*

My father said, “The decisive moment is overrated. I can’t tell you how many students of mine have wasted God-knows-how-much film trying to capture it.” Fifty or so wannabes stood outside the auditorium pretending to be cool, listening to him as if his talent would wear off on them. I leaned against the wall feeling forgotten.

He spoke to the crowd, but it was my sister Victoria who grabbed people’s attention, sneaky looks. The blond hair, red lipstick, white skin, four-inch heels: she was runway model-pretty. Her black widow dresses made her head float. Stylists across the city drooled over her sculptured hair.

She was next to me on the wall, listening, with a plastic glass of wine in her hand. I whispered to Victoria, “You know he’s full of shit.”

“This is his game, Tom,” she said under her breath.

“He’s selling the brand,” I said.

“I’m not buying,” she said.


Emily St. John Mandel’s follow up to Last Night In Montreal is really starting to pick up some advance steam among the independent booksellers, and her growing fan base. I stumbled on her debut a while back and have been a big fan ever since. The Singer’s Gun is a decidedly more adult affair, and in a way signals a writer who is growing up, or in this case, coming out into the light.  Everything about this story is non-linear, which confirms what I already knew: that kind of storytelling not only works, but is something that can sell.  We’re treated to a pulp flashback and flash-forward as Mandel introduces us to a half dozen characters right out of the gate, and she hints at something bad, like a subtle kind of noir, which isn’t ashamed of it’s pulp origins. Mandel is flexing her cinematic influences (the rights to this should be scooped up) and her love of someone like Jim Thompson.

In her first book she really made the skin stand up on my neck with a kind of Twilight Zone feel to the situations she created, which is effectively haunting to say the least. Anton, and Aria, the brother sister team of thieves in The Singer’s Gun seem dead set on breaking the rules, and if no one finds out, they haven’t done anything wrong, or so they think.  These two perfectly-drawn sad sacks are selling fake passports, and Anton extends his thievery to a college degree from Harvard, which sets him on the path towards Elena, a meek and wafer-like secretary who eventually comes into his world when they are thrown together in an office building in Manhattan. Aria turns up once in a while, as the narrative jumps around, comfortably, (she’s like a pebble in Anton’s shoe) from the past to the future, each sequence an important piece of the whole, but you don’t know it at the time. We’re treated to wonderfully vibrant scenes in Italy, which are just amazing, really striking a sense of place; Mandel captures what it’s like to be an American traveling in that area, and what it’s like when you go south of Naples.  Between Anton and Aria, and Elena, we get into the minds of people who don’t really know who they are, who they want to be, and by the time we get to the island of Ischia off the coast of Italy, we’re watching these characters figure it all out, slowly, and sometimes, they never really seem to get it right.

Anton is on the run from Aria, well, he’s doing one last job for her, and it needs to be done while he’s on his honeymoon, in Italy. He’s marrying a woman who doesn’t want to be married, and they’ve postponed their wedding a number of times. Elena is on the run from a special agent, who wants to get Aria behind bars, this agent, is quickly and efficiently rendered, and poignant, as she is missing her own daughter. In both books, Mandel writes about parenthood with striking fluency, and what it feels like to be abandoned, or forgotten about by someone who is supposed to love you, either a wife or child, or distracted husband.  Earlier sections of this story take place in an office building which is frighteningly accurate.  This part of the story reminded me so much of a great little book called Waste by Eugene Marten. There is a kind of wild desperation, a sense of death and almost morgue like atmosphere, which is impossible to write unless you’ve worked in a place like that.

It’s hard not to run out into the street and tell everyone I know about this book, Emily is such a great writer, really operating at a high rate of speed, and she’s only in her early thirties. The book is published by Unbridled Books, a great independent press everyone should check out. -JR


JC: By now you should have heard about Sam Munson. His first novel The November Criminals is on sale this week and deserves your attention. It’s the story of drug peddling high school senior Addison Schact, investigating the murder of a classmate encumbered by his (not) girlfriend and . It’s awkwardly funny and appropriately cynical, with the expected echoes of Holden Caulfield. Check back tomorrow for a review and a chance to win one of five copies. Here’s Sam’s version of When We Fell In Love:

Sam Munson: I was flattered to be asked to write a piece for this series, and wary at the same time: it’s not clear to me why an anecdotal history of my reading habits might be interesting to anyone at all. I am still very young and have achieved very little. There is also, I am sorry to say, always an element of glory-borrowing in such autobiographical dabblings, or at least it seems that way to me. Self-assessment of the kind so causally demanded and practiced by people of literary profession verges, I would argue, on the impossible: who can say, after all, what the decisive moments in his own biography are? Who knows his own influences? When we identify an artist as a touchstone, a fulcrum, or whatever other clumsy machine-metaphor you like, we reveal far more about our warped self-understanding than we do about the subject of our disclosures. That we have been influenced and inclined towards art by occurrences and events outside of art I take as an article of faith. Memories, clouds, plant-scents, scraps of overheard conversation, violent, inexplicable surges of elation or despair, a simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by monotony—these, if anything, constitute the real impetus underlying the desire to write, these and a deep-seated, unconquerable inarticulacy.

I could provide a list of books I’ve loved, but I am ashamed to, because to do so seems to me presumptuous. I have the unfortunate sort of face that inspires people, usually drunks, to hand over their biographical details to me. But even this conceals self-praise. Let me say rather: I am too cowardly to discourage people from speaking to me, or that my capacious memory for the trivia of other people’s lives reflects a consitutional empty-headedness on my part.

Robert Musil once remarked on the utility of a great regret in life, as it can be precisely the necessary spur to serious achievement: he also—only half-facetiously—suggested that intellect requires an admixture of stupidity to undertake its work in the world. I do not claim to possess a strong intellect, or any intellect whatsoever, for that matter, but I am equipped with ample stupidity; I am not blessed with anything so clear and powerful as a great regret, but I do suffer all the petty inner agonies of the bourgeois, and those quite acutely, despite their inherent bathos. And, with a character so constituted, love of art serves little to no purpose, at least as love of art is usually defined. Does this make me a philistine? A nihilist? Simply a bore? (I suspect it’s that last.)

There is, however, a significant piece of biographical information relevant to this enterprise that I do not mind revealing, as I think it will give readers an even clearer picture of my bad character. My forthcoming novel, The November Criminals, was written in a short period of time, about four months. This, at least if I am to judge by people’s responses, is unusually fast. I am often asked for an explanation of my speed. At first these questions left me openmouthed, gaping . . . reflection, though, has led me to one conclusion. I was motivated primarily by jealousy, and even resentment; these both directed toward a friend, a few years younger than me, who had written and published a novel. And with a hag like that on your back, anything is possible. At any speed.

JR: I’m all for a guy getting a story published in the New Yorker, and James P. Othmer, (FOB), is a fan of Ben Loory (he told me that he’s been reading these Loory stories aloud to his kids at night. Me? I read ‘Monster Trucks’ to my son, I make all the sounds, and this makes my son happy), but to be perfectly honest with you, I felt a little threatened by the story “TV”.  I’d been hearing things, you know, chatter on Facebook, and some people had mentioned this story to me, and that Ben Loory doesn’t have this book of short stories under contract. Like I said, it’s great this got published in a place that only publishes 52 stories a year, and when you publish Jonathan Lethem’s talking dog story, you’re running out of ideas.  Talking dog stories, do you see what I mean, how is that even possible? A dog that talks? It’s not even funny to pretend that dogs can talk. So, stories like TV should be published more often in the New Yorker, but since that’s the only place to get a story published, really, the only place that matters, then I guess it’s important.

So there’s this guy, he is at home, late for work, watching TV, and he can’t get up, because he sees himself on the TV, going to work. Now this could be a comment on our society, how we are defined by our public personas, or it could by mystical, or magical realism (see, I can’t tell the difference, just call it magic, or realism, don’t put them together, it confuses me), but immediately I’m thrown off by the fact that a guy, any guy, can see himself on the television set while he eats his morning cereal and not flip the fuck out.  He watches his TV self go to work and talk to his boss, and do his job, he sees himself doing it, and the self at home is happy because the TV self has gotten all the work done that the guy sitting at home is supposed to do.

Let’s look at this from birds eye view. Who is this guy? And why is he at home, and not at work? We don’t know. But he is really freaked out, and happy about the fact that there is someone out there doing what he does, while he sits at home. The guy at home even says, I’m trying to figure this out, and I can’t. He then, (later in the story) realizes that his mind is like a fist, and he’s afraid to look at it because it might fly away, okay, why? But, then the man who has been watching himself on TV finally hears someone coming home, and it’s the guy on TV, there are now two guys, the same guy, occupying the same space, and guess what, it’s totally tossed on it’s head. This story is like a snow globe, you shake it, the snow falls, and it falls in the same place, but it looks really great when it falls, because it’s beautiful, so you do it again, and again, and again.  But the snow never changes, and it always falls to the bottom of the snow globe.  Then the room gets filled with more guys who all look the same, running around, like it all matters so much that they are in the same room.  What? Then Loory has the guy imagine he’s a doctor performing surgery, and the surgery goes well, and he gets to screw the hottest nurse, because all nurses are hot, right? At this point, I read to the end of the story, and really got worried, that maybe I was slipping off the earth, you know, because somewhere out there, there is an edge to the world, right? Read the story and decide for yourself. I like Loory’s writing and I’ll bet this collection has already been scooped up, probably by FSG, but man, am I confused.

I was somewhere between being indefinitely alone, and finding someone, when a copy of Birds of America came along, actually two copies.  I had just broken up with a girl I had no business breaking up with when I gave her my extra copy of Birds of America as a kind of bonus for letting me break up with her.  I never read the book, and until last night, never read Lorrie Moore.  There is no good reason why this gap in my reading history exists, but there it is.

There is an overwhelming power to the this first story in Birds of America, the much praised collection, and if you’re still reading this review at this point, and have not dismissed me completely, then hold on a second, and I’ll tell you why.

Sidra is a mildly famous actor, in the way say, Michelle Forbes is a mildly famous actor, and Sidra has decided to leave L.A. for the comfortable luxury of Chicago, and she feels better for it immediately.  She becomes our hero and a lonely woman at the very moment we find out that she’s living in a run down motel, eating, sleeping and watching the outside world go by.  Sidra is a chiseled creation, a woman without the burden of girlie things to hold her down.  She speaks in sentences that erase from your mind that she really is, and she dates a man who is too stupid to realize she’s a famous actress, who, as she puts it, was nominated for a major award once.

Sidra goes from one end of the story to the other making the occasional call to the west coast to people who miss her, really miss her, or they’re sad she’s not there because they can’t exploit her.  The man she dates named Walter seems like a kind of half remembered fiction, even to himself.  He goes on a date with another woman while dating Sidra, but isn’t honest with her, and why should he be?  She talks about willingness, to be willing to do something like debase herself as an actress to a group of strangers, she takes her clothes off in movies, and her own father avoids her when she comes to visit.

I don’t know if Moore is trying to tell us something powerful she’s found in being a woman, famous for something that seems cliché, or she wants to appear naïve in the development of her characters, and let them self realize on the page.  This story moves everywhere and nowhere all at once, and what’s most apparent to the reader is Moore’s incredible assured voice, almost too smart for the coffin she’s fitted for Sidra.  Like a girl who should be wearing better shoes, but falls back on a pair of Chuck Taylors.

-JR

Kimberly and I had for a few months exchanged idle suggestions that I come to New York to read at one of the Literary Experiences.  Then United had a special.  Buy a ticket with the moon and Pleiades in Acme special configuration, and get another ticket free.  I happened to be traveling for business under that auspicious astronomical prodigy, so I thought to myself, still with an idle inflection, “hey, what better use for that free ticket I have coming?”

I asked Kimberly what she thought, and after a while she responded, “Well, you know, late March is about right for the next TNBLE.  I’ve got you down.”  Oh shit.  So much for idleness.  As I firmed up travel plans I increasingly looked forward to meeting Kimberly and others with whom I was familiar from TNB, including Kristen Elde and Tod Goldberg.  Kimberly set the theme “Growing Pains”, which gave me plenty of space for creation (which is to be expected, since this is the most prominent theme of TNB pieces).

I wrote and re-wrote my piece, a poem called “Growing up Misfit” which I’ll post in a day or two. [Done].  I picked out an appropriate Senegalese kaftan with Djellaba stylings (minus the hood, of course,) made by the excellent tailor Dantata near the Muslim Quarter, Bogobiri Corner, of Calabar.  I was ready.  After an uneventful trip Friday morning I arrived at LaGuardia and took the shuttle to the hotel, taking a moment to puzzle at the groups of soldiers with prominent sidearms hanging out ostentatiously with police at the Queens–Midtown Tunnel.  “What, do they think they’re the Comitatus Posse?” I wondered.

 

A friendly reminder:

The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience, NYC will soon be bloomin’!

Mark your calendars now for Friday, March 26th for readings from your favorite TNB writers, centered around the theme: GROWING PAINS!!

The details:


I read Safe in Heaven Dead and I waited. That was a hell of a debut, there was a whiff of The Corrections to that book, but in a more focused world, plus the main character dies on the first page, so, I guess it’s not all Franzen. Then, as I’m doing my monthly Ligon check I come across him on Facebook, which, well, puts Drift and Swerve squarely on my desk. It’s funny to wait so long to read a writer and then realize that he’s continued to write the same searing and effective prose that you remembered. Ligon and I talked about Providence, where the first story in Drift and Swerve takes place. I went to college there and grew up in Rhode Island, and he wanted me to point out what he got wrong about the city. He didn’t miss anything, or screw any streets up, which is good, meaning he knows where he’s writing about. What I like about the story is that it reminds me so much of the people that didn’t go to RISD or Brown, and hung around Providence with the kids who did. They were there physically, but when we students went to class they went to work at a job-job. These people were sometimes more interesting than the kids who went to college, and Ligon takes us on trip around town with a down on her luck stoner, who drifted her way to Providence.

Sometimes Providence collects people like Nikki, who got there by accident. Nikki doesn’t remind me of one person, she reminds me of six or seven, girls who showed up at parties that were all RISD kids and she was the only one there who didn’t have to go to class, but somehow found something in common with everyone. I thought of Nikki as more than the stoner thief that she’s made up to be by Ligon, the girl who wants something but doesn’t know how to ask, or find it, if she did know what it was. She’s working at a restaurant owned by some lesbians, and Ligon makes it all sound oddly uncomfortable, without saying it out loud. There’s this great scene where Nikki gets this painting from a painter who may or may not be dropping out of RISD, and she doesn’t really like the gift. It sounds good to me, but Nikki doesn’t know if it’s good or not, because she’s Nikki, a girl who works at a restaurant. It’s easy to show a character being uneducated, or have them say it, but it’s difficult to neither say it or show it, and just have it be there, that’s a writer who knows how to write characters. -JR


The Nervous Breakdown’s Literary Experience, NYC will soon be bloomin’!

Mark your calendars now for Friday, March 26th for readings from your favorite TNB writers, centered around the theme: GROWING PAINS!!

Friday, March 26, 2010
Happy Ending Lounge
302 Broome Street

Doors open: 7:00pm
Program begins: 8:00pm

Cover: FREE*!!


JR: The following story is something I wrote for my first public reading, which took place Friday December 11th at Happy Endings Lounge in New York City.  The main character of this story works for a supermarket chain as a district manager, and this is her first visit to one of her stores during the holiday season.

OFFENDER by Jason Rice

Marlo listened to the Super Foods store manager, whose name she wouldn’t be able to remember if he wasn’t wearing a nametag, tell her that this was a good employee, someone who had been with the store for years.  Marlo didn’t nod her head; she just focused her eyes on Frank’s.  He was treading water and they both knew it.

“It was a mistake.  She just put the change in the tip jar.”

“Frank.  It was an unfortunate mistake.   She did it without asking.  Now we have someone out there in the world that thinks we employ thieves.  Do you see the perception this creates?” Marlo tried to keep her voice steady; this was Frank’s problem now.   She didn’t discipline hourly employees; she just made phone calls to store managers when complaints came into the home office.  It was a coincidence that she was dealing with this.

“She is very sorry.”

“Sorry is for old people and children.  The customer is now going to tell anyone who listens that our store ripped them off.  Would you come here if you heard that?”

Marlo stood up and tucked her cell phone into the inside pocket of her leather jacket.   She remembered standing in front of the mirror in her bedroom; she’d left before the sun came up.   She thought the white corduroy pants might be a mistake, the Versace belt certainly could have been reconsidered, but that decision was already set in stone.   The night before she laid out her outfit for a day of protocol enforcement.

Marlo had a list as long as her arm, each store manager seemingly overwhelmed by the business of keeping their stores running properly during the holiday season.  She thought about the mistakes she was going to have to correct and it made her mind wander.

“This is a learning opportunity for you, Frank.  Please.  We can’t put spilled milk back in the bottle, but we can, you know, stop it from happening again.” She patted him on the shoulder.  This poor man, she thought to herself.  The weight of this place was crushing him.  She left Frank to do his own thinking.

Standing at the last check-out counter she caught herself in the reflection of the automatic sliding doors.  As they opened and closed she knew the thoughts that were whipping through the minds of the employees of the store at the very moment they heard she was coming in for a visit.  They all thought they’d be fired, which was a good thought for them to have, kept them motivated.   She watched her reflection again; her hair was perfect, blown out and straight as an arrow.  Marlo knew that to make this work she needed to chew lemons, and never give away what she was thinking.

She watched a white haired man stumble his way towards the customer service counter, his hands shaking as he went.  Then she watched two women, one with sucked in cheeks, the other with light gray hair, they both desperately held onto the same shopping cart.   She wondered if they shared an apartment, a bed, or were just mother and daughter out food shopping.

Frank wobbled his way towards her staring at his shoes as he went.

“She’s in my office.”

“Who?”

“You know.”

“No.  I don’t.  This is your store.”

“She wants to talk to you.  It’s a girl thing.”

Marlo smiled and crossed her arms.  She followed Frank back to the office.  Earlier that day she had stood behind the observation glass in the bakery and watched two employees pick their assholes and rub shit off their noses, no one wore gloves.  The level of pain she could inflict…if she were heartless.  But she let it go.  She let it all go.  There were only so many battles that could be fought.

Marlo’s chest tightened as she breathed in and held the air down like a deep drag off a joint.  The office was now so small that she felt sick.  Frank’s coffee breath and this woman’s tears filled the tiny space.

“I’m so sorry.” This woman mumbled.

This idiot woman, asshole, fuck up, do nothing, Marlo thought all of these things and more.  She wasn’t sorry that this woman had to work in a place like this.  She wasn’t sorry for this woman’s luck.  There was only one way this could go.

Marlo let her breath out, and tried to find a smile that had as few sharp edges as possible.



Joshua MohrJE: WWFiL is a new series we’re starting here at Three Guys, in which the fellas and I ask some of our favorite writers to guest blog a short essay about a book or books, or maybe an author, that made them fall in love in with reading. We wanted to know who they were, and how the book changed them, and who they’ve become as readers and writers and book people. In the coming months, you’ll be hearing from a dizzying array of writers, all of whom have one thing in common: we’ve covered them here at Three Guys One Book.

A couple weeks back I covered Joshua Mohr’s badass and unsettling debut from Two Dollar Radio, Some Things That Meant the World to Me. We Three Guys love watching young talent emerge and develop, and look forward to more from Mohr, beginning with next year’s follow up, Termite Parade, also brought to you by our favorite family joint, Two Dollar Radio. Here’s Joshua Mohr on when he fell in love:

Joshua Mohr: I was one of those high school students who thought reading was bullshit.  And books like “Red Badge of Courage”, “Ethan Frome”, and “Pride and Prejudice” weren’t helping my opinion that literature was pretentious and stuck up.  I didn’t want any part of the canon, if it was comprised of stilted and boring narratives.  Or as Bukowski put it in his introduction to John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”: “…nothing I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me.”

Then my senior year in high school–having literally faked my way through every book report I’d ever written–my English teacher busted me on it.  He said it was obvious that I hadn’t read the assigned book and handed me a copy of Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”; I had two days to read the book, write a report, hand it in, or he’d flunk me.  I begrudgingly left with yet another novel I didn’t want to read.

But read it I did because repeating my senior year didn’t seem like a solid option, and the book changed me. Everything I thought I knew about literature was wrong.  It wasn’t boring or stilted, or at least it didn’t have to be.  In the right hands, literature was vibrant and exciting and unpredictable and could make you laugh and break your heart and it could even do all these things at once.  I was hooked.  I asked that teacher for a reading list and he recommended Plath, Kesey, Paley, and Huxley, and just like that, I was a fiend.

As an aside, I tried to contact this teacher years later to let him know the immense influence he’d had on me: that I was turning into a writer myself, thanking him for first showing me Vonnegut.  He never responded to my email.  He didn’t care or didn’t get it.  Or he remembered me as a piss-ant stoner wasting his time.  I can’t really argue with that.  As Billy Pilgrim would say, “So it goes.”

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

JE: One thing we hear at Three Guys a lot (usually from women) is how refreshing it is that we offer four very diverse (but all very “guy-ish”) perspectives on the literary and publishing landscapes. We deal mostly in the currency of literary fiction, which is a market overwhelmingly dominated by middle-aged, college educated women. Why is this? Why is it most of my dude friends stopped reading fiction in college? In the past year-and-a-half, I’ve made over thirty (you count ’em, thirty!) personal appearances at book groups for All About Lulu. On average these groups are attended by anywhere from eight to twenty-five women, and they’re almost invariably gracious. But I’ve yet to see a single guy–once or twice, a nervous husband in the foyer with two leashed dogs, trying effect his escape before the wine and cheese hits the table, but other than that zilch. If the novel is dying a slow death, how can we get the male readership back? We’re talking about a huge, untapped market, here—how do we reach them? Personally, I don’t think price wars are going to do it. I think there’s a certain type of story that’s gonna’ win these readers back– one where something happens!

JR: This price war is total bullshit; a way to get the dwindling reader into the store, and gives retailers a chance to get into Ma and Pa’s pocket, it’s a buzz thing, and a scam. Who the hell is going to read Sarah Palin’s mashed potato life? Is Glen Beck the co-author? $9 for hardcover, for how long, what happens when the discount period ends, Dan Brown for $30? Are women readers reacting to books in an insightful
way, more so than men, is it the nurturing effect? So now what do male readers actually read, Under the Dome, the hardcover version of the Simpson movie? Cut the time a hardcover is on the shelves to 6 months. Promote the trade paper, sell it, and get it into hands faster/easier,move backlist to downloads or POD. (check out Harvard Bookstore, and their Espresso Machine for books) The latest entry into the download world is something that sounds vaguely pornographic, but it will compete with the Kindle, both still pricey. Lower advances, increase royalties on the trade paper, use the internet as a tool to promote. Book publishing is offering a high class/priced product to the middle class, and wondering why it’s not selling.

JC: I disagree that the so-called price wars are bullshit. I think that the way the industry develops is fascinating. Publishing got itself into a rut, magazines, books, newspapers, and this is a seismic change. Whether for better or worse, of course is yet to be determined. I was reading Scott Esposito’s bit on Conversational Reading the other day, where he mused about the European price fixing of books, and I wondered — what will be the results of these two philosophically opposed views of bookselling? Will the indy bookseller be better off in a price-stabilized environment? What about the consumer? My MBA says that price-fixing is a pox on the free market, which is bad. (Really. It says it right there at the bottom of the diploma in little gold leaf calligraphy.) But does the reader lose more in knowledgeable recommendations, service and communitarian (they’ll take that degree away, they will) values than they gain in price savings. As a dedicated reader, I say yes.

But I really wanted to talk about guys. Why the hell don’t guys read like women do? Anyone who reads this is probably closely tied to the publishing community, or certainly has a vested interest in it, so you probably know some, but once you get outside that circle, it’s hard to find the casual male reader. So what gives? Is it the lack of male reading role models? Obama sold some books when he gave out his summer reading list, but — and we’ve considered this before — the charismatic writer, the cowboy living on the edge, the Mailer and Hemingway and Kerouac, even, is gone. We’re stuck with Dan Schmuck Brown. That’s a sad inspiration, my friend. Is the missing man the result of a massive industry wide marketing and editing misfire? How do we get them back? I believe only Dennis has the answer.

DH: I’m the gay guy on Three Guys with three straight best friends. The problem isn’t with the books. It’s with the guys. Since the age of Hemingway, guys have been in denial about feelings. As for the subject of marriage, most guys don’t want to read about it. That’s because a lot of guys think marriage should look like something out of Lucy and Ricky. As for the price wars, every bibliophile should get a bargain on a book once in a while. But I worry that if you get your art on the cheap, then the respect that should flow both ways between the reader and the writer runs dry. Something would have to be done then, to restore that respect. That might not mean higher prices but some other form of shared sacrifice. My rules for better book clubs: All books selected should have been published in this century. Make your book club into a great date night if you want 20-somethings to attend. If you want guys, free beer wouldn’t hurt. Maybe guys would be attracted to books by the idea of shared sacrifice. Think of what writers, booksellers, publishers and readers have to sacrifice. Let’s talk about that sometime. I can testify that all four Three Guys know what sacrifice is. We’re a band of book brothers.