Recent Work By Greg Olear


I first encountered the work of Maria Semple after reading about her first novel, This One Is Mine, on the Three Guys One Book blog.  One of the Jasons (Rice, I believe) took issue with how girly the cover of the paperback was; the cupcake suggested chick lit, he wrote, and this was not chick lit.

Jason was right, but he didn’t really prepare me for the extraordinary experience of reading that book.  It had everything: it was well plotted, populated with fascinating characters, funny as hell, and so moving that I cried at the end.  I loved it so much, I taught it in my creative writing class a few weeks later.

So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I found that the brown envelope in my mailbox contained a galley of Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?.  I set it on the table, went to the bathroom, and came back to find that my wife had already snagged the copy and was outside reading it.  She tore through it in a day and a half, during which I had to endure her random laughter and gasps of  “Oh, this part is so good.”  I did the same.

And so, apparently, did Jonathan Franzen, not the easiest dude to impress.  Here’s what he wrote: “The characters in Where’d You Go, Bernadette may be in real emotional pain, but Semple has the wit and perspective and imagination to make their story hilarious. I tore through this book with heedless pleasure.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

And now, without further ado, here’s my interview with one of my favorite writers, the ever-fascinating Maria Semple.

If there’s something  Jess Walter can’t do as a writer, I’ve yet to encounter it. He can craft plots for detective novels, wax poetic and profound on any number of topics, tackle topics from the election of 1980 to 9/11, and just plain crack you up. His last novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, was riotously funny but also disturbingly serious, leaving me with knots in my stomach for days afterward (it also inspired my first TNB interview). Beautiful Ruins, his latest and perhaps his most ambitious offering, is, simply put, the result of a novelist working at the height of his powers.

Jess was kind enough to answer some of my questions:


Two weeks from Friday, The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, will open in the United States. If this film does anywhere near the box office its predecessor, The Dark Knight, did, the three films will gross 2 billion dollars. Batman is big business.

In the credits of that movie, it will say “Batman created by Bob Kane.” Indeed, Kane appeared in the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson Batman film a generation ago.  His heirs will see some major coin this summer.

It’s nice to see a writer make so much dough for a character, right? The problem is, Bob Kane was not the only creator of Batman. It could be argued, in fact, that he wasn’t the more important of the two creators, as so much of the Batman backstory–the Bruce Wayne identity, the Batcave, most of the inventions, and the villains like The Joker and Catwoman–were the work of his silent partner, a man named Bill Finger, the Tesla to Kane’s Edison.

THE LAST TRADE is the first novel by James Conway and the third novel by James Othmer–his stab at a commercial thriller.  I’m pleased to report that an Othmer by any other name is still a damned good writer.  He can’t dumb down commercial fiction to DaVinci Code levels, and that’s a gift to his readers–and if the rave reviews in arcane publications like Reader’s Digest and Parade are any indication, there will be a lot of them. And they will be rewarded.  THE LAST TRADE reads like Michael Lewis trying to write fiction; I can think of no greater praise. I sat down with James With Two Names:

A month or so ago, I got a Facebook friend request from someone named Dan Zevin.  I’d never heard of him before, and we did not seem to have many friends in common.  But since I view my Facebook page as the 10-watt red lightbulb in a vast virtual De Wallen in whose dim scarlet glow I shamelessly pimp my  wares—and since Dan appeared to be a “Daddy Lit” writer and not a pedophile—I accepted his request, and promptly forgot all about him.

Some time later, this message appeared in my Facebook inbox:

Keep Astarte in Easter


On Saturday, Dick Cheney got a new heart.

That doesn’t require a punchline any more than did the news that he shot his friend in the face because he mistook him for a deer.  But that doesn’t mean writers of late-night monologues didn’t spend all weekend cranking out heart transplant jokes.

On Monday, your favorite late-night talk show host — I picture Jay Leno, although I’m a Colbert man myself — will mug at the camera and begin, “On Saturday, former vice president Dick Cheney had a heart transplant.”

Then he’ll pause, and he’ll grin, and he’ll say…

All-world quarterback Peyton Manning, who missed all of last season with a neck injury, was unceremoniously dumped by his longtime team, the Indianapolis Colts.  Where will Peyton wind up?
The New York Jets 
An improvement on The Sanchize.
The NBC Studio 
Can work pre-game show with his old coach, Tony Dungy
The Romney Ticket 
Like Mitch Daniels, can deliver Indiana.
Dude, you’re 35 freakin’ years old, and you hurt you’re freakin’ neck. Hang up the spikes! After all, there’s a word for the force of fortuitousness that lets you ride off into the sunset gracefully and intact: Luck.



Fools Rush In
Talk about a double standard.  Rappers can say anything they want about women. It’s called art. And they win awards.

–Rush Limbaugh

I’m not sure which is more surprising — that Limbaugh acknowledges that rappers are artists, or that he suggests that he is one himself.
What isn’t surprising is the faulty logic of the statement — the same faulty logic on which he has built his radio show. The difference between Limbaugh and Lil Wayne — other than the fact that the latter served time when he was caught with illegal drugs — is that the former makes his money from advertisers, not record sales.
Does this mean Rush will record a hip hop record? If so, I suggest doing a track called “Going to Canossa.”


Davy Jones, RIP

A survey of recent boy bands suggests that when they break up, as they inevitably must, only one member emerges from the wreckage with his career unscathed.  In Menudo, the survivor was Ricky Martin; in N*SYNC, Justin Timberlake; in the New Kids on the Block, Donny Wahlberg; in 98 Degrees, Nick Lachey.  It’s almost like the other members of the band, the Joey Fatones and Justine Jeffres and Jordan Knights, must be sacrificed for the One to succeed, like so many captured pawns on a chessboard. (Members of Big Time Rush, take note).


If the Monkees are the original boy band — and they are — then Davy Jones was The One.  Mickey and Michael and Peter were great, but Davy had that extra special something.  (Study that photo; there’s something Bieberish about him, no?).  He was an integral part of my childhood — “You loved them even more than Batman,” my mother reminded me on Facebook — and “Daydream Believer” was one of the first songs I sang for my kids when they were babies.  And now he’s boarded the last train to Clarksville.  The shaving razor’s cold, and it stings.





In his long and varied career, David First has performed at Carnegie Hall and the United Nations, released a three-CD album of drone music, created sound installations in Belgium and Denmark, composed an opera, been apotheosized as a guitar god by Time Out New York, been named one of the top 100 New Yorkers  for his post-9/11 song “Jump Back,” won grants from the Foundation of Contemporary Performance Arts (an organization founded by John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg), the National Endowment for the Arts, the Copland Foundation, and the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust; and, perhaps most notably, influenced the musical stylings of Sonic Youth’s then-youthful Thurston Moore.

Readers of The Nervous Breakdown did a tremendous job these last two weeks distilling the impressive harvest of what was a vintage year of TNB to five stand-out drafts; the final quintet, I submit, is, as they phrase it at the better MFA programs, pretty fucking good.

Twenty-eleven was a good year, one might even say a banner year, for Greg Olear.  The proverbial bouncer whisked me into the proverbial club in many instances when, in the past, I would have been left waiting behind the proverbial velvet rope.

Among the lists I’m proud to have made in 2011: American writers published in the French by Editions Gallmeister; American writers interviewed on French TV; speakers at the Quais du Polar festival in Lyon; authors in the signing booth at BEA; guests at the Authors Guild cocktail party; New Paltz homeowners (and Hudson Valley Magazine feature subjects); novelists noted on the “Hot Type” page of Vanity Fair; guys who have made out with Snooki; novelists noted on the “Full Frontal” page of Penthouse; writers interviewed on the Other People pod (you can’t spell Listi without L-I-S-T); and of course, Los Angeles Times bestsellers (Fathermucker was #15!).

Two weeks ago, the local press went into a frenzy when a man named Don Kerr was arrested for possession of marijuana. His alleged offense was to sign for a package, delivered by the crack agents at the United States Postal Service to his New Paltz office, that contained a reported eight pounds of weed.

Kerr is my neighbor. The corner of his property touches mine, in the manner of Utah and New Mexico. (As I type this, in fact, I can see the back of his house). He’s a nice guy, a family man, a self-styled aging hippie, soft-spoken and personable, who played Bob Dylan covers on a beat-up acoustic guitar at the neighborhood block party this summer. He also happens to be—or happened to be, until his arrest—the president of the New Paltz school board. Which explains the media frenzy. And the local TV news van camped out in front of his house the day after the arrest.

In my circle, which is not especially laden with potheads, the news was something of a buzzkill. We felt bad for him, for his wife and kids, for the school district (no one wants to be the board president; Kerr had to be begged to take the job). The neighbors, far from turning on him, told that TV news truck to get the fuck out of New Paltz.

Even if the allegations are true—and Kerr pled not guilty, so even that is in doubt; far as I know, there’s no law against signing for a package—it’s almost certain that his plans for the product did not include distribution. Some people like to relax by fixing a stiff drink; he likes to smoke a bowl. Who cares?

* * *

I mention the Kerr controversy because the “supercommittee” charged with solving our nation’s debt crisis—has the super- prefix ever been a less worthy modifier?—is now two days away from an epic fail that will make the Kardashian divorce seem like an unqualified PR success.

Just as any disinterested observer with half a brain could, after five minutes, tell you exactly what deal will ultimately end the NBA lockout, that same half-brained disinterested observer could predict what deal will ultimately end this federal standoff: tax increases in the form of cuts to entitlements, combined with drastic reductions in services. As with the NBA, only the people in charge seem unaware of this. We keep hearing the same old party-plank talking points, with nary a new idea in sight.

Well, I have one, a proposal that will drastically reduce the nation’s prison population, eliminate billions of dollars in law enforcement spending, and add a huge source of revenue to the federal coffers:

Legalize pot.

Think about Kerr, about the resources used to arrest him, to try him, and, if it gets that far, incarcerate him. That’s a lot of dough, and for what? How is my neighbor and erstwhile school board president a menace to society? Why—seriously, why—is what he (allegedly) did a crime?

* * *

I’m reading a terrific book now: Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s expansive, exhaustive, and entertaining look at the Prohibition era, a work that puts all of the disparate forces at work at that time into historical context. (If you’re even remotely interested in that time period, run-don’t-walk and acquire that book.)

In 1913, Congress passed an amendment to allow the federal government to tax income. I’d assumed that they did that because we were in a situation like we are now, mired in debt. Not so. The income tax amendment was a necessary precursor to Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League, far and away the most effective lobbyist group the United States has ever known—Wayne B. Wheeler, its mastermind, was the antecedent to Grover Norquist and Karl Rove—engineered passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in order to achieve its ultimate goal: the Eighteenth, Prohibition.

The ASL needed the income tax revenue to keep the lights on once Prohibition went down: prior to the Sixteenth Amendment’s tax on income, a staggering 30 percent of the federal budget was financed by an excise tax on alcohol. When the country went dry—which it did only on paper—that alcohol tax money evaporated, too.

The nation never stopped drinking, and alcohol was easily procured throughout Prohibition. But instead of collecting money from booze, the government began to spend money on its removal—a fool’s errand at best.

This is true now of marijuana.

* * *

We are, and always have been, a nation of drinkers. Another fun fact from Okrent’s book: the Puritans, the dour bunch who founded the country, came over from Europe with more beer than water in the hold of the Mayflower. They were not puritanical about their booze.

There are not as many potheads as imbibers in the U.S., and the process of growing marijuana, when you remove the part about having to conceal it from DEA agents, is far simpler than, say, distilling whiskey. There’s a reason it’s called weed. So it’s unlikely that the government would collect enough in taxes to underwrite a third of the budget. But would a marijuana tax be sufficient to pay for a health care overhaul? To keep teachers from being laid off? To keep more police on the streets? Isn’t it worth finding out?

(I should interject here that I am not a fan of the wacky weedus. I’ve smoked pot three times, the result being a coughing fit that made me sound like a late-stage consumptive, followed by a not-unpleasant sleepiness. I’d rather smoke a cigar.)

Is marijuana perfectly safe? Of course not. But neither is alcohol. Neither is tobacco. Neither is NutraSweet. Neither is high-fructose corn syrup. In fact, I’d argue that all four of those legal substances pose a greater threat to the public health and well-being than readily-available pot would.

Another Last Call fun fact: one of the legal ways to acquire alcohol during Prohibition was to have a doctor write you a prescription. This is, of course, already happening in California and other states with legalized medical marijuana. The (patchouli-scented) winds of change have already started to shift.

It’s only a matter of time before pot is legal. We should make that time now. I’d rather experiment with a little weed than see the entire economy go up in smoke.

Book Soup, bookseller to the great and infamous, presents:

Happiness is a Warm Book:
The Nervous Breakdown Literary Experience at Book Soup
Friday, November 11, 7pm