Annals of Japery, Notable Articles

Pansexual Free-for-All: My Time As A Writer of Kindle Erotica

The life of a writer is hard, because money. There comes a time, usually after you’ve gone four days eating nothing but ramen noodles (and you’ve contemplated selling all of your valuables and subsequently realized that you have none), when you have to literally sober up and assess the facts. With a stack of unpublished short stories and the wreckage of three or four novels somewhere inside my laptop, with a day job as a cook, I was tired of the whole show. Writing, rejection, writing, rejection. Exhaustion, hard drinking, further exhaustion, rejection, the hardest drinking. How, having worked my entire life writing fiction no one reads, can I make any money with this skill? This one skill I’ve troubled to cultivate? This one skill that I love? This art? A few weeks ago I turned, pointed by a friend, to the world of Kindle romance/erotica where, I was assured, there was money to be made. Seventy percent of profits from each story sold would be mine, and the price for a single story was set generally at $2.99. This friend who recommended me explained that she made an extra $500 to $700 a month, and others made much more. Some lucky people you’ve heard of have even made millions. Signing up was free and all Amazon required was a little tax information. Following that, all I had to do was be willing to remorselessly pump out paranormal pornography like nobody’s business. Could I accept this challenge? I read Dostoevsky for pleasure, I read Juvenal, I read Big Billy Shakes: of course, I thought, of course I can write shape-shifter erotica, and I can do it goddamn exceptionally. I began this life-changing journey with an attempt to define the word erotica, because I’d never read or written anything with that explicit label before. How in depth are we talking? How specific does this genre get? Erotica had always reminded me of the word “pornography” dressed up for a night at the opera. (Though I don’t really mind the word pornography either: the next time you see a porn video, picture James Joyce’s ghost hovering in the background moaning sensually.) I thought I knew what I was dealing with, having heard a lot about 50 Shades of Gray and dinosaur erotica and all that from the zeitgeist and other grotesque corners of the Internet. I thought that erotica could be as explicit as regular pornography, but it also required a more delicate, emotional touch. This turned out not to be true. After doing some important, serious research, I found out that actually erotica could be just regular old smut, and so I was free to ignore romance and focus instead on the repeated use of the phrase “hard as iron” and descriptions of how hot peoples’ breath was. I first had to choose my hook, my concept. Perusing the available archives on Amazon’s Kindle section, I quickly learned that there were thousands of erotic short stories available written by willing, easily excited amateurs like myself, and I would have to distinguish my work if I wanted any of that sweet, sexy cash. A lot of the stories had a hook, usually involving paranormal creatures, or just regular creatures, creatures that shape-shift into human form and then have amazing sex with other people (that transformation is very important: apparently overt bestiality, or rape, are banned from Kindle short stories, so, you know, there’s a line drawn somewhere). These shape-shifter sex creatures could be anything from dolphins to bears to whales. Moby-Dick joke. Because I had to put in my due diligence, I decided I’d have to read and research some of these stories, to help settle on a concept and structure for my own sex-melee. I ended up investing $2.99 in a shorty story by Olivia J. Rose titled "Dominated by the Dolphins" (I almost couldn’t decide between this one and "Humped by the Humpback"). I read the whole thing and I can honestly tell you that I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. I’ve definitely never read anything like it. But the main takeaway was: who the hell am I to judge if someone wants to get their rocks off, and nobody’s getting hurt? That’s not such a bad thing. You go for it, Olivia Rose. Not every book needs to be Heart of Darkness, and if you’re story is a BBW shape-shifter erotica called "Dominated by the Dolphins," I’ll have to insist that it has nothing to do whatsoever with King Leopold’s Congo. Deciding my hook was by far the worst part. I couldn’t decide. Every nook and cranny of paranormal genre junk was already occupied with hundreds of stories filled with passionate creature-based sex: goblins, werewolves, phantoms, steampunk vampires -- I wanted to choose a relatively untapped market, but that wound up being impossible. There are no viable untapped markets in Kindle erotica, pretty much like in regular internet porn except in regular internet porn there are no unviable markets. I basically just settled on a bunch of different genre ideas that I then gracelessly mashed together into the uninviting stew that became my first ever explicitly erotic short story. It involved ghosts, it involved dragons, and it involved a secret underground sex club. I wrote it kind of in a trance, but whatever, it doesn’t matter: sometimes you’ve just got to try all available options to pay your rent, and sometimes that entails making compromises. Tip to win readers over: describe your erotic short story as an uninviting stew. Before I began writing, though, I knew I had to settle on a pen name. It’s not that I wasn’t inordinately proud of the fact that I was willing to write erotica for hot, iron-hard cash, but I wasn’t exactly interested in advertising it with the name I’d carry for the rest of my life. So I decided to use a pen name, and it would have to be appropriately romantic, because people buy erotic short stories from writers with names like Michelle Cox and Sheena O’Mara, but they definitely don’t buy erotica from writers with names like any male name. There’s a difference between a female and a male writer of erotica, and that difference is porn. So, once again stymied by the brute realities of capitalism, I asked another friend if he had any ideas for a suitable pen name for an author of romantic/erotic fiction. He suggested several: Horatio Mancleever and Orpheus Baccarat being the only I guess printable ones. I tried to ease him into more feminine territory. I can’t tell you what name we eventually settled on, because I don’t want to give away my true identity to my loyal readers, but I will tell you it was a female name and it was slightly less ostentatious than Orpheus Baccarat. A foolproof plot, a totally viable scheme. An extra $500 a month! I was ready. (Meanwhile, it had been almost a year since McSweeney’s received my novella and I’d heard nothing, and the clerk at the corner liquor store now greeted me by name). The actual writing process was semi-described above. Mainly a fruitless thrusting of words onto the page, a relentlessly sweaty, uncomfortable affair, I wanted to get the whole dumb thing finished as soon as possible. I knew, setting out, that there were a few phrases I definitely wanted to use (“sweltering heat of his animal eyes,” “sturdy as a buffalo,” “a ruined hellscape of exquisite sadness,” etc.) but before writing I had almost nothing in the way of hard beginning-middle-end type stuff. And as soon as I did begin writing the thing, the goddamn thing, I realized that a life spent reading postmodernists and 19th-century Russians had somehow not in the slightest prepared me for the work of generic, workmanlike eroticism. Sure, Gravity’s Rainbow is chock full of weird sex, but to match the right tone, the tone solely focused on sexy time and not acts of eternal recurrence or V-2 mechanics (which needless to say rarely ever come up while I’m, uh...performing sexual functions...I don’t know what language I’m allowed to get away with here) I needed to devolve a little bit, let the writing hang out, forget about descriptions of candlelight or monologues about metaphysics, and instead head straight into the dark heart of bodily fluids and hot breath. I asked an ex-girlfriend what kind of erotica she’d read if she read erotica and she was confused by the entire scheme, declined eventually to answer. I was on my own, so after an aggressive caffeine binge and a few days spent trying to imagine what this whole thing could possibly mean for my life I bashed out a rough draft of dirty, filthy smut. A couple embarrassing revisions later, and I was done. It was exhausting, but it was also liberating, and not even in a sexual way: if poverty’s a fact, I’m going to game the system any way I can, especially if it’s harmless and entails giving pleasure to other people -- in fact, although it was never the kind of pleasure I ever imagined my writing would give people, I felt absolutely terrific, in the end, that I was maybe giving them any kind at all. Weirdly enough a second ambition had twined itself, in stunted form, to the central one of cash: I want to help some people. I want to help some people get off. Is that how pornographers feel? Am I a pornographer? “Who cares?” as J. Joyce would say. If nobody’s getting hurt I’ll write whatever smut’s required of me when the bills need to get paid. The last step was designing a cover, by which point I was too exhausted to care. Also, stock photos and photoshop are expensive, so I slapped together a piece of generic art provided by Amazon’s design program. Then I threw the thing up there and tried to forget about it, tried instead to dream about piles of weird voluptuous money, wheelbarrows full of it, and people across the country having a grand old time reading what I’d written. Somehow, everything went terribly wrong. In terms of monetary gains, I initially checked my Amazon reports every few days, but had to stop after a while. It was just too depressing. By the end of its first month online, my heartbreaking little story had managed to rope in a grand total of three readers. Which, to be fair, is more readers than I’ve ever had for any other piece of fiction I’ve written in my life. Unfortunately or fortunately, they left no reviews. The only mark to know they’d been there at all was the goddamn blue uptick on the Amazon sales graph. (Blue means that the reader is someone with a Kindle Unlimited account, so they can read your story for free, i.e. no royalties.) It came to me that I might have underestimated the fact that the market is so glutted with stories written by half-assed people like me, nobody’s going to plunk down three bucks for the opportunity to even laugh at it. There was too much. I was one more drop of irrelevant smut in an Atlantic of erotica. I’d thought that just publishing this thing with minimal effort would somehow grant me at least hundreds of paying readers, but now, somewhat removed from the fever that afflicted me while I wrote it, that seems literally insane. What kind of lunatic thinks he's going to make hundreds or thousands of dollars by self-publishing a 20-page story about a dragon sex club? But when you’re desperate for cash, it’s simpler to believe almost anything. How could I not want to hold onto that? It’s practically un-American to not believe that you can get rich quick with minimal effort and erotic know-how. My dreams faded. I got up and went to work again, every day. Every day there were no readers, there was no excess money coming in. I worked and went home and worried about rent, groceries, like I’d always done. In the immortal words of Henry Hill, “I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” That was basically the end of it. Throughout this great experiment, I’ve realized a few things. Most importantly I know now, despite Dostoevsky and friends, that I don’t have any of the ambition necessary to become a successful erotic writer. It would require me to continually write and publish a bunch of stuff that at the end of the day I find so boring, I’d prefer getting paid to correct automotive textbooks. I don’t have the drive to just pump this stuff out, build a fanbase, because it doesn’t in the slightest matter to me. That’s, I guess, the difference between the hundreds of pages of fiction I’ve written, for no monetary compensation whatsoever, and the 20-page erotic story which totally exhausted me. Even right now the idea of sitting down and churning out another of these things makes me want to take a nap. Once the story was actually finished, and there was no money to be made, all ambition tied to it evaporated, and now I’m left pretty much where I began. Ruthlessly lazy, without much money, and stuck for the foreseeable future at an annoying day job. Like pretty much every other writer in the world, I imagine. Maybe there are no get-rich quick schemes, if you’re not passionate about what you’re writing. And if you’re writing erotica, you’ve got to be passionate, you’ve got to be sturdy as a buffalo. But just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean the option isn’t out there for others. Other poor, unlucky writers with superhuman ambition: I’m talking to you. Even if I made no money off this whole charade, what can you do with it, you heroic pornographers? Why not give it a go? Lord knows the world could use more smut. But don’t think of it as smut, think of it as sexual healing. After all, who doesn’t need some excess cash? And who doesn’t need to get off? We’re writers, goddammit, but we’re still human beings. Wants and needs abound everywhere, you can’t avoid them. The hardest drinking one day gives way, hopefully, to opportunity, and maybe you can make some people happy. At the very least they might see the title of your story in the Kindle store, your ridiculous, strange little story, and they might laugh before moving on -- and that’s good enough, hell. You’re published. You’re the real deal. Art schmart. Ain’t nothing wrong with getting off. Image Credit: Flickr/Fadil Elmansour
Essays, Notable Articles

It’s Not You, It’s Us: Apartment Hunting in Brooklyn

1. What you do when apartment hunting online, and what a lot of people do, I imagine, is you plug in your preferred neighborhood/price range/amenities/etc., and then out pops a long list of results that you further refine by imagining a very specific and very fictionalized narrative involving a version of yourself that isn’t necessarily true right now but could be true if you lived in apartment X. No, you’ve never wielded a wrench for any longer than the time it takes to pass it to your dad, but why couldn't you fix a fixer-upper? Or be the kind of person to share one bathroom with six other roommates? Or live with a Ukrainian family that’s gone for five months out of the year, but whose kids you’re expected to babysit as per your new rental agreement? I asked myself these questions a few weeks after my girlfriend came home one night (while I was sautéing garlic shrimp in our L.A. apartment) and told me that it was over. We’d lived together for 10 years in eight different apartments on two separate coasts, and although she said that it might not feel like it right now, this was going to be a good thing. She said that now, I’d finally be able to move back to the city I loved: New York. 2. Returning home to your parents' house after a breakup is a little bit like crawling back into the womb 30 years after you’re born: it’s kind of embarrassing and unpleasant for everyone involved, but once you get settled it’s really not that bad. Mom turned into a kind of gastronomic DJ, taking nightly requests and cooking up a few of her greatest hits, while dad hovered around my bedroom and offered sage advice like, “We never really thought you guys were all that compatible to begin with,” and “When do you think you’ll start looking for your own place?” -- which is around the time I happened to stumble across a 2-bedroom townhouse in Park Slope for $900 a month. It had crown moldings and vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows above the doors. It was the first place I found where you didn’t have to superimpose better versions of yourself onto the provided pictures. You could be mediocre at best, or even obnoxious, and still take full advantage of that atrium overlooking the backyard. So I emailed the owner and got this reply: Dear David I thank you for your interest in my house and assure you that I and my daughter from London who has lived there for 10 years with me love it as much as you will. Rest assured that it is in excellent condition and that included in the price are heat, hot water, cable, central air and free Wi-Fi! However, there is one thing you should know before I can rent to you my daughter’s apartment, whose name is Rosemary, and has been sick in the hospital with a very rare illness... The letter went on like that for a few more paragraphs, explaining that the money was needed up front in order to secure both the apartment and, conveniently, to help cover the cost of Rosemary’s hospital bills. Having been living at home I’d had the opportunity to catch up on a few movies I’d been meaning to watch, namely Captain Phillips on DVD, and I couldn’t help but imagine a gaunt, Somali man sitting in the pirate’s equivalent of an Internet café. I wondered if these sorts of schemes ever worked and if so on whom? “Hey Dad,” I said. “Check out this amazing apartment I just found.” After reading the letter my Dad looked up and raised his eyebrows like wire-transferring $900 U.S. into Mrs. Potter’s Western Union account was something I might want to consider. “I mean it’s sad,” he said, “that her daughter has cancer of the meninges, but David: You’d be a fool to walk away from that price.” My sister said that in her experience, you couldn’t really rent a Brooklyn apartment if you weren’t already living in Brooklyn and that yes, it was a catch-22, but that was why so many couples were prematurely moving in with each other and inevitably breaking up, and then being forced to live with their exes while trying to find another place, which was exactly the situation my sister was in now. She said that if I didn’t mind a little awkwardness with regard to her ex boyfriend occasionally stopping by, I was more than welcome to sleep on her couch. Also, she said she’d been thinking a lot about our similar situations and, at least financially, didn’t it make sense if we lived together? It did. And we’d actually done this for six weeks once before when she was living in Chelsea and I was in college. We got into a fight one night and Lauren ended up throwing my books out her 7th-story window and I ended up trawling the streets of SoHo at 3:00 in the morning hoping that something bad but-not-too-bad would happen to me so that she’d be riddled with a lifetime of guilt and regret. But we were older now. We were more mature. We had learned from out past mistakes and we could -- no, we would -- live together. So I showed her a place I’d found online with tin ceilings and exposed brick walls I thought she’d like, and a stand-up Jacuzzi that later, she’d tell me, looked like it belonged on a porn set. “Do you think it's a Somali scam?” she asked (apparently she had also just watched Captain Phillips on DVD). “Maybe it’s like a gem,” I said. “Maybe it’s a scam and we’re going to get murdered when we show up,” she said. “It’s on 9th Street,” I said. “Ninth Street is super-busy. You can’t get murdered on 9th Street, I don’t think.” “Don’t bring your financials,” she said. “And don’t bring cash. What’s this person’s name?” “Who?” “The person we’re going to meet before we get mugged.” “Hana,” I said. “Hana what?” “I don’t know.” “Well can’t you find out?” I shook my head. “Why not?” “Because that’s weird,” I said. “I’m not going to ask her what her last name is. She sounds nice and I thinks she’s a real person and I don’t want her to think that we’re weird.” “Dave,” my sister said. “You’re my brother. And we’re about to go look at a porn set to see if we want to live there.” 3. When I met Lauren outside of the apartment she hugged me and asked if I was ready to get gang-banged. Hana showed up a few minutes later and to our relief, she was not a Somali pirate at all. She was from Croatia, I think, or somewhere vaguely Slavic where people have high cheekbones and long, blonde hair. I wondered if she was looking for a roommate and if she’d ever tried garlic shrimp before. We followed her up a quickly sketched staircase and inside where it looked exactly like the photos except smaller. Smaller exposed cooling ducts, smaller tin ceilings, and smaller porn vibes. “There’s a urinal in the bathroom,” my sister pointed out. “Yes,” Hana told us. “This is very unique to this apartment. No other apartment has urinal like this.” I walked into the bathroom and my sister nodded at the stand-up Jacuzzi. Later she would tell me that it reminded her of a Winnebago shower, or a shower where “murders happen.” “Do you have the dimensions of this room?” Lauren asked, standing in the smaller of the two bedrooms. I looked at Hana who was shaking her head. She was so cute, Hana. So pretty and nice. I probably would’ve fallen in love with anyone if they promised not to leave me after ten years. Talking out of the side of her mouth she said, “I don’t know exactly, but I’m about four feet this way?” She spread her arms and touched her fingers against one wall and then, to our delight, she began to spiral in lazy circles across the length of the room. I didn’t know if we were supposed to clap when she was finished, but a few mental calculations later and she announced that the whole thing was maybe eight feet by six? “Perfect!” I said. I wondered if Hana measured everything like this, or just apartments. I guessed that she was probably my age. Did she have a boyfriend? It would be weird to ask. She mentioned something about living in Queens. I could probably live in Queens. I could live anywhere so long as my apartment was measured in pirouettes and tour jetes. Lauren widened her eyes. “Can we come back tomorrow and take some measurements?” I asked. It would be like a second date. 4. “So? Well? What did you think?” “What did you think?” my sister said when we were outside, walking. “Beautiful,” I said. “A little foreign, but I really loved it.” “What about the urinal in the bathroom?” “It’s unique,” I said. “Also, did you notice that there were speakers in the walls? And how there were wires draped all over the floors? And how you couldn’t open that one closet? And the lights in the hallway were blue? Why were they blue? I felt like I was at a nightclub.” “Huh,” I said. “I didn’t notice.” I pictured inviting Hana over for some clubbing when my sister was out. “I think we’d get murdered in that bathroom,” Lauren said, and then she shook her head. “I’m really sorry, Dave. I don’t think I can picture myself living there.” She said that she was already in talks with another real estate agency and that I was kind of on my own now, so I texted Hana and told her I couldn’t meet her for measurements. At least I was breaking it off with her instead of the other way around. 5. The next afternoon my Nike Fuelband said that I had already walked 15 miles. I ruptured something along the top of my foot because of the 10-year-old Pumas Mom told me not to wear, and then I drank 2 liters of coconut water in order to rehydrate, only to find out afterwards that coconut water can be a really powerful laxative for some people -- but I’m getting ahead of myself. It was 2:30 when I limped into the real estate agency that had a dusty neon sign out front that was only partially lit. Inside it smelled like burnt coffee, but coffee that had pockets of morning breath in it that I kept accidentally walking into and then, like a tired boxer, weaving away from long after I’d already been hit. “Hello?” I asked. “Hello,” a voice said. Someone, about my age with slicked back hair and an expression that can only be described as dripping, pulled open a room divider that I’m almost positive was his bed sheet. He shook my hand, introducing himself as Anthony and then offered me a seat long after I’d already taken one. He looked sad, Anthony did, like he hadn’t rented an apartment in months, and he kept glancing over his shoulder at a fish tank that had a plastic model of Manhattan’s skyline in it, but no discernable fish. I wanted to help him out, to make him happier, and he said he wanted to help me too, so we agreed to meet somewhere on the other side of town where he told me he had a place that was exactly what I was looking for. He pulled up in a silver Town Car and sat in the driver’s seat for a really long time. He looked sadder than he did before, and occasionally we’d catch each other’s eye in the rearview mirror and I’d smile at him and he’d look away like he hadn’t seen me. He was shuffling papers and giving off the impression that he was very busy; so I tried to look busy too, fake scrolling on my iPhone, whose battery had just died. Eventually he got out of his car, crossed the street, and handed me a clipboard. “What’s this?” “You have to sign it,” he said. “It’s company policy.” “What for?” “Because we’re walking into an occupied residence and this states that you’re not going to take anything.” “What would I take?” I asked. Anthony looked at me like he was going to slit his wrists. “You’d be surprised,” he said. The address of the apartment he was going to show me was three streets and one avenue away from the address that he told me to meet him at, and I felt like he was leading me to some Batcave that only he knew about. I wondered if he ever blindfolded his clients, or spun them around in circles, or threatened their family if they talked, but he didn’t talk much, he just lumbered forward, sighing heavily every couple of blocks. I wanted to ask Anthony questions like why was he sadder than before? And wasn’t it nice to get outside? And what was he doing in his Lincoln town car that whole time? But he was stopping in front of an apartment across the street from a cemetery now and pulling out a ring of keys. “All right,” he said. “You ready?” 6. The hallway was barely wider than shoulder width and when we reached the top of a long, narrow staircase, Anthony knocked on a door and then took a few steps back. He was sweating so I smiled and said something stupid like, “Hot, huh?”, which made him visually sadder. Was this the apartment I was going to get murdered in? Would Anthony murder me? Or would he try to help me if I was getting murdered? I’m not sure that I would help him, honestly. I think I might offer some advice over my shoulder as I was running away like, “Stay positive,” or “Thank you for all your help.” He opened the door and we walked into the kitchen where there were two twin redheads sitting on a blow-up chair in the corner of the room. “Oh -- hello,” I said. “Hi,” they said in unison. “This is the kitchen,” Anthony said. “Pretty good size. Decent refrigerator. Good space all around.” I nodded, wondering why there were redheads in blow-up chairs, and if this was what Anthony had been so upset about. I felt that on the one hand if I looked at them directly, they might lunge at me, but if I didn’t look at them they would do something worse, so I spent the whole time pretending to be impressed by things I wasn’t actually impressed by, like how the windows opened almost all the way, and how there was very little water-damage under the sink, and how the smoke detector was actually a smoke detector/carbon monoxide detector, while secretly I was watching them in my periphery. It must have been 80 degrees outside and 95 in here. Anthony was sweating. The redheads were sweating. I was sweating. “How do you guys like living here?” I asked, figuring that if I kept them talking it would be harder for them to sneak up on me. “Good,” one of them said. “Nice,” said the other. I remembered seeing something on an episode of Oprah once about how prisoners that appealed to their captor’s humanity had the greatest chance of escape so I told them that I was just getting out of a 10-year relationship and then followed Anthony into the bedroom. The only reason I knew it was the bedroom was because there was a blow up mattress on the floor. Later, I’d realize that the twins’ penchant for inflatable furniture had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with that narrow hallway we ascended when we first walked in. Real furniture was not an option in this junior 1-bedroom apartment that was across the street from a cemetery. I couldn’t really picture myself living here. But I tried anyway. I had a premonition of standing in the middle of a pretty-decent sized kitchen, sautéing garlic shrimp for my blow-up girlfriend. “Here’s the bathroom,” Anthony said, opening the shower. The tiles were covered in scum and there was a sizable puff of red hair clogging the drain. “Want to see the basement?” I shook my head. “Decent-sized storage,” he said. I shook my head again and we left. 7. Outside, Anthony wanted to know what I thought of the place, so I lied and said that I thought it was really nice, which made him smile. He told me to put down a deposit to make sure that nobody else took it and I lied again and said that I would, and then told him the truth, and said that I had to go. My next appointment was conveniently located within walking distance from the cemetery, and although I felt my stomach lurching, I figured it was just residual fear. I was going to meet Kiki, a 30-year-old nurse-in-training who had complimented me so many times in her reply email, I almost didn’t care what her apartment looked like. When I got there two girls were sitting on Kiki’s stoop. “Kiki?” I asked. The first girl shook her head and explained that they were waiting for Kiki also. “Ah, double-booked,” I said, trying to make small talk. The girl who was talking to me, and who was now touching my shoulders a lot, looked exactly like the actress Lindsay Lohan if Lindsay Lohan got stung by bees. Her quieter, larger counterpart, who I nicknamed Silent Bobbie, said nothing at all -- didn’t even look up -- she was too busy being engrossed with The Simpson’s game on her phone. “If worst comes to worst,” Lindsay said, “we might have to arm wrestle you for the place.” I smiled. “Or mud wrestle,” she said. I smiled again. “Or we could have a dance off,” she said. “Or a staring contest.” She widened her eyes, and put her face close to mine, so I laughed uncomfortably, hoping to concede defeat. “So what do you guys do?” I asked. “Oh, we’re comedians,” Lindsay said. The whole time we were talking, Lindsay kept touching my shoulders and chest and telling me things about myself that I already knew like how I was wearing a button down shirt, and how my hair had some product in it but not a lot, and that my sunglasses were aviators. I felt more self-conscious than flattered, really, and spent the whole time scanning the street for signs of Kiki. When she finally showed up she was wearing an all-spandex outfit and carrying a rolled-up Yoga matt under one arm and walking a black lab, whose name, she said, was Goose. “Hi Goose,” the girls sang, dropping to their knees and scratching Goose’s ears and rubbing Goose’s belly. Silent Bobbie, who had said nothing up until this point, was now telling Kiki how much she loved dogs and Lindsay was saying, “I don’t love all dogs but I really love this one!” I couldn’t believe it. I was being thrown under the proverbial bus. We hadn’t even set foot into the apartment and already we were elbow deep in mud pits. “I like dogs too,” I heard myself say. I squeezed between the two of them and got down on Goose’s level and started petting her head at the exact moment Kiki stopped watching me. “So let me give you the grand tour,” she said. “Come on Goose!” “He’s licking me so much I don’t know if he wants to go,” I laughed. 8. I hated the thought of living with Kiki -- couldn’t imagine doing it -- the whole place was dark and cluttered and she’d turned her living room into a makeshift bedroom where she said that she and her boyfriend spent most of their time. Still though, a certain part of me wanted her approval. I wanted her to pick me over Laurel and Hardy over there. I wanted to win at apartments -- to be crowned the Reigning King of Roommates. Maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. Maybe Kiki and her boyfriend and Goose and I could snuggle up on their makeshift bed and watch Saturday morning cartoons. Had I told her that I could cook? I could make Sunday brunch for everyone! I could over-function like I had in my last relationship. Under special talents on my imagined resume I could write: will consider indentured servitude. As I was leaving, I couldn’t help but remember what my ex-girlfriend said during those last few weeks when we were breaking up. “It’s not you,” she told me. “It's us.” 9. My last interview was with an incredibly soft-spoken girl named Sara who had the odd and distracting habit of rolling her eyes back into her head and fluttering her eyelids whenever she spoke. She arrived at the front door barefoot and braless under a blue cotton dress, and was so quiet, it should be pointed out, that the sounds my stomach was now making, occasionally drowned her out. I, by contrast, felt like I was yelling at her, that my every movement was taking place at hyper-speed, and that I was giving her the impression that I was so ecstatic about this closet-sized bedroom she was showing me, I might induce in her a seizure or a stroke. She said that we could move all of the cleaning supplies off of that shelf in my would-be bedroom, and that I could sometimes use the living room, but most of the time she’d prefer that I make myself scarce. Also, she said, the rent was $1,300 a month. “Do you maybe want to sit down and talk about some of your interests and what you like to do and maybe what you expect out of me as your roommate?” she asked. My stomach made a sound like it was going to the bathroom inside of itself, and then I don’t remember much after that. It happened in bits and pieces, really: me doubling over on the F train and running down Atlantic Avenue and tumbling into my sister’s apartment, past her living room and into her bathroom, where I sat down for the first time all day. I checked my phone for any new emails. Dear Dave, You seemed like a really great guy but unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to work. All the best in finding someone. Sara. 10. The place that I eventually settled on was a clean, well-lit studio off of 5th Ave, about the size and shape of a small rectangle. The girl that showed it to me texted me before I came over to say that her friend was visiting from out of town and that they’d had, “A really rough night,” the night before. I asked her what time we could meet after 12:00 and she said, “Sounds great!” “1:30?” I asked. “No,” she said. “240 7th Street.” I figure that if I ever get a chance to tell my ex-girlfriend about my new apartment, I’m going to be honest with her. I’ll say that it’s better than the first two places we moved into when we were kids, but that it can’t compare to some of The Greats we ended up living in together while we were growing up. Dad mentioned on the phone the other day that I didn’t have to worry about rolling out of bed and stumbling into the bathroom anymore; now I could just roll and go. But all of my books are within arm’s reach, and whenever my neighbors throw a party in their backyard, I can’t help but sit in my window and pretend like I was invited. I’ll say all of this, but I’ll also say that I like it, because I do. I’ll say that like a lot of New York apartments, mine is decidedly small: wherever I go, I’m already there. Image Credit: LPW
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Get to Work: On the Best Advice Writers Ever Received

How do they do that thing they do? While reading a novel or stories, fiction writers are often overwhelmed by a turn of phrase, a transition from the present action to a full and engaging flashback, or the sheer amount of ideas a writer is able to generate on the page. We look at our favorite books, underline gorgeous passages, and imagine ourselves writing our own novel or stories that capture our deepest selves for the reader to connect with, as these authors have done with such apparent ease. But a recent conversation I had with a panel of authors demonstrated that nothing ends up on the page with ease. Writing is a practice that requires a willingness to show up with your work each day. All writers struggle with the same issues, and with each book the issues continue. Reading interviews with authors has always been a way that new writers seek validation and information, as well as a way to gain insight into the creative works and the lives of the writers they love. The Paris Review's Writers at Work series has long been a go-to source for interviews with the leading writers of the times -- everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eudora Welty to Marilynne Robinson and Jonathan Franzen. Literary journals and writing magazines include author interviews, and The Millions features interviews as well. So, what is the one essential fact we’re all looking for in combing through pages of interviews? How do you do it? How can I do it, too? What is the best piece of writing advice that you can give me? I recently spoke with a range of authors who shared the best piece of writing advice they ever received. Some answers were brief and memorizable, some were longer and drew me into the author’s world and creative process. Whatever the answer, I was inspired to get to work on my new novel. Here’s what they had to say: Richard Bausch, author of Before, During, After; Peace Mary Lee Settle to me in 1981, when I had just published my second novel and was having trouble getting started again: "Aw, Sweetness, you've just got to get stupid again, watch a lot of dumb movies and read a bunch of bad mystery novels, give the urn time to fill up again, it'll pour when it's ready." Nick Flynn, author of The Reenactments: A Memoir; The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands Carolyn Forche told me that writing was a daily practice, a way of life. Marie Howe taught me to put everything I knew into each poem, to not hold anything back. These were my first teachers. Bret Anthony Johnston, author of Remember Me Like This; Corpus Christi I've received loads of good advice over the years, but some of the best comes from Allan Gurganus. He says that when a writer must choose between thinking and trusting, you should always choose trust. Trust the sentence, the characters, the story. Lily King, author of Euphoria; Father of the Rain Honestly, the best piece of advice I’ve gotten did not come from a professor or a mentor or any writer or teacher at all. In fact, it might not have come from any one individual but from a team in a conference room. It’s the Nike ad: Just Do It. You can think and fuss and pace and writhe and freak out and rationalize the hell out of it all -- there are a thousands of ways to convince yourself that right now is not a good time (hour, morning, month, season) to write -- but the truth about writing, the only truth, is that you have to put words on the page. (Yes, you have to replenish sometimes, too, but that comes after you have written something, not before.) Nike’s advice is not new. There’s Michelangelo who wrote on his apprentice’s sketches: “Draw, Antonio, draw Antonio/ draw and do not waste time.” (He wrote it in Italian, of course, and so fast that last line reads “disegnia e no prder tepo” instead of “non perdere tempo.”) And there’s Kingsley Amis who said it eloquently: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s trousers to the seat of one’s chair,” and Nora Roberts (who has written 189 bestsellers, by the way) who said it with more compression: “Ass in the chair.” Write, and if you don’t like it -- and I’m not talking about enjoying it or feeling satisfied at the end of the day or feeling like it’s meaningful, and I am certainly not talking about happiness or joy -- if it doesn’t connect you to yourself in some basic way that you know you need to feel whole, forget it. But if you do and it does, then just keep doing it. Because it’s your own consciousness we’re talking about here, your own voice you are trying to get down on the page, and only you can teach yourself what that really sounds like and how to lure it out. I have to give myself some variation of this speech pretty much every day. No excuses. Just Fucking Do It. Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life; Carolina Moon When I was in graduate school, the writer George Garrett visited our workshop and delivered the best advice I have ever received about writing. He said whoever invades your space while you are working: parent/spouse/friend/lover/teacher/preacher/some pristine version of yourself and so on -- and breathes down your neck with criticism -- I never said that! what terrible language! who wants to read this crap? -- whoever is there haunting your space and asking for censorship, get rid of them. Clear the air of all judgment and criticism and focus on the work. I have treasured this bit of advice and for my own personal satisfaction have added to it the notion that at the end of a day of work, I can choose to burn everything done if I want. It provides the ultimate freedom of thought and expression. Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck; The Giant’s House One piece of advice? Well: probably the one I think of most often is Allan Gurganus's insistence that we read our work aloud. I had never done it before. I let it go for a while, but recently I've renewed my devotion to editing aloud: it makes you self-conscious, but then it makes you ruthless. Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Quiet Dell; Lark and Termite Three great pieces of advice -- From Tim O'Brien, as I had a book coming out, "Relax. Pretend it isn't happening." From Frank Conroy, to his entire class, on writing a novel: "Don't think of it as a novel. It's a book. A book can be constructed in any way that works." From John Irving, in an interview, when asked “was it easier to write his 5th novel?” "No, it's never easier. The new book doesn't know the first four were ever written." Yes. Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves The most practically useful tip on writing I ever heard was when I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins and Alice McDermott told us she wrote by hand, on legal pads. I had gotten into the habit of typing my first drafts. It seemed more productive to cut out the middleman. Alice wasn’t giving us advice so much as letting us into an aspect of her craft, but I heard the advice in it and returned to handwriting. It was the best decision I ever made as a writer. Our earliest training in creating words is by hand. Children may not always learn cursive anymore in school, but almost everyone’s first attempts at writing come with a pen or pencil (or crayon or marker) on paper. There is something to be said for engaging a neural pathway that is that longstanding in our consciousness and that fundamental to our sense of self. And recent research underscores the benefits of handwriting, suggesting that our brains are activated differently when we handwrite than when we type, that the effort involved in handwriting engages the brain’s motor pathways and aids memory and learning ability. But certain more pedestrian practical considerations come into play that make handwriting an attractive option for a first draft. It’s difficult to stop and edit as you write by hand, for one. When you’re typing, the words are dynamic, not static; they are never fixed in place until you print them (and even then, the blinking cursor rules). You attempt to perfect every sentence the first time through and end up making little progress. The sentence is barely written before the interpolating editorial consciousness (which will have its say in the second draft, in the 100th draft, but perhaps ought to be kept at bay here, in the first draft, the only place where the unconscious mind is given freedom to play before it cedes its place to the conscious mind’s ordering, categorizing, synthesizing, normalizing impulse) begins to fuss with it. The scaffolding for the larger organization of the scene or paragraph, which has come together as if by magic for a moment and is holding together tenuously in the mind as you take care of the individual sentence, begins to creak under the weight of your dual attention. Handwriting generates tremendous forward momentum, because it’s comparatively more difficult to rearrange words in a sentence when you’re handwriting; there’s no neat cut-and-paste mode, no way to artificially corrupt the integrity of the cognitive unit of the sentence. There’s also no potential for distraction when it’s just you and a notebook. There’s no internet to go to, no email to check. If you leave your computer off, or at home, it’s just you and the page. Plus, when you handwrite, you can do it anywhere in the world. You don’t need a plug-in. It gives you power over your circumstances. And seeing the notebooks stacking up allowed me to feel I was actually writing a book. Whereas there’s something spectral about a thousand files in a computer. The one drawback is anxiety over losing your work. I photocopy the notebooks when I’m done with them, store them in the closet and type the text from the photocopied pages. I’m anxious carrying around whatever notebook I’m writing in until I get those pages photocopied. It’s the only draft I have. That’s the beauty of it. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year. The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started. January: Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily) Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk's new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as "a novel in ten conversations", but I prefer Leslie Jamison's description: "a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light." The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)   The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan) Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman's second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron's illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)   Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey's novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie) Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman's next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)   Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher -- Little, Brown -- for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)     Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom) Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy -- his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)   Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.) Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily) A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)     Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth) February: Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess) Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess) Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate - and how fun he is to read. (Garth) Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits - ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” - lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth) The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill) Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid's latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)   Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)   Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences.  Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris.  “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer.  The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him.  In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation.  It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope.  American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill) The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)   There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess) The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli's "idiosyncratic prose style." (Lydia)   My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)     I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)   The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.) The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily) All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie) Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess) March: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess) Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick's lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific--he's the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia) The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political"—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya) Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson's latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet) B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker's characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it "literary self-archaeology" and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers' literary obsessions. (Max) The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive - like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth) Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)   Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called "the keeper" of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus's previous work--including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All--Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer's writer (he taught Donald Antrim's first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia) Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.) The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French's biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia) The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt) Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: "Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list." (Thom)     The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself.  “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt.  This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it.  Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider.  Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September.  The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya) The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals.  Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear.  He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling.  Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill) Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!”   “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied.  His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.”  Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya) The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)   The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence - furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” - but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth) The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday's novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, "While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl--it's a story told in two voices, and it's almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss." Rivka Galchen calls it both "brilliant" and "hilarious" and George Saunders says, "Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart." I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene...what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan) Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne) April: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)   My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There's still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard -- or just plain "Karl Ove" to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to "falling into a malarial fever", and James Wood remarked that "even when I was bored, I was interested." Book 4 covers Knausgaard's late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah) Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael) A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet) Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — "culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor" - that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya) Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)   Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a "Bloomer" whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012.  Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner.  Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)   The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)   The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen's excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael) May: The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)   Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth) The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” - some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth) The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children -- Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance -- as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom) A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)   Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt) The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said "You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this."). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.) Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill) City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne) The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)   Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick's witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick's "Letter from Greenwich Village" in The Paris Review  (it's also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick's latest is an ode to New York City's street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of "living out conflicts, rather than fantasies." (Hannah)   The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel's classic oral history, Working), Gibson's latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah) June: Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth) Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth) The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many - The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie) Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)   The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne) In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily) July: The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)   A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)   Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth) Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form--which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan) August: Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill) The State We're In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah) The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill) September: Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker's headline was "Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity"), described by its publisher as "a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents," with bonus "fabulist quality." But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can't come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia) October: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown's nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book's release, I suggest you dip into Garth's essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan) More from The Millions: The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Lists, Notable Articles

Beyond Bookmarks: 10 Gifts For Readers

For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It's hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they've already read. So, for this year's list, we've tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that's a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated. 1. An Excellent Reading Chair. Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure. 2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw. You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift. 3. Snacks. When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You're Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: "There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don't want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie -- for others it's a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting." Of course, it's hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you're mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity. For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there's always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books. 4. Curated Book Subscription. I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112. 5. Small Press Book Subscription. Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world. 6. Books About Reading. For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago. 7. A Wearable Book. It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read. 8. Special Editions of Treasured Books. At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions. 9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore. Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them. 10. Time to Read. How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours -- with dinner. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Notable Articles, Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: 2014

This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year's best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a "best of" list would not have been true to the reading I did that year. Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year's best memories. It always feels like we've hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year. And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers. For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See. Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin. Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water. Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink. Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship. Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000. Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander. John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van. Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves. Eula Biss, author of On Immunity. Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You. Mark O'Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Ben Lerner, author of 10:04. Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres. Phil Klay, author of Redeployment. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven. Tana French, author of Broken Harbor. Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase. Philipp Meyer, author of The Son. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California. Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite. Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On. Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning. David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories. Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls. Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names. Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman. Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman. Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out. Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions. Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning. Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House. Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men. Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion. Michelle Huneven, author of Blame Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise. Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer. Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers. Ron Rash, author of Serena. Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair. Tom Nissley, author of A Reader's Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle. Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans. Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses' Bridles. Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth. Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning. William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters. Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario. Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known. Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions. Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex. Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments. A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Notable Articles, The Millions Interview

‘The Blank Screen Is the Enemy’: The Millions Interviews David Mitchell

  There are precious few things David Mitchell’s latest opus The Bone Clocks isn’t about. Across centuries and continents, Mitchell works the literary magic that has earned him a unique place in contemporary fiction—an author unbound by genre or expectation. The Bone Clocks was birthed onto bookshelves already longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, a daunting pedigree for a novel to embrace on its publication date, but Mitchell is already thinking two books ahead. Like the Horologists that feature in his new book, he can’t be bound by the constraints of time. Mitchell has authored six novels, and each one is a puzzle of narratives, characters, and plot. These elements leap between texts, taking minor roles in one novel and major turns in the next. The world of David Mitchell’s prose is immense. Speaking with him in person before a stop on his recent book tour, I decided to play Royal Geographic Society explorer and map out the vast expanses of his latest fictional universe. The Millions: Do you see a book like The Bone Clocks or Cloud Atlas in part as an exercise in story architecture—dovetailing narratives, time jumps, callbacks, and so forth. How many blueprints do you need to draft before you build the final versions of your novels? David Mitchell: An exploratory blueprint is to the finished book what a doodle might be to an oil painting, but you need somewhere to start. A vague, rough, approximate, sprawling, first something. From that you get an idea of how many parts there’s going to be—you’ve got to break it down into parts—six, in this one. Then once you know what the parts are, I draw a herringbone diagram, a horizontal line with limbs coming off it, and each limb is where I write ideas down. Each limb is essentially a scene, so you get to see all the scenes in the part and in the right order. More lines can come off the subspines—it gets quite hairy—and then a column of dialogue goes off in one direction and then another one underneath because there’s more space down there and then I might draw the face of a character because I’m stuck for a bit. That is the blueprint for what I write. What I end up writing may conform to that blueprint, or it may vary from it, but at least you are not dealing with a void. The blank screen is the enemy. You can’t improve on nothing. You have to improve on something, however bad, and patchy, and incomplete it is. Once you have something, you begin to work. TM: The Bone Clocks deals with Atemporals, who are beings that either reincarnate or never truly die. In creating the Atemporals, you either appropriated or invented words like “scansion” and “psychosoterica”. What is the etymology of this vocabulary? DM: Some Jung. Some what I imagine might be Greek, but I don’t speak any, so it’s only an imagined Greek. Some 21st century West Coast computer talk—some IT terms. “Redact” is probably a mid-20th century term. I see it in the Cold War sense: the redacting of documents. TM: It immediately conjures an image of thick black lines on legal papers. DM: Exactly. “Psychosoterica” I thought about long and hard. It is a relatively modern version of an old occult practice in the cosmology of the book. The Anchorites have fallen into a branch of the occult called The Shaded Way and the Horologists have followed a less predatory version called The Deep Stream. I made those terms up. I suppose there are echoes of how western Buddhism names the various branches of Buddhism, of which there are many. It is not a religion of the text, or a single book, that lays down the rules. It has morphed in many parts of the world into contradictory sets of beliefs in many areas, such as what happens to us after we die. A Sri Lankan Buddhist would give a very different answer then a Zen Buddhist. The thing I like about it is…that’s ok. No one has a real problem with it; they don’t go to war with each other about it. TM: Your book features five narrators across six distinct novellas, with each section leaping forward a decade or so from the last. How did you decide what not to include from the missing years between each section? DM: What would have skewed the novel. That’s what I left out. What would have stopped the novel taking off. I omitted what would have bent it out of shape. Watching what you’re making is what informs you about what you can and can’t include. TM: A novelist, Crispin Hershey, narrates the third section of The Bone Clocks. In writing the character, did you gift him any of your creative leftovers like rejected book titles or abandoned story ideas? DM: No, I think made everything up just for him, because he isn’t me. Well,he is me in terms of where the raw material comes from, but he’s a slave to his vanity in a way I try not to be. And that’s what generates, say, book titles I wouldn’t choose for my own. He’s a fictional creation and his oeuvre is tailored for him. It’s a bespoke oeuvre with him in mind. TM: Holly Sykes is the heroine of your book, appearing in some form in each of its six segments, beginning in 1984, and stretching to 2034. How do you keep a character’s voice consistent across that time span while still allowing it to evolve with age? DM: You are right in identifying a technical challenge. You do have to do that. The nature of the challenge changes a little big depending on what decade of her life she’s in, and what decade of the world’s life she’s in as well. First in the 1980s, you have to include a few 80s-isms and make sure that no recent developments in English slip into what Holly is saying. For example, “that’s so not what I’m going to do Mum.” We didn’t say that in the 80s. “So” was not an adjectival modifier in that sense. You make it decade appropriate. And you do that for all of the characters, of course. I factored in that at some point Holly got an education—a degree in Psychology—that would’ve upped her register away from demotic and more towards the hieratic. She learns to speak posher. That gives her a greater eloquence later in life. I needed her to be a writer, or at least a memoirist. I needed to enrich her relationship with language from the 1980s Holly. Alongside her own story, and in parallel to it, is the story of her relationship with language, which gets a bit richer the older she gets. She’s still using “sort of” to the very end; those are the last words of the book. I think it’s there in the first sentence as well. There are a few of those verbal tics, no matter how acrobatic with language we become, that stay with us. It’s hard to get it right, but it’s my job to get it right. If I got it wrong, it would endanger the fictional credibility of Holly, and then I’d have a broken book. So you think about it. TM: The sixth and final portion of The Bone Clocks imagines a frighteningly possible near future in which an Endarkment has, in so many words, reset the world into barbaric times. Did any specific sources inspire your vision of how the world may look in twenty years? DM: Any copy of a relatively highbrow newspaper will do it. I can’t remember exactly which news stories—it’s been a lousy summer for news, with Palestine and ISIS and Ukraine—just monstrous this year, but I’m sure there were equivalents last year too that bled into it. Actually, I read a really good book published in the 1950s called The Death of Grass, where a killer virus doesn’t kill us, humans, as they do in many contemporary stories, but it gets the crops we eat. That’s more interesting to me. Wholesale zombie apocalypses in six days makes for a few good scenes in movies, but we’ve seen those films already. But when food becomes scarcer and scarcer, and it’s moving closer and closer to your part of the world, and first rice goes, but it’s ok, because we’ve still got wheat, and then wheat turns into a brown mush in the fields, and then barley, and then oats, and then everything? Christ, what are you going to eat? What are you going to feed the animals? It gets very serious very quickly, but not so quickly that you can’t have interesting metaphysical discourse along the way. Another book, the one that Holly is reading to the kids in the last section, is The Eagle of the Ninth series by Rosemary Sutcliff. She was an English, wheelchair-bound classicist in the 1950s who wrote about the Romans leaving Britain and the collapse of Roman civilization. The series focuses on the power vacuums a collapse of that magnitude leaves, and how the innocents always end up having to pay more then the soldiers. Those books are colossal. They are fantastic. In the third book of the trilogy, The Lantern Bearers, the best of the three, there is a scene where the Roman ships leave the shores of Britain for the last time, and they know it’s the last time. What are they leaving behind? What’s going to happen to these people? That’s what was at the forefront of my mind—really how our world will look to my daughter as she grows—as I was writing that last section. What do you think, am I too gloomy, or might it happen? TM: What scared me most was how possible it seemed to me, especially the idea of everyone trusting their devices to digitally store the history of their lives: their writing, their photographs, their memories. Everything that we think is safely stored on servers and drives is gone in an instant. DM: It’s like a cyberstroke. And what about scientific research? What about the Hadron Collider stuff? Is anyone printing that out onto pieces of paper? I rather doubt it. Our grandchildrens’ lives are going to be a whole lot rougher then ours if I’m right. Let’s hope I’m wrong. TM: Does the book on your bedside table often influence your works in progress? DM: Yeah, usually, because I’ve chosen it to do just that. I read a book called The World Without Us about what would happen if humanity ceased to exist, and how long it would take to recover itself. Not long! I learned all sorts of things, like there is still a river flowing right through New York—there always was—but now it gets pumped out, except when it rains. But it just takes those pumps being stopped for 48 hours and there would be a river running down Fifth Avenue. I find that strangely comforting. The only problem is our plutonium dumps and deposits of radioactive material. We’ve damned ourselves to needing power grids to keep those cool and safe. When those go, you get what’s happening in Japan, in Fukushima. That would be the only disaster for nature if humans stopped existing. What a legacy to leave to our kids. How dare we. How dare we. Just so we can have our air conditioning and patio heaters. How dare we. TM: So is it fair to say you choose reading material that vibes with what you’re writing at the moment? Some authors prescribe the opposite approach. DM: Well I do sometimes go the opposite, because you find stuff there as well, serendipitously. And sometimes you just read great fiction to remind yourself of how high the bar needs to be. Halldór Laxness’s Independent People is a book I devoured. No tricks, just an old-school, somewhat intergenerational novel. It’s set in the poorest possible zone in the world, novelistically: Iceland. But it’s not Reykjavik. It’s Northeast Iceland. And it’s not in a town in Northeast Iceland, it’s in a valley where a farmer is trying to bring an abandoned farmhouse back to life. I was trying to work this out: what’s the most impossible thing to write about and make it interesting? There’s this particular section set in a boy’s head, a half-hour in real time, where he wakes before everyone else, in winter, and nothing could possibly happen. It’s the purest nothing I’ve ever seen encased in prose. But it’s a brilliant, fascinating scene. Laxness is a magician. That’s another reason why I sometimes choose to read something with no connection to what I’m working on. Although, it is Iceland, and Iceland makes two appearances in The Bone Clocks: Crispin Hershey goes there, and it appears not in the last section, but past the last section. That’s my one real moment of self-indulgence in the book. I hacked it down from six pages to about three, but it’s a three page essay on not thinking about Iceland. My editor said, “are you sure?” and I said “yeah, I want one place where Crispin isn’t being a jerk.” This is what he does, this is how he thinks. It lends him some credibility. TM: The cultural phenomenon of Easter eggs—hidden references inside of books, films, etc.—permeates The Bone Clocks in the form of appearances from characters from your past novels and references to their worlds. What inspired their inclusion? DM: They’re just the right people for the job. It’s not really inspiration—it’s that they fit and can bring good stuff with them. Hugo’s cool. He’s in a thirteenth of Black Swan Green as Jason Taylor’s obnoxious, precocious cousin. When I wrote that, and I’m sure when readers read it, you don’t think you’re ever going to see him again. He’ll just stay in that book and he’s done. But then here he is in The Bone Clocks as the joint second major character with Marinus. If anything inspires me, it might be that moment when a reader encounters a character they were sure they would never hear from again. TM: Can readers hope to see any of the characters that were in The Bone Clocks in your future works? DM: Yes. I’m going to do a book mostly about Marinus in the future, about what happens once she gets to Iceland, and to link that to Meronym, who’s a character at the center of Cloud Atlas. They call themselves the Prescients. That’s how she introduces herself when she arrives in a fusion-powered ship to the post-apocalyptic times and the think tank the surviving Horologists have set-up in Iceland. I’m going to do Hershey’s father as well, the filmmaker. I’m doing something short now, but my next major book, I’ll start that next year. TM: Short like your recent Twitter story? DM: Five Twitter stories. They won’t be on Twitter, but five stories of that length. And they’re linked. The first one is the Twitter story. That’s part one, and then two, three, four, five. Really short book. Marinus will appear in the fifth story, in her Iris Marinus form. TM: You don’t define the title of your book until late into the story. Was this choice an exercise in delayed gratification? DM: It’s cool, when you’ve forgotten that the title is a puzzle, to then have it explained. Delayed gratification. Ambushed gratification really. TM: At the point where it is defined, in the fifth section I believe, there’s so much else going on that the last thing you’re worried about is the title, and then you gift it to readers right in the middle of a major action scene. DM: That inspires me to utter an evil villain type “mwahahaha!” TM: The Bone Clocks also has more then a few history lessons embedded in its pages. Did you opt to place Marinus and other Atemporals in areas of history that particularly appealed to you, or was the where and when secondary to the character development those scenes afforded the story? DM: I chose them with thought. I needed Esther Little to be more ancient then the Horologists. Archeological evidence points back—I think the last time I looked it was 80,000 years—to indigenous Australians being the first inhabitants. There are few places as unaltered as Australia, so for deep time, it was good to give her that neck of the woods to call home. The Horologists that can’t chose their hosts, the ones that get reborn according to the laws of demographic probability, are most of the time Chinese. The Chinese population has always been a high fraction of the Earth’s population. Marinus is Chinese in the incarnation before she is Iris, when she’s the doctor who happens to be in England in time to treat Holly. It was almost a process of elimination, that one. TM: Horology is defined as the art or science of measuring time, and is the name adopted by the group of Atemporals that Holly Sykes encounters early on in her life as well. Do you consider The Bone Clocks to be an extended definition of horology—an examination of an abstract concept that toes the line between science and art? DM: There’s certainly an academic in Los Angeles who thinks that, Paul Harris, a member of the International Society of Time. Inadvertently, yes. That isn’t where I started though. Character development and narrative. Start there, and then the ideas will appear, like spores turning into mushrooms. I think time is a default theme of all novels. As is memory, as is character, as is identity. You can spot this when editors don’t know what to put on the jacket copy, so they put “a mesmerizing mediation on time and identity”. How can you write a novel that isn’t about those things? Maybe that’s a notch too high, because I needed to show time passing by, on the large-scale temporal arcs that plot the novel. TM: Your novel reminded me in a small way of Richard Linklater’s newest film, Boyhood, where in the course of three hours, the audience watches a single actor go from adolescence to adulthood. Like Holly in your novel, you see this person at the end of their journey, and you know they’re the same character from before, but they’re nothing alike, not even physically. DM: Realism, when done well, is more fantastical than fantasy. And you can’t dismiss it, because its happening in your own cells, in your own lives, in your own families. Reality is the ultimate trip. Previously: In the Edges of the Maps: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks
Notable Articles, Reviews

The Art of “The Novel”

Alright, look: Michael Schmidt's The Novel: A Biography is big. Like, really big. In every sense of the word. At just under 1,200 pages, the book tackles the subject of the novel in English, a 700-year history. Its pages are densely researched and necessarily erudite. The print is small, and the thing weighs over six pounds. It took me over two months to read it in its entirety. Like I said, it's big. But I am going to try to convince you that The Novel is one of the most important works of both literary history and criticism to be published in the last decade, surpassing even such monumental works as Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors's A New Literary History of America and John Sutherland's The Lives of the Novelists. The reason Schmidt's book is so effective and important has to do with its approach, its scope, and its artistry, which all come together to produce a book of such varied usefulness, such compact wisdom, that it'll take a lot more than a few reviews to fully understand its brilliant contribution to literary study. Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, hear me out. First, let's begin with Schmidt's approach and its relation to his project's inevitable place in the canon. Schmidt states, in his introduction, his intention to allow the story of the novel to be "mainly told by novelists and through novels." Thus he completely eradicates the presence of critics. Rather than a snide excision, this technique enormously improves his enterprise, for what is the most basic element of the novel's narrative than influence from one practitioner to another? Here we are given Edith Wharton's preference of calling the Gothic "the eerie," and Virginia Woolf referring to same as "a parasite, an artificial commodity, produced half in joke in reaction against the current style, or in relief from it." Here we learn of Jane Austen's commendation of Maria Edgeworth and how Charles Dickens's viewed the estate of Sir Walter Scott as "a warning to himself": I saw in the vile glass case the last clothes Scott wore. Among them an old white hat, which seemed to be tumbled and bent and broken by the uneasy, purposeless wandering, hither and thither, of his heavy head. It so embodied Lockhart's pathetic description of him when he tried to write, and laid down his pen and cried, that it associated itself in my mind with broken powers and mental weakness from that hour. We learn which of H.G. Wells's novels Henry James viewed as expressing Wells's "true voice." We learn that Jonathan Franzen puts Elmore Leonard in the same "entertainer" category as P.G. Wodehouse. We read Michael Crichton's review of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: "The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong…He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties." (Schmidt refers to Crichton's career as "almost cynically contrived, fiction as speculation.") I could go on and on with examples, but the point is that, here, collected in one place, we have the largest repository of the greatest novelists' opinions and views on other novelists. It would take the rest of us going through countless letters and essays and interviews with all these writers to achieve such a feat. Schmidt has done us all a great, great favor. The approach coupled with the scope (covering, as it does, a huge swath of time) results in maybe the most complete history of the novel in English ever produced. As Schmidt writes early on, he "set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel," which basically means he precludes strict emphasis on historicity, movements, and linear evolution. Instead, he focuses on influence––that beautifully organic (yet inexact) process of thoughts begetting thoughts, ideas begetting ideas and styles begetting styles––which, Schmidt's book implicitly argues, matters much more than the cultural context of any of the works. Take, for example, Thomas Love Peacock, a marginal figure now but an important one in his time and, in many ways, the history of literature. The way in which Peacock is presented in The Novel typifies Schmidt's multitudinous achievement. First of all, Schmidt gives Peacock (like he does for every writer discussed at any length) a short biography, replete with insights into how his circumstances relate to his work: after a lengthy hiatus, it was only after Peacock's wife died that he "began again, more fluently" to write. Secondly, Schmidt, an uncannily astute critic, punctuates this section (like all sections) with critiques of the authors’ work: Peacock's "masterpiece," Crochet Castle (1831) is "marred by a strain of anti-Semitism" and "complemented by a vexing hostility to the Scots and their Caledonian hubris." Moreover, Peacock himself… …is memorable for the brightness of the entertainment, the leavening and sweetening of the verses breaking the dialogue, changing the key of a description. How various are Peacock's poetic registers: he can do the voices of the Romantics (Byron in particular), and he can do his own voice. But what makes Peacock as rendered by Schmidt so fascinating (and Schmidt makes countless writers function this same way) is way he's contextualized within the framework of other writers. John Fowles, Schmidt tells us, referred to him as "Austen-drowned Peacock," as Peacock "came in the wake of another writer whose success eclipses his as surely as Shakespeare's eclipses Ben Jonson's." Austen has, in the centuries since, become the esteemed figure; Peacock may have had a better position in the canon if it weren't for such basically arbitrary timing. Moreover, Peacock was the man who inspired Percy Shelley's A Defense of Poetry, a vital work of criticism, "though all references to Peacock have been edited out of modern editions." Further, Peacock relationship to Shelly and his wife Mary, leads to many odd synchronicities. Peacock's book Nightmare Alley (which itself has much in common with Austen's Northanger Abbey) was published the same year as Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818. Shelley's novel nearly succumbed to the same legacy of Peacock, namely that it almost didn't have one. "Half a century ago," Schmidt writes, "in The English Novel, Walter Allen did not mention Mary Shelley," for her book "remained a feature of children's horror literature" and "was not taken seriously." But Shelley, who resented her husband's patronage of Peacock (who became her husband's executor), has since been critically reconsidered, while Peacock remains in the formidable shadows of extraordinary contemporaneous women. I've barely even scratched at the first third of Schmidt's book here, but I have to accept certain limitations reviewing Schmidt's masterpiece. There is simply too much to represent to you. Later, as the story moves closer to the present and the structure of his book takes considerably more radical forms (such as the virtuoso chapter "Truths in Fictions, the Metamorphosis of Journalism"), Schmidt furthers his technique and, more importantly, his almost/kind of/sort of thesis, which is that the novel's refusal to be accurately categorized, or concretely defined by such-and-such characteristics, is its principal quality. It has an almost osmotic ability to absorb features from various other sources, to combine elements from art and reality to depict something closer to actual lived experience, yet still remain stubbornly artificial, autonomous, so that the distinctions between art and life are starkly clear. Consequently, the novel form's multiplicity allows, like novels themselves, for dimensions of inexpressible depth. Despite all of Schmidt's hundreds of thousands of words on the subject, in the end the only term he has for this quality is a "something." Which brings me to Schmidt's astounding artistry. None of what I've described above would have mattered in the least had Schmidt's prose been a snoozer to read. But in every way possible––from entertaining style to convincing authority to elements of undeniable personality––Schmidt's writing is a triumph of critical acumen and aesthetic elegance. Unafraid to insert his opinions, Schmidt declares, for example, that David Foster Wallace's "importance as writer…is in the essays he wrote and the original ways in which he wrote them," not his novels. About Samuel Richardson, Schmidt proclaims in exasperation: "Yet how tedious Samuel Richardson can be!" He defends Stephen King, saying that although his "bibliography is vast…the novels are generally substantial and serious in intent." Again, I could go on and on. Similarly, Schmidt is willing to invoke personal memories while discussing a text. On James Fenimore Cooper, he notes that his father read The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 (1826) to him and his brother because Cooper's novels were "assumed to be good books for reading aloud," and that he, Schmidt, was "haunted" by "scenes of brutality." Schmidt occasionally surprises with the beauty of his prose––as when he writes of William Beckford that in Vathek: an Arabian Tale (1786), "The reality of the novel merges with the stage paste of romantic masque"––as well as his humor. He notes that Mary Shelley was "linked to that of the American writer Washington Irving," but that a romance was unlikely, "Irving being a confirmed bachelor or, modern biographers suggest, 'a confirmed bachelor.'" Or when he finally arrives at a full-on chapter about Modernism, he opens it with this cheeky introduction: "It is not possible to postpone the high tides of modernism any longer," as if, like history itself, he tried valiantly to resist it. But it is the narrative, as told by Schmidt, that wows. He is able make a story with no "characters," a novel with no "plot," feel as dramatic and absorbingly propulsive as the best kinds of fiction. Part of this has to do with Schmidt's apparent passion, which appears on every single page, but most of the tome's energy comes straight from Schmidt's preclusion of a strict critical approach. He wants to tell a story, not espouse indirectly the import of a given critical approach. Thus, he combines biography, analysis, memoir, and history into a hybrid monster, a modern Prometheus revitalized by Schmidt's ambition and skill. He's just so damned sensible, it's hard to not follow his voice wherever it goes. That Schmidt refuses, in such a lengthy work, to provide an overall assessment of the novel itself (save for his "something") remains the book's greatest strength. As Susan Sontag points out in her seminal essays "Against Interpretation" and "On Style," the tendency to reduce a given work down to what it's really saying is gravely erroneous. The illusory distinction between "form" and "content" is needless and harmfully furthers the notion that a "curtain could be parted and the matter revealed." Style is not, in other words, the mere packaging of content, to be ripped open for the present inside. For anyone to try to objectively name the true "meaning" of an individual novel––i.e. to state the work's content––would be, ultimately, doing a disservice to the art. Schmidt, too, understands this, that novels––as well as the story of the novel––are not to be reduced to an ingestible and comfortable conclusion. Rather, the story itself is all the meaning we need. To reiterate: Schmidt has done me, you, all of us, a heroic favor in telling this story. In one single volume, he has synthesized myriad biographies of vastly contrasting artists, the nonlinear trajectory of their influence (good and bad) on each other, the various forms the novel has taken over its celebrated history, and a singular voice that pushes this complex tale along. The Novel: A Biography is a big book, yes, but it is also a big book, a piece of academic, intellectual work that doesn't succumb to the insular (and boring) habits of much academic, intellectual work. It is a monumental achievement, in its historical importance and its stylistic beauty. The Novel, I believe, is a novel, the protagonist a murky, somewhat indescribable figure––the ultimate unreliable narrator––that Schmidt renders as real and human and flawed as anyone else before him. It is, itself, a work of art, just as vital and remarkable as the many works it chronicles.
Essays, Notable Articles

The Trouble with Writing

The following is adapted from the keynote address Michelle Huneven gave at Writing Workshops LA: The Conference, which took place on June 28, 2014 at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. I would qualify to speak to the trouble with writing based on the sole fact that it took me 22 years to finish my first novel. In those years of trying and failing and trying again, and failing again, I even gave up writing fiction altogether and went back to grad school to train for a new career. But I failed to embark on a new career because writing, and all its attendant troubles, wouldn’t leave me alone. In those twenty-odd years, in which I tried and failed to write a book, and left writing and then came back to it and became a working writer who wrote books and also supported herself by writing, I grew intimately acquainted with many forms of trouble inherent in the vocation. And many of those troubles dog me to this day. 1. Trouble the Word Trouble. Trouble is a great dustpan of a word. Its roots are found in Latin in the verb turbidare, to make turbid; and in the adjective turbidus, meaning disordered, turbid. Turbid, of course, means unclear, muddied, obscure, and roiled up. We see its root in perturb, disturb, turbulent. Trouble branched off to mean that quality or state of being in distress or annoyance, of having malfunctioned; it’s a condition of debility, or ill health, a civil disorder, an inconvenience, a pregnancy out of wedlock. The trouble with writing is that it’s awfully like having baby after baby all by yourself. To get out of trouble, means to clear up, calm down, come out of confusion and distress, and function once again. When I first sat down to write this piece, I made a list, like a Joe Brainard poem, where every sentence began, “The trouble with writing is-------.” After about 5 pages, single spaced, I thought, well, there is my speech. Writing trails trouble in its wake like a long train of quarrelsome camp followers. I decided to talk about some of the troubles that I personally have encountered over the years, namely some the mental and spiritual troubles associated with writing as an activity and writing as a way of life--the ways we writers can malfunction and find ourselves confused and roiled up. Writing is difficult. Writing is difficult in the beginning, difficult in the middle and difficult at the end. And then, when you’ve finished, there is a whole new raft of difficulties having to do with publication—but I will save those issues for a much longer speech entitled The Trouble with Publication. Writing itself is a series of problems to be solved, problems that constitute the hard work of writing and being a writer. Sometimes you can be surgical and rational in solving various difficulties, but it is the peculiar distinction of writing and much of the creative life that the inherent difficulties of writing have a propensity to become internally, personally disturbing and confusing, agitating, and otherwise psychologically problematic. When I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I discovered that, by spending a long time on a short story, I could make it pretty good. But all around me, people were turning in truly terrific short stories and saying, “Oh, I wrote it the night before I turned it in.” There was so little talk of process back then, I really thought that I was the only writer there whose work went through an ugly stage. For years, I thought with deep shame that I was a fraud, up against the truly talented. It took me about twenty years to realize they were lying, and just armoring themselves for the criticism to come, and pretending not to be as invested in the work as they were. Thus does the difficulty of writing morph into confusion and perturbation. The trouble with writing is that we writers are often scared to death. 2. The Trouble with Writing is Writing A few months ago, I was interviewed by a 3rd grader whose assignment was to interview someone with an interesting job. Her father’s work, running two physics labs at Cal Tech, apparently was insufficiently intriguing. She had only three questions, one of which was, “What do you write about?” I knew I had to keep it simple. I said, “I write about people who get into trouble and then get themselves out of trouble.” Of course, that describes a great many books, but it strikes me that this also describes my writing process. I’ll take an assignment, or start a short story or a novel or an essay, and soon enough it feels exactly as if I’ve gotten myself into trouble. I actually feel like a bad person, guilty and a little ashamed, like, I’ve gotten myself into this thing, and now I have to do it, and I’m not sure if I can pull it off. I know too that, even if I manage to write my way out of this hole, it will take time, and cause me aggravation and pain along the way—pain in the form of self doubt, frustration, and one more time, hitting the limits of my capabilities. I was a restaurant critic for a dozen years, turning in one column a week, 52 weeks a year. Not once did I sit down and just knock one out. Every single review was a tumble into trouble, and a climb back out. You could say, I took the trouble to do the best I could. 3. It Never Gets Easier The trouble with writing says the historian who lives next door to me, is that no matter how many times you do it, you start out every time with the sick sense that you don’t know what you’re doing. The trouble with writing says a novelist friend, is that it never gets any easier. If anything, it gets harder. And if it starts to get easier, you’re probably slacking off or repeating yourself. 4. Getting Down to the River Dylan Thomas said that he knew he contained a river of poetry within him. The trouble was getting down to that river, and bringing a bucket-full back. The difficulty is getting down to it. Down to the desk, to the work zone, down to enough quiet and calm that we can even leave for the river. And once we’re there, the difficulty is locating access to that gush or trickle of material we contain. We range back and forth along the banks of the river, wondering where to plunge in. The great late radical feminist theologian Mary Daley wrote in an introduction to her first book about the trouble she had just getting around to writing it. Everything else—cleaning the house, buying groceries, taking the dog to the vet—took precedence over this thing that she wanted to do more than anything else. Write a book. Daily life was constantly eclipsing her creative life, and eventually she determined that she would have to reverse that, and put her creative life in the foreground and everything else in the background. She came up with a mantra: “I have to turn my soul around.” I have to turn my soul around. And after a number of weeks, slowly, it turned. To write, you have to turn your soul around. And then you have to turn it around again, and again, because there’s always slippage. Even after dozens of years of writing, there is slippage. 5. The Writing Life is One of Interruptions Writing is a solitary occupation requiring intense concentration, large blocks of time, and all of one’s mental capacities. The trouble is, there are frequent interruptions and constant distractions. The writing life is a life of interruptions. I used to listen to my friend the novelist Lily Tuck complain about her husband who often traveled for work. Edward wants me to go with him to Madrid…to Athens…to Hong Kong. I was a poor struggling wannabe writer and I would have gone to any of those places at the drop of a hat. Now, it’s me telling my husband, I don’t want to spend three weeks in Italy and the south of France! Interruptions are inevitable, part of the fabric of the writing life. We must learn how to navigate them. There are meals, and sleep, and family; there are holidays and special occasions—weddings, graduations, funerals. We have to accept the fact that there will be interruptions, and develop our abilities to get back into writing a little more swiftly each time. It’s like meditating. In meditation, you return your attention to the breath. Your mind wanders and when you catch it wandering, you return your attention to the breath. You return your attention to your writing. You go off to your nephew’s graduation, you go back to your desk, you get back to work. At the same time, you have to know your rhythms, and allow them. I teach every Monday. The day after, I am never fully back to my writing. Tuesdays are the day for sinking back in. I know this and don’t beat myself up that I’m squirmy and unfocused. Everyone is different but it takes me a day or two to sink back into full writing mode. There are even more pernicious attacks on the solitary and quiet thing we do. 6. The Trouble with Writing is that it is Fraught with Self-Loathing, Shame, Grandiosity, and Pride I told you I quit writing at a certain point and embarked on another career. That career was to become a UU minister. In that process, I had to undergo a psychological evaluation—essentially, two psychologists determined my weak points and poked at me for a couple of days. One psychologist asked why I had quit writing. I told him that I’d grown up with parents who were highly disapproving and critical, and I must have internalized all that, because I lacked the confidence and self-esteem to write. The shrink said, “You can blame a lot on your parents, but not that--that kind of self doubt and low self-esteem you’re describing is just part of the creative process.” This was a revelation to me—that those terrible feelings actually signaled that I was IN the creative process and not that I was failing at it. Of course, low self-esteem and self-doubt are not requirements—Picasso never had many doubts, and nor does Alexander MacCall Smith who can knock out a No. 1 Ladies Detective novel in three weeks. But a great many of us do battle with self-confidence and doubts. Because writing is so personal, or, more exactly, because its prima materia, or primal material, is the self, many, many writers do experience various troubling, vexatious states around their writing. Recently, I have heard Donald Antrim and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Edward St. Aubyn all talk about the shame they feel around their writing, and I have read that John Banville, whose arrogance is singular—he freely admits this—also admits to feeling a terrible sticky shame about all his work and cannot bear to reread it. I am constantly bolstering my female writer friends, and they me, about the quality of our work, and even its right to exist. Of course, even as the writing process tends to kick up doubt, fear, and self-loathing for some temperaments, it also kicks up the opposing states of grandiosity, entitlement, arrogance. Some writers think their work can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be edited at all. More of us pingpong between grandiosity and despair. This is a terrible failure of a book, we tell ourselves, and I should really get an enormous advance for it! One writer I knew periodically had to stop working on his novel to compose acceptance speeches for the major awards the book was going to win. (He did actually win several awards.) The trouble with writing is that it is often a roller coaster pitching us between grandiosity and despair. As troublesome as they are, these uncomfortable emotional states, can serve to our advantage. Self-doubt humbles me sufficiently, so that I can improve and revise, and accept editorial assistance. And a certain stubborn pride serves me well in the face of awful editing or bad reviews. 7. The Trouble with Writing is that Little Happens the Way You Think it Should Writing requires an investment of time and thought and the self. In making this investment, we can’t help but kick up a few hopes concerning the returns this investment might give us. When I was writing my first novel for all those years before I quit writing altogether, I had these vague, unarticulated ideas—assumptions, really, that once I published my novel, I would move into a new financial zone, I would be able to find a good job, but mostly, that I would be inducted—indeed welcomed-into the larger literary community and conversation of my generation. The trouble with writing is that, although rewards do come, and your life does change, these things often don’t happen when and how you imagined them happening. The year that my first novel was published—and sold overseas and to the movies and got fantastic reviews in slick magazines and newspapers all over the country and was nominated for a few awards--I was completely unprepared for the psychic transition from solitary, intense writing life to the more outward routine of selling myself to readers, and having my work misunderstood--oh, I mean reviewed--in public. I had no idea what to do with the good news I got—you don’t want to call up your struggling writer friends and say, I just sold my book to the movies for a big pile of money! As it happened, my best friend, who could not sell her novel, dropped me anyway, and I ended up the year filling a prescription for antidepressants. It’s a tricky business we’re in. We work with various parts of the self: our memory, our experience, and emotions, the conscious self, and the unconscious which includes the patterning parts of the brain, and the imagination. These are all skittish entities, not always cooperative. Over time, we get better at accessing our imagination, our knowledge, our storehouse of anecdotes and perceptions, vocabulary and beliefs. We learn to trust that, if we set to work, the structure, direction and shape of a work will reveal itself, and that a character eventually will accumulate enough traits and coherency to come to life. We learn how to get down to that river, and to bring back buckets. But even experience can’t guarantee that we can do all these things every time. 8. Writing is Not Always Trouble and Disturbance When it’s going well, there is little to match it. Creation is a mighty power--you might even call it divine. The psychologists tell us that creativity is an adult state of play. When you’re deep deep in it, in the state of flow, when there is clarity and absorption, and the clock hands twirl, that is writing at its best. Flow: to get there takes time and effort—you could say, you have to take some trouble to reach flow. It’s like getting an endorphin high when you’re running—according to a friend who lately has become a runner, it took her running almost daily for three weeks before she experienced her first endorphin high, and even then she only began to feel it when she was three miles into a run. Three months and three miles…The same timetable, roughly, could apply to writing in a flow state. You don’t just sit down to it. You can’t induce it by swallowing a pill. No drug, prescribed or illicit, can get you there. Only steady, regular work can get you there. To create the ideal circumstances for writing, and to protect those circumstances, to keep our soul and body properly positioned to write, you would think, would be the great aim of our life. 9. Writing is an Act of Faith, and Delaying Gratification The trouble with writing is that it’s a weird, lonely occupation with only intermittent and unpredictable satisfactions and rewards—except for the satisfactions and rewards that come from the struggle itself, and they, too, can be elusive. Writers have to be able to delay gratification. To work without immediate pleasures. To delay gratification in general is the great sign of maturity. In writers it is absolutely essential. If the ability to delay gratification is the great sign of being a mature human being, with the internet we have all regressed, because the internet gives us everything that writing does not: it gives us what we dream about when sitting alone at our desks: contact with our tribe and the sense that we’re in a community; for posting mere snippets, we get liked, retweeted, favorited, shared, tagged, and notified; we get emails and instant messages and invitations to chat online. We read daily what our friends and also some of our most esteemed writers have to say about writing and life. That great conversation I thought my first book would induct me into? Here on Facebook are some of the great writers of my generation tweeting away, offering links to articles, vaunting their politics, singing the praises of their colleagues’ work. The internet reminds me of smoking—which I gave up almost 27 years ago—but whenever someone talked about cancer or heart disease it made me want to light up. Just talking about the internet this way, makes me want to check my email or log onto Facebook. Excuse me for a minute… I am not an isolationist when it comes to writing. I believe in writing groups and in exchanging work with friends and there is nothing more compelling than in-depth literary conversation. I also believe in leaving my desk and going out in the world to observe and research in service of book and soul. I have to replenish, refuel. Yesterday, I finally went to see the new permanent display at the Huntington: a illuminated, hand-copied edition of The Canterbury Tales; a Guttenberg bible, an original quarto of Hamlet that’s four hundred years old. And then we walked through the cactus gardens there which, as I like to say, is one of the few psychedelic experiences you can have without ingesting a drug. Somehow, this felt more generative, more like a part of writing to me than the same amount of time spent on Twitter and Facebook. The trouble with writing is that it’s a dynamic balancing act, we are always seesawing between concentration and interruption, grandiosity and despair.   The trouble with writing is that there are long dry stretches in the ugly stage, and the rewards, when they come, may not come when we need them the most. The trouble with writing is that even when some of our dreams and hopes and expectations do come true, they don’t relieve the difficulty of writing, or the solitude of writing, or the weird rollercoaster emotions of writing. The trouble with writing is writing. So keep going. Keep the faith. Go home to your desks and get yourself into some deep deep, trouble. And then write your way out of it. Image via aukirk/Flickr
Essays, Notable Articles

The Magic Building Where English Majors Work: Making Sense of Creative Writing’s Job Problem

[Note: The student I describe is a composite character of many students I’ve met in my 20 years of teaching.] A few months ago, Tracy came to my office. She was majoring in something practical, “but I love reading, and I love writing,” she said. She wanted me to talk her into becoming a creative writing major. But she needed assurances. Her eyes got a little dreamy. “I know that somewhere out there, there’s a building where I can work and get paid to do what I love. Tell me. What is that building?” she asked. “How do I find it?” My heart broke a little then, because once upon a time, I dreamed about that building, too. “Well, there isn’t just one building,” I said. “There are thousands of buildings.” “You mean publishing houses,” she said, nodding her head. I hear this a lot from students: I want to work in publishing. Usually it means that they love the world of books more than they actually want to be writers—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. So I told her about a class we offered on Literary Editing and Publishing. I told her about the internship program in New York to which she could apply. “But Tracy, I want you to know that it’s hard to get a job in publishing. At least in the way that you imagine it.” “It is?” She looked incredulous. “Yeah, there’s this thing you might have heard of. It’s called ‘the internet.’ Traditional publishing—books, magazines, newspapers—it’s all shrinking.” “Oh.” “But independent and small press publishing is growing.” I told her all about it. “Oh!” “But you need to know this. Many people who do it have a day job and work on their publishing ventures on the side.” “But what about…” She named a best-selling book by a self-published author. “Yes,” I said. “There are some success stories, but that’s not what happens most of the time. The problem is that there are more people who desperately want to be writers than there’s a readership to completely absorb them.” I shared stuff like the 10 Awful Truths about Book Publishing. “Oh,” she said. “I figured with all things that are published, I could find a job as an editor.” “Well, you probably wouldn’t search in terms of editor.” I hate saying this, but it’s the truth. “Search for words like communications and content.” I did a quick Google search and found a full-time job in Connecticut for an English major to serve as a “communications specialist.” Her face lit up. “What kind of company is it?” I scanned the website. “They make welding electrodes and filler wires.” “Oh.” Her face fell. “It’s a full-time job where you would think critically, communicate clearly, solve problems, and apply your writing skills.” No response. “You’d get to travel to trade shows.” “I’m sorry, but I can’t see myself doing something like that,” she said. “Why not?” “I’d feel like I wasn’t really using my degree.” “But it says right here they’re looking for an English major.” “I love books!” she said, “not welding.” “I know, I know,” I said, “but with a good job and good insurance, you’d have a stable life and money for books and maybe time to write, too.” She looked around my office, at the books lining my shelves, the pile of stories waiting to be read, the three 20-page proposals that needed to be read by 3 o’clock for the College Curriculum Committee. “I’d really love to do what you do,” she said. “Teach English.” “You want to major in English Education? Teach high school?” “No, I want to teach college. How do I do that?” I sighed. “Become a writer.” Her eyes lit up again. “Yes, that’s what I want!” “You’d go to graduate school.” “Yes!” “Publish.” Tracy’s eyes practically rolled back in her head. “Yes!” And even though she was still a [pre-professional major], not an English major, I pictured the day in the near future when she’d come to me asking for a letter of recommendation. Every time I write one, I ask myself: Am I contributing to the contingent faculty crisis in English? In the last 20 years, I’ve written approximately 50 letters for students applying to graduate creative writing programs, and only two of them are currently in tenure-line jobs. The rest are pretty evenly split between those in non-tenure line jobs in academia and those working outside academia entirely. When is the right time to tell people about their job prospects? In graduate school? Before they even apply to graduate school? Or sooner than that even—in their first creative writing class? Never? Let them Google it because it’s just too depressing otherwise? I hadn’t even read a word of her writing yet, but I knew how Tracy’s story might go. I decided to be honest. I took a deep breath. “Look, I need to explain something to you, Tracy. Last year, 4000 students earned a graduate degree in creative writing. And do you know how many tenure-track teaching jobs there were to which they could apply?” “A thousand?” she guessed. “A hundred.” I showed her the report from AWP to prove it. “Oh.” She looked at the floor. “But what about Professor Jones? I had him for freshman composition. He’s a writer, and he teaches. He got one of those 100 jobs.” That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones was one of our amazing full-time contingent faculty members. He’d published multiple books and had applied for hundreds of tenure-track jobs in the five years since he’d graduated with his MFA. “No, he hasn’t gotten one of those 100 jobs. Not yet.” “But he’s teaching and writing, just like you,” she said. That’s when I explained the utter unfairness that Professor Jones made half of what I made for doing pretty much the same job. I pointed to my computer screen, to the job at the welding company waiting in Connecticut. “You’d probably make as much there with your BA as he does right now with a graduate degree. Maybe more.” Tracy pulled at her hair. “But it’s not fair! They told me to go to college and follow my dreams! Where am I supposed to work?” “Please calm down. This isn’t the only job in the country,” I said. “It’s just the first one that came up on Google.” But I knew why Tracy was angry. All my students are dealing with a post-employment economy and a trillion dollars of student loan debt. I recognize the looks on their faces. I grew up with a father full of the same righteous anger and disillusionment. He hired out on the railroad when he was 20 years old and fully expected that he'd have a job for life. But then the economy changed. The world changed. How many times did I find him quietly seething in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette, shaking his head in rage and disbelief? That look broke me. I was Tracy's age when I went to see my college professors to discuss what I should do with my life. Even though I was a first-generation college student, no one dissuaded me from majoring in creative writing or from applying to graduate programs. There was no reason to. At that time, there were only 10 undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Today there are 592. When I was in college (1987-1991), there were only about 50 graduate creative writing programs in the country. Today there are 418. And honestly, even if my professors had tried to dissuade me, I wouldn't have listened. I wouldn't have wanted to take that job at the welding company either. And because I was born at the right historical moment—before all this started to happen--and because I got my graduate degree just as the number of tenure-track creative writing jobs started to open up, I landed my first job (with no book) and have remained employed ever since. If I was 26 right now rather than 46, maybe I'd say, Screw it, and do something else for a living. Or maybe not. Poor Tracy. Oh Christ, all the Tracys in this country looking for that magic building. Who believed all that marketing jazz from colleges all over this country. Your future starts here! Knowledge to go places! Tracy just wants her degree to mean something, and the key is finding the magic building where all the English majors work. “Oh God," Tracy says, "how am I supposed to pay back my student loans?” I asked her how much she owed, and she told me. I swallowed. Hard. Also, I'd like to mention that Tracy had a child/a sick parent/a dying grandparent. “Tracy, do you want to be a writer?” She thought about it for a second. “I don’t know.” I gave her the short version of this advice, which I’ve been giving for years. The job you get after graduation has nothing to do with whether or not you are a writer. And applying to (and being accepted into) a graduate writing program has nothing to do whether or not you are a writer. “If what you love is reading,” I said, “why don’t you major in literature?” “Because creative writing is more practical.” I almost choked on my coffee. “Oh my. What kind of classes do you think we offer in the creative writing major?” Tracy paused. “Well, I figure it’s like the bookstore. There’s a mystery section, a young adult section, biographies, graphic novels. You know. And we learn how to write them.” I patted her hand. “I’m so sorry. It’s not like that at all.” I explained that the taxonomy of creative writing was about choosing a genre. “Right,” Tracy said. “That’s what I said. Choosing a genre.” “Not that kind of genre.” I counted them off on the fingers. “Fiction. Poetry. Creative Nonfiction. Screenwriting. Playwriting.” “So you’re saying I major in creative writing and get a job as a fiction writer or a screenwriter!” Her eyes got bright again. “Or maybe something else.” I counted them off. Marketing. Teaching. Tech Writing. Non-profits. Publishing. I ran out of fingers, but I kept going. Library science. Law school. Student Affairs. Business. Publishing. Television. Peace Corps. Politics. Tracy look frightened. “We don’t give you the map,” I said. “We show you a sky full of stars to navigate by.” I broke out my horrible faux British accent. “’All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’” “What?” “It’s a poem. About finding your way without a map.” “Screw that. I want the map.” She raised her voice to me a little, using a tone I’ve come to call “buyer’s remorse.” Tracy said, “I want you to teach me how to get one of those jobs you just mentioned.” “We will! We’ll teach you how to write and think and speak and read and analyze and empathize and imagine.” “But then why don’t you change the major from all those genres to something I can actually beeeee,” she pleaded. “Like this, you mean.” I pulled up my university website and navigated to the Department of Technology and its degree programs. I explained that my brother had graduated from this very university from this very department twenty years earlier. He went straight into a good paying engineering job with a company that made automobile parts. “In this major, they identify the things you can beeeee…” I counted them off on my fingers: 1. A computer technologist 2. A construction-site manager 3. A graphic arts manager 4. A manufacturing engineer 5. A high-school teacher of technology I held up my other hand. “And they create a curriculum that tracks you right into those careers.” 1. Computer Technology 2. Construction Management 3. Graphic Arts Management 4. Manufacturing Engineering 5. Technology Education I brought my hands together with a clap. Tracy shook her hands in the air. “Yessssssssssssss! It makes so much sense! But here’s what you guys in Creative Writing do!” She ticked off the five genres on one hand: 1. Fiction 2. Poetry 3. Creative Nonfiction 4. Screenplay 5. Playwriting And on her other hand, she ticked off five “random” careers that our students have landed lately: 1. Residence Hall Director 2. Associate Professor of Communication Studies 3. Staff writer for BuzzFeed 4. Career Adviser at a small, liberal arts college 5. MFA student/poet/reading series coordinator Tracy brought her hands together crosswise. “They don’t match up. Well, except for that one guy who got into grad school for poetry. How are the rest of us supposed to know what to do when we graduate?” “You turn the wheel,” I said, reaching over and rotating her crossed hands until her fingers aligned. “How do I do that?” She’d never looked more serious. “With your mind.” I touched the side of my head. “And transferable skills.” “You have to teach us how to turn the wheel!” Tracy said. “You can’t just expect that we’ll know how to navigate on a starry night.” “I’ll give you that,” I said. “We could do better. But that’s also what the Career Center is for. Have you ever gone there?” She looked like she might punch me. “Tracy, do you know what happened to my brother?” “He became CEO of the company.” She crossed her arms sullenly. “No. He changed companies just as the economy crashed in 2008. He lost his job, and there weren’t any others like it in the region. He needed to think of something else to be, but for a long time, he couldn’t. And do you know why?” Finally, she got it. “Because he didn’t major in creative writing.” I smiled. “Sort of.” “Because of this.” She brought her hands together. “Because they only gave him one star to steer by.” I wanted to hug her then. “You don’t go to college to train for your first job, but for a lifetime of jobs,” I said. “That’s the real world.” I told her to sign up for our Intro to Creative Writing class. “If you love it, then consider changing your major. Or stick with [her pre-professional major] and get a creative writing minor.” Tracy thanked me and walked out the door. I’ve never seen her again, but I hope she found what she was looking for. I really, really mean that. Image: Kevin Dooley/flickr