A Book About: Life

In September we’ll publish the first book I acquired for Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown, and I could not be more excited.  It’s a debut story collection from a writer named Stuart Nadler, who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been published in the Atlantic Monthly.  I’m excited about this book because I love stories—I read them in every literary magazine I can get my hands on—big circulation, small circulation, Canadian, Southern, traditional, avant-garde—and if I only have a half hour to read something I’d rather sit down with a story than anything else, for the wonderful sense of completion.  Stuart’s are my favorite kind of stories—long, complex, Alice Munro-type stories with lots of twists and turns, and characters who continually surprise the reader with their thoughts and actions—characters who continually surprise themselves. Our publicist, Marlena, described it as “that rare collection that makes me feel at the start of each story that I’m in good hands and am going to love where it takes me.”

I love that Stuart’s book is not just about one thing but everything.  It’s about fathers trying to connect with their wayward sons; about couples who are desperately in love but screw up their romance anyway; about friends who betray each other and families who lie and cheat but are still families; about grief, faith, and ultimately the redemptive power of relationships.  In other words, it’s about life, which is why I think The Book of Life is a perfect title, perfectly matched by designer Matt Tanner’s bold, stop-you-in-your-tracks cover.  For more information about Stuart and the book visit his gorgeous, just-launched website, and follow him on Twitter.

Anna North: How My Novel Was Created

Anna North’s “America Pacifica” publishes this week and in celebration we will feature five days of posts from Anna, about how she wrote her novel.  “America Pacifica” is the story of an 18-year-old girl named Darcy, who is searching for her missing mother on an isolated tropical island that is one of the last habitable places on earth, after North America has succumbed to a second Ice Age. 

I’d been obsessed with the end of the world for a long time, but I was really inspired to write the book by a show at the St. Louis Museum of Art called Remote Viewing: Invented Worlds in Painting and Drawing. The show included text by Ben Marcus that chronicled a person’s investigation of his own movements in a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape. This passage in particular got to me: “It is possible I was collecting samples.  I would not rule it out.  It would explain the long clear jars I found stored in my clothing that day when I woke.  But it would not explain why those jars were empty.” I decided I really wanted to write a post-apocalyptic story about a woman investigating her own disappearance. Later the book became about Darcy’s mother’s disappearance, obviously, but the germ of the story was there.

I circled around the topic for a while, writing a lot of scenes that eventually had to be cut (an old man living on a subterranean lake with a wound in his side, a bionic sword that plugged into the nerves of the wearer’s hand, a woman with pterodactyl wings). It was actually when I went to the University of Iowa and started reading a lot of noir fiction in Jonathan Ames’s class that the plot really got going. I wrote the bulk of the book out longhand in the Java House in Iowa City, and then slowly transcribed my stack of notebooks using Dragon NaturallySpeaking voice recognition software (I don’t type much due to a repetitive stress injury sustained through too much typing in high school and college). I remember reading once that Haruki Murakami doesn’t plan anything before he writes a book, and that’s pretty much how I operated. I knew I wanted to create a certain kind of melancholy and fear, and I did have an ending in mind, but I pretty much just let events follow from each other and strung a plot from that. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I had to rewrite the whole last third because I got into this blind alley where everyone on the island was actually going insane and they were all victims of some sort of ancestral curse that involved colonization. But I did manage to get a decent draft ready for Samantha Chang to read right at the end of my time at Iowa. She had some really key ideas, and I spent the final summer before I left Iowa City at more coffee shops (I switched to Tspoons), scrawling corrections in the margins of the manuscript. Then I moved to New York, went through another couple of rounds of (also really key) edits with my agent Julie Barer, sold the book to Little, Brown, and did another pass through the manuscript with my editors Reagan Arthur and Andrea Walker, whose smart suggestions brought the book into its current, finished (as it’ll ever be) form.—Anna North

Finish What You Start

I used to be the kind of person who could not start a book without finishing it.  This was a compulsion I developed in graduate school, when I was expected to learn the contents of several hundred books and be able to speak cogently about them in a three-hour oral exam, and carried through my life as a book reviewer.  No matter how long, boring, or frustratingly obfuscating I found a book, I could not “skim ahead” or set it aside until I had given every word equal scrutiny.  My belief was that someone had probably taken a long time to write that book, and someone else had taken a long time to edit it, and it was my duty as a reviewer to put the same effort into the equation.  I was even so meticulous (some might say “nerdy” or “neurotic” which I’m totally fine with) as to keep a log of everything I’d read, which I came across last night when tidying up my teetering nightstand pile.

The log ends abruptly about a year and a half ago, which was around the time I moved into the books world.  This is one of the differences between working in magazines and books, I’ve learned!  In magazines a long article might be 20,000 words, but a typical book manuscript can be 100,000, and you might have five or ten or fifteen of them to consider in one night.  You have to steal “pleasure reading” in snatches, and so the bar for what will keep you coming back across week and month (and, ok, even year) long interruptions is higher.  So although I finish fewer books now, I’m happy to say that the ones I do finish are books I find really, really good, and that I enjoy each one of them a lot more. The newly organized nightstand pile are the ones that have kept me coming back, and will definitely make that cut.

Headlines We Love

And essays we love more—Google Alerted us to this fun essay by Michelle Rafferty on the Oxford University Press blog: “Read Bossypants Like a Fancypants.” “We’re going to trick our book clubs into thinking we’re literary geniuses,” she proposes, by applying key elements of modern literary criticism—Irony, Imagery, Allusion, Allegory, and, of course, Sexual Politics—to Tina Fey’s book.

As someone who once considered joining both academe and a book club, and fled in terror from both, I love this idea enough to invite myself along. Michelle: call me! I’ll bring the wine.

Life Up North

Eowyn Ivey, author of The Snow Child (February 2012) has just launched a beautiful website and a remarkably entertaining blog about her life in Alaska.  Ever wondered what it’s like to eat bear meat for the first time (while lying in a hammock), or what might happen if you decided to hitch a ride on an ice-floe in a just-breaking-up Alaskan river in the spring?  You can find out by reading her blog and following her on Twitter.  She will also be blogging about her experiences working in Fireside Books, an independent bookstore in Palmer, Alaska.  I am also posting her gorgeous cover for the first time, which was designed by the exceptionally talented Keith Hayes, and the brilliant artist Shout.

Amazing, no?

Everything’s Coming Up Abbott

Yesterday Megan Abbott wrote on her blog about getting a “dream assignment”—to write a story set in 1940s Los Angeles, for an Anthology called L.A. Noire, to be published in June by Mulholland Books, in collaboration with Rockstar Games.  She also spoke yesterday at a Hachette luncheon for tri-state librarians, about her forthcoming novel The End of Everything (to be published on July 7th by Reagan Arthur Books).  Megan grew up in the suburbs of Grosse Pointe Michigan in the 1980s, and her new novel is set in an unnamed Midwestern town of the same time period, and draws on her childhood in a more personal way than her previous works.  Megan spoke about her local library being a second home to her—her sense memories are particularly associated with a bland industrial carpet which “was probably toxic”, she recalled with a laugh—and was captivated by Life anthologies from the 40s and 50s, that revealed a world of Hollywood glamour that inspired her first novels.  The End of Everything, however, is a book about the suburbs—about childhood, adolescence, the precarious time between being a girl and being a woman, and that one perfect family that every neighborhood seems to have.  “When things go badly with that family, they go bad in a horrible way” Megan said.  Such a family is featured in her new book, as well as a girl who goes missing and the best friend who makes it her mission to find her—the “girl detective” who has been a touchstone for all of Megan’s work.

(photo: Megan signing galleys of The End of Everything)

Congratulations to Eleanor Catton and The Rehearsal

which is the winner of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, for the best Canadian first novel published in 2010!  Read more about the news here.

Ya Gotta Believe

Apparently this is a saying most associated with the Mets (thanks, Google!), but to me it’s both the punchline to an old Doonesbury comic strip and the unofficial rallying cry of nearly everyone who works in publishing. At a writers’ conference this weekend I was repeatedly asked by aspiring writers if it’s true that first novels are impossible to sell.  Not true at all, I told them, it’s fourth and fifth novels that face bigger challenges. By that point, there’s a track record that might not do us any favors, reviewers who’ve loved an author’s work in the past might feel they need to cover that debut novelist instead, the author’s editor and champion may have left the company…well, you get the point and it’s one that’s been made before.

But writers have to keep writing, and publishers have to keep publishing, and what drives any of us but belief? A writer’s belief that he has a story worth telling, and a publisher’s belief in that story, and in our ability to find its audience.  Belief alone doesn’t guarantee success, but without it, why get out of bed in the morning?

My thoughts and ramblings have turned belief-ward because of the happy news that The Believer magazine has selected James Hynes’s fifth book, NEXT, for its Believer Book Award. If I had my way this book would win every award on offer, but I’m especially happy about this one, because I love The Believer, for reasons perfectly captured by their own “About” page:

The Believer is a monthly magazine where length is no object.
There are book reviews that are not necessarily timely,
and that are very often very long.
There are interviews that are also very long.
We will focus on writers and books we like.
We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.
The working title of this magazine was The Optimist.

 And, of course, I love NEXT, a novel that moves me to unseemly adjectival outpourings: it is challenging, funny, heartbreaking, sexy, daring, and profound. I’m so grateful to James Hynes for writing it, and to The Believer for recognizing it.

Reviews We Love: Tina Fey

Janet Maslin has some great things to say about Bossypants in the New York Times!  Here are our favorites:

  • “dagger-sharp, extremely funny”
  • “even the blurbs are clever”
  • “a spiky blend of humor, introspection, critical thinking and Nora Ephron-isms for a new generation”
  • “[Fey] comes off as a strongly opinionated dynamo with a comedic voice that is totally her own”
  • “hilariously self-deprecating”

And Mary McNamara has some great things to say in the Los Angeles Times!

  • “a book that reminds you why Fey has succeeded where so many have failed — because she is precise, professional and hilarious”
  • Bossypants should make any profile of Fey unnecessary, since it provides, in abundance, everything readers want from a story about a performer”
  • “Amazingly, absurdly, deliriously funny. Everything you would hope for from this book — it’s impossible to put down, you will laugh until you cry, you will wish it were longer, you can’t wait to hand it to every friend you have — is true”
  • “Tina Fey remains, finally, inarguably and mercifully All That”

We couldn’t agree more.


Behind the Scenes with a Bookseller

At Fireside Books, the independent bookstore where I work, we enter new and used books into our computer inventory starting with the ISBN number. We type in the number, and if we’ve never had it in stock, our computer system accesses a database called Venstock and automatically pulls in the pertinent information— title, author, subject keywords, price. A new inventory item is then created that allows us to track when it will be published, how many we have ordered from the publisher, how many we’ve sold, and how many we’ve returned.

We go through this process of “Venstocking” when we are ordering a book for a customer, receiving a used book, preparing to order from a publisher, or when we come across a new title we think we might order in the future. Occasionally, if the book is out-of-print or self-published, the ISBN brings up a blank item page. Then we have to manually type in all the information.

When I got to the shop last Saturday morning, I typed a new ISBN into our system and held my breath. It wasn’t yet 10 a.m. I hadn’t unlocked the front door or flipped on the OPEN sign. The coffee was brewing. All was quiet. I watched the computer.

And then it happened, as if by magic. A new inventory page came up, with all the information filled in—THE SNOW CHILD. Author—Ivey, Eowyn. $24.99. Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown & Co.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had an experience as wonderfully surreal as that moment.

Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, THE SNOW CHILD, comes out February 2012.