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Broaden Your Global Perspective with Rick Steves

Join us for a special presentation by travel expert Rick Steves at the Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) on Thursday, March 5, 2015! This event is a partnership between Brazos Bookstore and Houston Public Media.

Rick Steves--author of over 50 European travel guidebooks and host of the public television series, Rick Steves' Europe--believes that thoughtful travel expands our world view and shapes how we address the challenges confronting our nation politically. Having spent four months a year overseas for the last 30 years, Rick feels that travel helps us “challenge truths we were raised to think were self-evident and God-given.” His lectures, TV shows, and guidebooks have helped millions of Americans not only enjoy maximum travel thrills per mile, minute and euro…but become better citizens of our planet. Rick shares how the other 96 percent of humanity sees our nation and explores how his social activism has grown naturally out of his travel experiences.

Each $5 ticket admits one person and can be picked up at Brazos Bookstore or at the event. (Doors open at 5 p.m.) Signed copies of Rick Steves' TRAVEL AS A POLITICAL ACT will be available for purchase, but there will be no book signing.

Rick Steves Travel as a Political Act Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9781631210686
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Avalon Travel Publishing - November 4th, 2014

Books will be pre-signed and available for pickup at the event. 


Q&A: Arthur Bradford

Have the animals always been there, hiding at the center of short fiction, or am I just starting to notice them? One of my favorite short story collections of last year, David James Poissant’s THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS, placed all manner of creatures at the center of stories that examined families--and just a few weeks ago, Thomas Pierce’s HALL OF SMALL MAMMALS used animals in a similar way. But in both of those books, the interaction between humans and animals--no matter what was happening--was treated with gravity and dignity, lending symbolic heft to each story.

Arthur Bradford’s new collection, TURTLEFACE AND BEYOND, opens with a young man attempting a risky stunt to impress his friends: he dives into a river and promptly smashes his face on a turtle hiding just below the surface. What follows is a dark, funny, anarchic story in which the young man recovers in a hospital, while his friend, the narrator, nurses the turtle back to health. But what happens when the injured man, released from the hospital, has to move in with the narrator and the turtle?

Bradford’s stories unfold strangely, finding new layers, seeming to develop almost in real time. Through absurd, these stories are as “realistic” as any short fiction I’ve read, showing the surprising ways that life can unfold, and the complicated relationships--sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic--we have not only with animals, but also with each other.

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I feel so bad for the animals that show up in your stories. What do you have against them?

I love animals! So of course I have nothing against them. It’s funny because at readings for this book I usually get asked about all the animal injuries and I hadn’t really realized how many of the stories contain some sort of animal mishap until I saw them all presented together. I would say I’m more concerned with the clumsiness of humans and what poor residents we are on this planet. Animals, especially our pets, stick by us no matter what jackasses we are. In that first story, “Turtleface,” I write about this guy who dives into the water and hits a turtle with his face. Originally I was just concerned with what happened to the guy, but then as I was writing it out I realized I wanted to know what happened to the turtle as well. Georgie, the narrator, decides to take care of the turtle and nurses her back to health. So it’s a happy animal story in the end!

These stories are so fast and anarchic—sometimes they seem to unfold almost randomly. Of course, this is by design, and it seems very carefully constructed, but how difficult is it to maintain such energy and “informality?” How hard do you have to work to make the stories feel so, for lack of a better word, casual?

I do work hard on my stories, but I also don’t outline ahead of time. I start with a basic idea, some interesting incident like a turtle accident or a guy getting bitten by a snake, and then try to keep things moving along. I dislike when a story becomes predictable and lacks action. I’m not into interior monologues or lengthy discussions of emotions. That’s not to say I don’t think interior thoughts and emotions are important, I just don’t dwell on them much in my stories. When I write I’m seeking to entertain myself as much as entertain others. As far as the casual tone, I think that might come from my interest in oral storytelling. I participate in The Moth and other live storytelling events and am a big fan of the genre. There’s something very engaging about hearing a person telling a personal story, and there’s also something kind of casual about it. A lot of my stories feel a bit like tales you might hear someone recounting at a bar, except I would hope they are a little better thought out than most bar stories. I have a lot of respect for story structure, and even though my stories might seem to ramble and go off in weird directions, I try to maintain the tenants of a basic three act structure. I think that’s an important part of creating a satisfying story. I could go on and on on this general subject, so I’ll just leave it at that.

What are your models for this kind of book—linked stories all narrated by the same character? What makes this not a novel—just the fact that it says “stories” on the cover?

JESUS’ SON by Denis Johnson has been a huge influence on me. I find that book very satisfying, and anyone who has read both my work and that book will likely notice my attempts at hitting some of the same notes. I enjoy short stories a lot, but it’s true also that there is something fleeting about them when presented in a collection. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories manage to avoid that somehow, and I’ve always admired them. Having recurring characters and a constant narrator solves some of the problem for me. Another book of linked stories that I enjoyed is Melissa Bank’s THE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING. That book is a knockout. I also like memoirs like William Burrough’s JUNKY or Lars Eighner’s TRAVELS WITH LIZBETH. Memoirs can sometimes read more like a book of linked stories since they don’t necessarily have to hold up to the structural scrutiny of a novel. I would not call TURTLEFACE AND BEYOND a novel because it lacks the overall arc. I could have tried to force one onto it, but that would have been an obvious attempt at shoehorning something into a place it wasn’t meant to be, I think. I am working on a novel now, and it’s going to be good.

What draws you to the first person point of view?

I used to only want to read books presented in first person. It just seemed more believable to me. When I read something, I want to believe that it actually happened. I don’t really care if the narrator plays a big role in the action, I just want to know where the story is coming from. Books like THE GREAT GATSBY or many of Roald Dahl’s stories have a narrator that is essentially just telling you about the things he has observed. I like that kind of presentation. I just find it more engaging than an omnipresent third person narrator. I only recently started appreciating the third person narrative voice. Part of this comes from the fact that I have young children and I see how effective it is in presenting stories to them. I wrote a children’s book, BENNY’S BRIGADE, and used the third person voice then. It made sense to me, at last.

I feel like these characters keep trying to tell people things, but can’t get anyone to listen. Are they bad at communicating, or do they just need to surround themselves with different people?

I find it funny when people a talk past each other, two people with different agendas having two different conversations in one. So perhaps my attempts at humor create this impression of no one listening. I’m just generally a fan of awkward situations and poor communication as vehicles for humor. Georgie, the narrator, tends to make poor decisions, especially when it comes to the people he spends time with. But poor decisions, I think, make for interesting story fodder. Who wants to read about someone who does everything right and surrounds himself with all the right people?

Sedaris calls you “the most outlandish and energetic writer I can think of.” Given that high praise, do you feel more of an obligation to continue being “outlandish” and “energetic” in your writing? Are you those things in your personal life?

I do sometimes feel like I’m supposed to come up with outrageous storylines, like that has become my thing. But I like outrageous storylines. This book doesn’t have any talking animals or similarly magical situations, the kinds of things that often came up in my first book, DOGWALKER. I wanted these stories to take place in the real world. That was the rule I set out for myself. But within that world I wanted to create weird and unusual situations. “Energetic” is a good thing for a writer, right? I would suppose the opposite of that would be boring to read. I do have some good personal stories from my own life, but I would say they aren’t quite at the same level at Georgie’s here. I enjoy a good awkward wedding toast or an evening spent driving around stoned in an old vehicle, but I’d prefer not to end up in jail or severely injured.

You’re a filmmaker, a fiction writer, a children’s book author, and co-director of a summer camp for people with disabilities. How do these different things feed into each other? Or are you just good at compartmentalizing?

Well, as you’ve probably noticed, I’m not a very prolific writer. I’m writing more consistently these days, but when I’m working on a film, or back when I was running the camp for people with disabilities, I didn’t do much else. I tend to work on one thing at a time, so I’d say I’m not actually very good at compartmentalizing. I do think all of my projects and careers feed into each other in one way or another, though. I’m interested in storytelling, whether it be through film or writing or even live storytelling like The Moth. I also think it’s helpful for a writer to get out and mingle. My work at the summer camp helped me do that, likewise at my current job, where I work part-time at a juvenile detention center here in Portland. Most writers only get a few productive hours of writing done a day, if that, so there’s plenty of time for other pursuits. I do like to think my other pursuits feed into my writing, though.

What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you in a bookstore?

When I was doing a book tour for my first book, DOGWALKER, I would bring a guitar and during certain stories, I would strum chords along with the reading. It was something I’d developed from doing readings in bars where people were distracted and often socializing. I wanted to hold their attention. Later on I worked out parts of certain stories where I would smash the guitar. It would make sense with the plot, like the narrator was smashing something in the story. I would do this with cheap acoustic guitars which I’d buy at pawn shops. I enjoyed doing it a lot, the smashing part. It was cathartic. It was always a bit unnecessary and awkward, though, and usually left half the room gasping and confused while the other half cheered. I had been cautioned that this guitar stunt wasn’t appropriate for bookstores, but every once and a while I’d come across a cheap guitar and a big enough crowd and try it out. The ratio of confused gaspers to cheering clappers got worse in bookstores, meaning more confused gasping. I believe I learned my lesson once and for all at a proper little bookstore in Manchester, England, where I was trying to impress Zadie Smith, who was in attendance. I tried to smash this stout little guitar I was playing but it only broke in two and I was left swinging it around by the strings. I knocked over a bookshelf and put a set of small holes in the floor. The store owner was flabbergasted. She felt sorry for me, I believe, and thought I was disturbed and in need of psychiatric help. My book didn’t sell that well in England, and this new book isn’t even set to be published there. Perhaps all the bookstores over there have been warned. But I won’t do it again! Unless you invite me to Houston.

Tell me something interesting that has nothing to do with writing.

Everything has to do with writing! I’ll tell you my memories of Houston: there’s two giant highways encircling the city, one inner and one outer. I drove around those circles, lost, for a hours, looking for my girlfriend, who was training to become a teacher somewhere in that city. When I finally found her, we went to a park with our two dogs, and one of them leapt out of the car and chased a set of ducks, eventually biting a large white one on the ass. The duck kept flapping its wings and trying to fly, but our little hound dog held fast to its tail feathers. Finally the duck got airborne and left the dog with a mouthful of fluffy down. There was a police car nearby, and it drove up to us as we caught the dog and chastised it. The policemen chastised us in return, but didn’t write out a ticket, which I considered charitable. Later this girl and I got some barbeque, and I felt sick because I was leaving her behind to go up north. Normally I would have enjoyed the food, but I did not like it then. I left Houston feeling terrible and haven’t been back since. But now I am married to that girlfriend, and we have two kids. And that hound dog lived to be seventeen years old.

Turtleface and Beyond: Stories Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9780374278069
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - February 3rd, 2015

In Which David Leftwich Talks Sugar & Rice and Eats a Hamburger

By Benjamin Rybeck

Setting up this interview over email, David Leftwich tells me to go ahead and suggest a place for lunch, which strikes me as absurd. After all, Leftwich makes regular appearances on Houston Matters to discuss the restaurant scene, and he also is executive editor of the artful food magazine Sugar & Rice (which is the reason I’m talking to him today, but more on that later). So what the hell business do I have telling him where to eat?

He decides on Lowbrow, the Houston restaurant I know best, and one I’m always happy to revisit. When I arrive on a drizzly weekday afternoon—one of those Gulf Coast rains where the water seems to just hang in the air, immobile—Leftwich is already there, chatting with the chef, Jason Kerr. The men together form a study in opposition: Kerr, with his beard and his tight jeans, looks Houston hip, whereas Leftwich, with his half-zip pullover sweater and his stubble, looks like a tired dad. But in the Houston food scene, these men are equals, although at different ends of the spectrum: the food maker, and the knowledgeable consumer.

“You like this place?” I ask Leftwich after Kerr darts back into the kitchen.

“You know what the funny thing is? I haven’t been here in a long time. But I really like Jason.” He sips his iced tea. “You come a lot?”

I tell him that during the 2014 holiday season, Lowbrow became something of an unwinding spot for several of us on the staff—a place we started frequenting after work for drinks and dinner. What I don’t tell Leftwich is that I was just here yesterday; what I don’t know yet is that I will also be here tomorrow.

“It’s a halfway spot for me,” Leftwich says. He runs Sugar & Rice from the Heights, so it’s perhaps not always easy for him to make it down to Montrose, let alone south of that.

Leftwich’s office is housed with Treadsack, the Heights-based organization responsible for Down House and D&T Dive Inn. (Two forthcoming restaurants, Hunky Dory and Foreign Correspondent, are awaited by a certain type of Houstonian in the way that rock fans await new Radiohead albums.) Three of Treadsack’s head honchos—Chris Cusack, Benjy Mason, and Joey Treadway—act as Sugar & Rice’s publishers and were also the impetus behind the magazine, Leftwich tells me. “They came up with this idea of wanting to expand what food media was in Houston and to tell some stories that didn’t quite fit into the other food media that was out there.”

When I press Leftwich, he’s reluctant to bash “the other food media,” pointing out only that places like Culture Map and Houston Chronicle do “different things” and are, generally speaking, more interested in “openings and closings and reviews.” With Sugar & Rice, Leftwich aims instead to cover farmers, purveyors—“interesting stories and new ways to tell those stories. So we decided, what the heck, we’d start our own magazine.” It took a while to get going—Treadsack was sidetracked with the unusually long process of launching D&T—but when the time came, they approached Leftwich about being the executive editor.

Leftwich had worked in publishing for many years (he was at one point a Brazos sales rep for Little Brown), but “I took time off to take care of my daughter, then got involved with cooking and writing about food and the Houston food scene itself.”

“So food writing wasn’t always an interest of yours?” I ask. “You came to it?”

“Yeah, I came to it,” he says. “I’d always been interested in it and thought, ‘That’d be a nice sort of thing to write.’” But then the Treadsack people approached him about starting the magazine.

One of the most immediately apparent features of Sugar & Rice is its design, which leans toward bold colors and clean interiors, like getting drawn into a modern rustic furniture store by a neon sign out front. “Was that part of it from the beginning,” I ask, “knowing that it was going to be design-centric like that?”

“Yeah,” Leftwich says, “we didn’t have an exact design team, but we knew we wanted to be—”

Here, we’re interrupted by our waitress, a young woman who keeps smiling like she has a secret. I order a plate of fried pickles, which always taste better to me with a beer than without. But what does a food magazine editor order when he hits a place like Lowbrow? The same thing lots of people order: a burger, medium rare, with fries. He stares at the menu for a long while after that, making that sort of groan that universally signals he’s still thinking. Then, he says, “Okay, that’s good,” and the waitress leaves, her secret safe.

As for design: “We knew we wanted to make something that was an object that people would want to hold onto,” he says. “We didn’t want to be your standard magazine—something you pick up, read, and recycle.” He mentions being particularly influenced by a food magazine called Swallow. “They’ve done different things. One issue was hardcover, one had a scratch and sniff guide to Mexico City. We wanted to be something that was well-designed and had artistic value.”

Our waitress returns with a refill of iced tea for Leftwich, which he loads with sweetener. “The Internet’s very ephemeral,” he says, his spoon swirling the liquid, the ice cubes making music on the sides of the glass. “You read an article, and that’s it. But I want Sugar & Rice to be something you can keep around.”

I mention that the magazine has very little online presence—which I sort of assume people do at their own risk these days—and Leftwich nods. I watch his hands. He speaks with them, sliding them across the table like his words are landing between his palms and he’s shaping them as he goes. He has a habit of starting each new thought with emphatic “yeah”s, his words tumbling quickly, excitedly, before settling down a bit into something slower and more measured.

“Yeah, yeah,” Leftwich says, “we’ve tried [with the Internet presence], and we kind of had a blog, but with the staff being pretty much only me, it’s hard to maintain one and the other. It can be very easy on the Internet to dumb down your aesthetic or standards—not always—but I think also, with a blog, people expect constant stuff…”

“Yeah,” I say, “you need to keep doing it, or it dies.”

“And we were trying that, but then it sits dormant for a while, and people think, ‘What’s going on? Why haven’t you updated your blog?’”

In short: “We decided we’d just stick to print and doing it well,” Leftwich says, “and maybe we’ll do Internet later.”

I ask Leftwich what other kind of staff he might like. He thinks for a second. Apart from design and accounting, Leftwich fills nearly every role on the magazine (though he has “help when needed,” he confesses), and several times now I have seen Leftwich coming into Brazos upon the release of a new issue, schlepping copies of the magazine from store to store on his own.

After a moment, he says, “Maybe a good managing editor? Or somebody just part time, doing more of the sales stuff—distribution, ad sales, you know.”

“You don’t really have ads,” I say. “Is that a philosophical choice?”

“Our goal has always been to never have more than ten percent of the magazine be ads. You look at most mags, it’s fifty, sixty percent, and our goal is to keep it under ten. And a few ads are always Treadsack ads anyway.”

“It seems,” I say, “that in magazines like Vogue, the ads determine the aesthetic, whereas with Sugar & Rice, maybe the aesthetic can determine the ads?”

“Our designers have even gone in and tweaked some of them,” he says.

The design firm responsible for Sugar & Rice is Always Creative, and Leftwich mostly leaves them alone to put together the magazine how the artists want. The result: a magazine in which each article has its own particular aesthetic—no set formula here—yet there are some basic fonts and layout choices. “We try to design each magazine so it’s a little different,” Leftwich says, “but so there’s also still something that makes everything look consistent.”

Like Leftwich, Treadsack, and Sugar & Rice, Always Creative is based in the Heights. So does Leftwich think of his magazine as being a Heights publication? His answer is a simple “no”—though he confesses that they have a strong subscriber base in the Heights, mostly because of how the magazine evolved from Treadsack. But he stresses that the content stretches out geographically: the last issue contained stories about Louisiana and Florida, and this new issue contains a story about the Yucatan—and even a piece about going to Mars.

Here is where our own food arrives: my plate of artfully arranged fried pickles, and Leftwich’s monster of a burger, as monstrous as any burger I’ve seen at Lowbrow. He uncaps the ketchup, and it glugs itself onto his plate as if reluctant to leave the bottle.

To find Sugar & Rice contributors, Leftwich has worked his way through a variety of contacts and friendships within local arts organizations, and flipping through the issue, one finds familiar names, whether University of Houston creative writing folks like former Gulf Coast editor Zach Martin (“Which reminds me,” Leftwich mutters, “I gotta talk to him,” so get ready, Zach Martin), or designer/artists like Sara Hinkle. A recent piece on Slab Culture (which, I confess, I had no idea what that meant, until I looked up this article and said, “Oh, that’s what that’s called…”) came from a ethnomusicologist who was visiting Houston for a hip hop conference. This is part of what makes Sugar & Rice unique: it’s a food magazine that sometimes doesn’t require writers to write that much about food. This is why Leftwich stresses the cultural side of the enterprise.

As an editor, he mostly wants to find the right person and unleash them on the right project, giving them freedom to experiment and develop an idea. “In the first issue, for example, I got a friend of mine to write an essay on women-owned bars, but I let her do her thing, and she came back with an awesome personal essay about Texas, politics, women bar owners, the role of bars in society—a much different than I envisioned, but a better piece. Food touches on so many different things, and [the writing I want] is history, culture, and personal essays about how food affects us.”

As he speaks to me, he tries to snag bites of his burger, but it becomes messier and messier the more he tries to eat it. I feel a little bad. Maybe I need to turn off the recorder. Maybe I need to let the poor guy eat his lunch.

But first, I want to ask him about his own writing, because Leftwich isn’t just the editor of Sugar & Rice: he’s also a regular contributor. Had he done much journalism before embarking upon this magazine?

“I got my MFA in creative writing from American University in poetry. So I spent my time writing poems, then kind of got into blogging about cooking, food, stuff like that. But I’m not really a journalist, and I haven’t done much of it. A little bit here and there. But that side of the writing has been a new thing.”

I ask him about his own journalism—what he’s trying to capture in his food writing—and he uses the moment to flag down the waitress and ask for more napkins, even though a simple raised eyebrow and nod toward the devastated burger might have been enough.

“It depends,” he says, that truest and most diplomatic of answers. “If it’s an interview, it’s more about the subject” (a lesson I’m still trying to learn, clearly) “and if it’s an oral history, I get out of the way and let that person speak.” Otherwise? “It usually turns out to be an interesting combination of trying to relate my own personal history and the history of how food has developed. My maternal grandfather was a farmer, my paternal grandfather was a grocer, so I often start out personal and get into, like, the history of farming, or the history of the grocery store.”

“Is that because you’re a poet and you want to start personal?” I ask. “Or is that just a quality good journalists have?”

“With food writing,” he says, “people get personal a lot. Everyone has a personal relationship with food.”

It’s sort of hypnotic, I must say, watching Leftwich eat the burger. It seems to keep breaking into smaller and smaller pieces in his fingers. Whether he wants to or not, he’s getting to know every last particle of it. Is that what he means by “a personal relationship with food?”

The messiness is not his fault; it’s just the kind of burger that seems designed for three-handed eating, not two-. Finally, Leftwich is left with something of a soup on his plate: a mix of ketchup, aioli, and grease. French fries float on the surface. I think about reaching out and snatching one. Then, I wonder: if food looked like this more often, would we even want to eat it? Perhaps an entire industry of shallow, glossy food magazines—magazines unlike Sugar & Rice—would go out of business. The burger was certainly delicious, but there was nothing pretty about it.

Staff Chat: Neil Gaiman and His Trigger Warnings

The Chatters: Liz Wright (Bookseller and Newsletter Lord) and Annalia Linnan (Bookseller and Off-Site Captain)

The Book: TRIGGER WARNING, a collection of “disturbances” by Neil Gaiman

The Context: This collection--including poems, fairy tales, and meditations on legends--is the newest from Gaiman, master of the fantastic, following his novel THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE (and, of course, his shepherding of Indies First)

The Plot: TRIGGER WARNING has surreal encounters with imagined former lovers, click-clacking rattling bones, and every kind of disturbance you can imagine: in “Orange,” a young girl gradually transforms into a super-being, while Gaiman’s newest work, “Black Dog,” expands on the world he created in AMERICAN GODS

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Liz: It’s the Liz and Annalia Power Hour!

Annalia: Talking about Neil Gaiman’s new book of short fiction, TRIGGER WARNING.

Liz: Well, some of it’s short! Some of it’s longer--the longest ones are probably the new one, “Black Dog,” and then “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” which was first published elsewhere. A lot of the collection was first published elsewhere, right?

Annalia: Everything, actually, except “Black Dog.” Which is great, because “Black Dog” is a spinoff from AMERICAN GODS, so it’s a treat for Gaiman veterans. But let’s start at the beginning: what did you think about the title?

Liz: I will admit to being weirded out by the title. Because I have clinical anxiety--I’m a person who does actually need trigger warnings for certain things. That’s one of the parts of the introduction, discussing the concept of a trigger warning, and Gaiman’s belief that we need to be able to confront things that scare us--and I totally agree. But a trigger isn’t just something that just makes you feel bad; it’s a PTSD term for something that can trigger a panic attack or something equally devastating. So I was a little wary. What about you?

Annalia: I guess I didn’t really think about it, just picking up the book? But then reading Gaiman’s introduction, in which he explains triggers and warns that the book might contain them for certain people--I think that’s a risky thing to do, for sure.

Liz: And I mean, it’s good. We should be able to say, “Here’s something that scares us, let’s put it in fiction so we learn how to deal with it,” you know? It’s comforting, knowing the events are all fiction...but there’s some messed-up stuff in this collection.

Annalia: Yeah. This is not one of those books that you sit down and read it in an afternoon. A lot of the stories are heavy things you think on for a while--especially “Black Dog.” And maybe that’s a good place to tie everything together, because triggers and stigma are such a big part of that story.

Liz: Yeah, you can safely say some bad things happen in "Black Dog.” There’s self-harm, there’s...well, animal stuff really affects me. I don’t know whether it’s a spoiler to say “there’s a mummified cat in one scene and it’s disturbing.”

Annalia: That’s one thing. [laughs]

LIz: It is the subtitle of the book: “Short Fictions and Disturbances.”

Annalia: One of the things that stuck out to me in the introduction was that he tells you up-front that every story ends badly for at least one character. For some of them, it’s just that what they wanted didn’t work out. And in others, it’s like--

Liz: “You’re dead, bro.” It’s not consistent. In the introduction, Gaiman mentions that short fiction collections should be cohesive, and apologizes because this book is not.

Annalia: No, it isn’t--neither in form, nor in content. I was very surprised that there’s a poem as the first “story.” What does that mean, if poetry can now be called short fiction?

Liz: Well, it’s not necessarily; it can be a “disturbance.” But one of my favorite stories was actually “Orange”--the story in the form of answers to a questionnaire.

Annalia: That one took me the longest to read, because you only get the answers, not the questions, and I spent a long time trying to piece it together.

Liz: And there were a couple non sequiturs, probably--and you’ll never know, which is another pretty common theme in these stories: you will never know at least half of what’s going on. Which is part of Gaiman’s style--there are never concrete answers to anything. This collection reminds me of SANDMAN [Gaiman’s award-winning comic series] in that way. It’s that same kind of shifting dreamscape, alternating viewpoints and weirdness. And "Black Dog" was just so good. You haven’t read AMERICAN GODS, though, right?

Annalia: No. Besides this collection, I’ve only read THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE and CORALINE. I mostly follow Neil as a public figure, so I was kind of blind going into this--but in a good way! I wanted TRIGGER WARNING to surprise me, and I think it did. I’m glad that a writer who is so established still tries to challenge himself.

Liz: A quote I remember from the introduction to one volume of SANDMAN is that Gaiman has a mind like a Sunday Times crossword, which is exactly true. His work so full of references, and one of the things I like about him is the way he dialogues with folklore, and things that have become cultural folklore, like Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.

Annalia: I liked that too, because it means you don’t have to be Team Gaiman to enjoy this collection, you know? I would easily recommend TRIGGER WARNING to people who are interested in new things that are happening with short fiction. It is disturbing, but never in a way that feels manipulative. It raises questions more than tries to teach you lessons, and I appreciate that. What do you think?

Liz: I think it’s a great collection. It’s a Gaiman anthology: bits that he wrote for Doctor Who, for Ray Bradbury, for other collections and anthologies--it’s a good broad sampler. But even if you’re coming to it with none of that context, I'd say, “Here’s some creepy stuff. Enjoy.”

Annalia: And because Gaiman is so indirect and subtle, it's refreshing. Because the general trend right now seems to be, “as punchy and raw as possible,” and it’s nice to just read something where the language holds up well, too.

Liz: And it doesn’t need to be punchy and raw to give you chills.

Annalia: No. It’s really artful.

Liz: Classic, old-fashioned storytelling. Campfire-like. “Gather ‘round. I’ll tell you some creepy stories you’ll be thinking about in your sleeping bag.”

Annalia: While the bears are outside.

Liz: And the wolves howl.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances Cover Image
$26.99
ISBN: 9780062330260
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: William Morrow & Company - February 3rd, 2015

It’s Kind of a Funny Story: Nick Hornby’s Women

By Ted McLoof 

It’s no surprise that Nick Hornby wrote FUNNY GIRL, a sharp, observant, and patient novel about a young comedienne coming of age once she leaves her small town. The novel finds its protagonist landing a BBC series without much complication (her audition scene has that cliché moment when the unknown actress tells the writers to their faces how bad the script is, and they cast her for being more “real” than the others they’ve seen). But as is usually the case with Hornby, predictability isn’t an issue; it doesn’t matter that we can see the end coming a mile away. He’s never been interested in the destination, just the journey. But FUNNY GIRL does something even more in line with Hornby’s career, something that makes much more sense when you look at what’s come before it.

Nick Hornby began his career with a massively successful sports memoir, FEVER PITCH (1992), and attained a reputation as a mouthpiece for a certain kind of modern man—‘90’s masculinity distilled into comedic prose. By the time of his debut novel, HIGH FIDELITY (1995), his work was getting attention from men’s magazines like Details (“keep this book away from your girlfriend—it contains too many of your secrets to let fall into the wrong hands,” they gloated), a target demo few contemporary novelists (care to) hit. Which was ironic, since the ‘90’s man Hornby so precisely captured was the emasculated, I-feel-your-pain kind who was in touch with his emotions to a fault (recall that Rob, of FIDELITY, breaks down crying while listening to “Baby, I Love Your Way”). So with ABOUT A BOY (1998), Hornby both critiqued and embraced this bro-y culture of fanboys by making his protagonist a cartoonish version of their ilk, an emotionally stunted serial bachelor who lived and died by how he scored on men’s magazine quizzes.

It seemed these characters had been pushed as far as they could go, so Hornby ventured out with some more obviously “grown up” themes: HOW TO BE GOOD (2001) and A LONG WAY DOWN (2005) dealt with existential crises in favor of arrested development. But GOOD turned a lot of critics and readers off with its uncharacteristically sour message (basically: if you help poor people, they’ll steal from you), and DOWN got heat for soft-pedaling the issue of suicide, seeing as how its opening set piece turns a leap off a building into a meet-cute. What Hornby needed was a middle-ground between large questions about Life and characters who pedantically obsessed about their record collections.

That’s where AN EDUCATION came in. Lynn Barber’s 2009 memoir, which Hornby adapted for the screen, detailed her coming of age from a sheltered sixteen-year-old to a mature young adult after entering the world. Hornby has often cited novelist Anne Tyler as an early inspiration for his work, but only since AN EDUCATION is that made truly clear. Hornby has, in his latter-day career, found a kindred spirit of sorts with young, middle-class women stepping for the first time into the open world. WILD, his follow-up adaptation, follows a similar spiritual awakening (if a rather different set of life circumstances) as in AN EDUCATION, and BROOKLYN, his follow up screenplay to WILD, again finds a young, small-town girl moving to the open world away from home as a means of self-discovery.

So, again, it’s not all that surprising that Hornby’s taken this big-screen theme he so obviously connects with to the page with FUNNY GIRL. And though repeating this formula four times might make it sound pat, it’s the author’s trademark heart and wit that keep it fresh again and again, especially since his number one emphasis has always been on character, and character studies by definition remain fresh when the characters themselves are new.

“Fresh,” in fact, is a word we hear quite often in FUNNY GIRL, which details the rise and fall of not so much a single protagonist as an entire TV series called Barbara (and Jim). It’s the ‘60’s, and the women of London are making it to TV mostly for their looks, but Sophie Straw (whose original name, coincidentally, is Barbara, until her agent suggests a change) is obsessed only with women like Lucille Ball. She wants to be funny; the fact that she looks like a pin-up model is incidental to her. “Are you telling me you actually want to act?” asks her agent incredulously, and the answer is yes, so badly that she’s the only actress who’s heard of the obscure comedians writing a pilot for a new BBC series she auditions for, which may be the reason she gets the job on the spot.

Once we hit this audition, the book really gets its legs, as it begins to detail the lives of not only Sophie, but fellow actor Clive, producer Dennis, and closeted writers Bill and Tom. FUNNY GIRL is certainly the spiritual sibling of Hornby’s big screen efforts, but it works best as its own separate thing, a backstage comedy of errors about a group of people trying to innovate (to remain “fresh”) at a time when FCC Chair Newton Minow was famously calling TV a “vast wasteland.” The struggles of the writers to get sex discussed on TV—not for shock or a cheap laugh, but because talking about sex is what adults do—as they fight the network heads is fun and meaty to watch, and allows the story to breathe on its own terms.

And Hornby’s use of yet another complicated young female character as a narrative muse is in no way incidental to that. Sophie carries the story as she carries Barbara (and Jim), acting somehow as both readable character study and audience surrogate to the entertainment world she inhabits. She is, after all, just a hometown girl at the beginning and the end, as wowed by all this sudden success as we are to watch it go down. Hornby, too, started small, and has made a deliberate effort to remain true to his humble roots, even throughout BAFTA, WGA, and Academy Award nominations (just look at his essays in The Believer for evidence of those efforts). He may have begun by writing memoirs, but these later works might be the most personal things he’s ever written.

Ted McLoof teaches English at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Minnesota Review, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, Juked, Gertrude, DIAGRAM, Louisville Review, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He's a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominee. He really likes Woody Allen films, and doesn't understand the Internet.

Funny Girl Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9781594205415
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - February 3rd, 2015

Something Wild Felt Unleashed: A Visit to 14 Pews

By Benjamin Rybeck 

On a night last September at 14 Pews—an old church in the Houston Heights now used as an independent cinema—something wild felt unleashed.

The films that evening were documentary shorts by folklorist and author William R. Ferris; I was there because Brazos had been invited to sell Ferris’s books. The films were lovely, specific pieces of work: One featured B.B. KingAnother demonstrated a handful of pigs praying before dinner. The audience laughed like delighted children. After the films, Ferris himself Skyped in for a Q&A session, and the audience asked him lively questions; there was, I remember, a lot of laughter from Ferris and from the attendees. The evening ended with Houston blues musicians Eugene Moody and Tanya Richardson performing for at least an hour. People held beers and swayed in the aisles. I ran into a Brazos board member. Earlier that day, I’d seen him at the store for a Wendy Davis book signing, buttoned-up in a blazer; now, he was in shirtsleeves, jolly.

Is 14 Pews a movie theater? Yes, but it’s a much different experience than, say, your local AMC. And it’s an experience that Cressandra Thibodeaux, who has owned 14 Pews since 2010, wants to cultivate. She had her first 14 Pews meeting in August 2010, the same weekend Houston’s Angelika Film Center closed. Thibodeaux herself is a documentary filmmaker—a Columbia graduate who has since worked with Alley TheaterHouston Heights AssociationACLU of Texas, and many others.

But 14 Pews is more than movies and music and culture, and I remember the other part of my September visit: before the event began, there was a wedding party out back, and a neighbor complaining about the noise. “Weddings!” Thibodeaux chimes. “That’s how we keep our doors opens! Weddings have not gone out of business. It’s unbelievable—like car insurance. People keep getting married, thank goodness.”

Thibodeaux, a serene, slender woman with long dark hair, lives at 14 Pews—or rather, her house is connected to the church, so that attending an event there sometimes feels like entering somebody’s living room. After that Ferris event in September, she offered me a cookie; I expected to follow her into an office, but instead I walked straight into a kitchen, where two dogs pawed at my legs.

Today, back at Thibodeaux’s house for this interview, I learn the dogs’ names: Rusty and Hazel. They’re both rescue dogs. One’s an Irish Terrier mix. The other’s part Chihuahua, part German Shepherd, part you-name-it—“just another wild Friday night,” Thibodeaux says. Rusty gets involved with me, smelling around my feet; Hazel hangs back, watching. Thibodeaux pours two glasses of water and invites me outside.

It feels peaceful on her patio; it’s a warm day, and I suddenly find myself craving a cigarette—a habit that I’ve recently and unfortunately started dabbling in again after a two-year hiatus. Instead of dwelling on this, I sip at my water (which, I confess, is a poor substitute).

Thibodeaux speaks easily about 14 Pews; I barely need to ask her a question to get her going. She tells me about a recent event she did in partnership with Society for Performing Arts: a performance by Malaysian singer Pete Teo, which she describes as “a true cultural exchange.”

But Thibodeaux always has more to say: “For one week, maybe a year ago, I was hooked on Korean insurance commercials.” She gives me an example: a son and a father visit a hospital, and the kid turns to his father and asks, Why do I have to die? “All their commercials were sad,” she says. “Sadness sells.” At 14 Pews, “Teo sang three songs in a row—suicide songs—and we all sat listening, reserved. But [he said] when he sang those songs in Korea, they were crying—crying! There, you can be sad as a group, but in America, you don’t want to show too much emotion.”

Is that sort of energy—emotion, passion, whatever you want to call it—something that Thibodeaux wants at 14 Pews events? “I want to be a place where ideas are shared,” she says, “and where people can connect through cultural events, or political events, although we don’t have as many of those. We’ve had a few political films, and they sometimes go awry.”

She tells me about a screening of We’re Not Broke, a film about how U.S. corporations avoid paying taxes. For the event, she brought in a tax specialist from the University of Houston law school to talk with the audience after the screening. She thought this discussion would be about taxation issues raised by the film; instead, it turned into a forum where audience members were soliciting advice from the specialist on how to avoid paying taxes.

As Thibodeaux speaks, she sometimes leans back and sometimes comes forward, but there’s fluidity to her movements; I’m always surprised to suddenly realize how close or far away from me she is. Myself, I try not to move, because whenever I do, I hear the patio chair squeak beneath me. Around us, Thibodeaux’s two dogs wander, trampling sticks and leaves, occasionally lifting their legs to relieve themselves. I stay frozen, my leg crossed in an unnatural way. But then, when you’re craving a cigarette, no posture feels natural.

I mention the Ferris event to Thibodeaux—it was not political but was cultural, anthropological, and it contained a great sort of energy. “That’s exactly what I want,” she says. “I love history and I love the South. I studied Native American law, but I never graduated. I love researching.” Her excitement here is clear, and she tells me about her family background: her grandparents grew up on a reservation—one was part Scottish, another part Cajun—and her father was Creole. “I love films that capture a culture and a time. They’re like historical gems to me.”

But what she loved so much about the Ferris event was that it contained more than just the films. “Afterwards, to culminate with music, and the have Bill Ferris talk? It just had everything going—visuals, music, a talk with a great mind. That’s where I want to be, but to cultivate that is very tricky.”

I wonder whether part of that trickiness has to do with the noise of such an event, especially here on this quiet Heights street. After all, neighbors called the police during the Ferris event, and there was a moment when the whole thing seemed like it might get shut down like a high school party, all of us running into the night, me trying to schlep the boxes of Ferris’s books over fences and across neighboring yards.

Thibodeaux reminds me that 14 Pews used to be a very well known Church of Christ with a popular choir: “Every Sunday, they would sing here, and the street would be packed. Now, I don’t have many events where eighty-four people are singing in harmony, but if I did, I can only imagine [neighbors] might complain as well.” She laughs. “I have thought of starting a drum circle on Sundays, just to piss them off.”

I listen for a moment and can hear absolutely nothing on this windless afternoon. The sun hangs overhead, and there’s no shade. “Do you wanna go inside?” Thibodeaux asks. “It just got so hot…”

Moments later, sitting at her kitchen counter, water glasses refreshed, Thibodeaux tells me about a recent experience with Two Star Symphony at 14 Pews on a Sunday afternoon. During the performance, a neighbor began setting off a car alarm on purpose, just to disturb 14 Pews, which prompted another neighbor to yell, Just get laid! “Those neighbors who complain are bothering other neighbors,” Thibodeaux says.

In case it sounds like Thibodeaux herself is complaining, let me be clear: she loves her neighborhood and her neighbors, while also observing, with some sadness, the demographic changes. A former neighbor “was a Mexican who loved Rick Perry, but he got deported. I asked him if he was going to take his Rick Perry sign to Mexico, but he said no: he was leaving it for me.”

As an amateur journalist, I make a lot of errors, but not asking her what she did with the Rick Perry sign is a particularly egregious one.

Thibodeaux goes on to tell me about that deported man’s daughter, who “ended up getting a little sidetracked”—a euphemism I avoid asking for clarification about. So Thibodeaux offered this daughter a job as an assistant. “I was teaching documentary classes for at-risk teens for a summer project,” Thibodeaux says, “trying to keep at-risk teens involved in creative things.” In working with these teens, she was shocked to learn how little about Houston they seemed to know: “I showed them this one documentary which talked about the top things to do in Houston—Menil CollectionRothko ChapelOrange Show, etc.—but they’d never heard of them!”

This is a problem I’ve encountered too: people not wanting to leave their bubbles. It’s not just a Houston problem either, although the unique sprawl of the city surely doesn’t help.

“You know what people go out for?” Thibodeaux smiles. “Music, theater, food, and drinks. At the Bill Ferris event, we showed films, we had music that connected, there was a talk—it was a multi-layered evening, and that was worth coming out to.”

To emphasize her point, she describes a recent visit to JRs, a Montrose gay bar where she used to go for the drink specials. “Now,” she says, “I go in, and onstage, there’s this amazing striptease. And not only is there a striptease, there’s also an emcee—a beautiful drag queen who was funnier than hell! Oh, and there’s the drink special, of course—but in the back, there’s karaoke that sounds like a Los Angeles audition. ‘Is that Adele singing?’ Just amazing. To get people out, you can’t just have a drink special anymore. You have to bring it on.”

So what plans does Thibodeaux have to “bring it on” in the near future?

She tells me about another Ferris event—one that’ll include a female gospel group. 14 Pews will also show a series of movies by experimental filmmaker Bart Weiss, director of Dallas VideoFest. Then, they’ll host The Invincible Czars, a local band that has written an original score to an old silent film called The Wind, starring Lillian Gish.

I confess that I often confuse Lillian Gish with Mary Pickford.

“They were best friends!” Thibodeaux says. “And Lillian Gish had a sister named Dorothy Gish, who looked just like her, and who was also an actress.”

Thibodeaux itches to tell me about one more upcoming project: a community outreach program. “I want to interview people from all over—temples, synagogues, churches—and ask them how they describe God’s grace. So maybe I’ll ask you, What’s an example of God’s grace?

I blink, really hoping she doesn’t actually want me to answer. Not sure I could right now, with the cigarette craving like a thin needle poking out from the center of my brain. Not sure I’ve ever had an answer anyway.

Luckily, she continues: “It’ll be documentary theater. So we’ll take these transcripts, and maybe we can shape them into something like The Vagina Monologues, only instead of your relationship to your vagina, this will be your relationship to God, or your relationship to what you perceive God’s grace to be.”

I sense Thibodeaux has more to say—I sense she often has more to say—but I am, at this point, running short on time, so I ask her if she can take me into the church itself. Without the crowd in there, it feels like what it originally was: a place of worship. Thibodeaux asks if I want her to lower the movie screen, and I watch her crank the thing down manually. The dogs run up and down the aisles, until Thibodeaux heads back into her house for a moment, and her animals follow.

Alone, in near dark, with the screen lowered, I remember myself as a teenager, when I used to go to the independent cinema in my hometown once a weekend, maybe twice. I used to see everything, and there felt something vital and pure in that action, like downing spring water. I don’t have the time to go the movies as much anymore, but there’s still a powerful feeling that gets ahold of me for a moment here—a memory of a time in my life when filmgoing felt like sacrament, and like maybe the only one I had.

On the drive back to the bookstore, I stop at a Shell Station for a bottle of water. I pay, eyeballing the packs of turquoise American Spirits behind the counter. Then I leave.

Q&A: Kelly Link

By Annalia Linnan

Sometimes a book chooses you instead of the other way around. Last month, when I was going through our shelf of advanced copies for potential feature ideas, I found books I liked but nothing I loved. But then a colleague put GET IN TROUBLE in my hands and I said yes immediately. Never mind that I had never heard of Kelly Link and that her book was at least fifty pages longer than the others I had considered. This was the one.

As a former bookseller, Link would understand. Ten years ago, she said, “the best possible way to promote any kind of book is to get copies into the hands of as many people as will enjoy it.” I’m sure it hasn’t hurt Link that her first collection, STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, includes a blurb from Neil Gaiman calling her “the best short story writer currently out there, in any genre or none” and a “national treasure” that should be “surrounded at all times by a cordon of armed marines.”

Since her debut in 2001, she has won three Nebula Awards, a Hugo Award, and the World Fantasy Award--the highest honors in her genre--and published two other books of short stories. Her latest collection, GET IN TROUBLE, shares a pub day with Gaiman’s new collection of short fiction, TRIGGER WARNING. How is it possible then that my first introduction to Miss Link was opening the book on a plane from Chicago to Houston? How is it possible she lives a relatively quiet life in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she runs a small press and co-edits an occasional zine?

Part of it might be that Link (on paper and seemingly in person) is devoid of pretense. Take, for instance, “The New Boyfriend,” a story from GET IN TROUBLE that revolves around a group of high school girls and a line of sophisticated dolls that act like real boyfriends. With a push of a button, each “Boyfriend” comes to life: he can talk, he can dance, he will do anything his keeper asks. While many writers (and readers) might roll their eyes at this concept, Link dedicates nearly fifty pages to protagonist Immy’s jealousy, woes, and misadventures. The energy and angst are there, but it’s clear that Link passes no judgment.

Even when Link addresses more taboo subjects, such as incest and sex tapes (which are both featured in GET IN TROUBLE), I never feel like she does so simply to get attention. Rather, she reminds us that everything has layers and no one is immune to shame.

#

Brazos Bookstore: In an interview you did with The Short Review, you said you often enjoy writing with other writers within "conversational distance." Do you still do that?

Kelly Link: Yes! I do! I’m actually sitting here with Cassandra Clare and Holly Black, on a couple of sofas. It’s 1:38 in the morning and we’re all getting a little more work done. (The Vampire Diaries is on in the background. There may have been some cake and some martinis earlier.)

BB: What are the benefits of writing in the presence of another writer and having someone look at your work as you're crafting it?

KL: I’m a social writer, as it turns out. I like the company of other writers. I like writing in the company of other writers. We all have our own work to do, but we’re all happy to look at each other’s work, and act as first readers. We ask each other questions. It’s an informal sort of workshop, and I’ve always loved workshop. Look, I recognize that some writers need privacy and their own space to get their best work done. But I need noise, distraction, conversation, etc. Years ago, I was in an MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with Keith Lee Morris. He wrote in bars. I was astonished by this! And now I work that way, too.

BB: It was refreshing to me to read a short story collection where even the shortest piece is over twenty pages. Have you always been drawn to longer stories? What are your thoughts on flash fiction?

KL: The classic short story is, what, somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 words, right? I’d like to finish off more short stories at that length. It just seems so tidy, so economical. But in the last few years I seem to be cramming in too much to make a story to work at that length. I’ve chosen to take this as a sign that I should try writing a novel. And I don’t really have many thoughts on flash fiction. It can be great! It can be completely okay, but not great! It depends! I like the idea of imposing arbitrary restrictions on one’s work, in order to see what comes of doing so. But most of the limitations or rules that I’ve set for myself while writing have been other kinds of rules/limitations.

BB: Both "Secret Identity" and "Origin Story" deal with superheroes but in a very no-nonsense way. What was your intention there? Is there still a place for superheroes, in writing or otherwise?

KL: Are you asking for a final ruling on superheroes here? There are a lot of other things I’d like to get rid of first. Superheroes are like vampires, zombies, fairies, or middle-aged professors. They’re part of the cultural mythology that most readers share. That means superhero stories have a kind of useful shorthand attached to them, which you the writer can reinforce or play against. Years ago, Owen King and John McNally asked if I would write a superhero story for an anthology that they were putting together (WHO CAN SAVE US NOW?). I tried to get something done, but couldn’t figure out how to write the story I wanted to write. And then a year or two later, I found a way into writing a superhero story after all. Too late!

BB: If you had a “Boyfriend” toy like the Ainslie in "The New Boyfriend," which would you choose (the ghost, the vampire, or the werewolf) and why?

KL: As a kid I was always more into stuffed animals than dolls. I also coveted candles shaped like things: castles, unicorns, hedgehogs, etc. I spent a lot of time thinking about what candles I would buy, if I had a certain amount of money. I also collected things shaped like schnauzers: china, pewter, glass. Would I have wanted a ghost vampire or a vampire boyfriend or a werewolf boyfriend? I wasn’t really sure that I wanted a boyfriend at all. I admit: I’m most creeped out by the idea of a ghost boyfriend, which is why Immy wants one of those most of all.

BB: You've said in many interviews that you're still a bookseller at heart. What makes brick and mortar bookstores special?

KL: Well, there’s the fact that local bookstores contribute to the local economy. Brick and mortar bookstores also have their own distinct personalities. They’re idiosyncratic! They have opinions! They champion the books that they love! They can order any book that you want, but they also carry books that you might not come across on your own. I like browsing. I like finding books that I would never have found if someone hadn’t written a note about them, or faced that book out on a shelf. And I love booksellers. (Literally: I fell in love with a bookseller. He proposed to me in the store window.) I love finding out what books they’ve read and loved. I like asking them questions about their bookstore: what sells, who their customers are, what they wish was back in print again. Right from the start, brick and mortar bookstores were advocates of the books that my partner and I published at Small Beer Press. And I’m enormously grateful.

Staff Pick Logo
Get in Trouble: Stories Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9780804179683
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Random House - February 3rd, 2015

Give Delight and Hurt Not: Brazos Bookstore and AFA

In September, Brazos Bookstore and AFA (formerly American Festival for the Arts) decided to partner for a program that merges words and music. The goal was simple: ask two writers to create original works inspired by a line from The Tempest (“Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not”), and then ask two composers to use those works as the basis for new compositions. The authors and composers will come together for two performances, the first of which will happen at Brazos Bookstore on Sunday, May 17.

To find one of those writers, Brazos and AFA co-sponsored a contest judged by Ben Fountain. The winner? Gulf Coast’s online poetry editor Christopher Brean Murray and his poem “Blue Jay Variations,” which will be paired with composer J. Todd Frazier. Here’s an excerpt from Murray’s poem:

“When the pianist lifts
his lids, the blue jay
flies. When the blue

jay flies, the hour steps
its print to sands. White
sand accepts the boy’s

hot heel. He presses in
a print the hour won’t
uphold. [...]”

Murray shared with Brazos his thoughts on music and poetry:

“In ‘Blue Jay Variations,’ I was trying to write a poem in which a few main images appear, and reappear later, slightly transformed. That formal consideration was my initial preoccupation while writing the poem. I think I came up with the word ‘Variations’ first, probably inspired by the CD I often listened to of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Thus, a pianist became one of the central images in the poem. I do not play piano, but when I was a child, my family had a piano, which was positioned next to a window in our home. Outside was a tree to and from which birds were often flying—that’s probably how the images of the blue jay and the tulip tree came into the poem, but I was not consciously thinking about my childhood while writing. I was concerned with exploring (or imagining) how the central images might interact with or influence one another. One of the central themes of the poem is the passage of time, suggested by the boy’s ephemeral footprint, the falling petals, and the soaring of the jay. However, while such a theme in poetry often leads to a meditation on death, in this poem the movement of time is depicted as joyous—perhaps because it is accompanied by music, one of life’s greatest pleasures. The pianist in the poem sees clearly; his eyes are open. Thus, he is able to take in the beauty of what is happening around him. This, an essential activity in the life of a poet, can also be a great source of joy. I have written many poems that owe a debt to the music I listen to. I have written poems that very literally describe the sounds I hear. I have written others only obliquely influenced by the mood of a piece of music. I am very pleased that my poem has been the inspiration for J. Todd Frazier’s piece, ‘The Jay Soars,’ and I look forward to hearing it performed live.”

The other piece was written by Brazos Bookstore’s Benjamin Rybeck at the request of AFA. Rybeck has taught creative writing at the University of Arizona, and has published fiction, interviews, and reviews in many literary magazines. His piece “Conducting” will be the basis for an original composition by Hugh Lobel.

Here is an excerpt from “Conducting”:

“When the music starts, you stop plucking hairs from your nose. The racket enters through the window you’ve left open to enjoy the April breeze before summer engorges Houston. The icepick guitars, flailing drums, shrieking singers: it all might come from a car stereo, but from your bedroom, you can’t see anything other than well-clipped hedges, SUVs huddled in driveways, a tracksuited man walking a terrier. You don’t often hear disturbances in a neighborhood like this, so you spend a little longer at your window trying to spot its source than you would trying to spot the source of, say, a child’s laughter or a lawnmower’s hum. But soon, you turn away. It’s 6:49 a.m. You leave each morning at seven sharp. So you open your closet, while behind you, the music stabs the air.”

We look forward to hosting these writers and composers at Brazos in May!

Q&A: Thomas Pierce

The emotional state of the aspiring writer can be a rocky one, careening from jealousy to encouragement, from anger to admiration—and sometimes those reactions come in equal measure at the same moment.

Consider, for instance, my initial encounter with Thomas Pierce. I first saw his name in The New Yorker, and whenever I encounter an author in those pages with whom I’m not familiar, I immediately run to the contributor page to find out who this person is. Doing this, I learned that Thomas Pierce was a student in the MFA program at University of Virginia.

A student? I had recently graduated from my own MFA program and was nursing my wounds: failed projects, piles of rejections, etc. So who the hell was this student landing a story in The New Yorker?

As soon as I started to read, I understood why: the story was called “Shirley Temple Three,” and it was quiet and strange at once. Pierce wrote as though he was in no hurry—an admirable quality in a young writer. Man, I wanted to poke holes in this dude’s work, but I just couldn’t. Why was this student in The New Yorker? Because he was damn good, that’s why.

It’s especially encouraging to see this debut story collection published by Riverhead. People always say short fiction is dying out, but you know what? Here we are, at the beginning of 2015, with HALL OF SMALL MAMMALS, Pierce’s marvelous collection. Let’s just go ahead and call this the year of short fiction, shall we?

###

Brazos Bookstore: I’m sometimes curious about why you choose to start and end your stories where you do. For instance, I imagine most authors would start “Shirley Temple Three” with the arrival of the mammoth, yet you start it with something far quieter—a woman alone. How did you make this particular decision? And does it say anything about your process as a whole?

Thomas Pierce: When I first sat down to write this story I had no clue a mammoth would be involved at all. What I had in my head was fairly simple: a mother who was disappointed by her son’s failure to arrive in time for the party she was throwing. I had a pretty good idea of who they were and what they each represented, but I wasn’t sure how, dramatically, I was going to explore their relationship over the course of the story. Enter the mammoth. Later, I did briefly consider revising the structure and introducing the mammoth earlier, perhaps as early as the first paragraph. That’s a viable strategy in a story that involves anything weird or fantastic--to weave in that element as soon as possible, to ask the reader to accept the terms from the very beginning, to tip your hat and say, This is not our world but please continue. But since this is, first and foremost, a story about Mawmaw and Tommy, I felt it was important to begin and end with them, and I like the idea of leading the reader into this alternate, slightly skewed universe by small degrees. I leave little breadcrumbs, luring you into a less and less recognizable place. You learn first that Tommy is a part of a strange television show. Then you learn that the show brings back extinct animals. Then you learn that he’s taken the show’s truck. And then you learn about the mammoth.

BB: Some endings seem so quiet that they almost don’t seem like endings at first. Consider “Hot Air Balloon Ride for One,” which never sets up a clear problem to solve and seems to end almost randomly, sans epiphany. A story like that is fine because of its quietness, its “organic” feeling—but is it hard to end?

TP: Believe it or not, I found this story to be one of the easiest to end. The reason for that might be related to what you call its “quietness.” In a story like “Shirley Temple Three” or “The Real Alan Gass,” I think there’s more pressure to deliver on the conceit. To complete the conceit, in other words. But with “Hot Air Balloon…”, when I reached that moment between Fiona and her father and his story (or non-story) about the falling bird, I knew I’d hit the right note and that I could stop. Beginning a story, I very rarely know exactly how it will end, but I do usually have in mind a certain mood or note. It’s a feeling I hope to create. And so when I write and revise, I’m often just tinkering with different combinations or juxtapositions of images, scenes, sentences, words, et al, in order to achieve that feeling. Sometimes it can be very hard to locate it, but with this particular story I somehow found myself there without too much of a struggle. I think what I liked about this ending was the symmetry it brought to the story: the two relationships between fathers and daughters; the one bird, in a sense, completing the other’s trajectory but contra time.

BB: My favorite story here might be “The Real Alan Gass.” Have you ever hunted down other Thomas Pierces? What would you like to ask another person with your name?

TP: I haven’t. I do hear about other Thomas Pierces sometimes thanks to Google Alerts, which sends me an email whenever some iteration of my name is in the news, but I’ve never tried to track one of them down. Most of the articles are about people going to jail or getting an award.

BB: Reading your work, a lot of other contemporary short story writers echo in my mind—sometimes Saunders, sometimes Rivka Galchen, and you seem plugged into the same animals/familial distress that David James Poissant was plugged into last year. What contemporary short story authors echo in your brain when you write? Recommend some books, current or future!

TP: Am I plugged into something? I often feel very unplugged. There are certainly loads of animals scampering through these stories, but I’m always amused when people point this out because when I was writing the book my intention wasn’t to write animal stories so much as stories about people engaging with the mysterious and the unknown, which sometimes takes the form of a living creature or an endangered one or the fossil of an extinct one.

I’m not sure that I hear other writers in my head when I’m writing. In fact, I think my best work happens when my head is happily empty and quiet. But there are certainly short story writers I admire--including George Saunders and Rivka Galchen and also Ann Beattie, Junot Diaz, Deborah Eisenberg, Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Steven Millhauser, Sherman Alexie, Alice Munro, George Singleton, Etgar Keret, and many others. Just in the last year or so, I’ve really enjoyed and admired collections by Claire Vaye Watkins, Diane Cook, Ramona Ausubel, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Manuel Gonzales, Rebecca Lee… This list could go on and on, really.

BB: One of my favorite stories of yours is “The Critics,” yet it doesn’t appear in this book. What was behind that choice? Do you feel pressure—internal or external—to include stories that were published—especially in BIG places like the Atlantic—versus taking a chance on unpublished stories?

TP: I’m glad to say that I felt no external pressure to include certain stories--and very little internal pressure. For every story I send out in the world, I have at least two others that I’ve finished but won’t ever use for various reasons. What I mean to say is, some of them are just plain bad. I had a handful of other stories that were arguably solid enough to include in this particular collection, though I believe the only one of those that’s been published to this point is “The Critics.” That was the first story I ever sold to a magazine actually. When I started pulling stories together with a collection in mind, for me the primary question was whether each one fit with the others. I wanted what was best for the collection and not for any single story. I wanted the stories in the book to feel like they belonged to the same universe, and I had a gut feeling that “The Critics,” though I like the story, didn’t quite mesh with this bunch.

BB: In “Videos of People Falling Down,” you write: “Already she is constructing a plot, an intricate one, with so many characters and storylines that she’ll hardly have to focus on the murder at all. She’ll be able to write all the way around it without touching the dark sticky thing itself.” Is there a “dark sticky thing” in your own writing—something you feel yourself circling time and time again without ever quite touching?

TP: That’s an interesting question! The answer is undoubtedly yes. But--how to describe that thing? Unlike the writer in the story you’ve mentioned, I never make a conscious decision not to write about something. If I’m writing around something, it’s not because I’m trying to avoid it but because I can’t adequately express it. It’s a failure on my part rather than a feat, in other words. Whatever it is, exactly, I’m sure it concerns God, the soul, the universe, our Purpose with a capital P. And beyond that…

BB: You have no idea who we’ll talk to in our next Brazos Bookstore Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

TP: What do you hope happens after we die?

BB: Speaking of which, Chang-rae Lee wants to know, “What keeps you up at night?”

TP: Climate change. I became a father about a year and half ago, and so it will surprise no one when I say I’ve been thinking more about the future--about what the world will be like in 20, 40 years. I’m in the middle of Naomi Klein’s new book about the sort of changes we need to make to our economic system, the shifts in our priorities. It’s easy to despair. Things are not looking good. We’re on the verge of a massive extinction wave. How do we prepare our children for what’s coming? (And why aren’t people freaking out more than they are?!)


Hall of Small Mammals: Stories Cover Image
$27.95
ISBN: 9781594632525
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - January 8th, 2015

Learning How to Write All Over Again: An Interview with Scott McCloud

By Benjamin Rybeck

On the day I call Scott McCloud—a man who has been referred to as “the Marshall McLuhan of comics” for reasons I will make clear shortly—he’s doing plenty of interviews; in fact, mine is sandwiched between chats with Entertainment Weekly and L.A. Times. In other words, THE SCULPTOR, his new (and, really, first) graphic novel is a big deal, and lots of people want to talk to him about it.

Now, a confession: I am not an ideal choice to interview Scott McCloud. I am largely an ignorant person, and until a few months ago, I was ignorant of his work—I’ve never spent much time with comics or graphic novels, see, and not out of a sense of superiority, but simply out of…well, did you catch the part where I told you I’m ignorant? But when I first got my hands on THE SCULPTOR—whose nearly 500 pages I read in two excited hours—I knew McCloud was something special. Of course, when I announced this to others, they nodded blankly as though I’d just announced that, hey, there’s this band called The Beatles, and they’re pretty good.

The point? Obviously Scott McCloud is something special; where the hell have I been?

So again, I’m not the ideal person, etc. But as a I prepare for this interview, I have this notion that maybe I can get away with asking McCloud, master of comics, zero questions about comics—and, in fact, what I mostly want to ask him about is Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult horror film CARNIVAL OF SOULS, which McCloud’s SCULPTOR characters debate vigorously in one brief scene. It’s a favorite film of mine, and I find myself very curious about McCloud’s thoughts. So can I get away with doing an interview where I ask McCloud only about CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and not at all about comics?

No, of course, I have to ask Scott McCloud about comics. I know this because I ask my colleague Liz—who knows a lot about comics and graphic novels—whether I have to ask Scott McCloud about comics, and she arches an eyebrow and regards me with a motherly sort of patience. “Yes, Ben,” she says. “You have to ask Scott McCloud about comics.”

One thing I understand as I dig through Scott McCloud’s career is that the word “comics” seems somewhat inadequate—at once too specific and too vague—to describe his work. First, there was the strangeness of ZOT!, a superhero series from the 1980s eventually collected into a single volume. Glancing through ZOT!, it seems very much a young man’s work—excitable and energetic, trying to be everything all at once.

In the 1990s, McCloud’s career took a turn into the academic, with UNDERSTANDING COMICS, a book of nonfiction that did just what its title promised: laid out a set of rules for, and the utility of, comics as a genre. Was it a craft book? Yes, but McCloud made his arguments in comic book form, even illustrating himself as something of a cross between college professor and superhero alter ego. From there, McCloud became one of the foremost theorists about comics, eventually turning to questions of the comic book in the internet era.

Apart from a handful of one-off works—including a fascinating online comic called “The Right Number”—THE SCULPTOR is his first foray into fiction in a long while and, even more importantly, his first full-length work of narrative. In other words, imagine where Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were in the late 1950s: after evincing complicated and sometimes controversial opinions as critics, they had to put those ideas into practice.

For McCloud, putting his ideas into practice took five years. He breaks it down for me: “For two years, I did layouts—laid out the entire 500-page story. I did four revisions of that. It was two years before I drew even a single panel. I was learning how to write all over again. It had been a long time since I’d done fiction, so it was really exciting for me to just think long and hard about what the story was about.”

I ask him whether the author of THE SCULPTOR ever felt the author of UNDERSTANDING COMICS peering over his shoulder—and whether he finally just had to ask that dude to buzz off. “You start with instinct,” McCloud says. “You lay down the panels in a way that feels natural without asking yourself why. You begin interrogating yourself when it doesn’t feel natural—when it feels wrong. That’s when you do diagnostics.”

Later, he adds, “I had to use all the techniques [I learned] from studying comics and also making comics, and I also had to bury them as much as I could—to use them in such a way that the reader isn’t aware of them. I want the reader to experience [THE SCULPTOR] as a story, not as a collection of storytelling techniques.”

To this end, there’s a moment in THE SCULPTOR when a character says, “The viewers are the material. We’re nothing without them.” This character refers to sculpting—but is the same true of comics? McCloud thinks so, and then points out that the panel containing the aforementioned quote lacks a border. It’s a wink at the reader. “This is the only moment when I pull back the curtain,” McCloud says—a reminder, for this one second, that you’re reading a comic.

THE SCULPTOR—and now I will offer the perfunctory plot summary—tells the story of a sculptor named David in his mid-20s who’s already convinced that he’s a failure and that most people who are successful don’t deserve to be. I know that every lazy interviewer in the world will ask McCloud about the similarities between him and David (in fact, I’ve already read many interviews where McCloud says that he shares David’s fear of irrelevance), but mostly what I want to know is whether McCloud, a man who seems extraordinarily sweet on the phone with me, was ever as prickly as his protagonist.

“I was never that bad,” he says, “but I was definitely a hermit. I was obsessive. My old friend Kurt Busiek, who went into comics—I remember him saying that he hadn’t had a normal conversation with me in years, that I was losing the ability to converse with other human beings.”

But I wonder whether there something a little fun, a little thrilling, a little nostalgic even, in the successful artist looking back upon a version of himself in his 20s—getting to write the story of struggle from the comforts of success. There must’ve been, yes?

McCloud disabuses me of this notion pretty quickly: “Being inside David’s head is not a vacation—neither pleasant nor ideal. I’m glad to have left behind that part of myself. I’m more fulfilled and happy having grown past that period in my life.”

Although THE SCULPTOR takes place in the “real world”—by which I mean, a version of New York City that mostly looks and feels like the real New York City—McCloud introduces a truly fantastical element when David, nursing his feelings of failure, makes a deal with Death: he will only live for 200 more days, but he will be able to sculpt anything he wants. Yes, anything, and in a stunning early scene, David displays his work: a strange mélange of different styles and subjects, which a cranky art critic likens to "a Polynesian gift shop."

Still, this fantastical element is handled logically, realistically, which seems like a real challenge. Is it more difficult for McCloud to handle the fantastical in an ostensibly “realistic” novel than it is to handle the fantastical in a superhero story like ZOT!?

“It was a special challenge,” he says, “because in some ways, I’ve been working hard to convince everyone that comics are about more than power fantasies, and [elements of THE SCULPTOR] could’ve fallen backwards into something I’d convinced myself I’d outgrown. But I have to accept that power fantasies are part of my heritage as an American comic book artist—to accept that there’s still a thrill in them. [THE SCULPTOR] is a young man’s story, and I wanted to preserve that vitality while, at the same time, seeing it through the eyes of a man with more experience.”

Listening to McCloud talk, I sometimes forget that, at 54, he isn’t exactly “young” anymore—although he remains very invested in the progression of comics, particularly as they will translate, or have translated, into the Internet era. When I ask him whether he’d have preferred to start his career now as opposed to in the 1980s, he answers quickly: “No. My timing was good. In the 80s, there were maybe a dozen or two really interesting artists. Now, I would’ve had to compete against 800 or 900. I don’t know how well I would’ve done in that field.”

He’s being modest, of course, but I do wonder whether McCloud, so invested in the Internet, actually feels like a part of it, the way that younger people who grew up with the Internet do. “I’ll always have a first generation scrim between me and that scene,” he says. “I don’t use Facebook, for example. Even people who hate Facebook use Facebook if they’re under 30. But obviously, compared to others my age, I’ve been much more willing to embrace the new tools, and much more engaged with that culture. Just lately, I’ve been straying a bit because I became a hermit to work on [THE SCULPTOR].”

There it is: the idea of being a hermit again. Despite this new era, maybe there’s still a bit of that 20-something McCloud—a young man, unshakeable, shutting away the outside world to work, obsessively, on art.

And as for the Internet? “The Internet’s not done with us,” McCloud tells me—a ominous statement that threatens to send chills down my spine, until I realize that McCloud doesn’t seem concerned about it. So then who am I to worry?

If you’ve come this far with me, I might as well mention that I do finally get around to asking McCloud about CARNIVAL OF SOULS, and he laughs; I feel convinced that of the questions I’ve asked over the course of our talk, his opinion on CARNIVAL OF SOULS is the only one he maybe hasn’t heard before. So what does he think of the film?

“It’s hilarious in spots,” he says, “but a genuinely great movie. It has some really creepy, fascinating moments, and a solid ending. The hilariously miscast industrial film actors that [director] Harvey had access to certainly ramp up the comedy, yet they also contribute to this sense that all of us are careening like broken machines, bumping into each other, which makes the film even spookier in a way.”

How exactly are McCloud’s thoughts on CARNIVAL OF SOULS an end point to this interview? I don’t know, exactly, except that they illustrate his omnivorous quality—that he’s a man in love with, and articulate about, art forms outside of comics. There seems to be little snobbery or ignorance here, and talking to McCloud for 30 minutes just makes me even more eager to figure out who the hell he is.

The Sculptor Cover Image
$29.99
ISBN: 9781596435735
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: First Second - February 3rd, 2015

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