An Interview with Michael Blanding, Author of The Map Thief

Yesterday, I reviewed Mr. Blanding’s newest book, The Map Thief. Mr. Blanding graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Map Thief? What was the writing process like?

Michael Blanding Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

Michael Blanding
Author Photograph (c) Kevin Day Photography

MB: I have always been interested in maps, and was struck by Smiley’s story when I first read it in the New Yorker back in 2006. I was fascinated by how much people were willing to pay for antiquarian maps and how Smiley was able to exploit that desire for these rare objects in perpetrating his thefts. When I heard he was out of prison in 2011, I approached him for an interview and found him very willing to talk and tell his story. As I started working on the book, however, he suddenly stopped cooperating, and I had to work hard to report around him through other dealers and libraries in order to piece together the story. It added a lot more work to the writing and reporting — so that it eventually took me three years in all.

Writing the book clearly involved a great deal of research into the world of maps; is there a particular cartographic time period or geographical region that was a favorite with you?

photo (82)MB: As a lifelong resident of New England, I was fascinated to learn about the early settlement of this region by the English in the1600s. Smiley was also a New England native and specialized in this period, and so I was able to learn a lot from the maps he traded and eventually stole… At the time, the Dutch “golden age” of mapmaking was waning and the English were the upstarts in colonizing the area — so their first maps are very crude. But very quickly over the course of the century you can see them filling in details and creating more accurate depictions of the area as their knowledge and power increased. It’s very cool to see that happen right on the pages of these maps and atlases.

Many of the events of The Map Thief take place in the Northeast, and the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library figures prominently in the book. Since you are a Boston-area-based writer, can you recommend any other locations in Boston where new cartophiles might find interesting maps to peruse?

MB: Interestingly, before Smiley started stealing maps, he was a successful map dealer for many years — and his first and most important client was Boston real estate developer Norman Leventhal. Over the years, Smiley helped him acquire the largest collection of maps of Boston and New England ever assembled. While Leventhal eventually donated money to endow the map center at the Boston Public Library, he kept the rarest and most valuable maps in his possession — and they can now be viewed in a permanent exhibit at the Boston Harbor Hotel. The exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse at the history of Boston on multiple walls of its lobby and conference rooms, and I really recommend it to visitors of the city.

Given the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in his self-portrayal, would you be interested in interviewing E. Forbes Smiley III again if he decided to grant interviews once more? Do you think there’s anything left to be gleaned there?

MB: Though Smiley gave me a lot of information about himself and his thefts in the six hours he spoke with me, there were still pieces of the story he promised to tell me before he cut off contact — including exactly how he stole the maps and which maps he stole when. I was able to piece much of this information together from other sources, but still had to speculate on some ofthe chronology of the thefts. I would have liked to go through this chronology in more detail and cross-reference it with information he provided to the FBI to try and pin down these details.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

MB: I don’t have another book project as of yet, but I am working on some interesting magazine stories, including an article for WIRED magazine about issues surrounding electronics manufacturing overseas. I’m also putting together a proposal for a new book that combines investigative reporting and memoir — we’ll see if that comes together! At the moment, though, I’m very excited to work on publicizing The Map Thief through media and speaking events — and finally sharing my baby with the world after three years of work.

My thanks again to Mr. Blanding for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about The Map Thief and Michael Blanding’s work at www.michaelblanding.com

If you’re in the Boston area, head over to the Brookline Booksmith on June 3 from 7-9pm for a reading, reception, and signing with Michael Blanding. 

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An Interview with Jeff Burger, Editor of Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters

On Monday I reviewed Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, edited by Jeff Burger. Mr. Burger graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

Would you tell us a little about how you selected the interviews included in Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen

Jeff Burger Photo Credit: Andre Burger

Jeff Burger
Photo Credit: Andre Burger

JB: With difficulty. Though the Zen Buddhists called Cohen “Jikan,” meaning “the silent one,” he sure gave lots of interviews. I included about 50 and was being offered new ones even after I wrapped up this project. I tried to incorporate material that covered as many years and as much fresh turf as possible. I didn’t reject interviews that have been published before if they contained important insights—I saw value in having as many good conversations as possible all in one place, in chronological order—but I did give some priority to rare and previously unavailable material.

Readers may know that you are an often-published music journalist. How did your preparation for this project differ from your approach to review and interview projects?

JB: This was completely different. For interviews and certainly for reviews and commentaries, you rely largely on your own imagination and views; this project required a bit less creativity on my part and a lot more research. Finding the material was part one; then of course, I had to secure permission to use it, which wasn’t always easy with regard to pieces that appeared decades ago in long-defunct publications. A lot of detective work was involved but it was satisfying to wake up in the morning and find an email from a writer I’d been trying to locate for months.

photo 1 (17)How long did it take to put together this collection? Was the process similar to the one you undertook for Springsteen on Springsteen, which you also edited?

JB: It took me the better part of a year, working virtually every night and much of every weekend. (I have an understanding family.) Yes, it was quite similar to the process with Springsteen on Springsteen, which was helpful: I learned a lot from doing that book, and what I learned made this one much easier than it otherwise would have been.

Before you started work on Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, did you have a favorite Leonard Cohen song, or book, for that matter? If so, did you learn anything surprising about that favorite song or work?

JB: I’ve been a fan of Cohen’s music since college and have a bunch of favorite songs, ranging from early classics like “So Long, Marianne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” to “Hallelujah,” “In My Secret Life,” “Tower of Song” and the recent “Going Home.” I already knew a fair amount about these particular songs but I learned all sorts of surprising facts about Cohen from these interviews. For me, though, the most interesting thing was simply to observe how his thoughts, circumstances and personality evolved slowly over five decades.

After reading all these interviews, is there a question or question that you’d like to ask Leonard Cohen yourself?

I could probably formulate a few if the opportunity presented itself, but nothing immediately comes to mind. As noted above, Cohen has been interviewed extensively over many years, and the answers to just about anything I might want to ask are already in my book.

What’s next on your writing and editing horizon? 

I have a full-time job running a magazine and, on the side, I do a little writing on music and other subjects, mostly these days for TheMortonReport.com, NoDepression.com and my own website, byjeffburger.com. As for another book, I may well put together a third musician interview collection but not immediately. I need to take a break and spend some time with the family.

My thanks again to Mr. Burger for his time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Jeff Burger on his website, byjeffburger.com.

An Interview with Andy Weir, Author of The Martian

Yesterday I reviewed Andy Weir’s debut novel, The Martian. Mr. Weir graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

Andy Weir; Photo (c) Andy Weir

Andy Weir; Photo (c) Andy Weir

When you were writing The Martian, how did writing and science go hand-in-hand? Did you stop to make calculations as the plot came along, or did you have the science planned out parallel to the plot? Or did you have another method altogether?

AW: I did a lot of stuff in advance. But as specific plot points came up I usually had to get much more detailed information. So there was pretty much constant research throughout the process. 

What kinds of books did you read while you were writing, if any? Survival stories? Sci-fi? Nonfiction about the space program?

AW: I actually didn’t read much at all during that period. I had a full time job during the day and I was sinking most of my spare time in to writing. I just didn’t have the time for other leisure activities.

What would be on your data stick if you were headed to Mars? For that matter, what’s on Watney’s?

AW: It’s funny, but I never defined what was on Watney’s data stick. Presumably not a lot of entertainment; probably botany papers and articles. As for me, I guess I’d want tons of TV shows and movies.

photo (74)You dedicated The Martian to your mom and dad; how did they support your scientific and creative inclinations when you were growing up?

AW: Dad and I would make model moon-bases and such when I was a kid. And his collection of classic sci-fi paperbacks is what got me interested in the genre. Mom always pushed me to take my shot at writing. It’s kind of backwards from the usual dynamic. I was usually the one saying I need to be cautious and have a stable career and Mom was encouraging me to take a chance.

What would wisecracking, ingenious (and sweet) Mark Watney give his mom for Mother’s Day before taking off on a mission to Mars?

AW: I hate to cop out, but if I were going to write that in to a book, I would engineer a sweet backstory for the present. Some childhood story that makes a mundane item the perfect gift for his Mom. Off the top of my head: When he was a little kid, he wanted an expensive toy. His mom got it for him and he immediately broke it and she was mad. He found it later in an old box. Knowing his mother is worried sick about him going on the mission, he repaired the toy (he’s good at that sort of thing). He gives it to her and asks her to hold on to it for him till he’s back. 

After the success of The Martian, what’s next on your writing horizon?

AW: I’m working on my next book. I’m keeping the details quiet at the moment because I haven’t pitched it to the publisher yet. I’d like them to hear about it from me first.

My thanks again to Mr. Weir for his time and his thoughtful answers.

An Interview with Mark Wunderlich, Author of The Earth Avails

Yesterday I reviewed Mark Wunderlich’s new book, The Earth Avails. Mr. Wunderlich graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How did The Earth Avails come together as a collection? How did you go about putting the poems in order?

Mark Wunderlich Photo (c) Nicholas Kahn

Mark Wunderlich
Photo (c) Nicholas Kahn

MW: I knew early on which poems I wanted as the first and last poems in the collection.  I opened with a poem which I think of as perhaps one of the only unadulteratedly happy poems I’ve written as it describes walking out into the natural world and feeling fully alive.  The book ends with a sort of extended argument with God, in which the speaker gives over control to a God whose attention is elsewhere, and who is ambivalent to the suffering happening on earth.  This is not a new or original argument to have, but I felt to compelled to have it anyway.  In between these two bookends, I chose and ordered the poems to create variation, modulation of tone and subject.

About half the poems in The Earth Avails take the form of prayers or “heaven letters”; who is the “you” addressed in these poems?

MW: The second person to whom many of the poems are addressed is God.  Mind you, I’m not a believer.  There is no deity. So the God I’m addressing is an emotional and intellectual construct–the center around which I wound a long skein of rhetoric and heightened speech which are poems.  Though I don’t believe in a deity, I do believe in the mystery and glory of the natural world, and I am regularly in awe of it.  The natural world is full of such intelligence, so many patterns and complex interactions, and in my mind these are sacred.  The God in The Earth Avails is a conflation of a Christian God (whom I beg, praise, admonish, flatter and to whom I complain and sometimes eroticize), and my own notions of that which is sacred.

Readers may know that you teach writing and literature at Bennington College. How has teaching affected your writing?

photo (70)MW: I am lucky in that teaching is my vocation–my calling.  I love being in the classroom, and I love teaching my students at Bennington.  Just this week, I was introducing Leaves of Grass to a class of undergraduates at Bennington, and I could see on their faces that the work was opening up to them, and that it was becoming their own–their inheritance.  I teach a variety of writing and literature courses–literature to undergraduates, and writing courses to graduate students–and both sustain me in various ways, particularly because I have a great deal of freedom as to what I teach and how I teach it.  Teaching has allowed me to continue my education and to read more deeply, and teaching also requires that you articulate you thoughts.  As a teacher of writing, I think a great deal about the mechanics of writing, particularly syntax, and the ways in which that influences forms of poetic expression.  I have learned to break down the different components of poems in order to explain them to other people.  These activities have made me a better writer.  That said, teaching takes a great deal of energy–energy not spent on one’s own poems.  Sometimes I do feel as though I am burning my own work so someone else might write theirs, but that’s a false notion.  One can always find twenty minutes.

“Sand Shark” brought to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” and The Earth Avails is a collection keenly attentive to the natural world. Were you influenced by any nature writers in particular as you were working on these poems? How do you envision poetry’s role in preserving the natural world?

MW: I spent a lot of time reading Virgil’s Georgics as I worked on this book.  I love the sweetness and melancholia of those poems, and I love the ways in which he explains various agricultural tasks and husbandry in poetic form.  He was one of my primary literary influences with this book.  I am also completely entranced by Jorie Graham’s most recent book called Place, in which she contemplates, among other things, the degradation of the environment.  As for the role poetry might play in preserving the natural world, I’m not sure it’s a significant one.  If only it were! Poems can expand our sense of the importance of a subject by creating in readers a greater sense of mystery.  Poems, by applying language to the world, can heighten our sense and also name those things we admire or are moved by, but that heretofore were unsaid or unspoken. I’m afraid, however, that the larger forces that hold sway in the material world–global capitalism and the petroleum economy–are much too powerful.  I’m afraid we are past the point of no return, as far as the level of greenhouse gasses we have put into the atmosphere. The problem is so large and there are so many contrary demands and desires in play that I’m afraid we’ve passed the point of no return.  The future–as far as climate change goes–does not look good for us.  The title of my book, however, is a tiny reminder that the earth itself is indifferent.  The earth will last, but the current patterns of the climate, the current forms of life may not.  The earth will win out.  We will be the ones to lose.

What kinds of projects are you working on now?

MW: It’s spring now, so I’m gardening.  I’m looking after my beehives.  I’m teaching and traveling to give readings.  I’m grading countless student essays.  As far as writing goes, I have a nonfiction project in the works which stems from my travels to places north of the Arctic Circle.  I’m also trying to write new poems.

My thanks again to Mr. Wunderlich for his time and his thoughtful answers.

An Interview with Michelle Huneven, Author of Off Course

Yesterday I reviewed Michelle Huneven’s beautifully-crafted new novel, Off Course. Ms. Huneven graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Off Course? What was the writing process like?

Michelle Huneven (c) Karen Tapia

Michelle Huneven
(c) Karen Tapia

MH: As often happens with me, I started out with one book in mind, but another one happened.  I had wanted to write a novel that charted a woman’s life from childhood to a version of stable adulthood with some years en route spent lost to trouble. Well, that book didn’t happen.  In Off Course, I started right where my heroine,  Cressida Hartley, at age 28, turns off the beaten path.  She’s at a perilous, vulnerable stage, when she’s done with school and about to set forth in life.  She should be settling into a career and making at least general decisions about marriage and family. But first, she has to write her dissertation. For whatever reason, she can’t get going on it. She just can’t.  She makes herself ever-available to distraction and gets lured away from her friends, family, and self. Or, to quote the epigraph, “demons arrive singly and in droves, often taking the form of men.”

In terms of process, I  tried something new with Off Course, which was to write a certain number of words a day. 1000, I think, which is a lot. Too many.  This was not an effective method for me.  To meet my daily goal, I wrote a lot of dreck, some of which stuck to the book for a long time and interfered with plot and shaping. Also, I had to go back and fix every damn sentence. Did forcing myself to produce at such a rate prove a worthwhile exercise for my imagination?  No.
The setting for much of the novel sometimes seems like another character in Off Course. How did you decide to set the novel in the Sierras?

photo (68)MH: My parents had a cabin high up in the Southern Sierras, so it was a geography and community with which I was deeply familiar. I went up to the cabin as a kid, although not with the strict regularity that Cress’s parents dragged her to their A-frame.  I also lived in our cabin briefly when I was trying to write my first novel.

I disliked going to the cabin as a child; I appreciated the landscape more when I lived there as a young adult, even though that wasn’t the happiest time of my life.  But I loved going back there in my mind all the years and months that I was writing Off Course.  The landscape, with its rocks and trees, trails and wild animals, was all there in memory, just waiting to be closely observed.

I did try to go back to the area a few years ago to do research for the book, but a freak snowstorm in May forced me to turn back at 6000 feet.
Cress’s graduate work is in economics, and her dissertation focuses on art in the marketplace. Are readers meant to think of the mountainside community as a kind of marketplace, too, with commodities beyond those merely bought and sold?

MH: The mountain community certainly had its own a singular, improvisational economy. It was tricky for anyone to make a living up there, but then again, for some of my characters, it was the only kind of place where they could make a go of it. The developer of The Meadows was a here-today, gone-tomorrow drunk, but because he was the only person selling property up there, customers had to deal with him.  The fellow who ran the lodge (who charged customers whatever he felt like) and the contractor who built vacation homes (and sometimes overran his bids by more than 100%) could not have stayed in business had there been any, more viable businesses to compete with them.

To get closer to your question— this community seems to be a place where all bets are off.  There’s a whiff of the numinous, of ether, a high altitude queasiness and an out-of-time holiday hilarity that allows certain emotional and financial transactions to occur there, antics that might be out of the question at lower elevations.  One of my readers happily described life on the mountain as “an all day sex party.” Another described it as “an erotic eden.” Both comments point to a rarefied atmosphere where there’s a certain relaxation of inhibitions and a willingness to work the margins of romantic possibility.

Readers may not know that in addition to being a novelist, you’re also a journalist and food writer. If you were choosing a meal to complement a reading of Off Course, what would be on the menu?

MH: Oh gosh—nothing very good for you! We’d start with a bowl of pozole: a clear fragrant broth made from pork, chicken, and chiles, with bits of meat and  plump multicolored kernels of hominy.  Dinner itself would be a pot roast simmered all day in beer with masses of onions.  I’d serve it with chard or kale sauteed—just this once–with bacon.  There would be buttermilk biscuits with sweet butter and a green salad dressed with local olive oil—although to be truer to the spirit of mountain life, you’d probably toss it with that weirdly-flecked Wishbone Italian dressing that’s been in the refrigerator door for at least two years.  Dessert would be peach cobbler made from Bisquick and canned peaches served with ice cream that is slightly crystallized, from melting a bit on the long drive up the mountain and then living too long in a freezer.

What’s a question you hope readers will take away from Off Course?

MH: Is a great, passionate, all-consuming, sometimes-rapturous, obsessive love—a love that could hijack years and potentially cause scarring, if not real damage to its players—something to be desired?  Is the experience worth the pain?

My husband says this question is too one-sided, but he underestimates the romantics among us.

What kinds of writing projects are you planning next?

MH: I have been writing short stories for the past year and a half.  Recently, I’ve started two books, one a historical novel about a brilliant but wrongheaded scientist who once lived on my property and the other a novel about a church and its search for a new minister.  Both take place close by to where I live, in beautiful Altadena, CA.

My thanks again to Ms. Huneven for her time and wonderfully generous answers. You can read more about Ms. Huneven, and Off Course, on Ms. Huneven’s website, www.michellehuneven.com. Follow Michelle Huneven on Twitter: @MHuneven

An Interview with Chris Beckett, Author of Dark Eden

Yesterday I reviewed Chris Beckett’s excellent new novel, Dark Eden. Mr. Beckett graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Dark Eden? What was the writing process like?

Chris Beckett Photo courtesy of the author.

Chris Beckett
Photo courtesy of the author.

CB: As is often the case with my stories, Dark Eden grew very slowly.   In 1992, I came up with a short story called ‘The Circle of Stones’, which included one of the crucial scenes from the book, was set in a sunless world, and centered on four characters who were to evolve in the book into John, Tina, Jeff and Gerry.  In 2006 I wrote the short story ‘Dark Eden’ which provides the back story for the novel (it can be found in my collection The Turing Test).   Although I had the idea from the beginning that there might be the basis for a novel here, the prompt to start work on it in earnest actually came from my daughter Nancy, who saw the title ‘Dark Eden’ and said it would be a great name for a book.  (So it is!  So good that there are at least two other books and a computer game with the same name!)

As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe the idea for a sunless world with luminous trees probably came from staring at the screen of the antiquated computer I owned in 1992: one of those ones with shining green letters on a black screen.   But at the core of the book were two things: the idea of a loss which cannot be undone (the loss of Earth), and the idea of a violent, ugly transgressive act which is nevertheless in some way necessary.  These were the things I needed to write about (for whatever reason), the incentive to keep going I suppose you could say, and the sunless world proved to be a perfect setting for what I wanted to do.   Once the book was underway, it seemed to flow pretty easily.  Perhaps you’d expect that, since it had been marinating in my head for the better part of twenty years!

You write on your website that your experience as a social worker has informed your writing. Was this the case for Dark Eden?

photo (65)CB: The book that is most obviously linked with my career as a social work is my second novel Marcher (which will come out later this year in an extensively rewritten new edition).   However, since my social work career involved dealing with unhappy families, that may well have made a contribution to my conception of the troubled Family of Eden, clinging together in their dark world.   (I don’t know though.  That could just have come from my own childhood!)

How did you go about conducting research for the novel?

CB: I did no serious research at all.   I think I’m a reasonably well-informed person, and I just relied on my own knowledge, imagination and my ability to think things through.  (I knew for instance, that bioluminescent life forms are found on Earth in the depths of the sea where the light of the sun can’t reach.)  I’m rather proud of the fact that some of the things I dreamed up back in 1992 turn out, on further reading, to have a scientific basis.  There really are rogue planets without suns, it really is possible that a planet with a hot core could sustain life and liquid water, there really are whole ecosystems, right now and here on Earth, which are powered by geothermal energy rather than by sunlight.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

CB: I don’t have a conscious strategy about what to read while I’m writing.   I guess I avoid reading anything too similar to the project I have underway, so as to avoid getting my own ideas tangled up with someone else’s.   I think it may also be the case that when I’m in the thick of writing a book, I become less interested in reading fiction generally, and more inclined to read non-fiction. (The fuel for fiction-writing should be reality, perhaps, rather than other fiction?)   Sometimes I don’t read at all.  At night, my wife will lie in bed reading a novel and I’ll just stare at the ceiling mulling over the story I’m working on.

I understand that a sequel to Dark Eden will be published in the UK this year. Are there any other writing projects on your horizon?

CB: Yes, the sequel to Dark Eden is called Mother of Eden, and is set some two Earth centuries on.   It will indeed be coming out in the UK later this year – and in the US also, though the date has not yet been fixed.

As I mentioned above, my novel Marcher will also come out in a new UK edition this year, and I have begun work on a new novel, provisionally entitled Slaymaker, which is set on Earth in the near future and deals with the politics of a hotter and less habitable world.   But it’s early days on that one, so I won’t say any more about it at present.

I have the beginnings of an idea also for a third Eden novel, but let’s see how the second one goes down first.

I hope to find time to write some more short stories too.  Short stories were what I was first known for and I love writing them, but I haven’t done many for a while.

My thanks again to Mr. Beckett for his time and generous answers. You can read an excerpt from Dark Eden here, and you can learn more about Mr. Beckett and his work on his website, http://www.chris-beckett.com/

An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi, Author of Boy, Snow, Bird

Yesterday I reviewed Helen Oyeyemi’s marvelous (in every sense of the word) new novel, Boy, Snow, Bird. Ms. Oyeyemi graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Boy, Snow, Bird? What was the writing process like? 

Helen Oyeyemi  (c) Piotr Cieplak

Helen Oyeyemi
(c) Piotr Cieplak

HO: the idea of writing a wicked stepmother story had been in my mind ever since i’d read Barbara Comyns’ novel, The Juniper Tree, which is a retelling of the fairy tale of the same title from the perspective of the wicked stepmother (poor, poor woman – i mean the wicked stepmother, not Comyns…Comyns’ narrative voice is so wonderfully eldritch, a mix of light and grit in proportions that only she can master.) it took me some time to get into Boy’s voice – perhaps i was worried about the difficulties she was going to have in terms of trying not to do harm when she’d been harmed herself.

Much of the novel takes place in a small town in Massachusetts. Was there a particular reason for this choice? Did you visit the area to get a sense of the landscape, or conduct other kinds of research for the novel?

HO: i have a dear friend who lives in boston; we drove up to worcester after i’d finished writing the book so i could see how completely imaginary the small town near worcester in my book is. massachusetts is linked to emily dickinson and louisa may alcott in my mind, so i think of it as a place where my kind of woman can flourish: a good place to send Boy to, i think.

photo (63)Boy, Snow, Bird is in part an adaptation of the Snow White fairy tale. Did other contemporary retellings of folktales and fairy stories inform your writing? 

HO: Anne Sexton’s take on Snow White, in her collection, Transformations, affected the way that i read snow white – that image at the end of the poem, the wicked queen dancing herself to death in red hot shoes. for me Anne Sexton’s retelling exposes a notion that’s woven into the story: where there are two beautiful women, one must pay a price – a price for both women’s beauty, perhaps. most of the characters in my own retelling are wise to this notion, and don’t accept it.

Boy, Snow, Bird confronts — always with grace — difficult issues of race, gender, family, and aesthetics. What’s one question you hope readers ask as they come away from the novel?

HO: i hope a reader leaves the story wondering how to get better at seeing other people, or at least seeing through our own halls of mirrors.

 As readers may know, you’re a prolific writer, with five novels and two plays to your credit already. What’s next on your writing horizon?

HO: o dear…your guess is as good as mine. but i’m looking forward to it, whatever it is.

My thanks again to Ms. Oyeyemi for her time and her thoughtful answers.

An Interview with Hailey Leithauser, Author of Swoop

On Monday I reviewed Hailey Leithauser’s award-winning debut collection, Swoop. Ms. Leithauser graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.

Your biographical note on The Poetry Foundation’s website indicates that you started writing again after a ten-year break. What precipitated your (triumphant) return to poetry? 

Hailey Leithauser Photo by Sandra Beasley

Hailey Leithauser
Photo by Sandra Beasley

HL: Actually it was more like a twenty year break. I can actually point to a specific moment when I began writing again; I was on a lunch break from work, at the National Gallery standing in front of Van Gogh’s Pieta, of all things, when a poem about the painting began streaming in front of my eyes. But those tickles in the brain had really been building for several months. My mother had died that spring, and  I think that overwhelming pain had shaken things loose. Also I was about to receive her inheritance which would enable me to retire, at least for a few years.  I knew I wanted to use that time to write again, so my subconscious had been gearing up.

How did Swoop come together as a collection? 

HL: Swoop started when my brother sent me a palindrome, and said it looked like a line from one of my poems. I agreed and I loved the idea of the music inherent in a palindrome so I started writing them and putting them into poems, and really very quickly, in maybe three years, I had a book length collection. At first when I gathered them up I didn’t see any other unifying theme, but as I read them together I saw the idea of excess, a celebration of excess, both in emotion and in linguistic play, seemed to be framing the manuscript.

When reading Swoop I noticed often that the effect of a particular poem was amplified by its predecessor — and “Zen Heaven” is such a powerful closing poem. How did you go about ordering the poems in Swoop

photo (62)HL: I wish I could take credit for that, but when I first tried organizing the book it was terrible, truly, truly awful. I had all the poems clumped together, all of the curtal sonnets next to each other, all of the Grandiloquent Dictionary poems together, the four poems “Scythe,” “Guillotine,” “Brass Knuckles,” and “Crowbar” in one string. One of my co-winners from the Discovery Prize, James Arthur, was in town for AWP and I gave it to him for critique. He wrote me a few days later to say he loved the poems but it was like eating a pizza with all the pepperoni on one slice, all the mushrooms on another. So then I broke up all the poems, sort of scattershot, and I showed that version to Sandra Beasley. She told me I was right to break them up, but now it was too random and so she did the very difficult  job of ordering the book.  I made a few changes here and there to that version, but I stuck pretty close to her basic framework. Honestly, without their help, I can’t imagine that the people at the Poetry Foundation would have chosen Swoop.

The poems in Swoop are exuberantly musical — do you listen to music while writing? Who or what are your musical influences, and who are your favorite “musical” poets? 

HL: I’ve been asked this before and the truth is I would be much too distracted it I had music on while I wrote. My favorite kind of music is blues, but I don’t see that reflected in my writing. Unless you would consider bird song to be music. I do like listening to that when I’m working in the back yard.

As far as musical poets, there are so many! Off the top of my head, I love Seidel, Stallings, Szymborska, Brooks, Ryan, and Beeder.  And Stevie Smith, Terrence Hayes,  Estes, Boss, Kevin Young, Videlock.  I’ve recently gotten into Gjertrud Schnackenberg and would like to read through all of her work. And I enjoyed Carol Light’s first book, “Heaven from Steam.”

Some of your poems refer to the Grandiloquent Dictionary, and all of them showcase a rich and dynamic vocabulary. What are  some of your favorite resources for discovering new words? 

HL: I used to be a reference librarian and own a fairly decent selection of dictionaries and thesauri, and whenever I see books on interesting and archaic words I snap them up. I bought one this fall, “The Word Museum,” that gave me the word “SNOUTFAIR”  (handsome) that I put right into a poem. I recently wrote two poems about the Renaissance characters Tom o’ Bedlam and his counterpart, Mad Maudlin, and for those poems I read through a few online dictionaries of Elizabethan slang.

After the success of Swoop, what’s next on the writing horizon?

HL: I’m in between the second and third drafts of a new book, The Cannibal’s Song,, and hoping to have it ready to show to Graywolf this summer. Now that I’ve done with palindromes, my new obsession is acrostics so there are quite a few of them in Cannibal.  And about a third of it is poems that pre-date Swoop. Some of these poems first appeared in magazines ten years ago so I’m excited about finally finding a home for them.

My thanks again to Ms. Leithauser for her time and generous answers. You can read more about Swoop, and purchase the book directly from Graywolf Press, here

An Interview with TaraShea Nesbit, Author of The Wives of Los Alamos

Two weeks ago, I reviewed TaraShea Nesbit’s fascinating first novel, The Wives of Los Alamos. Ms. Nesbit graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Wives of Los Alamos? What was the writing process like?

Author photo by Brigid McAuliffe

Author photo by Brigid McAuliffe

TN: About five years ago, I was researching the creation of the atomic bomb after a friend told me about a high school that has atomic bomb imagery as part of their bomber mascot. That town, Richland, Washington, was the location of a nuclear production complex, Hanford that began during WWII, and currently a repository for nuclear waste. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki. While researching the history of the Hanford Site, I read a memoir by one female scientist. She mentioned that she never understood why one of the male scientists wives did not like her. This piqued my interest in the domestic community life of these secret Manhattan Project towns.

Simultaneously, I gave a reading on the work about Hanford, (an excerpt of which you can read at Quarterly West here: http://www.quarterlywest.utah.edu/iss_73/iss_73_nesbit.html) and a friend’s aunt, Jane Viste, came up to me after the reading and inquired more about the scientists’ wives. I think she said, “Their story would make a great novel.” These two things—my atomic history research and the aunt’s questions—came together right before winter break two years ago, and once I decided on the point of view, the writing was an urgent endeavor. A first draft was done in less than a year and I revised for another year.

The Wives of Los Alamos is written from the relatively unusual first person plural perspective. What led you to make that choice?

The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

TN: When listening to the women’s oral histories and reading their memoirs, I observed that the women often took on the “we” voice themselves. If asked what Los Alamos was like for them, they replied with things like, “We all hated the stove,” where the “we” was the other wives. This suggested to me that their primary identity during that time was of a group member, and their secondary identity was that of an individual.

In thinking about why I was using this point of view, I read Brian Richardson’s book Unnatural Voices, and his intellectual work added to my thinking. I see the point of view as a way of exploring how our community identities often push against our individual identities.

How did you go about conducting research for the novel? Did you visit archives? The site itself? Were you able to interview any of the women who lived and worked at Los Alamos?

TN: I first read memoirs and collected stories edited by the women who lived in also Alamos during WWII, many of which were published by the Los Alamos Historical Society.  I visited Los Alamos a few times and met with the archivist there, too. Los Alamos still retains a lot of its great history, both geographically and through the preservation of Fuller Lodge and Bathtub Row. One can walk around the town and easily imagine what it was like in the 40s.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

TN: I’m often doing two kinds of reading when I’m writing. I read books related to the topic, and when doing that I’m looking for details and facts. But I also read novels and poetry collections and nonfiction books that I’m hoping to be educated by about story construction. While writing The Wives of Los Alamos I looked back at work by Joan Silber, Leo Tolstoy, Evan S. Connell and George Eliot, among others.

You’ve studied at The Ohio State University (Go Buckeyes!) and Washington University in St. Louis. Which professors and writing courses stand out to you as particularly influential in terms of your growth as a writer?

TN: I began this book in my first year of the Ph.D. at the University of Denver, and specifically, in a fiction class led by Laird Hunt. I did not think of myself as a fiction writer then, but Laird’s reading list and approaches defied my previous conceptions of what a novel could be. We read Open City by Teju Cole, Aliss at the Fire by Jon Fosse, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, and Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník. But I’ve been fortunate to have so many great teachers: Brian Kitely, Selah Saterstrom, Eleni Sikelianos, Kathy Fagan, Andrew Hudgins, and Mary Jo Bang.

What kinds of writing projects are you planning next?

TN: I’m working on a fiction project set in the 17th century from the perspective of lesser-heard voices, which is also exploring a major narrative of America’s history.

My thanks again to Ms. Nesbit for her time and generous answers. You can learn more about The Wives of Los Alamos and TaraShea Nesbit on her website, tarasheanesbit.com.  

An Interview with Daniel Price, author of The Flight of the Silvers

Yesterday I reviewed The Flight of the Silvers, Daniel Price’s new novel, which is out now from Blue Rider Press. Mr. Price graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.

When and how did the idea for The Flight of Silvers come to you? Did you know then that it would become a multi-part saga?

Daniel Price Photo courtesy of the author.

Daniel Price
Photo courtesy of the author.

DP: I’ve been developing the story for fifteen years now. I can’t even remember what originally inspired the idea. All I know is that the ending came to me first. Everything else—the world, the characters—sprang backward from that.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the plot was too big to contain in one book, which scared the crap out of me. I’d never written a series before, much less one about superpowered people on an alternate Earth. If I got it wrong. I’d be spending years of my life on a saga that either no one saw or everyone hated. Who wants that?

So I pushed the idea to the back burners and moved on to other projects. But the Silvers story kept poking at me. It took a brief bout with cancer to remind me that there were worse fates than trying and failing at something. I finally started writing Silvers in 2009, and it turned out to be the best decision of my life. Now on hindsight I wonder why the hell I was so nervous.

 

How was writing a sci-fi-action-suspense novel different from writing non-sci-fi fiction, like your first novel, Slick?

The Flight of the SilversDP: Like night and day. My first novel is a comedy set in the world of public relations, which I’d never personally been a part of. I was determined to research the hell out of it and get the details right. It was constraining, but I loved every minute of it.

With Silvers, I had more freedom than I knew what to do with. I could change the rules of reality, invent new history. It was unbelievably fun to dream up this stuff. The hard part was introducing the world in a way that didn’t make people go cross-eyed.

Fortunately, my alpha readers kept me honest. The earliest drafts of Silvers were littered with plot-stopping info dumps. My friends helped me smooth them over.

 

How did you go about conducting research for The Flight of the Silvers?

DP: As far as the science went, I didn’t go nuts. I read some extremely dumbed-down books on temporal physics until I had a good enough grasp on the new rules of my world. And with each manner of timebending I introduced, I did some speculation into the side effects and limitations, which led to some interesting new details.

But when it came to the worldbuilding, I did a ton of research. My alternate Earth exists in a timeline that drastically changed after a cataclysmic event in 1912. So I studied the culture of that era and then rebuilt world history, decade by decade. That also led to some fun new details.

The third aspect of my research was etymology. Every new word I introduce has a traceable origin. I didn’t want to make up stuff just because it sounds good.

 

Which other time-travel books/movies/shows would you recommend to fans of The Flight of the Silvers?

DP: For alternate history, nothing inspired me more than Watchmen. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons paint a world that’s completely recognizable and yet terrifyingly different. It blew me away when I first read it in 1986. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve devoured it since then.

In terms of temporal hijinks, I can’t say enough good things about Slaughterhouse Five. Kurt Vonnegut was the first writer to truly mess with my perception of time. And like all of his books, he wraps his craziness around a strong and beautiful character story.

 

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

DP: Sadly, I can’t read other people’s fiction when I’m writing. It screws me up. I do take the occasional sanity break and tear through my read pile. The top two novels of my list right now are The Waking Engine, by David Edison and The Martian by Andy Weir. Looking forward to both of them.

 

I understand you’re working on the sequel to The Flight of the Silvers. How many books can we expect in the saga? And what other kinds of projects are on your horizon?

DP: I wish I could answer that second question, but I can’t see an inch beyond Silvers at the moment. I have a few ideas percolating, in both the sci-fi and “real world” genres, but it’ll be a long while before I get to touch any of them.

As for your first question, the Silvers series will fall somewhere between three to five books. The final number hasn’t been determined yet. Whatever happens, I promise the story will be resolved in a most definitive way. The whole thing began in my mind with an ending. I have every intention of getting there.

What’s a question that you wish interviewers would ask you,  and how would you answer it?

DP: Well, if I can’t get people to ask me how I got to be so awesome, then I suppose the next best question is “What puts you in a good mood these days?”

The answer is feedback. I love getting thoughtful comments from readers, whether it’s praise or constructive criticism. It’s just great to know that my stories are out there spinning gears in people’s heads. I encourage everyone who reads The Flight of the Silvers to let me know what they thought about it. Shoot me an e-mail. Post a review on Goodreads or Amazon. I write for the love of writing, but smart feedback is a major perk of the job. It’s the five-dollar bill in my tip jar.

My thanks to Mr. Price for his time and thoughtful answers! You can learn more about The Flight of the Silvers, and Daniel Price, on Mr. Price’s website, and you can follow him on Twitter: @SilversGuy.