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Interview with Dennis Mahoney, Author of Fellow Mortals

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney

Jaime Boler: Thanks, Dennis, for letting me ask you these questions!  I’m so excited about your highly-charged debut, Fellow Mortals.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Dennis Mahoney: No. I came to it late, at the tail end of high school. I was creative at an early age but it was more in the line of drawing and imaginative play. I zonked out in middle school and just acted like a regular boy, listening to hair metal and playing Commodore 64 videos games. But eventually my insecurities and general unhappiness led me to reading and writing, which boosted my confidence and gave me something to do.

JB: How would you describe Fellow Mortals in ten words or less?

DM: A tragic fire heightens relationships, for better and worse.

JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Fellow Mortals?

DM: The hero, Henry Cooper, was based on a minor character in a failed novel I’d written. I loved that character and wanted to put such a man—lively, big-hearted, simple—into the spotlight and test him with a horrible crisis, something that would thrust him into close proximity with different kinds of people. He’s someone who gets a strong reaction out of everyone who meets him, of bringing out their truest selves. That seemed like a great seed for a novel.

JB: I love the title.  Really, we are all human, we all make mistakes.  Did you have the story first and then the title or the title first and then the story?  How did you choose the title?

DM: Titles are a nightmare for me. I don’t know why. I’ve written books where every chapter had a title, and I had no problem with that. When it comes to naming a whole book, I struggle every time. My editor and I went round and round with Fellow Mortals, convinced we could think of something better. And then one day we thought, “You know, it kind of works. Let’s keep it.” My current novel-in-progress has a title, and I like it, and that often helps me stay focused. Whether or not that title will stick around for publication is anyone’s guess.

JB: Reading your story, I kept repeating the famous Alexander Pope quote: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  Did you have it in mind while writing Fellow Mortals?

DM: The sentiment, yes, if not the exact quote. But I rarely dwell on theme when I’m writing a story. There’s a vibe or trajectory, and my own beliefs and preoccupations are coming through, whether I’m aware of them or not. It is significant that I chose Henry as the central character; I must have found his value system the most intriguing, especially given the problems he was facing.

JB: Arcadia can mean a harmonious and unspoiled wilderness, yet a fire changes everything on Arcadia Street so it is no longer harmonious nor is it unspoiled.  Is that why you set part of your story on a street named Arcadia?

DM: Early drafts of Fellow Mortals had loads of references to Greek mythology, which helped me tap into certain primal aspects of the story, like mortality and transformation, but made the book feel pretentious and overwrought. Arcadia was named as a reference to that region in Greece, which was known for peace and contentedness. I didn’t mean to be heavy-handed about it. The name just fit so I kept it. You can still see the mythological influence in Sam’s sculptures, however. Most of them are recognizable: Tantalus, Prometheus, Arachne, Persephone. But it worked better not to make it explicit… to let the sculptures work on a gut level, as evocations of natural forces.

JB: Would you call Fellow Mortals a cautionary tale?  How so?

DM: I wouldn’t, really. I suppose lessons could be learned by watching how various characters’ choices play out over the course of the story, but I think novels work best when they simply portray people honestly, and the readers can draw their own conclusions, just as they would if they heard a compelling story in life.

JB: Do you have a favorite character in your story?  If so, who?  Sam’s character captivated me.

DM: Henry. I’ve known a few men like this and they’re so full of life, it’s contagious. You’re better for knowing them. I have a bit of Henry in me, too, in that I’m a goofy optimist when I probably ought to know better. I loved all the characters to some degree. Even Billy Kane, who’s pretty unlovable. With Billy I had this broken, repellant man and needed to understand him and motivate him. In discovering what made him tick, I started to pity him. I’d have a much harder time loving such a man if he were my actual neighbor, but again, this is something novels can do, for both the reader and the writer; they show us people in ways we might not ordinarily see them.

JB: Do you have a favorite line and/or scene?  Please share.

DM: I don’t focus on writing standout lines. I do my best to disappear as a writer and let the characters steal the show. I do have favorite scenes, but wow—this is a tough question. I love the very last scene. It’s has the spirit I wanted to end with, and I love any scene that includes the dog Wingnut.

JB: I adored Henry.  He isn’t the sort of man you could hold a vendetta against.  And I think Sam and the Finn sisters come to this same conclusion.  But not so Peg or Billy.  Why can’t they forgive Henry?

DM: Sam struggles with it for a very long time, and has the greatest reason to resent Henry, who accidentally killed Sam’s wife. It is interesting, in retrospect, that Henry gets the most grief from the two people who lost the least. Peg and Billy suffer damage to their houses, but they don’t lose everything the way Sam and the Finns do. You can see in the opening pages that Peg and Billy have a connection in being dissatisfied to begin with, regardless of the fire, but even their mutual anger at Henry isn’t enough to make them like each other. So it’s understandable that they wouldn’t respond well to Henry—a bright-side guy—in any scenario. Their response to the fire comes from their response to life.

JB: One of the characters in Fellow Mortals is Wingnut, a dog.  How hard was it getting into Wing’s head?  Did you read any books or articles on dog behavior?

DM: Haha, it was weirdly easy. I didn’t plan it. I just suddenly wanted to know what Wingnut was feeling in that early bedroom scene and went with it. I grew up with dogs. We had a cat when I was writing Fellow Mortals, and we’ve since adopted a rescue dog who, coincidentally, is a lovable, goofball mutt exactly like Wingnut. As for how I imagined Wing’s inner life at the time, I’d say that he’s a close mirror of Henry. They have the same personality. And since I myself relate to Henry on certain levels, I guess I have some Wingnut in me, too.

JB: Did you conduct any research concerning the postal service?

DM: A little, yes. Just enough to get the details right and make it believable. I spoke to a wonderful postal employee named Barbara who filled me in the repercussions of a mailman starting a fatal fire with a cigar. But since that particular scenario, as far as we know, is without real-world precedent, I went with how it probably would have played out. I got very lucky in that the USPS, being a government agency, would handle all legal aspects of the case, including civil suits against Henry. That allowed me to get Henry completely off the hook, legally speaking, so I could focus on his conscience, which is so much more interesting.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this story?

DM: Trying to infuse hope and life, in a very genuine way, despite the story being, at face value, something of a downer. I didn’t want a Capital-H happy ending. There’s no resurrecting Sam’s dead wife, for instance. But, being an optimist like Henry, I believe people can make terrible situations better if they try. Life itself, at face value, can be a downer. We want things we can’t have, get sick, get depressed, lose loved-ones, suffer injustice, and eventually die. What do we do about that? Commit suicide or make the most of things? Conveying that spirited defiance of loss and mortality was a tricky thing to do without sounding cheap or sentimental.

JB: What was your publication process like?

DM: Once I had a book deal, it was a dream. My editor, Emily Bell, and FSG did everything right. They’ve supported me ever since. Prior to the book deal, I had dozens of agent rejections, an awesome agent who took me on but retired in the middle of submitting to editors, and lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth. The usual road to publication, in other words.

JB: What advice would you give to anyone working on a debut novel?

DM: My top three: (1) Find a way to love the daily work or it isn’t worth doing (2) Ignore the chatter about “the state of the publishing industry” and how to get published, because it won’t help you write the best possible book (3) Again: love it.

JB: What is your writing process like?  Do you write during certain times of the day?  Do you have a desk where you write?  Do you listen to Baroque music?

DM: Lately I’m up at 5AM and get about 250 words written before driving our son to school. I aim for 750 words a day, 5-7 days a week. I write longhand on a couch in a library/reading room I built a few years ago. (See here: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2013/03/where-writers-write-denis-mahoney.html) I key the pages into the computer every couple of chapters. And yes, the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels made me a Baroque music addict. This works especially well lately, since my next book is set in the 18th-century.

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

DM: It’s always busy with a family. Lots of action around here. I read, watch movies, play with our son and dog, hang out with my wife, exercise some, do a little carpentry, and follow boxing. I used to grow pumpkins in the yard. I could use a new summer hobby this year.

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

DM: Patrick O’Brian’s novels, already mentioned, came at just the right time and made my life better in significant ways. I’ve never known characters who felt more like actual friends. I’m going to snob out and say I’m on a Shakespeare kick this year. That guy could write. I’m praying that Susanna Clarke publishes a follow-up to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

JB: Who has influenced your writing the most?

DM: I honestly have no idea. Most of my favorite writers aren’t people I imitate. It’s possible I love them because I’m able to read them like a regular reader, instead of constantly thinking, “Hey, maybe I could try writing like that!”

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Fellow Mortals?

DM: A touch of Henry’s spirit. Also a strong desire to read my next novel.

JB: Barnes and Noble chose Fellow Mortals as a Discover Great New Writers selection.  Congratulations!  How did you react upon hearing the news?

DM: Thanks! I was thrilled. I found out months before publication, so it removed some of the fear of the publication date, when you aren’t sure if anyone will like the book.

JB: Your writing has been compared to that of Stewart O’Nan and Richard Russo.  How do such comparisons make you feel?

DM: Honored, since I’m a big fan of both, and somewhat confused, as I don’t entirely see myself that way. I don’t mean that negatively or positively. I just don’t know who I’d compare myself to because I don’t really think that way. Take a parenting analogy: I try to raise a happy, well-adjusted son, but wouldn’t it be strange to compare my parenting style to that of more famous parents. “Mahoney’s fatherly lectures are reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt Sr.’s inspirational words to young Teddy…”

JB: I have to ask if any of your neighbors have read Fellow Mortals and what their reactions to the book have been?

DM: Haha, good question. None of our neighbors are anything like the characters, so I’m probably OK. I’m a stay-at-home Dad, which looked a little odd once our son began attending school full-time. I think the neighbors are just relieved to finally know what I do all day.

JB: Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?

DM: Most debut authors aren’t sent on tours anymore, because nobody shows up for unknowns. If I’d written a surefire bestseller, that’d be different, but Fellow Mortals is more of a quiet, word-of-mouth novel. I’m doing local signings, but travelling to far-off cities doesn’t make sense. I’d have to sell a ton of copies just to cover the hotel room.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

DM: I’m writing a big mystery-adventure. It’s about a young woman who sails for a new life in a strange colonial America, where she has to survive supernatural weather, forest thieves who steal people’s limbs, and a violent past that threatens to turn everyone against her. My heroine’s name is Molly and she’s an irrepressible optimist, like Henry in Fellow Mortals.

JB: Ooh, that sounds so intriguing and unusual.  Thank you so much, Dennis, for a wonderful interview.  It’s been a pleasure.  Good luck with the book!

DM: Thank you, Jaime!



Dennis Mahoney’s Website

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux kindly gave me three copies of Fellow Mortals to give away.  One is left.  Please fill out the brief form below.  I will choose a winner on Friday, March 29, at 5 pm ET.


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Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Viking Adult; 432 pages; $28.95).


            The relationship between a writer and a reader is sacrosant.  Nowhere is that truer than in Ruth Ozeki’s wildly imaginative, ambitious, and brilliant novel A Tale for the Time Being.  Ozeki redefines that sacred link between novelist and bibliophile and simultaneously blurs the lines between fiction and reality, exhibiting an unbridled and whimsical style so convincing and creative that the reader feels part of the story.   Ozeki intertwines multiple voices in her parallel narrative:  a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, a Japanese kamikaze pilot, a troubled Japanese teenage girl, and a writer named Ruth.

She opens with the unforgettable tale of Nao, a teen living in Tokyo’s Akiba Electricity Town.  “My name is Nao, and I am a time being,” she writes.  “A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  “Nao” is eerily similar to “now,” and her name is a deliberate play on words that lends even more power and urgency to this story.

Depressed and anxious from being bullied by her classmates, Nao is an outcast with one friend half a world away.  She is a desperately unhappy young woman who seriously contemplates suicide.  “The truth is that very soon I’m going to graduate from time…I just turned sixteen and I’ve accomplished nothing at all…Do I sound pathetic? I don’t mean to.  I just want to be accurate.  Maybe instead of graduate, I should say I’m going to drop out of time.”  First, though, she vows to write down her great-grandmother’s life story in a diary.  Not only does Nao provide insight into the life of her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun, but she also illuminates her own existence.

As Nao writes in her diary, she wonders about the person who will one day read her words.  “You wonder about me.  I wonder about you.  Who are you and what are you doing?…Do you have a cat and is she sitting on your lap?  Does her forehead smell like cedar trees and fresh sweet air?”  Although she is just a teen, Nao seems very aware of the passage of time and meditates on the brevity of her existence on earth: “Actually, it doesn’t matter very much, because by the time you read this, everything will be different, and you will be nowhere in particular, flipping idly through the pages of this book, which happens to be the diary of my last days on earth, wondering if you should keep on reading.”

The character of Nao allows Ozeki to introduce Japanese manga and anime culture into her story, making it more lively and accurate.  For Nao, the characters in manga are her friends who help her discover her very own superpower.  Nao needs to find an inner strength, and time with her great-grandmother also helps the girl become confident and strong.

It would have been fairly easy for Ozeki to write a book based solely on Nao’s narrative, yet Ozeki changes her tone and style to present a kind of detective story.  No one is better at detective work than a novelist accustomed to research.  So Ozeki brings in an author named Ruth.

Curiously, Ozeki puts herself in her own fictional work.  Like Ozeki, Ruth lives on a remote island off British Columbia.  Ruth is also a novelist who suffers from writer’s block (Ozeki’s last novel, All Over Creation, was published in 2003, so perhaps this is also true).  Like Ozeki, Ruth is married to a man named Oliver and her mother has recently passed away.  Ozeki is part Japanese and so is Ruth.

I do not recall ever having read a story in which the author becomes such a central figure in his or her own story.  It is a weighty technique, leading the reader to wonder how autobiographical the work is or if it is simply fiction with a revealing twist. Whatever the case may be, the line between fiction and reality is not clear-cut in this novel, which makes it all the more enthralling and appealing.

While walking along the beach one day, Ruth finds a plastic bag containing a Hello Kitty lunchbox.  Inside the lunchbox are a number of items: a series of Japanese letters, a red book containing a famous Marcel Proust piece, and a watch.  However, the pages written by the French novelist, critic, and essayist have been removed and the book now contains the diary of a Japanese teenager named Nao.  The teen’s diary captivates and even obsesses Ruth; she begins a dogged pursuit to find out what happened to Nao.

The deeper Ruth gets into her research and into her quest to locate Nao, the more Ruth is certain that, through the humble act of reading Nao’s diary, she can save the troubled teen.  Ozeki goes a step further, though.  She makes the reader feel like he or she can effect this tale  by reading the story.  The reader really becomes Ruth, transfixed and possessed by Nao’s account.  The fate of the Japanese teen matters deeply not only to Ruth but also to us.

Ozeki expresses our universal desire to connect with others through words and stories.  Ozeki’s characters speak to us across time and across continents and beckon us to follow them to unknown worlds.  Equal parts sobering and inspiring, A Tale for the Time Being is wholly inventive from the first page to the last.  Not since Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has a novel so deeply moved me.  Profoundly touching and amazingly good, A Tale for the Time Being is destined to become a modern classic.


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Spotlight on A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

I am currently reading Ruth Ozeki’s long-awaited novel, A Tale for the Time Being.  Ozeki just blows me away on every page.


a tale for the time being


A brilliant, unforgettable, and long-awaited novel from bestselling author Ruth Ozeki

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying. But before she ends it all, Nao first plans to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future.

Full of Ozeki’s signature humor and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.  

Ozeki blurs the line between fiction and reality.  One of her principal characters is a novelist named Ruth who lives on an island near Vancouver.  Ozeki is a novelist who lives on an island near Vancouver.  If I could interview her, I would ask her if what happens in the book really happened to her.  It makes for truly compelling, intriguing reading.

A Tale for the Time Being is imaginative, ambitious, and sometimes harrowing.  Once you start reading Ozeki’s story, you should be prepared to ignore the rest of the world.  I was fascinated from the very first page and now I must leave you to get back to the book.

A Tale for the Time Being comes out March 12 from Viking.

Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki




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Spotlight on The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Two remarkable women, separated by more than a century, whose lives unexpectedly intertwine…



2004: Lina Sparrow, the daughter of an artist, is an ambitious young lawyer working on a historic class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

1852: Josephine is a seventeen-year-old house slave who tends to the mistress of a Virginia tobacco farm–an aspiring artist named Lu Anne Bell, whose paintings will become the subject of speculation and controversy among future collectors.

Lina’s search to find a plaintiff for her case will introduce her to the story of Josephine.  Was she the real talent behind her mistress’s now-famous portraits?  It is a question that will take Lina from the corridors of a modern corporate law firm to the sleek galleries of the New York City art world to the crumbling remains of an old plantation house.  Along the way, Lina will unearth long-buried truths about Josephine and about herself…and just maybe achieve long-overdue justice.

Tara Conklin’s brilliant debut novel, The House Girl, will be released February 12.  Conklin captivated me with this tale of two strong, determined women.  I love this story and will be interviewing Conklin.  Book clubs will go crazy for this novel.  The House Girl is going to be bigger than Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

The Author

The Author

I am so proud to spotlight the book on my blog and I highly recommend this one!  It’s already getting a lot of well-deserved buzz.


Filed under books, fiction, literary fiction

National Book Awards, 2012

Who will you be rooting for?

National Book Awards – 2012


Fiction Finalists


Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group USA, Inc.)

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King (McSweeney’s Books)

Louise ErdrichThe Round House (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Ben FountainBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Kevin PowersThe Yellow Birds (Little, Brown and Company)


Stacey D’ErasmoDinaw MengestuLorrie MooreJanet Peery


2012 NBA Nonfiction Finalists


Anne ApplebaumIron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945-1956 (Doubleday)

Katherine BooBehind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House)

Robert A. CaroThe Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 4 (Knopf)

Domingo MartinezThe Boy Kings of Texas (Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press)

Anthony ShadidHouse of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)


Brad GoochLinda Gordon, Woody HoltonSusan OrleanJudith Shulevitz


2012 NBA Poetry Finalists


David FerryBewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press)

Cynthia HuntingtonHeavenly Bodies (Southern Illinois University Press)

Tim SeiblesFast Animal (Etruscan Press)

Alan ShapiroNight of the Republic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Susan WheelerMeme (University of Iowa Press)


Laura KasischkeDana LevinMaurice ManningPatrick RosalTracy K. Smith


2012 NBA YPL  Finalists


William Alexander, Goblin Secrets (Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

Carrie ArcosOut of Reach (Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)

Patricia McCormickNever Fall Down (Balzer+Bray, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Eliot SchreferEndangered (Scholastic)

Steve SheinkinBomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
(Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press)


Susan CooperDaniel EhrenhaftJudith Ortiz Cofer, Gary D. SchmidtMarly Youmans



New York, New York (September 19, 2012) – The National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards, will present its 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Elmore Leonard in recognition of his outstanding achievement in fiction writing. For over five decades, Leonard’s westerns, crime novels, serialized novels, and stories have enthralled generations of readers. Author Martin Amis will present the Medal to Leonard at the 63rd National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner at Cipriani, Wall Street, in New York City on Wednesday, November 14, 2012. Television and radio host, political and pop culture commentator, journalist, and actor Faith Salie will host the event.

Today’s announcement coincides with the announcement by The Library of America that it will publish a three-volume edition of Leonard’s crime novels in its esteemed series beginning in fall 2014.  National Book Foundation Executive Director Harold Augenbraum said of the selection, “For a half-century, Elmore Leonard has produced vibrant literary work with an inimitable writing style. We are particularly pleased that as we at the National Book Foundation recognize his achievement, the Library of America—which publishes, and keeps permanently in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing—has announced that Leonard will join other great American authors in its literary pantheon.”

Save the Date for the 2012 NBA Dinner and CeremonyAlso on that evening, the National Book Foundation will bestow its 2012 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Communityon Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., chairman and publisher of The New York Times,for his continuing efforts through the New York Times Book Review and online book coverage to ensure an ongoing conversation about books in American culture. While re-thinking and implementing innovative print and online initiatives at the Times, Sulzberger and the Times staff have shown their devotion to the coverage of books, whether by profiling authors and their work or reporting on literary culture as a whole. “It’s hard to overstate the impact of The New York Times on the discussion about books in America,” Augenbraum said. For well over a century, The New York Times has been central to America’s book culture.”

Leonard is the twenty-fifth recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement. Previous recipients include John Ashbery, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gore Vidal, and Tom Wolfe. This year’s ceremony marks the eighth year that the Foundation has presented the Literarian Award, which was established in 2005 to recognize an individual whose work has enhanced the literary world during a lifetime of service. Previous recipients include Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, Terry Gross, Barney Rosset, Dave Eggers, Joan Ganz Cooney, and Mitchell Kaplan.

Nominations for these awards are made by former National Book Award Winners, Finalists, and Judges, as well as other writers and literary professionals from around the country. Final selections are made by the National Book Foundation’s Board of Directors.

The twenty Finalists for the National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature will be announced on Wednesday, October 10, 2012.


Faith Salie


Faith Salie is a television and national public radio host, political and pop culture commentator, interviewer, “ethics expert,” journalist, and actor, as well as a Rhodes Scholar, who’s been a standup comedian. She’s written for Oprah.com, Slate.com, and CNN.com and The Huffington Post. She was the host and co-executive producer of the national public radio show “Fair Game from PRI with Faith Salie,” and is the co-host of a new public radio podcast, “RelationsShow,” a slightly nerdy look at love, sex, and relationships.

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The National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Fiction, 2012

This is an exciting time of year, award season!  I want to share with you this exciting piece of news taken from the National Book Foundation’s web site.

The National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Fiction, 2012

5 Under 35 LogoOn the evening of Monday, November 12 at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn, the National Book Foundation will kick off National Book Awards Week with a party to celebrate this year’s 5 Under 35 authors. Host for the evening will be musician Neko Case, with poet and photographerThomas Sayers Ellis as DJ. Author Anya Ulinich, a 2007 5 Under 35 Honoree, will moderate a conversation between the young writers. Musician and author Alina Simone will interview all of the authors at the event, to be shared in clips on the Foundation’s website.

The 5 Under 35 program, now in its seventh year, honors five young fiction writers selected by past National Book Award Winners and Finalists. For the first time, thanks to the generous support of Amazon.com, the Foundation will offer the 5 Under 35 writers a cash award of one thousand dollars each.



2012 5 Under 35 Honoree Books


  • Jennifer duBoisA Partial History of Lost Causes (The Dial Press, 2012)
    Selected by Andrew Krivak, Fiction Finalist for The Sojourn, 2011
  • Stuart NadlerThe Book of Life (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, 2011)
    Selected by Edith Pearlman, Fiction Finalist for Binocular Vision, 2011
  • Haley TannerVaclav & Lena (The Dial Press, 2012)
    Selected by Téa Obreht, Fiction Finalist for The Tiger’s Wife, 2011, and 5 Under 35 Honoree, 2010
  • Justin TorresWe the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)
    Selected by Jessica Hagedorn, Fiction Finalist for Dogeaters, 1990
  • Claire Vaye WatkinsBattleborn (Riverhead, 2012)
    Selected by Julie Otsuka, Fiction Finalist for The Buddha in the Attic, 2011


This year, for the first time, we’ll be hosting a series of Twitter chats with the 5 Under 35 honorees. Dates and times for the chats are as follows:

We will moderate the chats via the Foundation’s Twitter account, @nationalbook, using the hashtag #5u35chat. To participate in a chat, we recommend using an application that sorts hashtags for you, such aswww.tweetchat.com. Just sign in, follow #5u35chat, and jump into the conversation. And don’t worry if you’re not on Twitter; you can still follow the chat by going to twitter.com and searching for #5u35chat. Any questions can be directed to Katie McDonough at kmcdonough@nationalbook.org.


Jennifer duBoisJennifer duBois was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1983. She earned a BA in political science and philosophy from Tufts University and an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. She recently completed her Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, where she now teaches. Jennifer’s short fiction has appeared in PlayboyThe Missouri ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewThe Northwest ReviewThe South Carolina Review, and The Florida ReviewA Partial History of Lost Causes is her first novel.
Photo credit: Ilana Panich-Linsman
> www.jennifer-dubois.com
> Twitter: @jennifer_dubois
> Facebook: facebook.com/pages/A-Partial-History-of-Lost-Causes
Stuart Nadler
Stuart Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Recently, he was the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic. His novel, Wise Men, will be published by Reagan Arthur Books in February 2013, the follow-up to his short story collection,The Book of Life
Photo credit: Nina Subin
> www.stuartnadler.com
> Twitter: @stuartnadler 
> Facebook: facebook.com/TheBookofLifeStories


Haley TannerHaley Tanner received her MFA in creative writing from The New School, where her novel Vaclav & Lena began as a short story. The publishing rights for her debut novel have been sold in thirteen countries, and film rights were optioned by the Mazur/Kaplan Company. She lives in Brooklyn. 
Photo credit: Gavin Snow
> www.haleytanner.com
> Twitter: @haleytanner 
> tumblr: pugandmutt.tumblr.com

Justin TorresJustin Torres was raised in upstate New York, where his novel, We the Animals, is set. His work has appeared in The New YorkerHarper’sGranta, Tin House, and Glimmer Train. He was awarded the Truman Capote Fellowship to attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a United States Artist Rolón Fellowship in Literature, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.
Photo credit: Gregory Crowley
> www.justin-torres.com
> Facebook: facebook.com/wetheanimals

Claire Vaye WatkinsClaire Vaye Watkins was born in Death Valley and raised in the Mojave Desert. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, One Story, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Best of the West 2011, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno, Claire earned her MFA from Ohio State University, where she was a Presidential Fellow. She teaches creative writing at Bucknell University and the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference, and is the co-director, with Derek Palacio, of The Mojave School, a nonprofit creative writing camp for rural Nevadans. Battleborn is her first book.
Photo credit: Lily Glass
> clairevayewatkins.com
> Twitter: @clairevaye


Jessica HagedornJessica Hagedorn is the author of ToxicologyDream JungleThe Gangster of Love, and Dogeaters,which won the American Book Award and was a Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction in 1990. She is also the author of Danger and Beauty, a collection of poetry and prose, and the editor ofCharlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. Her plays include Most WantedThe Heaven Trilogy, and the stage adaptation of Dogeaters. Hagedorn is presently editingManila Noir for Akashic Books’ acclaimed Noir Series. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at LIU Brooklyn.
Photo credit: Miriam Berkley
> www.jessicahagedorn.net


Andrew Krivak

Andrew Krivak’s novel The Sojourn was a 2011 National Book Award Fiction Finalist, and was awarded the inaugural Chautauqua Literary Prize in 2012. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts with his wife and three children, and teaches in the Arts and Sciences Honors Program at Boston College.Photo credit: Marzena Pogorzaly
> andrewkrivak.com

Tea ObrehtTéa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was a 2011 National Book Award Finalist. Her writing has been published in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’sVogue, Esquire, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty, and was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 writers in 2010. Obreht lives in New York.
Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
> www.teaobreht.com


Julie OtsukaJulie Otsuka is the author of two novels, The Buddha in the Attic, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a Finalist for the 2011 National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, andWhen the Emperor Was Divine, which won the Asian American Literary Award and the American Library Association Alex Award. Her fiction has been published in Granta, Harper’s, Best American Short Stories 2012, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. A recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she lives in New York City, where she writes every afternoon in her neighborhood café.
Photo credit: Robert Bessoir
> www.julieotsuka.com


Edith PearlmanEdith Pearlman is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the art of short fiction. Her most recent collection, Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories, won the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, the Julia Ward Howe Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and was named a Finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and The Story Prize. She has published more than 250 works in national magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short StoriesThe PEN/O. Henry Prize StoriesNew Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize, and three previous story collections: Vaquita, winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature, Love Among the Greats, winner of the Spokane Fiction Award, and How to Fall, winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Photo credit: Jonathan Sachs 


Neko CaseNeko Case is a Grammy nominated solo artist and one-eighth of the celebrated Canadian pop outfit the New Pornographers. The Washington-bred singer, songwriter and producer claims no genre, nor utilizes any classic formula for her songs and singing. More than anything she thrives in the spaces in between the notes and has developed a sound all her own. Her five full-length solo albums (not to mention her two live collections and Canadian Amp EP) have won her critical acclaim and countless devotees. When she’s not carpooling with her band members on tour, Neko can usually be found lying around with her menagerie (dogs, cats, horse), working in her organic garden or quilting.
Photo credit: Jason Creps
> www.nekocase.com



Thomas Sayers EllisThomas Sayers Ellis was born and raised in Washington, DC. The Maverick Room was awarded the John C. Zacharis First Book Award. Ellis teaches in the Lesley University low-residency MFA program, and he is a faculty member of Cave Canem. A photographer and poet, he currently divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Washington, DC. His most recent collection, Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, was published by Graywolf Press, and he recently accepted the position of Poetry Editor at The Baffler.
Photo credit: by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

> Facebook: facebook.com/thomas.s.ellis.1



Anya UlinichAnya Ulinich grew up in Moscow, Russia, and immigrated to Arizona when she was seventeen. She holds an MFA in visual arts from the University of California, Davis. Her first novel, Petropolis, was published by Penguin in 2007. It was translated into ten languages, named Best Book of the Year byThe Christian Science Monitor and The Village Voice, and selected as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 writers by Ken Kalfus. Ulinich’s short stories and essays have appeared inThe New York TimesNewsweek, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She lives in Brooklyn with her two daughters, and is working on a graphic novel.
Photo credit: Lisa Sciascia 


Alina SimoneAlina Simone is a singer and author who was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and now lives in Brooklyn. Her music has earned critical acclaim from a wide range of media, including the BBC’s The World, NPR, SpinPitchforkThe New Yorker, and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of the essay collection You Must Go and Win (Faber, 2011) and the forthcoming novel Note to Self (Faber, 2013). Her writing has also appeared in The New York TimesThe New York Times Magazine, and online atMcSweeneys, The Wall Street Journal, and BOMBlog.
Photo credit: Matthew Spencer
> www.alinasimone.com
> Twitter: @alinasimone 
> Facebook: facebook.com/alinasimonemusic

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Interview with Vaddey Ratner, Author of In the Shadow of the Banyan

Interview with Vaddey Ratner, Author of In the Shadow of the Banyan


Jaime Boler: Thank you, Vaddey, for letting me interview you.  Did you always want to be a writer?

 Vaddey Ratner: Thank you, Jaime.  It’s a pleasure to speak with you.  I think even without the experience of the Khmer Rouge, if I had a choice, I would have chosen writing as my expression.  I grew up in a culture rich in the tradition of stories and storytelling.  Even as a child, I saw the world through stories.  As an adult, I feel that writing helps me to understand the world better, more fully, more tenderly.  “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection,” said Anais Nin, and thus I write.

 JB: When were you first compelled to write In the Shadow of the Banyan?

 VR: The story has always been with me.  I knew I would write about the experience one day.  But the novel as I have written it came to me most clearly after I went back to live in Cambodia, in 2005.  There, witnessing the present and the past collide on a daily basis, I felt that I had all I needed to write this book.  It was time for me to delve much deeper into the emotional truth of that experience.  Seeing the suffering and the struggle that Cambodia continues to face, and how similar this is to suffering in other parts of the world, I realized that a story of tragedy, loss, and perseverance is a human story, not confined to Cambodia alone. 

 JB: In your address at the PEN/Faulkner Gala in September 2012, you said: “We live and die because of our words.  They can both hide and expose us.” How did words save you?

 VR: In that speech, I refer to a person who helped me greatly in my survival.  He taught me how you can choose silence in order to protect yourself and still maintain a very rich internal connection with the spirits of those you loved and lost.  Words are very powerful.  You have to know when to use them, and when to keep quiet.

 JB: Raami’s story is loosely based on your own childhood under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  What are the similarities?  What are the main differences?

 VR: All the ordeals I detailed in the novel, from beginning to end, parallel my own family’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge.  I changed the order of events, I collapsed characters, I created more complete conversations from the fragments I remembered as a child.  What I found astounding after finishing the book was that, even after these changes, the emotional truth of that experience was so much closer to the reality of what we endured than it would have been had I stuck just to the chronology of events.  I was nervous about making the father character a poet, but after my mother read it, she said I captured his spirit so well.

 JB: Your father looms large in this story.  I felt as if I suffered his loss with you.  How do you keep his memory alive today?

 VR: He was never truly gone.  Every breath I take, I know it is only possible because he forfeited his life to give me mine.  I carry him in my heart always.

 JB: You have said that In the Shadow of the Banyan is your mother’s book, too.  Would you say that your story is also the story of every Cambodian under the Khmer Rouge?

 VR: I hesitate to say that my story is representative of every Cambodian.  In fact, I make a conscious effort not to claim this.  There are many ways to tell a story, and the more perspectives we have that provide a window into this experience, the better.  During the writing, I was always conscious that however much I’d suffered as a child, others had suffered just as much, if not more.  There were those who lost both of their parents.  That put my anguish in perspective and gave me courage to keep writing, even though often it was so painful to confront those ordeals again.  Ultimately, I feel lucky to be alive, to have the chance to transform this suffering into something beautiful, something that perhaps will resonate with others.  The story of loss and hope is one that belongs to all of us.  It is a timeless, universal tale.

 JB: History and memory are important in your story.  Were there times in your writing process when your memory was at odds with what actually happened or how something truly was?

 VR: At that age, I didn’t comprehend many things.  But I remembered them, especially when something was confusing.  Because of the complexity or ambiguity of the situation, my memory clung to it more stubbornly.  I remember that growing up I tried to understand whether my father was politically inclined one way or another.  After years of talking to my mother and other surviving relatives, I came to see that his feelings, the way he questioned the foundations of his own privilege, preceded all his views of politics. I’ve come to believe he was an ordinary man burdened with the question of his own existence, his limitations.  So writing In the Shadow of the Banyan, I tried to paint Raami’s father in a way that I remember and feel my own father was, a man who had great empathy for others but was limited by his capacity to help.  I’m sure we each have felt that way at times.

 JB: Do you think your story would be different had you been a little older or a little younger in 1975?  Would words and stories have been able to save you in the same way they were able to?  If you were 4 or 10, would you have been able to transport your spirit away from there and disappear into stories like you were able to do?

 VR: My survival is so arbitrary, I can’t really answer what difference age would have made.  I don’t really know why I survived, why others died.  I can only be thankful that the courage of my family and the kindness of others I encountered may have augmented my will to live.  The tragedy is that so many others didn’t survive, even given the same opportunity.  In the end, this book is a tribute, a memorial, to those lost, and a celebration of the lives that endure.

 JB: How difficult was it for you to write this novel? Did you ever have to stop, put your work aside, and return to it later?

 VR: I relived all the losses and tragedies.  There were times when I felt I might not be able to emerge from the despair.  Some critics have said that I did not give enough detail of the violence, which I find astounding.  As a writer, I feel you don’t need the graphic details to make a powerful story, or a powerful statement against atrocities.  But more fundamentally, from a personal perspective, I don’t think it’s possible for a survivor, a sufferer of that atrocity, to go back and visit every memory at its most horrifying—that was never my purpose.  If anything, I sought to make less audible the voice of violence and augment the voice of humanity. 


JB: You and your mother arrived in the U.S. in 1981 as refugees.  How did you keep your culture alive yet, at the same time, embrace American culture?

 VR: It helps that I continue to speak my language, to read and write in Khmer.  I feel I am a stronger person because I draw the richness from both cultures.  I never relinquish one in order to embrace another. 

 JB: Have you given copies of the book to your Cambodian relatives?  What do they think of your novel?

 VR: One cousin from the royal family who also lost her father wrote to me to say that in 37 years she has still not found the courage to speak of that loss.  So, in some way, I think everyone is finding a piece of themselves, a piece of their own history in this book.

 JB: My father, a Vietnam veteran, often recalls the beauty of Vietnam.  Your story made me fall in love with the Cambodian landscape.  You bring its splendor to life, even in the midst of ugliness.  I know you have been back to Cambodia with your family.  How have the country and its people changed since you and your mother left?

 VR: I often feel that Cambodia can make a poet out of you, in that you witness so much beauty and so much tragedy in the same moment.  A beggar child in rags can offer you the most generous smile.  Next to a dilapidated hut, there are stunning rice fields extending to the horizon, so much greenness, the possibility of plenitude.  On the surface, much has changed in recent years.  But on a deeper, more spiritual level, the will to survive despite adversity endures stubbornly, quietly.  It is a country I feel is at once ancient yet constantly searching for a way to renew itself. 

 JB: People really connect to your story.  There is a transcendent quality to storytelling, and your novel perfectly illustrates that.  Has the reader reaction surprised you at all?  Did you know while writing the story that you had such a wonderful book?

 VR: Thank you so much!  That’s very kind of you.  It’s extraordinarily gratifying when a reader sees what I’m trying to achieve with the book.  I set out to write this novel wanting to transcend that personal experience, to find something more universal.  But I didn’t know whether I would succeed.  I’m just so grateful for careful readers, because in their attention and attentiveness they not only show me what I’m able to achieve as a writer but they enlarge my understanding of the story by seeing beyond what I intended.  That to me is a gift. 

 JB: Do you still love stories?  If so, have you passed on your love of stories to your child?

 VR: Oh yes!  I love stories so much that if I could somehow live on them alone without the need for food or water, I would easily do that.  There are some days when I’m so absorbed in writing or reading that I actually forget to eat.  Stories can sustain me for a very long time.  My daughter is an avid reader.  She will often tell me to add a few more interesting details when she listens to me recount my writing day—I woke up, I wrote, I had cup of coffee, I wrote some more.  Already she knows the importance of a rich description. 

 JB: When you are writing, what is a typical day like for you?

 VR: I wake, I write, I drink endless coffee… I’m joking.  I start early in the morning.  Sometimes I move forward with the story.  Sometimes I move backward, and I find myself pressing delete, delete…  I try to work on whatever is most difficult in the first hours of the morning, when my mind is fresh.  But really there’s no magic formula, no perfect routine.  At least, I don’t think so.  When I get it right, I feel brilliant.  When I’m stuck, I think I’m cursed.

 JB: What are you currently reading?

 VR: A bit of many books.  The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng.  The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw.  The Mute’s Soliloquy by Promoedya Ananta Toer.  Love Letters from a Fat Man by Naomi Benaron.

 JB: Who are your favorite authors and/or what are your favorite books?

 VR: There are so many authors I adore.  Gabriel García Marquez, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Anaïs Nin, Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Octavio Paz, V.S. Naipaul, Isabel Allende, Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and of course Michael Ondaatje… I could go on for quite a long time!

 JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading In the Shadow of the Banyan?

 VR: As a child living through a time of atrocity, it was the small glimpses of beauty that sustained me.  I want my readers to see beauty where I saw it—in poetry and music, in the geography of a vanishing world, in the humanity of the people that inhabit it.  In the Shadow of the Banyan is a reflection on family and love and language, the things that connects us as human beings. 

 JB: Are you working on anything new?

 VR: Yes, when I find the time, I’m working on the thread of a second novel.  I’m enamored with Cambodian folk music, particularly smoat, a kind of poetry sung in verse, often during funerals.  I’m compelled by the idea that the dead need music as much as the living.  So it will be a story of parallel lives and parallel loves.

 JB: Sounds like another great book!  Thanks, Vaddey, for a wonderful interview.





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Spotlight on The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Hold everything!  Stop what you are doing and go buy J.K. Rowling’s newest novel, The Casual Vacancy.  

You will not find Harry Potter within these pages.  The Casual Vacancy is Rowling’s first novel for adults.


So what is the book about if it’s not about magic?

According to Goodreads:

“When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?”

J.K. Rowling is an author like no other.  Rowling ” is the writer behind the best selling Harry Potter series. The Potter books have gained worldwide attention, won multiple awards, sold more than 400 million copies and been the basis for a popular series of films.

Aside from writing the Potter novels, Rowling is perhaps equally famous for her “rags to riches” life story, in which she progressed from living on benefits to multi-millionaire status within five years. The 2008 Sunday Times Rich List estimated Rowling’s fortune at £560 million ($798 million), ranking her as the twelfth richest woman in Britain. Forbes ranked Rowling as the forty-eighth most powerful celebrity of 2007, and Timemagazine named her as a runner-up for its 2007 Person of the Year, noting the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given her fandom. She has become a notable philanthropist, supporting such charities as Comic Relief, One Parent Families, Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain, and the Children’s High Level Group. Rowling’s mother died of multiple sclerosis, and because of this she became severely depressed for a period of time.

Real people are the basis for her characters, including one of her most famous, Gilderoy Lockhart, though she refuses to say on whom he is based.

Harry Potter is her most famous debut, though she has written other books branching off of Potter, includingThe Tales of Beedle the BardQuidditch through the Ages, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them.

Rowling has millions of fans and is a household name all around the world, so if you write her a letter, don’t expect her to answer it. Please note that she doesn’t have an email address.”

The Casual Vacancy may not be filled with the supernatural, but I’m sure there is magic within its pages.

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Interview with Wilderness Author Lance Weller

Interview with Lance Weller, author of Wilderness

Jaime Boler: Lance, thank you so much for letting me interview you. Did you always want to be a writer?


Lance Weller: For as long as I can remember, yes.  My maternal grandmother had dreams of being a writer and always had the accoutrements of the craft lying around—pens, pads of paper, a really excellent typewriter—and some of my earliest memories are of monkeying around with all that wonderful stuff.


JB: How did you come up with the idea for Wilderness?  How did you come up with the character of Abel Truman?


LW: Abel Truman came to me well before I had any notion whatsoever that Wilderness would become what it ended up becoming.  I wanted to try and write a really excellent dog story and, to that end, started writing a short story about an old man and his dog and what became of them.  Before I really knew it, they were living on the Washington State coast and the old man was an American Civil War veteran and I was beyond the point where it was a short story by a good number of pages.


JB: The story behind Wilderness is inspirational because you never gave up.  You were very ill and did not write for months yet one thing made the difference for you.  Can you talk about what happened and how that gave you hope?


LW: I’d had Wilderness finished for some time but no one wanted it.  I couldn’t get anybody interested and it had been a long time since I’d seen my name in print on anything.  My illness, when it came, was nothing life-threatening, nothing dire, but fundamentally changed the way I thought about myself because, suddenly, I’d lost the use of the left side of my face and I felt awful, truly awful right down to my bones, all the time.  It forced an existential crisis wherein I started questioning everything I was and had been and on and on. 


At any rate, I didn’t do anything creative for a long time but, at the back of my mind, I knew with Wilderness I’d done the best I knew how.  Eventually, I sat down with the manuscript and started to rework it—not because it needed it (though it did) but because I wanted to relearn the discipline it took to get it done in the first place.  And, eventually, I saw an ad for a magazine looking for stories of the type that Wilderness was full of and, eventually, I got a tiny portion of the manuscript accepted for publication in that magazine.  It felt good and I felt good getting it ready and realized that, even though I’d lost faith for a time, was lost for a time, maybe what I’d managed with Wilderness was a thing that should not be let go so easily.


JB: You conducted extensive research for this novel on the Civil War from generals to conditions for soldiers to battles.  Did anything that you discovered surprise you?


LW: Nearly EVERYTHING I discovered surprised me.  I came from a place of vast, deep ignorance about the conflict and what I did know was pretty well sanitized.  The more I read, the more amazed I became; amazed at what the country went through, amazed at what was borne and amazed at the common soldier’s experience amidst the mud and blood.


JB: You were born in the Pacific Northwest and you write about it.  I am going to pose a question to you I previously asked Jonathan Odell (The Healing): I’ve always heard authors should write what they know best.  Is that why you set Wilderness in the Pacific Northwest?


LW: Partly.  I’m actually of the opinion that some of the best writing comes from stuff that lies outside an author’s everyday experience because, sometimes, you get some good insight; thus my plunge into Civil War history.  That being said, there doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of contemporary fiction set in the Pacific Northwest, at least not out on the coast where I put Abel, so it was a real pleasure and a challenge to dig into it. 


JB: I’ll be honest.  At times, it was so difficult to read your story.  It stirred a wide range of emotions in me (in a good way).  But how hard was it for you to write about the racism, the brutality, and the violence?  Did you ever have to stop to collect yourself?


LW: Not really.  I’d read so much history, so many soldiers’ letters and diaries and thought so long and deeply about what their experience must have been like that I think I became a little inured to the idea of the violence.  There were many times, though, that I came up for air—especially in the battle scenes—and worried I’d gone too far and then, after reading what I’d written, worried I’d not gone far enough to get it as right as I could.


JB: My favorite character in the story is probably Hypatia.  Do you have a favorite?  Or is that like asking a mother who her favorite child is?


LW: I really don’t have a favorite (but I will tell you I was pretty nervous writing Hypatia because I so wanted to get her right; so it’s really gratifying to hear she resonated for you).  I do really love Abel’s dog though…


JB: How do you feel when readers and critics (this one included) say Wilderness is better than Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain?


LW: I’m in a really happy position to find Wilderness often compared to a modern classic like Cold Mountain but, beyond their shared landscape of the American Civil War and their stories of men walking toward uncertain destinies, they are two vastly different books.  To tell the truth, I’m constantly surprised and humbled to be mentioned in the same breath as Frazier who is one of my big literary heroes.


JB: What is your writing process like?  What is a typical day of writing like for you?


LW: I have, I think, the very worst process it is possible to have.  It’s slow and methodical except for when it is not.  It’s overburdened with me being critical with myself except for when it’s not.  I average, maybe, a page a day except for when I do more (or sometimes less).  But I’m very lucky to have a dedicated space filled with stuff I love and (and this is important) I always, always have a dog at my feet.


JB: What is the last book you read?


LW: The last book I read that really bowled me over was Jeffrey Lent’s In the Fall—I’m very lucky NOT to have read it while I was working on Wilderness because it would have taken the heart right out of me it’s so grand and giving a book. 


And, lately, I’ve been rereading a lot of the pulp fiction I loved in my youth; so, a lot of RE Howard and Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Kenneth Robeson.  I’ll always have a soft spot for that sort of wide-eyed adventure story.


JB: Do you have any favorite authors?  If so, who are they?


LW: William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and it more or less stops there.  I can read and reread them any number of times and get something new.


JB: What advice would you give someone working on a first novel?


LW: I don’t know that I’m best guy to answer that question considering how long I worked on Wilderness but I think the best advice I could offer would be to just keep working it and working it and working it—sentence after sentence—and worry about what you’ll end up with after you’ve ended up with it.


Also, if at all possible, have a dog at your feet.


JB: Are you working on anything new?


LW: Always.  Right now, I’m trying another period piece set in 1846 that’s gone from being the story of a marriage to becoming a sort of buddy/road novel about two friends who go to very dark places on the new frontier.


JB: What do hope readers take with them after reading Wilderness?


LW: If there’s one thing I’m learning from this first novel process, is that I need to be prepared to be constantly surprised at what people take away from the book.  I had little in the way of agendas when I wrote it and now, having seen it published, all I can hope for is that folks enjoy it.   There’s really nothing more I can ask for.


JB: Thank you, Lance, for a great interview.




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Interview with Kathy Hepinstall

Interview with Kathy Hepinstall, Author of Blue Asylum

Jaime Boler: You grew up in Texas.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Kathy Hepinstall: Yes, I think so, but it took different forms. As a girl, I wrote mostly poems. Later, I wrote short stories and went into advertising writing.  After a few years in that career, I decided I wanted to try a novel.

JB:  In your opinion, what is the most difficult think about being an author?  And what is the most rewarding?

KH: The most difficult thing is navigating the often challenging waters of the business of publishing. The most rewarding is being able to bring a story to life and have it resonate with other people.

JB: Your last novel, Prince of Lost Places, came out in 2003.  What have you been doing since then? 

KH: Mostly freelancing in advertising.  Wrote some more novels, but didn’t success [in] publishing [anything] until Blue Asylum.

JB: How did you come up with the idea for Blue Asylum

KH: I’d been wanting to write a love story set in an insane asylum.  Just really liked all the inherent tensions in those two intersecting realities: Love and Insanity.

JB:  What kind of research did you do for Blue Asylum?

KH: I was on Sanibel Island for six weeks doing research and starting the first draft. I also learned about mental asylums of the day. 

JB:  I have a PhD in American history and wrote a dissertation on slave resistance in Natchez, Mississippi.  I never found any white plantation mistress who ran away with the slaves, but that’s not to say it NEVER happened.  Such a thing would have been deeply buried by the whites.  Did you find anything in your research about white women taking flight with slaves? 

KH: No, that was purely imaginative. But it made me like Iris to think she could do that.

JB: Are any characters in Blue Asylum loosely based on you or people you know? 

KH: Mary, the doctor’s wife, was based on Mary Lincoln. Ambrose was based on someone I loved and still do. And I see Wendell in all good people. 

JB: Do you think there were actual people like Iris who were declared insane and put into asylums who really were not insane?  Perhaps wives put there by their husbands? 

KH: Yes, that came up in my research.  Victorian men would get rid of their wives that way.

JB: Was the water treatment historically accurate?

KH: I’m trying to remember now..I think cold water was used in some supposedly curative way at some point in the history of asylums. But the water treatment also came from a description I read of a plantation owner who would punish his slaves by putting them in a hole and pouring water on them until it became terribly painful. 

JB:  In this novel, you create the quirkiest and most unforgettable characters.  Did their insanity give you license to really play with them, to really make them stand out? 

KH: Yes, that was very liberating creatively, especially with characters like Penelope and Lydia Helms Truman.

JB:  Do you have a favorite character in this book?  (I think mine is Wendell.)

KH: I do love beautiful tortured lamb-saving Wendell. I also like Lydia and, curiously, both the Cowells. 

JB:  In every one of your stories, you manage to provide unexpected twists.  I never see them coming.  How do you always do this?  And how difficult is it? 

KH: Thank you so much. I really like being surprised as a reader, so I try to surprise readers of my novels. Sometimes I wonder, have I given too many clues? Too few? I regret I wasn’t clearer about the ending to The House of Gentle Men. 

JB: What advice would you give anyone working on a first novel? 

KH: Find a really great editor.  That’s really hard to do but it may come as a surprise and be someone you know.  Also, finish it.  Finish even a terrible first draft. Finishing is a good habit to impress upon the brain.

JB:  Who are your favorite authors? 

KH: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, poets like Lorca and Vallejo.

JB:  Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite? 

KH: Absence of Nectar, most likely forever.

JB:  I saw on your blog where you are trying to get Oprah to read your book.  You even left a signed copy of Blue Asylum for her.  Could you talk a little about that? 

KH: I wanted to get Oprah’s attention in a playful, respectful way so a friend of mine and I buried a copy of Blue Asylum in the foothills of Montecito, where she lives, then took out an ad to her in the Montecito Journal with a treasure map.  So far, no response but I understand – people wanting her attention are legion.

JB:  Will you go on a book tour for Blue Asylum?  Which cities will you visit?  Any chance you might stop in Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS? 

KH: I’ve done readings/book parties in Portland, LA, New York, Virginia Beach and will visit San Francisco later in May. Love Lemuria Books. May not be able to get down there this year but some day soon I’d like to return. I’ll always remember their kindness and warmth and humor. 

JB:  What do you hope readers take with them after reading Blue Asylum?

KH: Just some kind of resonance in their own lives, and I hope, a greater love and respect for lunatics and lambs.

JB:  What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new? 

KH: My sister and I plan to rewrite a novel of ours called Girls of Shiloh, about two sisters who join the Confederate army as men.

JB: Thanks so much, Kathy, for agreeing to answer my questions.  I really appreciate it!

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