Aug 3, 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.

When the proposal for Stir came in, it was subtitled “How My Brain Exploded and I Got Cooking.” What I found in those pages just about made my own brain explode. Here was a memoir by a first-time writer who had survived a traumatic brain injury, a Harvard Ph.D candidate who lost sight in one eye, her sense of smell, and a chunk of her skull so large that she had to wear a hockey helmet to protect her brain, impressive enough, but what made the proposal a standout was not her injury, but the way she wrote about how food and the simple everyday acts of cooking, baking, stirring, sautéing, and sharing it, helped her to heal. As she writes in the book, getting well meant finding her everyday, and she found hers in the kitchen. This stunning book didn’t fit neatly into any category in the bookstore, but everyone at Penguin Random House who read it loved it, and we knew we had to publish Stir.

Every author takes an approach to writing that makes sense to them. Some outline, others write set pieces to be stitched together later. Some write almost in a fugue state, getting the book down on paper from beginning to end, barely stopping to put in commas. Jessica was not that kind of writer. She was careful, precise. Every word worked at the sentence level. The challenge with Stir was broader—we didn’t want the book to be pigeon-holed as a recovery memoir, but we also knew that her illness was the natural beginning of her story. During editorial talks, we spent much of our time discussing how to weave various strands together. First, of course, there was the aneurysm. Then, there was the food—the facts of cooking it and eating it and recovering because of it. Beyond those two main threads, there was a love story between Jessica and her unflappable husband, Eli, including their attempts to start a family (spoiler: they do! as anyone who follows her wonderful blog, sweetamandine.com knows from the pictures of her two adorable daughters she posts there); an ode to the constellation of women in her life—her mother, stepmother, grandmothers, her Aunt Fran, and close friends—whose influence she feels strongly in the kitchen; and, finally, the story of how she came to a new understanding of the link between food and identity.

As we’d talk, Jessica would occasionally ask me, “How do you think I should…?” We’d mull it over and then she would go off and come up with a perfect solution. When I said as much, more often than not, she’d respond that she had simply looked at a memoir she admired to see how that writer succeeded in doing whatever it was Jessica herself was trying to do. She was applying the skills she’d honed as an academic to the process of writing a memoir. She read and dissected every memoir she could get her hands on –Wild, The Liar’s Club, Eat, Pray, Love, and My Stroke of Insight, and dozens of others– to pick them apart and learn how they performed different feats of narrative and storytelling. She marked her copy of Wild with a “Pivot!” in the margins next to the places Cheryl Strayed switched from one subject to another without losing the reader, and then figured out a way to make the technique her own in Stir. It was as if she was reading to defend her dissertation and her dissertation was how to tell the story of her life. Again and again, I could see her incorporating the lessons she’d gleaned from the writers she loved into her own book.

One day, she sent me a document I’m not sure I was meant to see. It was an eleven page spreadsheet with columns delineating plot, characters, conflict, what we learn (general), what we learn (food), and “to do.” It showed an awareness of how the book was working—or not—from a structural perspective, which helped to keep everything in balance. Another time, she sent me a file that had all of the material dealing with Eli in one document so she could make sure the story hung together, which it did. This all sounds terribly clinical, but the book that came out of it is anything but, despite a good part of it taking place in and out of hospitals after brain surgery.

What I love about Jessica’s writing, especially her writing about food, is how unfussy it is—the opposite of academic writing with its particular conventions, and different, too, from a certain type of food writing, the kind with sumptuous descriptions of dishes that sound like menu items at a restaurant where almost no one can afford to eat. Jessica, however, writes every bit as much for the person who swoons over grass-fed butter as she does for someone who savors a Ritz cracker melting on her tongue. She writes exquisitely but without pomp about how the way we prepare food and who we eat it with connects us to our past, our future, and our true selves.

The moments where she connects to food shine brightly on the page. She writes about the smell of cucumber when her olfactory nerves kick in again, the mushrooms chopped for a favorite pasta dish when she first returns to the kitchen, and an almond cake resting on a counter that acts as a Proust’s madeleine of sorts as it lets her know, as she writes, that food had something to teach her, and that it felt good to listen. I am glad that she did.

Read more about Stir here.

Jul 31, 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’s the best piece of advice you have received?

At a talk at Columbia, Philip Roth said something that has stayed with me since; I’m not sure it counts as advice as much as a description of his writing process. He said that he lets himself write freely for some time and then rereads the material, pen in hand, and circles whatever feels alive.

This idea, of live material, is what I take to be essential to good literary writing. I’ve come to believe most anything wrong with a first draft can be fixed later—plot can be focused and adjusted, endings changed, themes emphasized, characters and sentences refined, and so on—but what cannot be accomplished later is breathing life into something flat or false.

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

I came to fiction writing later than most writers I know: not until my mid-twenties. Before then the writing I’d done was almost entirely academic; for a while I’d seriously considered a career in philosophy. When I think about my first attempts at fiction, they seem to me very much influenced by philosophy: back then I started every story or novel with a concept, and developed it pretty linearly. Readers of Bradstreet Gate might be surprised to hear this; that book proceeds so differently, following characters in often unpredictable directions. That improvisational feeling took me a lot of work and time to achieve.

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

The best way to get into a writing mood really is to just start writing—if not writing in the most ambitious sense (new scenes, preciously crafted sentences) then just sketching, thinking through ideas on paper. I often do start writing on paper, developing thoughts in notebooks, until I have some material to work with and sufficient momentum to get back to a scene.

What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

I do a terrific amount of exploratory writing; that is, writing that probably won’t make it into the final book but that allows me to play with my characters and their situations until the material shapes and reshapes itself into a form I like. Often, I continue to do this even later in the process: once I’ve worked up one scene or one idea, I’ll make myself do another version or two—an altered course of events, a new reaction from my character—just to see if something more interesting happens. That way I have a means to evaluate my choices, and it’s a good way to avoid crutches and clichés.

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

I’d say my characters contain some elements of people I know, but often several people in combination, and I still try to leave most of my characters’ biographies and sensibilities to invention. For me, sticking too closely to real people would be confining, and possibly prevent me from the important work of having to think through the experience of my characters myself. Maybe it’s that I understand those around me less well than I like to imagine, but copying actual people hasn’t proven as useful in my writing as it seems to be for others—or worth risking the consequence of terrifying family and friends.

Learn more about Bradstreet Gate here.

Jul 30, 2015 Random Notes

Kirsty Logan, writes about the rich folklore that inspired her new novel, The Gracekeepers.

Growing up in Scotland was a huge influence on me when I was writing The Gracekeepers, which brings together the Scottish traditions of the sea and of the ceilidh (a social gathering with music and wild dancing) to tell the story of a circus boat in a flooded world. Scotland has a strong and vivid tradition of folklore, and much of it is based around the sea. Perhaps not surprising, as no point in Scotland is more than 66 miles from the coast! I’ve always loved the Scottish tales of selkies, kelpies and fairies – though my favourite as a child was ‘Kate Crackernuts’, which tells of a resourceful girl who gets her prince not by being beautiful and demure, but clever and bold. As well as the traditional tales, my parents told me the classic European fairytales: ‘Snow White’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Thumbelina’. I spent many happy hours poring over my mum’s old book of fairytales, with its white linen cover, gold embossing and beautiful illustrations. I spent my childhood immersed in folktales, and now I’m an adult I love them more than ever.

When I was 20 and studying English Literature, I discovered the work of Angela Carter and Marina Warner – and then I learned to love fairytales in a whole new way. Gone were the pretty children’s stories, to be replaced by the tales in their original, bloody, beautiful, violent glory. Some fairytales – though by no means all of them! – have happy endings, but they’re hard-won.

Fairytales and folktales (and their modern retellings) have had a huge influence on my writing. The way that contemporary writers have used the traditional structures to explore identity, feminism, gender and queer issues is constantly inspiring to me, and it’s something I seek to do in my own stories too. Folklore and fairytales are the well of inspiration I keep returning to – the darker and more beautiful, the better. And although I’m not so bothered about winning a prince, I still want to be as clever and bold as Kate Crackernuts.

***

In my reading I’ve discovered that almost every culture in the world has a version of the ‘woman from the sea’ story. They may be called mermaids, selkies, silkies, sirens, finfolk, nixies, or water spirits. They’re especially common in places like Scotland, Ireland and Scandinavia: Northern places with a strong history of folklore and a culture very much rooted in the sea. I keep coming back to selkie stories for what it says about the modern power struggle between men and women, which – despite all the progress of women’s rights over the generations – still remains unequal. Although it’s an ancient tale, it’s as relevant to us in the modern world as ever.

The version below is adapted from the dozens of selkie variations I’ve read over the years. If you’re interested in exploring the legend further, the classic texts are David Thomson’s The People of the Sea and Duncan Williamson’s Tales of the Seal People, though almost any book of Scottish mythology will have a selkie story.

The Selkie

There was once a handsome young fisherman who could not find himself a wife. The island girls were pretty enough, but he felt something missing. Every day he took out his boat and set his lobster pots, and every night he sat alone in his cottage and watched the peat fire rise and fall.

One evening he heard soft laughter over the dunes. His footsteps silent on the sand, he crept closer. In the moonlight he saw a trio of women, all silvery hair and long limbs, dancing on the damp sand. One woman in particular captivated him. Her eyes were black as the night sea and her hair gleamed like starlight. He felt quite bewitched.

As he watched, the woman stepped over to the rocks, where sat a pile of greyish skins. They slid the skins up over their own pale limbs – and when the fisherman blinked, the women were gone, and three seals slid into the water.

The next night, the fisherman was waiting. When the women began their laughing dance, he crept to the rocks and snatched up one of the skins. He ran and hid it in a wooden box under his bed. When he returned, two of the women had disappeared, but the black-eyed selkie woman was still searching for her skin. She begged the fisherman to let her go home. But desire made him selfish. He promised that if she became his wife, he would love her and care for her and make her happy each day of her life. ‘You may love me,’ she replied, ‘but I can never be happy here.’

They married and had seven fine children. The fisherman loved his wife, and she grew fond of him. But every night she slid from her marriage bed to stand on the shore, gazing out at the water and mourning her lost home. The fisherman lay sleepless in the empty bed, the stolen skin beneath him.

One day their youngest son was exploring the house, and found the sealskin under the bed. He brought it to his mother and asked her, what was this strange thing, so soft and smelling of the sea? The boy knew nothing of his mother’s history; he was simply curious. The selkie kissed her children goodbye, slid on her true skin, and went home.

When the fisherman came back to the cottage, his children were fast asleep and stew bubbled on the fire – but his wife was gone. Fear shivered through him and he threw open the wooden box. It was empty, and with it his heart emptied too.

In time he learned to live a good life with his home and his children. But sometimes, late at night, he slid from his bed to gaze out at the water and mourn his lost love.

***

Women from the sea are often portrayed as sad and ultimately benevolent creatures – but not all of them! I’ve always been fascinated by mermaids – perhaps it’s the influence of the fabulous and terrifying Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which I was obsessed with as a child. In Scottish folklore, mermaids are often proud and vengeful. To me, this is much more interesting than the virtuous and self-sacrificing creature from the Hans Christian Anderson story. This version is adapted from a tale in Judy Hamilton’s Scottish Myths and Legends.

The Mermaid’s Revenge

There was a grand house, and inside it lived a wealthy couple, and outside it was a large black rock. The rock was worn to gleaming by the generations of mermaids who slid up on it to sing every night. The last mermaid was as vengeful as she was beautiful, and every night as the moon rose, she’d slide up onto the rock and sing her lonely song. Though the sound was eerie, the couple grew to enjoy it as a lullaby. But that changed when they had a child.

The baby slept fine during the day, but as soon as the mermaid began to sing, the child opened its tiny pink mouth and cried loud enough to wake the whole island. All night the mermaid sang, and all night the baby wailed. Finally, the desperate father braved the dark and walked out along the shore to the mermaid’s rock. He asked her, as politely as he could, to stop. The proud mermaid liked that not one bit. She turned her back and sang louder. Each time she was asked to stay quiet, she sang louder still.

The child’s mother grew desperate and delirious from lack of sleep. One morning she gathered a pack of men and ordered them to smash the shining rock. They worked all day with pickaxes and hammers until there was nothing left but a pile of jagged black stones.

That night, the mermaid’s fury was wild enough to sink ships. She opened her mouth – but instead of song, she shrieked a throatful of wild curses, prophesying the end of the family. Unseen in the nursery, the force of the sound began to rock the sleeping baby’s cradle to and fro, to and fro, hard enough to shake the house. When the last note of the mermaid’s terrible curse had died, the mother rushed upstairs – only to find the cradle upturned, and her child dead beneath it. Away swam the mermaid, her song made true.

***

When I first read the folktale of ‘The People of the Sea’, I couldn’t believe how similar it was to the basis of the world of The Gracekeepers. I’d already written the book by this point, so it couldn’t have been a direct influence, but the connection was undeniable. I put it down to some ingrained folk memory – or perhaps I heard the story as a small child, and although my conscious mind forgot it, the tiny beating heart of the tale stayed there inside me until I needed it.

This version is adapted from two variations of the legend in George W. MacPherson’s Celtic Sea Stories.

The People of the Sea

Down in the deep green sea, where all was silence and the world was lit murky, there lived the sea people. They were a strong and ancient people, who lived in elegant marble cities – but they were not happy. The changing tides were slowly destroying their homes, and their numbers were dwindling. Each time they launched an attack above the waves, trying to win some land to make a new home, they were beaten. The people of the land were too strong.

But the sea-king was wise. He gathered his people together and explained that they must try a new approach. ‘You will go ashore and join with the people of the land. You will adopt their customs and culture. But your heart will always belong to the sea.’

And so the people of the sea clambered ashore and became the people of the land. Being tall, slim and golden-haired, they married easily. They were excellent fisherfolk, strong swimmers, and sang beautiful lullabies of loss.

Not all the sea-people settled to their new way of life. They did not like the meat and bread, the sounds of the language, or the height of dizzying sky. Back they slipped into the sea.

But they had been away for too long to pick up their old lives. They could not be sea-people or land-people. So the sea-king said, ‘I will make you people of both’. Although they could live in land or sea, they could stay in neither place for too long. Every seven years, they had to change: sea to land, or land to sea. Some of their children loved the sea, and grew into great navigators or sailors; some loved the land, and became great sculptors or farmers. And what happened to the people who chose to stay under the sea? Well, perhaps they live there still.

Read more about The Gracekeepers here.

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. 

Wordandfilm.com
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.

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.

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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.

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