Jun 23, 2016 Editor’s Desk

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

To publish a book about Palestinian lives in the West Bank is to take part in a fiercely contested debate, whether you like it or not.  It’s a debate that’s become a dialogue of the deaf, and it can seem too complicated and unpleasant to pay too much attention to.  I didn’t come to this book out of some sense of advocacy, in particular, nor frankly would I have wanted to: there are enough shrilly partisan books out there, for the most part preaching to the choir.  But what I did and do feel, stubbornly, is that nothing human should be alien to us, and that if a great journalist, which is to say a great observer and listener, someone with a great head and heart, really goes there and stays there, then we ought to pay attention.  And Ben Ehrenreich is a great journalist.  The contact high from his talent is exhilarating. 

He’s also very brave. Show us the extreme challenges of life in a public housing project in the South Bronx, or in a Mumbai slum, and it’s all good; you get roses thrown at your feet.  But the West Bank is under Israeli military occupation, of course, and has been for a very long time, and so if you write a clear and honest human account of life for ordinary Palestinians, then you can be accused of being “anti-Israel” , or worse, and you find yourself under assault, or at least greeted with uncomfortable silence.  In fact, Ben Ehrenreich is no more anti-Israel than someone writing about life in Northern Ireland under British occupation was by definition anti-English.  If you bring to light stories that depict inhumane situations, and thereby create pressure to improve them, are you “anti” the country in which the inhumane situations exist or “pro” that country? 

Anyway, I am making this book sound shrill itself, which is precisely what it is not.  Under the spell of the storytelling, we find ourselves in the shoes of a group of wonderfully vivid and disparate characters, united by the struggle to live decent lives.  What I think was most shocking to me was how openly the enemies of the Palestinian presence in the West Bank – the far right-wing Israeli settlers – admit to having an eliminationism agenda: their stated goal is to drive all Palestinians out of the West Bank and take it over completely – ethnic cleansing on the installment plan. And their means of achieving that is to make life unbearable for the Palestinians. 

Ben Ehrenreich is a powerful witness to all this; he spent several years in the West Bank, all told, and came to know these communities intimately.  There’s sadness and heartbreak in this book, but there’s also laughter and affirmation.  But there’s no escaping the fact that this shows us a situation that has become very extreme, even almost unimaginable, and so I think however uncomfortable it makes us, it’s worth our whole-hearted support.  This isn’t a dogged or prescriptive polemic, it is a work of art; by immersing us in these lives, these stories, it places us as readers right on the horns of the dilemma.  There’s no easy way out, for anyone, but the more we bring this world into our consciousness, the more human we will be – and the more honest we will be with each other about the consequences of our own inaction.

Learn more about The Way to the Spring below:

Jun 21, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

The most important thing I tell beginning writers (and myself whenever I’m struggling which is often) is to put one’s bottom on the chair every day and dedicate whatever hours you can to work. The daily commitment is more important than the amount of time you spend at it. For me, writing is a process that needs to be attended to, fed, and kept alive every day no matter how difficult or non-productive the time may seem. The struggle to write is part of the process, and often as you take a walk or a shower or fold laundry or drive to a meeting or any of the other mundane tasks we all do during a day, your creative brain will gift you with some insight or bit of dialog or the very answer to the problem you couldn’t solve that morning. But only if you keep the process alive by working every day.

How would you recommend creating and getting to your know your characters?

Write notes to yourself about your characters before you begin your work. Sit in front of the empty screen and write down whatever comes to mind – facts like how old they are, what the look like, but also random thoughts like whether they have nightmares or like physical exercise or what their favorite food is or whether they’re a dog person. Whatever comes to mind, whether it is germane to the story you’re telling or not. You have to know your characters (even the secondary ones) as well as you know the members of your own family. That knowledge will inform what they say and how they behave. It will make your characters particular and interesting and ultimately, if you know them well enough, THEY will tell you what they want to say and do.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

Surprise yourself when you’re writing.

Describe your writing style in 5 words or less.

Emotional and character driven.

What are three of four books that influenced your writing, or a had profound effect on you?

Well before I even contemplated becoming a writer, I read Doris Lessing’s novel, The Golden Notebook, and was astonished to realize that one could write a whole book about the intimate, mundane lives of women. I think it was the first time I realized that this territory was important enough to explore.

Amy Bloom taught me how to write about grief – the theme which unites the stories in my collection, Tell Me One Thing. In her story, Sleepwalking, from her collection, Where The God of Love Hangs Out, she writes about how the family members left behind deal with the death of their husband and father without ever mentioning grief or having people break down into emotional messes. It’s all in the behavior of the characters and is amazingly moving and restrained and powerful.

I was astonished when I read Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, that it was possible to write a truly prickly, often unlikeable character and still create understanding and sympathy and connection to her. Strout helped me be bolder in writing my characters and certainly gave me permission to create Daniel, in Surprise Me, with all his idiosyncrasies and edges and flaws.

Learn more about the book below:

Jun 17, 2016 News

Penguin Random House Creative Writing Awards is a wonderful program that presents scholarships to NYC high school seniors.

Since 1994, more than two million dollars have been awarded to students and their schools by Random House, and now Penguin Random House, through this awards competition.

Congratulations to this year’s first place winners:

  • Katelyn Sasson of Edward R. Murrow High School for Poetry;
  • Jason Lallijee of Townsend Harris High School for Fiction & Drama;
  • Roberta Nin Feliz of Manhattan Center for Sciences and Mathematics forMemoir;
  • David Ortiz of Marta Valle High School for Graphic Novel;
  • and Devin Johnson of Thomas A. Edison Career Technical High School, the recipient of the $10,000 Maya Angelou Scholarship Award for Spoken Word Poetry.

Read more about the awards here.

Jun 15, 2016 Behind the Scenes

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.  

But What If We’re Wrong? went on sale last Tuesday, and Chuck’s launch party was held at the Brooklyn Bookstore, BookCourt.  

Chuck read from his book and signed copies for fans… and it was a packed house! 

Today we’re featuring an interview with  Andrew Unger, events and publicity manager of Brooklyn bookstore, BookCourt.

What is your job title, and what does that mean? What’s your day to day? What would surprise a layman to know?

I am the events and publicity manager. My daily schedule is varied and unpredictable, but focuses primarily on acting as the voice and public face of BookCourt. I manage our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the back-end of the BookCourt website. I do all of this in addition to coordinating events for the store. We have one of the most robust calendars of any bookstore in the city, supporting over 300 authors every year. I think everyone, layman and professionals, are surprised to find out just how genuinely moved I am by the opportunity I have to work at one of the premier independent bookstores in the country.

What’s it like working at BookCourt vs. any other bookstore?

Jonathan Lethem has this wonderful quote he gave us once where he said that BookCourt was a university and a party in slow motion. I’ve always loved that way of talking about the store. As usual, Jonathan Lethem was able to put it so much better than me. On the weekends, we see a vast array of people. Old, young, local, tourist … it’s hard to not get a little whimsical about the “scene.” When you’re here and you’re the one that people look to for a recommendation or for a friendly conversation about one of your favorite books, it always feels almost too good to be true. I’ve only ever worked at BookCourt, but I don’t know that this particular blend of magic could be found anywhere else.

 

When you order books from a publishing company, what do you consider? What makes a book attractive to you and your customers?

We have store bestseller list at the front. This list features the bestselling books from the previous week. Consistently, these books reflect the same taste as reviewers for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Our customers prefer something sophisticated and intellectually stimulating. Proud as all of us are of our libraries, there’s just no escaping a good cover. Many bad books have been sold through good cover designs and, far and away, too many great books have been relegated to a dusty corner of the shelf because of an ill-advised cover. Occasionally, a truly great book will arrive in the store. Gone Girl or Building Stories. These are anomalous and rise to the top with a momentum born from nowhere else except the compelling narrative itself.

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Tell me about some of the events and community-building at BookCourt. 

In the early-aughts a Barnes & Noble opened up just a few blocks away from the store. It’s presence was intimidating and unwelcoming. The communities of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens rallied behind us in an impressive way. There are many great neighborhoods in New York, but these two have helped curate and foster one of the most impressive booms in Brooklyn. Today Court Street, as it runs from Atlantic Avenue into Red Hook, is ripe with local, family-owned businesses. In an age when small business is struggling for air, the residents of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens have created something truly special. Because of their dedication to us, we’ve dedicated ourselves to serving them. Our events are free and open to the public and through these events we are able to feature internationally celebrated authors as well as local and debut authors.

What’s interesting to you about But What if We’re Wrong? How would you describe it to a reader? Why would they want to read it?

But What If We’re Wrong? was so engaging to me because it highlighted the best qualities of Chuck Klosterman’s personality. He is a friend of the store an often in and out. The writing is reflective of Chuck’s cadence and temperament. Thoroughly researched, he delivers prescient wisdom with a light-touch and a flare for the unexpected. The cover design, its simple, understated message of turning something on its head was ingenious and wonderful. I was the most surprised by how the footnotes at the bottom of the page operated as an aside to the reader in a way that looked at quick glance like a moniker of sophistication but read like a nudge and a wink. In almost every way, the book asked over and over again, the question of its title. Not often is a reading experience so cohesive and stream-lined.

 

Which books are your go-to books to sell? Any old standbys?

People expect a booksellers to possess an intimate knowledge of not only all of their favorite books, but also of all the books they haven’t yet read. Great booksellers are up for the challenge. We all spend a lot of time pouring over reviews and ripping through as many books as we can. I don’t want to take the magic out of bookselling, but here are some pointers.

—Don’t recommend Bolano. Don’t be that guy. When you’re asked about it, gush appropriately because he’s amazing. Other writers that fall into this category are Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Dostoyevsky, J.D. Salinger, and Phillip Roth. (There’s a pattern)

—Listen, listen, listen. What did they do that day? What movies do they like? Are they quiet, nervous, excited, busy, jaded? Most of the time, people know what book they want, you just have to listen to them describe it and pull it off the shelf.

—Here is what you recommend in a pinch:

—The old stand-by: Stoner

—Once in almost 5 years of bookselling, a customer came into the store and asked me to give her my top five favorite books of all time. No one ever asked me this before and took me seriously. Ask any bookseller what book they wish people would read more and they open up completely. For me, I think William Gass‘s The Tunnel is one of the most unappreciated masterpieces ever written. James McElroy’s Women and Men slipped out of print almost a decade ago and no one noticed … it’s the equivalent in my eyes of discovering that a DaVinci portrait was forgotten in the basement of a church abbey for generations.

What’s the best thing about your job?

No one rolls their eyes at me when I gush about the ways that certain books completely changed my life.

Listen to our interview with Chuck Klosterman and his editor, Brant Rumble: 

Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: 

Jun 13, 2016 News

Last night, Hamilton cleaned up at the Tony Awards, to no one’s surprise. If you’re looking for a deeper dive into the life of Alexander Hamilton, look no further. Ron Chernow’s exhaustive biography was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s muse and guide when he was writing the show. 

Another literary win was A View from the Bridge, for best revival of a play. Immerse yourself in reading Arthur Miller’s intense, devastating play.

Jun 7, 2016 Behind the Scenes

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.  

Today we’re celebrating the publication of the book with an interview with the author, Chuck Klosterman and his longtime editor, Brant Rumble. In this episode of Beaks & Geeks, we talk about serial killers, Moby Dick, the publishing industry, sharing music, phantom time, and much more. 

Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: 

Jun 2, 2016 Editor’s Desk

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

There are several things that are most thrilling to a book editor. First and foremost is the discovery of true talent. Everything else
extends from that. Next on the list is when other people throughout the company respond to that talent positively and excitedly. When strong enough, that response not only becomes electric, it becomes unstoppable. At its most exciting it becomes a tidal wave of appreciation for a book or a writer. Next, of course, is the validation that comes from a wider audience – The bookstore buyers, managers and sales people and then, finally, actual real people who make the final judgment on the book.

Over the course of my lengthy career, I have brought in a lot of
great talent and some major stars. That is satisfying in its own right.
But it does not compare to the discovery of a writer who is fresh,
unknown, who is to be revealed. I have never seen a response to an unknown talent like the one I have seen for Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter. It started with my read where, after only 20 pages, I realized I was not just reading a well-written novel, I was reading something special, spectacular.

Claudia Herr, who became the line editor and helped shape and refine the novel with Stephanie, was the next reader and the first person to come into my office. She was, literally, trembling and said she had never been so excited after reading a submission. We went about trying to build a consensus but we did not have to try very hard. The manuscript swept through Knopf, through all the layers and every department. Never before had I gotten emails or phone calls saying things such as, “You must buy this book,” or “We have to publish this!”

We met with the author and Ms. Danler was at least as
impressive as her wonderful prose. Although there are obvious
autobiographical elements in her first novel it was immediately clear
that she had many more books in her ­ she was an author, not just someone who had written a terrific first novel.

The thrill has continued every step of the way. The wild enthusiasm within the Knopf group turned into equally strong support from reviewers and bookstores and consumers. Right from the beginning, we thought that Stephanie Danler had written a novel that had a chance to become iconic, to really be that over-used cliché: “the voice of a generation.” It is starting to look as if we all might be right.

What did we see in this book from the moment the manuscript
was submitted? We saw an elegant and eloquent use of language; the author’s descriptions of food made us hungry; her descriptions of sensual cravings stirred us; writing about the turmoil of being young brought us all back to our youth, or for those who were still young, it was like having their own lives being thrown back at them at the speed of light. The book made us all see ourselves in different ways, no matter our age or our sex. It also made us see outside of ourselves. It made us see the narrator’s very specific world as well as the world at large in new and startling ways. 
This is what talent does. This is what Sweetbitter is about to do to readers all over the world.

Learn more about the book below!

May 30, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

In a memorable cri du coeur, the wonderful Turkish-American essayist Elif Batuman declared:

‘I would greatly prefer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.’ 

One other piece of advice, though: if an editor, or friend, makes a comment about something you have written and you strongly disagree, don’t dismiss the fact that something in what you have written disturbed them. Their suggestion may not be helpful, or the right one, but look again at the passage in question, just in case there is something there you can improve.

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

Start with the name. Many novelists can’t imagine their characters until they feel they have named them in a way that chimes in with their personalities. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird has the following general advice:

‘You may only know your characters’ externals instead of their essences. Don’t worry about it. More will be revealed over time. In the meantime, can you see what your people look like? What sort of first impression do they make? What does each one care most about, want more than anything in the world? What are their secrets? How do they move, how do they smell? Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is—so who is this person? Show us. . . .

‘You also want to ask yourself how they stand, what they carry in their pockets or purses, what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. Whom would they have voted for last time? Why should we care about them anyway? What would be the first thing they stopped doing if they found out they had six months to live? Would they start smoking again? Would they keep flossing?’

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

Well, in truth I try the idea out on my wife. She’s also my literary agent and best friend, and will always find the best way of letting me down if my idea is a truly bad one. But what is meant by ‘developing an idea’? It’s too broad a phrase. If one means a whole notion for a book, I advise writing the story down in the manner of a book blurb, no more than 250 words (about the amount of words a book salesman has to interest a customer). If a book project is still unclear, or doesn’t compel attraction within that wordage, something is amiss. 

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Hemingway is meant to have said, ‘I write drunk and revise sober,’ although some people say it was the other way round. Woody Allen takes lots of showers to get his creative juices going. Scott Fitzgerald used to strip off his clothes — completely — before writing. Gertrude Stein would get her companion to drive her into the countryside so she could gaze on the cows there before going back to her writing table.

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I produced a school magazine whenI was twelve; and continued as the main schoolboy editor when I was at high school. But for years I though I was an editor of other peoples’ work, not someone who could produce his own books. In 1999 I left my job in British publishing; left Britain; and settled down in a new marriage, in New York. I tried to get a job as an editor at Knopf, but its MD, Sonny Mehta, said I should write a book about my main hobby of 45 years, fencing — so I went off and produced a 520-page book on swordplay over 3,000 years, and suddenly I was a writer. 

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

I have no idea. I always forget advice. Maybe, remember to turn the lights off. Say Yes rather than No. Or, for writers, One can always revise more. 

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

We all fall into hackneyed ways of writing. My current bugbear is people saying ‘incredible,’ when all they mean is ‘very.’ I recall revising a chapter so often that only on a last read-through did I realise I’d started seven consecutive paragraphs with the word ‘Then.’ 

Describe your writing style in 5 words or less.

Anecdotal, story-led, humorous, inquiring, addictive.

Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

So far I have published only non-fiction. I have started a novel, set in France in 1946, but my wife (see above) says I’m not allowed to write any more into it until I have finished my current commissioned book, titled ‘The History of Historians.’ But I think about the novel every single day.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

Shakespeare (sorry, but it’s true), Tolstoy’s main novels, Samuel Johnson‘s works, Alice in Wonderland

Learn more about the book below:

May 24, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! 

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

My graduate professor Frank Conroy said that we only get three exclamations points in our whole career! And I just used one. He meant, of course, that the prose itself should convey emphasis. He also stressed that habit is a writer’s best weapon. I’m still working on that one.

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

I am terribly guilty of what I call “three adjective syndrome” wherein I describe something with no fewer than three adjectives. Usually, that means the third adjective is the one I want, and the first two are just approximations until I get there, but I still have to go back and cull the first two adjectives from the pack. Relatedly, my first drafts have so many clichés it’s like they are going out of style (get it?). I think that’s fine for a first draft. They’re just marking places where I need to go back and think of better comparisons, so I try not to judge myself too harshly.

 Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not?

 All characters and no characters are based on people I know. If fiction comes from imagination, then all people contribute to the pool from which I draw.  I like to borrow traits and sayings from everyone, but I have never attempted to reproduce on the page a person I know in real life. Even when I do “heavily borrow” from a person, quoting something he or she actually said, he/she never recognizes herself. That said, my father thinks he’s every character in my books.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Madame Bovary

A Visit From the Goon Squad

The Handmaid’s Tale

Learn more about the book below:

May 17, 2016 Behind the Scenes

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.  

Today we’re featuring an interview with  Aileen Boyle: VP, Associate Publisher, Director of Marketing and Publicity for Blue Rider Press and Plume. 

What do you think is special or unique about this book? Why will readers want to get their hands on it?

Where to start? In this particular case, the reader should feel free to judge a book by its cover: the contents may turn your worldview upside down, or at least challenge you. 

Designer Paul Sahre and art director Jason Booher hit it out of the park – this book could sit under glass at the Whitney and fit right in.  Great design is such a helpful tool for a publicist to get the media’s attention as well as to stand out in a bookstore.

Now that we’ve gotten the reader to pick the book up, what should they expect between the covers?  This is where the fun really begins. Chuck is a brilliant cultural commentator, not only in the way that he makes a point or constructs an argument, but in how he gets the reader thinking. But What If We’re Wrong? has something for everyone: literature, music, politics, science, philosophy and more. I’m not a sports person, but the chapter on football is fantastic and now I can drop that knowledge on my brother-in-law (finally).  Other readers will likewise learn a few things, without question. 

How would you describe your job and how you worked on But What If We’re Wrong? to a layman? What are some of the steps you take when you first start working on a title?

I’ll start with the end goal of my job: to have a reader discover a new book and get interested enough to buy it. 

Booksellers, media and social media influencers are my outside partners to help me reach this goal.   Booksellers have events.  The media does reviews or interviews.  Social media allows us to talk to readers or those they care about directly.  My job, alongside my brilliant team, is to pull all of these levers for a book’s publication.

When a dynamic and popular writer like Chuck pens a provocative, forward-thinking book that can be read by a wide variety of people, I’ve got a lot to work with.   I collaborated with author, publisher, editor and agent to set goals of how we wanted to reach readers and the message we wanted to convey.  We started working on this early –about nine months (or more) ago.  It’s exciting to be almost at the point of publication after all of this anticipation in-house.

Describe the book in one sentence.

A book that makes a persuasive case for the importance of doubt – sorely needed in an age where we think we know everything.

Do you have a favorite line from the book, or a section you particularly love?

While there is no material benefit to being right about a future you will not experience “there are intrinsic benefits,” Klosterman writes, “to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder.  It’s good to view reality as being beyond our understanding, because it is.  And it’s exciting to imagine the prospect of a reality that cannot be imagined, because that’s as close to pansophical omniscience as we will ever come.”

How closely do you work with the editor, art department, etc. when working on a title?

All members of our imprint work closely together.  Publicity and marketing is the midwife in a book’s birth. The book has been gestating for a while– being written, edited, designed, printed, sold in by reps etc. – but then the labor begins, in the form of a publicity tour which can be physically exhausting and maybe even painful at times.  But publicists are there at the crucial moment of publication day (a book’s birthday!) and when it’s well-received and sells lots of copies, I personally feel happy and proud by association. 

(I might be saying this because my daughter kept me up last night and Chuck and his wife just had a baby, but I think the analogy is apt!)

Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: 

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