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When you complete what seems to you like the final draft of a short story, Mr. Barry, do you …

Please, there’s no need to be formal. Relax.

 

Thank you. So when …

By the way, would you care for a drink?

 Dark Lies the IslandERNESTINE AND KIT

Two ladies in their sixties made ground through north County Sligo in a neat Japanese car. The sky above Lough Gill was deep blue and the world was fat on the blood of summer. The speed limit was carefully abided and all the turns were slowed for. There was the carnival air of a fine Saturday in June. A vintage car show had drawn a crowd in 1920s boaters and blazers to Kilmore; the old Fords and Triumphs honked cheerfully in the sun, and the ladies as they passed by smiled and waved. There was a lengthy queue for the ferry ride to the lake isle of Inishfree, there were castles to be visited, and way-marked walks to be hotly trailed. All the shaded tables outside the village pubs were full and tinkled with glasses and laughter, and children played unguarded in the cool of the woods.

‘When it gets a good old lick of weather at all,’ Ernestine said, ‘this is one powerful country.’ 

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It was a suburban street, one block long, the houses made of brick and built to last like the third little pig’s. Sycamore trees had been planted at regular intervals along the curb and the curbs themselves sparkled; I think the concrete was mixed with mica in it. I think when it was new the street couldn’t help but draw attention to itself, inviting envy.

Fiona Maazel is the guest. Her new novel, Woke Up Lonely, is now available from Graywolf Press.

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Small town living is always the same, whether it’s in Arkansas, Idaho, or Missouri. Built on the backs of linked story collections like Winesboro, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, Volt (Graywolf Press) by Alan Heathcock follows the lives of a handful of lost souls, tragedy washing over them like a great flood, people with names like Winslow, and Jorgen, and Vernon. In the fictional town of Krafton, we see what people do when living out in the woods, close to nature. When there’s nothing to do, they make their own fun, picking fights over nothing, running through cornfields, tipping over cows. In a small town, everybody knows everybody, and gets in their business, sometimes to help, and sometimes to enable their own survival.

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Dusk burned the ridgeline and dust churned from the tiller discs set a fog over the field. He blinked, could not stop blinking. There was not a clean part on him with which to wipe his eyes. Tomorrow he’d reserved for the sowing of winter wheat and so much was yet to be done. Thirty-eight and well respected, always brought dry grain to store, as sure a thing as a farmer could be. This was Winslow Nettles.

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy is a powerful book packed with tension, unease, and life at the edge of the forest, where quite possibly man should stay. It is an intricate weaving of several different point of views: the fractured soldier back from fighting in Baghdad, Brian, who dresses up in the hide of wild animals, creeping around the woods, spying on a woman he longs for, eager for some sort of meaningful contact; Justin, the beaten down husband of Karen, a woman unhappy and distant after a miscarriage; their son, Graham, a bookworm, about to make his first kill; and the grandfather, Paul, watching over them all with disdain, longing to make men of his boys, at whatever cost. And looming at the edge of it all is the violence of nature, the push back of locals frustrated by the expansion of business, the unseen bear that haunts the Oregon woods, waiting to tear them apart.

JE: I was stoked to get my hands on a copy of  The Wilding from Graywolf’s Marisa Atkinson when I was in Denver for the Mountains and Plains Indie Booksellers show a few weeks back. A lot of people are talking about this book -people I listen to. Some of them are comparing The Wilding to James Dickey’s spare and creepy masterpiece, Deliverance.

Percy’s muse is central Oregon, an area I’m quite familiar with, having spent a lot of time down there (between Bend and the high desert in Christmas Valley to the south). Like Dickey’s fictional Cahulawassee River Valley, Percy’s setting for The Wilding, Echo Canyon, is a rugged wilderness slated for destruction. Because I hate writing exposition, here’s a short synopsis of The Wilding from PW’s starred review of the book:

The plot concerns a hunting trip taken by Justin Caves and his sixth-grade son, Graham, with Justin’s bullying father, Paul, a passionate outdoorsman in failing health who’s determined to spend one last weekend in the Echo Canyon before real estate developer Bobby Fremont turns the sublime pocket of wilderness into a golfing resort. Justin, a high school English teacher, has hit an almost terminally rough patch in his marriage to Karen, who, while the boys camp, contemplates an affair with Bobby, though she may have bigger problems with wounded Iraq war vet Brian, a case study in creepy stalker. The men, meanwhile, are being tracked by a beast and must contend with a vengeful roughneck roaming the woods.

Maybe what I like most about The Wilding is this: something actually happens! Some might even argue too much happens. This novel is full of adventure, suspense, and horror. Sometimes when writers juggle points-of-view it serves mostly to divert the reader from an otherwise static narrative. It’s a little trick we use in a pinch. But Percy, like Dickey, like Jack London, knows how to move a story. The Wilding is a page-turner in the best sense. There were moments when I was tempted to skip ahead. Nothing wrong with that kind of narrative momentum. But also I wanted to linger, because Percy writes well, in language that is crisp and nuanced, but not overwrought or self-congratulatory, and because Percy’s characters beg me to understand them, to follow them into their dark places. Though he overplays his hand at times with the club and fang theme, and the action is owing to a convenient wealth of wildlife at nearly every juncture (rattlesnakes underfoot, bucks moseying by, owls all over the place, vultures loitering, grizzly bears, and rednecks stalking them), it is Percy’s well-drawn self-conscious characters, and his tremendous writing which shine through. The Wilding is a highly compelling read, by a writer who is going to be around a long time.

threeguysonebook.com

The Head of Nursing, who in a more traditional, more hierarchical, more Victorian institution would have been called Matron in the old-fashioned way, had been fairly direct with Sunny Taylor in the beginning, extremely direct, by the Finnish standards of the day: “What we want from you is competent nursing, and also patience. You might get annoyed because of them. It should be said.”

What made you decide to write a novel set in a hospital? Most people try to avoid spending time in them, after all.

I feel drawn to hospitals. To me they’re an index of civilization. That might sound weird when our own healthcare system is so messed up, but isn’t it amazing, at the same time, that we have a system? That there are people who are motivated (and by secular reasons, to boot) to help us when we’re seriously sick or injured, day after day after day? It’s not like this is easy work to do, and the stress felt by individual care providers can be huge. My aunt is a retired practical nurse, and I’m sure that’s one reason I wanted to write about nurses.

I don’t remember if I caught wind of it through Facebook or Twitter, in an email or if I just stumbled across a headline on the web, but when I heard that author Stephen Elliott was sending around a limited amount of advance copies of his new book, The Adderall Diaries, for free, I kept the information to myself and emailed him immediately.

He calls it the Lending Library.

Asks that people read his book in a week and then send it along. Just pay for the first-class postage and don’t mistreat the book for the next person.

I got my free copy on a Saturday, finished it the following Saturday, and am sending it on its way to the next cheapskate, er, reader on Monday.


The Adderall Diaries is the story of how Elliott battles writer’s block and an Adderall addiction in San Francisco until hearing that an old acquaintance from his S&M community has confessed to killing eight or nine people and won’t say who they are. The acquaintance is also the best friend of a man who is about to stand trial in a high-profile case, a guy accused of killing the mother of his two children, a Russian woman he met through a bride service. It’s framed by the complicated relationship between Elliott and his father who killed a man right before Elliott was born, or didn’t. But probably.

It’s a fast and brilliant read; it’s New Journalism-y where the writer sets out to report on an event but writes just as much, or more, on himself and his role in the event. It’s a true-crime memoir. It’s written on drugs, like On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The speed that Elliott is swallowing and snorting gives the book a jumpy feel, but the chronology doesn’t suffer. Unlike the author at times.

The book is brutally honest.

The book is immediately current, it’s eye-opening into the world of sado-masochism sex play (unless you’ve already read some of Elliott’s best work), and it invites you to investigate the lives of your parents before they were your parents.

And the book is, if you sign up before it’s too late, totally free (save for the postage).


Stephen and I emailed back and forth:

The Nervous Breakdown: The idea behind the Lending Library reminds me of a site I used to participate in, PaperBackSwap.com, where you list some used books on your shelf that you were totally done with, and if someone wanted it, the owner paid the shipping. Which was cool because I had too many copies of The Great Gatsby and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and I wanted to collect all the books in the Fletch series. But here you are sending out your book that hasn’t been on anyone’s shelf yet. For free. Could you tell me how this came about, if this was your idea or something Graywolf Press was looking to do with the right writer? And how did the second party react to the first party’s proposal?

Stephen Elliott: The idea was mine. I was having a “marketing” conversation with Graywolf and they were talking about getting galleys into the hands of bloggers. They had sent me a bunch of galleys to give to reviewers and people in the literary world. And that’s when I had this idea of just sending the book to anyone who requests it, but requiring they forward the book within a week.

The impression I got was that Graywolf had mixed feelings about the idea, but they didn’t say no, and they had already sent me the galleys. And I think they’re glad I’ve been doing it. I mean, I’ve always believed that you don’t make money selling books to your friends, you make money selling books to your friends’ friends. (not that I’ve ever made any money) This is an extension of that idea.

But also, you know, I just want people to read my book. I don’t frankly care if they buy it.

TNB: I can definitely see how this could pay off, especially if you already had all the galley copies: People read The Adderall Diaries for free, dig it, and spread the good news via word-of-mouth or through social media sites (if they’re able to take a break from updating everyone about their latest pedicure or what they just ate). Do you find that you’re getting more press this time around because of the Lending Library idea, more than when Happy Baby (Picador, 2004) was about to be released?




SE: I’m getting tons more press than when Happy Baby was released. I think that’s partly because of the Lending Library. But you have to understand, Happy Baby didn’t get any press. It was edited and designed by McSweeney’s and published/distributed by MacAdam/Cage, and in the middle there was this disconnect. Because McSweeney’s had designed and edited the book, there was no-one at MacAdam/Cage who had any ownership of the book, and so it fell between the cracks. Initially there were only maybe four reviews of the book. You couldn’t even order it at Borders. Happy Baby ended up doing really well and made a lot of best of the year lists, which gave me a lot of faith in the system, that if you wrote a really good book it would find its audience. But there was no attention paid to that book when it came out.

By that way, I’m not blaming anyone. I’m perfectly happy with what happened with Happy Baby. If Dave Eggers hadn’t of edited that book it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.

This time everything’s different. This is really my first major book in five years. My Girlfriend Comes To The City and Beats Me Up was just a collection of short, erotic vignettes, a minor book, I think. So now I have this book coming out, and since Happy Baby I’ve done all this political organizing around literary events, along with politically inspired anthologies. The truth is, I know tons of people in the literary world now, and in 2004 I didn’t. Plus, I’ve maybe built up a little fan base from my previous work.

But you know, in the end, you live and die by the work. If a literary book isn’t really good, (and this is still a literary book, even if it’s non-fiction) then nothing you can do is going to make the book succeed. You might sell a bunch of copies initially, but if a book is going to stick around it’s going to be because of the writing. I think people think too much about marketing, and not enough about writing good books.

TNB: Speaking of marketing, it’s funny that one of the things I got the most fired up about in your book was learning that your father would actively try to sabotage your writing career, calling reporters who interviewed you to say you were lying about your hard childhood, writing harsh Amazon reviews for your books. How did you first react to these things, particularly when he wrote those anonymous shitty reviews? Did you contact him? And did you begin to wonder if your memories were correct, although it’s obvious that they were pretty sharp in your mind?

SE: Well yeah. That’s what a lot of the book is about. I definitely questioned my memories, which is a pretty healthy thing to do. We all remember things differently. It’s possible for my memories and interpretations, and my father’s, to co-exist, even though they contradict each other.

The bad reviews my father left of my books (which he’s still doing) are never anonymous. I mean, he always says something so that I know it’s him. I’ve contacted him about it in the past, but I don’t contact him about it anymore. He should say whatever he wants, whatever makes him feel better.

TNB: Your father was a writer and author of a couple books. Have you ever critiqued his work? Is there anything of his you would suggest reading?

SE: I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to critique my father’s work, but my favorite book by him is My Years With Capone.

TNB: You’ve been published in Esquire, the New York Times, GQ, Salon.com, The Believer (which is where I first read your work), and in some great collections including Best American Non-Required Reading and Best Sex Writing. You also started your own culture site, The Rumpus. What drove your to start your own publication and was it easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?

SE: I don’t remember what I thought The Rumpus was going to be. I look at creating The Rumpus like writing a novel. You just start, you don’t know what it’s going to become. The trick is focusing on creating something good. Don’t worry about what other people want to read, write the book that you want to read. Same with an online publication. I created the website I wanted to spend time on.

I was driven to do it after I finished The Adderall Diaries. It’s my seventh book, and I wasn’t ready to start another book right away. So this was a creative project I could get under while I figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

TNB: Well, hopefully when you start your next book you continue on with The Rumpus. I just discovered it a few months ago. You going to continue to head the site up from San Francisco or will you ever make your way back to Chicago?

SE: I don’t think I’ll make my way back to Chicago. I love Chicago, but San Francisco is my home now. It was an accident. I was driving around with no plan in mind. I was a ski bum, then I coasted into Moab. I ran out of money and gas in San Francisco eleven years ago. I kept meaning to leave, but I never did.

You can buy The Adderall Diaries in September 2009 from Graywolf Press, or you can borrow it now.

Keep up with Stephen Elliott until then on The Rumpus.