JE: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stewart O’Nan. His winning combination of pathos, intelligence, curiosity and heroic range, make the dude a national treasure. Like Steinbeck (and Dickens and Twain), O’Nan writes about “the little people.” He’s a bard for the blue collar, reporting on the quiet and sometimes desperate lives of decent folks who may not be making headlines with their heroism, but in whom we recognize ourselves with a clarity that is all too rare in modern literature.

His forthcoming novel, Emily Alone, though it is something of a sequel to 2003′sWish You Were Here, stands on its own beautifully (I know, because I never read Wish You Were Here!) Through the eyes of Emily Maxwell, and elderly Pittsburgh widow, O’Nan offers us, among other things, a portrait of a disappearing America. Since I’m too lazy to write a synopsis myself, here’s one I found among the promotional materials:

“Stewart O’Nan’s intimate new novel follows Emily Maxwell, a widow whose grown children have long moved away. She dreams of visits by her grandchildren while mourning the turnover of her quiet Pittsburgh neighborhood, but when her sole companion and sister-in-law Arlene faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily’s days change. As she grapples with her new independence, she discovers a hidden strength and realizes that life always offers new possibilities. Like most older women, Emily is a familiar yet invisible figure, one rarely portrayed so honestly. Her mingled feelings-of pride and regret, joy and sorrow- are gracefully rendered in wholly unexpected ways.”

In short, it is a story of re-invention. Like his little masterpiece Last Night at the LobsterEmily Alone illuminates the ordinary, until it is nothing short of extraordinary. While there’s nothing much mechanical driving the narrative, O’Nan compels us instead with the accumulation of luminous detail. He puts us inside the skin of his characters, and shows us how they live with staggering authenticity. To read about Emily Maxwell, is to live her life under relatively ordinary circumstances. Errands. Housecleaning. Buffets. Drives through suburban  Pittsburgh. Sounds dull (so did Last Night at the Lobster!), but it is, in fact, a thrilling accomplishment.  O’Nan doesn’t merely create sympathetic characters, he builds characters so three dimensional, that we actually empathize with them, actually inhabit them.

My one complaint about O’Nan is the guy suffers from Joyce Carol Oates syndrome–too damn many books! I wish he’d catch his breath for three or four years and give us one big beautiful novel for the ages.

DH: There are so many wonderful implications, so many indirect hints at meaning in Emily Alone that I’m blown away by them. Here’s one: that Emily got a gift of the Lord Peter Wimsey DVDs from her son. She used to watch the series. Her close friend Louise would come over and they would have wine and watch the broadcasts, make it an event. But now Louise has passed on and Emily doesn’t want to crack open the DVD’s because without Louise to share them, it’s not of interest anymore. Now that’s a great anecdote of mourning, of losses that can’t be replaced.

You sense Emily’s elderly friend, the chain smoking Arlene, is not going to last much longer. You sense that her greatly beloved, stalwart dog, her only house companion, is not going to be with Emily that much longer either. The novel is full of fading images, like the loved ones in an old photo.

But Emily’s absence of self-pity moves your heart: Emily awakened in bed when a passing car smashes into her parked car outside. Sitting bolt upright in bed in the dark. Knowing that there’s no one to help as you trundle through empty rooms, wondering what has happened.

In chapters which subtly vary in length from just a few paragraphs to several pages, O’Nan shows his total mastery of craft. O’Nan is eloquent by his silences and by what he only gently suggests. I want to cite a syndrome too. The syndrome of one sentence or one paragraph too many.

It’s when I’d like to say to the writer: Why don’t you just stop! It was perfect but now you marred your story by running on too much in the mouth, by trying to explain what you should only suggest. Let the reader figure it out. Don’t draw them a diagram. Stewart O’Nan would never make that mistake. What great art!

JC: Not to stray too far from Stewart O’Nan and Emily, Alone, I’m in agreement here. I love a verbose, lyrical sentence, scene, chapter, book, whatever as much as anyone. But, for christ’s sake, know when you’ve reached the end! So many novels… so many I read, and some are nice books, some are great, some are unreadable, you know how it is. And a bad book, well you just throw it across the room and move on, but a good one, nothing annoys me more than reading the last chapter and wishing I could unread it. And you can’t review a book and say: This is amazing, but don’t read the last chapter. That tidy little bow. Everyone will read it anyway. Hell, I would.

Anyway, Stewart O’Nan doesn’t make me do that. This is a great little book. I learned the other day reading JE’s post that it reprises the Emily character from a previous novel, though you’d never know it from the ease with which it stands on it’s own.

Emily has a quiet determination that etches itself with a simple elegance that feels so archaic, almost a period piece. Of course, Emily is the timepiece here. Her days are speckled with melancholy memories, tiny heartbreaks, the occasional small victory. Lovely.

JR: I came to Stewart O’Nan late.  I once saw him read with Richard Russo and barely took notice.  He judged the Hint Fiction contest that I entered last year, which in turn got my story accepted into the book that was edited by Robert Swartwood.  I suppose there is something cosmic going on here.

I loved the movie version of Snow Angels, and felt like I was missing out, like I was ignoring a American master.  I had heard that Songs for the Missing was amazing, and after reading it, nearly in one sitting, I could not agree more with what everyone was saying.  It’s so good, tight, detailed, heartbreaking, and fast paced.  It almost operates like an anti-thriller.  There is such a pungent haze floating over the story, brutal sadness, and simmering anger.  A girl goes missing, not a new theme, but the aftermath, the parents search, will leave you breathless.  I loved how the father was selling real estate, and O’Nan describes the house he is selling, I can actually still see it, as the mailbox gets a few words, which makes the description fit perfectly.  I hoped that the missing daughter would turn up, and I watched in horror as the parents finally realize that the search will always continue, that there may never be an answer.

O’Nan is a true American realist.  A writer who presents a slice of life wrapped in all the weirdness and banality of life itself.


JR: I was once a buyer at Bookazine and now I work in sales.  I bought FSG, Rizzoli, Holt, and Houghton Mifflin.  A few years ago the rep for HM was presenting the new list, and this title Drift shot off the page and I asked for a manuscript, which met with a long stare.  I started tearing through Drift, a wonderful and powerfully written collection of short stories from Victoria Patterson. The collection went on to be nominated for The Story Prize.  This book didn’t have the highest expectations, and I remember telling people about it, but with collections, it certainly goes with the territory.  I started writing blog entries on the stories as I read them, and was absolutely knocked down by how good this collection is.  Victoria Patterson is a fine writer, and someone that I greatly admire.  Her talents are on display in her new novel, This Vacant Paradise, pubbing 3/11.  Over the years Victoria has been a positive and wise advocate of the Three Guys Blog, and a great friend.  We’re thrilled to have her here at the blog, where she’ll be giving us a column once a month (she was the first writer to solicit us with her own When We Fell In Love essay). In the meantime here is an interview she did with Jane Vandenburgh.

Jane Vandenburgh and the Hypothetical Fifteen-Year-Old Girl

“When I first began to write I was much worried about this thing of scandalizing people, as I fancied that what I wrote was highly inflammatory. I was wrong—it wouldn’t even have kept anybody awake…I talked to a priest about it. The first thing he said to me was, ‘You don’t have to write for fifteen-year-old girls.’”

–letter 3/10/56 Flannery O’Connor

Jane Vandenburgh

Jane Vandenburgh is the author of the novels Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, as well as the memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the 20th Century.  Architecture of the Novel: A Writer’s Handbook was published September, 2010.

We met at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival in April 2010.  Her husband Jack Shoemaker is the editor of my forthcoming novel This Vacant Paradise with Counterpoint Press.

VP: I got in trouble with my family for writing Drift—well, not for writing it but for getting published.  Lately, I’ve been worrying about my novel’s publication, including my insecurity about the writing itself.  And, much to my frustration, I found myself recently apologizing to my dad for my novel pre-publication, regarding the sex in it.

JV: I’ve never been secure either except in the secret place where I keep my writing self, that something that somehow knows—and who knows how? —what is and isn’t excellent.  By excellent I mean only true. I simply have to work away until I get my writing to exist in at least the vicinity of the truth, otherwise it won’t continue to interest me.

But that box of unease and anxiety has also become smaller since I’ve grown a little older.  Jack says women hit their Fuck You Period at around 50 or so—what a relief to realize you honestly no longer care whether you’re voted Miss Congeniality.

Still it may be true that women, particularly mothers—as you and I both are—must operate in a way that is more dependent upon society’s support. It’s when we have kids that we become truly reliant upon those cork nets that society tosses out that are intended to keep our children and us from drowning. So maybe we, as a class of people— and by “we” I mean those of us who are moms—do simply need society’s approval more than other people do. And one quick way to lose said approval—as I witnessed with my own mom—is to be all the time needing to say the outrageous thing. My mother specialized in being outré, in uttering the true but unpopular thing. She also ended up losing custody of her kids when she was locked up in a mental institution.

VP: While I wasn’t necessarily surprised by the negative reactions to Drift, it bothered me that the complaints seemed to infer that I shouldn’t write about unflattering, gritty topics—especially as a woman writer.  A couple of reading groups “dis-invited” me.  And I’d been asked to speak as part of a fundraiser, only to be discouraged later from coming, when they finally took a look at the book.  What in your writing do you think is considered unpopular—or risky?

JV: What I’ve always wanted to say that is perhaps unpopular—as this is one of the great truths whose utterance goes in and out of fashion—is that female sexuality actually IS different from a man’s. It’s bound up in biology, in temporality, in our mortality and our ability to be generative. It also exists in context, referencing issues of emotional and physical and psychological bonds and the need for safety. What I mean is that our sexuality is vastly more complicated than a man’s, which is more simple and direct, but by simple I ardently do not mean either flat or one-dimensional.

And writing graphically about sex is difficult, because it becomes so quickly emotional, in that it makes you the writer feel things even as you’re making your reader feel things too. The writing itself also gets so easily gaudy or purple or cartoonish. It’s hard to tell the truth. You sit down to try to write about sex and you—I mean me—will instantly begin to reveal yourself, what each of us thinks about our own human bodies and those of other human beings and what this spiritual and physical and emotional connection is and isn’t made of.

And you and I are each trying to write about sexuality in the harsh light of day, that is, honestly, realistically, writing into the face of the received wisdom to say what it actually is and not what it purports to be.

It reminds me of that Flannery O’Connor quote I sent you about writing for fifteen-year-old girls.  And then there’s this as well: Ulysses couldn’t be published in the US from 1922 until 1933 because some youngish female person (described as an unnamed “girl” of unknown age) had read a chapter in a little magazine and was upset by it. The courts found it to be “obscene,” the “product of a deranged mind…” (who upsets fifteen-year-old girls…. but who ARE these people, Tory! at fifteen I knew all kinds of things, didn’t you?) Judge Wolcott’s New York district court 1933 decision was bound into the Random House edition I read in grad school.

VP: Tell me more about the received wisdom?

JV: The received wisdom is—I believe—just as tyrannically wrong as it’s ever been.  A woman’s sexuality is so often used by a misogynist society to accuse her of her inferiority, which serves to subjugate her.  Sex and the City? the kitty-cat, almost childish sexiness of that show strikes me as just such horseshit.  This is where the bodice-ripper has gone, no doubt, women in cute designer outfits eating, drinking, talking about shoes, waiting in their shallow and venal way for Mr. Right to show up to actualize their lives while they carry on achieving multiple orgasms with Mr. Wrong.  Which might be harmless enough except that it commodifies all aspects of these characters’ existences.

What it does say that is honest—I think—is that our sexuality is defined socially, that it is at least informed by Group Think, the degree to which we are social creatures. And that American society is—as ever—almost astonishingly conformist. Added to this is that rapidity with which the manners and mores to which we’re required to conform are almost as mutable as fashion—it makes it hard to keep up.

Group Think—when I was a kid—said sex for women outside of marriage was (morally) wrong. Only Protestant white guys over six feet tall got to have sex whenever they wanted, as long as this was heterosexual sex—witness Mad Men, which is one great show.  Society criminalized my dad’s being whatever degree or variety of gay he was, and I knew that to be horseshit because my mother told me it was horseshit.  And while my mom was crazy she was hardly ever wrong.

So I was born into a world that said—as a matter of our Calvinist inheritance—that we had to deny our human desires, then came the hippy days and poof! we were supposed to instantly get over that. Now a girl was supposed to be enslaved to her wanton desires, which we were being told were natural.  Sexuality had morphed into this untarnished moral good, which was also horseshit.

Fucking various men was now supposed to have become this political act—we now could act out sexually or use our sexuality to stick it to The Man, whatever, which benefited men even as it actually harmed women by trivializing the complexities.  It was confusing: I’d be thinking: But I don’t want to go to bed with you, and not because I’m particularly hung up. It’s because you’re not really that attractive.

So maybe my work has tried to be about what girls and women feel in these moments when they find themselves at those specific junctures, where they are changing or society is changing the rules on them.  I’m just vastly interested in what I think of as speech acts, in finding out what it’s possible to say because what we are and are not allowed to say does change what we think and feel and do.

I believe human sexuality to have everything to do with balancing power and powerlessness.  I’m interested in all this politically, interested in that particular existential edge, where we become alert to all the subtle manifestations of conflict between peoples of various classes, castes, races, genders, peoples, ethnicities.

I’m not particularly interested in what sex is supposed to be like according to the current fashion.  I’m interested in what feels real, what words can be used to describe textures, the inside-outside way the human body feels in moments of profound intimacy.

It is the writers who must get at this particular intimacy; we’re the ones who depict all the many subtle varieties of intercourse, the speaking or not speaking, the touching or not being able to touch. It is in Joyce or D.H. Lawrence or John Updike or Gore Vidal that I’ve gone to find enlightenment.  My theory about why women haven’t written a deep literature of female sexuality is that they’ve been too caught up in the received wisdom of society’s expectations. We’ve also been too busy getting our kids’ lunches packed and them off to school on time.  And up until the 20th century we would just too regularly have died in childbirth or lost a child or be actually worked to death.

Which is why so many of our best women writers have been one or another variety of maiden: Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Conner, Willa Cather. So writing about female sexuality from an adult, post-kid perspective may still be a little bit new. It’s challenging, also interesting. But it’s shocking that the things you and I are saying, Tory, are still shocking, no?

VP: My work is influenced by my family of origin—the alcoholism, depression, suicides, the focus on money, the politics and religion, so forth —and I somehow have lingering guilt for having a somewhat healthy life—for not imploding.

JV: The healthy life! God, such an important topic! Because we—as novelists—need to lead the organized, coherent life in order to write in the way we must, as these are the demands of writing books. The length of a novel will all but demand a bourgeoisified existence. A good book takes stability, quiet, sobriety, as well as years and years of toil.

You and I also have the experience of emerging only partially scathed from profoundly messed-up families, which is probably what shaped us to become the writers we’ve become.

And we’ve needed to do something about that guilt—in my case this is pure raw survivor’s guilt, that cosmic why of how come I get to have the life I have, that I escaped that profound unhappiness, when my little brother did not. My brother George—like Eric in your novel—was a homeless alcoholic. He killed himself almost exactly a year ago.

How come he drew that existence while I…? how sad and lonely this kind of inquiry will make you in the dead of night.

My own happiness used to feel like disloyalty. I’d simultaneously think two exactly conflicting things: that I was both the most sane and stable member of my natal family, and also, concurrently, that I didn’t have the slightest idea who the fuck I was. Coming from the family I did, I believed my sanity to be dishonest. Being sane had this mediocritizing and frightened effect on me. I thought the rest of my family were all just so much better at everything than I was, so much better, at least, at being fuck-ups.  I was a failure even at failing.

And because I have so little respect for the society that despised them, the failures in my family seemed somehow more honorable and attractive, even inspirational than normal people—my spectacularly brilliant and crazy mom? my elegantly messed up dad with his passionate sexual confusions? I just wasn’t much interested in succeeding in the world that had rejected them. Their Republican families seemed like The Textbook Elect, in that their own Personal White Person’s God had rewarded all these tall white emotionally frozen people with this great showing forth of His love and favor, this abundance of wealth and power and height and beauty, as well as Southern California real estate.

VP: There are parallels to our lives and to our work.  Do you think Jack was aware of that when he took my novel?

JV: He mentioned he had this new writer, a woman, a novelist, who’d grown up in Newport Beach, whose work reminded him of mine, in that she was serious and knew about both wealth and poverty. And he kept trying to shove this book of stories at me, and I’d be like, Sure, sure, that’s nice, Honey. My tone was probably dismissive.

And I am equally certain, Tory, that my basic reluctance had to do with the same old crap that plagues the intellectual powerhouses of The East, our society’s profound misogyny, that it infects women as it does men, saying girls such as you and I—those who’ve grown up in the Vacant Paradise you so brilliantly describe—cannot possibly be thinking about our society’s very interesting conflicts, at least not profoundly.

And—as we’ve discussed—you and I look so, well, normal. We look like women who drive the carpool because we have, we do, we will. We don’t necessarily seem like people who are ambitious, driven, discerning, as this has never been expected of people like you and me. But it’s actually important in that our Southern California-ness, this laid back, warm and open aspect is what has allowed you and me to come and go unnoticed, to both survive and even prosper behind enemy lines.

JR: Chris Offutt surprised me one day in the now closed Skyline Bookstore in Manhattan, (the best used first editions in the city were located there and Rob Warren, the owner, was an absolute prince). He was surfing the shelves for fiction, and I was coming down the same aisle. I don’t know how I got to talking to him, but I said I was a collector, and he asked if I collected novels by Chris Offutt, I said I’d heard of the writer, but didn’t have anything. So Chris, (I didn’t know who he was at all, shows what kind of collector I was, or wanna be), reached up and handed me Kentucky Straight, and said, “I’m Chris Offutt, it’s nice to meet you. Read this.” No writer I know would do that, or I don’t know, maybe they would. Chris has been a friend ever since, and he once sent me an inscribed copy of his most recent novel with a letter in it, offering me encouragement, for some personal and professional demons I was fighting at the time.

That was ten years ago, and recently Chris and I have been throwing around the idea of having him contribute to Three Guys One Book. He’s agreed, and the first thing we’ll present is his brilliant When We Fell in Love essay. I think what’s most important about his voice is what it brings to the blog, a fresh perspective from a man full of perspective. Recently we argued of the literary merit of James Frey, Chuck Palahniuk, John Updike, John Cheever, and as it turns out we both have wildly varying thoughts on all things literary. Chris is a hell of a writer, and a good friend. If you have a second, let us know what you think, and welcome him to the blog. Chris should have something every month, more or less, for you to read, so look for that.


Loving Harriet – Chris Offutt

I read a book a day as a kid. On weekends and during school vacations I read two books per day. By age twelve I’d read all of Edgar Rice Burroughs, dozens of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew; the myriad legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood; Tales of the Arabian Nights, Aesop’s Fables, Grimm and Anderson fairy tales, the Iliad and theOdyssey. I also read TwainStevensonDafoeDoyleWellsKipling, and Poe.

Strange fare for a boy in the hills of eastern Kentucky, stranger since my grade school lacked a library and the only book guaranteed to be found in my neighbor’s homes was the King James Bible. I suppose I was lucky. My father owned hundreds of books, many from his own childhood in a log cabin, raised by a former schoolteacher. Lucky insofar as my experience was the ideal breeding ground for a writer—a classic over-sensitive misfit, no good at sports, smartest kid in school—living in an isolated world of national forest, dirt roads, trickling creeks, and unemployed men with guns.

Reading wasn’t an attempt to educate myself. I simply wanted to escape into the imaginary world, a safe place where good and bad were clearly delineated, might equaled right, honor and chivalry were paramount, and justice was always meted out to a villain. My reading was a way of living safely. Within the pages of books, I was unafraid: of my father, of aggressive dogs, snakes and the bully across the creek; of older boys who drove cars near enough to make me jump in the ditch; of armed men parked near the bootlegger; of getting lost in the woods that surrounded me at all times. If there had been a movie theatre, I’d have found solace there. Or an art gallery. Or the availability of drugs, sex, and gambling. Or a cleric offering purpose to the young. As it was in the Appalachia of the late sixties and early seventies, I was stuck with literature.

Though my reading was voracious, I only fell in love with one book, and that relatively late, after consuming my father’s classics. I found it at the brand new library in town. My mother drove to town every Saturday for groceries. She dropped me at the library and picked me up after shopping. Initially I ran into a problem: due to limited holdings, the library had a four-book limit for each person. My solution was to acquire library cards in the names of my three siblings and the family dog, which allowed me twenty books per week. I packed these in a paper bag every Saturday and returned them the following week.

One day, quite by chance, I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I not only fell in love with the book, but also with Harriet M. Welch. The circumstances of her life could not be further removed from mine: Harriet lived in New York City with a nanny and a cook. But she was similar in some ways: largely ignored by her parents who liked to drink, a loner in possession of a single friend, Sport. Harriet wore jeans and sneakers. She carried a knife and flashlight. She wandered her neighborhood, interacting with people at a slight remove—exactly as I did. Harriet differed from me in two crucial aspects. She overtly considered herself a spy, and she carried with her at all times a notebook and spare pens.

I’d always identified with protagonists, fantasizing about being Tarzan, Tom Sawyer, Frank Hardy, Jim Hawkins, Tom Swift, Sherlock Holmes, or John Carter. They were magnificent people with intensely interesting lives. Affairs went their way precisely because they always did the right thing for the right reason. Their adventures, however, were invariably due to external circumstances. With Harriet M. Welsch, I found someone who created her own mini-adventures through spying on her neighbors and writing her observations. In short, she was real, her life grounded firmly in ways that were similar to mine. No one rescued her but herself. She was my first girlfriend.

I finished the book and read it again. That Saturday I rechecked the book out, walked to the drugstore and used my allowance to buy a notebook and pens, my first purchase of anything other than comic books and model cars. I resolved to carry pen and paper for the rest of my life. I resolved to write down my observations and keep my notebooks hidden. I decided to be a writer when I grew up. That was forty years ago. I still carry pen and paper everywhere.

DH: For many years now, I’ve been reading Montaigne’s Essays. They’ve won the place of honor on my night table, a highly contested space. And I’ve always dreamed of someday finding someone who could answer my questions about the mysterious M, who is my friend who lives inside a book.  But now that I’ve met Sarah Bakewell, whose new book, How to Live from the smashing Other Press, is all about Montaigne, I find myself tongue-tied.

I think my best course would be to reread Sarah’s book which is so suggestively rich with other literary pathways to follow. Reading How to Live is like wandering in a sun-dappled forest of literature. There are so many paths to take, so many hints of other great writers to explore, that you could never track them all down from one reading. This book’s a keeper, the most literate “self-help” book that you’ll ever find.

But there is one prime question that Sarah Bakewell’s WWFIL is designed to answer. And that is to get into the mind of the bibliophile who is only hinted at in her wonderfully singular  book about Montaigne.

I swear, wait till you read this WWFIL. It’s a pip.

“When we fell in love” – By Sarah Bakewell

Oct 2010

I think of myself as an impatient reader. I’m quick to throw any book aside the second it gets boring.  At the same time, I have a thing about monster-books – the kinds that make outrageous demands on the reader and defiantly outstay their welcome.  Thus, I like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Joseph and His Brothers, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.  You could pile all those up and tie them together with string, and they would make a pretty good full-height barstool.

Of them all, Montaigne is the oldest and greatest.  He lived from 1533 to 1592 in southwestern France, and spent the best years of his life writing a hundred or so elaborate, rambling efforts which he called ‘Essays’, meaning something like ‘Tries’.  He put in everything that came to mind: snippets from his reading, stories about his neighbours, witty anecdotes, political reflections, obscene classical verses, tales of his cat stalking birds or his dog dreaming by the fire, and odd rumours picked up on his travels.  Above all, he wrote about his own existence – about what it felt like to be Michel de Montaigne.  He complained about his bad memory, mused on why his tastes had changed from red to white wine and back again, reflected on what it felt like to write essays, and wondered why his whole attitude to the world seemed to change when he had a headache or a corn on his toe.

I discovered Montaigne by chance twenty years ago, when I was looking for something to read on a train from Budapest.  A selection from the Essays was the only English-language book available in the station bookshop, so I bought it out of desperation.  I was afraid it would be dull, but instead I found myself meeting a person I felt I already knew well – a person just like me.  Since then, I’ve never stopped reading Montaigne. He’s usually by my bedside, and five years ago I yielded to the obvious temptation and began writing a book about him myself.

The Essays is a barstool-book all right: in full, it runs to over a thousand pages.  But you can dip in and out of it to your heart’s content. No one expects you to read it from beginning to end, least of all Montaigne himself. As with any good barstool, you can fall off occasionally, then right yourself without much difficulty or loss of dignity.

But my reading adventures began with much smaller books, and I still love dreamlike miniatures like Kafka’s short stories (skewed gems like “The Cares of a Family Man” and “The Bucket Rider”), or Thomas Bernhard’s collection of 104 micro-narratives, The Voice Imitator.

One of my first loves was The Land of the Thinsies, by a long-forgotten 1940s children’s author called Dorothy Ann Lovell.  It was my mother’s book originally, but it crept on to my bookshelf and I read it when I was about eight.

In my memory, it tells a long and convoluted science-fiction story about a little girl who goes off by herself to catch a London Underground train.  Wearing a red cape and carrying a yellow basket, like Little Red Riding Hood, she enters the station using that strange modern device, an escalator.  (It wasn’t so strange or modern, actually: London’s first escalator had been introduced in 1911.)  She rides down, but fails to step off at the bottom, and so finds herself sucked through the crack into a weird underground world.

A subterranean sun shines above her head, and people go about their business, but everything is oddly different. At last it dawns on her: everybody is flat – and she is flat too!  They have all arrived through the escalator, which has squeezed them like laundry in a wringer.  They have become “thinsies”.

The girl tries to find her way back, but the new land’s geography is confusing, and she meets peculiar travelling companions who only compound the difficulties further. She finds herself on a railway platform, trying to buy a ticket from a flat ticket machine. Later she sets sail on a raft which sinks – but only a few inches, as the lake is flat.  Only after many adventures does she find her way back to the surface, though I forget exactly how.

That’s as much as I remember from my childhood.  About a year ago, I wanted to read it again and tracked the title down at the British Library.  Big mistake!  The experience was so disappointing that I expunged it from my mind, which is why I still can’t remember how the girl makes her escape.  What I’d previously recalled as a great baroque castle of a book, Alice-like in its labyrinthine clarity, is actually about 40 pages long, with a story as flimsy as the thinsies are thinsy.  I still like the pictures, which are unsettlingly large, flat and washed-out.  But the story itself is too small.

I wonder now, though, whether it matters.  A book is what happens in the minds of its readers, after all.  If I can dip into Montaigne’s Essays and Proust’s for a mere ten minutes at a time, and bob around spotting a few bright fish and shells under the surface before my attention drifts elsewhere, then why shouldn’t I keep the Thinsies as it always was – a vast lake, on which I can row for hours without striking land, and forget to come home until long after dark?  Both are just ways of loving a book, and both may have very little to do with the book itself.


Jason Rice: For those of you who don’t know about it yet, read my review of The Fates Will Find Their Wayhere.  I came across this book earlier this fall and absolutely fell in love with it. This is a wonderful debut novel that goes on sale at the end of January 2011. I’m sure everyone at Ecco is tired of hearing about it from me…meanwhile; Hannah Pittard has been kind enough to answer a few questions.

JR: Fates has a really unique narrator, can you describe it for us?

Hannah Pittard: It’s an intimate first person plural, and the idea is that either it’s the collective subconscious of this specific group of boys or it’s simply an unidentified member of the group. What appealed to me about the voice was that I would get to speak anecdotally to my audience; I would get to speak intimately, as if the people reading were already familiar with the events.

JR: Is there really a Nora Lindell? I mean there is, but is she really there? Or is she just something that is simply conjured by your narrator? Everyone in the book talks about her, and she has a sister, the spooky Sissy, but is this just a story of how a town is affected by a lost teenager? Some of the mothers in the book repeat over and over that she’s dead, and no one needs to worry about her…so what’s the reality?

HP: So many people have asked me about what really happened? Which is funny. What happened is what’s on the page. The point is, what actually happened doesn’t matter because what matters is the boys and what the boys believe happened. What matters is that this group of boys focused their entire lives on someone else rather than on themselves…

JR: I’m sure this book has been compared to The Virgin Suicides, which is also an equally impressive debut novel, but with Fates you take it to a much higher level and reveal all of the characters, slowly, sliding back and forth across time, over the course of their lives, but you never really solve the main themes of the book. What were your initial intentions with this story? Where did it set out to be, and how did you get to where it is now?

HP: I’m not sure I agree that The Fates reaches a higher level than The Virgin Suicides, though I thank you for the compliment. That book, to me, is absolute perfection. It was one of those books where I just kept thinking, Oh man, I didn’t know you could do that…

It’s hard to talk about what my initial intentions were with The Fates. I write without ever really knowing where anything is going. More, there is a feeling, an essence that I’m usually after, or there’s a line that’s triggered the entire event. But I do think I’ve mostly captured what I was initially after, albeit an amorphous feeling. That said, I also remember there was a day when I looked up – some where close to halfway through – and I thought, oh, it’s a love story. And once I’d made that realization, things got a lot easier. I will also say that when I first sat down, the voice was meant to be bi-gender. I’d originally thought to tell it from the perspective of all the kids who had grown up with Nora – the boys and the girls. But somewhere very early on – page ten or so – the boys just took over. I think it was when they were in Trey Stephens’ basement trying to imagine Nora Lindell shaving. I don’t know why, but that image was like a gift to me, and I knew after that that it had to be about the boys’ longings, because so much of what I wanted to write about was going to deal with sexuality, which I also didn’t fully realize until I got to that moment in the basement.

JR: You capture small town life and small town aspirations quite well with almost all of the cast, but in some respects your characters long to be well traveled, read, and well spoken.  But somehow they all stay put.  What do you think is holding them back? And which characters did you love the most, and which ones did you hate?

HP: What holds them back is what holds anyone back, maybe: Comfort, contentedness, familiarity. I don’t want these men to be thought of as having pointless lives. More it’s that I want them not to see that they have perfectly wonderful lives, it’s just that nothing is ever enough – whether you get away from where you started or not. In which case, maybe one of the points I’m making is that we’re all always being held back to a certain degree. Or there’s always the argument to be made. Because as long as we aren’t moving forward or doing something different, then it’s hard to stop ourselves from imagining – even if we don’t want to, even if we believe we’re really happy – something a little bit more, a little bit better. Ugh, it’s exhausting just thinking about it.

Well, I love Mundo, the Mexican, because what’s not to love? Sissy and Danny were also favorites. That’s probably obvious. I don’t know really how to answer this question, because there’s a soft spot for everyone of the them. That’s why I wish I could just make a career writing about these characters for the rest of my life. In some ways, they are all my Rabbit. Except that I’m not Updike, and I’m not ever going to write about these boys again…

JR: Sex plays a focal point for everyone in the book. It’s either a rite of passage that must be achieved, or it’s a pot hole that some characters wished they’d avoided.  The parents of Nora and Sissy are normal, until one day they’re not. The main events of the story conspire against them.  At the same time you describe the extra marital affairs going among the parents, presenting a series of character flaws that embellish to story.  How difficult was it to etch these characters? They all seem like they could walk out into the world, or I would run into them at the corner store.

HP: I think quite a few of my characters originated as stereotypes – you know, the hot mom, the crazy mom, the charming dad that doesn’t know when to quit – but the exercise was to take the stereotype and make it unique, make it believable, like maybe here could be the person who started the stereotype.

I’m glad these characters seem real. They became very real in my head, and after a while, their attitudes just presented themselves to me – especially with regard to the boys. When I first started writing the book, I didn’t necessarily understand that the boys would each have personalities of their own. More, I assumed that they would stay a sort of gelatinous mass with the occasional individual name thrown out here and there for good measure. But after awhile – and after I thought I’d maxed out how many different names a reader could possibly keep up with – I started going back, finding a name I’d already used, and saying Okay, the kid who picks his face is probably also the kid who takes pills, maybe he’s also the kid with the suicidal mom. And once I’d done this enough times, I suddenly realized that I had these very distinct personalities on the page. And then, once I realized that, I realized that the story – in some ways – was about the individuating of these boys all along.

JR:  While you were writing Fates was there a favorite novel you kept on your desk that you gleaned inspiration from?

HP: I can tell you that I deliberately stayed far away from The Virgin Suicides. Like I said earlier, I adore that book. But it had been years since I read it, and I wanted it to remain an idea rather than something to be imitated. Once, when I hit a particularly dry spell, I picked up a Donald Antrim novel. Then I had to read them all. Another time I picked up Bright Lights, Big City, and I swear to god I was so inspired by that book that I finished my own probably within a month of finishing McInerny. I also read Gate at the Stairs while I was working on The Fates. And from this book I realized that occasionally the ending is what makes everything worth it. I think I wrote the ending to my book the same day I finished Moore’s book, and I was only halfway through mine at the time. Sometimes just touching Lolita or Anagrams or The Sun Also Rises is enough to get me writing again. Sometimes listening to John Prine or Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. Sometimes I walk around the room like a character from a Whit Stillman movie and read poems from the Norton Anthology of Poetry aloud, but this is as much about wasting time and listening to my own voice as it is about anything else. Sometimes I need my brain to go dead in order to write my way through a scene, so I’ll sit with my boyfriend while he’s watching a basketball game, which drives him crazy, but provides enough of a distraction for me to get through the hard parts.

JR: Are you writing anything new?

HP: Yes, and I’m really in with love the narrator, and also very terrified to talk about it. When I finished The Fates, all I wanted to do was write another book in the same vein. Maybe The Fates Are Still Waiting to Find Their Way. But it’s probably good that I go away from that voice – or that style – for a little while; it’s probably good that I not get comfortable in my small town and forget that there’s more to be had.

JR: Do you think what happens to everyone in your story is fate? Or it just happened? And it happened to happen to them? You and I have talked about the ending, and how perfect it is. When did you decide that was how you were going to end it? At the end of the day its all about telling a good story, one that you want to think about for a long time, and Fates achieves that in spades.

HP: So, right, I think I’m going to intentionally ignore certain parts of this question! I wrote the ending when I was about halfway through with the book. I’d been reading Lorrie Moore’s new book – not that they have anything in common – and I think I was stalled about where to go with some integral plot point, and so I decided to write the end. In some ways, this shows my hand as a writer. I get bored or I get intimidated by writing, and the only way for me to keep going is to know that there’s an end in sight. Once I had the ending, that would mean all I had to do was match up two points. At least that’s how I sold it to myself. I remember one afternoon just looking up from my computer and saying to my boyfriend, “Well, I’ve just written the ending,” and I think he shook his head, half in disgust and half in amusement. He’s always telling me that I can’t just sit down and make things up. And I’m always saying, but that’s exactly what I can do. At any rate, once I had that ending, things did just sort of fall into place. It’s like I finally understood what the book was about – it’s about regret, adulthood, childhood; it’s about the choices we make as children, the choices that will inform the rest of our lives, and how unfair, but also how inescapable, that is. It’s also about that terrible ability we all have to imagine that what we don’t have, what we didn’t get, must be better than what we do have or what we did get. I’ve heard so many people reminisce about a woman or a man they once saw on an escalator, in a bar, at the tennis court. And how there was this insanely intimate moment shared between them, and how if only they could go back and be with that person. But, of course, what makes that person perfect is precisely the fact that they are relegated to memory. If they were alive, in front of us, for real, they would be disappointing. Everything is always disappointing, or rather, nothing is ever as good as we think we deserve. God, I sound like such a pessimist! I’m not. I swear it. That’s why this subject fascinates me. I see so many people living vicariously through their fantasies or at least coping with life by tapping into their memories on a daily basis, and I think, How can they possibly go on? It’s too much.

JR: Thank you for the time Hannah.

HP: Thank you, Jason. You are officially my first interview regarding The Fates. Now watch as my answers change over time!

Tony O’Neill suggested Mark SaFranko‘s novel to me, and lately I’ve been a huge fan of anything that comes out of Harper Perennial trade paperbacks (the fine folks over there have been sending things my way left and right, and I’m grateful). Tony is the author of the August release, Sick City, and wrote a When We Fell in Love essay for us, and Mark will follow later this week with one of his own, plus I’m going to have an interview with Mark next week. Hating Olivia goes on sale, 11/16.

This book didn’t go the way I thought it would, I was thrown by the title, as hating someone is very serious. Sure, I hate people, some people, and they know it, and I think that kind of hate is a good thing, keeps things in perspective, which you’ve all heard before.  But when I read this book, I thought it would be about a relationship that was piss and vinegar, don’t get me wrong, SaFranko certainly lays it out that way, but I thought it would be kitchen sink and all, it’s a slow burn, and flesh melting at that. This is a story that takes a while to get going, but when it roars, you have no chance but to get sucked in.

Max Zajack is an updated version of Charles Bukowski, there really isn’t getting around that comparison. Where Bukowski left off, with say, Post Office, SaFranko continues on in the adventures of a gainfully unemployed writer, this time tossing in a drowning woman.

Olivia is falling down the elevator shaft of life, and Max just happens to reach out and grab her hand, and she takes him down him down with her and before we know it Max’s former life of shitty jobs and lousy digs turns into a ray of sunshine in the form of Olivia, who not surprisingly to this reader nearly fucks Max to death.  At first there is a been there done that vibe coming off Max, and Olivia seems only slightly unhinged, an episode that is vividly rendered in a shopping mall which would set alarms off in most men I know. But not Max, he can’t keep his dick out of Olivia, and she can’t stop herself, from being, well, herself. She spends recklessly, drinks and eats and fucks, and raps about life, and seems to be taking it all in with two hands.

Max is a writer, and has been stumbling along the road to a novel, and I was excited to see how SaFranko handled this, and when his career as a writer goes up and then down, I was happily suprised that the cliche which was hanging on the line for Max to grab was quickly tossed aside. I liked Olivia, in the way anyone likes how a woman can sometimes lull you into a false sense of security, usually because their game is so good, but when she shits the bed she does it royally. Max isn’t a prince either He can’t hold a job, and even fucks up delivering the local newspaper. SaFranko does a fine job portraying the grind that is life, how men just don’t have it in them to go to battle every day, and the ones that do have lost their souls in the process, or never had the minerals to do what they really wanted with there lives.  Max can’t do more than wait around to get laid and hope the muse comes with it, Olivia in all her bad ways lights the fire under Max, frees him from thinking about the novel so he can actually write the damn thing. I don’t know why a man with such limited aspirations wants to write, especially a novel, why anyone would try that is beyond me. Safranko bucked my expectation with this fine story, and even though Max says he and Olivia have been together for years, the book only feels like a few minutes.

This story is almost a memoir, well, it has that feel anyway, like a rememberance, and it has such an efficiently light touch when it comes to comedy and even when his characters run out of room with each other, SaFranko locks the door on them and keeps them together to see what will happen when the oxygen runs out. You’ll admire the restraint when it comes to detail, it’s easy, and doled out evenly, but never too much, just enough to give you a taste of Max and his world. You’ll be hearing more from Mark SaFranko, not only here on the blog, but out in the real world, and I’m happy to be the one of the first ones to tell you about this novel. -JR


DH: Barcelona is a city I can imagine leaving…for the beach. If Barcelona is in the mind ofJames Salter, then the reader can be set down in the streets of the city, even if they’ve never been there. As for my friend JC, who recently set off for BerlinZurich and Vienna, he can have them.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel rim glasses, which he doesn’t need, lie on a table by the bed. He’s compared to the keel of a ship. What I’ve noticed right off in my first JS story is that the writer is a master of the suggestive fact…of facts that have vaporous ghosts of abstractions clingiing to them as if the facts could be haunted.

There are priorities in what Salter wants to talk about. I notice that JS goes on for about half a page, associating M with images of strength…steel glasses (one), he doesn’t need them (two), body parts like the keel of a ship (3).

It’s only after we’ve been though half a page of Malcolm asleep that we are introduced to Nico, his partner. She’s already awake and has gone out to the terrace after her bath. Since I’m myth-saturated, I associate Malcolm with the sleeping Eros…Eros is often depicted in art as sleeping. It’s very dangerous to wake him. It’s not necessary for Salter to have thought of this at all. But the myth helps me to see something…that Malcolm is being presented as a god and maybe, I’m wondering, to Nico he is one.

I’m indebted to Salter for the slow elevator approach to storytelling. Nico goes down the slow elevator of her building to get Malcolm a morning coffee from a restaurant. Can you guess that Malcolm likes it black? “Solo” he says. And that Nico is getting it for him and likes getting it for him?

There was a time in my life when I was on a slow elevator off Spring Street in Soho a great deal. Christ, that elevator took forever. It must have been a hundred years old. But I understand about slow elevators. JS has a great line: as the lift drifts down from floor to floor, it’s like Nico is passing through decades of her life. In my opinion, you have to be in midlife to appreciate a slow elevator.

The slow elevator approach to story telling…you see, we’ve passed down another floor in my post. You don’t discover how the reality of another person changes right away. It happens slowly, like a play, scene by scene. I’m paraphrasing Salter here. This is what Nico is thinking. Reminds me of that Boulez piece, Pli Selon Pli…fold after fold.

Salter goes on to introduce fold after fold of cognitive dissonance until “the story” can’t take it anymore and breaks up into a sputtering coda of non sequiturs. I’m a great fan of having the structure of a story buckle with the sense of what’s happening.

Let’s all go to the beach. Who doesn’t want to go to the beach? So JS sends his characters and his readers to the beach at Stiges. But S introduces a new character, Inge, Nico’s friend from when she was going solo, as the agent of dissonance.

It’s awesome how the great JM piles on pleat after pleat of disturbance, all of it MINOR, but the effect is to overwhelm.

First off, it’s genius to have Malcolm encounter Nico’s old girlfriend, Inge, from her unattached days. This excavates Nico’s old personal history…rarely a positive experience for anyone. Shows the boyfriend what you were like before he met you.

Here are some folds for you: They go to the beach in Inge’s car. She doesn’t realize it’s a piece of junk, Malcolm drives but Inge leans over to use the horn uselessly when they get stuck in traffic. Even though Inge owns a piece of shit, she talks about owning a Mercedes someday…several. She is overweight but wears a dress that’s too short. She talks about the boys in a bar not being able to buy you a dinner. She wants to run on the beach in front of expensive villas so she can be ogled. She berates her boyfriend who she called at 5 in the morning because he didn’t call her back the previous night. She dreams that every guy who lays her for one night may want to marry her.

It’s genius that Nico becomes emotionally exhausted and falls asleep on a couch in the restaurant she selects for the trio afterward. The real nightmare occurs when she wakes up, groggy I would think, and sees Inge in a tete a tete with her boyfriend.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the minor key measures that shadow this less than five page story. It’s called ‘Am Strande Von Tanger’ and it’s in Modern Library’s wonderful reissue in cloth of James Salter’s collection “Dusk and Other Stories”.

DH: I. The sentences are swift, declarative. Like Joseph Roth used to say about Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the then-famous “Vienna walk”. See The Radetzky March (1932) for the reference. But who gets to be New York? Who gets to be Vienna.? That changes. But there will always be one. Just like there will always be a Grand Hotel. Do you know that one?

And then we get “the last rank in the armies of law” below the clever junior partners who are below the full partners who dined at the Century Club. August seniors who couldn’t urinate and those who couldn’t stop. I’ve only paraphrased Salter’s sentences. But notice how the last sentence, even in paraphrase, stops at “stop”. And we get not “the law” which would put us in a cable police procedural, but just “law” which means it’s your crowd. We also get that they were living in apartments with funny furniture and sleeping until noon on Sundays. Hierarchy, irony, swiftness, secularism, style, power, money, stacked vertically: New York. Just one paragraph.

II. Frank and Alan catalog the available girls at the firm and the girls that they wish were. It’s a catalog like they are petty Don Giovanni’s. JS is always providing us with poetic sequences in the form of these lists. It’s like the modulating chords in a Mozart symphony. The listings transition you.

The period in this list of “girls”…and I’m using the word in the text…is Brenda. And the guys end up at her apartment, too late for a party. Knock out image: rolling around the walls kissing as the dusk settles in. The sense of New York apartment light: for most diffuse, bouncing off a thousand buildings and two rivers before it gets to you. Brenda has the same kind of furniture her mother had, sits in the same kind of chair, only she does everything her mother wouldn’t. Exchange of office news: “Jane Harrah got fired.” Brenda said. “That’s too bad. Who is she?”

III. Frank and Alan jump-start to the next level by being more unscrupulous than their own management. They form a partnership and steal a lucrative client away from their own firm. The case settles out of court and their fee is a percentage of the deal, millions. They don’t get prosecuted for this. I don’t know if that’s possible. But Salter implies that the dumb shits got lucky and got away with it. It’s like they stumbled into a fortune at Las Vegas. It’s unethical but now they are rich.

This third part of the story transitions to the continent where the guys seem to be giving the worse kind of imitation of eurotrash. It’s always Frank in the lead with Alan as the follower. I appreciated how well JS sets up this relationship, this tacky friendship, so the reader sees a dynamic…not just two guys blowing away thousands on credit cards in Europe, spending themselves into boredom. Buying people too, in this case a young woman, a student they pick up, throwing thousands in gifts at her as if it were just so much shit.

The uselessness of inappropriate wealth. The waste. They are still the guys from the office. On the make for the girls. They haven’t learned anything. And they are even stupider than they were before. But here’s a great throwaway line from Venice: “On the curtained upper floors the legs of countesses uncoiled, slithering on the sheets like serpents.”

You’ll find pleasures both sacred and profane in the short stories of James Salter. But you are encouraged to be a connoisseur of the word if you want to appreciate them. This is a discussion of ‘American Express’ from James Salter’s collection, “Dusk and other stories”.

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DH: I wanted to see how much trouble I could get into on the blog without the Guys throwing me off it. So I am going to start an occasional series on major works of poetry. I have come up with a really stupid title, as you can see, but that’s the first title I thought of, so I am going to use it.

Every activity that’s worthwhile in life is competitive. That’s the Greek in me talking. Reading is a form of competition as well. Reading poetry is a skill that you should have, like being able to swim. But being able to use a paddle board to get across the pool is not swimming. You can swim when you can do laps on your own. Likewise, if you haven’t read long poems then you haven’t read poetry. And if you don’t read poetry, then you are reading like a cyclops. You may think you are seeing with two eyes but you are only using one.

Some intelligent readers run away from poetry like they are afraid they’ll catch the plague from verses. But verses are not infected fleas. Reading is a competitive skill and reading poetry is like track and field. It’s like running the hurdles. You are presented with multiple challenges that you’ve got to dispatch in a hurry. You’ve got to feel great about your performance if you can do it.

Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive in Connecticut in the middle of the 20th century. Don’t think that his company were philistines and didn’t know they had one of America’s greatest poets working for them in the insurance game. They knew all right. I figure they didn’t yell at WS when they caught him writing verses at his desk but looked the other way.

I can only give a few hints of what’s in “The Comedian as the Letter C. It’s like lighting a candle in a dark empty ballroom and trying to see to the other side. But I can make a few suggestions to get you started. Then you’re on your own.

Stevens larger poems are argumentative. This helps you follow them. The argument here is right in the first line. “Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil, the sovereign plot”. At first I typed “soul” for “soil” and had to backtrack to correct my mistake. But that’s a mistake I bet WS was tempting me to make. He most certainly means soil and not soul.

His central character is Crispin, an average guy, the kind who putters around in the garage and watches cable TV all weekend. The language is dense and ravishing: silentious porpoises, waves that were mustachios. Crispin is all at sea, literally and otherwise.

You take an ordinary guy like me, so used to the prosaic that his very self becomes a budgie in a cage and put him at the peak of the Columbia River Gap. No wonder I freaked out. No wonder Crispin freaks out when at sea or in the tropics. He’s blasted by the raw fuse of nature. Stevens’ lines coil like vines, they’re amazing. You’ve never read verse so absurdly luxuriant. Don’t let it throw you. Crispin is being thrown when he’s exposed to the density of the nature that he is a part of but has forgotten. The lines of the poem try to throw you so you can understand how C felt.

By section four, about halfway, through this six section poem, WS inverts his argument. “Nota: his soil is man’s intelligence.” In poetry you sense the larger rhythms of language. “Comedian” presents you with a huge chunk of language data. When WS inverts his master line, it’s like the tide has turned. What happens to Crispin, the huge dope, when he is is hit with the massive force of nature, hit with the source of what he is. Can he grasp it? Does he learn anything? Can you take this poem? Either you drown the poem with your own self, with your own reckoning of what this massive language beast is, or the poem drowns you. Jump into that pool and see what happens to you.

I never went back to the Columbia River Gap, incidentally.

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JE: Yeah, I plan on reading Freedom, and no, I probably won’t read Jodi Picoult‘s next book, but you know what? She’s totally right about the industry ghettoizing a lot of female fiction.

Exhibit A: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters. JC, I think you specifically mentioned in your coverage how bad the cover was. Soli writes a gritty, dark, thought-provoking, badass Viet Nam novel that is “literary” by any standard, and St. Martin’s puts some hot chick in a red blouse at the beach on the cover. What the hell? The galley I received had the menacing silhouette of a helicopter on it—what was it the Vietnamese called those copters, whispering death? What happened to that plan? How did we go from whispering death to some MILF on the beach? Who’s the marketing stooge that convinced everybody this change was a good idea? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that women (80% of everybody’s readership) don’t like gritty, they don’t like dark, they can’t handle thought-provoking. Well, who the hell is buying Freedom, or The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, and why don’t they have covers that look like spa brochures?

Exhibit B: Maria Semple’s dark, hilarious, acerbic debut, This One is Mine. Is that a pink bon-bon on the cover? Really? Is that a fucking joke? I read that book twice–where did they get a pink bon-bon? Seriously, marketing people, what’s with the double standard? I know a TON of writers, and almost every female author I know has got a crappy cover design– either it’s wispy, or floral, or it looks like a tampax ad, or there’s a MILF in a red blouse on the beach. Really, how far have we come since the Bronte Sisters?

DH: Yeah, book marketing is primitive. They don’t know their audience and, guess what, they don’t WANT to know their audience. The big houses all want to appeal to the same crowd, the great unwashed masses, no matter what the book is, because that group is BIG. And they want that group to actually exist because that group is easy.

But people aren’t that simple. Novelists know that. Once you really pay attention to readers you realize that they break down into all sorts of diverse types. Indie bookstores already know this.

But I’m in a fighting mood so I have to fight even JE’s assertion that he’s a white guy. Out in the material world, that JR loves to depict in his fiction, yes, that’s true. But in the imaginative soul of the book reader, you can be anybody you want. And that’s one objective of reading: become who you aren’t.

But you have to have the skills to do that. You have to know something about how plots are paced and character presented. You have to own some of the skills of a writer, even as a general reader. The best way to learn to read is to learn to write.

When you work with book clubs, or blogs, you realize that you can encourage my favorite mythical animal, the “general reader” to leave their comfort zones and explore.

But for all my talk about telling JE to read like he’s not a white guy, or not even a guy, I have to admit that we are all in our personal orbits either as writers or readers. I won’t read Freedom. I know Franzen is a distinguished artist but I don’t feel inspired to read him. I would read him like it was my duty to literature and I can’t read like that. Another reason not to read a book? Because the writer is on the cover of Time magazine. Read what you like.

Some advice that I haven’t been asked to give to marketers: Treat the “general reader” like they are a special market. There is a whole field in marketing on selling to the affluent, on appealing to what that market is looking for.Well, the general reader is affluent too. But it’s their minds that are affluent, maybe not their pocketbooks. But that’s a more interesting kind of affluence.

JR: The argument JE presents is old news. The lowest common denominator is being marketed to, simple as that. What appeals to the masses? 5 million copies of Lost Symbol went on sale in one day, how do you get into the mainstream? You print 5 million, and you buy the market, like The Passage. Doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, it’s everywhere. Girls? AM Homes, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Willis, Zadie Smith, all enjoyed kick ass covers for their books, look at White TeethMusic for TorchingEat the Document, fuck, those are great covers, and great books, probably some of my favorite ever, (except I think On Beauty is a masterpiece, and it has a gilded flowered look on the cover, but that speaks to the underlying theme of the book). Emily St. John Mandel, both books were great, and had good, not great covers, but she’s at Unbridled, so…Atmospheric Disturbances has a great literary cover, and all of the books I’ve just mentioned, have sold well, in the crowd their meant to sell in, what Philip Roth calls “the literary 85k”, that’s who publishers market to when they sell a literary novel. The rest, the books that are supposed to be movers and shakers and get reviewed in People magazine, well, they’re going to get the Tampax look. Soft, and easy to slide between your legs while you sip that $9 latte.

I don’t give a flying fuck about the mainstream, it’s meaningless. Literary novels is where I sleep, and those books are essentially “mine”, and I own the bragging rights, because in general, they don’t get reviewed. The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut, they’re from two great writers, and had weird covers, but shit, Rachman’s book is about the death a newspaper, why wouldn’t it sell? Oh, right, I know it sold, like fucking hot cakes. No one knew about that book, I mean no one, before it went on sale. Franzen has written two great books in my estimation, the sister part in The Corrections is one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Period. Freedom is about people who suck. If you want to escape, read Jodi Piccoult, she trucks in the masses, she tells stories about sick kids and people with cancer, over coming odds greater than themselves. Rachman talked about the death of a historically vital venue for passing on information and the funny people who made it. Who can identify to that? I didn’t feel sorry for them. I felt like I was there with them in Rome, I don’t sign on to Jodi Piccoult’s books because I’m not looking to get on the fucking sympathy truck and watch someone prevail over the tough shit that life doles out. Boo fucking hoo…tissues are in aisle six, next to the diapers and tampons, just down the aisle from the dump of Jodi Piccoult’s latest mashed potato sandwich.

JC: JE, I was stuck on The Lotus Eaters for a couple weeks before I finally cracked it, and then only because I had said I would. I mean, the book arrives in the mail directly from Tatjana Soli, who is very nice and a brilliant writer, btw, and I think Christ what have I gotten myself into. Back when I was a buyer, if a rep had put that cover in front of me, I would have said things that would have made them blush. So uncreative – like a leftover cover from Polynesian Vacation – … and ultimately, such a betrayal of the book that it represents. I would have liked your galley Jonathan, because the book is a hell of a lot closer to Hemingway (note her WWFIL from this summer) and Tim O’Brien, than towhatever book cover they “modeled” to get this one. It’s a war novel, and a good one. I must have missed the beefcake on the cover of Matterhorn.

That’s the thing about covers. Cliches aside, everyone is affected by a good bookcover. I’ll wager everyone reading this could list at least a handful of books they purchased exclusively for the cover, not knowing a thing about it. I’ll bet even marketers do that! So why would you publish a book that you are supposedly proud of, that is a unique product, that you want to find its audience and give it a cover that already dots the shelves, or that doesn’t reflect that story’s unique proposition. If you think it’s just like a thousand other books out there already, then why bother? You can probably be as inspired designing and marketing cereal boxes or baked beans.

Women authors, a lot of them anyway, do get pigeonholed. The success of chick lit has ghettoized them into genre books. Pretty soon they’ll have their own section in the stores, like mysteries, sci fi, etc. The question is, do you want your books there or fiction? What if the books in chick lit sell better? Does that change the equation?

The thing is – it won’t break my heart if the NYT doesn’t review and front cover Franzen and Chabon’s every book – and I like those guys. I’m perfectly happy to have those books replaced by novels by women. There are lots of books worthy of marketing and publicity. I’d be pissed if they were replaced by Jodi Picoult.

JC: Yesterday, 3G1B posted JR’s review of Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s book Mad Men Unbuttoned, which, along with her fantastic blog (seriously…check out the supercool archive on The Footnotes of Mad Men), details the characters, themes, and societal shifts as depicted in the series. JR recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Jason Rice: So. Mad Men. It covers an incredibly fertile period, not only advertising but of human evolution. Right? Not to mention the microscope it puts over fashion, human habits, good and bad, never mind advertising.  Do these men make the times they live in, or does time shape them?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Ooo, you almost tricked me into using the word ‘symbiotic’ but I’ll resist! I think there is something eternal in watching men push against the established margins when the right historical moment presents itself (Hello, Russia!). Though this is a precise moment when culture, commerce, sex, power, money all converge in a uniquely American way and these guys really took the moment by the balls.

JR: This is a great looking book, Mad Men Unbuttoned.  Can you tell me what got you interested in bringing this out into the world?

NVC: It’s like, someone made a TV show about your favorite band and you know or want to know the story behind the songs. That’s what it was like when I saw Mad Men. But the band was called, ‘MIDCENTURY AMERCAN HISTORY’ Each reference was like a note I couldn’t get out of my head. People were also really excited to talk about the show and so I was like, HEY! Let’s dance!

JR: I love how your voice isn’t just a tour guide through the advertising campaigns used on the show, but has a kind of therapist’s tone, especially when Betty Draper uses “lesbian”, you try to understand her upbringing, and where she went to school, and how it wasn’t a mistake by the show’s creators to introduce that term in her vernacular.  Striking this tone must have been hard, how much did you pull back, push, and massage this book into its current state?

NVC: I aim to be engaging! I did make it a point to never be flip or condescending towards a topic. I cut anything I felt neutral about, it was either transcribe the thoughtfulness and intensity of the show on to paper or don’t bother.

JR: You break this book into nine parts, and eviscerate each detail of the show as they are reflected by the ads and the time the show is set. When you wrestle a period piece like Mad Men, is it possible to look around at certain things, like sex, or drugs, even the hippies of the 60’s and wonder how do I figure out what to talk about? Draper and Co, are about to drift into that time period, drugs sex, and free love, and all that comes with it. JFK is already in the pine box, so to speak, what’s next for them to experience? And how far can the show really go? I’d watch it until 1980.

NVC:1968 is going to dropkick these guys! Nevertheless, it’s not the aesthetics that hook people or necessarily the era (though they help) but the richness of the characters and all their muted dramas. I think they’ve shown in the first two episodes of the new season that the culture is moving too fast for these guys to keep up with. Only the young like Pete and Peggy could stay afloat and even they will face a reckoning. I’d imagine they’re going to stay in the decade because it’s such a fundamental time in our development as country. It’s the starting point for our modern ethos and culture, it’s when we became full-time consumers!

JR: Could a Mad Men-like show exist now? What advertising campaigns would you pick, say, if you made a show set in Seattle, Washington, right now? Would the Draper role be played by a woman? How would you handle Internet marketing, Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, downloads of music, is it impossible to cover everything now?

NVC: Mad Men would be really boring if Don Draper was played by a woman! Women can’t go around finger banging ladies in restaurants then telling their wives they look like a whore in a bikini! Part of Mad Men’s appeal is that it’s pre-sexual revolution, the gender roles are oppressive, sure, but they are also sharply defined. It’s such unapologetic masculinity that gives the show such vitality. It also could not take place today because the stakes are not nearly as high seeing as how fractionalized consumer markets are, additionally, no product brand or outlet has the authority that these guys did 40 years ago.

JR: I love the shape and design of this book.  It’s images and colors are carved with great care.  I feel like nothing is over looked, from the Marlboro Man advertisement campaign to the paintings on Bert Cooper’s walls. The creator Rubicon called Mad Men “John Cheever on television”. Is that accurate?

NVC: I buy that! It’s certainly a visual novel. No question that Mad Men is high-art –and it’s accessible. Also, it seems so obvious now, but of course, 12 part serialized dramas seem like a perfect way to delve into characters and tease out all the pathos – why didn’t we do this before the Sopranos?! Mad Men fulfills the full potential of the medium.

JR: There seem to be a million times more distractions for the average person today. Where do people get their ideas to buy things? Amazon.com? TMZ? What their starlets wear to the gym? What kind of special Yoga classes Brad Pitt takes when he’s on location? How do trends form today? From where? Or, where do you think they come from?

NVC: If I knew why people bought things I would not be in the publishing industry. But I do think consumers get a bad name! American consumers are a most sophisticated and savvy lot.  Empires do have the benefit of breeding discerning shoppers.

JR: I love this book. I take it with me everywhere. It helps that I love the show. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of Mad Men?

NVC: My favorite part of the show is watching Don Draper try to navigate through all the moral morass. The self-indulgence and consequent emotional wreckage he creates for himself and the people close to him. I think the compulsion to assert individuality against history, family, work is compelling. My least favorite part is that I know that the writers are pulling all the right levers and presenting us with this very attractive package called Don Draper but that he has a rotted core. When you identify with Don, which I find myself doing often, you’re identifying with a monster so that’s (exquisite) torture!

JR: Thank you Natasha.

NVC: My pleasure!

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DH: I’m going to share my reactions to the short stories of Shirley Jackson’s classic collection The Lottery. I want to understand why these stories are considered classics. And I want to do my small bit to rescue these stories from high school reading lists, where they frequently appear, by discussing them on a blog. Why? Because I never liked anything in school that I was required to read. I only enjoyed a book if I read it on my own.

The first sentence is wonderful because no opportunity is lost to set up a complex situation that contains considerable propellant. There’s always a risk that the set-up will bore the reader before the storyteller can get to the good stuff. But here it’s all good stuff.

A guy is tipsy at a party but knows the house he is in well enough to lurch toward the kitchen. He’s pretending to get ice but he really wants some space to pull himself together. You know, therefore, that he feels vulnerable. What reinforces this feeling of vulnerability is that he a familiar guest but not really one of the family. He can’t just pass out on the couch. That’s why he’s headed for the kitchen to pull himself together.

We get all this in sentence number one. A less skillful writer would take a paragraph or two to set this up. Moreover, this situation is not just mechanical plot wheels turning.This setup seduces the reader. The staggering drunk makes us feel drunk, questioning our perceptions of what’s going on.

SJ’s stories are not very strong on closely observed detail. They have the sketchiness of folktales or fairy tales, also the same sort of ritual quality. The mise-en-scene just presents the essential details, the bare minimum. If that’s all Jackson could do then these stories would be mediocre. It’s J’s ability to do psychological warfare in her characters’ heads and in the heads of her readers that makes her fiction interesting.

In the kitchen, the guy encounters the Other in the form of the young daughter of the house, doing her homework. His social awkwardness in talking to the girl, being drunk and wondering what you say to a young kid anyway, colors the dialogue that occurs, tints all the sentences between them with an air of uncertainty. A great lesson in writing dialogue, SJ has set up the encounter between the drunk guest and the daughter so that ANYTHING they say to each other is much more likely to be emotionally charged. The characters just don’t talk. They talk in a situation that is already interesting to the reader, already seductive. Now Shirley Jackson sort of stumbles the conversation into a mid-twentieth century vision of the apocalypse, then stumbles it back again to a mundane party in some anonymous suburban living room. You’ve been brilliantly set-up. That’s why when SJ delivers the punch, you really feel it.

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Dear Corporate Publisher,

Since last year was the worst year in publishing history—that is, the worst year since the year before—I’ve got a few questions for you (along with some unsolicited advice):

Are you publishing all of your authors, or are you just printing most of them? Because if you’re just printing most of them, why bother? Why not re-allocate all those printing and shipping costs into marketing the books you’re actually publishing? Just a thought.

Does the reading public really need a million titles per year? Wouldn’t it be a little easier to sort out the growing demand for a hundred thousand? Don’t get me wrong, I like eclectic, I like many voices, but it seems to me a hundred thousand is a lot of voices. You only published fifty thousand in 1990, and as I recall, the industry was in better shape.

Instead of acquiring books at the budget deadline (books which you have no real intention of marketing beyond a little co-op for 90 days to fill table space at the chains—where your titles are gathering dust in a warehouse, as the demand stacks up at independents), why not re-structure?

Why not give all your titles the benefit of marketing support, publicity budgets, tour budgets? Do you think they might sell more than a thousand copies? Do you think you might have less returns?

Why not make your sales reps lives easier by cutting your catalog in half? Maybe that would allow your reps to push your backlist—after all, you’ve already printed the books, already paid the advances? Hey, and that’s another way to fill those invaluable brick-and-mortar stores without publishing a million titles per year. Maybe if you marketed your books, instead of letting them sit heavy in the chains, you wouldn’t have to pay all that postage on all those returns? Just a thought.

Why not teach your publicists to take bloggers seriously? Have you noticed that newspapers are dying out? Have you noticed that a lot of book blogs are generating serious traffic in the maven market—the one market most helpful in creating advance buzz? Oh wait, and it doesn’t cost you anything! The bloggers come to you, offering to promote your books (because they already know about them because their ear is more to the ground than your publicist), and yet, often as not, you don’t even reply to their e-mails, or interview requests. Maybe you should be aggressively profiling these people and offering them swag? Maybe you should be pitching them. Just a thought.

Why not hire better graphic designers? Most cover designs suck. I’m sorry, but if I have to look at the sweaty withers of another horse running into the sunset, another vintage lampshade, another goddamn dog, I’m gonna’ shoot myself!

Why not boldly target new audiences, instead of mourning the loss of the ones you’ve already alienated? The reason I ask is this: I wrote a book, it sold modestly well due to the forces of luck and a lot of sweat, but I must’ve heard a thousand times: I gave your book to my niece so-and-so, and she loved it—and she /never/ reads. I’m serious, I hear it all the time.

Maybe we could make books cool again. There’s a lot of cool books being written, but nobody’s making them cool (see sweaty horse withers, and publicist with no faith in blogs).

Maybe “Reality Hunger” is more like a “Big Mac Attack.” Maybe you shouldn’t publish books that feed this hunger. Maybe you should just stick to your guns and believe in the tried-and-true novel—put your best foot forward, so to speak, and quit pandering.

Maybe you should start dictating markets again.

I know, I know, you’ve got answers for all these questions, corporate publisher. You’ve got your best practices, you’ve got your market research, but you haven’t got any balls.



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DH: Iris Murdoch, the mid-20th century British novelist, was the true inheritor of the great Victorian tradition of moral psychologists. Her complex stories turn on questions of what’s the right thing. Only in contrast to today’s dogmatic moralists, who are so convinced that they know exactly what you should be doing, IM wrote stories where good and evil are real but meant to be puzzled over.

In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine an extra-marital affair rivals in legitimacy the marriage it is undermining. In A Fairly Honorable Defeat, a gay relationship and a straight marriage are both under threat. One will go down. Which deserves to survive and why?

Most readers today remember Iris Murdoch as the brilliant writer whose mind was darkened by Alzheimer’s. But I prefer to remember the writer who has influenced Zadie Smith. And I think we should remember those we love in their best times, in their salad days, since there is no need to memorialize sadness.

Open Road Media has recently made ten works of Iris Murdoch widely available for download. The one that caught my eye was The Philosopher’s Pupil, which was the first Murdoch novel that I read. It’s my recommendation in our new series: Three Guys One Download. Next month, another of the Guys will recommend a download.

When this gem arrived I thought, “oh cool, I’ll read this someday”, like I do with almost all non-fiction that comes my way. Once I picked it up, and it’s got a great feel to it, weight, touch, even smell, I knew I was going to be sucked in.  I’ve been dragging my feet in finishing it, like any good book, you don’t want it to be over, and this is no different. There are books about television shows, some with pictures, and not much else, and others that sort of brush over the television show with little or no substance. Natasha Vargas-Cooper, or NVC as I call her, (my interview with her will run tomorrow) has done a spectacular job with this delectable and incredibly engaging examination of a television show that has renewed my faith in the medium, by honestly examining the advertising campaigns that shape Don Draper and Mad Men, and how they effect the world we live in. Or how Don and Co. shaped our lives.

I skipped Mad Men the first season, and was I sorry. When I finally did catch up it took my two years to fully absorb Don and Betty Draper, the boys at Sterling Cooper, Pete and Roger, and “girl”, who all took up a place in my mind like a good friend who knows just what I like. I was shocked by NVC’s canny knack at capturing not only what Draper and Co. feels or is affected by, but she develops a magnetic vernacular in detailing the moments in culture which are created by the advertisement campaigns these men develop. In this year’s season premiere, Don takes to task the makers of a swimsuit, and throws them out of the office when they won’t conform to his risqué advertisements, which are basically soft porn. When Don snaps his fingers, snap, snap, snap, “lets go, I mean it, get out of here.” I was floored. How could a man who develops ideas that will slip weave their way into the coils of the common man and woman be so callous with clients, especially since this season Don has started a new agency. How? Because he’s a risk taker and a reckless man, to know Don is to quote him, “live like there’s no tomorrow, because there probably isn’t.”

Draper is trying to get around how bad smoking can be for you, by dismissing the statistics, really, he throws them away, and sticks to “it’s toasted” a line he tries to sell the cigarette maker he’s been tasked to promote.  Don smokes like a chimney, and it’s a form of his masculinity that is on display, his ability to smoke and look good doing it, plus it’s his crutch, for when he has nothing to say, or doesn’t want to say anything. Don never passes up an opportunity to keep his mouth shut and NVC explains this parallel nicely, and in essence defines Draper.

Each section of this book covers something different from the early 60’s, movies, travel, skinny ties, Pete’s college look, and Jackie Kennedy’s interior decorating, just to name a few, and there is an accompanying essay with each picture. I especially like the section about John Cheever and how Draper’s life on the show is very much like a Cheever story. The creator of another AMC show called Rubicon, which is basically a low-fi espionage, referred to Mad Men as John Cheever on television.  By the time you get to the section on the counter culture of the 60’s and how it related to the show, you’ll remember (if you’ve seen this early episode) that Draper and his hippie girlfriend are falling apart, and Don comes to her pad for a quick fuck and a break from his job and life only to find her with a friend who is dropping out and doing drugs, a bohemian to be exact. The Man in the Fez Hat as he’s called is busting Don’s balls about his conformity and it gets around to a moment where Don is given to reflecting on life, which he can do at a moment’s notice, he tells the man to make something of himself, and this man says “Like you? You make a lie. You invent want. You’re for them, not us.” This man thinks all Ad Men are bullshit, Don is wise to it almost instantly, replying, “Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.” The Man in the Fez hat replies, “Man, why did you have to say that?” It’s funny and it’s true, because the Man in the Fez hat has just been called on his bullshit. Don is capable of incredible insight, profound even, I know it’s the writing of the show, but I wonder did Don make the times he lived in, or did the times shape him? It certainly is up for debate, and with this wonderful work of art, NVC makes the case for both sides.  -JR

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