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PSA: pre-ordering books

Because I recently posted my review of Phil Connors’s forthcoming book, A Song for the River, I wanted to make sure you knew about pre-orders. Of course, you already knew that you could pre-order books before their publication date on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and the like (no sign of pre-order capabilities, sadly, on Alibris or Biblio or Powell’s). But you may or may not have thought about the benefits of your pre-order. For your own sake as the consumer, a pre-order is a good way to make sure you get the best price. Even better, for the author, pre-orders often help determine print runs (how many copies of a book the publisher chooses to initially print), and can cue large retailers to up their orders of a book before it’s even published. In other words, your pre-order can make a huge difference, particularly for a lesser-known or new author.

All of this is to say that if you’re interested in Philip Connors’s A Song for the River, or, say, Mesha Maren’s forthcoming Sugar Run–another one I’m excited about–you should really consider placing your order for one of these books before the publication date comes up. Final bonus: getting that book in your mailbox months after ordering it can really feel like a happy surprise!

Colson Whitehead at Texas State Univ.

I feel terribly lucky to have seen Colson Whitehead speak and read from The Underground Railroad at Texas State University’s Witliff Collections last month. He was being presented with the L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Fiction Prize, an annual award in its second year through the English Department there. He won for The Underground Railroad, of course, but this is his eighth book (previously six novels and two nonfiction works).

Here’s where I admit that I’ve not read The Underground Railroad, nor any of Whitehead’s work. I’m ashamed! I’ve heard a lot about it, and it sounded appealing, and it’s won (ahem) the Pulitzer and the National Book Award as well as the Clark Prize. So I knew it was worth going; but I went in a bit blind. Now, I further admit that I did not wait on the long lines to buy Whitehead’s books or get one signed. But I bought one from Alibris as soon as I got home, and I look forward to reading it. I had no idea til this reading that it had such an element of magical realism to it. How strange and exciting!

So, early observations: Colson Whitehead is very funny and personable, and humble. One hopes for this in all our heroes, but one is often disappointed. I guess, though, writers tend to do better than other kinds of heroes/celebrities. Maybe because we spend so much time alone and doubting ourselves, and we’re so overjoyed when we are recognized. To this point, Colson took a question from (I think) a student who asked if he knew what a helluva book he’d written, before all the Pulitzers and whatnot started rolling in. Colson responded that the last 30 pages of the book are the best work he’s ever done. So, in a word, he thought it was good. But as he also pointed out, you never know if anyone else will agree.

I was astonished to learn that he conceived of this plot eighteen years ago, but waited til he had the writing chops, and the personal maturity level, wisdom, etc., to write it properly. He waited for fourteen years to begin. This… blew my mind.

He read from chapter one, in which the protagonist Cora is a slave on a Georgia plantation, in her late teens. I learned that the rest of the book follows Cora and another slave named Caesar as they escape north along the Underground Railroad, which in this imagining becomes a literal railroad; and each state they pass through becomes a different “state” in American reality. (I have the impression that this means different time periods and alternate versions of culture and policy. I believe he mentioned a state of Black utopia and a state of white supremacy. But don’t trust me; I haven’t read the book.) These ideas mesmerize me. I can’t wait to read it.

When he got ready to take questions, he said he would also welcome any tips the audience had to offer. This tickled me.

I learned more interesting trivia about the book and the writing process. When asked about his choice of a female protagonist, he said his last several were male and he wanted to mix it up; but also, that female slaves faced a different set of challenges than male ones, and he wanted to dig into that. He was asked about the structural element of interwoven chapters visiting with secondary characters, which is intriguing. And he commented that those secondary characters were “auditioning” with him, the author, vying for those positions; also an intriguing concept.

I also learned that Colson Whitehead as a writer is all over the damn place. He’s written fiction about John Henry; time travel; consumer culture; race relations; and zombies. He’s written nonfiction about the history of New York City; and the World Series of Poker. He says he believes in choosing the right tool for the job, be it realism or something on the spectrum of fantasy. His next book will be either science fiction set in the world of Star Wars; or a romance set at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, for which, as research, he’s been watching a lot of The Golden Girls. He does a mean impression of both C3PO and R2D2. This man, y’all.

I’ll be driving into San Marcos for more readings at Texas State, for sure.

new plan: twice weekly

Well, perhaps some of you are chuckling at me right now, because perhaps this was foreseeable. I have far too much to say to give you only one post per week, so let’s try two. [I am reading 20-25 books per semester for school and one per month for the Shelf.] Starting now, you’ll see posts on Wednesdays and Fridays. Hopefully this will not overwhelm.

For a little bonus today, check out this article about beavers a former writing classmate of mine recently had published. I saw this piece in an earlier and much different form; it is exciting to see him get it right like this, and encouraging for me to see him keep working on it til he found success. From there you may wish to go read this book review he wrote about a beaver book with a really great title.

Coming soon here at pagesofjulia: academic linguistics and race relations! Memoirs, sex, and Stephen King! Stay tuned.

in her honor: retirement of Marilyn Dahl

I needed to add this bonus post today to recognize the retirement of my editor at Shelf Awareness. Marilyn hired me as a reviewer in March of 2011, and she has been a pleasure to work with for these five years and eleven months, without a moment’s exception. I am of course a little devastated to lose her as a boss; but she deserves this, and she leaves some more than competent folks behind to take care of us. (In the last few years, Associate Editor Dave Wheeler has become a fine friend as well as a fine editor.) I’ve learned so much from Marilyn about how to read, how to write, how to read what I’ve written, how to play well with others, how to be a graceful human being. It’s been an honor.

I want to point you to Marilyn’s Reflections on Reading and Retirement column of Jan. 31, and as well to her Reading With… questionnaire. The good news is you will still see the occasional review with her byline on it. Maybe one mystery per month.

Love you, Marilyn. Thanks for everything.

bonus cross-post: can you help? at definingplace.com

Friends, this week’s bonus post is just to send you over to another project I’ve been working on. My birth/place page is seeking contributors. Please take a look and see if you can help out. Thank you! And back to your Tuesday.

new beginnings: graduate school (again)

I am checking in only briefly today from Buckhannon, West Virginia, where I am midway through my first residency in West Virginia Wesleyan College’s low-residency MFA program. It’s been almost, but not quite, overwhelming; and all in a good way. I had lengthy and complicated travel from New Braunfels through San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and Fairmont, WV. I saw snow! And I was greeted by the friends I made on last summer’s visit. Even though this was my first residency as an enrolled student, I felt like I was coming back home into a place & a community where I belonged.

I started writing a line several days ago that began “early highlights definitely include…” but the list kept growing until it included pretty much everything. I have enjoyed readings by both core & visiting faculty too many to name, and seminars on a variety of topics like authors in correspondence, writing about ecology, and braided structures. I’ve had several writing exercises or prompts go especially well (and they don’t necessarily go well for me usually) – in particular, I found Nickole Brown’s talk on imitation, and her writing exercise, kind of a breakthrough. My writing sample got workshopped early on, and that went well and was productive. I’ve done some revision that I’m feeling good about continuing with. I’ve met with my faculty advisor, Katie Fallon, and enjoyed many conversations with Doug Van Gundy, who I especially hit it off with last summer. My classmates are truly a family to one another and already to me. In other words, yes, I’m overjoyed with what I’m finding here. I’m inspired & looking forward to this semester & beyond.

On the other hand, the schedule is rigorous, there’s plenty of work to do in our scant time “off,” and I miss my husband and dogs. Chris and I have hardly spoken, although he’s such a dear and is being patient with me (I warned him).

Most of all, I’m so excited to be embarking on this new challenge: two years of becoming a better writer and producing work.

Thank you, reader friends, for supporting this change on the blog.

reminder: new pagesofjulia coming

Time is speeding up and the lists are changing shape around here.

Husband and I and our two little dogs have just returned from one of my favorite places in the world: the deserts of far West Texas, around Big Bend National & State Parks, where we rode our mountain bikes and enjoyed sunrise views like this from our cabin.

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Next we have a few days in Houston with Husband’s family and all our friends. I hope to catch a punk show in between bike rides & festivities.

And then I’m home for just a day and a half before catching two airplanes and a bus to get to West Virginia for the start of my grad program. I have been busy reading, commenting and preparing for all the hard work that will begin there on December 30. It is a hectic but joyful time!

This is just a reminder to you kind folks out there that my format will be changing a little bit. I’ll post 5 days a week through the end of the year – which is, the end of next week – and then will post just once a week on Wednesdays. Those posts may be a little shorter than usual, too, although some of them will still be full book reviews (including some for the Shelf), maybe even the odd movie review. I appreciate you all bearing with me as times and this blog change.

In the next week, you can look for my usual year-in-review and best-of-the-year posts. And then, we will all learn together what the future may hold!

Happy holidays, friends.

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