Bookspotting: Adam is reading The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House. adam maid Adam, Social Media and Digital Publishing for Vintage and Anchor books, is reading The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Find out more about the book here:  

From the Editor’s Desk: Kendra Levin, Senior Editor at Viking Children’s Books, on Dove Arising

Kendra Levin, Senior Editor
I have a confession to make:  reading isn’t my favorite part of being an editor. As much as I love discovering a wonderful manuscript, my favorite part of this job isn’t the books—it’s the authors.  I relish getting to know such a varied range of talented, creative people.  And they never fail to surprise me with their insights, their perspective, and the stories behind their stories. Karen Bao intrigued me before I even met her.  I had just read Dove Arising, her debut young adult novel, and was struck by its preternaturally confident voice. I had so many questions.  Had this chilling vision of the future really been woven by an eighteen-year-old?  How did she write a book this sophisticated—and during her senior year of high school, no less?  I’d been told she was also a concert violinist and was now at an Ivy League college studying biological sciences.  The book takes place on the moon, and I couldn’t help but wonder, Where in the universe did this teenage, hyper-achieving, deft writer come from? But when I first met Karen, it was clear she had both feet firmly planted on Earth.  Though she continued to shock me with her accomplishments (You wrote Dove Arising while waiting to hear back from colleges to take your mind off the anxiety?  This summer you read Anna Karenina for fun?), she was clearly, in many ways, a typical college student—hoping to get a good housing assignment, worrying about exams, and hanging out with her friends. And the better I got to know her, the more I got to peek behind the curtain and see the inspiration for the book.  Set on the moon a few centuries from now, Dove Arising is filled with technology and scientific principles pulled directly from Karen’s academic studies.  But the connection between real life and fiction goes even deeper than that. Dove Arising is the story of an introverted girl who gets thrust into the spotlight when her mother is arrested by the moon’s oppressive government. Karen told me she drew inspiration for the government of the Lunar Bases from her mother’s stories about her father, Karen’s grandfather.  When her mother was a young girl in China, her father, an academic, was sent to Mao Zedong’s “reeducation” camps for several years.  He came home a different man, and it forever changed their family. Karen’s mother shared this with her when Karen was a teen, and the story made a lasting impression.  And, as so many powerful emotions often do, it found its way into her fiction. This story moved me as much as the book itself.  And I thought, what an incredible tribute to Karen’s grandfather, for her to share his story in this fictitious format—to express herself in a way he was never permitted to, and use this novel to honor the very real-life battles that so many people have fought against oppression in our world. Hearing authors’ stories is a privilege, one that makes me feel so grateful to have this special job of being an editor. I’m thrilled to see Dove Arising take flight, but right now, Karen and I are focused on what’s next for us both:  editing the sequel! Start Reading an excerpt from Dove Arising!  
9780804197939 2

Deb Garrison, Senior Editor at Pantheon, on The Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown

The Stargazer’s Sister, Carrie Brown’s novel based on the life of Caroline (Lina) Herschel, the sister of the great 19th century astronomer William Herschel, and a noted astronomer herself, is my third project with Carrie and the first time we’ve worked on a historical novel together. In many respects this felt different, because of Carrie’s desire to be loyal to a life about which there is much on record—Lina Herschel has been the subject of biographies, alongside her brother—and to the actual stargazing they conducted. Carrie’s acknowledgments include a professor of physics and graduate students in the field, who helped her understand the mathematics of the brother-sister duo and the skies they observed with revolutionary results. Their success was due to, among other factors, William’s single-minded passion to build a telescope bigger than seemed possible—a wonderful episode in the novel where we see how truly remarkable it is when science is in the making: there are people who think of things that no one has thought of before and find ways to carry out their vision, despite the skepticism that surrounds them. I was awed by the world Carrie made vivid to me and at the same time, a good litmus test for the casual reader who may not have any particular interest in chasing comets but who cares deeply about women’s lives. Carrie’s job was to be historically accurate but to also help us understand the wonder of who Lina was—to invent a voice for her, and to create living episodes for this budding feminist. Lina was a career woman so much before her time that it seems ludicrous to use the term; she had a vocation, and made major sacrifices for it. She also sacrificed much to be by her brother’s side, to run his household in Bath, cooking and cleaning and keeping accounts for a thriving scientific enterprise that took place quite literally in the siblings’ backyard. As Carrie shows us, Lina had an unwavering if complex loyalty to William, who saved her from a life of misery at the hands of her aging and unhappy mother in Hanover, Germany. Because Lina was scarred and her growth stunted by typhus in her youth, she was not suitable to be married off; William recognized Lina’s superior intellectual gifts, paying for the ongoing care of his mother in order to free Lina from imprisonment as her caretaker and drudge-mate forever. What ensues is that she became his own caretaker and drudge-mate, yet also the necessary enabler of his genius—one mathematically gifted enough to work out the calculations needed to record what he sees in the skies during their obsessive and sometimes bone-chilling nightly observations. In The Stargazer’s Sister, Carrie moves the reader with a grace and insight similar to that of her previous Pantheon titles, The Rope Walk, about a ten-year-old girl losing innocence and discovering adult fallibility, and The Last First Day, about the wife of a beloved prep school headmaster. Whether historical or not, her novels expose the tenderness and uncertainty of female strength as it comes into being. Her interest in the female psyche and how it develops, is revealed to its bearer, and is bodied forth in true acts in the world, hovers between the lines throughout her work. Without caring especially for what shines in the sky (though Carrie does beautifully with the vastness of heaven, its treasures suddenly near to the eye for the first time in history), a reader can be fully riveted by Lina’s story – that of a girl with a curious and potent brain becoming a woman by following her entirely unique path. I am delighted to read the excellent reviews so far for this winning novel! Learn more about the book below!

Enter for a chance to win a copy of Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body, by Jo Marchant

Have you ever felt a surge of adrenaline after narrowly avoiding an accident? Salivated at the sight, or thought, of a sour lemon? If so, then you’ve experienced how dramatically the workings of your mind can affect your body. 

Jo Marchant
Jo Marchant, author of CURE: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body.

Discover why placebos, hypnosis, meditation, and prayer can help keep you healthy in Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body.

Enter the CURE SWEEPSTAKES to win a free copy of the book! The sweepstakes runs until Friday, February 12th, so don’t miss your chance! 

why 2

Writing Tips from Kristopher Jansma, author of Why We Came to the City

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!   How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? More often than not I start by trying to capture an inner voice or set of actions. As an exercise, I picture characters either sitting down or standing up, and spend a full page describing them. It gives me a chance to zoom in on small but significant details of their bodies and movements; before long I’m peering into their thoughts and feelings and imagining them moving around. You don’t want to introduce a character in a static way, like a model posed for a photograph. You want a reader to meet characters who appear busy going about their lives, which have gone on long before the story began and he or she arrived to observe them. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I wrote even before I wanted to be a writer. In early grade school my class had to write in one of those black-and-white-marbled journals every day after recess, and I would often write down things about the make-believe games that my friends and I had played outside—time spent becoming superheroes, slaying dragons, that sort of thing. One day in the fourth grade we were assigned a long-term substitute teacher because our first one had gotten sick, and this new teacher didn’t like that we were using journal time to write about “made-up stuff.” I didn’t even know what she meant by that. It was all perfectly real to me. Somehow I got nominated to take our side of the fight to the principal, and she completely surprised me by agreeing that it was important to write down the kinds of stories I loved. She compromised, giving us new journals with red covers and allowing us to write in them after we had written in the marble notebooks for five minutes. So that was that. My first schism between nonfiction and fiction, and my first moment of fighting for my art. Even then it wasn’t until I think the seventh grade that it really dawned on me that writing could be a job, that all these books I loved to read had been written by real people—and that I could someday write my own. What’s the best piece of advice you have received?  About writing? A few years ago I went to Princeton for the afternoon to read through some old unpublished stories and letters belonging to J. D. Salinger, the famous recluse. One of the letters, to his editor, was sent from either basic Army training or the Western Front. And Salinger said, of his own early stories, “I’m beginning to feel that no writer has the right to tear his characters apart if he doesn’t know how, or feel that he knows how (poor sucker) to put them together again. I’m tired . . . my God, so tired . . . of leaving them all broken on the page with just ‘The End’ written underneath.” And reading that just set something off in me. I realized that was all I knew how to do with fiction, and I immediately resolved to learn how to put them back together again. It changed everything for me. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? I think we all do that, whether consciously or unconsciously. Often a character may emerge as a thinly veiled version of someone I know, and then through the writing process that veil grows more and more substantial until the original person is nowhere to be found anymore. The funny thing about it is that I might borrow a few details about a character from the life of a friend, and often that friend is fine—and sometimes even flattered—if he or she ever notices. But I’ll also face situations when friends come up to me and say, “Oh, this character here is totally based on X, right?” and X will be a completely different friend, someone I had never thought about consciously. And yet I can see what they mean. . . . Learn more about Why We Came to the City below.
dark 2

Writing Tips from Alison Goodman, author of The Dark Days Club

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!   How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I have a particular method that I have used for a very long time now. I call it the portal method. The first step is to think of at least three important events that have happened in your character’s past. They can be good or bad, but they have to be significant. These are the portals through which you look when you are planning a particular scene. For instance, in The Dark Days Club, my main character, Lady Helen, lost both her parents when she was ten. They drowned on a yachting trip and their bodies were never found. So out of that comes a whole slew of character traits and information, all based on what I imagine would be the psychological consequences of that event. For example, the loss makes Helen feel a sense of abandonment, it has made the idea of family very important to her, she does not like doubt, and she has grown up to be quite cautious. When it comes time to writing a scene that has a link to family – perhaps between Helen and her brother – then some of those traits would come into play. I focus the scene through that “Family/Loss” portal. It provides a base line from which to build the character’s responses, and because these are fixed events in the character’s life they provide cohesiveness to the overall characterization. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I always start by researching – many, many months of reading books about my era and searching out primary resources. As I’m doing that, I’m also creating a storyboard and scene breakdown of the plot. Then, when I get to a certain stage in that process, I start writing the first chapter to test out the voice and tone. I keep rewriting that first chapter until I have the voice and tone in place, and I have worked out most of the main plot points on the storyboard. Then off I go, writing the novel. However, that does not mean the research or the storyboarding stops; they continue throughout the whole writing process. There are always delicious new facts to discover and blend into the narrative, and, as I move forward through the manuscript, the interaction between character and plot can sometimes create shifts in the storyline that require a rethink of action sequences or scene placement. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Every writer rewrites. The first thing that comes out of your mind may be good, but it is not finished. One of my bugbears is the notion that if something is going to be good, then it should arrive perfectly formed. That is absolute 19th century Romantic nonsense. That initial, wonderful rush of ideas is a great start, but the real work is in crafting all that excitement and energy into a meaningful emotional journey for the reader. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Fluid, suspenseful and slyly humorous. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?
  1. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I was about thirteen and had been dragged along to a dinner party by my parents. While the adults ate prawn cocktails, beef stroganoff and talked politics, I took refuge in the living room to finish The Outsiders. I ended up sobbing my eyes out in my borrowed bean-bag, partly because of the sad ending but mainly due to the realization that a good deal of my devastation had been created by the terrible beauty of the book’s circular structure. That’s when I truly wanted to become a writer.
  2. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. Again, I was twelve or thirteen years old. My mother always gave me a book for Christmas and this one came at exactly the right moment—I was ready for well-researched history and dashing romance. I was besotted by the exciting blend of adventure, humor, and buttoned-up characters coming undone by love.       This was the beginning of my love affair with the 18th and 19th centuries, which has now come into full bloom with The Dark Days Club!
  3. If On A Winters Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino. This was one of the texts I read in college. It is a postmodern masterpiece, and has everything you’d ever want to know about creating poignant relationship triangles in fiction, all explored in beautiful prose.
Learn more about The Dark Days Club below.
good 2

Writing Tips from Caroline Webb, author of How to Have a Good Day

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!   After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? My writing generally weaves together three strands of content. There’s some nugget of scientific research that I think is interesting and useful – maybe a study that I’ve just read about, or something which I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Then, I also want to be clear on the practical advice that’s implied by that scientific insight. But there’s also the story or example that illustrates the topic. And my route into a new article or chapter can be any of those three; I start with whichever piece feels easiest and most exciting to get down on paper. When it’s the anecdote, I usually focus first on scraps of vivid language that an interviewee or client has used to describe a difficult situation. For the science and the advice, I will usually write in bullet points first – what my consulting colleagues used to call a “dot-dash” – to check the flow of the argument and ideas before I start investing in the bounce and feel of the language. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Absolutely. One thing that really helps me is to put on large noise-cancelling headphones. They dampen ambient noise and reduce distraction, allowing me to think more clearly. But they’ve also become something I associate with really getting into deep thinking mode. As a result, simply putting them on sends a clear signal to me that I’m about to focus on my work – making it easier to dive in. (I write about the science behind this in chapter 3 of my book, for those who are interested!) And I’ve had three writing soundtracks in recent years. There was a period where the only thing I listened to was Haydn string quartets. For a long while, I’ve worked with a playlist of rather sparse and instrumental “deep house” music. (I think the two genres have a lot in common, but that’s for a different type of interview.) But sometimes nothing but silence will do. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I always loved writing as a kid – especially science fiction, which I imagine was a surprise for my English teachers in the 1970s – and I was editor of my college yearbook and newsletter. I drifted away from writing as I built a career in economics. But after a few years, I had a job which was as much about writing as thinking: authoring the Bank of England’s Inflation Report. This was a publication analyzing and describing the state of the economy, so the writing was dry – yet I still loved it. And I learned many things that have served me well as a non-fiction writer. For example, the publication was so influential that bad syntax in a key sentence might end up moving financial markets in the wrong direction – so I learned the value of precision and clarity, and I learned what made a sentence easy or hard to read. (We even had to put our writing through a computer program to test the reading age required to understand it.) After reconnecting with my love of writing, I took every opportunity to write in real sentences rather than relying on PowerPoint slides. And once I’d written a couple of articles for the McKinsey Quarterly, I realized that it was time to bring writing back into the center of my life. That’s when I started work on the book, writing a four-page outline of something I wouldn’t finish for another four years. What’s the best writing advice that you have received? Lynda Gratton (Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, and author of 8 successful books) told me early in the process of writing my book that I would eventually need to make it my full-time job – at least for a few months. She was right; there really does come a point where you simply have to stop doing absolutely everything else, and say “right now, I am a writer, and my job is to write.” And her advice helped me recognize when it was time to disappear into the writing bunker. Meanwhile, Matt Lieberman (neuroscience professor at UCLA and author of Social) told me to look after myself physically while writing, reminding me to see exercise as an investment in my mental and emotional sharpness. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? At least four books encouraged me toward writing How to Have a Good Day. Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. To see such a book capture people’s imagination made me excited that behavioral economics was coming of age. Moreover, I saw that it was possible to make academically rigorous material fun and engaging. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. I loved the cross-disciplinary approach of this wise book, drawing from psychology and neuroscience and even ancient philosophy. Also, my husband wooed me with it – it was the first present he ever bought me. Your Brain at Work, by David Rock. This put neuroscience in the context of the workplace, and it was the first book that I’d seen do that. Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. It was inspiring to see that such deep scientific concepts could excite a broad general audience. It helped too that I had heard him say that he’d found it tough to write the book. Since he’s a brilliant Nobel Prize laureate, that made me feel that it was okay for me to experience the occasional rough patch! And of course, it was all worth it. (I’m sure he feels that too.) Learn about how to Have a Good Day here.

Bookspotting: Kelli is reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House. Kelli Kelli, in Crown production, is reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz. Find out more about the book here: