By Greg Baldino
“Raven Girl” is your new book, a modern-day fairy tale about what happens when a postman falls in love with a raven. I understand it was originally written to be a ballet, yes?
(Nods) This is a collaboration between myself and Wayne McGregor, who is the resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet and he also has his own company which is called Random Dance. So his background is in the world of modern dance, but when he works with the Royal Ballet he obviously works in the realm of ballet. His sensibility’s very cutting edge and dark, and so we’re a good pair. When we started talking about what we might do I said what kind of story would you like, and he said he would like a fairy tale, like a new fairy tale. And then later he said he would like a DARK fairy tale. And of course what fairy tales that are any good aren’t dark? They’re usually pretty horrifying.
Until they get watered down for the movies.
The nice thing about writing a new one is that it’ll be a while before they can water it down. Read the rest of this entry »
By Brendan Buck
George Saunders is a number of things. He’s a writer, a professor at Syracuse University and a MacArthur Fellow (aka “genius”). His newest collection, “Tenth of December,” has made him into a New York Times best-selling author. But “Tenth” is only one of several notable collections, which include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “In Persuasion Nation” and “Pastoralia.” But despite having one hell of a pedigree, George Saunders remains humble and approachable, and was willing to shoot emails back and forth with me over a weekend on voice, process and genre.
You tend to wear your influences on your sleeve. Your teacher Tobias Wolff is an obvious one, but you’ve also written at length about how Vonnegut changed your idea about what literature was. In the writing, what ways do you feel your influences have expressed themselves?
I’m actually not sure. There are a lot of questions that the writer himself probably doesn’t think much about, or the answer to which he can’t really articulate. I think influence works like this: you are madly casting about for something to love, so you know better how to direct your energy. Something suitable arrives. You wallow in it. It gets into your DNA. Then you tire of it and move on. Over and over. And then, at the end, all of the things that are “you” have been filtered through these various influences. And you are changed, both as a writer and a person—but in thousands of ways that are too subtle to describe, except in very broad terms. That is, I don’t think the sum change could necessarily be described. And, from a creative standpoint, there’s probably not all that much value in describing it, if you see what I mean. My guess is, we are attracted to writers who are doing something that it is in our nature to do—so we imitate them for awhile so that we can eventually distinguish what in us is different from them—and move on accordingly. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kelly Roark
Susan Nussbaum’s debut novel is eye-opening, devastating and laugh-out-loud funny. A group of young disabled people in a fictional Chicago institution tackle demons past and present. While Nussbaum exposes some of the very real horrors of the institutionalization of disabled persons, “Good Kings Bad Kings” is far from heavy-handed. Richly imagined diverse characters face the issue of institutionalization, and make changes in both small and dramatic ways to take control of their own futures. The winner of this year’s PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction joins us for a conversation about the types of institutions disabled persons often live in, her fantastic characters, and her reclamation of the word “crip.”
Are there a lot of institutions like the one in the book?
Yes, I don’t know the number in Illinois, but there are many thousands in the country. There may be more than a thousand in the state. There are nursing homes—they’re legion—everywhere, and then there are other facilities for people with mental disabilities, kids with various developmental disabilities. There are places where, if parents think they can’t manage or someone else can do better, there are certain pressures on families to institutionalize a disabled child. And there are certainly no financial breathers from how much it costs to have a disabled child. The government makes it very hard for a disabled person to survive in a way that is manageable, financially, because the institutions have big lobbies. Culturally, we’re also a people who feel it’s good to segregate people who make us uncomfortable. It’s a long tradition, going back way over a hundred years. Doctors really pushed to get these families to put their kids into facilities. Real hell holes. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kelly Roark
Meg Wolitzer’s new novel, “The Interestings,” begins with a group of teenagers in a summer camp. Jules, the initial outsider, is there on a scholarship but finds herself embraced by a circle of friends that open her world a little wider. A look at talent and various means of success, “The Interestings” follows these characters to their late fifties. Wolitzer discussed the book and some of its themes with me.
You attended a summer camp like the characters in the book— is that what inspired this story?
Yes. I mean, in part. If the summer camp experience hadn’t led to a lot of other thoughts I would never have written a book about it because it’s not a “summer camp” novel. For me, the experience opened my life up to the fact that there’s a big wide world out there. So, it was really when I came of age. I loved it so much there and it was the first time I got to take myself seriously. I met these wonderful kids who are not the kids in the book but I met my own group of wonderful kids. I couldn’t bear to be without them. Read the rest of this entry »
“Where Tigers Are at Home,” by the French-Algerian writer and philosophy teacher Jean-Marie Blas-de Robles, was published in English this year. In 2008, it won the French literary award Prix Médicis. What reviews I’ve found of this novel have been positive, if not glowing. I’m sorry to report that I am baffled on this front.
The novel is enormous, over 800 pages long. It follows seven different plots, all but one taking place in contemporary Brazil, and the other, flashing back to seventeenth-century Europe, serves as a kind of focal point for the book. It follows a seventeenth-century priest, Athanasius Kircher, and his devoted follower, Caspar Schott; Eléazard, a Frenchman living in Brazil who pursues a failed love-hate study of the seventeenth-century religious figure and maintains himself in Brazil by writing desultory reports to Reuters. We also meet, in separate subplots, his soon-to-be-ex-wife Elaine, a geologist traveling deep into the jungle on a dangerous expedition; his daughter Moéma, a rebellious bisexual college student who swindles her absent father in order to fuel her drug habit; a handicapped favela-dwelling beggar named Nelson; a corrupt governor named Moreira, who makes dirty deals with U.S. corporations and government officials. How are they all connected? The characters start crossing paths—wait for it—no, wait for it some more—and a little more—on page 281. Read the rest of this entry »
Thea Goodman’s debut novel ”The Sunshine When She’s Gone” is about many things. Love’s slow shift from transitory chemical high to enduring state. How giving birth can divide a woman from access to her own needs. And strangely, the importance of sleep.
When Veronica Reed refuses her husband John’s romantic overtures yet again, he wakes the next day, his discontent having reached an unconscious tipping point. Thinking to take their six-month-old daughter to breakfast, he winds up on a plane to Barbados instead. What follows is a brief yet significant marital hiatus during which both John and Veronica are reunited with their mislaid yet essential selves. For Goodman, this protracted separation provides a means of exploring the unique emotional adjustments John and Veronica have made to the medical ordeal of their daughter’s birth as well as each other in its aftermath.
An astute observer of relationships, Goodman dips into both Veronica and John’s points of view to provide a complex yet fair depiction of marriage. Also to this end, the book pulls from both past and present, offering snippets of the couple’s respective childhoods and snapshots of each’s family of origin. Yet somehow Goodman’s canniness isn’t brought as effectively to bear on the characters as individuals. John, for example, comes off as a bit of a buffoon, smoking pot, feeding his daughter diarrhea-inducing cow’s milk not once but twice, and carting her around Barbados in a stranger’s carseat-less Toyota. Read the rest of this entry »
Kate Atkinson burst on the scene in 1995 with “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” an intricate family drama for which she won the Whitbread Prize. More recently she’s been writing mysteries surrounding a Scottish detective named Jackson Brodie. Atkinson certainly made a fine addition to the grand lineage of British women mystery novelists. While these novels retained her sophisticated style and rich language, they had something of the (dare I say it?) commercial about them. Oh, the lowly mystery! How many Gaudy Nights must be written before it’s marked literature with a capital “L”?
In any event, “Life After Life” is a return to the style of her earlier novels—with a twist. Ursula Todd is born again and again, each time with an opportunity to improve on the last. At the beginning, a child is stillborn. A quick restart. A child is born, and takes a breath. As a toddler she falls from a roof. A child is born. Something makes this child hesitate before rushing out to dangerous heights. Fevers kill. Restart. It’s difficult to survive childhood. These early pages slip by quickly, as if the author were casually stretching her fingers while the audience catches up. Catch up. Read it twice, if you’re like me, just to marvel at her technique the second time around. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Silence and the Roar,” written by the Syrian Nihad Sirees, is a modern-day farce (or so it seems) set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, where the narrator, writer Fathi Sheen, is out of favor with a ludicrous despotic government that demands the preposterous adulation of its populace for “The Leader.” Taking place over the course of a long day, the roar in the novel’s title refers to this unescapable sound of a bizarre routine: the entire populace, in the streets, rallying for the glory of the Leader. Sirees, whose works have been banned in his home country for more than a decade and who has recently fled into exile in Egypt, has fun with the contours of absurdity: “In my country slogans are arranged into lines of rhyming poetry.” Fathi, unsurprisingly, is having no part of this blind-adulation business, which is why he’s out of favor, but he does not seem particularly concerned. Instead, he spends most of his time alternately fascinated by the brainlessness of “the Masses” and searching for solitude in the arms of his equally disengaged lover, Lama. But his mother’s surprising decision to marry a well-connected functionary threatens his low-profile life, as does his inability to turn away from episodes of brutal repression he encounters in the street. Read the rest of this entry »
In the 1980s, Alan Moore reinvented the wheel for American comics with “Watchmen,” a metaphysical Cold War allegory that took the archetypes of western superheroes and used them to remix conventional funny-book storytelling. He hoped to set an example for narrative technique, but instead saw that the world was beating a path to his door for a different mousetrap he’d set: the idea of costumed adventurers as violent, emotionally damaged personalities. In the aftermath of a series of troubles with his then-publisher DC Comics and its parent company Warner Brothers, Moore left the mainstream, jumping into deliberately anti-commercial work like the meta-literary pornographic “Lost Girls” and the holistic homicide history “From Hell.” Since then he’s penned a novel, launched a short-lived publishing company, studied the mystic arts, acquired a side career as a spoken-word artisan, married longtime collaborator Melinda Gebbie, and become a grandfather.
Since his transition away into less corporate work, Moore has moved away from comics almost entirely, save for a few Lovecraftian crime comics which blessedly eschewed the nostalgic castration of the horror legend’s work to bring to light the man’s dark paranoia and unpleasant racial and sexual ideologies, focusing on his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. The latter began as a Victorian action romp, assembling characters from late nineteenth-century speculative fiction such as the original explorer hero Allan Quartermain from “King Solomon’s Mines,” Mina Murray from “Dracula,” the Invisible Man from “The Invisible Man” and others. As the series evolved, Moore and his collaborating artist Kevin O’Neill pushed the basic premise to the edges of lunatic genius, incorporating (or at least attempting to) characters from every work of fiction—or at least those that are either safely in the public domain or analogized for copyright protection—in the process becoming a meta-commentary on the nature of fiction itself. Read the rest of this entry »
In the first chapter of Jill McCorkle’s beautiful and humane new novel—her first in seventeen years—a hospice volunteer quietly witnesses a daughter become full of sad wonder in the moments of her elderly mother’s death. “She sits smoothing her mother’s hair, shaking her head in disbelief that she is here in this moment. How can it be? Her expression seems to ask. It’s an ordinary Friday morning…” Later, the volunteer—Joanna, a fortyish single woman scarred by her turbulent past—will record her private memories of this woman whose deathbed, among others, she has tended at the Pine Haven retirement center in the small town of Fulton, North Carolina. This is the way she will keep them close, the people whose hands she has held at the end. These notebook entries are woven throughout the book along with short, vivid scenes that put us in the mind of each person as he or she passes away: fragments, emotions, memories. There is often a quiet grace note of overlap between the two realms—a word, a touch—and one of the deep pleasures of this novel is the deft way McCorkle creates this bridge, a connection between those who leave and those who stay behind. Read the rest of this entry »