I’m not sure what to make of Darin Strauss after reading this memoir.  To me it seemed like fiction, or at least at first glance it did.  Mr. Strauss has gone through a fairly traumatic event, and since it happened early in his life, he’s had time to process, and maybe figure out a way to deal with it.  He killed someone.  It was an accident, and it couldn’t be helped.  The writing here is crisp, sharp, cliché-free, and brutally honest.  It reminded me of the Stewart O’Nan novel Songs for the Missing.  By the end of Half A Life you realize you’re reading something that really happened, and it’s true, which makes it all the more potent. It’s published by McSweeney’s, and is on sale this month.

This novel took forever to make it my way, and it’s probably because I worship the movie.  Now that the adaptation of Never Let Me Go is about to grace the big screen, I think it’s a fine time to revisit this classic, as backlist sells.  I love how Anthony Hopkins was chiseled in my mind while I read this book, the clueless butler who is only serving his master, even though that master is a Nazi sympathizer.  The book is equal parts beauty and masterful writing; Ishiguro lets us see the butler, but only feel what he sees, not what the butler feels, because he’s void of emotion.  It took me years to finally read Remains of the Day, and it’s worth every second you spend with it.

Dogfight, A Love Story came to me right alongside other books that Random House wanted me to read, somehow this little gem shot to the top of the pile, because after I read the first few pages I couldn’t put it down.  The two brothers at the center of this story might remind you of a modern dayEast of Eden, but with lots of drugs, pitbulls and a scam involving a pocket full of chocolate…that all takes place in Queens, NY. You’ll love the urgency of Matt Burgess, the detail’s that might be overlooked by the common man, in this book, take your breath away.  There is a wonderfully vibrant scene around a dinner table, involving a baseball game and a pregnancy, which should leave you in awe.  As far as debut novels go, this one is great, and it confidently stands alongside The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut.

 

 

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JC: Johnny needs no introduction around here. All About Lulu was one of the first novels 3G1B covered, and JE became one of the earliest friends of the blog, eventually becoming the fourth/third in our collaboration. If you haven’t yet coerced someone into giving you a galley of West of Here, get to work on it, or you could wait and buy one and put a few bucks in his pocket. He’s got rabbits to feed. Here’s his WWFIL.

When We Fell In Love – Jonathan Evison

My old man was sort of a deadbeat at times, but he was (and is) a brilliant guy. He’s currently living off the grid in the mountains of southern Oregon, where, among other things, he hauls his feces around in a wheelbarrow. All of this begs a little explanation, but that’s not the purpose of my post. So, if you’re interested in my old man (and you may be by the time you finish this post), here’s a little more about him.

The point is, while my dad wasn’t around all that much to “father” me after the age of 9, he single-handedly led me to my destiny as a writer. He introduced me to storytelling. In my infancy, it was the oral tradition. In the darkness of my room before bedtime, he spun whole worlds for me out of thin air. He was masterful. His characters won my sympathy right off the bat. He understood tension. Pacing. Climax. For the most part, these stories comprised an ongoing serial concerning three orphaned tiger cubs and their adventures in the jungle. I’m guessing my old man liked Kipling.

Before long, we began inventing these “tiger stories” together. And in these dark delicious minutes before sleep, my fate as a storyteller was won—a fate which was to include twenty years of abject failure and near-starvation for the noble cause of storytelling, not to mention enough form rejections to wallpaper the Tacoma Dome. And ultimately, a little taste of victory. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By six, I was on a steady diet of Dickens. My dad read me CopperfieldGreat ExpectationsLittle Dorrit. It didn’t take me long to realize that my family (and extended family in every direction) was “Dickensian.” We were a fantastically idiosyncratic lot. A great, shaggy, circus of a family. Bodybuilders. Inventors. Pianists who only played Christmas carols. We took in homeless people, adopted exotic pets, rode mini-bikes. We were flawed, but lovable. Inept but sympathetic. And our lives were filled with all manner of drama—of love, and loss, and at least one rabid squirrel monkey (no joke—she bit a guy in a Red Lion parking lot outside of Portland, but again I digress). To this day, Dickens feels almost as much as a father to me as my dad does (and that’s no blow to my dad). There’s a reason that Dickens appeals to children. His heroes (even those who were not children) were little people trying to navigate a big world which always seemed to have other plans for them.

At eight years old, my old man gave me Kurt Vonnegut Jr.‘s Breakfast of Champions. Thus, while my playground contemporaries were reading The Great Brain and Nancy Drew, I was learning about wide-open beavers and puckered assholes. Whatever else may have been lost on me, I was beginning to recognize the most noble functions of humor—to laugh in the face of adversity, to laugh at injustice and heartache and the hopeless vagaries of the corporeal world. I was learning about absurdity. It didn’t take me long to recognize the Dickens DNA in Vonnegut. The sympathetic characters. The humor. The sadness trickling quietly beneath the laughter. Soon Vonnegut felt like an uncle—specifically, the uncle who shows you the world that nobody else thinks you’re quite ready to see.

When I was seventeen, I met my next literary idol in John Fante, who came to me by way of Saroyan and Bukowski. Ask the Dust virtually cemented my status as a hopelessly young alcoholic misfit, determined to starve himself in the name of literature. While Vonnegut’s protagonists were puppets, and Dickens’ were well drawn cartoons, Arturo Bandini was the most fully realized, unfettered, intensely human character to ever tear my heart out and kick it down the stairs. Bandini was fear and arrogance, outrage and tenderness, lust and greed and vulnerability. Bandini, too, was a little character—but the big world which was forever at work on him was that of his own yearnings and passions and desperate desire to be loved.

I’ve fallen in love a half-dozen times since then, and had at least a dozen sordid affairs, but these three writers seem to have cast the longest shadow on both my work and my life so far. And while I’ve grossly neglected all of them in the past ten or fifteen years, not a solitary day has gone by that these writers didn’t feel like a substantial part of who I am as a writer and a person. I carry these dudes with me at all times.


DH: If you back-flip The Lovers by Vendela Vida you will find six blurbs. What the blurbs say is of no importance. Also of no importance is whether the authors of the blurbs have read The Lovers. There are no negative blurbs, which would be a crime against nature.

Four of the six blurbs are by writers I love: Francine Prose, Aleksandar Hemon, Julie Orringer and Zoe Heller. I circled the names of the other two, Miranda July and Stephen Elliott, so I would remember to read them.

Vendela hasn’t made writing this novel easy for herself. She keeps Yvonne, her principal, isolated for a remarkable amount of time. Is this a disastrous mistake? You write “John sat in his room.” or “John made coffee.” because you don’t know what the fuck to do with John.

Hawthorne wrote a chapter of “The House of the Seven Gables” that consists of a dead character in a room. I love the chances that great American literature can take.

The good double V makes Yvonne’s isolation the shoreline on which The Lovers pivots. Yvonne is a widow traveling back to Darca in Turkey, where she spent her honeymoon,  to reestablish a living tie to her husband, Peter. They were Vermont schoolteachers. Peter died, parked, in a hit and run.

Yvonne has pulled out the plug since her husband’s death. I love Vida’s small, insistent psych-outs, like gnats buzzing around your ears. You try to brush them away but you also wonder if it’s just your imagination. Because Yvonne has disconnected herself, she’s set up for a pattern of confusions.

Y is a highly competent teacher but she’s caught teaching the same lesson twice to the same class. Her principal urges her to take vacation time and VV implies he’d be happy to have Yvonne on vacation permanently. She arrives at the small Darca airport from Istanbul and waits around for her pickup, a stranger in alien territory, thinking that there’s been some terrible mix-up about her email-made arrangements. We’ve all been through the missed connection. But Yvonne feels at sea congenitally so it doesn’t take much for her to fear she is sinking.

Yvonne’s rented vacation house has a history. Yvonne walks through the three floors plus basement, trying to put together the decor combination of tackiness and affluence. Who lives here? Why is there a hook in the ceiling above the bed in the master bedroom? There are porn pictures under the couch and sex toys left out in another bedroom upstairs. But you have to sleep somewhere. Choose. The reader becomes the character if there is no other character. There’s no one else to identify with. The reader will always identify with someone or they will put the book down.

I’ve talked to Caitlin Macy about her skilled use of the unreliable narrator. I should have added at the time that CM’s narrators think they are reliable. Jason Rice has told me that it’s not possible to fathom intentions. That’s one reason for the methodically observed detail of speech and behavior in his powerful fiction. The good Johnny Evison has told me how characters struggle for self-realization, how there’s a wall or a quirk (struggling with my own words here) that can hold them back. And in two posts I’ve written about James Salter, I’ve talked about his slow-elevator technique of storytelling. How writing doesn’t spill the beans all at once, anymore than you can transition in the blink of an eye from the tenth floor of a building to the lobby in a hundred year old lift. Now from the splendid Vendela Vida, as I try to piece together a model of writing, I see these techniques internalized in one central character attempting to escape from mourning.

I’m such a lucky guy to be blogging. I can ask some of the most talented writers how to write, directly, and even ask them follow-up questions. Especially if I try to ply them with beer. It’s like I’m walking along the strand, tripped up by beautiful seashells, not knowing which to pick up.

If you flip over The Lovers from the pantheon of blurbs side and look closely at those words and “Vendela Vida”, you’ll find a font of seashells. They play an important role in the story. Also, in the lower right hand corner of the cover, you’ll see a dark silhouette of a boy facing you, eyeless, standing in the surf. That is the story. Of course I noticed that VV has picked a lead character’s name that has a “v” in it…and a “Y” that has a “v” on its roof.

In page after page of sensitively observed detail, psyching-out expertise and growing, owl-like shadows that have you dreading what the next page may bring, dreading what may happen as much as Yvonne, Vendela Vida shows us how to write a novel. I’m saying this with great respect, deference even, for distinguished art…but I don’t care who her husband is. I’d rather read Vendela Vida than Dave Eggers. Taste.



Once I heard Franzen had a new book, (I read the two “stories” in the New Yorker) it was all I could do to get my hands on an advance copy.  If you know me, even a little, then you know I love The Corrections, which was a book that hit me right in the sweet spot, at a time in my life when things seemed to be coming up roses. Then 9-11 hit, and it’s been downhill ever since.

Freedom isn’t so much “another novel from Jonathan Franzen“, but a whopper of a story about people, some of them are like you and me, others are just unlikable, and I will never understand why readers want likable characters, because Franzen certainly doesn’t give a shit if you like his people.  But in reality, do we really like everyone? There is a part of every friend you have that is unlikable, so, Franzen takes that to the next level, and writes entire books exposing those human foibles and flaws.

I swear by The Corrections, and Freedom isn’t too far off from that epic, but it is a little more focused on the bad. Walter and Patty Berglund seem to be running in circles around their life, even on parallel lines, and somehow start a war with their right-wing neighbors, (this was excerpted in The New Yorker) which is very funny, and eventually the straw that will break their back. I don’t think Franzen is trying to spread the cliche of suburban malaise too thin with this couple but he certainly drags them through one awful argument after another. Patty is a former basketball star (Harry Angstrom echoed here) and is given a personality that seems both sensitive and rough, while shaded with insanity, even though we’re given plenty of reasons why she’s so unhinged, some of them glorious in their beauty, specifically the flashbacks that take us to a place where she’s got a crazy stalker friend, and a bad boyfriend (I’d tell you how bad, but that would spoil possibly the best flashback I’ve ever read). Walter on the other hand, I don’t ever really feel like I knew him, or cared to know him. He’s obsessed with saving a dwindling species of bird which means tangling with a coal company and he spins and turns in his attempts to make his mark on the world, while his wife suffers, and then suffers some more.  Along comes Walter’s best friend and rock star, shown both in flashback and current time, as a significant member of their love triangle, and a childhood friend of Walters.  Franzen dips quickly into the music side of things, and even takes a stab at writing songs, most of which are hits for Richard, and as we follow Richard through his sections of the book, we see him go from nothing to something, and then become so big that all he can manage is a sneer and a couple of unkind words for his fans.

You won’t like Patty, Walter and Richard, as you see yourself in them, and Franzen reflects this as reality, which can sometimes be painful. All this time the Berglunds’ son, Joey, who is really an unbearable asshole through most of this novel, slithers along to make things difficult on his parents and shows us in spades how stupid he can be, and he is almost too painful to endure.

Whip all this together, and I mean really whip it, and you’ve got Franzen’s new book. I waited nine years, (and suffered through more than one crispy collection of essays), for this book.  I’m pleased by what I’ve read, entertained and horrified. By the time Richard comes between Walter and Patty, which leaves Walter in a funny spot, Richard alone in Jersey City, and Patty trying to discover her kids after basically ignoring them after they got out of diapers. Patty almost speaks right to the reader, actually I felt like she was talking to me, and like Walter, I felt myself telling the Berglunds to pull their fucking panties up and stop acting like everything is someone else’s fault.  As people who know Franzen’s novels will tell you, it’s not always a good thing to see what he’s writing in the life you lead, but it’s hard not to appreciate the grip Franzen has on the pulse of life, even if it is smeared with the unfortunate remains of the people around you. -JR



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.

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


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


John VourhousDH: John Vorhaus is playing the role of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come in our new series about when writers fell in love with books. His brilliantly manic suspense novel, California Roll,about grifters who try to out-grift each other, will be covered on Three Guys early next year. I had trashed four galleys in a row after trying to read page 99 of each. When I came to page 99 of California Roll, I knew I had to read the whole thing. I believe that JV wrote this post while sitting in Moscow traffic. He leads the writing team of the Russian version of Married with Children, making the world safe for situation comedy. He said he was glad that he worked especially hard on page 99 of California Roll.

EVEN COWGIRLS TURN ME ON by John Vorhaus

It was the summer of 1977. Like every other college graduate in America, I was in Europe. I hitchhiked and Eurail-passed the length and breadth of the continent, from East Berlin to the west coast of Ireland, from the tip of Sicily to just inside the Arctic Circle. With all that traveling, of course, I often had time on my hands, and always needed something to read, and therefore engaged in avid and active book swaps with anyone who happened to have something in English I hadn’t already burned through. Thus it was that the summer’s most popular book, Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, fell into my hands. Like everyone else I knew (like everyone I’ve ever known who’s read the book), I was instantly and totally ensorcelled by Robbins’ tale of big-thumbed Sissy Hankshaw, plus all the others: Bonanza Jellybean, the Chink, the Countess, and the estimable Dr. Robbins himself. More than that, I was captivated by Robbins’ command of the language; man, could the dude craft sentences. He did it with grace, style, and outrageous humor. It was this last part that was such a revelation to me. I’d enjoyed the jaundiced ironies of Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22, but until I read Tom Robbins, I didn’t know there really was such a thing as a flat-out funny comic novel. I didn’t even know you could do that. But when I read of Sissy’s mother manipulating her father by “turning the vaginal wrench,” I became a fan for life.

As a writer who lacked faith in his own craft, I soon entered the singer/songwriter phase of my career. It was an awkward place for me. I could write songs well enough, but I couldn’t really sing or play guitar, and after five years hard at it, I finally figured that part out, and moved on to other things: situation comedies and screenplays; how-to books on writing and poker; novels at last. But I never forgot Tom Robbins, and never aspired to anything less than his rapier turn of phrase. In fairness, I’ve yet to read any Robbins tome that I enjoyed as much as Cowgirls. I think that has less to do with his abilities than with where I was when I first met him. I was on the road, living the Euro-vagabond dream of my generation. Conflating my own hitchhiking adventures with Sissy Hankshaw’s brought me closer to a character in a novel than I’d ever been before; closer, perhaps, than I’ve ever been with any figment of a writer’s imagination, bar my own. But I still have time for Tom Robbins, and I religiously read every new word he writes. I owe him that debt. He introduced me to the possibilities of the comic novel, and though it took me more than a generation, and an eventful life’s journey to realize them for myself, I’m realizing them at last. I don’t imagine myself any sort of heir to Tom Robbins, but I strive to be worthy to wave the banner of his style.

When I traveled through Europe in 1977, I did so with the full fear that I might never get back there again. Well, I’ve been blessed. My “other” job as a creative consultant for television and film has taken me to Europe dozens of times. Also Australia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Russia. I’m in Russia right now (like, even as I write these words), running the writing staff of the Russian version of Married… with Children. You can follow that adventure at www.radarenterprizes.com/blog, and I welcome you to do so. Stop by and say hi! I, meanwhile, have suddenly gotten the bright idea to go to the English language bookstore here in Moscow and see if I can find a copy of Cowgirls. I’ve read it probably ten times since the first time, but no time in the past five years or so. I’ve always gotten something out of those re-reads, and it occurs to me that I’m overdue for a dose. How about you? Have you read (or lately re-read) Even Cowgirls Get the Blues? If not, you ought. It’s an inspiring, enlightening, and laugh-out-loud funny read. If I could half turn a phrase like Tom Robbins, I’d be a satisfied man indeed.


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.


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.