might, it matters in such a nuanced and personal way I probably shouldn’t even begin.)

I can’t recall where I was when I first read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I do know that when I tried to read it a second time it did not take, and so I was for certain in Chicago, where trains rattle overhead and the wind carries knives and winter comes like a trade embargo, fully-armed with tanks and warships; a city, God bless it, that is frankly no place for a love story. The only reason I went looking for this most famous of the early Murakamis was because I’d read Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World as an undergraduate and fallen deeply for the novel’s quiet take on apocalypse. It is a mad scientist and his fat daughter in pink, Inklings crawling through dark tunnels beneath Tokyo, and a protagonist (who is two protagonists, actually) caught between two warring systems (that are one system, actually). Plus also unicorns that do just fine without rainbows, which good luck finding too many of those.

I bought my copy of Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World from one of the grumpy, ageless men who unfold their tables of books on Bedford Avenue, in Williamsburg, and then stand towering over them while avoiding eye contact and seeming just outrageously put out when you ask how much one of the books costs. It is a hardback first edition of a book I had read in paperback years earlier while traveling, and then left on some bus somewhere and forgotten almost completely about except for one line that stayed with me, and which was the sole reason I handed the man four of my dollars even though he was a big fat asshole and my luggage was already full and I was running late for meeting a journalist, and was nervous because he (the journalist) was going to interview me about writing, and “struggles” and I had never really been interviewed before, and I was scared. It really is an amazing line, subtle and easily grazed over but surely the sort for which we should all bow to Johnson, one which equates the farthest limits of human emotion with our smallest efforts of mere existence.

The flight home from New York gave me time to read in search of that line. I didn’t find it until page 87, and by that point I had decided that the younger me had gotten the book all kinds of wrong, and wrong in the way that only the older, aspiring writer me could diagnose. Because, though bizarre and puzzling in terms of structure and movement and scope, The Name of the World is stacked full of magic moments of grace and horror and wonder, all described in language that is, if nothing else, distinctly Johnson’s. That is to say, the novel is perhaps not great but the lines it contains most certainly (sometimes) are. Here is the sentence I went searching for, plus the set-up that comes just before:

Her blouse was sleeveless and her armpits stained with wide blotches of sweat. I made a note to myself — I had to get to a chemist someday, and ask if sweat is the same substance as tears.

If White Noise educated me through its trafficking of negatives and its America of misinformation and misunderstood systems, and Hard Boiled Wonderland taught me the value of a steady narrative hand in treating wild imagination, then The Name of the World opened my eyes to the beauty of imperfection, the simple truth that writing, like reading, is a process, one in which small successes will often find themselves surrounded by larger failures, and that the resulting imperfection, each unique admixture of good and bad, is, in a very real sense, the entire point.


Jason Rice: It’s a rare book that makes me want to start it again as soon as I’ve turned the last page.  To say I’ve fallen madly in love with The Imperfectionists is an understatement.  Over the last few weeks this debut novel has surprised and thrilled me, never left my side, and somehow renewed my faith in the daily newspaper.  I’ve even stopped myself from reading this book so I could make it last longer.

The Imperfectionists, or the people who I assume to be imperfect, are in fact that real gems of this story. Characters like Lloyd Burko, who gets this story off the ground, and becomes a beacon for the entire cast, and someone I looked back to every few chapters.  What makes this story so engrossing is the different narrators Mr. Rachman deftly weaves together to form a larger tapestry (despite the fact that every editor and agent I’ve ever come across has told me that connected stories don’t sell).  Lloyd Burko is a down on his luck reporter living in Paris. He’s desperate for a story, and rifles through his son’s life to find one.  It’s these quiet moments of professional desperation that made me want to climb inside this book, and take up a permanent residence among these men and women.

Tom Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome.  A fantastic job  by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s worked for the wonderful International Herald Tribune. When I lived in France in 1992, I read that paper every day of the week.  It’s an absolute must read for any American living abroad.

The Imperfectionists will shock a lot of people, not American Psycho shock, but very much like the moments right after the world realized what a great book Then We Came To the End was, and to be honest, Rachman’s novel is as good as that masterpiece. There’s a moment when Abbey who has the wicked nickname, Accounts Payable, is almost convinced that the man she fired is good enough to sleep with, a moment of sorrow, and pity, hers and the readers, and then it’s gone, but you’re left wondering, and saying to yourself; “God damn this is good shit.”  These individual chapters make up the life of the newspaper, and since it’s a Dial Press book, remind me of http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385335676 by David Schickler.  It’s a perfect comp, but where Schickler sticks with arrested development, Rachman reaches nearly profound levels of realism through humanity. You’ll fall in love with Ruby Zaga, or the strange Winston Cheung, each person is so close that you can feel their breath on your neck.  In the end the people and the story will blow you away, it’s about a struggling International newspaper and (should be a passé thing to write about, with all this internet talk and electronic book nonsense filling up everyone’s time), it’s people; a sad dog, a rabid reader who is ten years behind on her reading of the paper, and Kathleen, oh Kathleen, she’s so good, so right on and who I think is the most serious character in the book. Shit, it’s all serious, it’s prescient, it’s talking about a medium that you and I take for granted, and I for one buried in the sand years ago as being out of touch. Rachman, in his own fluent and vivid ways shows me just how wrong I was to assume that newspapers are dead. Stop what you’re reading, call your Random House rep and get one of these ARC’s. For those of you not in the business, put it on order at your preferred online retailer.


JC: We’re all very well aware that every newspaper, magazine, blog and website is seemingly required to list their 10 or 15, or whatever number of “best books” of the year. I guess this is kind of like that, but somewhat more amorphous. I don’t know if these are the best, and I’m not asking the guys for a specific number (hell, they don’t even have to be from 2009 – we’re rule-breakers here), but here are a few of the books I’m particularly glad to have read this year, that may or may not have been mentioned here on the blog.

  • In The Valley Of The Kings by Terrence Holt – Intriguing and taut, Holt’s stories reveal him as a master. The stories in this collection are sophisticated and quietly twisted. Haunting and Poe-like.
  • The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno – This was the first of JM’s books that I’ve read, though he’s been on the wish list for quite some time. As enjoyable as promised, if a story about a slowly disintegrating family can be enjoyable.
  • Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead – Olmstead continues to echo McCarthy in this story of cavalryman Napoleon Childs, leader of a party of horsemen hunting Pancho Villa. Ambushed, tortured, and forced to come to a reckoning about the path of his life and the inevitability of death, Napoleon plays the soldier philosopher. RO’s writing is brutal and lyrical.
  • All The Living by C.E.Morgan – A lean, deceptively simple novel about a couple attempting to run a farm in Kentucky. A timeless air invades this book – it could be set in the 30’s or the 90’s. Subtly theological and almost ballad-like, I’ve thought about this book quite a few times since my initial reading. Highly recommended.

JR: It wasn’t about new books; certainly there have been hundreds, if not thousands that I should have read. I was sent a manuscript for a debut that will turn a lot of heads this summer called Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross. It’s an arresting piece of writing, combining cinematic genres, pulp mysteries, and insane details, with a strong whiff of the suburban discomfort found in the world of Raymond Carver. This brings me to the Carver Bio, which I touted to my accounts in September and got a lot of “yeah-yeah’s” in response, now look at it. 2009 was a year for me to discover John Cheever and John Updike, writers from a different time, legends, one who passed away, and the other whose life was documented in a lengthy biography. I realized that Cheever and his short stories spoke to me as a man, husband, father, in the same way the Don Draper spoke to me for thirteen weeks during the third season of Mad Men. That this life I’m living is not a fairy tale, as we are made to believe as teenagers, marriage is hard, life is harder, and the human experience is weird and constantly evolving, changing, disappointing, and thrilling. John Updike taught me things about being a writer; subtlety, voice, character, and point of view. All of this has helped me with my own writing, and in a way, Updike’s different characters spoke to my subconscious, where all men, husbands and fathers are riddled with self doubt, insecurity and wonder. I suppose all of this is to say that, through reading these old chestnuts I learned something about myself.

JE: We’re steeped in a lot of contemporary fiction around here, but we all do our best to mix in some dead guys. Here’s a couple things by dead guys I revisited this year that I didn’t blog about:

The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Everybody ought to at least dabble in Emerson’s essays on self-reliance, character, history, heroism, nature, and whatever else Emerson wants to spout about. The guy is as American as monster trucks—maybe even more! I make it a point to re-visit them every couple of years, and maybe tackle a new one. Here’s a little something from RWE’s essay on the intellect I happened upon recenlty, which I think I’ll tape above my desk for every time I’m lost in the early stages of a novel:

“All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.”

True that.

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley: Just about any writer is fundamentally Shakespearean or Dickensian in their approach to character. Faulkner: Shakespearean. Twain: Dickensian. Shakespeare is concerned with big characters exerting their influence on the world, Dickens with small characters upon whom the world is exerting its influence. Exley is decidedly Dickensian. His characters are small people operating in a big world.

While Exley’s voice is at times as ribald as Bukowski (I’m reminded of the singular, almost sacrosanct respect reserved by Mr. Blue for the mysterious and daunting possibility of cunnilingus), Exley’s insights into the squalid business of alcoholism, mental illness, and abject failure, are far more nuanced, distilled, and textured than anything from the imagination Bukowski. For anyone who liked our coverage of Patrick DeWitt’s Ablutions, or Joshua Mohr’s Some Things That Meant the World to Me, do yourself a favor, and read A Fan’s Notes.

And finally, here’s some stuff I read this year online, by people very much alive:

The Nervous Breakdown.com: Our friend Brad Listi has built a wonderful online venue for both up-and-comers, and established writers—one of the best, frankly, this 3 guy has ever seen. All year long I’ve read short fiction and narrative non-fiction, and yes, even a little poetry, at TNB. Some of my favorites this year came from Ben Loory, D.R. Haney, Greg Olear, Irene Zion (and her daughter Lenore), Alexander Chee, Erika Rae, Zara Potts, Rich Ferguson, our own 3 guy Jason Rice. If you’re not familiar with any of these names, you will be. And if if you haven’t browsed TNB 3.0, by all means do. Communities like TNB, along with Richard Nash’s forthcoming Cursor, are a big part of the future of publishing.

DH: I. I’m finishing up a reading of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room by the wonderful Other Press as 2009 closes out. It turns out to be the most satisfactory novel that I’ve read this year. It’s a wonder if a book can substitute serious diversion for the utter crap of pop culture and catch a sea change in my feelings.

The Glass Room is historical fiction. We’re in 1920’S – 30’s about-to-be-carved-up Czechoslovakia. An extraordinary modern house has been built by a German architect for the Landauers, who own and run Central Europe’s leading car company.

The house, built into the side of a hill, is “upside down”. The main floor is down the hill and down some curved stairs from the entry floor. It features an expanse of plate glass. The view becomes the room.

Chrome columns and white walls animate the space. In a bold touch of luxury in all this spartan coolness, there’s an onyx wall. When its veiny texture catches the light just right, it gives off reflected tree and maze-like patterns like an early Mondrian.

The room is the novel’s touch of allegory: a lens of rational coolness, of the scientific can-do spirit, of modern style detachment from prejudice and the politics of rage.

Would you want to live in such a room? Could you? When the Landauer’s move into their now world-famous, contemporary home, the lens has something to look at. And it’s not something rational and orderly. Messy human lives are laid out for you by the voice of the authorial third person narrator, a voice that’s a kind of analogue to the egg-like glasraum.

Mawer’s voice has become a centering paradigm for me. It displays a compassionate neutrality that carefully spins out a tale, making you long to turn to the next page. It’s quietly sympathetic…detached. Balanced. It’s unshaken by the traumatic events that it relates.

Watch as a lapidary fearfulness engulfs the characters while he who tells the tale remains as clear-minded as the light in the glass room. How much it means to be rational! How little it means! What a writer’s writer!

II. Contre Emerson: I love Montaigne. Emerson preaches. Montaigne never. Perhaps all essayists in democracies end up as preachers. Perhaps Montaigne, the citizen of a much more authoritarian society, didn’t dare. But I don’t think he wanted to.

I love Montaigne for saying if you lived through your day, that’s enough. Never mind this American cult of the piling up of tasks.

That’s not to say that Montaigne wasn’t active. He just wasn’t busy. He served as mayor of his town for awhile and did well. He stayed in good standing with the Catholic church and with the King, who esteemed his service, at a time of civil and religious wars. He got on with these absolutist authorities and still managed to be himself.

MM had a library of about 400 books. I have more than ten times that many. But he used his books ten times better than I have used mine.

Montaigne invented a literary form, the modern essay. It was the fashion in his time to show that you could quote ancient authorities. And Montaigne does this by pulling references out of his 400 books.

I’m elated he does this. I’ve heard some wonderful old stories in his essays. I got the feeling that MM got bored with this practice from time to time. But it was the fashion, his readers expected it. So he did it. It’s the courtier culture in him, I suppose. The desire to be gracious and to please. Not a bad thing. Try to find that in art or with your friends over a beer.

It moves me that although MM documented his temperament in his essays, his reactions to his world, it’s 16th century gossip (still interesting) and even his digestion, when it comes time for him to die, that takes place offstage.

This was the year that I read the Complete Essays of Montaigne in the Donald Frame translation. Having completed the whole compendious volume, I’ve started it all over again. Montaigne is my friend. In his writing is his voice. To read him is to talk to him. It’s the art of individuality without egotism. Such a pleasure to take.

III. An example of compassionate neutrality in the writer’s voice (Mawer) and individuality in writing without egotism (Montaigne). That’s what I’m taking into my reading and writing next year. But JC gave the Guys three shots each in this post.

In late 2009, I joined the Center for Fiction.

If you invented this founding story, it would sound like the premise for a Matthew Pearl mystery. An old fashioned private library, the kind you joined by subscription in the 19th century, the kind of place where Bartleby the Scrivener might have been a member, ekes out a musty existence in the 20th century and evolves into the Center for Fiction in the 21st.

The Center still functions as a library, collecting fiction and sheltering its readers in a classic old world reading room. It hosts talks by writers and discussion groups. It even provides low cost space for writers who need a quiet getaway in order to do their jobs. In every way, it is dedicated to the art of fiction.

So dust off those cobwebs and tell those old bookworms to watch what they’re biting. The Center for Fiction’s website also recently became cool.


JC: Matt Bondurant is the author of two fine novels. His first book, The Third Translation, is the story of a soused cryptologist in the British Museum is a funny and smart romp through the streets of London, and made me think of Harry Crews writing with an English accent. His most recent novel, The Wettest County in the World, is recently out in paperback. It’s the Depression-era story of the Bondurant family, bootleggers in Franklin County, VA, as revealed through the three brothers personalities and the outsider observations of Sherwood Anderson. It’s a rugged and riveting read that I highly recommend.

Here is what Matt had to say about the books that made him a lifetime reader and writer:

Matt Bondurant: As a youngster I was heavily invested in reading. My mother took us to the library every week and I always took home a pile of books. A common babysitting method was to drop me at a bookstore, library, or even a flea market (in the bookstall) where I would while away the hours without much concern. In the 70’s and 80’s you could apparently do that kind of thing and not worry about child abductions and the like. From grades 4 to my senior year in high school I spent most of my time in school trying to conceal a book under my desk. I would bring several so I had spares when they were confiscated.

The problem is that I remember so little about what I was reading or even which books. There were several powerfully affective books, such as The Hobbit or Watership Down that I lived in for a good span of time. I remember being ten years old trying to find “important” books at the library. I read Moby Dick before I was in high school but I had little idea what was going on. I was not a writer. I was a reader.

I still don’t consider myself a writer. John Updike is a writer. Margaret Atwood is a writer. Pynchon, McCarthy, Dellilo, those are writers. I’m just a dude who has written a few things. I try to write.

But there was a kind of moment when I began to contemplate the possibility of being a writer. Or, at least someone who tries to write fiction. Because in college I thought I was a poet. Oh yes, a poet. I was the guy who lured girls up to his room in the frat house to read them poems I had written, Morrissey wailing in the background, a few candles. I would sleep in the woods at night, drunk out of my mind, clutching a copy of Leaves of Grass. I memorized some Byron, hoping for that opportunity that never came. I watched firelight, sunrises, and small birds with a serious turn of mind.

Of course it was all horrible, and after messing around a few years after college I was rejected by every MFA program I applied to so I went back to school for my M.A. in literature. This was the best thing that ever happened to me and it is the reason I try to write because in graduate school I re-read all those important books and actually got something from them. And I met some serious, intelligent people who knew a lot more about books than me, and this time I actually paid attention.

The summer of my first year of graduate school I was introduced to the two writers who had more to do with my decision to try writing some things. I followed a girl I was in love with to Paris, and when I arrived she informed me that she was in love with someone else. I moped around Paris, broke and not sure what to do until her new lover, a fifty-year old Albanian art dealer, gave me something like five hundred bucks and told me to get the hell out of town (I tended to lurk about her apartment, where she worked, etc.). Before I left I bought a used copy of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and a few days later I was in San Rafael, on the Mediterranean coast, staying in the same hotel Fitzgerald stayed in when he wrote the book. I lay on that same beach and imagined Dick Diver swimming out to sea, sat in café’s at night, smoking cigarettes and watching the couples promenading with something like real loneliness. I was old enough to know what hypocrisy meant, and what genius sounded like, and that summer I began to experience the beginning of an actual objective glimpse of my true self operating in the world. I think I began to understand character. Before I left France I had read everything Fitzgerald wrote and he became and remains a central point of light in my writing constellation.

My second year of graduate school, a teacher of mine (Dr. Facknitz, James Madison University, a towering intellect, a scholar and a gentleman ), after looking over some ridiculous short story I had written, recommended that I read John Cheever. The dutiful student I was I immediately went out and read everything by Cheever, including the Journals of John Cheever, which turned out to be the single most affecting book in my life up to this point. I literally carried that book with me for a year, underlining and dog-earing and re-reading. It is the kind of book you can open at random and be guaranteed to find greatness. In my opinion there is no better prose stylist that Cheever, and all of his themes, his longings, his pains, are my own. Except the homosexual stuff. I have either adopted them, or discovered them, or made them up, it doesn’t matter. It is hard to explain the connection I have with that work. I have no need of a biographer because that book exists.

I am under no illusion that I actually write anything like either of these guys. In fact, very little I do resembles them at all, in content or style. I tend to do soft postmodern hijinks involving drugs, gritty violence, absurd situations, sprinkled with esoteric research. Lorrie Moore said in her brilliant work Self-Help that after all the introspection and speculation a writer really has no fucking idea what they are doing. Yep.

I have the Journals of John Cheever on my desk right now. Since 1996 I have had three things taped to the wall above my desk no matter where I have lived: A scrap of paper that has wait scribbled on it (I heard once that Chekov had this over his desk; it may be untrue but I don’t care – I’m still waiting), a picture of F.S. Fitzgerald, and a picture of John Cheever. They are both wearing houndstooth jackets and uncomfortable facial expressions.


Jess Walter (The Zero, Citizen Vince) is an expansive writer. He has more voice in his little finger than most novelists will ever possess. He can digress, delineate, rant, rave, ponder, speculate, ruminate, fulminate, and bring the story to a screeching halt if it suits his whimsy, and readers will still follow along breathlessly.

TFLotP is the story of everyman Matt Prior, father, husband, unemployed newspaper man, upside down homeowner, and poster boy for the current financial crisis. His start-up Poetfolio.com was a miserable failure, his wife may be having an affair, and he’s got less than a week before lenders foreclose on his house. When Matt hatches some questionable strategies to combat his dire situation, the real unraveling begins. What follows is funny, compelling, compulsively readable stuff.

Here’s how much I like Walter’s voice: Though The Financial Lives of the Poets has a slow fuse, much of the coming-of-middle-age turf is well-worn, a few of the plot points feel like warmed over television fare, the poetry is irritating at times, and the resolution feels a little forced, Walter’s voice is flat out unstoppable—the guy could write about pneumatic tools and I’d be on the edge of my seat.

This may be the second funniest book I’ve read this year, after Steve Hely’s, How I Became a Famous Novelist.

JE


We’ve had so much fun with the 50 Things Writers Shouldn’t Do post (currently up to roughly a gazillion things writer’s shouldn’t do), that we decided to turn the tables, and solicit your help in creating a list of things publishers shouldn’t do.


JE:

  • Don’t try to capture lightning in a bottle—just promote your authors instead.
  • Don’t publish “the next” anything.
  • Don’t look for “the sure thing.”
  • Don’t overpay debut authors—nine times out of ten, you’re ruining at least one career.
  • Don’t publish debuts in HC—TPO is the way to go!
  • Don’t pretend that Bookscan is in any way prescriptive in negotiating author advances.
  • Don’t send royalty statements six weeks late.
  • Don’t publish so damn many titles!
  • Don’t put a dog on the cover of a book as a means of persuading consumers.
  • Don’t put a dog on the cover at all (it’s over, okay, O-V-E-R, dogs are 2006)

JC:

  • Don’t pad the advance print run to buyers to try to get them to buy more. If you’re printing so many of them, I won’t have any trouble getting them later, will I?
  • Don’t use props in author photos. (except hats. I’ll accept reasonable hats (i’m looking at you JE), but nothing that belongs in mardigras, and no indiana jones hats for thrillers about archeologists.)
  • Don’t let poorly copyedited books go out the door. This is a huge annoyance to me. Half the books I read seem to have typos or punctuation errors in them. Christ, give the intern one last go at it.
  • Don’t make the blurbs and blurb authors more prominent than the author or book they are promoting.
  • Don’t publish books you aren’t interested in promoting.
  • Don’t do what everyone else is doing.
  • Don’t pay an advance the book has no chance of recouping.
  • Don’t over-distribute to one channel while underselling another.
  • Don’t tell accounts who can sell your book now that you are “waiting for returns.”
  • Don’t be afraid to edit books by big authors. I love great big doorstop books. 500 pages, 800 pages, whatever, but a lot of books would benefit from a little slicing and dicing, even the big guys.

JR:

  • Don’t publish a well known literary author, and never reprint the book, even after it gets glowing reviews.
  • Don’t sell that well known author in at the chains, leaving almost nothing for the independents, which have to wait for a reprint that will never come.
  • Don’t depend on a talk show host to sell your books.
  • Don’t pretend like you’re too good to read a query letter. You’re a publisher of books. That’s what happens when you hang out your shingle.
  • Don’t publish anymore books about Vampires or Pirates.  I don’t care who has died and left a manuscript unpublished.
  • Don’t pay comedians six figures to write about their life, unless it’s Jim Norton. That last book was some funny shit.
  • Don’t publish a second book from an author whose first book sold well, when the second book is the same thing as the first.
  • Don’t publish books that you can’t distribute.
  • Don’t pretend that the chains will be here forever.  Just because they have all that space, doesn’t mean you have to fill it.
  • Don’t pretend like bloggers don’t exist. When we ask for a review copy it’s because we want to talk about how great the book is. Not sell it on Ebay.

DH:

  • Don’t say in your publicity that you will be working with literary blogs to promote your author and then blow off the bloggers. You have to actually do it if you say that you will.
  • If you want to do an interview between your writer and a Blogger, then step out of the way and let the writer and the blogger talk to each other. Why? A good interview depends on the establishment of trust. Two people can’t trust each other if they have to have a go-between in their conversation.
  • Every legitimate email to a publishing house should be answered. What amazes me is that most so-called marketing departments don’t want to talk. You want word-of-mouth for your book? Doesn’t that mean that you have to open your own mouth? I dunno…but it doesn’t seem like rocket science to me.
  • Now that I got that off my chest…I understand that no one describes a book as “wise and witty”anymore. Thank goodness. But the substitutes for this phrase that involve a double alliteration aren’t any better. Don’t do it.
  • Jump into the pool if you want to use social media. If your writers are beating you to the punch, then what are you there for? I just learned that a writer I like has written enough of a new novel to give some preliminary readings. Now I even know what the title of the novel will be. For a fan this is great. But did I learn this from the publisher? No. I learned it from the writer’s Facebook page. Does Facebook mean that publishers don’t need to have marketing departments anymore? You tell me.
  • Richard Nash has talked about this: Don’t neglect the fans. Don’t hold them in contempt like you do. What are you afraid of? That they won’t kiss your ass? They won’t. Become a fan yourself if you want to please them. Your smartest writers know this better than you do.
  • Don’t inflate announced print runs. Ha…ha…ha. I meant that as a joke.
  • Don’t encourage your reps to read galleys that you won’t distribute to your accounts. I don’t want to hear that my rep has read a galley that he can’t get for me. I also don’t want to hear that he had dinner with a writer that I wasn’t invited to meet or that he went to a great movie tie-in screening that I wasn’t given a ticket for. The bigger the house, the more they do this.
  • Don’t get afraid if writers decide to talk to their fans and vice versa. No harm will come from this. Fans are good, not something you have to stamp out at all costs.
  • As for Jonathan and dogs…I don’t know what’s going on there with his no dogs on the cover. But here’s my cover rule: avoid dark covers, they usually don’t work. They tend to turn off the casual bookstore browser. I am greatly looking forward to seeing the cover of West of Here.




Dan Chaon is enjoying more success than ever with his new novel, “Await Your Reply” (see our coverage here), and we at Three Guys couldn’t be happier about it, because, well, the dude deserves it. Great book, great guy. And for those of you who don’t know how to pronounce his name, it’s pronounced /Shawn./ Last week, JC and I threw some questions at Mr. Chaon, who was so gracious as to field them. The results, the first batch, anyway, are after the jump. Look for a second round with Dan Chaon soon. In the meantime, go out and read Await Your Reply.

JE: Okay, so this is something I’ve been dying to ask you about, given the narrative structure of AYR,which required so much finesse in order not to tip your hand: how did you approach this trio of stories? It has the polished feel of a narrative which has been scrupulously plotted and outlined, and yet I sense there must have been a learning curve, and a lot of discovery along the way, resulting in a lot of reverse engineering, and editing, and shuffling, and re-plotting, and re-allocating of information.

DC: This started out as three separate short stories. I often write groups of stories that are connected by theme and certain narrative tropes, but in this case I had a presentiment that they were somehow part of the same (longer) story.

For most of the first draft, I didn’t know how they were connected. I was just writing forward with each of the three narratives, nervously feeling my way into blank space. A lot of the time during the first draft I was anxious because I thought I might have to throw the book away, and when it started to come together toward the end, I was surprised to discover that a number of the characters weren’t who I thought they were. It’s cool when you can manage to fool yourself.

Of course, you’re absolutely right that the “plot,” as it is now, is a work of reverse engineering–once I figured things out in the first draft, I had to go back and make a lot of the earlier chapters fit into a jiggered timeline, and a reorganized concept of who was who. But it was surprising to me how much was already there, too, as if I had left clues for myself without even knowing.

One of my personal favorite stories that I’ve written is a piece called “Thirteen Windows” (in Fitting Ends, my first collection.) That story came out of an exercise that one of my teachers gave me. She pointed out that I repeatedly wrote scenes in which characters looked out of windows, and she gave me an assignment in which I had to write a story where every single scene featured a window. I think she thought she was going to break me of a bad habit. Ha!

In any case, I think this novel is a little bit like that. Ultimately,a lot of the architecture is not so much “scrupulous,” as it is simply obsessive-compulsive. I run along the same tracks in my mind over and over, and I do the same thing here: versions upon versions of the same idea, which luckily ended up suiting the plot and theme.

JC: You spend a great deal of time dealing with the concept of identity in this novel — not just identity theft, but identity abandonment, as well. One of the great lines is “who would you be if you were not yourself?” which opens a whole boatload of interesting philosophical questions. How did that theme come about in the writing of the book, and what do you make of this identity shell game?

DC: Tonight my younger brother and I happened to be driving through Twinsburg, OH, and I made note of the fact that Twinsburg annually hosts a“Twins Days!” Festival. Twins from all over the country come to celebrate their special connection.

“Ugh,” said my brother. “Twins are creepy.”

And I was silent for a moment. “Hmm,” I said.

“I would never want to have a twin,” my brother said. “I would always be nervous that he would try to kill me. “

I laughed at this–it’s kind of non sequitur, right? But actually there is something serious at the bottom of it, which is the idea that we have that we are unique. But what do we mean when we conceptualize a “self,” a “me?” Why is it so important to believe that a person exists as a single continuous unbroken narrative through time, as an “individual? ” I pointed out to my brother that most of the twins I have known began to distinguish themselves from one another from an early age. By adulthood, even the identical twins that I have known look remarkably different from one another.

We like the idea that the individual self is a snowflake, inimitable, and that having a twin could be somehow unnatural and even dangerous.

But wait! Why shouldn’t you have more than one life, more than one self– why not dozens? hundreds? With the internet, we now have at our fingertips the ability to try out any number of avatars, to play act any number of different personas. And yet we still like to hold on to the idea that there is some essential, true core that exists.

At the end of *Await Your Reply, *one of the main characters thinks: “You could be anyone.” And it might be the ultimate freedom, but it also might be a terrible negation: if you are anyone, then you are also no one.

It strikes me that the central theme in this book is actually quite conservative. The characters are all at loose ends, adrift, and it would be harder for them to transform if they had other people who knew them, who held them in a stable grasp. It occurs to me that we are us because of the people we love–our family, our friends, our community–who hold us to a consistency.

JE: Identity being the major theme of AYR, I’m curious if (or how) the fact that you were adopted has impacted your own sense of identity, and how this might possibly color your fiction.

DC: the simple answer is that adoption has deeply affected my sense of self from a very early age. I remember, for example, a picture book for adopted children that my parents used to read me, which explained that my parents had “chosen” me because I was “special.” And I remember fantasizing about the lives of my biological parents, in a way very similar to the way that Ryan and Lucy fantasize about the Other Lives they want for themselves.

For me, the adoption stuff has continued to complicate my life in a whole variety of ways well into adulthood. I met my biological father when I was in my late twenties, and I’ve had a very close relationship with him and his family ever since. (In fact, my biological half-brother, Jed, who is 24, has been living with me here in Cleveland since my wife died last year–so I have truly, for all intents and purposes, moved into a different life.) At the same time, I have a separate, and complicated, relationship with my adoptive family (my adoptive parents both died in 1996;) and there’s also my biological mother, who I have only spoken to a couple of times, and who has kept my existence a secret from her own family.

Whew. Did that even make any sense??

All that being said, adoption wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I was writing this. More pertinent, I think, was the fact that my wife was gravely ill when I trying to finish the book. Her impending death ultimately colored the emotions of the book a lot. That last chapter, and that Carlyle quote that Hayden uses,and just the general sense of loss and finding oneself alone. The longing for that one person and the certainty that they will disappear.

chaonJC: In your acknowledgements you give a hat tip to a number of writers who have influenced you, including, surprisingly to me, a number of horror and fantasy writers like King, Bloch, Lovecraft. What is it about those genres, or those authors, that you’ve found so influential in you’re own writing.

DC: I’m kind of surprised that you’re surprised, JC. As an avid consumer of fantasy and horror, the connections seem really apparent to me; but of course that’s looking at it from the inside.

On the one hand, I rarely work in a mode that is overtly supernatural, but I feel like a lot of the moods that I’m most attached to–dread, and a sense of uncertainty about reality, and the difficulty and dangers of trust–are all tropes that find their most vivid roots in horror. I’m friendly with the horror writer Peter Straub, and he once told me that he thought that most of my stories struck him as like ghost stories, even if the ghost never appears. I think that’s a good assessment.

In **Await Your Reply**, I found that I was being drawn into a world that was peppered with iconic dark fantasy stuff–evil twins,hypnotists and magicians,mysterious disappearances,past lives and dismemberment.

There are a number of fairly direct citations within the text. The house in Nebraska where Lucy and George stay looks a lot like the house in * Psycho,* for example, and George’s mother has a Hitchcockian quality, though she’s less like Norman Bates’ mom and more like Bruno’s mother from* Strangers on a Train. *Patricia Highsmith’s *Talented Mr. Ripley *stalks around the edges, as does Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. To some extent, I conceptualized Lucy as a modernized Du Maurier or Shirley Jackson character.

Miles and Hayden’s relationship draws on all kinds of stuff, from Jekyll and Hyde to Frankenstein to the old 1970’s Thomas Tryon bestseller *The Other, *which features a pair of twins called Niles and Holland. Meanwhile, Peter Straub’s *Ghost Story *features a mysterious woman who appears in the lives of the main characters in various guises, under different names, and Lovecraft’s sense of unspeakable ancient societies and secret worlds underpins a great number of Hayden’s obsessions.

The idea behind this was that the “real” world of the novel would be shot through with a kind of eerie artifice, that real locations would also have the quality of a dream, or a stage set, or a certain deja vu. All the characters are in the process of reimagining themselves, and this is always, it seems to me, an act of confabulation.

I had some fun with this. Hayden, I think, is a true Fortean. He truly does believe in a world full of cryptohistories and conspiracies, asdo his Russian compatriots, who (if you translate the Russian in Chapter 5) are eager to talk about recent breakthroughs in telekinetic research.

But the other characters–Miles, Lucy, Ryan–aren’t so secure about what’s real and what’s not, and I was interested in the way the fantastic intruded in their realist lives.

The “Russian Mobsters” who Ryan encounters in Chapter 14–straight out of central casting–are actually real guys. The conversation Ryan has with them is taken practically verbatim from an encounter I had with a trio of friendly, drunken tourists I met when I was in Las Vegas, and the sense of “threat” comes from the movie cliches that Ryan (and, perhaps, the reader) imposes upon them.

On the other hand, one of the big supposed villains of the novel is a horror movie nerd who freaks out at the sight of real blood and carnage.

In short, I was attracted to the idea that the real and the fantastic would share the same space in the novel, layered upon one another. And–as in all the best ghost stories–we never know how much is just a reflection of the characters’ psychological states.

JE: Okay, everything you just said illustrates one of the reasons why your fiction is great: because there is so much going on beneath the surface, so many ideas, so much intertextuality, and awareness of what came before you, the sum of which could very easily result in work that was convoluted, or heavy-handed, yet your story is so crisp and focused and efficient in its execution, that the effect is a kind of electricity that pulses beneath the work, palpable but invisible—charged, the whole work is charged, like each sentence has the energy of all the sentences which were cut in order to arrive at the one that remains. And yet you’ve stated that you were groping in the early stages of composition. Don’t you get the feeling sometimes that our stories exist somewhere already, fully formed, and that our unconscious mind (or perhaps even something outside ourselves) just leads us to them through a distillation process? Almost like the act of composition—the rough, rough, rough drafts—are just an act of faith? Or am I just too stoned again? Fuck, I think I’m too stoned again. Does that make sense?

DC: Yes, you’re probably too stoned again. But join the club. There’s a big stoner in practically every book I write. I love you guys.

I truly believe in the power of the subconscious. I don’t outline, and I don’t know what is going to happen when I begin a story or a novel. I have images, and characters, and glimmerings of plot, but no real outline.

There is something suicidal about this approach, because it means that you can get to the middle of a book and realize that you have nowhere to go. I’ve had this happen a couple of times, and it is a terrible experience.

But at the same time, I find that I’m not really interested in a narrative in which I already know what is going to happen. The problem with outlining is that it seems to me that the characters become flat, that there’s a kind of determinism at work in which you’re basically reiterating what you already know about the world. The thing I like about fiction is that it offers this chance of discovery.

Have you seen this new TV show, *Flashforward? *It’s not particularly great, but I’m interested in the premise. Basically, there is an Event in which everyone in the world has a Vision of the Future. The big question of the show is whether you can change this vision, or whether is it fated to happen no matter what you do.

To me, that’s my big question. What does free will mean? And that is why I write the way I write. With the hope that the characters will somehow show me the way….that I’ll be able to grope through based on imagery and situation. And I suspect that actually I came to this method based on watching television, rather than on reading novels. I’m embarrassed to say that I probably learned novel structure from the episode arc of shows like **The Soprano*s and *Lost** and *Dexter. *The classic structure of books like *The Great Gatsby *or *To the Lighthouse–*two novels I love–don’t realistically have much influence on how I actually work. * *

As it happens, the next piece that I’m working on might be a television series. I’m working lightly on a possible television pilot about a medical process which allows you to bring the dead back to life, at a cost. It’s sort of ER meets Six Feet Under meets Dead Like Me. The Resurrected are kept in a kind of medical ghetto, in cold storage, where they can be visited by their loved ones. The main character is a guy who tries to commit suicide in the first ep. Only to find that his wealthy wife has had him resurrected…to his dismay.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

-3G1B