Sunday, April 1, 2007

Letter from the Editor, April 2007


April is here and with it comes our second bookish edition of Estella's Revenge. Our theme for April is "mysteries," and I think you will see the theme at work in several ways. While we do not require the writers to adhere closely to the theme if their creativity takes them elsewhere, it does exist as a thread that underscores the issue. You'll see "mysteries" play out this month in discussions of the mysteries of our "to be read" stacks, the mysterious lives of authors' papers, mystery novel reviews, and the bookish mysteries lurking in Oxford, Mississippi. My personal challenge to you is to see how many mysteries you can uncover in our offerings this time around.

We had a fantastic response to the March issue, and for that I thank the wonderful writers and readers who took the time to stop by, and I hope you will spread the word if you find the 'zine to your liking. Feel free to leave comments with your thoughts and ideas if you're so moved.

Remember, you can use the clickable table of contents below to navigate the complete issue or click on "April 2007" in one of the labels to bring up the entire month's offerings.

Happy reading!

Andi


Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Author Interviews

Articles

Columns

Reviews

Goodies

Author Interview: Billy Collins

Interviewed by Lisa G.

On February 19 I had the pleasure of interviewing former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins via telephone. Mr. Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate, from 2001 - 2003. He was also selected as New York State Poet for 2004.

Billy Collins has published several collections of poetry (bibliography below, from wikipedia.com), and he's been included in many anthologies.

LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

BC: I was not only an avid reader but I used to pretend to read before I could read. I was an only child and that lead to a very rich reading life. When my parents would have people over I would pretend to be reading. I would have an encyclopedia on my lap and I'd pretend to be reading it. I knew which way to turn it because of the pictures.

Later, when I was able to read, I read all the Hardy boys, and the Albert Payson Terhune books about Lad and Lassie. They're basically all the same story, with the names changed. I read Black Beauty and The Yearling. Those I read a number of times and had them read to me.

My parents didn't have a TV until everyone else had a TV. We had the collected Dickens in the house, and my mother said, half-jokingly, if I read all of Dickens we could get a TV. I didn't read all of Dickens.

Mother Goose is the original inspiration for all poets. That's where they get an idea of rhythm and rhyme. My mother had memorized a lot of poetry as a schoolgirl. She went to a rural school in Ontario, Canada. She housed hundreds and hundreds of lines of poetry. If any occasion arose she'd have a few lines of poetry about it.

LG: When did you start writing poetry?

BC: I don't think anyone escapes childhood, or adolescence, without writing some really horrible, usually lovesick, poetry, poems of a misunderstood adolescent who was convinced no one in the course of history had ever felt this way before.

I didn't write my first book until I was in my 40s. It took me a long time to figure it out, or find my voice, or combine these different influences so it sounded like me. I was writing all along, kind of on the side. I went to grad school and began teaching literature in college. I've been doing that most of my life. I used to be a professor who wrote poetry. Now I'm a poet who happens to be a professor.

LG: How many hours a day do you write? Do you keep a strict schedule?

BC: I have no work habits whatsoever. I don't write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don't sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch.

LG: That sounds a lot different than writing fiction.

BC: It is very different from fiction writing. As Hemingway said you always knock off for the day in the middle of a scene, but poets have to restart themselves all the time. Poets return much more often to the blank page.

I heard about a survey once, the results of which are poets are more inclined to suicide because of the anxiety of starting afresh. Depression visits poets more frequently. You can write a lyric poem in a couple of hours. You don't know if the next poem will start the next hour or a month from now. Poetry's known for its brevity, but that's also the bad news for writers.

LG: Do you do a lot of re-writing?

BC: Less and less. I try to make it right the first time. The conceptual journey of the poetry is all done in one sitting, from beginning to middle to end. I hardly ever change the movement of the poem as it navigates itself. What I do change are matters of rhythm and sound, finding an adjective. But I never go back and say this is all wrong.

LG: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

BC: I write with a pencil, always longhand. I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid. I put it on the computer at the very last minute, when I think it's done. On the computer it looks fixed in place and it's pretty much done. When you put it on a computer you see what it looks like. The look of prose is irrelevant, but the poem has a shape to it which is the result of line breaks and stanza breaks, so you can see what you couldn't see with the pencil. Shapeliness is one of the attractive aspects of poetry. When I get it on the screen I do some shaping to make it look right.

LG: Do any other genres, besides poetry, appeal to you?

BC: Not really. I think it's sort of like in music. It's enough to be able to play one fairly well. That's the question musicians never get, do you play any other instruments.

I write some prose, I write essays on poetry. Criticism. I wouldn't know what I was doing if I wrote a short story.

LG: What writers have influenced you the most?

BC: That's a tough question. There are too many to name. It's not even clear the degree of influence. Often people will spout names like Yeats, Coleridge, etc., but I think these are flags of convenience. It's hard to think of something that hasn't influenced me, positively or negatively.

I've taught literature in college for so many years. Every semester I re-read Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Marvel. I read them all semester after semester.

What I think of as an influence is a poet who makes you jealous. It's a polite way of saying other writers inflame you with jealousy. Driven by a jealous rage you go off and try to write something like that, or try to steal from them in order to exact revenge.

LG: I've read that you consider your poetry to be "hospitable," which some refer to as accessible. How do you distinguish between hospitable and poetry that's considered difficult or obscure?

BC: I think I discovered that you can write clearly in clear language and still have access to areas of great mystery. To write doesn't mean to get stuck on a literal level. There are poets who follow etiquette. I write in sentences. I use standard punctuation, beginning with a standard note the reader can identify with. Once that engagement is made the poet can head off in less familiar directions and take the reader on an imaginative journey in which the writer doesn't know where he's going.

A poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery, if a poet is able to understand that distinction and knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. It's important to know which cards to turn over, and which to leave face down. In the worst poetry all the cards are face down.

LG: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

BC: I play the piano. I have a dog I'm obsessed with.

LG: What kind of dog?

BC: She's a mutt, mostly collie. It goes back to those Albert Payson Terhune books. I live in New York City, on the Hudson River in the Village. That's a good opportunity for walking.

LG: What projects are you working on currently?

BC: I'm finishing a manuscript but I don't know if it's done yet. I think the publisher would like it but I'm not sure it's ready. I don't want to rush it into print. I don't know how many aces I have.
LG: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

BC: That goes back to that influence question. Just read. Find poets that make you jealous. The only hope you have in what would be called originality is through a process of imitation. It's a matter of getting rid of the young poet's delusion that your experiences are so original that you're going to announce this in original language. What inspires poetry is poetry. It's not the muse. It's not nature. It's not emotion. It's other poetry that inspires poetry. When you write poetry you're adding your voice to this long historic voice. You need to listen to these for a long time before you even know what your voice would possibly add. Read widely and quickly. Don't waste your time on poetry that doesn't talk to you.

LG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BC: Thank you.

Special thanks to Steven Barclay, of Steven Barclay Agency, for putting me in touch with Mr. Collins.

Bibliography

Poems

The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems, (2005, ISBN 0-375-50382-X)

Nine Horses (2002, ISBN 0-375-50381-1), named a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review

Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (2001, ISBN 0-375-50380-3), named a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review

Picnic, Lightning (1998, ISBN 0-8229-4066-3)

The Art of Drowning (1995, ISBN 0-8229-3893-6), which was a Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize finalist

Questions About Angels (1991, ISBN 0-8229-4211-9), the winner (two years later) of the National Poetry Series competition

The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988, ISBN 1-55728-023-1)

Video Poems (1980)

Pokerface (1977)

Anthologies

180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Everyday Life (2005, ISBN 0-8129-7296-1)

Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, (2003 ISBN 0-8129-6887-5)

The Best American Poetry 2006, Scribner Poetry, New York (2006, ISBN 0-7432-2967-9-8)

Copyright © 2007 Lisa Guidarini

Author Interview: Stacey Ballis

Interviewed by Andi, March 6, 2007

Stacey Ballis is the author of four novels including the newly published The Spinster Sisters. Stacey lives in Chicago, Illinois and in addition to her writing, she regularly contributes lifestyle and entertaining tips on the Rachael Ray Show.

AM: What is your writing process like? Do you have any rituals or unbreakable habits? An unhealthy obsession with pacing or staring blankly into the fridge, for example?

SB: I try to write mostly when the inspiration hits…although when I get in a deadline crunch I do force myself to keep a more regular schedule. I write in chronological order, and try to focus in the moment, where the characters are and what they are feeling without looking too far ahead in the story. I do try to break once an hour to walk around and get the blood moving, and I usually write with a small pot of tea nearby. The only real ritual I have kept up is after the first draft is finished, I open a bottle of pink champagne, take a hot bubble bath, and order a pizza to eat in my bathrobe.

AM: How do you decide on names for your characters?

SB: Sometimes I take names I like from people I have met, but for this book, many of the names have specific meanings behind them. There is a website that lists hundreds of names and what they mean, and that can be very inspirational…finding a quality to a character and reinforcing it with their name.

AM: Do you show your work to anyone, in order to get feedback, while you’re working on a novel?

SB: My sister Deborah, who is also my best friend, is the only one who gets to see it while it is in progress, when she approves, I send it to my editor.

AM: How do you know when a novel is finished? Is it hard to let go?

SB: The book tells me when it is done. And it is impossible to let go. I wish I could go back to all of my books and do just one more rewrite! Plus I miss the characters.

AM: How do you feel about the oft-criticized “chick-lit” label?

SB: I think it is frustrating that we feel the need for so many different labels, but it doesn’t offend me. I wish the books could just be ‘fiction’. But if placing it in context with other books that may have some of the same themes brings appropriate readers into the fold, I’m pleased.

AM: Do you read for pleasure? What do you like to read?

SB: I read everything, some favorite authors include Anne LaMott, Jodi Picoult, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Berg…and tons of classics!

AM: Do you have a favorite character in all of literature?

SB: Eloise from the children’s books by Kay Thompson.

AM: What issues are you passionate about?

SB: Body-image issues for women, living your best life, education, funding for the arts.

AM: Now that The Spinster Sisters has hit the shelves, what is on the horizon? Rest, relaxation, breakneck book touring, or maybe even planning the next project?

SB: I’m hoping that this book will be the first in a series, so for the moment I am promoting the book as much as possible so that I can secure a deal to continue writing the story of these women!


Visit Stacey Ballis at her website, http://www.staceyballis.com/, or her MySpace blog at http://www.myspace.com/staceyballis.

Author Interview: Sara Gruen

Interview by Andi, March 22, 2007

Sara Gruen is the best-selling author of three novels: Water for Elephants, Flying Changes and Riding Lessons. In addition to a healthy run on The New York Times Bestseller List, Water for Elephants was nominated for Entertainment Weekly's Best Novel of the Year and was a Booksense #1 pick for June 2006. Gruen is currently at work on her fourth novel, Ape House.

AM: What is your writing process like? Do you have any unbreakable habits or rituals? Pacing endlessly or staring blankly into the fridge, for instance? (I'm giving myself away on this one.)

SG: I usually start the day by checking my email at least twice, glancing around the room to see if there isn't anything I could possibly use as an excuse not to write, making a pot of tea, checking my email again, getting agitated because I haven't started writing yet, wondering if I can live with myself if I don't write that day, deciding that no, I can't, because it means I won't sleep that night, and finally sitting down and writing. All of this usually happens by 8 am.

AM: Could you describe the space in which you prefer to write?

SG: I'm really not fussy so long as nobody talks to me! I need to enter my fictional world in order to write, so I can get a little grouchy if someone pulls me back into this one. If I have my headphones on and nobody expects me to interact, I can write darned near anywhere--cafeterias, airports, my kitchen, hotel rooms. I've been known to write in my bedroom closet.

AM: Do you show your work to anyone in order to get feedback while you're working on a piece?

SG: My husband gets the earliest peeks, but even my critique partner doesn't get to see much until I feel it's ready. I think that's because I write such messy first drafts (I liken them to sloppy spaghetti) that I don't think anyone but me could follow what I'm doing. I jump all over the place and leave myself messages in hidden text, etc. That, and there are inevitably disclosures along the narrative that aren't fine-tuned until the end, and if my primary reader already knows they're coming I can't get a take on the impact.

AM: How do you know when a novel is finished? Do you have trouble walking away from a piece, or are you looking ahead to the next one?
SG: I edit things until they're ripped from my hands.

AM: Do you keep a diary or journal? Do you record daily life, ideas for writing, or both?

SG: I don't, but I always carry little bits of paper and pens around to record things that might be useful. Every once in a while I clean out my purse and backpack and see if I have anything good.

AM: Water for Elephants is undoubtedly a huge success. Would you say it is your favorite piece that you've written?

SG: My last book is always my favorite. It's like being in love--I never think I'm going to feel that way about another book, and then of course I do.

AM: What is the hardest part about being a writer? What advice would you give to the unpublished author?

SG: It's really hard mentally and physically to sit down every day and pull things from the ether. But it's also the magical part. I find I'm relying on a part of my brain that I don't really control and sometimes I worry that it's not going to come through for me. And then it does. It's working on things even when I think it's not.

I guess my advice would be to think about your story all the time, have it stewing when you go to sleep at night or when you're walking your dog. But even more importantly, sit down and write even when you don't feel like it, even when you think you're writing garbage. Garbage can be edited. A blank page cannot.

AM: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?

SG: I am continually amazed by the number of really good debuts out there, so right now I mostly try new authors.

AM: Do you read for pleasure often? What are you reading now?

SG: I don't read while I'm drafting because I'm afraid of voice-creep, but I read probably a novel a day when I'm between books.

AM: According to your website you live with your family in an environmentalist community, and as many of our readers already know, your work deals largely with animals. Is there a particular instance or turning point that led you to this passion? Do you have any recommendations for people who would like to get involved in preserving the environment?

SG: I've always been like this about animals. I don't think it really occurred to me until I was doing interviews for Water for Elephants that not everybody is. My advice for people concerned about the environment is to do everything you can personally. It may feel insignificant for a single person to recycle, or to choose a sensible vehicle rather than a gas-guzzling behemoth, or to nag your children to turn off the light when they leave a room, but if enough people do it...

Many thanks to Sara Gruen for her willingness to answer my questions and her wonderful warmth and humor.

Be sure to sneak a peek at her website: http://www.saragruen.com

Author Interview: Melanie Lynne Hauser

Interviewed by Melissa

It's a bird! It's a plane! No... it's Melanie Lynne Hauser, author of recently published Super Mom Saves the World. It's just her second book, a sequel to Confessions of a Super Mom, and with it she's poised to make a splash in the world of women's fiction. Estella's Revenge managed to corner the busy author for a cyber chat about her books, writing and life in general. Melanie hails from Chicago and also runs a blog, Refrigerator Door, where she chats about her books, her life, and whatever else comes to mind.
Thanks, Melanie!

MF: How did you decide to become a writer? Is it something you've "always" wanted to do?

MLH: I didn't really start out wanting to be an author. I wanted to be an actress, really, and tried to pursue that for a while, before I met my husband. But I was always, always a voracious reader, and I think that's the best education a writer can have, frankly. I'm always astonished by how many people tell me that they've always dreamed of being a writer - yet when I ask them what was the last book they read, it's a total blank. They're simply not reading contemporary literature. And that's just so wrong.

MF: Where do you get your inspiration for stories?

MLH: In life. Everywhere, really - I think I'm a great observer, often the person hanging around at the back of the room just watching everyone and everything. The smallest remark can get me thinking and imagining, and that's how stories are born.

MF: Which is more difficult writing or re-writing? How much rewriting do you do?

MLH: Writing the first draft is always hard for me; I feel I'm at my most creative when I'm going back and revising and adding. I always have to add to my first drafts; they're very bare bones. However, during the entire process, I generally end up with a Word Document called "Cut Stuff" that's just as big as the document for the polished manuscript. So I do cut quite a lot, and am pretty ruthless about it; I don't fall in love with my writing so much that I can't throw it away, if necessary.

MF: Do you have trouble finishing a story, or are you always looking forward to the next one?

MLH: I'm always looking forward to the next one. I love the one I'm writing, but as soon as I type "The End," I'm eager to open a new document and type "Chapter One."

MF: How often do you write when you're working on a book? When you're not?

MLH: Well, the truth is I'm almost always working on a book. So I don't know how to answer the second part of this! When I'm writing a manuscript it varies; I generally start out writing a couple of hours a day, just to get myself disciplined & thinking; then after a certain point I can pretty much write whenever, wherever I have a spare moment. And there's usually a point where I go up to my room and shut the door and leave my family to their own devices - with the pizza delivery guy's number on speed dial! I do try to write something every day, except on weekends, usually; I never tell myself, however, that I need to write a certain amount of words every day.

MF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Any writing "rituals"?

MLH: Actually, I tend to move around a lot. I have a laptop, which was the best purchase I ever made for myself. I'll write one book in my bedroom, but when I start the next one I may have a sudden itch to write in the living room. So I roam. I don't really have any kinds of rituals.

MF: Why did you decide to write a book for women/moms?

MLH: Because those issues are the ones that do occupy most of my Deep Thoughts! It's my life, and the lives of women I know and understand. But I don't think I'll only write these kinds of books; I have so many stories to tell and they're not all about moms and motherhood.

MF: How did you come up with the idea of Birdie as a super hero?

MLH: I wanted to write about an ordinary woman, someone you wouldn't really look at a second time. But that's hard to do, do, in an interesting way! Until I realized that that's what superheroes are, really - their secret identities are almost always self-effacing. So I decided to write about this ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary setting - and the superhero journey also really mirrors the journey we mothers take. We're just going along, thinking of ourselves, and then - wham! Suddenly our bodies change, we're using them in unusual ways, and the world is a bigger, scarier place than it used to be. Now, that's either a superhero - or a mother!

MF: I feel the tone of Super Mom Saves the World is more serious than Confessions. Was that intentional? Why?

MLH: Really? I didn't do that intentionally. But the fun of the first Horrible Swiffer Accident couldn't be recaptured in the second book, obviously - so maybe that's why you sense the different tone. The fun and surprise of that event really did set the tone for the first book. But I still hope the sequel is fun - I think it is.

MF: One of the quotes on the back of Super Mom Saves the World states that "[She] is also a critic of our overly high expectations of moms and our abysmally low standards for our culture and its leaders." Do you see your book as a commentary on the lives of American women/moms today?

MLH: Yeah, I do, in a way. I wrote the first book, in part, as a reaction to a certain kind of "Mommy Lit" I just find hard to take, except in small doses. The "Nanny Diaries," "I Don't Know How She Does It" kinds of books, where the mother is this high powered executive with a nanny, a caterer, and a staff - these books were being heralded as this new kind of literature that really talked about what it's like to be a mother today. And, well - I don't think so! I think they're so unrealistic and not particularly appealing, and certainly not how the women I know live. I wanted to write a book that was the direct opposite of those kinds of books! I wanted to show how hard it is to be a mother, and how the rewards aren't always evident, right away. "Super Mom" is almost used ironically in these books - the point being, there's no such thing.

And as far as cultural leaders - well, yes, I had a bit of fun at their expense!

MF: One for the Kansans out there: why did you decide to set the books in Kansas?

MLH: I thought the book just couldn't be set on either coast. It's not that kind of book - in other words, it's realistic! (Well, as realistic as a book about a superhero can be.) I wanted it to be set in the heartland, and it's kind of an homage to Superman, who was, after all, raised in Smallville, Kansas.

MF: Why did you wait until the end of the second book to have Super Mom learn to fly?

MLH: Birdie’s ability/inability to fly is probably the number 1 question I get about the books. By the end of the first book, she still can't fly. And since I wrote that book not knowing that there would be a sequel, I suppose it’s safe to assume I didn't want her to fly in the first place. But when the sequel came to be, I knew that, since this was a big concern for a whole lot of people, I'd probably have to have her take flight by the end of that one.

So ­ why didn't I have her fly in the first place? Well, for a lot of reasons, frankly. Number one, I think, was because that was the one thing she dreamed about, the one thing she wanted to be able to do as a superhero ­ and it’s always interesting to deny your characters these kinds of hopes and dreams. It’s interesting to see how they react to not getting everything they want ­ because life is like that, you know. And even in a novel where the heroine shoots Swiffer cleaning fluid out of her fingertips, I wanted to keep it real. I hate novels where everyone gets what they want in the end.

Another reason, too ­ and she talks about this in the first book ­ is that she’s the first superhero with children. Or at least ­ the first one who had children first, then became a superhero. And having children really makes you mindful of your own mortality, and I thought that because of this, because she knew that if anything happened to her, her children would be left alone, she was unable to shake off the maternal ties that bind her to the earth. She was unable, mentally, to allow herself to fly, because of all the people who need her back here on the ground.

Now, so ­ why did I let her fly in the second book? Well, first of all, because it bothered so many people that she couldn't. And because I thought she'd deserved it by then. She also had more self-confidence and assurance in her abilities. And also ­ because her children are getting older; they’re taking short little flights of their own, now, into adulthood, leaving her free to soar on her own.

I think, though, the main reason is because by the end of the sequel, she’s found her true love ­ someone who’s not threatened by her strength; someone who’s content to wait patiently for her, and even try to catch her if she falls. So her heart is soaring ­ and so, by the end of the book, is she.

MF: I read parts of Confessions of a Super Mom out loud to my husband. He was impressed with the number of inside comic book and superhero jokes. Is this something you picked up while writing the book, or did you start with a working knowledge of comic books and super heroes?

MLH: I think anyone growing up in this country in the '60's and '70's couldn't help but absorb some of the comic book/cartoon superhero culture. I think it's part of our American mythology. So I had a basic understand but for some of those true insider jokes and references, I called on my panel of experts - husband, brother and sons!

MF: What's your favorite book? What did you read as a child? What did you read to your children?

MLH: My all-time favorite book is "Howards' End." I just think it's perfect. As a child, I seemed to have jumped right from middle-grade books - I remember the Betsy/Tacey books fondly, as well as the "Theatre Shoes" and "Ballet Shoes" books - right to adult books. I kind of bypassed the whole Judy Blume stage.
I read a lot to my sons, of course - nursery rhymes, "Goodnight Moon," etc. Then at a certain point we had family reading nights, where we all just had to pick a book and turn off the TV. But I'm not sure any of this did any good! Both sons are video game fanatics and as a matter of fact, my oldest son will be in college next year and his major is - video game design!

But I take comfort in the fact that they've both been in honors English classes throughout their school years.

MF: Who, or what, inspires you?

MLH: Oh, everybody! Seriously - anyone who's working hard, caring for others, trying to pursue happiness and love. I'm not so fond of people who feel they're entitled to - well, anything. There's a lot of that, unfortunately, in the world. But people who work hard, and stay humble - they're my inspiration.

MF: As a mom of two teenage boys (whew!) and a writer, how do you keep your sense of humor?
MLH: How do you NOT have a sense of humor with teenaged boys! Seriously - you either look at their bathroom and cry, or you look at it and think, "This is going to be such a funny blog post!"

MF: Where did you go to school? What did you major in?

MLH: I was a drifter. I dropped out of a couple of schools - DePauw University, then Indiana University in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, I didn't think to study what I was passionate about - at that time, theater - and so I just wasn't inspired in school. I dropped out and acted in local and regional theater for a few years, then I met my husband, then we had children - and suddenly I was in my mid-thirties, with no career to speak of. That's when I turned to writing. I truly believe that living life - and reading great books - is the best experience for an author. If you're not out there living, what do you have to write about?

MF: Do you have a mentor?

MLH: Not really. My literary agent is a huge source of inspiration & support but as far as a true mentor, I can't really think of someone.

MF: What's your favorite joke?

MLH: OK, here's a secret - people who write humor are not always great joke tellers. I can't think of a joke to save my soul - but I can always be counted on for a well-timed quip when the situation calls for it.

MF: Do you have a favorite super hero (other than Super Mom)?

MLH: I think Spider-Man is my favorite. I have no idea why, other than he was really so tormented by the whole experience, before he figured it out. And I admire that in a man - I'm always drawn to the tortured souls!

MF: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

MLH: Read. READ!!! Read what is being published TODAY - not 50 years ago. And understand that a good author has a lot of stories to tell; if one manuscript doesn't get published it's not the end of the world, because there's always the next one. You have to keep writing, no matter what.

MF: Any future plans for other books?

MLH: Always! I have a manuscript on submission now, and I just sent 100 pages of something new to my agent last week.

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A Wealth of Papers

By Andi

Once again The New York Times has beaten me to an interesting article idea—sort of. If you read the recent profile of Glenn Horowitz, rare book and manuscript dealer, you’re already somewhat familiar with the topic I’ve chosen to write about this month. When I thought of the “mysteries” theme, it had absolutely nothing to do with mystery novels, as I have to admit, I’m not much of a fan. I am a fan of the mysteries inherent in the world of literature at large, and one of the biggest mysteries for me is that of authors’ papers.

The word papers—simple enough—doesn’t do justice to the phenomenon at hand. I have papers, you have papers, everyone has papers. My bedroom is a haven for papers with stacks of them piled in every corner, on every flat surface, riddled with dust and leaning dangerously this way or that. While I realize I’m not painting a flattering picture of my living space, the point is, papers generally aren’t special. My papers consist of a number of types—varying in importance and purpose. I have drafts of essays, phone numbers jotted on tiny torn sheets, notes to myself, notes to others that never found their way to the addressee, letters from friends, drafts of query letters for publication, typewritten research notes, journal upon journal (also of varying types…personal journals, sketchbooks, a “bullshit book” where I keep ideas for art pieces, essays, short stories, and those novels that never seem to come to fruition). And herein lies the secrets to authors’ papers. They have many of the same papers we, the normal people, do, but their novels, short stories, poems, and essays do come to fruition. And…voila!...people care.

I was first introduced to the idea of archiving authors’ papers in a Research Methods class in my first semester as a graduate student, and I’ve been fascinated ever since. The professor of the course introduced us to the wonders of archival research and gave a brief introduction to the holdings of various universities. As The New York Times so aptly points out, “When writers die, their work lives on—and goes to Texas.” And I couldn’t have said it any better myself. The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin is a veritable Fort Knox of author archives, and while I haven’t had the privilege of visiting, I could! Or you could! A valid government- or university-issued photo I.D. is your ticket to hunt through your favorite author’s papers.

“Papers” can constitute a wide range of materials. For instance, the Ransom Center has papers from a staggering range of authors, artists and other luminaries including Alice Adams, Julian Barnes, e.e. cummings, Don Delillo, George Eliot, Carson McCullers, Anne Sexton, and so many others that I couldn’t possibly share them all. However, I assure you that they were all equally impressive and made me squirm in my seat as I read the list.

To use e.e. cummings as an example, his papers are split into three categories, The Works, The Letters, and The Miscellaneous. All in all, the e.e. cummings holdings equal twelve boxes (4 linear feet), eight galley folders, and eight oversize folders. But, to further whet your appetite, let’s talk trash. What’s in the eight boxes? Here’s a sample from the Ransom Center website:

The Works series contains drafts of several collections of verse as well as individual poems. The editing of Poems: 1923-1954 is particularly well represented in both typed manuscript and galley format. There are also essays written by Cummings for college exams and two notebooks with notes and poetry fragments.

The Letters series is mostly composed of single letters to various people, with the exception of Howard L. Nelson, with whom Cummings maintained a lively correspondence concerning books, poets, and fatherhood over a 22 year period. The Recipient series contains letters from admirers, publishers, and friends, including Merle Armitage, Robert Bly, Hart Crane, Judson Crews, Foster Damon, John Dos Passos, Harvard University, Amy Lowell, Stewart Mitchell, Marianne Moore, Marion Morehouse, Charles Norman, James Purdy, Stephen Spender, Samuel Ward, and Louis Zukofsky.

The Miscellaneous series is largely composed of notes from Cummings' school days, some elementary, but mostly collegiate. Most of these are pre-printed items and lecture notes, rather than original material. Additionally, a large number of letters sent to Marion Morehouse by several individuals, most of them written after Cummings' death, are present, along with quite a few letters to Charles Norman. Other miscellany includes manuscripts by other authors, a copy of Cummings' birth certificate, musical scores, and photostats of an advertisement series.

The nature of the material, both official and unofficial, staggers me. For an ardent bibliophile laying hands on a favorite author’s manuscripts or grocery list is like touching Moses’s stone tablets. Or maybe more like ruffling through an author’s underwear drawer; it offers the distinct possibility of finding something hidden and treasured, but it’s also more than a little creepy.

While the Times profile focused largely on the business of buying and selling authors’ papers, I couldn’t be less interested. Sure, it’s interesting—a sensational business full of a fair amount of mystery and intrigue—but I’ll certainly never have any contact with the business of author archives, and I’m simply more interested in thinking about them as artifacts. I assume any author, if they stop to give it a thought, would find the idea of an archive of their own materials either supremely tantalizing or supremely unsettling. Certainly the idea that an author is interesting or treasured enough to warrant the archiving of their manuscripts (and old dry cleaning receipts) is flattering, but would you want your effects open for research? If an author is dead, it probably doesn’t matter to them anymore (one assumes). If there’s something potentially embarrassing or scandalous the family might take the brunt. In any case, there are certainly options for having materials sealed until the author’s death or a family member’s death. In the case of Anne Sexton, an entry on her Ransom Center access page reads,

Open for research, except for one oversize box of tapes and diaries, which are sealed until Alfred Muller Sexton's death or until explicit permission for use is given by the Sexton family.
I wonder what’s in there? Certainly the answers to all of life’s questions, I’m almost certain.

As intriguing as “papers” are, one has to ask what will become of such things in the digital age? While some authors—Paul Auster, for one—hold fast to the tried and true typewriter method, punching out manuscripts one rusty key at a time, a much larger number of authors have given in to the allure of the much quieter, more efficient computer as a means to create their masterpieces. Where an author might’ve once communicated with her fellow writerly pals through long, handwritten letters, e-mail has stepped in to take their place. Will papers disappear?

If they’re devoted paper hoarders like myself…no. While I am certainly a slave to my computer, I’m also zealous about drafts. Drafts of essays, drafts of letters, drafts of book chapters. If I’m going to read and revise anything over five pages, I have to print a draft, mark it all up until it bleeds, and go back to the laptop with the evidence at my side. While no one is brandishing a checkbook to get hold of my papers, I can only hope that the bulk of my favorite authors—whose papers I’d eventually love to swim in—feel the same way and practice a similar method of drafting.

Authors’ papers are certainly a mystery and a treasure, but as I mentioned earlier, we all have papers. So, the next time you get ready to toss out that stack leaning lazily in the corner, perhaps think of what it would be like to leave behind your own archive of papers. What would you want to divulge? What would make you blush madly if it were revealed? Who would dive headlong into your archive? And perhaps avoid the urge to throw them away or digitize them because there’s something mysterious, wonderful and eternal about papers.

Visit the Ransom Center online HERE.

Book Tour: Oxford, Mississippi

By Nancy L. Horner

Some of us are weak enough in an average town with a run-of-the-mill bookstore or two. Plunk us down in a place like Oxford, Mississippi and it’s a given that we’ll end up perusing for hours in the local independent bookstore and its branches, more than likely carrying home a bag full of pastry and an armload of books. And, who wouldn’t want to soak up the bookish atmosphere, rub a gentle store cat’s sleepy head, walk where famous authors have walked on the sidewalks of a town square awash with brilliant spring sunshine? Surely no bibliophile can resist the charms of Oxford.

With a population of approximately 14,000, it’s surprising that Oxford, Mississippi has such a rich literary history. William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County was modeled on real-life Lafayette County, the fictional city of Jefferson on Oxford itself. Barry Hannah, author of Airships, teaches at The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Larry Brown and John Grisham called Oxford home, and Donna Tartt attended Ole Miss for a short time. In 1980, Willie Morris served as a writer-in-residence at Ole Miss.

The annual Oxford Conference for the Book draws a stunning array of well-known writers. This year’s conference was dedicated to the writings of Larry Brown. The Annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference takes place in July. There are frequent readings and book signings in Oxford; author readings and funky local musicians can be heard on Thacker Mountain Radio.

William Faulkner’s breathtaking Rowan Oak estate is in Oxford, masked by large stands of trees. One would never have the vaguest idea that he or she is actually within the city limits, such is the privacy and tranquility of Rowan Oak. You can walk the brick paths, view the outline of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Fable, written on his office wall, peer into his library, dining room and bedrooms and stroll the grounds. You can view a virtual tour of Rowan Oak, here.

On a recent trip to Oxford, where my eldest son works and attends Ole Miss, my family stopped at Rowan Oak. We came in from a rather odd direction; Rowan Oak is no more obvious from the road than the city is from its grounds, so we ended up walking across a grassy area, stopping to photograph flowers. We sauntered around the house, admiring the outbuildings, and then rounded the corner and started up a brick path. At that moment, a beautiful border collie by the name of Huckleberry appeared. He dropped a Frisbee at my feet and hunkered down, waiting for the toss. I threw his toy and then snapped a few photos as my son took over.

Huckleberry was a visitor to Rowan Oak, as were his owners, but he seemed to fit the place. I could easily imagine William Faulkner tossing a stick for his dog to fetch, patting its neck and sitting outside to type beneath the trees.

In town, we walked the town square, as we always do when visiting Oxford. First stop is always the irresistibly inviting Square Books. Oxford’s beautiful town square lends its name to the lovely independent bookstore, established in 1979. With frequent book-signings and readings, Square books is a happening place. Upstairs, a section dedicated to William Faulkner - both works by Faulkner and those written about him - fills an entire side of one shelving unit. Southern writers have a special section dedicated to their works near the cozy coffee bar. Walls are covered with autographed photos of authors and comfy chairs are scattered throughout. Tall windows flood the store with light and quirky touches keep the eye moving. Even if you happened to be a confirmed book-hater, Square Books would be an interesting place to visit. Mugs with fun, book-related quotes are available as souvenir items and a wide range of autographed books are always propped up, here and there.

Just down the block is Off-Square Books, my personal favorite of the three independents under the same ownership. Off-Square is warm and inviting with dusty wooden floors, gift items, and used and remaindered books. The store cat, Mamasita, spends her time sleeping in a window basket or on the chairs, sometimes even on top of the books, chasing a little red rubber ball around the store or lapping up the attention store customers love to lavish upon her.

On another side of the square is Square Books, Jr., a store dedicated entirely to children’s books. Painted on the front window are the words, “Teacher’s Rule!”

The food in Oxford, alone, would be worth the trip. A stop to enjoy good food and unique atmosphere is part and parcel of the Oxford experience; my husband uses food as an excuse to stop the book gluttony but I think of the excellent dining as a way to recharge between bookstores. In the town square, Ajax restaurant sells traditional Southern fare; and, waiters will mix guacamole to your specifications from a rolling cart with a drawer full of ingredients at Madre. Around the corner, fresh bread, soup, sandwiches and pastry are available at Bottletree Bakery. The atmosphere alone is worth the visit, but their soup is to die for. And, if you’re in search of a fantastic catfish dinner, head down the road to tiny Taylor, Mississippi for good food and live music. Alton Brown stopped for a visit in Taylor and gave their catfish a big thumbs-up. You can get a t-shirt with their cute slogan on the pocket: “Eat or we both starve.”

A visit to Oxford is inexpensive, in comparison to a trip to just about any large city and definitely a great place for a weekend jaunt. I advise timing visits to steer clear of football games, unless you like a crowded party atmosphere.

For more pictures of Oxford, click HERE.

Three Hundred and Ninety-Three and Counting

By Kim Haas

It’s a mystery to my family, friends, strangers and even myself at times how I can bring myself to buy even one more book. See, I recently made the mistake of documenting my book collection. I listed every single book and its author in a notebook categorized by genre. The totals currently look something like this:

Novels: 188
Short stories: 129
Classics: 18
Memoir: 39
Non-Fiction: 19

I should probably add that these are only the books that I have not read yet, not the sum total of all my books. I believe one of my daughters attempted to count them all for a math project one time but gave up once she reached a thousand.

The numbers stun most people. Even my writer friends. I feel forced to rush in with a disclaimer such as “Well, it’s taken me a good seventeen years of hard-core book buying to accumulate such a collection.” The non-writer and non-reader friends are just stumped. At a complete loss as to how to respond. Should they be impressed? Appalled? Looking for a support group for book addicts?

I must admit, I knew the number would be high. Why else would I even be inclined to catalog them? I’d be at the cash register, buying a couple more books and think, “I really have no business buying even one more book. I probably have over two hundred at home waiting to be read.” If I actually uttered these words out loud, my friend or the clerk would laugh with me, certain that I was exaggerating. Two hundred books. She’s kidding. She’s a writer. It’s hyperbole, not reality.

After the disclaimer, I then feel a need to apologize. To whom? For what? For not spending that money on the worldwide crisis of the moment. For not putting it into an IRA or at the very least into our daughters’ college fund. How selfish am I that I continue to buy books when I already own close to four hundred? There is a library ten minutes from my house where I can read the books for free. Nada. Zip. And they don’t require shelf space within my house.

But I’m a writer. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Writers need to read. We learn by reading how those before us have done it. Since I did not take the traditional MFA route, reading is how I teach myself. But even before I deemed myself a writer, I was a reader. I have been ever since I learned how with Dick and Jane and Dr. Seuss before moving onto Judy Blume and Agatha Christie. All of my report cards are filled with accolades on my reading habit. My mother claims I constantly had my nose in a book. I brought one with me everywhere- on car trips, vacations and even family functions. I still do.

Let’s not forget that there is such a thing as good writer karma. I want people to buy my books when they are published. I figure over the last couple of decades I have accrued some serious good writer karma points through my book-buying habit.

Then there’s the company of books. I love being surrounded by my books. And they are my books. They reflect who I’ve been, who I am and who I’d like to be at any given time. I have two full bookcases in my office. Two more in the family room. One in our bedroom. Books are lined on the shelf in my clothes closet, piled under the bed, next to the couch and the fireplace.

The piles are usually fairly good indicators of my current frame of mind. If I’m blocked in any aspect of the creative process you’ll find books by Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, or Julia Cameron. If I am struggling with life issues you might find books on your life purpose or the shadow. Or I may be struggling to learn a specific aspect of the writing craft so you’ll find stories and books I’ve already read. Books by Ron Carlson, Jean Thompson, Mary Clyde, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff. This reflects my frantic search to learn how they did that? And how can I do it in my own writing?

Which brings up the issue of re-reading books….

People, and by people I mean non-writers, don’t usually understand my need to own the books. Why own unless you plan on reading it again and people don’t read a book more than once, do they? Well, yes. They do. I do. Many many times. Which also causes a momentary flicker of guilt because why am I re-reading a book when I have so many piled up, back logged, waiting for their turn to be read?

It used to be a mystery to me, this compulsion to buy books. I am aware that at times it is used as procrastination, a way to avoid my own writing and creative process. But mostly it nurtures my creativity. When I walk into a bookstore, or when I browse through the books surrounding me at home, my fingertips grazing the spines, all of my cells kind of sigh and sink into this haze of contentment. No mystery there. Bottom line? Books make me happy.

Comics Ain't Just for Kids (But They Can Still Read Them, Too)

By Chris Buchner

One of the perceptions plaguing comic books has always been they were just for kids. Many people couldn’t get past the colorful costumes and flashy fantasy world of people with superpowers that fought the good fight. That perception has changed some over the years, with writers and artists doing more dynamic and adult-themed stories in order to gain legitimacy as an art form and to keep their readers well into adulthood. Even, perhaps, to attract new adults to the field as they were the ones with the money to spend on the product. However, in so effectively bringing the adults back into the market, the kids have seemingly been disregarded for action scenes of gratuitous violence and sexual images.

This is far from the truth. Many comics produced in a company’s regular line focus more on telling a good story and not so much on violence, sexuality, or anything else deemed detrimental to a young kid’s developing mind. Books like The Amazing Spider-Girl have stories adults could enjoy and yet are appropriate enough for young children to read. On top of that, there are many comics out there designed specifically for kids of all ages to read and enjoy. The best part is these books manage to do it without talking down to them, by treating them with the same intelligence as the adult fan base.

Here are some examples of the all-ages books made specifically with kids in mind:

MARVEL ADVENTURES:

The Marvel Adventures imprint takes Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four and puts them in all-new adventures. The stories are very light in tonality and usually contained within a single issue, making them very easy to follow or get into. The best part is, these books are reminiscent of the books Marvel put out in the old days, giving kids the added flavor of history. While these titles have some action, the cartoon-styled artwork takes a lot of the threatening violence away making them good for kids of any age to read.

SPIDER-MAN LOVES MARY JANE:

Don’t let the title fool you, because in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Mary Jane is the real star of this book. Spider-Man barely appears meaning the violent content is nearly non-existent. The book follows her adventures in high school, trying to juggle popularity and the things it brings, as well as her crush on both Spider-Man AND Peter Parker (whom she doesn’t know is really the same person). While teenagers may relate better to the themes and situations presented, younger kids can read this and enjoy it as well.

FANTASTIC FOUR PRESENTS FRANKLIN RICHARDS: SON OF A GENIUS

The Franklin Richards books are single issues that collect a series of short humorous comic strips starring the son of Fantastic Four members Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman. They follow Franklin’s misadventures in his father’s laboratory as his curious and mischievous nature constantly gets the best of him. It’s up to his robot babysitter H.E.R.B.I.E. to get Franklin out of the trouble he always ends up causing. Each strip, along with Calvin and Hobbes-esque humorous hijinx, often have a lesson that Franklin learns once the adventure is over. There have been several Franklin books so far: Son of a Genius, Everybody Loves Franklin, Summer Special, Happy Franksgiving, and the most recent March Madness.

DC ANIMATED ADAPTATIONS

The Batman Strikes!, Justice League Unlimted and Teen Titans Go! are all based on the DC animated series featuring the title characters. The art and story style often matches that of their shows, making them a virtual extension of them. Your kid can’t get enough of their favorite show? Why not give them an extra fix every month while encouraging them to read? Also available from DC is Cartoon Network Block Party which is an anthology collection of comic strips based on the various Cartoon Network shows.

ARCHIE COMICS

The majority of the books published by Archie follow the adventures of various teenaged characters through their lives growing up in friendly Riverdale. The characters are timeless and wholesome, addressing issues that most kids can associate with like bullies, doing your best in school and trying to always do the right thing. Many of the stories offer up lessons for both the characters and the readers as well. Some of the comics they offer are Archie, Betty & Veronica, Jughead, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch and various spin-offs. Also available from Archie are Sonic The Hedgehog starring the popular Sega mascot in his continuing adventures and Sonic X which is based on the animated series of the same name.

WALT DISNEY COMICS

Gemstone Publishing has the exclusive rights to publish reprinted stories based on Disney characters. As of this writing, only two titles are currently active; Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories. However, for the last four years they’ve printed other titles such as Donald Duck Adventures, Mickey Mouse Adventures, and other spin-offs.

Comics aren’t JUST for kids, but kids CAN enjoy them as well. By introducing them to some of the interesting characters out there, it can inspire them to read more and maybe expand beyond the comic books. Comics have also become valuable teaching tools in many classrooms across the nation, showing that educators have found some educational merit within the colored panels of action. Now is also the best time to introduce a child to comics because while these comics are made for kids, they don’t treat them like kids. They offer them exciting and gripping stories that even adults could read and enjoy.

Take a trip to your local comic shop and check them out for yourself. In fact, now is the best time. On May 5th, 2007, the annual Free Comic Book Day is being held. Each year, publishers release either reprints or all-new content that shops give away for free, along with other pieces of merchandise. Among the all-ages offerings this year are Archie Comics Little Archie 2007, Legion of Superheroes in the 31st Century, Sonic the Hedgehog 2007 and Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse 2007. Check out http://www.freecomicbookday.com/ for more information on Free Comic Book Day and the available products. To find a comic shop near you go to http://www.comicshoplocator.com/ or call 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.

Bane of My Existence, Part the Second: Style Over Substance

By Badgerdaddy

Often, if I reveal to the world that I think, say, Dan Brown has very little talent – if any – but is a very clever writer, people look a little baffled. Same for James Patterson; really, the man has nothing going for him except for one simple talent. Both writers share this talent, and it is a peach. I bet their agents love them; I wonder if either writer actually knows they are doing it though.

They write in such a way as to distract the reader from their writing. It’s very simple, and it leaves the reader feeling thrilled. And not, in my opinion, in a good way. How do they do this? It’s so, so simple: Short chapters.

How many chapters does The Da Vinci Code have? 106, including epilogue. The edition I have next to me is 593 pages long. Divide the whatsit by the thing and you end up with an average chapter length of 5.59 pages per chapter. That sounds like a fair amount, doesn’t it? It’s not though. Count in huge chunks of dead space at the beginning and ends of chapters, and you start to worry about the future of trees on the planet. So many of the chapters are two to three pages, and every chapter in the book ends on a cliffhanger.

Patterson does exactly the same; read his Alex Cross novels, and every fucking chapter… The first few chapters, you’re gripped; the second batch, not so much; the third, you’re feeling insulted that this writer is too lazy to build plot or suspense with character and depth but instead resorts to the kind of sensationalist writing that many of us turn our noses up at in the so-called ‘red-top’ newspapers in the UK, or the National Enquirer in the US. It’s cheap, and requires no patience. It’s the equivalent of painting by numbers – they provide the canvas and a cheap set of brushes and paints and we add everything else.

Patterson and Brown both use this short chapter so we, as readers, don’t look too closely at what we’re reading; they can be super-lazy because we’re almost ripping the pages, we’re turning them so fast. It’s effective, sure – but only for about five minutes. Some of the cliffhangers are utterly forced, some are red herrings, some are just crap.

Sometimes, a short chapter can be effective. Barry Gifford’s The Wild Life of Sailor and Lula leaps, laughing, to mind; it’s a collection of six short novels following one couple through their lives, and sometimes incidental characters. It’s exceptionally filmic in its form, if not in its content (two of the books have been filmed – Wild At Heart and Perdita Durango), but I would never describe the content of the books as being terribly cinematic, therefore it’s hard to view the stories with the same cynicism I reserve for Brown and Patterson, whose books often read like screenplays with the directions taken out. It’s like they planned to sell the movie rights before they even finished the first chapter. John Grisham’s early stuff read exactly the same way (though without the terrifically short chapters) until I suspect even he got bored of churning out yet another ‘hot-shot young lawyer learns the ropes and sees things no-one else has despite them being better educated and with a huge team of researchers to back them up’ kind of story. His sales figures may be down from the heady days of The Firm, but I bet his dignity and self-respect as a writer are soaring. Of course, his enormous bank balance from writing pure tat doesn’t hurt. My problem is not with tat – if I didn’t like reading tat, I would never have read Patterson, Grisham or Brown, after all – it’s with insulting tat.


Stephen King also uses short chapters where necessary, or breaks a long chapter up into digestible chunks while keeping an overall linearity – Salem’s Lot is a great example of this, as many short tales are interwoven into the story of a town’s death.

I like authors to build suspense because I give a flying fuck about a character and what happens to them. I like my stories to have peaks and troughs, not just peak after peak after peak. If The Da Vinci Code was an ECG readout, they’d have sedated the fucker by now. There is little skill in writing in such a way, and certainly very, very little talent, but it is clever – after all, they’ve both sold about a billion books and I’ve sold nonel.

And to follow on from last issue’s feature, the cover quotes on Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code are from Robert Crais, Clive Cussler and Harlan Coben. Oh, and there’s one from the New York Times, so that’s alright then.

The Enchantment of Fiction

By April D. Boland

What is it about books that draws us in? What is that special something that allows literature, with its plots, its characters and its language, to affect many of us so deeply? This is the mystery - the enigma - that dedicated readers, writers and bibliophiles constantly wonder about.

In today's culture, many people don't want to read. Entertainment that you just sit and absorb like a sponge bombards us from all directions. Consequently, readership rates have plunged since previous decades, as many kids today are more interested in spending their time on Myspace and YouTube than in going to the library. There are, however, clues that tell us that reading endures, that books have not yet gone the way of Fahrenheit 451. Take, for example, the sheer phenomenon of J.K. Rowling's success. The fact that kids want to wait outside bookstores at midnight in order to get their hands on the latest Harry Potter installment tells us that there is still a magical attraction towards literature, even if we cannot define or contextualize it. Likewise, consider the outrage with which many people reacted to the potential replacing of university library books with a computerized system. Something within many readers cries out to finger the spine, to hold and turn the pages, to hold onto a literary past that seems to be rapidly slipping away.

Literature transports us from wherever we are and whatever we're doing to somewhere that, most of the time, we could never be in any other way. We become able to live dozens of lives vicariously through characters that we love and hate. Without fiction, how would any of us know what it is like to be a boy wizard with a mortal enemy? Two lovesick teens from rival families in Verona? Individuals from different castes who are forced together during the tumultuous times that followed the partitioning of India? Readers of fiction are always learning, whether it is about a different time, place and culture, or just about human nature. And in doing so, we are learning about ourselves. We cannot answer questions about who we are and where we are collectively going without such knowledge, and literature provides it.

Sometimes as I read, I feel that the author has articulated something I feel most deeply but have not been able to articulate. How many countless individuals do these authors speak for in addition to myself? Perhaps that is why literature lives on despite competing interests. We may not be living in a book-based culture since the advent of the Internet and all that has come with it, but there are a few subversive factions of us who remain loyal to our roots. The mystery of fiction's intense appeal is one that will carry us through, perhaps on the wave of technology but nonetheless, into a new age where our literary love may change, but will not disappear.

Sure, I Know the Queen, April 2007

By Jodie

There are many internal mysteries in the stories of Sherlock Holmes that Arthur Conan Doyle would find himself called upon if he was writing now. If Professor Moriaty is such a strong and clever foe why has he never devised a crime worthy enough for Watson to chronicle it? How much heroin does Holmes take throughout the day to prevent the shakes from disturbing his masterful violin playing? Writers analysing these stories are quick to point out Doyle’s unimaginative use of language, the fact that the reader has no chance of solving the mysteries and the limited scope of Holmes’ detective work. All these elements should add up to a bunch of dire little tales that are no more than a curiosity shouldn’t they? Why are they still avidly read today? Why is Sherlock Holmes one of the most beloved fictional British detectives?

The first clue is in the unusual nature of many of the crimes. A goose is used to stow jewels in, an advert placed for ginger haired men conceals fraudulent practise, people are assaulted and murdered in locked rooms. Doyle’s criminals almost surpass his hero in the ingenious premises of their schemes. The sheer curiosity that is to be found at the beginning of many of the stories intrigues the reader and this is coupled with the amazing deductions Holmes makes, that lead to the revelation of the nature of the crime and how it was achieved. When this is realised it seems that Doyle’s stories follow one of the most important rules of writing an entertaining short story, to make the beginning, the middle and then end equally strong and always compelling.

Then there is the element of danger and the gothic that is incorporated into the writing. People who are unfamiliar with the stories may have an impression that Doyle provided the seed for the cosy mystery with his middle class crimes tackled by a detective who wears tweed and smokes a pipe. This is wildly untrue as many Sherlock Holmes stories contain strong depictions of human evil and in some cases there is almost an element of the ghost story. Holmes and Watson investigate a creepy houses at night on several occassions, many of the crimes involve a twisted method of achieving their ends and more than a few criminals receive grisly final punishments. The fact that the reader has almost no idea what is going on until Holmes reveals his deductions make the crimes obscure while they are occuring and so heightens the suspense and dread that the reader feels. Perfectly respectable people reveal themselves to be full of rage and violence and Holmes himself is far from a sedate arm chair detective, even if he does do his best thinking there. He is a heroin addict but also an active analyst who throws himself into action, shadowing people, disguising himself and visiting dark, seedy places.

Holmes must of course be credited with being the main reason why readers continue to investigate his world. Whether his creator was unable to flesh him out, due to time pressures, or unwilling to work hard on the background of a character written for money the unclear past works to his characters advantage. The lack of detail about the man fascinates readers who continue reading partly in the hope of discovering more and partly because such an enigmatic detective adds irresistible mystery to the tone of each story. Sometimes it is just as intriguing to be mystified as it is to have the flabbergasting details exposed. In one of the best stories, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, Holmes is given an equally unknowable female counterpart. The lady gets away from him and little is ever explained yet the conclusion doesn’t feel unsatisfying because the indiscernible is thrilling.

Sherlock Holmes lives in a London that is instantly recognisable to any British reader and he is a distinguishable part of that London. Like the characters of Dickens Holmes and Watson are instrumental in shaping both our perception of Britain at this time and in informing our fictional British landscape. Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing reaffirms our notions of how a fictional, historical Britain should be represented and as Shakespeare contributed uncountable stock phrases to the English language through his writing so Doyle helps to create images and tones that have become inseparable from British fiction. If you have never visited London but you imagine it filled with fog and ornate street lamps these images can probably be traced back to descriptions from established British writers like Arthur Conan Doyle. This provides a final reason why his stories of a logical detective and his blustering side kick remain so well read. In his work Doyle has created a vision of London that makes such an impression that everyone recognises it. This distinguishable landscape makes all readers feel as if they know Holmes’ world. It is comforting to walk into a familiar world where everything is signposted clearly in an understandable language and this makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
For British readers these linguistic markers show how closely related to their home and their culture these stories are and make it easy to accept and welcome Holmes as one of our own.

Literary Cinema, April 2007

Here are the cinematical offerings based on books for April.

April 6

The Hoax - starring Richard Gere, Alfred Molina. Directed by Lasse Hallström. Based on the book by Clifford Irving.

In what will cause a fantastic media event, Clifford Irving (Gere) sells his bogus biography of Howard Hughes to a premiere publishing house in the early 1970s.

April 27

The Invisible - starring Justin Chatwin, Margarita Levieva, Marcia Gay Harden. Directed by David S. Goyer. Based on the book "Dats Osynlige" by Mats Wahl.

After he's attacked and left for dead, Nick Powell (Chatwin) finds himself in a strange sort of limbo. His predicament: Find a way to solve his own murder and communicate with the living -- who cannot hear him -- who did it, and why.

Next - starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore, Jessica Biel. Directed by Lee Tahamori. Based on the novel story "The Golden Man" by Phillip K. Dick.

Cornered by the FBI after a relentless pursuit, a man (Cage) with the ability to see future events and affect their outcome faces an ultimatum, as the country's intelligence agencies scramble to prevent a devastating terrorist attack.

*All summaries from imdb.com.

Judging a Book?, April 2007

By Fence


This month I’ve chosen two very different covers to talk about. Design is a very subjective thing, but I think that these two covers work especially well. The first is for a non-fiction book entitled The Squad and the Intelligence Operations of Michael Collins by T. Ryle Dwyer. For those of you who haven’t heard of Michael Collins, he was one of the most famous Irish revolutionaries of all time, involved in the War of Independence and killed in the Irish Civil War. The cover design features a pale, almost washed out photo of Collins, with a separate photo of the Squad members overlaid on the bottom of this photo. And of course, on top of all this is the title and the author’s name.

And of course there is a gun. The revolver is probably the most prominent aspect of the design, and this fits in perfectly with the book. It is, after all, concerned with The Squad and Collins’ intelligence operations, much of which concerned murdering people at close range, and in cold blood. Violence is part and parcel of the book.

Every intelligence operation must operate in the shadows, never clearly seen, perhaps the reason for the washed out appearance of Collins’ and the squad on the cover?

One of the main objectives of a cover is to make a casual browser curious, to attract their attention in the hope that they will pick it up and buy it. Bright colours attract attention, so the eye is immediately drawn to this book. In that I think it more than fulfils its purpose. There aren’t all that many photos of Collins. He was a shadowy figure, not being recognised was the reason he was able to come and go around the country despite being a wanted man, but there are some photos. That the designers of this cover chose not to use one of the more iconic images shows, I think, that they wanted to portray Collins in a different manner than other biographies and historical accounts have done so up until now.

The Squad uses historical interviews and first-hand accounts of the men and women involved in the intelliegence operations. It is important, therefore, that the cover also feature some of those faces.

The second cover I’m looking at is for a fiction novel, Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey. A coming of age story, detailing a Dublin childhood of the recent past.

The version over on the left hand side is the cover that seems to be most common at the moment. My copy of this novel must be an earlier printing as it is slightly different. The photo used seems to be the same one, but in my copy it is arranged differently, and there is less extraneous text. Instead of the Colum McCann’s quote there is simply a three word extract from a newspaper review. Personally I prefer the earlier design, so I’ve scanned it in to show that slight differences can make a huge difference.

As you can see it has the same photo of the young girl, slightly blury, her features obscured by her hair, and by the fact that she is looking down, away from the camera. And it is a lovely simple and uncluttered design that becomes a little clunky in the other version, in my opinion at least.

I’ve always liked sepia toned photos, so this cover appealed to me on that level, and it fits in with the story of the novel perfectly. The narrator of the book isn’t a straight “I” narrator telling the story. Instead it is a voice that tells Tatty’s story, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, just like the face on the cover the person telling the story is hidden from the reader. There is also the slightest hint of sadness about that girl on the cover, a sadness echoed in the story of Tatty’s dysfunctional family. If the novel is “Beautiful and heartbreaking”, then the cover is evocative and beautiful.

Bookish Believe It? Or Not!


I'm not sure what's crazier. The fact that Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham claims to have never read a book, or, the fact that she apparently wants to form a book club with friends and fellow celebs like Katie Holmes. At least they are picking some good books to read. Just what will they be reading? Apparently they want to read the British classics by the likes of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy.


Bookgasm: The Shirley Jackson Edition

By Amanda Addison

Shirley Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman, referred to his wife as the “Virginia Were-wolf of Séance Fiction.” This is an apt description of Jackson’s work: literary and creepily weird.

The Road through the Wall (1948): This novel concerns the inhabitants of Pepper Street in the mid-1940s. On the surface, the community members appear polite, church going, and dignified – good people. In truth, this is the most rotten group of people filled to the brim with self-importance and reeking of hypocrisy. And the children are equally as vile. On Pepper Street, the children play games together until dusk, mothers engage in sewing circles, and fathers play golf on the weekend. Oh yes, add to that anti-Semitism, snobbery, alcoholism, adultery, cruelty to children, murder, gossip, and kiddie suicide. Oh Suburbia! According to the book jacket, The Road through the Wall was written by Jackson “partly to get back at her parents.” Jackson grew up in a similar California community of snobbish affluence. Although this novel garnered good reviews, Jackson’s career did not take off until her publication of the now famous short story “The Lottery” in the same year.

Hangsaman (1951): Similar to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite, an intelligent girl who likes to write and happens to hear voices in her head. The plot follows Natalie as she leaves her pseudo-intellectual father and weak mother to attend a progressive women’s college. While she is at college, Natalie meets an interesting array of characters including a charismatic English professor and his drunken wife and several vicious and weird students. Of course, all the most interesting character of the book is Natalie and her brilliant and strange thoughts.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959): An anthropology professor wants to investigate an alleged haunted house so he invites several unsuspecting people for insomnia in investigation at the forlorn mansion. This gothic work gets scarier by the minute as things go horribly world and the house wakes up. The house turns into a character – a live thing – as the book progresses. Forgo the crappy Liam Niesson movie, The Haunting, that is based on The Haunting of Hill House and just read the book!

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962): My absolute favorite Shirley Jackson novel! Merricat and her sister Constance are two sisters who live in a dilapidated house with their addled uncle Julian. The two sisters are social outcasts because of the mystery and death surrounding their past. Years earlier nearly the entire family, excepting the sisters, were fatally poisoned at dinner. Uncle Julian survived but his brain was permanently damaged. But who is the murderer? The answer will shock and disturb but it makes for a ripping good read.

The Lottery, or, the Adventures of James Harris (1980 edition): I am so envious of authors who can write short stories. To me, short stories are the most difficult to write. A poem is concise and a novel has plenty of length and a short story is a pain in the arse because it has to be just right. The right amount of character. The right amount of suspense. The right amount of detail. Any more and it becomes too much, any less and it falls flat. It is a literary soufflé. Shirley Jackson is one of the BEST short story writers EVER. Period. Exclamation Point. She is very similar to Flannery O'Connor (the other goddess of the short story). Like O'Connor, her stories have the weird twist at the end, seemingly normal characters that get all "Twilight Zone" on the reader, and the tales usually deal with gender and race issues and it is all packed up into enthralling little tales. Usually, I pick through short story collections sampling here and there, but this one I read from cover to cover.

From the Bookshop..., April 2007

By Quillhill

Often writers are asked where they get their ideas. The usual reply is that ideas are not hard to find: they are everywhere if one only look, and see. What non-writers don't understand is that the difficulty comes in the actual writing, fleshing out the idea into a character, a story, a complete world. How does one put into words the vision one has so that others may likewise see it and understand it? The creative arts, according to Daniel Boorstin, must do nothing less than enlarge, embellish, fantasize, and filigree our experience.

What makes writing so difficult? There are diversions, such as the telephone. There are distractions, such as the television. When time comes to write, there often seems to be something more urgent that needs to be done, like composing a list for the market, or catching up on correspondence, or washing the dog. Some writers might even read or reorganize their desk and convince themselves these activities are in the service of their writing.

Some writers require deadlines in order to produce. For us, procrastination is a constant companion, but the pressure of a deadline tends to inhibit creativity. We want not to write about the first thing that comes to mind, such as the sounds that herald spring: the laughter of children, the songs of birds, the heavy panting of dogs, the pounding bass of cars with windows rolled down. What we write needs to have meaning, pierce us, enlighten us. As we contemplated our blank computer screen, wondering how to turn it into this month's column, all we found was empty loneliness. Nothing was forthcoming.

Many artists believe in a personal muse. The more earnest our pleas for help, the further our muse fades away. Some writers try to woo their muse, others feel they must capture it unawares. The wisest will feign indifference, turn their back and go forward, and find their muse hastening to catch up. Inspiration is the reward of daily practice.

What is the creative impulse? From where does it arise, and can it be harnessed? Is there a creativity gene, or as Arthur Koestler posits, is it more a function of one's ability to recognise the intersection of different matrices of knowledge? We often think of creativity as a public display, though it is talent which allows some people the opportunities to share their creativity with others. Everyone can be creative, whether preparing a meal or decorating a cake, planting a garden or painting a room, planning a holiday or dreaming of one. And even some of those people who lack talent now have a weblog that allows them to share with others, too.

There is a sensibility that to struggle with the creative process is necessary to the creation of art. A person must suffer for their art, bestowing upon their work nobility. One is left to wonder whether an author who publishes a new novel every month is really a writer, or merely a typist.

We sat in the bookshop on the day of the deadline, columnless, already given up the hope of creating anything new this month, when the muse snuck up and touched us. Quick, she announced, to the Notepad! Write as if our column depended upon it. When we are finished here we will have opportunity to demand, Where have you been, young Lady? Then, immediately repentant, we will beg her to stay.

Had the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe been a contributor to Estella's Revenge, he would not have produced such a column as this. His, perhaps, was the greater wisdom, for he sought not to understand a mystery like creativity:
"I, being an artist, regard this as of little moment. Indeed, I prefer that the principle from which and through which I work should be hidden from me. The more incommensurable and incomprehensible for the understanding a poetic creation may be, the better."