Tag Archives: Bookmagnet’s Best Books of June 2013

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

I reviewed this book back in July of 2012 but it’s now out in paperback and deserves a second look.

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann (Back Bay Books; 384 pages; $15).

Klaussmann channels F. Scott Fitzgerald in her decades-spanning tale, which suspensefully and chillingly allows us to witness events as five different people see them, showing how much point of view matters in storytelling.” –Jaime Boler, Laurel, MS

tigers in red weatherWhen I discovered that Liza Klaussmann was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Herman Melville, my heart sank.  What debut novelist can live up to such a pedigree?  If Ancestry.com announced that Stephen King was the great-great-great-nephew of Edgar Allen Poe, I would nod and think what great sense that made.   The same would be true if a genealogist found a link between National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward and Zora Neale Hurston.  But these are established authors.  Their previous work stands alone; nepotism played no role in their success.

 

I will admit that it was with great reluctance that I picked up Klaussmann’s debutTigers in Red Weather.  My expectations were high; however, Klaussmann surpassed all of my hopes for the novel and then some.  I think Herman would have been proud.

 

If you are looking for traces of Melville within Klaussmann’s work, though, you will not find him.  Instead, Tigers in Red Weather opens with smidgens of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It is September 1945.  World War II has just ended.  Cousins Nick and Helena endure a hot summer night on Martha’s Vineyard at an old family estate called Tiger House.  The cousins are “wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of old jelly jars.”  On the record player, “Louis Armstrong was stuck repeating that he had a right to sing the blues.”  It feels like the 1920s rather than the 1940s.  Nick would have been right at home in that earlier era.  She is a reckless free spirit, much like Zelda Fitzgerald.  Nick wants to “stuff the whole world into her mouth and bite down.”

 

With the war over, the cousins eagerly begin their lives.  Nick and her husband, a veteran, settle in Miami.  Helena and her husband settle in Los Angeles.  Nick gives birth to Daisy; Helena to Ed.  Nick puts up a front as she is unhappy in her present circumstances.   Martha’s Vineyard feels far away, and Nick longs for home.  Hughes is not the man that Nick believed him to be.  In her eyes, Hughes had become “something rationed,” ordinary, and “asleep.”

 

In 1959, the cousins and their families reunite for the summer at Tiger House.  For them, the estate reminds them of a more idyllic time, when the world was full of promise and so were they, a time when they could do anything and be anything, but that time has long passed.  Nick especially misses her youth on Martha’s Vineyard: “We could do exactly as we pleased and no one expected anything of us.  I even miss those horrible ration books.  I wish it could be like that now, for me and Hughes.  Not all stuffy and respectable.”  Sometimes, Nick confesses, “I want to rip my clothes off and go running down the street stark naked and screaming my head off.  Just for a…change of pace.”  Nick longs to recapture that moment when she wanted to stuff the world in her mouth and bite down.  Since she cannot, Tiger House becomes her refuge.  There, she is like a general.

 

All that changes on a beautiful summer day when Daisy and Ed make a gruesome and shocking discovery.  They find the dead body of a Portuguese maid.  As Klaussmann writes, “Half of the girl’s face looked like it had collapsed or something, with the Man of War swimming out from her dark curly hair.  The eyes were open and bulging like a frog’s, the fat tongue running between her teeth.”  Just like that, the idyll is over.  Tiger House loses its innocence; the real world creeps in and will not let the family go.

 

Klaussmann expertly tells this story from five different perspectives, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.  Each voice is distinctive and compelling.  As she carries us back and forth through time, Klaussmann allows us to witness the same scene as different people experienced it.  She changes the lens to show how point of view matters in a story and can enhance the storytelling.  Klaussmann manages to keep her plot suspenseful, especially with all of her time and character shifts.  This is what makes Tigers in Red Weather so readable and enjoyable.

 

The events of the summer of 1959 leave a mark on Klaussmann’s characters.  We see this clearly.  The author would be remiss if she did not emphasize this alteration.  Helena retreats deeper and deeper into her world of prescription drugs and alcohol.  In fact, Helena’s narrative is jumbled and broken in parts to show her state of mind.  She cannot cope with reality.  Meanwhile, Ed is in his own little world.  Finding the dead girl fascinated him.  Perhaps he is not the boyscout his mother thinks he is.  For Daisy, the discovery shakes her to the core.  Hughes must confront his past and the secrets he is keeping.

 

cn_image.size.liza-klaussmannNick, though, is Klaussmann’s most interesting and most central character.  Nick is the protagonist of the story.  Yet many of Klaussmann’s characters also view her as their antagonist.  That is no easy feat either, yet Klaussmann pulls it off without a hitch.  She has such a hold over a young Daisy that Klaussmann intersperses her mother’s voice throughout Daisy’s narrative.  Nick admonishes her daughter to do this and not do that.  “Only horses sweat,” Daisy hears her mother say in her head, “men perspire and women glow.”  Klaussmann peppers Daisy’s account with more echoes of Nick.  Nick’s shadow looms over the whole story really as the other characters alternatively envy, admire, resent, love, and loathe her.

 

In addition to Nick, Ed’s account also stands out, but for different reasons.  In contrast to Klaussmann’s other narratives, she writes that of Ed in the first person.  The change is gripping, intimate, and engrossing.  What we learn from Ed is shocking, but nothing Klaussman writes is implausible.  Her plot is always believable.  Tigers in Red Weather ends with a satisfying denouement, leaving readers to ponder the story well after they close the book.

 

Just as I was reluctant to begin Tigers in Red Weather, I was just as equally hesitant to finish the novel.  Upon closing the book, I said aloud, “Herman who?”

 

 

 

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Filed under beach books, book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading

Interview with Elliott Holt, Author of You Are One of Them

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (Penguin; 304 pages; $26.95).

When two school-age girls have a falling out, the clash can seem like the outbreak of world war.  Both sides have many friends, allies who declare war simply because of loyalty to one party.  Think of them as NATO versus the Warsaw Pact.  There is no détente, and things can quickly get ugly.  Each girl deploys secret agents to spy and gather intelligence on the opposing foe.  Undercover surveillance reveals the weaknesses of each adolescent, failings that must be exploited at any cost.  Mutually assured destruction is a given.  If one of the girls tells a deep, dark secret on the other, retaliation will be swift and massive.    In this electrically charged, DEF-CON 1 environment, nuclear war becomes a real possibility as the chances of disarmament plummet.  This terminology recalls the blackest, iciest days of the Cold War—the early 1980s—the setting of Elliott Holt’s smart and suspenseful debut You Are One Of Them.

 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Elliott, for letting me ask you these questions.  Your debut novel, You Are One of Them, grabbed me from the first page and still has a hold on me.  You worked at advertising agencies in Moscow, London , and New York, and attended the MFA program at Brooklyn College  at night.  Did you always want to be a writer?

 

Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt: Thanks so much for reading the book, Jaime. Yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember.  My mother recorded me making up song/poems at age 3 and then transcribed them. I still have them.  And by the time I was five, I was telling people that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote poetry and stories throughout my childhood. And I was always a voracious reader.

 

JB: How would you describe You Are One of Them?

 

EH: It’s a book about identity and friendship and loss, about the obsessive nature of grief, and about the way history (personal and cultural) shapes us.

 

 

It explores the themes of the Cold War–competition, paranoia, propaganda, loyalty–on the smaller scale of a friendship between two girls. Humans have a tendency to divide the world into us vs. them. Coke vs. Pepsi, the US vs. the USSR , boys vs. girls, Democrats vs. Republicans, the popular kids vs. the unpopular kids, etc.

 

It’s easy to see the world in those polarized terms and to define ourselves versus an enemy or rival. During the Cold War, much of what it meant to be American was “not Communist.” During the Revolutionary War, we weren’t British, during World War II, we weren’t Nazis, and during the Cold War, we weren’t Russian. And friendships can work that way, too. There is often an intrinsic rivalry in close friendships.

 

JB: What was the inspiration for your story?

 

EH: I was inspired by the true story of Samantha Smith, an American girl who wrote a letter to Soviet premier Yuri Andropov, asking for peace, in 1982. But her story was just a jumping-off point. This novel is not a fictionalized account of her life. (She died in a plane crash in 1985, but her remains were found. The events of my book are fabricated.)

 

Samantha Smith

Samantha Smith. For more information on this extraordinary little girl, please click her photo.

The premise was inspired by Samantha Smith, though. I thought, ‘what if two girls had written to Andropov, but only one got a response? How would the friendship between those two girls change if one of them became a famous peace ambassador and was invited to the USSR, while the other was left behind?’ So I told the story from the point-of-view of the marginalized character. And then I asked myself why this character would be so hurt by what she perceived as abandonment. So I created a family history for her, one defined by loss and fear. The late Cold War years were pretty terrifying for a lot of us. But for Sarah Zuckerman, my narrator, there is never any buffer or escape from that fear. Her mother has an anxiety disorder, so Sarah never feels safe.

 

JB: How did you come up with the title?you are one of them

 

EH: In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room,” the speaker says to herself, “you are one of them.” That phrase felt right for my book both in terms of tone and because the meaning works on many levels. This book is about our tendency as humans to divide the world into “us” versus “them,” but it’s also a book about identity and understanding of self. In that poem, the speaker realizes just how connected she is to the rest of humanity. Sarah, the narrator of my book, makes similar discoveries about herself.

 

You can read it as an accusation, “you are one of them!” or a quiet realization. Sarah realizes that she herself is one of ‘them’–she’s not so different from everyone else.

 

JB: In You Are One of Them, you revisit so many 80s fads and issues.  Are you a child of the 1980s?  What do you remember most about that decade?

 

EH: I was born in 1974, so yes, I was a child in the 1980s. I remember watching regular space shuttle launches on TV (and watching the Challenger explode in 1986) and following the news of regular summits between the Americans and the Soviets. I also played a lot of Pac Man!

 

JB: As a child of the 1980s, did the prospect of nuclear war frighten you?

 

EH: Definitely. Like a lot of kids my age, I was really worried about nuclear war. I was very aware of the arms race between the US  and the USSR.

ColdWarLogo

Click to learn more about the Cold War.

 

 

JB: I, too, was a child of the 80s and the possibility of nuclear war frightened me.  I’m curious as to whose voice you heard first—Sarah’s or Jenny’s?

 

EH: When I was writing the book, I was always focused on Sarah’s voice. This is Sarah’s story, not Jenny’s, and I knew that I had to write the book in the first person because Sarah is a character who has spent her life thinking of herself as a footnote in someone else’s story. In this book, she is finally telling her version of the events. Her friend wrote a book about her journey to the Soviet Union,  now Sarah is telling her story about her trip to Russia .

 

Everyone’s version of a story is different. And Sarah is not the most reliable narrator, not because she’s coy or dishonest, but because her experience is totally subjective. She sees the world through her particular lens. She’s narrating this story from a perch in her thirties, so she is looking back at her childhood in the 1980s and at her twenties in the mid-1990s. Her story is colored by nostalgia (she has a wistful, romantic view of Jenny) and by her anger and grief, but she also has enough distance from the events to put them in their historical context. The perch informs the voice and the tone.

 

JB: How were earlier versions of You Are One of Them different from the final version?

 

EH: The book changed a lot in the four years I was working on it. It’s hard for me to track all the changes I made along the way, because I revise so much. I wasn’t sure I could finish the book. I threw a lot of pages away. I spent a lot of time spinning my wheels and feeling like I’d never get it right.

 

I’d been working on it (writing and rewriting the same fifty pages) for three years before I found the line, “The first defector was my sister.” But that line unlocked the central metaphor of the book. And once I heard that line in my head, I found the tone. I follow the sound of sentences. I play with language. “Defector” sounds like “defective.”  So I found myself playing with both political defection from one’s country and the idea of being a person with defects.

The first defector was my sister.

 

JB: Perfect segue to my next question.  Why is Sarah so concerned with defectors and why does she worry she herself is defective?

 

EH: Sarah has lost a lot of people (her sister dies, her father leaves, her mother retreats into fear, and then her best friend dies), so she feels abandoned. She feels like something must be wrong with her because so many people she cared about have left her. She sees the abandonment as “defection” because she is influenced by Cold War lingo. She brands herself as a sort of martyr.

 

JB: You Are One of Them has an ambiguous ending.  I thought I knew, and then I began second-guessing myself.  Did you always intend for the conclusion to be so indefinite?

 

EH: I always knew that I wanted the book to end this way. The surface mystery is not completely resolved, but there is resolution in terms of Sarah’s emotional journey. Sarah chooses, finally, to let go of her friend’s story and focus on her own.

 

JB: You also write short fiction, which has been published in  Kenyon ReviewBellevue Literary Review, and The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology).  Which medium do you prefer: short stories or novels?

 

26563adadb52d24c32d312684e7c3d60EH: I really love writing short stories, but in many ways they are harder to write. You can’t have a single weak line in a short story! I’ve published three short stories and each of them took me more than two years to write. I would write a first draft pretty quickly, but then spend two or three years revising it. But I’ve learned that writing a novel requires a level of endurance that a story doesn’t. I think you figure out the rules of the story or novel you’re writing while you’re working on it, though. So each new project brings different challenges.

 

JB: You are the winner of a Pushcart Prize and runner-up of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award.  Did you feel any added pressure because of these early awards?

 

EH: Those two awards didn’t add pressure, but they did inspire me to keep working on my book. As a writer, you face so much rejection and self-doubt that any kind of encouragement is really helpful.

 

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

 

EH: It depends. I can’t support myself just by writing fiction, so if I’m working at an ad agency (I still freelance sometimes) or teaching, I often go several weeks or even months without getting to write much at all.

 

But I saved up money to give myself a year of uninterrupted writing time while I was finishing this book. And during that period, I would spend ten or twelve hours a day at my desk. When I’m in the zone on a project, I’m hard to distract. I write in the morning, revise and edit in the afternoons and evenings. I print drafts out and edit them by hand (scribbling in the margins, etc.)

 

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

 

EH: I love so many writers and so many books! Here is a sample of authors whose work I adore (in no particular order): Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Anne Carson, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dana Spiotta, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rachel Kushner, and Zadie Smith. And I read a lot of poetry. Fiction writers should read more poetry. I’m especially keen on Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop.

 

JB: I love that you read such a wide-range of authors.  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

EH: Read! I love to read. I also like to hike/walk in the woods, swim (especially in the ocean), and go to movies, plays and art museums.

 

JB: All that reading as a kid has now paid off!  It made you the writer you are today.  What was the most difficult thing about writing your story?  And did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing?

EH: I’m glad that I kept working and didn’t give up on it. I had to prove to myself that I could write a novel. I learned how important determination and will is to the process.

 

JB: When you were writing your story, did you have any idea how big it could be?

 

EH: When I was working on the book, I wasn’t even sure it would be published! I’m very grateful that it was.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading You Are One of Them?

Audio Book

Audio Book

 

EH: I hope that its depiction of fear, loss, and friendship resonates with readers.

 

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

 

EH: I’m working on a couple of short stories right now. And I have an idea for another novel, but I’m not yet sure if it’s going to work!

 

JB: If You Are One of Them is an indication, anything you write will be smart and compelling!  Thank you, Elliott, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book.

 

EH: Thank you so much, Jaime.

 

Elliott’s Website

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Filed under author interviews, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading

Interview with Lisa Brackmann, Author of Hour of the Rat

Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann (Soho Crime; 371 pages; $25.95).

Ellie McEnroe returns in the sequel to the critically acclaimed New York Times and USA Today best-seller, ROCK PAPER TIGER.

Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe has a pretty good life in Beijing, representing the work of controversial dissident Chinese artist Zhang Jianli. Even though Zhang’s mysterious disappearance of over a year ago has her in the sights of the Chinese authorities. Even though her Born-Again mother has come for a visit and shows no signs of leaving. But things really get complicated when Ellie’s search for an Army buddy’s missing brother entangles her in a conspiracy that may or may not involve a sinister biotech company, eco-terrorists, an art-obsessed Chinese billionaire and lots of cats—a conspiracy that will take her on a wild chase through some of China’s most beautiful and most surreal places.

hour-of-the-rat.jpgJaime Boler: Thank you so much, Lisa, for letting me ask you these questions.  I’ve always been a huge fan of yours from your Rock Paper Tiger days and Hour of the Rat is a clever, taut sequel.   You have worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, as an issues researcher for a presidential campaign, and as a singer/songwriter/bassist in a rock band.  What made you want to write novels?

Lisa Brackmann: I really wanted to write fiction before I did any of those other things you mention above. I’ve told the story before, but I tried to write my first novel at the age of five. It was to be an epic adventure about cats who went camping. Unfortunately I did not know how to spell “tent.” This is a true story. I wrote fiction on and off when I was young, and none of it was very good, but I did have an idea how to construct a narrative, and writing was something that I was very passionate about.

I studied writing briefly in college – one of my professors was Lydia Davis, who just won the Man Booker Prize and who had a tremendous influence on me. She helped teach me how to see the world with greater precision. But I got to a point where writing felt like I was constantly living my life as source material rather than actually living it, so I took a break and got into music. Later, I worked in the film industry, and like just about everyone in Los Angeles, I wrote a couple screenplays and a bunch of teleplays. I really enjoyed those projects, but they aren’t finished until someone decides to produce them – and given the weirdness of what I tended to write, the odds of that happening weren’t great.

I decided to write a novel for fun while I came up with that high concept screenplay idea that was going to make me rich. I never did come up with the high concept screenplay, but I found that I really enjoyed writing novels. Even if I didn’t sell them, they were complete in themselves. I found that really satisfying.

JB: Your first novel, Rock Paper Tiger, was selected by Amazon as one of its Top 100 books of 2010 and a Top 10 pick in the

Rock Paper Tiger

Rock Paper Tiger

mystery/thriller category.  It was also nominated for the Strand Magazine Critics Award for Best First Novel.  What was that experience like?

LB: I’m friends with a bunch of writers, and in one of the groups I’m in, we call it “The Emo-Coaster.” When you’re a working author, you have tremendous highs, and crashing lows, regardless of how hard you try to stay balanced. It’s just very weird to have something you worked so hard on, that is such a personal expression, out there in the world being judged. This is especially true for debuts, I think – it’s all a new experience.

I really didn’t expect much to happen with Rock Paper Tiger – I was happy to be published, but I knew something about the reality of the lifecycle of most books. So when the book ended up doing pretty well, I was surprised. I remember at one point, feeling this weird rushing sensation – like, whoa, this is actually kind of taking off. Maybe I have a career doing this after all. At the same time that it was unexpected, I also felt like I’d really found my tribe, for the first time – that being a writer, being around other writers and around people who really care about books – this was where I belonged.

Getaway

Getaway

JB: Getaway, your second novel, is a standalone book.  Was it good to get back to the characters and setting of your debut?

LB: I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel to Rock Paper Tiger, but realized that there were still more stories that I wanted to tell about Ellie McEnroe and about China. I never find writing novels to be easy, but writing Hour of the Rat was definitely less hard than others. A lot of the groundwork is already done; you know who these people are and what they tend to want. As for the setting, I’d felt that I’d barely scratched the surface of the richness and complexity that is today’s China. My formative experience in China was in 1979, and though I’d been back at least a half a dozen times before writing Rock Paper Tiger, I’d kept going back after, and felt that I could bring a little more depth and insight into a new book than I’d been able to bring to the first. So it was great to return to China and to Ellie. I really had a lot of fun with it.

JB: What attracts you to writing existential thrillers?

LB: I like to think of myself as a realist. I’m very interested in big issues, but the reality is, unlike superhero or James Bond movies, the ability of one person to have a significant impact on global conspiracies, you know, the typical stuff of thrillers, is pretty limited. For most people, if you care about things, you have to learn how to deal with a world that doesn’t really care about you. You’re up against institutions and individuals that are extremely powerful, and all the weapons, both real and metaphoric, are on their side. Realistically, you don’t get to defeat those villains. Mostly, you just have to try and do your best and figure out how you’re going to live with that reality.

I’m interested in “ordinary” people as opposed to superheroes, who not only have to survive whatever perils they’ve been placed in, but who are trying to figure out how to live in the world.

JB: How would you describe Hour of the Rat?

LB: A romp through environmental apocalypse in China with accidental Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe.

JB: What provided the inspiration for Iraq War vet Ellie McEnroe, the lead character in both Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat?  Is she based on anyone in real life?

LB: The years before I started writing Rock Paper Tiger, I’d been following the news about the Iraq War and the War on Terror pretty closely. I was fascinated by figures like Jessica Lynch, who’d joined the National Guard to get some extra money–there were no jobs at Wal-Mart, and she wanted to go to school and study to be a teacher—and then when she was captured by Iraqi forces, she became a symbol of the war in a way that she never wanted to be. On the flipside, you had Lynndie England, brought up in a trailer park in Appalachia in an abusive family and who was implicated in the torture at Abu Ghraib–one of the few individuals actually prosecuted for this, along with other low-level soldiers – none of the architects of the abuses were ever punished.

I wanted to deal with the Iraq War and the War on Terror in [Rock Paper Tiger], so I came up with the character of Ellie McEnroe, an accidental war vet who’d joined the National Guard to get health insurance and maybe some money for college, and ended up in a situation way above her pay grade. Unlike say, a Lynndie England, Ellie has a strong sense of right and wrong and also, of guilt.

I just sort of imagined her background and her experiences, and channeled who she would be, if that makes any sense.

ratJB: Ellie or “Yili” was born in the Year of the Rat.  According to a website that explains the Chinese zodiac, “The Rat is quick-witted. Most rats get more accomplished in 24 hours than the rest of us do in as many days. They are confident and usually have good instincts. Stubborn as they are, they prefer to live by their own rules rather than those of others.”  Is this why you chose that sign for Ellie?  And why you chose Hour of the Rat as your title? 

LB: I think, actually, that I chose her sign sort of backwards – I needed her to be a certain age in Rock Paper Tiger, and the birth-date I picked for her landed her in the year of the Rat. I thought that the Rat sounded like a good sign for Ellie – stubborn and quick-witted and living by her own rules – though she must have some other influences that undermine that whole “good instincts” part, because even when she knows that it’s a bad idea to do something, she tends to go ahead and do it anyway!

Since Rock Paper Tiger came out in the Year of the Tiger – which, by the way, was totally unplanned, it just happened that way – I thought maybe carrying over the Chinese astrology theme for the title would be cool. As Ellie explains in the book, Chinese astrology, like Western astrology, has rising signs, based on the time of day you’re born. Each “Hour” is actually two, and the Hour of the Rat is between 11 PM and 1 AM. I was actually born in the Hour of the Rat, and I don’t know, I just liked the way it sounded and the images that it conjured up.

JB: How different were earlier versions of Hour of the Rat compared to the final copy?

LB: Not very. One of my beta readers made a very smart observation about how a plot reveal I’d initially done early on sort of undermined the tension, so I moved that around. My amazing editor at Soho, Juliet Grames, suggested the addition of a prologue, to put people back into Ellie’s world, and had some notes about strengthening certain emotional arcs and story points. Overall, though, I was really lucky with this book – it basically came out in the first draft pretty much the way that it went to print. Would that they were all so easy!

JB: Do you have a favorite character in this story?  If so, who?

LB: I like them all, of course, but I will admit to a particular fondness for Kang Li, the macho guy with a soft spot for cats.

JB: You traveled to China shortly after the Cultural Revolution.  How did that visit affect you and also your writing?

The author in China.

The author in China.

LB: It completely changed the course of my life. I was twenty years old, and China at that time had been very closed off to the West and to Western cultural influences. When I showed up it was like being from the Starship Enterprise, and I’d beamed down to this strange planet. Americans, especially young Americans, were objects of intense curiosity and speculation—most of the Chinese we encountered hadn’t met many, or any Americans, so we took on this weird symbolic role, too. At the same time, there really weren’t any American pop culture influences in China at that time, other than bootlegged tapes of The Sound Of Music and TV broadcasts of a short-lived TV series starring Patrick Duffy called The Man From Atlantis (which was filmed in my hometown of San Diego, making it even weirder to see in Beijing, China!). American pop culture is so globally pervasive that being someplace where it was absent was oddly liberating.

I was in China for six months but the whole thing was so intense that it felt like Experience Concentrate.

It took me years to put it all in context and to really fully integrate the experience. I don’t think I really did until I started studying Mandarin years later and began to travel back to China.

In terms of the writing, if you compared examples of my prose before and after China, I don’t think you’d recognize them as being by the same person.

 

JB: World-wide environmental and political issues are of significant importance to you.  How easy or how difficult is it to

Lisa Brackmann

Lisa Brackmann

incorporate the things that matter to you into your fiction?

LB: I always say that my stories are about character meets setting meets something that I’m passionate about – the kind of issues you mention above help provide the passion. The main thing I have to work on is incorporating those kinds of topics into the story in an organic way. I want to avoid info dumps and a lot of didactic speechifying. I’m writing suspense novels, not academic non-fiction or political polemics.

JB: What is different this time around compared to when you were writing Rock Paper Tiger?

LB: Pretty different on a lot of levels. When I wrote Rock Paper Tiger, I didn’t have an agent. I hadn’t sold a book. There were no particular expectations on me other than the ones I put on myself. Hour of the Rat is my third published novel, and there’s a whole process that goes along with that. I can’t say that I’m exactly used to it, but I’m somewhat familiar with it at least.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Hour of the Rat?

LB: Probably that I had to take certain aspects of Rock Paper Tiger that I had intended to be a little metaphoric – the open-endedness of the parts of the story to me was an expression of what the book was about. But in a sequel, you don’t have the same leeway to leave that many areas mysterious. I had to make decisions about how to ground these things in reality.

JB: Did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing the novel?

LB: Mostly that I could write a book on a schedule and with a deadline, and that as long as I planned my time wisely, I could do that.

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for Lisa Brackmann?

LB: I get up and do my email and reading. I edit any work I did the night before. When I’m on a roll or have a lot to do, I have a writing session after that. Then late afternoon, I go out and get some exercise – either I go to the gym, or I take a long walk to do errands. I think it’s super-important for writers not to neglect their bodies, which is easy to do when your job is so much in your head and there’s so much sitting involved! My latest favorite form of exercise is old-school weight training—dead-lifts and bench presses and the like. I’m loving it.

 

I usually read novels or books for research and/or watch some TV in the early evening. I save the tough creative work for late night. I’ve always been a night owl, and I got into the habit of writing late at night when I had a full-time day job. I just sort of trained myself into it: “Now is the time to be creative and work.” For whatever reason it’s when my focus is best and when I am most able to problem-solve. Maybe for me it’s easier to be creative when everyone around me is asleep.

 

Mixed in with all this is socializing with friends and family, which is another thing that I think is really essential. Most writers are introverts, and for a lot of us, at times we think of other people as intrusions and interruptions. While it’s true that we need to be able to shut the door and work, I think for me, it’s important to not isolate. Besides, people and their conflicts are at the center of what we write. If we just stay in our rooms all day and don’t talk to anyone, what are we going to write about?

 

Of course, then, I have to make sure that I’m not socializing as a form of procrastination, which has been known to happen. 

 

Also, cats. Generally there are cats involved. I’m sitting next to one as I type this.

 

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

LB: I’m mostly going to focus on California this time out, so I’m doing events in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and Orange County. I’ll also be at Bouchercon in Albany, NY, in September and am hoping to do a few gigs in New York City around that.

4BestLisa_BrackmannJB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Hour of the Rat?

LB: I hope they get a little sense of what China is like, and maybe take away that the tough things we need to face in many cases are global in scale. What happens in China affects us in the US, and vice-versa. And that maybe there are certain aspects of our global economy that are pretty [screwed] up, that don’t benefit most people and that don’t benefit the planet.

Also, I hope that it’s a book people can escape into for a few hours, go somewhere different, and at the end that they enjoyed the ride.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?  I certainly look forward to the return of Lao Zhang.

LB: I’m working on the third book in the series, tentatively called Dragon Day. The end of Hour of the Rat actually is setting up for a sequel – there are some plot threads running through the first two books that I feel I need to draw to a conclusion. So, yes, you will see Lao Zhang! I’m also working on a sequel to my second book, Getaway. It’s very different from that book, with a more satiric edge, but it also deals with issues that I’m very interested in exploring: the prison system in the US, particularly private prisons, and the relationship between that and the War on Drugs. Also, I’m having a lot of fun with the main character, Michelle, who I’m just going to say is not the woman she was at the beginning of Getaway, and the villain of the piece, who gets so much joy out of screwing with peoples’ lives—a man who truly loves his work.

JB: Thanks, Lisa, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

LB: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure!

 

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Book Review: In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho; 320 pages; $25.95).

in the houseReading Matt Bell’s first novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, I often looked up from the book and blinked furiously in confusion.  I expected to see a house with myriad rooms, a strange sky above me, a lake in the distance, and a wooded green.  Instead, my own familiar environs surrounded me.   That is just how powerful the setting is in Bell’s dreamlike, fabled, and beautiful debut.  The story of a marriage and its collapse become much more as Bell infuses myth, allegory, and symbolism into his story, transforming the work into something else entirely.

A couple marries and, longing to get away from the rest of the world, moves to a bizarre land.  The husband builds them a house, which the wife improves upon not by her hands but with her voice.  If the husband starts building a room, for example, the wife can simply sing the rest of the space into being.  For a time, despite the presence of a bear, a presence that looms over the entire novel, they are harmonious.  Yet, their family is incomplete.

He longs for a child; she tries to give him one, but fulfilling that longing is not easy as her every pregnancy fails.  The wife senses that she and her husband are slowly drifting further and further away from one another.  Determined to save her marriage, the wife sings a son into existence.  When the husband discovers the horrible truth of the child’s origins, he goes in search of his wife and their “foundling.”

As the husband walks through the house his wife built, now abandoned by them, Bell shows us the remnants of a failed marriage.  “And in this room,” Bell writes, “The sound of my wife’s knuckle first sliding beneath the beaten silver of that ring, a sound never before heard, or else forgotten amidst all the other business of our wedding day.”  Behind each door the husband opens is a different and striking scene.  Each room holds a memory, a recollection the husband has long forgotten, but which the wife tucks away.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods may seem otherworldly, but the story is actually very familiar and recognizable.  “As her side of our bedchamber grew some few inches, I did what little I could to right our arrangement, tugged hard at the blankets that barely covered the widened bed—until once again all things were distributed evenly, even as they were somehow also further apart.”

The debut is a simple story of love, marriage, parenthood, and aging amplified by mystery, lore, and imagery.  A fabulous and fantastical journey into the heart of a husband and wife and into the unknown, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is by turns dark, mysterious, and foreboding.  Bell imbues such imagination and brilliance into this tale.  Bell provides a real insight into ourselves, and therein lies the real beauty of the story.

As the years pass and the couple gets older, the wife can no longer remember her husband or the foundling.  Sadly, she cannot even remember the songs she once sang.  Most arresting to me was the squid the husband turned into as he swam into the depths of the murky lake, his aches and pains and age dissolving away.  Muted passages like these spoke volumes to me and lend the narrative richness and power.

Reminiscent of the work of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has already

Matt Bell

Matt Bell

garnered attention from the Indie Next list, choosing it as one of its selections for July.  Bell’s lyrical language, his crystal clarity, and his sharp and colorful setting explain what all the fuss is about and herald the arrival of a major new literary talent.

When you open In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, you leave your world behind and enter a shadowy and forbidding landscape.  And you will be so glad you did.

 

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Book Review: You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (Penguin; 304 pages; $26.95).

you are one of themWhen two school-age girls have a falling out, the clash can seem like the outbreak of world war.  Both sides have many friends, allies who declare war simply because of loyalty to one party.  Think of them as NATO versus the Warsaw Pact.  There is no détente, and things can quickly get ugly.  Each girl deploys secret agents to spy and gather intelligence on the opposing foe.  Undercover surveillance reveals the weaknesses of each adolescent, failings that must be exploited at any cost.  Mutually assured destruction is a given.  If one of the girls tells a deep, dark secret on the other, retaliation will be swift and massive.    In this electrically charged, DEF-CON 1 environment, nuclear war becomes a real possibility as the chances of disarmament plummet.  This terminology recalls the blackest, iciest days of the Cold War—the early 1980s—the setting of Elliott Holt’s smart and suspenseful debut You Are One Of Them.

Hostile young girls are not that much different from warring nations.  Best friends Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones write letters to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982.  Incredibly, the president replies, but only to Jenny’s missive, not to Sarah’s.  Andropov invites Jenny and her family to the USSR on a good-will tour.  Jenny becomes a celebrity practically overnight but never mentions Sarah’s letter or the fact that it was all Sarah’s idea.  Say good-bye to that friendship.  A new cold war between former best friends thus commences.

Then, in 1985, Jenny and her family die in a plane crash.  The news devastates Sarah, sending her into a tail-spin.  Because Sarah thinks she is defective since those closest to her end up leaving or dying (her sister, her father, her best friend), defectors from the Soviet Union like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Vitaly Yurchenko, and Oleg Gordievsky fascinate her.   After college, Sarah decides to visit Russia for the first time.  She hopes to find a position in journalism in Moscow.

Sarah, though, has another reason to visit Moscow.  She receives a strange letter from a woman who spent time with Jenny during her tour of the Soviet Union and alludes to the possibility that Jenny did not actually die in the crash.  Here’s where the story turns exciting and interesting, especially when Sarah comes face to face with a woman who may or may not be Jenny.

Holt’s ending is intentionally ambiguous.  However, I preferred the vague ending to a clearer conclusion in this instance.  I liked not knowing.  I liked closing the book and wondering how one can navigate a course for truth when secrets and lies cloud the way.   Of course, the novel’s indefinite finale may frustrate some readers, but I appreciated the enigmatic mystery.

The character of Jenny is loosely based on Samantha Smith.  In December of 1982, Smith, a ten-year-old girl from Manchester, Maine, wrote a letter to Andropov.  Smith asked the Soviet premier if he planned to mount a nuclear war against America.  He replied to her, and, at his invitation, Smith toured the Soviet Union the next year.  Her picture was everywhere, and she even became a television actress.  This little girl was America’s youngest ambassador, but her life was cruelly cut short in 1985 when she and her parents were killed in a plane crash.

Set in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s when Star Wars was on the minds of moviegoers and presidents alike and in Moscow during the

Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt

1990s when the world map was constantly being drawn and redrawn, You Are One of them is fast-paced to reflect that fast-moving world.  Because the author lived in Moscow from 1997 to 1999, her writing radiates with intricate ease as Sarah navigates Moscow.  Holt is thus able to transport us to a strange, new, and uncertain Russia—a country that was once just as perplexing as the mystery that is at the heart of You Are One of Them.

Holt excavates the familiar terrain of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and deception in You Are One of Them, but her penetrating gaze and knowing voice propel her tale far past other novels.   You Are One of Them shares the feel of The Americans and is just as addictive.  I was glued to every page of Holt’s novel.  I would have endured a nuclear winter to spend more time with these striking and well-illustrated characters…well, maybe.

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Book Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead Books; 400 pages; $27.95).

yonahlossee1.jpgWe’ve all known girls like Thea Atwell—girls who made mistakes so big they were sent away, fast girls, precocious girls, daring girls.  Thea narrates Anton DiSclafani’s debut novel The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an exquisite period piece and a provocative, passionate, and bold coming-of-age tale. Much more than just a precocious teen, Thea is a magnificently well-drawn character, a trail-blazer, wholly modern, and a feminist (before there was such a thing).  No one who reads this story will be able to forget Thea, one of the most memorable characters in fiction today.

Exiled from her family, from her Florida home, and from her beloved horse, Sasi, Thea is sent to a school for girls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  In a voice that is at times worldly and sometimes naïve, Thea reveals, “It was called the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, but it was neither a camp nor a place for girls.  We were supposed to be made ladies here.”

Her place in the family had once been well-defined, but now Thea is displaced and struggling, “a confused, wronged girl” whose parents punish her for a misdeed by banishing her.  Her twin brother, Sam, who commits a transgression of his own, is left unpunished.

DiSclafani uses two story arcs, one present and one past, to tell her story.  The two narratives are like Thea herself—on the cusp of something.  Each story arc leads up to a shuddering climax, while Thea herself is a character also on the cusp, at a crossroads of adulthood, womanhood, and budding sexuality.

Thea slowly comes to realize it is a man’s world.  Whether she is in Florida or in North Carolina, she must obey either her father or the headmaster.  She must obey their rules and abide by their laws.  And she is not alone.  At Yonahlossee, her new friends must also follow the dictates of their fathers and the depressed economy.  Friends like Leona, mistress of the showing arena, who must leave her horse behind when her father can no longer afford his daughter’s tuition.  They are “but daughters.” It’s no wonder these girls ride horses: only in the saddle do they have any semblance of control.

Interestingly, Thea seems to assume the role that others have assigned her at Yonahlossee.  “Did my parents hope I’d been taught a lesson?  They thought they’d sent me somewhere safe.  Away from men, away from cousins…If my parents had kept me home, I might have learned their lesson.”  Thea, though, chafes at convention.  She is a girl who wants too much and who desires desperately, a girl who has been introduced to the world of men and finds she likes this world, even if she does not always understand it.  She is fearless, an attribute that aids her “in the [horse] ring” but “badly in life.”

At fifteen, Thea wants to explore who she is and what and where the boundaries are.  Today, her rebellion is a rite of passage, but it was unusual in 1931 for a girl to behave as risky as Thea does in the novel.  Since her parents have expelled her, she feels that there is nothing left for her to lose.

With reckless abandon, Thea sets her sights on the headmaster, Mr. Holmes.  And what Thea wants, she usually finds a way to get.  She knows “what it was like to want, to desire so intensely” that she is “willing to throw everything else into its fire.”

When DiSclafani reveals both the shocking act that led to Thea’s expulsion and the scandalous way in which she leaves Yonahlossee,

Anton DiSclafani

Anton DiSclafani

you are speechless, shaken, and consumed with awe.  DiSclafani writes, “I wanted everything.  I wanted my cousin.  I wanted Mr. Holmes.  I was a girl, I learned, who got what she wanted, but not without sadness, not without cutting a swatch of destruction so wide it consumed my family.  And almost me.  I almost fell into it, with them.  I almost lost myself.”

Yet it is only because of her intense desire and wildness that Thea is able to forge her own path, a place in the ring where she rules supreme and where fathers and headmasters are absent.  Neither her parents nor Thea expected this surprising turn of events when Thea was cast out.   In the end, Yonahlossee shows Thea her life is hers and no one else’s. Thea must “lay claim to it.”

Penetratingly plot-driven, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a literary stunner and will be one of the most talked-about novels of the year.  Get a head start and read it now.

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Matt Bell, Author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho Press; 312 pages; $25). 

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Matt, for letting me ask you these questions.  I loved your mythic, fabled novel IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS.  Did you always want to be a writer?

 

Matt Bell

Matt Bell

 

Matt Bell: Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, and I appreciate you talking to me about it.

 

I was always a reader, and did occasionally write, off and on, but I didn’t begin to actively pursue writing seriously until I was twenty or so, right before I went back to college. Not surprisingly, that change happened around the same time I found the first literary writers I truly loved, writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, and Raymond Carver.

 

JB: How would you describe IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS in ten words or less?

 

MB: It’s not the easiest book to synopsize, is it? Ten words isn’t much—that’s less words than are in the title—but let’s say the book is a “myth about marriage and parenthood—with bear, squid, and maze.”

 

JB: How did you come up with the title?

 

MB: I think I had the title pretty early on. It’s not a particularly tricky title, despite how long it is: It’s really just the setting, right? And I always liked that. Part of what makes the book go is the constrained setting, and I like announcing that in the title.

 

JB: Your story explores the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely in the houseby the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.”  Yet you infuse the tale with allegorical and epic qualities.  Why did you choose to tell the story in this way?  And how different a novel would it be without the myth and enchantment?

 

MB: The story is this way because it’s what the story demanded, more than anything else: I was discovering the events of the story before I knew what they meant, or how they necessarily went together. For me, these thematic concerns emerge from story, not the other way around.

 

JB: Novelist Colum McCann writes, “It’s complicated when you’re talking about voices and trying to create voices, or trying to create an atmosphere around a voice. I think eventually the voice is heard deep, deep into the work. There’s one line there—if you can recognize it, you can bring it back to the beginning. It’s like music, right? You find the right note, the other notes will follow. That’s how the voice things work in a book. You’re like a conductor who goes into the pit and you bring all the magicians and the instruments and you have to strike them up. Most likely you need a few days with them to find the texture of the music you want to play, or perhaps months. And then you find where the actual quality, the actual flavor of the voice is. From there, you hope the music works.”  Is this true for you?  Whose voice did you hear first in your own story?

 

MB: I think this is absolutely the case: Without the voice, there isn’t even any way to continue forward. I often don’t hear it quite right at the beginning—one of the reasons to rewrite so much is to continue to deepen the voice—but I try always to let it push the story forward. I don’t plan first drafts, I don’t try to understand too much, I try to let the speaker dictate where the story goes next. In this case, of course, it was the husband’s voice—and his voice was so loud that it was, for a long time, hard to see the rest of the story from any other perspective but his.

 

JB: You teach creative writing at Northern Michigan University.  Is writing something that can be taught or is it a matter of either you “got it or you don’t”?

 

MB: If I didn’t believe you could teach writing, my job would be a bit of a scam, right? Talent exists, but it’s the least of the qualities a writer needs, and a writer can make up for most any lack he or she has with a powerful work ethic, a voracious reading appetite, and an honest and personal approach to the world, in addition to the study of form and technique. And if any of these aspects of being a writer can’t be taught, they can at least be modeled. I try to do both for my students.

 

JB: Has teaching writing made you a better author?

 

MB: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to get to talk about stories I love with smart and sensitive young writers, and of course their own work is often surprising and inspiring. A lot of the models I share with my students are stories that were fundamental in my own growth as a writer, but I also share a lot of very new stories from lit mags and new collections that I find interesting. It’s great to get to work through those stories with fifteen smart students, and to see them working day by day to understand their own natural aesthetics, the slice of literature in which they’ll begin to write and work.

 

JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?168260_642316809130295_92234040_n

 

MB: Under normal circumstances, I write in the mornings, from the time I get up until I break for lunch at 12 or 1. Then the rest of the day is given to reading and teaching and editing, and of course to friends and family and so on. It’s a surprisingly dull-sounding schedule, perhaps—but I’m very thankful for it.

 

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

 

MB: I’m so bad at listing favorites, because the number of writers I might name is far too lengthy for this kind of interview. If you forced me to pick a favorite book, I’d say Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: I’ve read that book at least once a year for as long as I’ve known it, and it’s gotten better with every single read.

 

 

 

tumblr_mnkw9hNU5R1r8flbfo1_500JB: Your debut has already been selected as June Book Club Selections for Powell’s Indiespensable and the Nervous Breakdown.  IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS also has the distinct honor of being chosen as an Indie Next pick for July.  How did you react upon hearing the news?

 

MB: Obviously, each of these was a great honor, unexpected but greatly appreciated. I never thought the response to this novel would be so kind, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the attention it’s received.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading IN THE HOUSE UPON THE DIRT BETWEEN THE LAKE AND THE WOODS?

 

MB: There isn’t a specific message I want readers to take away, or anything like that. The book isn’t an argument, in that sense. What I hope instead is that readers have an experience with the book, that it draws them in and then makes a space where they might be moved and possibly changed, intellectually or morally or, most importantly, emotionally. That’s what writing the book did for me. It’s what I hope reading the book will do for others.

 

JB: Thanks, Matt, for a wonderful interview, and good luck with the book.

 

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