Jul 27, 2015 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.

A few summers ago, Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel The Sound of Things Falling had just taken the literary world by storm. Bestselling, universally praised, hailed as “brilliant” on the cover of the New York Times Book review by Edmund White, the novel was a huge moment for Juan. Riverhead had published two earlier critically acclaimed novels of his as well: The Informers and The Secret History of Costaguana.

He happened to be in New York, visiting from Bogota, Colombia, for the Brooklyn Book Festival where he wowed crowds with his mellifluous voice. I met up with Juan and his wife, Mariana, before his Festival events and we had a bagel brunch on the roof of my apartment building in Brooklyn – a quintessential borough activity.

As we talked about future books by Juan, he mentioned an earlier book of his – Los Amantes de Todos los Santos (which we’ve translated as Lovers on All Saints’ Day) – a collection of stories that he had always felt was some of his best writing. And it had never been translated into English, not one story. I remembered his translator, the inimitable Anne McLean, confiding in me that the stories had always been some of her favorite writing of Juan’s too. I got jealous: they all loved this book and I had never read it! We hatched a plan then and there to bring this book out to American readers, to get it translated into English for the first time.

One of the wonderful things about this story collection is how different it is from Juan’s novels. It takes place in Europe – mostly in France and Belgium – which had for many years been the place where Juan lived as an ex-pat, far from Colombia and South America. The influence of European writers, of a moody, earthy, ancient perspective, resounds through these stories. Juan references the idea that a story collection is like a novel where none of the characters know each other. They exist in a universe, struggling, loving, making grave mistakes and small triumphs, and at the end of this crescendo of a collection, you come away with an overwhelming sense of loss and love, of humanity at its most burdened and brilliant. This collection showcases the breadth of Juan’s ability; he is truly one of the great writers of our time, in any language, and I’m proud to bring all of his writing to American readers – past, present, and future.

Learn more about Lovers on All Saints’ Day here.

Jul 23, 2015 Random Notes

If you’re in the New York City area, don’t miss the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks.  The show is on view until August 23, 2015. From their site:

Brooklyn-born artist Jean-Michel Basquiat filled numerous notebooks with poetry fragments, wordplay, sketches, and personal observations ranging from street life and popular culture to themes of race, class, and world history. The first major exhibition of the artist’s notebooks, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks features 160 pages of these rarely seen documents, along with related works on paper and large-scale paintings.

Source: Wikimedia

To dive a little deeper, learn the story of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s partner, Suzanne Mallouk. In Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement, the reader is plunged into 1980’s New York City where the lovers meet for the first time. All about art, underground culture, passion and creative energy, this biography is gripping and transportive.  See below for an excerpt from the book.

“Sublime, poetic…A harrowing, beautifully told love story about two seekers colliding in a pivotal moment in history, and setting everything, including themselves, on fire.”—Rebecca Walker for NPR

“Stunningly lyrical . . . Original, insightful, and engrossing. . . . While filled with pop culture anecdotes art fans might seek—Andy Warhol and Rene Ricard both make appearances, for instance—Clement’s account is an honest love story above all else.”—Publishers Weekly

This excerpt is from Jennifer Clement‘s  Widow Basquiat, the story of the short-lived, obsessive love affair between Suzanne Mallouk and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Clement is former president of PEN Mexico and is the author of three novels and several books of poetry.

THE CROSBY STREET LOFT MADNESS

She irons the clothes, folds his clothes, places them in the same order on the shelf—the red sweater is folded this way and placed above the red shirt. She places the soap at an angle on the sink and always places the towels in the same order 1-2-3. She irons one shirt five times. She makes the bed three times and irons the sheets. If a sweater fades in the wash she cries. She never speaks and only answers questions or speaks in a panicky monologue:

“My mother was a spy in the war. They took her to see a woman with transparent skin. They could see her heart beating in there and her lungs and blood. They could see her eyeballs turning. This was a military secret. Nobody knows about this. And they would give the woman food— turnips, oranges, bread—and watch it all go down into her. This was a military secret. I heard about her when I was five and I thought she must have been very beautiful like a larva, but very scared. I kept looking at my own stomach and wondering what was in there. I chewed care- fully. My mother said she was a kind of Venus or virgin.”

At first Jean-Michel thinks this is funny and puts some of her words in his paintings. Then he tells her to shut up. He paints Self-portrait with Suzanne. He paints her speaking her chicken-chatter, “PTFME E a a a R M R M O AAAAAAAA.”

They do coke six or seven times a day. He tells Suzanne she can only wear one dress. It is a gray shift with white checks. He tells her she can only wear one pair of very large men’s shoes. He does another line of coke. Suzanne walks clunk- clunk-clunk, her feet wading in the shoes, around the loft. He tells her she can’t wear lipstick anymore. He says she can only buy groceries and detergents. Then he says no, he will buy them. He does another line of coke and paints Big Shoes, a portrait of Suzanne in big shoes. He calls her Venus. He says, “Hey, Venus, come and kiss me.” He says, “Venus, go get us some coke.” He writes “Venus” into his paintings and says Suzanne is only with him for his money.

Jean-Michel sticks black paper over all the windows so that they won’t know if it is day or night. “The day is too light,” he says.

Soon Suzanne stops cleaning and Jean-Michel stays at home all day.

Suzanne finds a place to live under a small table, like a small cat that finds a hiding place. From here she watches Jean- Michel paint, sleep and do drugs. He picks up books, cereal boxes, the newspaper or whatever is around. He finds a word or phrase and paints it on his board or canvas. A few times a day he crawls under the table with Suzanne and gives her a kiss on the forehead. Sometimes he pulls her out, has sex with her, and then puts her back under the table and continues to paint.

Sometimes Suzanne weeps a little and Jean-Michel says, “Shut up, Venus. I know what it is like to be tied up and fed, with a bowl of rice on the floor, like an animal. I once counted my bruises and I had thirty-two.”

Suzanne moves from under the table into a closet in the bedroom. In here there is a green trench coat, a pair of moccasins, black and pink pumps, a tin frying pan, a super­market plastic bag full of bills, two large boxes of chalk. Under one moccasin Suzanne finds a small box of birthday candles.

THEY DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE A CAR

Shortly after Suzanne moves into the Crosby Street loft Jean-Michel takes her to Italy. He is having a show at the Emilio Mazzoli Gallery in Modena. Neither Jean-Michel nor Suzanne knows how to drive a car so Jean-Michel pays to bring Kai Eric along to drive them around.

In the airplane Jean-Michel continuously gets up to do some coke in the bathroom. He says he has to finish it up before he goes through customs in Europe. He says he wants to open up the emergency door exit and jump on the clouds.

Suzanne has hepatitis. She cannot lift up her arms.

Jean-Michel sits beside her; he kisses and licks one of her arms.

“Beautiful arms,” he says. “Venus, I have to paint your arms.” He takes a blue marker out of his pocket and paints on Suzanne’s arm. He paints her humerus, ulna, radius and carpus. He writes “animal cell” on the inside of her wrist. He draws a ring around her finger.

“Now you are my wife,” he says.

 

Read more about Widow Basquiat here

Learn about the Basquiat exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum here. 

Jul 23, 2015 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! 

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

In the early morning, I consume coffee, turn on my computer, plant my butt in my desk chair in my home office, and let my cats get settled into their usual spots. I quickly check email and look at the headlines on a news site to see if the world has blown up outside my bubble. If I don’t need to duck for cover, I start working. I stay off social media until noon (that’s my plan, anyway). Each of my books has its own digital journal: it’s for stream of consciousness stuff, whatever’s on my mind. I open the journal for my current book and type like mad for a few minutes. It helps me discharge anything that’s weighing on me so I can move on. Then I open my manuscript and revise the last few pages I wrote the prior day, which leads into the new day’s work. For those days when the work just isn’t happening, I make deals with myself. Write for 45 minutes and get up and do something else for 15. Write until lunchtime and then do something else. Oddly, times of personal crisis are excellent writing periods for me because what better escape is there than to immerse yourself in a good book?

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

I start by naming them. By going through that process, I think through their history, circumstances, and personalities. When was she born? What’s her ethnicity? What’s her birth order in the family? Was she raised in a traditional two-parent family or something else? Would her parents have selected a popular name of the era or something unique? Does she come from a modest background or is she well heeled? Does she later change her name or go by a nickname? Is her name evocative of who she is? The protagonist of my current series of suspense novels is Nan Vining. She’s rooted in tradition and family, so I named after her grandmother, Nanette. But she’s tough, so her nickname, “Nan,” is clipped and direct. I liked the surname Vining because it’s uncommon and has a lot of consonants, which for me makes a tougher sounding name than one with many vowels. Also, it evokes a vine, which is appropriate for Nan who’s tenacious and steady. Her name is a great fit for her, but I’ve changed names when a character has evolved and the name no longer works. Thank goodness for “Find and Replace.”

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

I fell in love with writing and reading before I really learned how to do either one. When I was about four years old, I could write my name, with the Ns backward, and three words: yes, no, zoo. My mom was a reader and I was fascinated with her books. I’d look through the pages and pick out the few words I could read. When I got to the white area after a chapter break, I thought that space was there for me to finish the story. I’d take a crayon and have at it, writing, “yes, no, zoo,” and signing my name with backward Ns. It didn’t make my mom too happy to find me scribbling in her books. After I truly learned how to read and write, I wrote compulsively—letters, diaries, stories—but didn’t attempt to publish anything. I didn’t feel I was good enough. Many years later, I took a creative writing class at UCLA, where I started my first novel. After three years, while working fulltime at a day job, I finished that book and got it published. I’ve been writing and publishing fiction ever since.

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

Finish that first draft, even if it’s a big, flawed mess. And then the next best piece of advice I’ve received comes into play: Writing is about rewriting.

What are the perks and challenges of writing a come-back character?

Five years passed between my last Detective Nan Vining thriller and my latest one, Killing Secrets. During that time, I wrote a standalone, The Night Visitor, and several short stories. The challenge in returning to the Nan Vining series came from reconnecting with the four earlier books and wondering whether I could still channel the writer who had created that vibrant world. I was afraid I’d somehow lost my feel for Nan, her daughter Emily, her work partner and lover Jim Kissick, and the other characters as well as the dark thread that runs through the series. My doubts disappeared when I started Killing Secrets and it felt entirely natural, as if I’d come home. It felt great to return to this familiar tableau, but also to break new ground. I’ve just signed a contract with Alibi to write the sixth and seventh in the Nan Vining series and I’m excited to see where the journey takes the characters and me.

Read More about Killing Secrets here.

Jul 22, 2015 News

Penguin Random House deeply mourns the passing of Random House author E. L. Doctorow, who died on Tuesday at the age of 84.  Doctorow was an American master whose works of fiction, from Ragtime and The Book of Daniel to Billy Bathgate and The March, span centuries, taking readers into many eras of the American experience, and from the Great Plains to the Adirondacks, from the Deep South to New York City. In his novels and essays, Doctorow also illuminated social and political issues. In the words of Don DeLillo, “Doctorow’s great topic is the reach of American possibility, in which plain lives take on the cadences of history.”

Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, born in the Bronx, New York, on January 6, 1931, was named after Edgar Allan Poe, another Bronx writer. After receiving a B.A. from Kenyon College and doing postgraduate study at Columbia, he spent two years in the U.S. Army, serving in Germany. Back home, he took a job as a staff reader for Columbia Pictures and moved on in 1959 to become associate editor, then senior editor, at New American Library. He began his career at Random House as an editor at The Dial Press. In 1964 he was named editor in chief, and he published the works of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and others. As an author his body of work, written over the course of five decades and including novels, volumes of stories and essays, and a play, has been published in more than thirty languages.

DOC

The honors Doctorow received include the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, two PEN Faulkner Awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction. In 2012 he won the PEN Saul Bellow Award given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career places him  in the highest rank of American Literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction. In 2014 he received the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. He was also the Lewis and Loretta Glucksman Professor of English and American Letters at New York University.

Kate Medina, Doctorow’s editor, said, “Edgar’s work has always been ascendant, always steeped in the new, with original language, surprising storytelling, rigorous thought and standards of truth. Through books of great beauty and power, and characters I’ll never forget, he showed us America’s great flaws and its astonishing promise, and our own. Edgar was fun, even as he was holding all of us to the high standards he set for himself. To be with him was to be at one’s best; to read him was to discover, again and again, the joy of reading a master.”

Gina Centrello, President and Publisher of Random House, said, “Edgar Doctorow was one of the great creative minds of our time. We were honored to publish him, and his legacy will continue at Random House.  He was sharp and funny, vocal and opinionated, and he inspired readers with every book, every story, and every essay. We will all miss our author and friend dearly.”

Browse through Doctorow’s books here.

Jul 21, 2015 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.

I was 25 when the proposal for Book of Numbers first appeared in my Inbox, and it was my very first acquisition. Over the previous years, I’d edited several novels, and, like all editors, had been perpetually on the lookout for something that recreated the feeling of magic I had reading my favorite books when I was young.

Alongside those professional endeavors, though, in my private life as a reader I was eager to see something that reflected and explored the experiences of people my age: the first generation to grow up with the Internet. In my mind, at least, the so-called Digital Revolution and the Internet in particular have changed our culture and society in ways that are just beginning to be understood. Of course, everyone knows how much time everyone else spends online these days, and the manner in which we do our shopping, socializing, dating, and reading. But it’s the subtle ways the Internet has changed us – the ways it infiltrates our consciousness, for good and for ill – that interest me the most.

Photo by Carolyn Meers

 

I was always a little surprised that there weren’t more literary novelists taking a hard look at this phenomenon, because no medium is better suited to examining the personal, the private, the inner life than the novel. I wanted to read something that looked at life with the Internet from the bottom up – something that got into the dirty details of how the Internet affects our thoughts and behavior on a daily level (a poet once said that all art has to begin in “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”).

I distinctly remember reading the manuscript of Book of Numbers at home on my couch the night it came in. It only took me about fifteen pages before I knew: This Is It. And as I continued to read on, what started as recognition quickly turned to awe. It felt then as if Josh’s novel was updating the world – like it was pushing literary culture into the digital age, and pushing digital culture to acknowledge its debt to literature, to the human heart, to human beings. On top of that, it was funny, and exuberant, and just sheer entertainment on the highest level.

That said, the work was not finished at acquisition. Indeed, Josh and I spent quite a lot of time collaborating on the novel, making sure every sentence was as close to perfect as we could get it. Every Friday afternoon, from the first week of January 2014 until the end of December, Josh and I met in an office in 1745 Broadway. We went through the entire book, covering twenty pages a week. And then we went through it again. And again. And again, and again.

This time working with Josh was, without a doubt, the highlight of my career thus far. Nothing is more fun than sitting with a world-class writer (laughing and joking the whole time) and tweaking a scene, a paragraph, a word, until it’s just right. At least, that’s my idea of fun.

The reception of the book has been wonderful, and I’m as proud of the book itself as I’ve been of anything, but it was those hours working together with Josh, when nobody else in the world was paying attention, that I’ll remember most.

Read more about Book of Numbers here.

First to Read
Jul 21, 2015 This Day in History

Today, we are commemorating The Battle of Bull Run (First), which occurred on July 21, 1861.

Read an excerpt from Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey: 

On the morning of July 21, 1861, William How­ard Russell [editor’s note: an Irish journalist with The Times] was running late for a battle. Confederate troops under Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, whom he knew from Charleston, and the Union Army under Gen. Irvin McDowell, whom he’d met several times, were now massed around a little rivulet called Bull Run near the Manassas Gap Railroad junction. Everybody in Washington seemed to think this first major battle would be a Northern victory. It might be the beginning of serious fighting. It might be the end of it. Whatever happened, there was no question, Russell had to be there to see it.

Since Russell’s return from the South to the Federal capital, nothing had gone right for him. While he’d been away, and despite his reams of reporting, Delane and the other editors of the Times of London had taken a stand of clear sympathy with the secessionists. They reflected the interests of an elite with commercial concerns about cotton and contempt for the American notion of a republic. They also embraced the idea that, because Lincoln and Seward in­sisted this war was not about freeing the slaves, then truly that was the case. And for the masses, there was the appeal of the Southern­ers as underdogs struggling against the subjugation of Washington. The Times editors had become just the apostles of the fait accompli that Seward had feared. So even though the paper still ran Russell’s articles about the inadequacies of the Southern military position, the arrogance of King Cotton, and the monstrosity of slavery, its editorials were such that Russell found the Times “assailed on all sides as a Secession organ, favorable to the rebels and exceedingly hostile to the Federal government and the cause of the Union.” The net result for its correspondent was that he no longer had the kind of access to the Union military that he’d wanted and expected. Seward would still see him, but War Department passes were hard to come by, and on the eve of combat no one would give him the countersign so he could get through checkpoints to see the battle begin at dawn.

Source: Library of Congress, wiki commons

Not until midday did Russell finally get close enough to the fighting to hear “the thudding noise, like taps with a gentle hand upon a muffled drum” of artillery in action. Among congressmen and other dignitaries, many of them accompanied by their wives, he watched from atop a hill above Centreville as distant wisps of smoke marked the opposing lines. He ate a sandwich. He drank some Bordeaux he’d packed in his case. By the time he drew closer to the fighting, the Union forces were pulling back; then, suddenly, they were fleeing in a rout so complete that he could hardly believe his eyes.

Russell was on a borrowed nag threading his way toward the action when he heard loud shouts ahead of him and saw several wagons coming from the direction of the battlefield. The drivers were trying to force their way past the ammunition carts coming up the narrow road. A thick cloud of dust rose behind them. Men were running beside the carts, between them. “Every moment the crowd increased, drivers and men cried out with the most vehement gestures, ‘Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped.’ They seized the heads of the horses and swore at the opposing drivers.” A breathless officer with an empty scabbard dangling by his side got wedged for a second between a wagon and Russell’s horse.

“What is the matter, sir?” Russell asked. “What is all this about?

“Why, it means we are pretty badly whipped,” said the officer, “and that’s the truth.” Then he scrambled away.

The heat, the uproar, and the dust were “beyond description,” Russell wrote afterward. And it all got worse when some cavalry soldiers, flourishing their sabers, tried to force their way through the mob, shouting, “Make way for the general!”

Russell had made it to a white house where two field guns were positioned, when suddenly troops came pouring out of the nearby forest. The gunners were about to blast away when an officer or a sergeant shouted, “Stop! Stop! They are our own men.” In a few minutes a whole battalion had run past in utter disorder. “We are pursued by their cavalry,” one told Russell. “They have cut us all to pieces.”

After a while there was nothing the world’s greatest war corre­spondent could do but fall in with the tide of men fleeing the fight­ing. In all his battles, he had never seen anything like this: “Infantry soldiers on mules and draught horses, with the harness clinging to their heels, as much frightened as their riders; Negro servants on their masters’ chargers; ambulances crowded with unwounded soldiers; wagons swarming with men who threw out the contents in the road to make room; grinding through a shouting, scream­ing mass of men on foot, who were literally yelling with rage at every halt and shrieking out, ‘Here are the cavalry! Will you get on?’” They talked “prodigious nonsense,” Russell said, “describing batteries tier over tier, and ambuscades, and blood running knee-deep.” As he rode through the crowd, men grabbed at Russell’s stir­rups and saddle. He kept telling them over and over again not to be in such a hurry. “There’s no enemy to pursue you. All the cavalry in the world could not get at you.” But, as he soon realized, he “might as well have talked to the stones.”

It was a long way back to Washington that day. But after sev­eral brushes with violent deserters, drunken soldiers, and more panic-stricken officers, Russell made his way in the moonlight to the Long Bridge across the Potomac and into the capital. He told anyone who asked him that the Union commander would regroup and resume the battle the next morning. But when he awoke in his boardinghouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, he found the city full of uniformed rabble. “The great Army of the Potomac,” he wrote, “is in the streets of Washington instead of on its way to Richmond.”

The Federal capital was essentially defenseless. “The inmates of the White House are in a state of the utmost trepidation,” Russell wrote, “and Mr. Lincoln, who sat in the telegraph operator’s room with General Scott and Mr. Seward, listening to the dispatches as they arrived from the scene of the action, left in despair when the fatal words tripped from the needle and the defeat was already re­vealed to him.”

For the South, “here is a golden opportunity,” said Russell. “If the Confederates do not grasp that which will never come again on such terms, it stamps them with mediocrity.” But the rebels stayed where they were, and the fact that they did not march on Washing­ton suggested this would be a long war.

As Russell studied the city, its politicians, and its dispositions in the aftermath of the battle, he did not agree with “many who think the contest is now over.” He figured the Northerners had learned a lesson about “the nature of the conflict on which they have en­tered” and would be roused to action. But when the Times ran Rus­sell’s article on the battle, his balanced judgment about the lessons learned got no play. The whole effect of his account of the rout was to reinforce the editors’ image of a South that not only would fight, but that could fight better than the North and, therefore, should soon be free of it.

Read more about the American Civil War and the untold story of the Robert Bunch: an unlikely Englishman who hated the slave trade and whose actions helped determine the fate of our nation in Our Man in Charleston.

“A perfect book about an imperfect spy.” —Joan Didion

Jul 16, 2015 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.

The friendship between women can be one of the most significant bonds we ever experience. Our female friends sustain us through the pivotal moments of our lives; they support us in times of crisis and share in our joys. They laugh and cry with us through every exhaustively recounted detail of our daily trials and tribulations.

This is the territory that author Wendy Wax explores so winningly in her new novel, A Week at the Lake, which is at heart the story of friendship—the friendship between Emma, Mackenzie, and Serena. These three women met in college, and afterwards pursued their separate dreams—theatre, costume design, television–achieving varying degrees of fame and fortune. But every summer they would spend a blissful week together at a summerhouse on Lake George—a week filled with shared confidences; certainly much laughter, and possibly a few tears.

week

Why this wonderful tradition began to unravel and the three of them drift apart is a bit of a mystery, but when the story opens, Emma, Mackenzie, and Serena are about to get together for their first “week at the lake” in five years. Fate, of course, is about to take a hand… I will resist the impulse to give away the plot. Suffice it to say that this will be a week unlike any they have experienced in the past.

Wendy Wax clearly knows from personal experience what it’s like to be part of a close-knit group of women. Over the years, I have often heard her refer to authors Karen White and Susan Crandall as her “BFFs”. I know that these three musketeers have their own annual retreat, during which they claim to get enormous amounts of writing done, fortified by pinot noir and Talenti salted caramel gelato.

It’s no wonder, then, that Wendy is able to portray her three main characters in A Week at the Lake with so much insight, affection, and humor, and make us fall in love with every one of them. In the end, there may be a little of Emma, Mackenzie, and Serena in each of us. For myself, I know that the only thing my own friends and I are missing is that gorgeous summerhouse on Lake George!

Read more about A Week at the Lake here.

Jul 14, 2015 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?

Reading out loud. As soon as I finish a chapter, I read it to my victim … ahem … husband. As a writer, I find when I read/write a chapter a few times over, my brain begins to to skim it. And reading out loud helps me to catch any mistakes I might have made. See? I used the word “to” twice in this question. It also helps with the rhythm. Writing should have rhythm.

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

The very first thing I do is write the ending. If I start right at the beginning, I tend to veer off course and before I know it, I’m writing a completely different story (I have too many ideas and a short attention span). Writing the last scene first helps me have something to aim for, so I can get from point A to point B without hitting too many traffic cones.

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

I have “a zone.” When the headphones are on, I’m in the zone and should not be bothered, lest I throw the closest object on my desk across the room. I spend about half an hour to an hour (depending on the intensity of the narrative) with music blasting in my head, one that usually matches the scene. I always have to see it like a movie in my head before it reaches paper, so a soundtrack is pivotal. Then I do my damned best to think like that person, completely immerse myself (which can be hard, especially when writing a dark narrative). Then I need a proper half hour with music to ease myself out, I can’t be ripped away; it messes me up. That’s a lot of my creative process … some just call it madness. Oh, and caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine.

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

No, I didn’t. Writing came to me when I was at a period in my life of trying to save myself and clean up my life. It started for me while I was seeing a counselor. I’d go in, guns blazing, F this and F that and F this again. The therapist was a very conservative man who’d cringe every time I cursed or told a colorful story from my past. So he told me to write (I believe he said it hoping he wouldn’t have to hear me anymore). It was supposed to be a journal kind of thing, but I hated journaling. Writing about things I wanted to forget never helped me—it just ticked me off. So I wrote something fake (it’s still an existing chapter in my unpublished/first novel, The Assassin’s Keeper). He read it in silence and I waited, wondering if there were men outside with butterfly nets. When finished, he looked me right in my eyes and said, “That was the best ****ing thing I ever read.” After that, I wrote more and more, writing a good chunk of my first novel in his office. I haven’t stopped since.

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

Ellipses … I put them everywhere. The truth is, I don’t even know how to properly use them. I just put them in when the page looks a little sad …

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

I’m a girl who goes to the beat of her own drum. A lot of the advice from the greats just don’t work for me: I can’t write every day, I DO wait until I’m in the mood, I don’t read while writing … To quote Lillian Hellman: “If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

Read more about Freedom’s Child here.

Jul 9, 2015 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.

I recently had the very good fortune of watching Annie Barrows sign her newest adult novel, The Truth According to Us, in the PRH booth at BEA (Book Expo of America). Not only did I get to observe how fans responded to seeing Annie, but I got to speak with them as they were waiting patiently in line.

I met so many fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society —the novel she wrote seven years ago with her beloved aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, who has since passed away—and heard how it embedded itself in readers’ hearts and minds and is as treasured now as it was so many years ago.

I also met so many fans of Ivy and Bean —the iconic children’s book series Annie has been writing for years and has touched so many lives—old and new.

Photo KC

What was clear to me was that Annie has the ability to intimately connect to you through her work, no matter what she writes and no matter who her intended audience is—whether it’s an adult novel or one for children. And what’s truly remarkable to me is how organic it was for her to blend elements of both those worlds into her new novel, The Truth According to Us.

Annie feels at her best when she’s writing from the perspective of a young narrator, which is why twelve- year-old Willa Romeyn shines as one of the powerful and endearing voices in The Truth According to Us. She’s been compared quite a bit, by reviewers and readers alike, to having shades of Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Willa’s voice is joined by those of two adult characters, her beloved Aunt Jottie (beloved aunts seem to be a theme here!) and Layla Beck, a senator’s daughter who is assigned to write the first official history of Macedonia, West Virginia, and is taking the small town by storm. This union of youth and wisdom is exactly what makes The Truth According to Us, and Annie, so special.

I think it’s Annie’s love for her characters that inspires us to love them as well—no matter their age. And I think it’s the wisdom and charm she infuses in every book she writes that makes you feel connected to her world—and yours—just a little bit more.

Aunt Jottie advises Willa: “What you need is some of that Macedonian virtue. Ferocious and devoted folks are just hell on a stick when it comes to digging up secrets. You just try keeping a secret from a virtuous Macedonian.” That thought came to me often in the line at BEA, because as devoted as Macedonians are to figuring out the truth, we as readers are as devoted to Annie for bringing it all to light for us.

Read more about The Truth According to Us here

Jul 7, 2015 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so twice a month, we’ll 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! 

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

As an editor, I always asked writers (of novels and even of picture books): “Who is this character in your head? Is he/she based on someone you know? Can you see that person doing what you have your character do?” As an author, I ask myself the same thing. Of course, all of one’s characters have a little bit of oneself in them, but I do find that having a specific image—of a friend, an acquaintance, a child, a person glimpsed on the subway—really helps me focus and be specific.

Specificity is the skeleton key that unlocks the doors of good writing. When a character speaks, the language must be specific to her; she must not be able to speak any other way. When a character makes a choice of beer or shaving cream, he must own those choices; they must come from everything else I know about the character. I think hard about what a character would reach for in the fridge, and why. None of that reasoning, of course, should show on the page (unless it’s a plot point). But as a writer you need to know if it’s boxers or briefs, sports bra or push-up, for every character. You have to know where the hidden tattoos are, and the scars.

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

I write copy! That’s the first thing I do. I write what you would find on a jacket flap, or the back cover of a paperback. When I was an editor, and especially an assistant, writing copy was always the most enjoyable part of the job. The better written the book, the easier it is to write copy, even when the book has a challenging structure or tackles difficult ideas. I write copy to see where the story is going. Usually I can eke out a whole first “act” for a book by pretending I’m writing the flap for the finished draft. If a first act emerges and I’m interested in seeing where the story goes, I’ll give it a try as a book.

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

While writing Enchanted August, I almost always wore headphones and played birdsong or “nature sounds.” Those soundtracks let me believe that I was in Maine. I would go to YouTube and find videos with hours of recorded sounds of the outdoors. You have to be careful not to play the same one too many times or you get to know what nuthatch is going to start calling out after which rumble of thunder, but other than that, it’s a great way (for me) to escape city sounds or household sounds or sounds at the café where I usually write.

And a shout-out to that café: It’s The Hungarian Pastry Shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I started going there when I first came to New York in 1981 and basically never stopped. The Pastry Shop is located just a few blocks from Columbia University, so it’s filled with people studying or reading or writing. It’s almost like a library. There’s no internet service and there are no electrical outlets, so you can only write as long as your computer charge lasts and you can’t get distracted by going online. If you go to the Pastry Shop for a visit, don’t be disappointed that the coffee isn’t great, but do order an ishler. Two hazelnut cookies filled with chocolate mousse and covered in dark chocolate. A sumptuous reward for a good afternoon’s writing.

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

I never thought I wanted to write but I have been writing since I was very young. I used to write Regency romances when I was about eleven or twelve, about characters named Charles and Caroline who bore a marked resemblance to Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. (I read Pride and Prejudice in one sitting when I was eleven years old. My mother thought I had been out at the neighbor’s all day, when actually I was upstairs reading through lunch and dinner. I came down to the kitchen in a daze and have essentially never recovered.)

I began working as an editorial assistant at a publishing company right after college. I wanted nothing more than to be an editor, and I was, for many years. After a while, editors, especially of children’s books, tend to take on the writing mantle. I helped artists write their picture books. I turned out quickie celebrity bios. I wrote a couple of Pokemon chapter books. (“I choose you!”)

Then in 2004 or so, I wrote two early readers under a pen name, Margaret McNamara. Too Many Valentines and 100 Days (Plus One) were set at Robin Hill School, and over ten years the stories stretched into a thirty-book series. Then, I began to write more picture books about things like pumpkins, apples, George Washington, poetry, and a heavenly library. (If you’re interested, you can find out more on my website.) Just a few years ago, I so wanted an author of mine to write a book from Tinker Bell’s point of view that I stole my own idea and wrote a six-book series called the Fairy Bell Sisters, about Tinker Bell’s little sisters, who live on an island in what many would recognize to be Maine. Their success (and I mean the fact that I finished them all, on time, and they were beautifully published) led me to be emboldened enough to write Enchanted August.

Describe your writing style in five words or less.

If you mean how I write in terms of process: Must. Not. Edit. While. Writing.

Read more about Enchanted August here.

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