On Tuesdays, I conduct interviews with writers on Twitter (5 Q, 5 A, 1400 characters). I call them #twitterviews, because I'm unoriginal. A little while back, I had the pleasure of chatting with someone who is very original. Sara Lippmann attended an Ivy League school, got an MFA from The New School, published in multiple journals and magazines, and landed herself a co-hosting gig at Sunday Salon. And, as if that's not enough, she is also a wife, mother, and the author of one of the best collections of short fiction I've stumbled across in a while: Doll Palace.
Question 1: Any advice on how to keep peace between my daughters (the American Girl fanatic and the feminist)?
Question 2: Was your focus on that which isolates us and/or connects us as humans a conscious or more organic choice?
Question 3: What do you think you are best at as a writer?
Question 4: You make some killer TV references ... ever see yourself writing for television?
Question 5: Who has made the biggest impression on you at Sunday Salon?
You can follow Sara @saralippmann. You should drop everything you are doing (unless you are holding a child) and go immediately to purchase your very own copy of Doll Palace. It is transportive, atmospheric, genius.
"Hit line, move on."
On Tuesdays, I post Twitter interviews I've done with writers (5 questions, 5 answers, 1400 characters). I call them #twitterviews. Recently, I had the honor of sitting down (figuratively) with Charles Dodd White. It was the longest of my #twitterviews (it took about a week), because, unlike me, Charles Dodd White obviously has better things to do than watch his Twitter feed. And we should all thank him for that, because one of those things is write amazing books. He has published the short story collection, Sinners of Sanction County, and the novel, Lambs of Men. His most recent novel is A Shelter of Others, and it may well be one of the best books of 2014. White has been a Marine, a fishing guide, and a journalist. He currently lives in Knoxville, TN, where he teaches at Pellissippi State Community College.
Question 1: If writers got nicknames ... ?
Question 2: Is Shakespeare a conscious influence on your writing?
Question 3: How do you feel about genre labels?
Question 4: How do you approach choosing a title?
Question 5: What has been the best part about teaching at a community college?
I cannot possibly stress enough how great this book is. Whatever you are doing, wherever you are, stop. Go buy this book and begin reading it. You be glad you did.
"I'm a hardline minimalist at heart."
--Charles Dodd White
My favorite genre is not mystery or noir or thriller or Southern Gothic ... or any of the things that it probably should seem to be, based on my own writings and any list of favorite novels I would ever make. My favorite genre is too specific to even be a genre. I like smart, gritty mystery novels with a poetic sense of purpose. Yeah, it's rare. But with Timothy Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series, I have found it yet again. The latest in the series, For the Dead, was released earlier this month from Soho Crime. While I strongly recommend going back to the beginning (A Nail Through the Heart), Hallinan does a masterful job of driving the plot without the need for backstory. And, even more impressive, he manages to draw an uninitiated reader into the characters and develop those characters within the confines of this one book. So the story works both narratively and thematically. Poke Rafferty has a long line of the dead in his life, but we need not know the names to understand his choice not to live for them.
The action of For the Dead takes place in Bangkok, when American travel writer Poke Rafferty has been living there for seven years. He has settled into a normal life (normal for Poke, anyway) with his ex-stripper wife, Rose, and their adopted-from-the-streets daughter, Miaow. But, when Miaow turns to her old street-wise ways to secure a stolen iPhone for her boyfriend, normal becomes a few fleeting chapters lost somewhere in the beginning of an avalanche of a book. Miaow's stolen phone contains the photos of a couple of dead cops. And the mystery of their murders contains a conspiracy reaching deep into Bangkok's past. Although the "big bad" and the ending fell ever-so-slightly contrived (by Hallinan standards), the feeling of closure and redemption will make the reader quickly forget any feelings of disappointment. And the novel reads so beautifully, plot is always a distant second anyway.
Although the easy comparison to make with Poke Rafferty novels is John Burdett, I see another, more apt comparison for Timothy Hallinan's writing. Reed Farrel Coleman has been called the "hard-boiled poet" for his striking narratives of crime and loss and suspense. Hallinan is right there with him. There is poetry on every page. There is thought in the choice of each word, whether it is the description of a river in a dream or the description of a brutal murder. Hallinan is operating on a level with few other crime writers.
Tuesday is for #twitterviews. Via Twitter, I ask writers 5 questions, they give 5 answers, and we keep it all under 1400 characters (for the most part). Today, we hear from Joshua Harmon, author of the essay collection, The Annotated Mixtape, and the short story collection, History of Cold Seasons, both released from Dzanc Books on November 11th. Prior to these two titles, he has also released a novel, Quinnehtukqut; a collection of poetry, Scape; and the winner of the 2010 Akron Poetry Prize, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie. Harmon lives in western Massachusetts, and he has more recent pictures than this. But I liked that it gave the feeling of a reclusive, prolific writer who hasn't been photographed in years (he has). Recently, we sat down (metaphorically, via Twitter) and discussed mixtapes, the transportive nature of music, and his self-described dilettantish writing. I even let him cheat a couple of times, because, come on, anyone who produces as much great writing as this guy can't be contained by 1400 characters.
Question 1: What was your most embarrassing mixtape?
Question 2: How does music help shape your landscapes as a writer?
Question 3: What made you choose the group narrator for the (brilliant) short story, "Rope"?
Question 4: Are there any songwriters you feel like are transcending into the world of poetry?
Question 5: Do you prefer one type of writing (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) more than others?
You're going to have to trust me when I say that everything this guy writes is amazing. He jumps around into several different mediums and genres, so odds are, you might be thinking that one of the above mentioned titles is not your normal cup o' whiskey. Again, trust me. Joshua Harmon has a way with the written word. He'll sell you on whatever it is he's writing. The Annotated Mixtape is, for my money, as good a place as any to start. It's fun, it's fascinating, and it's beautifully written. But, from there, simply enjoy the long, winding, and only beginning bibliography of probably the most enjoyable #twitterviews subject I've had thus far (no offense to anyone, but we had a pretty good time with this one).
I realize going in that this one is a little dated. This book originally came out in 2012 from Dzanc Books. However, the paperback version was released just this summer, and I feel like it is an under-read, under-appreciated gem of a book. The Festival of Earthly Delights tells the story of American abroad Boyd Darrow and his journey to the fictional Southeast Asian country of Pachai with his cheating girlfriend/fake wife, Ulla. The novel is written as a series of journal entry letters to Hap (an unseen character whose identity becomes apparent as the narrative grows). It is a novel unlike anything I can remember reading, and it has stuck with me in ways that can bring back a little inward chuckle at pretty much any given moment. And, it's currently only $4.07 for Amazon Prime members. Four dollars. I promise it is worth four of your dollars. And, I'll bet four dollars that, after reading it, you will be on board with me to start a campaign urging Dojny to release a new book ASAP.
In this, his debut novel, Dojny conjures a little Saul Bellow in his fine use of the epistolary form. For a more modern comparison, Jonathan Tropper comes to mind, simply as another writer who can write fiction that is this funny. Thematically, though, it has a lot of Vonnegut floating around on the edges. Dojny never delves into lofty ruminations concerning motivations. The Festival of Earthly Delights is true to its title (however sarcastic that title may be). From his flee from New York (in an attempt to get Ulla away from "the White Sikh" she has been making out with) to the culminating titular event, Boyd Darrow is our Everyman--he is not some idealized version of ourselves, nor is he a mealy-mouthed pussy who makes us examine the fear in our own hearts. He's just a guy. He's a funny guy to whom we can connect in very real ways. And Dojny drags him though enough situations, ranging from whimsical to heartbreaking to hysterical, for us to come to love him and his journey into adulthood.
It bears mentioning, also, the event that brought this brilliant novel back to my attention. Dojny's latest project is a Tumblr called Hiphop Is the Future. I stumbled across it while perusing the Interwebs, and thought, I know that name. Then the book came back to me with a grin before I got lost in a rabbit hole of drawings. He posts a drawing a day, mostly sketches bordering on single-shot Farside-esque cartoons. The drawings sometimes resemble some of the sketches from The Festival of Earthly Delights. They are often hilarious, usually non sequitur, always worth checking out.
Tuesday is for #twitterviews. Via Twitter, I ask writers 5 questions, they give 5 answers, and we keep it all under 1400 characters. Today, we hear from Steph Post, author of the A Tree Born Crooked. Post lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She is a teacher, a dog lover, and (as of recently) a best-selling author. Yesterday, we had a run of tweets that covered everything from the Steph Post Floridian crest to our mutual love for Justified. And we talked about her book some in between there.
Question 1: What does Steph Post Florida look like?
Question 2: What led you to choose your main character (out of a sea of interesting characters)?
Question 3: What do you do to shine some ray of light into your dark, gritty literary settings?
Question 4: How do you approach violent scenes?
Question 5: What is your favorite Boyd Crowder moment on Justified?
A Tree Born Crooked is available on multiple sites via Pandamoon Publishing. If you'll buy a copy, Steph will agree to post a picture of your dog on multiple social media sites. Follow her @StephPostAuthor.
"There is beauty in absolutely everything. I try to pull it out ... and let it burn."
When Dolan Morgan's brilliantly creative collection of short stories, That's When the Knives Come Down, opens, the future has been infested with goats. Yep, goats. Luckily for future us, Mr. Hunter knows about getting rid of things. Like his wife, Jenna. And as Morgan writes, "Something not being there at all is much different from something first being there and then not being there." Such is the central driving force of "Infestation," the collection's first story. It's a story that makes us painfully aware of everything in our lives that is gone.
And that's exactly what Morgan does. He makes us painfully aware of what has been missing in our lives: Dolan Morgan. From his first sentence ("It ended."), Morgan draws us deep within his world of the weird. This is bizarro fiction at its best. It reminded me of D. Harlan Wilson (in a good way). But what Morgan does takes a giant leap (in my opinion) above bizarro (still weird, but a definite notch). Morgan takes fantastical situations, such as a sound that overtakes the greatest city in the world, and he shoves them in our faces in such a way that we must take take notice. He uses his dose of the surreal like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of our own reality go down. And he unflinchingly examines the holes that exist in those realities. Like the best weird literature, it's only through such unbelievable situations like a tale of a man propositioning his furniture that we can ever possibly believe the extreme hilarity and sadness of our own lives. Something not being there at all is much different from something first being there and then not being there.
The important thing to note is that this book is three very important things. It is, first and foremost, f'ing hilarious. There is a wit in Morgan's writing that often reminded me of the best Joseph Heller (as in, "I'd rather have peanut brittle crumbs on my face than flies in my eyes," Joseph Heller). Secondly, it holds the proverbial mirror up. Throughout the collection, my brain made countless connections between the stories (like songs on a good concept album), but I also made connections to my own life. It made me think about me--and isn't that all of our favorite subjects (ourselves ... not me). And finally, I have a friend who has long talked about how reading Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger, always inspires him to write. This is fiction that can inspire. Morgan has created worlds which may not make us want to go there (in fact, some send us retreating in horror from those very places in our actual lives), but he definitely makes us appreciate the value in creating worlds. He shows us what words can do, and that is inspirational. That's When the Knives Come Down is Dolan Morgan's first published collection. It is available on multiple sites through Aforementioned Productions. Be nice, buy it twice.
Starting today, I'll be doing interviews with writers on Tuesdays via Twitter. I ask 5 questions, they give 5 answers, and we keep it all under 1400 characters. We kick off with David Joy, author of the upcoming Where All Light Tends to Go. Joy lives in North Carolina and was a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award and the Ragan Old North State Award for Creative Nonfiction before turning his talents onto novels and landing a deal with Putnam for Where All Light Tends to Go (2015) and Waiting on the End of the World (2016).
Question 1: National Novel Writing Month or No Shave November?
Question 2: What is the book about?
Question 3: Why choose to write in 1st person?
Question 4: Are there settings other than Appalachia we might see show up in your novels?
Question 5: If writers had the equivalent of cover songs, whom would you "cover?"
The book is Where All Light Tends to Go. It is currently available for pre-order on multiple sites. Be nice, buy it twice. David Joy is the writer, and he couldn't possibly be a better guy. You can follow him @DavidJoy_Author, and you should.
"Shaving is for swimmers."
Dude, we have officially reached some sort of fevered pitch. Thursday night has one of the best runs of classic haunted house movies I have ever seen. Turner Classic Movies, starting at 7PM (CST), is rolling through House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, The Haunting (probably the best of the bunch, based on the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House), and Burnt Offerings. And, in the prime spot (for scary movies, at least) of 8:30 is The Legend of Hell House. It is based on the novel, Hell House, by Richard Matheson, who also wrote the screenplay.
But there is Halloween just exploding all over your television tonight. ABC Family is showing Dark Shadows, which is terrible ... don't waste your time. Syfy is showing the Jessica Biel Texas Chainsaw Massacre, also terrible. ABC has It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, you know, if you have to watch TV with your kids or something. Even MTV2 (MTV2!) is showing Jeepers Creepers (the first one ... not one of the crappy ... oh, who am I kidding, it doesn't matter). And, of course, FXX still has Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons happening.
But your choices are really two. At 8PM (CST), AMC is showing the original Halloween. It's requisite viewing. It's like A Christmas Story or It's a Wonderful Life. Just do your duty as an American and watch it. Leading up to that, from 6 - 8, the Fox Movies channel is showing Signs. Don't you roll your eyes. Not only is it the best M. Night Shyamalan movie, hands down, but it also packs a scare. If you don't think it fits in this category, just look at that picture. If you've seen the movie, you know what's about to happen.
Not to come across like, TV is the new books, but I do believe that television has been the clearest window into popular culture for the past few decades. And I also believe that many of our would-be-best novelists are writing television—for multiple reasons, such as the immediacy of impact and the serial story-telling format. So in a “chicken-egg” scenario, TV reflects pop culture, which drives literature (or vice-versa). TV of the 90s gave us mopey Zeitgeists (Dawson), observational humor (Seinfeld), and lots of first world white guy problems (Dawson and Seinfeld). Some of the better books of that decade included Ghost World/High Fidelity, Naked (Sedaris), and Fight Club. Art imitating art imitating life, in some order.
So as we move through the 2000s and into the “whatever we call these” (can we start saying teens yet?), we seem to be entering a Golden Age of television. I suppose Twin Peaks begat The Sopranos begat The Wire, but after the pinnacle of The Wire, quality TV exploded all over us. And with the rise of the anti-hero in TV, we have seen the rise of the anti-hero in literature—with influences bouncing back and forth between the two. One fun blog pastime, if you’ve been keeping up, is to play: If you like Mad Men, you’ll like Revolutionary Road … or The Walking Dead > The Enemy. With Steph Post’s debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, we finally have our answer to, If you like Justified …
A Tree Born Crooked tells the story of James Hart, who returns to Crystal Springs, Florida, to presumably bury his father. Instead, he gets pulled by the stained white tank top into his brother’s life of petty crime. James faces down the Alligator Mafia in an attempt to save his brother, Rabbit; and he faces down his hometown—back roads, chipped teeth, dirty whiskey glass, and all—in attempt to, at the very least, understand what it is he’s been running from since the day he came of age and bolted.
Obviously, for fans of the show, the world Post creates is wonderfully similar to the Florida of the Crowes in Justified’s fifth season. But, more importantly, Post is doing several things here that good television does. First and foremost, she gives us a pitch-perfect anti-hero. James Hart has all the tortured, flawed, but charismatic touchstones of some of our TV favorites: a little Don Draper charm, a lot of the flippant attitude of Raylan Givens, and even a touch of Walter White’s desire set off a bomb within his own life.
But there is something else in those shows and here in this wonderful debut novel. There is an embrace of genre. In TV, we have seen mystery, sci-fi, crime all handled with the care of a literary touch. In the wrong hands, Mad Men is a steamy, sappy soap opera. Similarly, in the wrong hands, A Tree Born Crooked is B-fiction ... a dime store novel of gritty characters playing dangerous games. But Post takes a crime novel and infuses it with her own literary touch. And, though it does contain a break-neck plot on par with Pelecanos and Burke, Post's debut is, at its heart, a gut-wrenching inner struggle between a pitch perfect anti-hero and his demons ... his crooked branches.
What we are left with as readers is much like what we are currently all loving in the best television: we have a celebration of pure genre gold crafted by the literary hand of a truly great writer. Steph Post has written a beautiful book, and you should all immediately stop reading this and go read A Tree Born Crooked.