Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight
by  on Jul 02, 2018

Why is it important for you to show that resistance defines our quintessential American story? 

As a long-time chronicler of American social movements, and as a participant in what historian Howard Zinn called the “unreported resistance” since the early 1980s, I felt a deeper story of American resistance needed to be brought out of the shadows today.  That our various resistance movements today needed to be rooted; otherwise, we risk burnout, divisions, and this sense of being overwhelmed in these Trump times.  

This is what I believe: In dealing with the most challenging issues of every generation, resistance to duplicitous civil authority and its corporate enablers has defined our quintessential American story. 

Resistance has put the backbone in democracy; or rather, the resistance has given democracy a backbone.  

What are you reading right now?

I’m knee-deep into the research and writing of my next Counterpoint book, When America Was Grand: Resisting the Trump Assault on Our Nation’s s Pillars of Progress, so I’m surrounded by stacks of historical documents and books on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, including Counterpoint author Nell Painter’s classic, Standing at Armageddon.  
But I’m sneaking in chapters of Michael Ondaatje’s fascinating new novel, Warlight, Painter’s new memoir, Old in Art School, and Alessandro Portelli’s new book on Bob Dylan, Pioggia e Veleno, that I picked up recently in Italy.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

So many literary hearthstones for me, so many books and authors I recommend, and I love gifting books to friends.  But I find I often pass along Alfredo Vea’s classic, La Maravilla, Leslie Silko’s Ceremony, anything by Toni Morrison, Ron Rash, James Baldwin, and of course, Wendell Berry.  For young journalists, I gift Gene Robert’s Race Beat, and for young historians, I recommend John Egerton’s classic, Speak Now Against the Day.
And I’ve given away so many copies of Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me I’ve lost count.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Never really had a mentor as much as literary influences. Though, I keep in touch with a lot of writer friends, and deeply appreciate the impact of their writing on my own. Studs Terkel’s treasury of oral histories had a huge impact on my role as a story collector; Russell Banks, Toni Morrison, Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Carlos Fuentes, Cecile Pineda, Nadime Gordimer, Andre Malraux–these are/were the novelists that shaped my love of writing.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

I have a brittle old paperback of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that I picked up in a used book stall nearly 40 years ago, which remains on my desk, among the mess of so many other wonderful books.

by  on May 31, 2018

How did you come to write this book? What’s the story of this story?

The notion of writing about my experience(s) in art school came very early on, even before I enrolled at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, for my friends voiced curiosity as soon as they discovered my musings.

At first it was the novelty of a chaired professor at Princeton climbing down from what seemed like the pinnacle scholarly achievement—the strangeness of that turning away intrigued people. Then it was asking about what was new. In either case, people I knew wanted me to send back reports from my new life. Old in Art School is that report.

Old in Art School speaks a tiny bit about the leaving, but mainly it’s about what the title says: being old in a world obsessed with youth, with what one of my teachers called right-nowness. That’s a challenge when you’re starting out at sixty-four with twentieth-century eyes.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading in bits and pieces, on my iPhone, on my laptop, and in hard and soft cover books I can and can’t hold in my hand on the train.

In hard cover and over the most extended period of time (because it’s long and fascinatingly dense) is Jeffrey Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke. Locke was one of the godfathers of the Harlem Renaissance, which figures in a couple of my own artist’s books. This long awaited biography is more than 900 pages long, too heavy to carry about, so I just read it at home.

On my iPhone I’m enjoying Amy Bloom’s White Houses, a novel of Eleanor Roosevelt and her intimate friend Lorena Hickok, after my friend Tayari Jones recommended it in a New York Times Book Review interview. My current audiobook is Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, about dead bodies and their fascinating and disgusting fates in places like medical and embalming schools.

On New Jersey Transit between Newark and New York City I’m reading a short story collection Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. The stories are pleasantly unsettling.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

I hesitate to recommend books to other people, just as I hesitate to give people advice. People mostly don’t want advice; they want to be listened to. So I listen. But I have occasionally recommended a book from the twentieth century, David Bayles and Ted Orland’s Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, a beautifully commonsensical denial of the myth of talent and praise of the virtues of just doing one’s work.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Writer mentors? I don’t exactly have writer mentors, because I’m not exactly a writer. I’m like a hybrid historian-visual-artist, someone who was writing history in my kind of off-beat fashion for so many years—decades—that I’ve forgotten who my mentors were. My history-writing voice carried over into Old in Art School, not a history book, but even so, that history voice had to change. My art mentor Sarah Lewis encouraged me when I wasn’t sure I could write this book, and my agent Sarah Chalfant helped me find my memoir voice when I was just getting started. Then it was just going deeper and deeper with friends like Thadious Davis and Martha Hodes cheering me on.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

I don’t have prized book possessions. Actually, I’m trying to get rid of books. Too many books around me! They keep piling up and I keep giving them away. Last week I drove a box to the East Orange, New Jersey, Public Library, but since then a few more books have wormed their way into my possession. Books! Take them away, please!

by  on May 01, 2018

 

How did you come to write this book? What’s the story of this story?

Over a decade ago, I sent to a literary agent named Nat Sobel. Nat passed on the collection but praised one story for its dark humor and quirky tone. He suggested that it could serve as the centerpiece of a new work, perhaps a novel in stories. So, that rejection letter was the real starting point for It Needs To Look Like We Tried.

I gathered up all the “novels in stories” I could get my hands on to get a feel for the shape of these things. I also started watching LOST and became obsessed with the show’s use of multiple intersecting plot-lines and major characters from one storyline appearing as minor characters somewhere else. This gave me a structure it wanted to try, but very little else.

That initial story was about a man who hits a dog while driving through the desert to his father’s wedding. This one came to my while I was driving some state highways between Arizona and Los Angeles. Because I have a kleptomaniac imagination, the book grew by the slow accretion of stolen goods. My wife and I bought our first home from an elderly woman. Whenever we would see her in town, she would ask us this creepy question: “How do you like living in my house?” This little bit of menace became the seeds of the “Cape Cod Fear” storyline. While my kids were little, we watched a lot of PBS, which helped me develop the character of Dr. Science and his friend Asa and their arc. One of my former students was on a reality show back when they were first starting. My conversations with him about how the production went (answer: crazy) led to the “Unscripted” storyline.

This kind of writing goes slowly, especially when you’ve got little kids, so it took me a dozen years or more to finish a draft. I was also working on other projects that came a little more quickly. When I finished It Needs To Look Like We Tried, I sent Nat another letter, not a query this time, just a thank you to let him know his rejection had been really productive. A few weeks later Nat sent me an email and asked to see the new book. He read it, brought me on as a client, put me to work re-writing with some excellent notes, then he helped find the book a perfect home. The whole process has been a grand adventure.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

I talk about Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft all the time. It’s a down-to-earth philosophical treatise on the history of education, the nature of intelligence, and the value of being able to fix things and work with your hands. I think it should be required reading for every teacher in America. On the fiction end of things, I can’t shut up about Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. I regularly pull it off the shelf, open it, and read random paragraphs aloud.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Brian Evenson mentored me through my PhD work, encouraging me to read widely and helping me learn to hear the shape of sentences. Once, over a plate of cheese fries, he said, “Every writer needs to think about two things deeply: what it means to write and what it means to be human.” Twenty years later, I still try to think about those things every day. Most of my mentors have been writers and filmmakers. Flannery O’Connor is my north star. She helped me understand how a person of faith could write with such with, grace, wit, and ferocity. Once in a graduate workshop we were asked to reflect on some of our influences. I mentioned the Coen Brothers and talked about how their dark humor, narrative pacing, and use of the grotesque were important to me, but the professor sighed in a way that suggested by mentioning filmmakers I’d just driven another nail into the coffin of civil society.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

In my junior year of high school, I told my English teacher, Sister Mary Kay Lambert, that unlike the rest of my classmates I actually loved A Farewell to Arms. She was beside herself with joy and loaned me a copy of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, which I took home, read in a week, then re-read over and over again until it fell to pieces. I never returned it, and I feel so guilty about it.

During graduate school, I was dating a woman who worked as a book repair technician for a large university library. I asked her if she could fix this ruined book for me. She inspected it and told me it would be easier and cheaper just to replace it. I told her the book had sentimental value because I stole it from a nun. She rolled her eyes and agreed to re-bind the book in hardcover, using some beautiful deep blue book cloth and silver embossing on the spine. I eventually married that book repair technician and dedicated It Needs to Look Like We Tried to her.

Recently I took out the book and re-read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” which is one of my favorite Hemingway stories. Holding that beautiful book and reading that beautiful story made me feel like a wretch who should buy the school a new copy of that book then get on my knees and say something like a million Acts of Contrition.

by  on Mar 30, 2018

 

How did you come to write this book? What’s the story of this story?

I read a lot of books about books, and visit a lot of libraries – for research and pleasure. I’ve also published books about books, such as Australian Book Collectors, which is a record of hundreds of public and private collections. So for many years I’ve been collecting stories about libraries. And the stories are fascinating. The same characters and the same appetites come up again and again. Patterns and symmetries in how people have gathered books, and cared for and used them, for reading and much more besides. Looked at together, the library stories create a rich picture of the value of books and libraries, which connect past and present, and connect the world. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. has books from Rome, London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Vienna – and Rabaul in New Guinea. Alberto Manguel bought Penguin paperbacks in Tunis, Tucumán, Reykjavik and the Cook Islands – and he took a Penguin to Babylon, ‘the starting place of every book’.

Libraries are romantic, melancholy places. I wanted to write a book that was built around elemental, human themes. I sketched a draft outline that looked like the tracks on a Cure album: Love, Sex, Theft, Fire, Death. I’m fascinated by stories of people living, sleeping, dying with their books. And by library secrets, controversial libraries, dangerous libraries. My ambition was to change how people thought about libraries and their importance. For people who’d fallen out of love with their libraries, I wanted to give them a nudge, an excuse to reconnect.

What are you reading right now?

An Australian book: The Boy from Baradine, a moving memoir by Craig Emerson, a former politician. I read widely. A lot of bibliography, journalism, criticism. Arts & Letters Daily religiously. And every day I read to my daughters, aged six and two.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, a story of soldiers’ experiences on the Western Front in World War I. Manning himself saw action on the Somme. He was a fastidious writer. According to legend, the publisher Peter Davies had to lock him away to force him to finish the book. When it appeared it was a great success. Ernest Hemingway and T. E. Lawrence covered it in praise. The writing is raw, smart, lucid. The messages about war are urgent.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Living most of my life in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature, I was spoilt for mentors. The historian Geoffrey Blainey (for several years my next door neighbour). The children’s book author Ivan Southall (whom I knew late in his life through a local bookroom). The editor and publisher Michael Heyward; many years ago I was his publishing assistant. I learned a lot from him and his authors, such as Inga Clendinnen, Gideon Haigh, Gavin Souter and Gerald Murnane. Making every word and sentence count. Visualising the finished book. Marshalling thoughts and information. Boiling down, paring back, refining and refining. (The best writing metaphors are from the kitchen or the workshop.) My favourite books haven’t changed much over the years, though I see them through different eyes, and I’m continually adding to the list. I admire the precision of Woolf and Joyce, the unique vision of Philip K. Dick. I’ve always had a soft spot for all good fantasy and sci-fi. More recent favourites include W. G. Sebald and Will Eaves. Often, after I’ve written something, I line it up against a benchmark and ask, ‘Is my work up to standard? How can I improve it?’

What is your favourite library, and why? What draws you to that place?

Many candidates come to mind. The Abbey Library of San Gallen in Switzerland is a magnificent place, still very much as it was centuries ago. A Baroque monastic library with a rich history and beautiful setting. I also love the Houghton at Harvard, and the Folger in Washington. First class books in ideal surroundings. My favourite home-town library is the State Library of Victoria. Spectacular reading room, wonderful rare books collection, great exhibitions, rich archives. Around the world, many public libraries are under threat. It is a treat to work in a library that is well funded and well managed by professional staff.

by  on Feb 28, 2018

How did you come to write this novel? What’s the story of this story?

As I say towards the beginning of Flunk. Start, I spent a decade of my life pretending a decade of my life had never happened. That decade included the seven years I spent in the Church of Scientology, and the three it took before I was certain I wouldn’t, once again, be pulled back to it. Then almost another decade went by when I was largely unable to think or to want to speak openly about it.

But at the college where I’m lucky enough to be a professor, I started to teach a course, Introduction to Myth and Fairy Tale. As I began to lecture how one has to go “into the woods” (in a fairytale) and descend to “the underworld” (in the myths of the hero’s journey), I was often struck that I might apply those ideas to my own long and strange pilgrimage. But then I’d shake my head: Snow White learns something from her time in the forest; Gilgamesh grapples with essential truths when he loses his best friend and is plunged into a darkness of a particular sort, but me? I’d just made a huge mistake.

Still, living with those ideas of Campbell’s, and asking my students to apply them to, say, a tough semester, or to the travails of a pop culture figure, or to a family member who’d confronted and mastered some massive difficulty, eventually forced me to take a look at how these ideas might apply to my own time in Scientology. Finally, I began writing. What was a huge surprise was the “boon” I discovered waiting for me as I explored what I’d come to see as a pretty dark underworld. I’d no idea there was treasure to bring back from confronting those old ghosts. Hence the title, which comes from a Scientology phrase when you’re drilling a particular skill: You didn’t do it quite right, try again: Flunk. Start.

What are you reading right now?

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’m reading a lot of memoirs, especially by friends and acquaintances, that I postponed reading while working on my own. These include The Lost Night, by Rachel Howard; Filling Her Shoes, by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder; Rash by Lisa Kusel, and, quite stirringly, Broken by Lisa Jones. I’m also relishing Lynn Freed’s wonderful essays in The Romance of Elsewhere and Amy Tan’s compelling and wise Where the Past Begins.

These days, I also keep to hand books about the roots of Christianity: how and why it emerged out of Judaism, how and why it spread so quickly and became so entrenched in a relatively short period of time. I’m interested in the anti-Semitism buried within the Christian church, and am in the midst of browsing a number of books that deal with that and related subjects, including Constantine’s Sword, by James Carroll; Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, by Elaine Pagels; and an absolutely delightful book called Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels, by Jane Soskice, which describes the journeys across the Syrian desert—several times!—of two Victorian-era sisters, defying every odd and a lot of societal disapproval. I often give this latter book as a gift. It’s a great read. And I’m always up for books that have titles like Scandal of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Intersections between myth, religion, and history have always fascinated me.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

It’s changed over the years—for quite a while it was Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto; and for a few years Jennifer Egan’s The Keep; it’s also been Sisters of Sinai, described above; but mostly, recently, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of All Things. I’d read Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love and enjoyed it — especially the pray part — but it wasn’t as if I was waiting for her next book (the way I do with, say, Egan). But one day, when a flight east was cancelled and I was stuck for endless hours in an airport, Signature happened to be front and center in a bookstore. Some significant authors had endorsed it, and I was sucked in by the first few paragraphs. All of a sudden that enforced stay in the airport was exactly what I wanted and needed; enthralled, I had the time and focus to sink deeply into the novel. I love that Gilbert deals with history so thoroughly and evocatively, that her craft is meticulous and satisfying, that it’s a deeply feminist novel, and that it presents so stirringly the natural world. I love the spirituality inherent in its title—as it is, indeed, inherent in its pages.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

I started as a fiction writer and that’s where my writing roots remain. I return again and again to John Gardner’s Art of Fiction, and I find Forster’s Aspects of the Novel very useful (I love Forster’s books: Room With a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and especially Howard’s End). Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft is excellent, and I’ve returned often to my father’s (Oakley Hall) How Fiction Works. I found Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir very useful. Perhaps most vital as I worked on Flunk. Start. were John McPhee’s essays on structure published in the New Yorker. I love all of McPhee’s writing, and found, especially, his Encounters with the Archdruid structurally fascinating; his ideas were hugely influential as I worked on the memoir.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

That’s a hard one. But what comes to mind is a Shakespeare’s Complete Works that was given to me by a friend of my parents, a professor and Shakespearean scholar, upon my graduation from the University of California, Irvine. My final semester, I had the marvelous good fortune to play Viola in a production of Twelfth Night that was directed by a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company; the entire experience was profound and inspirational. To receive that volume (the kind with a sleeve), with an inscription remarking on that performance made a huge impression on me. I’ve carried it with me all these days, even though I’ve since learned to quibble with the editors of that particular edition, and now own dozens of texts by and about Shakespeare. That college experience led to a deep involvement with the acting and eventually the directing of Shakespeare, a huge part of my life for a very long time; perhaps that’s why, even now, that gift holds such resonance.

by  on Nov 30, 2017

How did you come to write this novel? What’s the story of this story?

Anesthesia grew in part out of the research I did for my first book, a novel called Walking to the Moon. (It’s about a young woman who wakes from a coma; and includes a character who is an anesthetist.) But the genesis of this book was probably a meeting with a woman called Rachel, way back in 1999, who told me the story of the birth of her daughter. That story, of a failed general anesthetic and a near-death encounter that helped her survive, started me thinking not only about anesthesia (what actually is this weird, amazing thing?) but also about consciousness and what it is and isn’t. Rachel’s story became a pivot point for an exploration of the blurred uncertain boundaries between conscious and unconscious states generally, and also of my own (sometimes fractious) unconscious self. Along the way I dragged in friends, strangers, my long-suffering family – pretty much anyone who had an intriguing anesthetic story. And then, halfway through the book, I discovered I had to have major surgery of my own…

What are you reading right now?

An unusual and lovely book called The Many Ways of Seeing, a sort of collaborative memoir that follows the story of a blind athlete, Nick Gleeson, interspersing his writing with commentary and perspectives from a childhood friend and also the editor/ co-author, Peter Bishop, who helps him pull it together, and whose musings and interpolations become part of the story too. It’s complicated. But very simple. I keep thinking, this really shouldn’t work. And then I keep being surprised and moved.  

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

Well there’s not just one But the most recent, which I’ve been with for a while now, is H is for Hawk by British writer Helen McDonald. It’s a wonderfully rich rumination on death and life, interweaving memoir, visceral nature writing, and a fairly shattering deconstruction of the early life and writings of the late T.H. White (whose The Once and Future King helped shape the modern incarnation of the Arthurian legend). Hawk is compelling and muscular and beautiful and it lingered with me for ages. This was one of those books that came along at exactly the right time. I was in the final stages of pulling together Anesthesia and still full of doubt about the structure and hybrid preoccupations of my book. Reading McDonald’s book was a delight and also a great relief: Yes!

Oh and I’ve just remembered the novel I’ve been recommending for years and which I completely love. Tirra Lirra by the River by the late Australian author Jessica Anderson. The books I love are often slender (as in shortish) and understated and powered by some deep inchoate or repressed feeling or memory. (Think The Great Gatsby or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day). This is an Australian classic. About a woman returning at last to the country and home she escaped so many years before. It’s a sort of reckoning. And so taut and precise and evocative and unadorned. Some people dislike it but I think it’s pretty much perfect.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

I’m fortunate to have had two significant mentor/guides, along with some perceptive and generous friends. My first mentor, author Amanda Lohrey, taught me something difficult and fundamental. We met at a mentorship program at the wonderful Varuna writers centre in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney. I had sent her a section from my 60,000 word draft manuscript, at that stage narrated entirely by a supposedly comatose woman. At the beginning of our first session, Amanda asked me (quite kindly) whether I really needed the coma. When I stared at her speechless, she said this: “Well the thing is the coma’s not really working. Either you need to do more research and turn the book into a medical novel [I shook my head] or you need to work out what your coma represents.” Soon after, on my request, she showed me the notes she had written on my manuscript, which included words such as “self-indulgent” and “boring”. After that I limped away and probably wept for a while and then I sat down and started again; this time with my character newly awake, and wrote the first words of Walking to the Moon: “Today I walked.” And I kept writing. I haven’t seen Amanda for a long time now, but she taught me to know the difference between writing to disguise the truth and writing to reveal it.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

Hmmm.  Generally I’m more attached to the stories than to the physical book. That said… [she gets up, goes to the bookshelf, pulls down…] Heart-Throbs: The Magnetic, Moody Males of your Dreams, by Jack Tressider, published by Marshall Cavendish, London 1974. Ok, so not a literary masterpiece. But it’s the book that my beloved friends gave me when I left London for good, aged 14, dragged back to the ghastly wastelands of suburban Melbourne, 1975. I love it because it has Paul Newman (my then favourite) on the cover collage, along with Robert Redford (who was my best friend, Harriet’s, favourite). And because inside are Gregory Peck and David Niven and a beautiful dead French actor called Gerard Phillipe. And because it says of Richard Burton: “His green eyes glitter bleakly in a face like a seam of pitted rock.” And most of all because on the inside front cover is a farewell letter from my friend Tilly, which begins “GOODBYE to lovely, adorable kind Kate. Don’t worry I didn’t pay £1.95 for it. It was reduced. Though you are worth £1.95 it’s just that if it was £1.95 I wouldn’t have been able to afford it.”