Moore_DintyYour book is ostensibly about cannibals. Have you ever eaten human flesh?

My own, I suppose. I used to chew the ends of my fingers.

 

Have you ever met a cannibal?

No, but Montaigne did. You know, Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the essay, he who first gazed longingly at his own navel. Montaigne (which, by the way, is pronounced ‘Mon-taigne’) visited with three Tupinambá Indians who had been transported to Europe to show off as curiosities. Then he wrote a truly peculiar essay about the experience. He is my inspiration for this book: a collection of peculiar navel gazing with a dash of mescaline.

splash-footballmond

I’m a big Steve Almond fan.  I think he’s one of our smartest and gutsiest writers.  His latest book, Against Football (Melville House), is surely one of the year’s most provocative titles.  Almond offers a searing analysis of America’s most popular sport, going deep where most sports writers tend to stay safely in the shallows, challenging the reader’s assumptions about what the game means, and what its massive cultural import says about our society.

Steve and I had a great conversation on my podcast1 not too long ago, and this past week I had the chance to catch up with him via email for some follow-up questions.

imgresI’ve known Lisa Borders for a decade. We teach together at Grub Street, Boston’s writing center, and see each other every few months at some reading event or another. I’ve always known that Lisa was a great teacher, because her students will happily give you an earful.

I was even more pleased to learn what a fine novelist she is. Her new novel, which follows her 2002 debut, Cloud Cuckoo Land, is called The Fifty-First State. It’s about a photographer in her late thirties who leaves New York City to help her half-brother through his last year of high school, after his parents are killed in a car crash.

So no: not a feel-good story.

Unless you’re the sort of sicko (like me) who is actually interested in grief and how we survive it, and how distant families function, and whether it’s possible to find redemption where you weren’t exactly looking for it.

I was curious enough about all this to seek a further interrogation of Ms. Borders, who agreed to answer a few questions…

I wrote this piece a while ago. I’ve been sitting on it. It’s about the Tin House summer workshop and it names names.

I went to the workshop last year. It had been the dream of twenty years and the flight, or flights, from Sydney, took twenty hours. I left on a dark Sydney morning in the dead of winter, where it was 8 degrees Celsius, and I touched down at 6 pm in Portland where it was a bright 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I must have picked up a bug in transit because by the time I walked into the dream, it had become a nightmare. Coming home can do that to you. I’d caught a hell of a cold. Except it was more than that.

9780986010903Alice Rosenthal grew up in the Bronx, in the 1950s, with parents who were (unbeknownst to many of their colleagues, and some friends) card-carrying Communists. I know this because Alice’s older sister, Barbara, is my mother.

When I discovered that Alice was writing a novel, loosely based on her own childhood, I was eager to read it. I’ve long been fascinated by the extremes of American paranoia. What I had not expected when I picked up Take the D Train was how piercingly it would explore the complexity of the Fifties, especially for women with independent minds and inconvenient political views.

The novel focuses on the cautious, married Frima and her more impulsive sister-in-law Beth. The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage provides a harrowing backdrop to much of the action, which is conveyed in prose that is thrilling both for its restraint and precision.

I was curious to know more about how Alice produced such a riveting novel, after years of writing.

I’ve never met Jon Krampner, which is lucky for him because if I ever did meet him I might very well kiss him on the mouth.

Why?

Because I really love his new book, Creamy & Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, the All-American Food, just out from Columbia University Press.

I say this not just as someone who eats a tremendous amount of peanut butter, but as someone who reads a fair number of books. Creamy & Crunchy has what every great cultural history should: a knack for telling the larger story of our country through our shared artifacts.

Krampner’s history of peanut butter is exhaustive without ever getting dry. He lays the facts on thick but keeps the tone playful. It’s one of those books that’s almost shockingly addictive, where you find yourself thinking: Holy crap is peanut butter fascinating! (Note: this is true even for those loonies who turn up their noses at a dollop of Jif.)

Krampner was gracious enough to answer a few questions about C&C for TNB, knowing that many of our readers consume their own weight in peanut butter each month.

 

I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and staff. We start with Atlas Shrugged.   —Paul Ryan

 

Barack has pushed Malia to read some classics, The Grapes of Wrath, Tender Is the Night—she’s reading those, so I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading.   —Michelle Obama

 

What’s the most common mistake authors make before their book launches?

M.J.:  Not investing enough of the advance back into the book or investing in the wrong things.  At least once a week I get a panicked call from an author who spent her whole budget on PR and a website and now has a gorgeous page and no press.  No matter how great a publicist is you are still paying for effort.  And there’s no guarantee you will get press.  Press is about news.  Not about quality.  My rule of thumb is for every dollar you spend on PR spend $3-$5 on marketing because marketing is guaranteed.  If you split the budget and the PR works – great – you got press and marketing.  If the PR doesn’t then at least you got your ads.  As for the website – no one goes to Google and types in show me a website I’ve never seen for a book I’ve never heard of.  Your site is mostly for readers who already love you and want to see what else you’ve written.  In the beginning – simple is fine – if they’ve heard about the book and want to know more – a pic of you, a cover, an excerpt, review, buy buttons are great.  And please please before you hire anyone – get references.

Jennifer Spiegel is a way bigger freak than me. I base this solely on her excellent debut story collection, The Freak Chronicles, a suite of stories that includes among its retinue the tale of college girl stalking Mickey Rourke and a coed indulging in some extracurricular international relations with a Russian street artist. Spiegel’s stories are sexy but never salacious, and deeply humane. Her heroines spend a lot of time traveling the world and grappling with the complicated moral terrain they encounter.

She seems to have a big mouth, so I was wanted to toss a few provocations her way. Here’s what happened…

Writers are by definition concerned with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week we’ll ask a different writer five questions on the subject.

Steve Almond is our guest this week. He’s the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently God Bless America and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.

I’m not going to waste precious time blabbing about how awesome the stories in Cul De Sac are. (You’re busy. I get it.) I’ll only say that I never intended to read the fucking thing. Why? Because I’ve got two small children at home and, like, six other books I’m supposed to read. I only read the thing because I couldn’t not read it. Which is annoying. And also kind of awesome.

Cultural links of interest from around the web:

Author (and frequent TNB contributor) Steve Almond reflects on the wane of talk therapy and the rise of the writing workshop in the New York Times.

It is at this point that I can hear the phantom convulsions of my literary comrades. “Damn it, Almond,” they’re saying. “You really are making workshops sound like therapy.” Fair enough. The official job of a workshop is to help a writer improve her prose, not her psyche. But this task almost always involves a direct engagement with her inner life, as well as a demand for greater empathy and disclosure. These goals are fundamentally therapeutic.

A year ago, Paul Martone and I began Late Night Library‘s podcast to talk about debut fiction and poetry. By founding an online community specifically focused on conversations about first books, Late Night Library wanted to counter a system that sidelines writers with little name recognition and few promotional resources, in many cases without even reading what they’ve published.

STEVE ALMOND:  I wanted to start with a basic question I get a lot as a story writer: Why do publishers view story collections as risky? I have my own theory, but I’m curious what you think.

BRUCE MACHART:  There’s no question in my mind that, as a rule, collections receive only slivers of the big publishing house pie in terms of publicity and marketing attention. We can all point to the exceptions, but it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy among publishers that “short stories don’t sell.” Because they believe this, they don’t want to commit resources (whether it be time or dollars) to promote books of short stories. The surprising result? Well, most collections don’t sell.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Another year has come and gone, and it’s time once again to present The Nobbies, the official book awards of The Nervous Breakdown.

Below you’ll find this year’s winners, our picks for the best books of 2011.

Congrats to the victors, and their publishers.

And thanks, as always, for reading.

-BL