Brian Doyle at Chuckanut Radio Hour

You will of course remember my glowing review of Brian Doyle’s most recent novel, Martin Marten, which remains the best book of 2015 to date (and may well make it through: I rarely award more than one *10* in a year). The same week that that review published over at Shelf Awareness (and my teaser posted here), he came to my little city to speak at a local event, the Chuckanut Radio Hour.

The Chuckanut Radio Hour is edited and aired on local radio a few times afters its live production, and it costs $5 per person (plus fees, naturally) to be part of that live audience. My parents and I went to see this edition, because Brian Doyle! I hadn’t been before (my parents had). The show describes itself as

…a radio variety show that began in January 2007. Each Chuckanut Radio Hour features a guest author and includes guest musicians, performance poet Kevin Murphy, Cascadia Weekly columnist Alan Rhodes, an episode of “The Bellingham Bean” serial radio comedy, and some groaner jokes by hosts Chuck & Dee Robinson and announcer Rich Donnelly.

(Chuck and Dee are the owners of Village Books, our local top-shelf independent bookstore.) I have wholesale stolen that quotation because it’s quite accurate, although in this edition we missed Alan Rhodes and instead took an extra musical number by guest artists 3-Oh. The band was good, and funny, with covers and originals; the spoken-word/poetry was good; “The Bellingham Bean” was quite funny (and guest-starred the versatile Brian Doyle to boot). The hosts’ jokes were, yes, groaners. But of course we were there for the author. Brian Doyle turns out to be a falling-down fine comedian in his own right, who knew? Also a very good storyteller, although that is less surprising. He didn’t really need an interviewer – just a microphone and a stage, and free rein. He monologues quite cheerfully, energetically, happily, and oh so funnily. He then continued this performance after the show was wrapped up, as we lined up to get our books signed (did I cheat by having him sign my galley?) and talk with him: the line was long because Doyle was so generous with his time and attentions, and I am grateful.

That’s two very good author-talk experiences in a row. If you get a chance to see Brian Doyle live, do! And for now, go get yourself a copy of the new Martin Marten: it’s outstanding and unique. And join me in investigating his earlier work, too, which includes two novels (The Plover and Mink River) as well as a bunch of essays. Here’s to local theatre etc.!

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, Anderbo.com 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!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Leslie Parry

Following Monday’s review of Church of Marvels, here’s Leslie Parry: Trusting the Characters.


Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Cincinnati Review, and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, among other publications. She was recently a resident at Yaddo and the Kerouac House. Her writing has also received a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories. She lives in Chicago.

photo: Adam Farabee

photo: Adam Farabee


Church of Marvels inhabits a very compelling and specific setting that combines fantasy and history. How did you choose this time and place?

I didn’t consciously set out to write a book about New York, but the sensory experience of living there (the space, the light, the sounds and smells) remains very vivid in my mind, years after I moved away. Like many Americans, the city was a portal for my family. My great-grandfather, who was born in 1888, grew up in an immigrant family in Greenwich Village. His own father was a dreamy, dissolute, would-be poet who operated an elevator; his mother and sister worked as dressmakers. He fell in love with my great-grandmother, an actress, when he saw her on the stage. It’s a story that’s always fascinated me, but because he died so young, it’s all that I really know of him. So at the root of this book, perhaps, is the desire to re-create the world that he lived in, to imagine a history of the Parrys in America. But the story, of course, became something else entirely. And once I started following these specific characters through the streets of Manhattan, the book took on a life of its own.

How much research did you have to do into this historical setting, and what did that process look like?

Before I even knew this was going to be a novel, I was reading certain books just out of curiosity–New York history, medical history, labor history; various histories of vaudeville, dime museums, prizefighting, theater. I even read a book on the history of garbage. So I’m sure all of those various threads were humming along in my mind, crossing and sparking, when I sat down to write. Then, when I was deep into the drafting process, I went back and did some more focused reading: on hair weaving, river transportation, the opium trade, etc. I loved doing research: it answered questions I didn’t even know I had, and helped me understand the hurdles these characters would have been up against. But at the same time–since this is a work of fiction–I didn’t feel beholden to a strict factual representation. I let the research inform the story, but not determine it.

You tell a number of different stories that eventually converge into one. Was it hard to keep track?

Yes! And more so at first, when the story was still taking shape. I knew the direction I was traveling–I knew, in a loose way, how I wanted the plot to evolve–but I didn’t always have a clear path. I took a lot of wrong turns and hit a few dead ends. But I was guided by the overall sensibility of the story; I had to trust the characters. And I was fortunate enough to have a terrific editor help me across the finish line.

Did you always intend to write them as distinct stories?

Yes. In fact, the very first pages of this novel were not novelistic at all. I began writing vignettes about people who populated different areas of the city–just character sketches, really. It was almost like an actorly exercise, trying to situate myself in another body, in another world. This came about after spending some time in New York, where a few chance encounters happened to dovetail serendipitously. I caught a sideshow act at Coney Island; I read Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House; I spent days traversing downtown Manhattan with my sister (usually on the hunt for gelato, mussels, pickles, dumplings). I stumbled across the word night-soiler, I think during a visit to the Tenement Museum. But I got frustrated with these vignettes after a while, unsure where they were headed. I put the pages away for a few years, but I kept thinking back on them. One day I read everything through again and saw the whole project differently–it was a novel, and soon the threads began to braid together.

What do you think makes for good or memorable characters?

That’s a good question. I’m drawn to characters who make mistakes. (This is different from having an endearing flaw–being beautiful but clumsy, say, or handsome but moody.) Mistakes–whether they’re decisions made impulsively, or are calculated; whether they happen in spite of a character’s better judgment, or begin as acts of good faith, naiveté–they reveal some of the most complicated aspects of human behavior. Confusion and doubt, shame or regret, thwarted desire, yearning, fury, vulnerability, perhaps a barbed pathway to amends–it’s a universal experience, and yet has infinite variations.

Do you have a favorite character?

Whichever character I was writing about at the moment became my favorite (even when they tried me and exasperated me!). But there is a special place in my heart for Alphie.


This interview originally ran on April 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!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kate Bolick

Following yesterday’s review of Spinster, here’s Kate Bolick: The Single Woman as a Cultural Archetype.


Kate Bolick is a contributing editor to the Atlantic, and a freelance writer for Elle, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She’s also host of “Touchstones at The Mount,” an annual literary interview series at Edith Wharton’s country estate in Lenox, Mass. Previously, she was executive editor of Domino, and a columnist for the Boston Globe Ideas section. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her memoir is Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

photo credit: Willy Somma

photo credit: Willy Somma

Clearly this book was a lifetime in the making. But how long did you purposefully work on it? Did the idea of it change during that time?

Spinster began as a bolt of excitement in 2000, when I first came across 19th-century journalist and novelist Neith Boyce’s 1898 Vogue column, “The Bachelor Girl,” about her decision to never marry. Until then, I was completely unaware that the public conversation around singledom had such a long history, and after that I couldn’t stop thinking about the single woman as a cultural archetype, and collecting examples.

After a few years, I sat down and tried to write a book about how Neith and two of her more-or-less contemporaries had influenced my thinking about marriage vs. not-marriage. It was a total and complete failure. I had no idea how to turn my fascination with their unconventional lives into a compelling narrative, and I was too young to have any insight into or personal perspective on the topic, or even know how to ask the right questions. I put the project aside, but never stopped thinking about it.

Then, in 2011, the Atlantic asked me to write a cover story about the changing face of contemporary marriage, and as I did my reporting and research I could almost physically feel the ghosts of those women from the past perched on my shoulder, taking in everything I learned. After the article came out, I thought maybe I was old enough now to give that failed book another go. In early 2012 I signed a deal with Crown.

From the start, I knew that I’d use my own coming-of-age as an adult as the narrative arc, and feature the lives of my “awakeners” as “love stories”–women I’d found, fallen for, then moved on from. In this way I’d be able to lead the reader through a series of historical and intellectual ideas that might feel dry on their own. Actually plotting that out, though, was maddeningly difficult, and more than a few times I thought I had to abandon that approach and try another.

What started as a fascination with certain lives deepened with research into a more comprehensive understanding of the single woman’s place in the social order, and how it’s changed across time. The specific economic, political and cultural conditions of each era determine who the single woman can be, and how she’ll be perceived.

How was this writing process different from the different kinds of writing you’d done before?

The process of writing this book was so different from anything I’ve ever done that for months and months I was near-paralyzed with doubt about whether I could do it. Length alone was a challenge–I had to unlearn journalistic tics like concision and speed, and give myself over to the space a book calls for and demands. The primary challenge was learning how to create a narrative; what compels a reader to keep wanting to turn the page? Weaving my own story in with the lives of others in a way that didn’t feel thunderingly obvious and clunky was likewise vexing. I also struggled with tone. I’ve written plenty of literary criticism, personal essays, interviews and biographical articles–how could I find a voice that would be capacious enough to let all these disparate forms coexist under the same roof?

What do you most want people to know about you that’s not in Spinster?

The book is officially a memoir, but I had to leave out acres of thoughts and experiences in order to keep the emphasis on what matters: the lives of the women I write about; the history of single women in general. Which is to say, the book is only one slice of me. Dear reader, I contain multitudes!

Could there be a sixth awakener for you, who you just haven’t found yet?

Absolutely. In fact, by the time I started writing the book I’d accumulated quite a few awakeners, which I decided to cut down to a more manageable six–the ones who’d influenced me most directly. After I finished the first draft, I realized six was one too many, and cut another. I expect that for the rest of my life I’ll keep finding new awakeners. At least, I hope I do.

Are you prepared to be an awakener yourself?

Hah! Well, given that finding an awakener is such a private, intimate process, and one that the awakener her/himself has no idea is taking place, I suppose I could handle it. In this way, I’m much better suited to being an awakener than to being a heroine, who needs to be dashing and daring. I’m not very dashing or daring.

What are you working on next?

Wait, you mean there’s life beyond Spinster?! Heh. I love the material too much to even want to think about anything else just yet. After two years holed away writing, I’m excited to finally be back in the world, talking about what I learned.


This interview originally ran on March 4, 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: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 4, 2015.


spinster

“Whom to marry, and when will it happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… even if the answers are nobody and never.” Kate Bolick explores her own answer to the classic questions, arduously and over the years of her own life; she examines their place in society, and the way other women she admires have answered them, mining the lives of female writers who have affected her. The resulting book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is less a polemic than one might expect, and more a thoughtful, generous consideration of our world, and a woman’s best options to honor herself.

Bolick begins with her family background, her loving parents and brother, and her home in Newburyport, Mass. In a personal and family tradition of talking, reading, discussing and writing, Bolick naturally gravitates toward literary models for the life she hopes to build. After her mother’s death, she seeks to re-create the conversations they used to share, “not with other, real, live women… but real, dead women, whom I could sidle up to shyly and get to know slowly, through the works they left behind and those written about them.” In the opening pages, she introduces her five “awakeners,” women of the written word who have offered her lessons about how to live as a woman, married or not. These awakeners are an essayist, a columnist, a poet, a novelist and a social visionary (although each, of course, crosses over and between those categories).

Maeve Brennan (1917-1993), essayist at the New Yorker, offers a loving picture of single city life and an admirable sense of style. She will also come to provide a frightening negative version of the stereotypical single woman’s final days. Neith Boyce (1872-1951), columnist at Vogue and representative of the Bachelor Girl, supplies a glimpse into the life of working women, a novel possibility in her time; although as Bolick points out, the chance of sex or sexiness in the workplace presents a “negotiation [that] continues today.” Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), poet and legendary lover, brings revelations. “Her legacy wasn’t recklessness, but a fierce individualism that even now evades our grasp.”

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), novelist and grand dame (“society’s favorite version of the single woman”), built herself a house, the Mount, with two rooms of her own, a public “boudoir” for entertaining and a spare bedroom in which to do her writing. She represents a model for the prioritization of one’s work, and also for the work Bolick reluctantly takes on in editing a luxury decorating magazine: rather than mere frivolity, this focus offers another opportunity to get to know herself. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), social visionary and prolific writer (of The Yellow Wallpaper, for example), inspires self-improvement and a different way to go about making a home.

Bolick tells her own story chronologically. As she discovers each of her five awakeners (a term borrowed from Wharton) and the lessons she finds with them, she changes jobs, moves from Newburyport to Boston to New York City, and dates and cohabitates with different men (referred to only by the first letter of their first names). She started using the word “spinster” in her journals in her early 20s, and always considered it a positive appellation, one posing possibility. Her evolving interest in spinsterhood is tracked by all of these layered journeys, the lives and writings of the awakeners interspersed with her own. Along the way, she also makes brief calls on Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Anne Sexton, Annie Dillard and others. Bolick acknowledges that the subjects of her investigations are all like her: straight white women of New England; diversity is not her focus.

Spinster‘s tone is charming, by turns confessional, collegial and academic. Bolick’s erudition is leavened by a playful, casual tone, even as she references Shakespeare and the Lernaean hydra in a single page. Not only a memoir, Spinster employs research into the lives of the five profiled writers, as well as into history and sexual politics. As the narrator of this voyage, Bolick is amiable, credible and fun to know.

Interestingly, all five of the awakeners eventually married, in some cases more than once. While it thoughtfully contemplates the possibilities for and arguments in favor of women remaining unmarried, Spinster is not a mandate. Bolick does not insist upon spinsterhood for her readers. Rather, she offers assistance in “holding on to that in you which is independent and self-sufficient,” whether single, happily or unhappily coupled. The word “spinster,” and all it entails–and Bolick makes great strides toward the proud and pleased application of this embattled historical term–is thus a tool for our individual contentedness.

Entertaining, wise and compassionate, Spinster is the result of Bolick’s lifetime of meditations, ruminations, angst and joy; of research, reading and appreciation of five intriguing lives; of dating, moving in with someone and time spent alone. While allowing that the coupled lifestyle is fine for some, Bolick’s message for readers is a celebration of the delights, challenges, and opportunities of remaining single.


Rating: 8 women.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Bolick.

Teaser Tuesdays: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

spinster

There is a lot to love about this book, in which a fun, intelligent woman discusses singledom and the arguments in favor, while exploring the lives & writing of those who’ve gone before her. A Maximum Shelf is coming. For now, I wanted to share these charming lines.

Because I’d started contributing to magazines and newspapers as a graduate student, the transition was seamless enough, save for the fact that reviewing books makes it very easy to never go outside.

I certainly identify, Kate. Here’s to continuing to make an effort to go outside (& also loving what we do).

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

John Vaillant at Village Books

Way back when I interviewed John Vaillant – in, I think, September of 2014 – I was living in Houston and getting ready to move to the Pacific Northwest. He mentioned that he’d be speaking at Village Books in February. And here we are: I went to hear him read and talk with Husband and Pops.

You know that I enjoyed his book; and I’ll tell you now that our interview was one of the most enjoyable (and moving) that I’ve ever done.

What I learned from this event is still more to his credit. It’s incredibly rare for an author who is this good with words – no, wait. First of all it’s rare for an author to be this good with words. But for an author like that to also be this composed a speaker; this articulate about the writing process; this calm and easy with an audience, this engaged with the people he’s speaking to; to have a strong speaking voice, read his own work beautifully; and then to be extremely funny to boot… well. I’ll cease raving and tell you just to go see him if you get the chance.

Also, I’m well convinced that his two earlier books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, would be up my alley. Sadly, as ever, my reading schedule is booked (ha), so we’ll see when I get around to them.

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