Maximum Shelf author interview: Paul R. Ehrlich

Following Thursday’s review of The Annihilation of Nature, here’s Paul Ehrlich: Stories of Extinction.

Paul R. Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and the president of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. Among his more than 40 books are The Population Bomb and Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. He is one of three authors of The Annihilation of Nature, along with Gerardo Ceballos, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a professor at the Institute of Ecology at National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and Anne H. Ehrlich, a senior research scientist emeritus at Stanford University. Anne Ehrlich is the coauthor of Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species and The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. Ceballos is the author of Mammals of Mexico and Diversity of Mexican Fauna.

What is meant in your subtitle by the phrase “human extinction”?

There’s not the slightest question in anybody’s mind of why we’re facing an extinction crisis, both of populations and of species, and that’s human activities. It’s not extinction of humans, it’s humans forcing birds and mammals to extinction.

How does the three-author cooperative process work?

First of all, Gerardo’s first language is Spanish, mine is bad English and Anne’s is excellent English. Usually Gerardo, or I, or Anne will sketch out a chapter, depending on where our expertise lies. I will edit it the first time around and ask Gerardo to explain some things–his English is excellent, by the way; no one has any trouble understanding him or understanding what he writes–but it’s not colloquial enough in places. Then Anne goes through and replaces all my split infinitives and stuff like that. It’s really an ongoing process. Gerardo is more in charge of the photographs in this particular book–he’s a wonderful photographer on his own, he’s published many books of photographs. We all have students and others who’ve helped us. None of us publishes anything in areas that are even slightly controversial without having a lot of colleagues go over it, and of course we had that done for this book, too.

Anne Ehrlich

Anne Ehrlich

The cooperative writing process is three equal parts. The effort is equal, but we all have somewhat different talents and do somewhat different things.

Who is your target audience for this book?

Our target audience is intelligent people who read books. It’s not highly technical, but it’s not dumbed down in any way. We hope to make it both an attractive book and one that’s good reading. The whole idea is to introduce people to what we’re losing. The average person on Wall Street has never seen a natural ecosystem or, say, the animals on the plains of Africa, and can’t really picture what’s going on. We hope to get people to picture what we’re losing and get them to do something about it.

What does “climate disruption” mean, and why use that phrase rather than the more familiar “climate change”?

Gerardo Ceballos

Gerardo Ceballos

We adopted that phrase from the one used by Obama’s science adviser John Holdren, who’s a close friend of ours. He pointed out that it isn’t just warming–that we are changing the entire climate. Things like the frequency of hideous storms are going to increase, and not every place may get warmer: some places may get cooler. “Disruption” is more accurate than “global warming,” and even “climate change” doesn’t carry the implication of speed. We know the climate has always changed, and most people, certainly the people who will read this book, would know that there were ice ages and things like that. So one of the big issues that’s highlighted by using “climate disruption” is that the change is rapid. Getting older does not disrupt your life, but if you get married or divorced, that’s disruptive. That’s the main reason for using “disruption.”

Presumably many endangered species of birds and mammals didn’t fit into this book. How did you choose which species to discuss?

We chose the ones, first of all, that we know best. One of the problems, covered by a paper I was just involved in that got a lot of publicity, is trying to figure out whether or not we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’re experiencing a mass extinction. One issue is that there are not enough biologists to track all the species we think may be endangered or, in fact, gone. For this book we wanted a good variety of birds and mammals–the organisms most people relate to and certainly the ones we know most about in these terms. For instance, I’ve spent a lot of my life working with butterflies, but there are very few butterfly populations where we know enough about what’s happening to say anything statistical about the rate of extinction. But birds and mammals we know. We know which ones we know interesting stories about, and there are a wide variety of them in a wide variety of circumstances. So this isn’t an attempt to analyze what’s happening to all birds and mammals, but rather to take a bunch of interesting examples and tie them into why it really counts.

What about animal species beyond birds and mammals, and extending into plants–what is the scope of mass extinction relative to the story told in your book?

The scope of the mass extinction is vast, but population extinctions are the absolutely critical thing. There are a whole series of reasons not to wipe out the only other living things we know about in the universe: one, of course, is just that they’re interesting, fascinating and beautiful, but many people would consider it more important that they’re working parts of our life-support systems. The importance of population extinctions is easily illustrated. If we could somehow miraculously preserve one population of every species on the planet, just one, permanently, we would lose no species diversity–but we’d all be dead in a few weeks, because we utterly depend on having lots of populations to provide us with what are called ecosystem or natural services. For example, honeybees are involved in producing something like $18 billion of agricultural produce in the United States–critical to giving us a much more varied and nutritious diet. If they all died out, we’d be in deep trouble, even though they could persist in, say, Italy and Africa and we would not have lost a species, but we would have lost a vast number of populations. And population extinctions necessarily go on at a much higher rate than species extinctions, because no species goes extinct until every one of its populations has been driven to extinction.

The stories that we tell in this book make up maybe 5% of the relatively well-known stories of species extinctions. But there are many more: for instance, we didn’t look at most of the so-called threatened species, the ones that the International Union of Conservation of Nature considers to be in great danger but they’re not sure exactly how much. In other words, we’ve taken the ones where we know a lot about the endangerment, we know a lot about the distribution, and where they have really interesting stories. If you look at mouse lemurs in Madagascar, we’ve discovered that there are many more different ones than people thought 25 years ago. I think it went from something like two species to 12. That also means that it added substantial endangerment. If there were only two species, the chances of losing either one were relatively small. When we discover there are really 12, all of a sudden there’s more endangerment. But the danger there is the same as the danger everywhere–destruction of habitat is the main thing–so it wouldn’t be interesting to tell the stories of 12 mouse lemurs. We felt it was better to find the most interesting stories to tell.

This interview originally ran on September 23, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Author photos: Gerardo Ceballos courtesy Instituto de EcologĂ­a, UNAM; Anne Ehrlich by Anne Hammersky; Paul Ehrlich courtesy of the author.

author interview: John Norris

John Norris: Taking Pleasure in the Right Subject

John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He has a graduate degree in public administration and has served in senior roles in government, international institutions and nonprofits, including with the United Nations, the State Department and the International Crisis Group. Norris has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and many other publications. He is the author of The Disaster Gypsies, a memoir of his work in the field of emergency relief, and Collision Course: NATO, Russia and Kosovo. His new book is Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.

photo: Rebecca Hale

photo: Rebecca Hale

When did you first learn about Mary McGrory, and when did you know you would write a book about her?

I knew Mary personally a little bit. I was working in the State Department [during the Clinton administration] and she would call to pick my brains some. I also, like so many others, got dragooned into volunteering at St. Ann’s [Infant and Maternity Home] and helping out with the Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day parties. I got invited to a couple of social gatherings at her house, so I got to experience both her organizing touch and her parties and bad cooking. At one party, Roger Mudd and I were in charge of fixing drinks for people. I was pretty young and fairly new to Washington, so the idea of serving cocktails with a legendary CBS anchorman was something. But at one point we looked and the ginger ale had gone quite bad. There was kind of a mossy substance growing on top of it. And Roger Mudd turned to me and said, you have to tell Mary. And I said, I’m not going to tell Mary! You tell Mary! So we argued like 5th graders about it… and then we decided we would just tell everybody there was no ginger ale.

But as I got to know Mary, I appreciated that there was a really good story there. It was kind of a Horatio Alger story, of somebody who worked her way up from not an awful lot to be very successful in what she did, but also that she had a fabulous, unique flair. After she had died, I started thinking about doing the book and poked around; it was probably about five years ago that I really began in earnest. It was much harder than I thought it would be to write, in some ways.

How long did that process take, from conception to a finished manuscript?

About five years. I’ve got three little kids–the oldest is seven and the youngest is a year old–so I was busy with them. I had just finished working in Nepal with my wife. And this was kind of a busman’s holiday, because I’ve got a full-time job that doesn’t deal with Mary McGrory or journalism particularly, as an international affairs expert. So there were a lot of competing challenges to juggle at the same time. I just chewed away on it, and by the time I’d sorted out a publisher, I had a finished book.

What were the research and writing phases like, and how did they play together?

You know, I imagine this is an experience that a lot of people have when they take on a biography or a historical project. At first, I was terrified that I wouldn’t have enough material, that it would seem thin. And then suddenly I woke up one day and said, I’ve got way too many words, I’ve got way too much, how do I condense all this down and make sense of it?

It was very helpful that Mary donated her papers to the Library of Congress. There are 164 boxes of her material there: notebooks, articles, clippings and correspondence. Her family was quite good about sharing some other things they hadn’t given to the library. I’d love to be one of those writers who, in a fit of passion, starts at sundown and hands the manuscript over as the sun comes up. But I nibbled away, stringing together passages, and the research and writing mixed together.

One of the really interesting things for me, having never written a biography, was being able to find data points, putting together three or four different things and then suddenly finding that there was a really interesting story there once you lined up all the dates and characters. My research style was to create a monstrously large chronology. I took everything in chronological order–interesting stuff from the columns, interesting stuff from interviews–and it started to make much more sense for me. For example, there had been a Time magazine profile on her not long after the Army-McCarthy hearings, and she got a ton of correspondence. But it was only after I had lined up some dates that I realized she had gotten four book offers from major publishers on the same day. She had never mentioned this to anybody, and nobody would have ever remarked or known it, without actually looking at her correspondence in a chronological fashion and jotting it down. Finding those kind of hidden nuggets was maybe the most rewarding part.

You seamlessly tie in the narrative of United States political history with the narrative of Mary’s life.

As I was writing, I realized at some point that there were three books that I was trying to do at the same time. One was a history of Mary as a person, which obviously was the core that I really needed to get right. Second was a big swath of contemporary American history that I needed to weave in. And then the third strand was, what does this say about journalism? What does it say about women in journalism, and how that’s evolved, and in some cases how it’s not evolved a whole lot?

What part of Mary’s story do you most identify with?

It would be easy to say that she wrote beautifully but it didn’t come easy to her, she fretted and noodled and kept revising and rewriting and redoing her work. The other lesson that she really carried for me was, there weren’t a lot of people who had faith in Mary. But she put her head down and kept at it. Even though she did have a big breakthrough with Army-McCarthy, she really had been toiling in near obscurity, wanting to cover politics for a long time by that point, and being politely but firmly being told no by a lot of people. But she kept at it, and she got a couple of stories, and when she had her chance, she really took it. I think that the persistence side of the story is one that is encouraging for any writer.

At the start of the book, it feels like you take an impartial outsider’s perspective, but by the end, it feels more intimately connected to Mary’s story. Was this intentional?

That’s an interesting question. I think that part of that might be because I knew her later in life, and I got to talk to her contemporaries and people who had been around her. Interviewing them was an advantage for the later material. Writing about her childhood and those early parts, that probably always feels more removed in some ways. But I think it’s also that you gain steam as you begin to explore a person and get to know them.

What in your background as a writer and as a political actor prepared you to tell this story well?

A couple different things. I’ve got three sisters, a strong-willed mother, a feisty wife and two very independent-minded young daughters, so that side of things certainly prepared me well. I’ve always been a bit of a political junkie. I write politics, I think it’s interesting, and I understand people who think it’s interesting, even when it’s a guilty pleasure, whether that’s Donald Trump or anything else. There are times when it is a noble calling, and then there are other times when it’s like watching an entertaining car crash. I think that ability to talk about politics, and understand people who think and write about politics, served me well both in trying to decode Mary and in interacting with her fellow reporters and other people I interviewed as part of the research.

Getting to talk with the people in Mary’s life was a great pleasure, just sitting down and talking to people and puzzling it through. You know, they say about fiction, and I think it’s equally true of nonfiction, that you want to pick characters that you’re not going to get bored with or tired of or angry at by the end of a project, and I never did with this one. I still have a bunch of questions I would love to ask her if I had a chance. It’s been a great ride.

This interview originally ran on September 22, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Dan Marshall

Following yesterday’s review of Home is Burning, here’s Dan Marshall: Self-Deprecation and Happiness.

Dan Marshall grew up in a nice home with nice parents in Salt Lake City, Utah, before attending UC Berkeley. After college, Marshall went to work at a strategic communications public relations firm in Los Angeles. At 25, he left work and returned to Salt Lake City to take care of his sick parents. While caring for them, he started writing detailed accounts about many of their weird, sad, funny adventures. Home is Burning is his first book. He is currently working on adapting it into a screenplay.

Your Facebook notes and blog posts fed into what became the book. What does the writing process look like when you have all that material to start with?

photo: Sharon Suh

photo: Sharon Suh

It was a fairly unique process. The blog was mainly shorter posts: funny conversations, short stories and a lot of lists. When I decided to write the book, I aggregated all the blog posts, and then read through them. The blog was a lot cruder than the book (if you can believe it), and was focused more on trying to make people laugh than on the sentimental moments from the story. So a lot had to change.

The blog also didn’t really have a theme other than, “S**t is bad.” So in reviewing all the material (about 900 pages worth), I had to figure out first what I was trying to say with all this writing–what theme or message I was trying to get across. I started to realize that it’s really a story about a selfish, spoiled kid finally facing something real, and thus being forced to sort of grow up. Once I realized that, it was a little easier to know what should stay from the blog and what should go. So I started trimming it down, cutting parts that didn’t push the story forward or relate to the theme, and adding a few parts that helped to fill in some of the gaps that I didn’t cover in the blog.

Overall, it was a tedious process.

Was writing this book terribly painful, or cathartic?

Certain things–like when my dad announced his desire to die, the Abby break-up, my dad’s eventual death–are always painful to relive and write about. I usually had to take a lot of walks while working on those sections to calm myself down.

Also, the voice I write in is rather dark and sad. So, getting into that morbid headspace is always painful. Whenever I was jumping into a rewrite or going through the book again, I would tell myself, “Okay, you’re going to be sad and feel like shit for a couple of months,” then start writing.

However, writing the book was also really cathartic, especially when I discovered the themes of the book. It was like, “Wow, that was horrible, but I learned a lot.” You learn more from pain than pleasure, so I think writing the book made me wiser. I’m a lot smarter than my friends with living parents.

This is going to sound sappy, but the book was also an opportunity to hang out with my dad again. I could bring him back to life and relive some happy memories. So, that aspect of it brought me a lot of joy. Then, each time I’d finish writing, I’d miss my dad even more. So, I’d fall into a bit of a depression for a few weeks. Nothing that a few burritos can’t cure, though.

Are you this amazingly self-deprecating in real life?

I start everyday by looking in the mirror and booing. Just kidding. I don’t do that.

But I do have a genuine hatred for myself that runs deep. I feel like a little self-hatred is healthy, but I probably overdo it. I’m pretty hard on myself, which is funny on the page, but sort of a drag to live with. I feel really worn down by myself all the time. Sometimes I want to yell, “Leave me alone!” at myself.

I think self-deprecating humor is a defense mechanism because I figure if I think the worst about myself, then I can’t be shocked by anything bad anyone says about me. I do need to work on being nicer to myself. Whenever I’m going on a self-deprecating tangent, my mom always says, “Stop saying so many mean and hurtful things about someone I love.” I should follow her advice.

You share an awful lot of painful personal detail here, both your own and others’. How do you decide where to draw the line? Do you draw a line? Was your family involved in those decisions?

In writing this, I made a commitment to revealing everything and being as open and honest about the experience and my life as possible. I don’t think it’d be that entertaining to read if I were holding back.

Also, I wanted people to know what it was actually like to care for a person with Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s such a horrible disease, and I think if people were aware of what actually goes into caring for someone with the illness, then more people would donate money toward trying to solve the ALS puzzle. You wouldn’t think it, but like 60% of the care you do for someone who is bedridden is bathroom stuff. So I figured I needed to address all that to give readers the full experience.

When it comes to stuff about me, nothing is off-limits. When it comes to stuff about others, I try to be a little more selective. It’s so hard to have some a**hole write about you, so if someone asks me to take something out of the book, I usually do. But I do try to push it. I often ask, “How much can I reveal about this person and still have them love me?” It varies from person to person. My brother Greg is a writer, so he’s basically okay with anything about him.

My sisters and mom, however, were a little taken aback when they first read the book. My mom’s initial reaction was, “F**k you Danny and f**k your book.” She’s since forgiven me and has been incredibly supportive of the book.

Generally, though, my family has been really good sports about this. They realize that this is a story about our dad more than anything. And they realize that I’m as hard on myself as I am them.

You relate some shocked reactions to your off-color and morbid sense of humor generally. What reactions do you anticipate to the book?

I think the book will get a mixed reaction. Some people will probably really enjoy it. And some people will absolutely hate it. I find that people over 80 tend to not get my sense of humor, so I doubt I’ll be asked to do readings at retirement communities or in Florida.

I’m prepared for all of my Mormon friends to hate me when the book comes out. In fact, I probably won’t be allowed in the state of Utah anymore. I always get a little nervous when a Mormon friend tells me they’ve pre-ordered the book. I try to be especially nice to them so we can hopefully remain friends. I actually really love Mormons now. I didn’t for a long time, but I realized through this that they’re also just trying to get through life.

But I hope people see what I was going for. I know it’s crass, and crude, and contains South Park humor, but I hope they see past all the language and realize that at the core of it, this is a story about a guy learning to love his family and learning how to grow up.

As a screenwriter, can you tell us what rating this book will receive onscreen?

It will receive an R-rating for sure.

What’s next?

I try to keep busy because I’m not good at having hobbies so I get really anxious and bored when I’m not working. I’m working on the Home Is Burning adaptation for New Line Cinema now. Miles Teller is attached to play me and Jonathan Levine is directing.

I have a few other film projects I’m working on. One is a script called F**k Me, I’m Paralyzed (inspired by a true story) about a friend helping his paralyzed friend try to get laid for the first time since his accident. We’re hoping to film in early 2016.

I’m also planning on writing another book that focuses on what life has been like after my dad passed, sort of an exploration about how to deal with moving on from loss and rebuilding yourself–trying to find happiness without the people who made you happy.

This interview originally ran on September 2, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

two readers, two books: Tassava on Philip Connors

I recently posted my friend Tassava’s review of Philip Connors’s second book, All the Wrong Places. We have now both read & reviewed both of Connors’s books.

(Julia reviews Fire Season; Julia reviews All the Wrong Places. Tassava reviews Fire Season; Tassava reviews All the Wrong Places.)

Of course, the most interesting part of sharing our responses turns out to be our differences. I was so blown over by Fire Season that Places was probably doomed to never live up. The latter was deeply impressive, but not the perfect gem that was the former, for me. Tassava felt the other way around: was very impressed by the first book, but found that Connors had perfected his style with the second.

So I went back, to try and tease out our different reactions.

Is your ranking of All the Wrong Places over Fire Season based on the writing style that you praise? Solely?

Not solely, no.

Long stretches of Fire Season had glowing, wonderful prose. Sections on the wilderness, for instance, stood out. But the more personal writing in Places resonated with me even more. It’s hard (as I’ve learned in my own work) to write well about one’s interior life. To write convincingly and beautifully about it is impressive.

True story. And that leads into my next question. Did the personal nature of All the Wrong Places ever make you uncomfortable? It did me. There was so much pain that I wanted to look away.

Interesting! Some of it was uncomfortable to read (for embarrassment, the sex stuff; for pain, his wondering if his call to Dan could’ve prevented the suicide), but it was so well done that I had to keep reading. And I read it at a time when I really needed to sort of bathe in someone else’s pain.

Ah. Would love to hear more, if you’re willing…

I have a personal situation that I am trying to work out right now, with the question of how much of it is my own fault and how much is outside my control. So his worry or terror at having “caused” or at least not prevented Dan’s suicide resonated with me.

And is, I’m sure, typical of suicide survivors.

Also his efforts to understand it (talking with his parents and others, like Dan’s girlfriend) and to forget it by drinking and fucking and moving around (from job to job and place to place).

Or escape it, rather than forget it.

Oh, sure. I think that has to be a fairly common response – as you said in your review.

Must be.

I hadn’t thought of this as a “self-murder mystery” (love that phrase!), perhaps because an earlier essay I read may have acted as a spoiler for me. Was that suspense and reveal part of your captivation?

Definitely! I hoped that there was a mystery at the core of the story, but assumed that it would be something… different… (edited for spoilers) I wanted to keep reading to find out what that “cause” was, or if it was actually there. I would’ve been satisfied with a story that didn’t end with anything more conclusive than Dan simply being depressed and armed. Oldest story, right?


It sounds like the personal divulging of Places worked for you and the place that you were personally in when you received it. Whereas my personal reaction as reader was to shy away. But we’re in sync on the stylistic mastery of both books?

Yes, we definitely agree that Connors is a superb stylist, a writer who can sketch the primeval wilderness of New Mexico as beautifully as he can describe the primeval compulsions of a grieving brother.

Last question. Are you going to send my book back to me now?


Thanks, buddy. It’s been a pleasure, sharing these two excellent books.

author interview: Julia Keller

Julia Keller: Memory and Place

Julia Keller was born and raised in Huntington, W.Va, the daughter of a college mathematics professor and a high school English teacher. As a journalist, she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for a three-part narrative series on a deadly tornado that struck a small town in Illinois; she has also taught writing at several universities. She currently divides her time between Chicago and a small town in Ohio.

Keller’s detective series starring prosecutor Bell Elkins is set in the fictional town of Acker’s Gap, W.Va. The fourth novel in the series, Last Ragged Breath (Minotaur Books, August 25, 2015), refers to a real event, the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood. Years after this tragedy, a fresh murder challenges Bell to consider the waning coal industry and burgeoning tourism investments. It’s a complex case concerning the nature of memory and revenge.

I reviewed Last Ragged Breath here.

photo: Mike Zajakowski

photo: Mike Zajakowski

You have established a successful series with a well-developed character. Your readers presumably have certain expectations from new installments. Does this make the writing process easier or harder?

Harder–but it ought to be harder, right? I mean, based on the response I get from readers, they know these characters well and they have certain expectations for them, much as our friends have expectations for us and tend to call us out when we veer away from our essential natures. People know Bell Elkins and Nick Fogelsong, and they have an idea about how they’d behave in particular situations. If Bell suddenly became meek and timid, I think I’d hear a lot of outrage from readers because that’s not who she is. Her mistakes are always going to be mistakes of commission, not omission.

Your question reminds me of an aphorism about life choices that I’ve always liked: “Be careful when you choose your rut–because you’re going to be in it for a long time!” It’s the same with creating a series: Be careful when you dream up your characters and their peccadilloes, because you’ll be living with them for a long time–if you are fortunate, that is, and if your series strikes the fancy of enough readers.

In Last Ragged Breath, Acker’s Gap is described as a “beautiful, beleaguered patch of West Virginia.” Could these novels have been set anywhere else?

Absolutely not! I’ve always said that my home state of West Virginia is the most singular state in the country, because it combines stunning natural beauty with so many intractable social problems. Many states are beautiful, and many states have social and economic woes–but only West Virginia combines beauty and sorrow in just this particular and poignant way.

I sometimes gnash my teeth when people mistake West Virginia for “western Virginia” (believe it or not, this is a common error) or lump together all novels set anywhere outside New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Every place has a specific character and texture–just as every person does. There may be superficial similarities, but the deep essence of a region–its history, the stamp it leaves on those who live there–is unique. One of my favorite lines in Last Ragged Breath comes when Nick Fogelsong contemplates his life in Acker’s Gap: “To walk each day on ground that had given rise to you” is, he decides, pretty darn cool. And so it is.

Did researching the Buffalo Creek Flood take you back to your career in journalism? Was that a comfort or a chore?

You know, journalism used to be the automatic career choice for aspiring writers–everyone from Ernest Hemingway and Katharine Anne Porter to Thornton Wilder and Willa Cather. It enables you to have experiences that you’d otherwise never have. It certainly did for me. I got to go to murder scenes, fly a plane, tour a coal mine–and so much more. That’s not as true today as it used to be–a lot of fledgling novelists end up in creative writing programs in grad schools instead of newsrooms–but for me, journalism was a great education, and I constantly use what I learned there in my fiction.

Many of the cases in the Bell Elkins series have roots in stories I covered. The death of a young boy in A Killing in the Hills is based on a crime story I wrote about. The opening scene in Bitter River–a car being pulled out of a river, with a body inside–is based on a similar moment I had as a reporter at a riverbank. And the retired coal miner in Summer of the Dead whose daughter rigs up a coal mine in the basement so that he’ll feel at home is also based on a real-life situation I came across as a journalist. The coal mine scene in Last Ragged Breath is informed by my own very harrowing journey down into a working coal mine, while researching a story on coal production.

The series for which I won the Pulitzer Prize is set in a small town about the size of Acker’s Gap. Hanging out in that town was a great way to sort of road-test my ideas about small towns in which, as the song says, “everybody knows your name.” That can be wonderful–or it can be stifling.

I like the way you phrased the question–“comfort or chore”–because it’s really a bit of both. I have the comfort of knowing that I’m writing about something I’ve seen and felt, but it’s a chore in the sense that, as a reporter, you are often coming into people’s lives in the wake of tragedy. I grew up hearing stories about the Buffalo Creek tragedy–every West Virginian does–and to return to a time of such heartbreak and loss is difficult, even if necessary.

At the center of the story in Last Ragged Breath is a child survivor of the flood, now a grown man accused of murder. Does Royce Dillard have a historical counterpart, or is he entirely your creation?

Royce Dillard is entirely fictional, but there were certainly flesh-and-blood children who survived the Buffalo Creek flood. Some lost one or both parents. As far as I know, none of these children has ever faced a murder charge as an adult–thank goodness!–but the psychological scars left by the flood are well-documented. Royce’s emotional issues are very loosely based on published accounts of the travails of real-life survivors. So he is fictional, yes–but he represents many people who suffered then, and who suffer still.

You told NPR’s Crime in the City series that you read most literary fiction as crime fiction. You cited Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird and the Oedipus stories. Is there a distinction between “genre” crime fiction and these classics? Where do your books fall?

I try to write books that will be accessible and entertaining, yes, but that also give readers something extra–perhaps a way to reflect upon life’s deepest questions, and a way to think about the catastrophes that can befall those who have done nothing to deserve them. To me, any novel–whether it’s categorized as “crime fiction” or “literary fiction” or whatever–is a window into how another human being works out her or his destiny.

I fight against the idea of genre because it’s so limiting. It’s an artificial distinction. It puts novels into boxes and closes the lid–and novels need to breathe! Dorothy Parker once divided her bookcases into two categories: Good and Crap. That’s the only division that really matters.

Will my books turn out to be classics–that is, novels that are read by multiple generations? I’d certainly like to think so.

Last Ragged Breath pulls together strings from past Bell Elkins novels. It appears that the series will continue. What’s next? Do you already have the next book underway?

Oh, yes, indeed. I’m well embarked upon the fifth book in the series. It’s set in an Alzheimer’s care facility near Acker’s Gap. I am intrigued by questions about memory, and by an awareness of how central our memories are to our very essence. When memory begins to fail, what happens to that core self? The basic plot in The Disremembering–that’s the tentative title–is about a series of mysterious deaths at the facility, but the deeper theme is this issue of memory. As more and more people live longer and longer, our culture will be struggling with the problems of Alzheimer’s and its long reach. It is a great springboard for a novel–and a touchstone for contemplation about how the past constantly interacts with the present, in ways both good and bad.

This interview originally ran on September 1, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Bill Clegg

Following yesterday’s review of Did You Ever Have a Family, here’s Bill Clegg: Characters with Secrets.

Bill Clegg is a literary agent in New York, and the author of the bestselling memoirs Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days. He has written for the New York Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, New York magazine, the Guardian and Harper’s Bazaar. Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press) is his first novel.

CleggWhat motivated your transition from memoir into fiction, and how did it go?

I became interested in stories where people with good intentions inadvertently make the wrong choice and instigate calamitous consequences.

On top of that: How do the people in their lives forgive them, how do they forgive themselves? Also the possibility of years of struggle that arrive at peace, finally, but not for long. For instance, stories of people who find love after years of its absence, only to face its sudden loss. I found that fiction was the place to begin to find answers to those questions, and soon the world of the novel came into being.

Did your insight as a literary agent make writing and selling a novel easier or harder?

Probably both. I advise my writers to write for themselves first and try and satisfy the terms of the work as they’ve laid it out, and then open their ears to their fellow writers and me, and then editors. Hold on to it as long possible, take it as far as you can before sharing. If publishers don’t want it right away, it is likely not the end of the story, it’s just that it’s not always easy. So knowing that there are no sure outcomes when you submit fiction to publishers was useful because I could, over the years that I worked on the novel, just try and answer the questions I was asking and also stumble onto new ones. For a long time, whether it would be published or not was, happily, not involved in its making. So that part was helpful. Of course, when my agent Jennifer Rudolph Walsh sold it, there was a lot that didn’t need to be translated for me as we progressed toward closing a deal.

I love that so many different characters get a voice in this book. Did you have a favorite to write?

At various times I was drawn to some more than others. Cissy, who works at the seaside motel, held my attention for a long time. She still does.

Cissy is indeed a great enigma. Does this mean that you’ll be writing more about her? Is there room for a sequel here, or will you be able to let her go?

I don’t think Cissy would figure into any next book I might write, but you never know. And I don’t see a sequel in the cards. Anything else that might happen to the characters in Did You Ever Have A Family I leave to the imagination of readers. I have, though, been writing in and around a group of characters in Wells, the town in the novel. It is a place I expect I’ll return to at least one more time.

What makes for a compelling protagonist?

Oh, gosh–many things and likely different for every reader. I tend to be drawn to characters who have something to learn through the course of the story being told. Also people with secrets. I had a lot for a long time and it’s a lonely existence that I am sympathetic to.

This novel starts out as the story of one family’s tragedy, but it expands into something larger. Is this the book you set out to write, or did it grow as you worked?

It opened up in the writing. And far beyond what ended up in the book. I had to write beyond and outside the thing to figure out some of the characters and ideas and voices. Issues of class and people’s relationship to the places they come from became more important and more interesting to me as I wrote.

How tantalizing! What happens with that material? Has it run its useful course?

Not as tantalizing as you might think! All that material is for the forensic computer experts to someday find in my computer but it will never see the light of day.

Do you feel that there is a moral to this novel, a message you needed to share?

When it feels like the end it often is not. And also: despite everything we think we know–about class, about human nature, about psychology–we really know nothing of anyone else’s life, cannot ever presume to understand another’s particular existence. Judgement is often no more than a confession of ignorance.

This interview originally ran on June 10, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Erika Swyler

Following Monday’s review of The Book of Speculation, here’s Erika Swyler: Writing, Binding and the Bath.

Erika Swyler is a graduate of New York University. Her short fiction has appeared in WomenArts Quarterly Journal, Litro, and elsewhere. Her writing is featured in the anthology Colonial Comics, and her work as a playwright has received note from the Jane Chambers Award. Born and raised on Long Island’s North Shore, Swyler learned to swim before she could walk, and happily spent all her money at traveling carnivals. She blogs and has a baking Tumblr, ieatbutter, with a following of 60,000. Swyler recently moved from Brooklyn back to her hometown, which inspired the setting of The Book of Speculation, her debut novel.
swylerYou presented your manuscript in a highly unusual way. How did that work, and what possessed you?

The plot hinges on the idea that a particular old book is such a fascinating object that it could consume someone’s life. It felt very important to create that experience for a person reading my manuscript. It was a simple thought: if they connected with the manuscript as an object, it would pave the way for connecting with the story. I had next to zero experience in bookmaking when I decided to bind and age the manuscripts. I might have balked if I’d known from the start how much of my life the project would devour.

Possessed is the right word. While revising, I spent months experimenting, testing stains and hunting down the right material for the cover. I tried other binding methods, but they were either too time intensive, or spectacular failures. Japanese stab stitching was fast, and a great way to make a binding stand out. Production took about a month and a half, with binding being the fastest part. Aging books takes time–drying time. It took two days for a book to cure after being rasped and stained, and another day for gilding. For the better part of a summer my dining room was a mess of drying paper, dust from abused tarot cards, rasps and gold ink. My friends thought I’d lost my mind. I probably had, to a degree, but I’d already sunk a good part of my life into writing the book and I felt it deserved every possible advantage I could give it. If nothing else came of it, I’d at least have an art object. I made 16 manuscripts in all. I held on to two copies.

What were the most and least fun parts of writing this book, or bookmaking?

The worst bookmaking moment was when my favorite drill bit snapped and took a piece of my thumb with it. That was an angry day in the dining room bookbindery. The most fun part? I got to make books! Waxing linen thread is really satisfying. It smells delicious and there’s a meditative quality to it. I also got to learn a new skill. I’m happiest when I’m learning.

Trying to evenly balance a dual narrative was the hardest part of writing. The easiest thing a reader can say about a dual narrative is that they prefer one part over the other. It was my mission to make sure that both narratives were treated equally. The whole story had to have a chance. I’d read the narratives together, then separately, then together, and then pull them apart once more. For every one read of a draft a writer might typically do, I’d read anywhere from two to four. The most fun part of writing it? Any scene involving terrible weather. There’s some truly awful weather in this book and it was always a joy to write. Bad weather allows you room for scenery chewing.

How much of this story is rooted in history?

I did a good amount of research, particularly for the 1790s portion. I really wanted to know how circus came to America, and what it looked like before P.T. Barnum cast his shadow. I found this little window of time shortly after the Revolutionary War where circus was just beginning to pop up. It was the perfect space to let Peabody and his menagerie breathe. I also think when you’re playing with the fantastic, it’s helpful to have grounding elements. The Wallendas, Philip Astley, the Joneses, John Bill Ricketts and Mr. Spinacuta are actual figures in circus history. That said, Peabody and his menagerie are entirely imaginary.

Librarians are awesome, aren’t they?

Yes! Librarians are flat-out wonderful. Nothing’s better than a person who doesn’t bat an eye when peppered with questions about curse tablets, circus accidents, tide tables, and if there’s any way around a paywall on an article. I may have done that to several librarians. Yes, I know, search engines. Search engines are like opening a fire hydrant. Librarians are far better at helping you find what you’re after, even when you don’t quite know what that is.

You’re from Long Island. What of your childhood is in Simon’s?

Napawset is a shameless amalgam of small towns where grew up. It’s an interesting place that makes you desperate to leave it, while simultaneously wondering why anyone would ever want to go. As for Simon’s childhood, I spent a good deal of mine on the beach with my sister. Thankfully, our relationship is better than Simon and Enola’s. We played on the rocks, cooked out on the beach and made ourselves nuisances to the adults around us–like kids. Also, when you grow up on a shore, there’s always this odd need to check on the water, to see what it’s up to. I think my gift to Simon was that the water was always up to something.

Where does an idea like this come from? Was it born to you whole, or were you working to flesh it out all the way through?

The idea is rooted in that moment we’ve all had when we stare at our families and think, “Where did you people come from?” That’s Simon’s narrative, this very practical question. His story also came from wondering about the houses that actually are sliding into the Long Island Sound, who lives in them, and how they got to that point. It was something I had to work out because it began with questions more than characters. The 1790s portion came to me almost fully formed, in about thirty seconds, while taking a bath. I saw Peabody, Amos, Evangeline, the entire menagerie, and how it connected to Simon all at once. It was a seriously great bath.

This interview originally ran on April 15, 2015 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


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