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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

#debooze: Mary Helen Specht

Let’s set the scene: You’re a debut author. It’s the magic hour—that time in the afternoon when the sun has set but light still dusts the sky. After years of struggle, your first book is forthcoming, about to enter the world. Tomorrow, there will be time for more stress—for interviews, for readings, for sleeping on couches as you tour the country and share your work with the world…but for now, take a deep breath, put on some music, and grab yourself a drink. It’s time to relax. It’s time to reflect. It’s time for #debooze.

In #debooze, we ask a debut author to reflect on their road to publication, and to also recommend some booze.

The Debut: MIGRATORY ANIMALS by Mary Helen Specht

The Booze: Palm wine

#

My parents are both librarians, so I was raised surrounded by books. While I loved to read growing up—in fact, I sat in the living room with my parents pretending to read Tropic of Cancer long before I actually could—books made me want to live within them rather than to write them. I wanted to be Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, playing with Bunsen burners after school and saving my father from the tesseract. Carl Sagan’s Contact inspired me to subscribe to Astronomy magazine (until I learned you had to be plausible at math to become an actual astronomer); after reading A Separate Peace, I dressed like a boy and begged to enroll in boarding school. I grew up in a small and conservative town in West Texas, and books were my wormholes to the wider world.

I didn’t begin writing fiction seriously until my sophomore year at Rice University, and it only took fifteen years for me to publish a book. My first tattoo—inked on my eighteenth birthday during a trip to Austin—was of a stylized turtle, which, randomly chosen at the time, turned out to be appropriate. I am certainly the tortoise, not the hare. I revise a lot, and I make a lot of mistakes, and I learn as I go.

It didn’t help that I allowed myself to be convinced by folks in the book industry that a memoir of my time living in Nigeria would be more marketable than a novel. I tried that for a while and did end up with a few essays I’m proud of, but, ultimately, I was more interested in writing about what if than what was. I’d left Nigeria, but what if I were a different sort of person and had stayed? What if there was an American scientist who felt she’d finally found love and a home in West Africa but wasn’t allowed to stay? We probably only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody what it’s like to be someone else born into a different context, with different desires and challenges.

Then, there was the learning curve of moving from (ten years of writing and publishing) short stories to the novel form itself. In the first draft of Migratory Animals, each chapter was essentially a self-contained piece, with its own radically sharp plot arc, exhausting to read. Slowly, I found ways to weave the various strands and characters together into something that, I hope, is smoother and more sustained. The prologue was the most challenging, because I felt I had to give both the big picture trajectory of Flannery’s time in Nigeria while also rooting the reader in scene. I decided I needed a concrete object to use as a touchstone: palm wine.

I first encountered palm wine in a book before I going to Nigeria: The Palm Wine Drunkard by Amos Tutuola, the first Nigerian book written in English to receive international acclaim. In the novel, the protagonist’s only and entire job is to drink palm wine, tapped from the budding red fruit of the towering West African palms. When his tapper dies falling from a tree, the drunk makes a perilous journey to Dead Town in the hopes of finding and bringing him back.

In Nigeria, tappers spent entire afternoons and evenings climbing palm trees—often using nothing more than their feet and a thick strip of woven bark to hoist themselves up—tapping into the flowers at the top of the palms and tying plastic jugs underneath to catch the liquid sap. At its freshest, the white cloudy liquid is sweet, but as it begins to ferment it becomes stronger. For me, the ideal cup of palm wine contained half fresh palm wine and half what people refer to as “overnight,” which has been allowed to ferment, well, overnight. I’ve found it impossible to find fresh palm wine in the States, but sometimes I close my eyes and imagine the feel of a cool harmattan wind, and I can taste that punch of sweetness on my tongue.

Palm wine:

Travel to a part of Asia or Africa where the raffia or oil palm tree grows
Climb and tap a growing palm (or better, find a professional tapper)
1 cup of fresh, sweet palm wine
1 cup of “overnight”
Best to drink from a lidded cup to keep out flies attracted to the sweet, sweet nectar


Migratory Animals Cover Image
$14.99
ISBN: 9780062346032
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper Perennial - January 20th, 2015


Mary Helen Specht signs MIGRATORY ANIMALS at Brazos Bookstore on Thursday, January 22

 


Staff Chat: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

The Chatters: Jeremy Ellis (General Manager) and Mary-Catherine Breed (Kids Specialist)

The Book: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, Paula Hawkins' debut novel.

The Context: Heralded as the new GONE GIRL, this literary page-turner's subtlety sets it apart in a sea of wannabes.

The Plot: Rachel has lost her job, her husband, her home, and her happiness. She fills her days with cheap drinks while taking the train in and out of London just to ride by the home she once shared with Tom, her ex-husband--just to imagine how she could make life all right again. When Megan, a woman in the neighborhood, goes missing, Rachel becomes obsessed, thinking she may hold the clue to the disappearance...or maybe she’s the culprit?

#

Mary-Catherine: A thrill ride! Compulsively readable!

Jeremy: Did you just get that off the cover?

MC: No, but it should be on the cover.

JE: Compulsive is perfect. With thrillers, if I’m not really invested in knowing what happened, I tend to get bored and wander away. But this book made me read to the end.

MC: Yes. There were several pressing mysteries throughout, which was nice.

JE: Well, there’s the obvious whodunnit…

MC: Of course. But the characters themselves were mysteries, too, because I knew they weren’t genuine. Reading the book was a process of figuring out who everyone really was.

JE: The book opens with Rachel staring out the train window in the morning, and you learn about her sad life and alcoholism. And then Hawkins jumps to the evening train ride home, focusing on Rachel’s obsession with the house and the fantasy about the neighbors perfect lives. I thought, “If Rachel just this sad sack the entire book…” She’s drunk, dumb, and, you know, pathetic. She’s a hard character to love, but I did come to like her a lot.

MC: Me too. I was somehow always on her side. And part of that might have been the form, because we only see her on the train in the morning and the evening. What did you think about that?

JE: I liked not having to spend a whole day with her.

MC: Yeah, that would have been too much. It was enough to see her on the train with her numerous gin and tonic cans. Why don’t we have gin and tonic cans right now? Do they not make those here? I know they make champagne in cans.

JE: Really?

MC: Uh huh. Champers. Champ-cans. Anyway, I liked the way Rachel’s drunkenness was portrayed. It felt like a different kind of drunk from what you usually see.

JE: It’s authentic. No glamour in the booze here. She’s trying to hide it--and you hope she can--but then she throws up on the stairs and falls asleep in it.

MC: That part made me cringe. How did her roommate not kick her out years before?

JE: That’s the thing, though. All the people around her more or less enable the horrible individual Rachel’s become.

MC: After Megan disappears and it becomes obvious to us that Rachel has some connection to whatever happened, she appears to pull it together in the eyes of the other characters. She wants to solve the mystery, but she goes about it in the craziest ways. I had moments when I thought, “She’s insane.” I don’t know whether I ever thought she was the villain, but all the twists were plausible, which is rare. The book would try to lead me somewhere and I would think, “Okay. This is legitimate. We need to explore this.”

JE: The reveal at the end was not one that I anticipated, but it was pretty great. The book is worth recommending. It’s fast and fun when it gets moving. Really, once the book introduces voices other than Rachel’s, things really start to happen. It’s a literary thriller, but it’s a thriller.

MC: A solid one. It’s inevitably going to be compared to GONE GIRL. And there are similar elements, sure, but GIRL ON THE TRAIN is much more emotional--a deeper character study. You get to see the events from multiple perspectives, and it’s not as insular as GONE GIRL, where the only perspectives are the people inside the relationship. There are layers here.

JE: GIRL ON THE TRAIN is absolutely more character driven. I was surprised when Anna [Tom’s new wife] was introduced as a voice. Up until that moment, the author had alternated between the two voices--Rachel’s and Megan’s. But then we hear from Anna, and she’s obsessed with Rachel? That complicates everything.

MC: Mostly when I read thrillers, I’m interested in finding out who the killer is, and once I know, I’m finished. But the ending made me want to read the book again. I think that impulse really speaks to its literary merit.

JE: The three voices are distinct, and that helps. Rachel made terrible choices, but I understood all of them. She convinced me. I could say, “Yeah, okay, go ahead. You have my permission to move forward in this plot.”

MC: I loved her. She was fat. She was sweaty. She was greasy. In all the best ways.

JE: Let’s talk Hollywood casting. Charlize Theron?

MC: Jennifer Aniston will do anything for an Oscar.

JE: Jennifer Aniston’s not a bad choice. I can imagine her as a plain Jennifer Aniston, without the famous hair…a very different Rachel.

MC: That would be the headline on every article: “In her gutsiest role yet, Jennifer Aniston brings you, a very different Rachel.” And she’d have a British accent. I’d love to see that.


The Girl on the Train Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9781594633669
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Riverhead Books - January 13th, 2015

Cats and Guns: The Sublime Strangeness of MORT(E)

The first time I heard about MORT(E), I didn’t believe it existed.

“Seriously,” Keaton, the Brazos book buyer, said, tossing me an advance reading copy.

Sure enough, there it was, the story of a housecat named Sebastian that, like the other animals of the world, grows huge and self-aware when affected by a certain hormone--a hormone spread by a race of giant ants bent on punishing humanity for its sins. In the midst of the war between humans and animals, Sebastian becomes a hero and casts off his “slave name,” calling himself Mort(e) instead, all the while searching for Sheba, his canine friend from before the carnage began.

What?

MORT(E)’s author is Robert Repino, a graduate of Emerson’s MFA program and an editor at Oxford University Press. This is his first novel, and the story came to him in a dream. “I keep a notebook by my bed,” Repino tells me over the phone. “I’ve written a couple decent things from it. Seven years ago, I wrote a story about an artist who floods her house until it’s filled like an aquarium.”

Are there any dreams that he wouldn’t transform into a story?

“Some ideas would’ve turned into really cheesy action/cop stories. I’ve had dreams where I was a hitman, and I’ve thought about [writing a story] for a few days, and then been like, ‘No, I can’t pull that off.’”

Part of the impetus behind MORT(E) was to create a sci-fi epic like STAR TREK or STAR WARS, but Repino’s novel is much darker than that. Take, for instance, the novel’s opening scenes, before Sebastian has transformed into Mort(e), when he is merely a housecat that belongs to Daniel and Janet, a married couple. Janet begins an affair with a neighbor, and when Daniel discovers this infidelity, he becomes violent, threatening his wife and child with a loaded weapon--until Mort(e) grows strong, steals the gun, and kills his former owner.

In the current publishing landscape, where does such a book--simultaneously silly and brutal--belong? It’s not quite YA, not quite sci-fi, not quite fantasy.

Repino acknowledges this challenge: “I knew I had a real mess on my hands.”

#

In light of this, the publication of MORT(E) feels somewhat miraculous--not because the novel has problems, but because Repino was so certain of what he had at such an early stage, and such certainty can confuse some people. He found this when he first began sending the book to agents. “One told me that if I already had five books under my belt, then [MORT(E)] would be a great change of pace. But for a debut, it’s too weird.”

Repino’s book finally landed with Jennifer Weltz, an agent at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency Inc. When I ask her whether MORT(E)’s weirdness attracted her immediately, she says, “I do go for the unusual,” laughing. Weltz laughs a lot when she talks about MORT(E), as though she can’t quite believe this is part of her job: to talk about a book that stars giant cats with guns. “It’s hard to find a story that’s completely different from anything else you’ve read,” Weltz adds.

But like much of the best sci-fi and fantasy, MORT(E) uses its absurd premise to address bigger subjects--something that also drew Weltz into Repino’s world. “It was fun to follow, yet it also had depth. It was about friendship. It was about religion and politics.” In this way, it reminded Weltz of classics like DUNE and WATERSHIP DOWN--novels that elevate fantasy to the level of allegory.

In a sense, MORT(E)’s appeal reminds me of those old sci-fi/horror movies from the 1950s--corny ones like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and THEM! (which Repino himself mentions) that addressed Red Scare through aliens and nuclear ants, respectively. But what makes MORT(E) startling is that, despite the sometimes silly content and reference points, Repino never makes fun of his inspirations, instead treating his absurd subject with the utmost gravitas. “There are only a few moments that are trying to goof on things,” Repino says. “But when the first chapter involves murder, and the second chapter involves genocide, that sets the tone pretty quickly.”

In MORT(E), much of the violence comes in the name of war--war between humans and animals, in which the animals are looking to punish humanity for its sins. So does Repino agree with the animals when it comes to the sins of humanity? “I don’t agree with their methods,” he says, “but I share Mort(e)’s understanding that there are certain flaws hardwired into us through evolution: fear of people who are different; a tendency to follow alpha males and violent, strong leaders; resorting to tribalism. And if animals were intelligent, most of them would view their status as slavelike.” Repino mentions one character in particular: a bobcat named Culdesac, who is particularly vocal about humanity’s propensity toward evil. “Even though he makes unfair generalizations,” Repino says, “you can understand where he’s coming from.”

But, perhaps hoping to reassure me, Repino also says, “I’m a nice guy, though. I don’t commit acts of violence.” He chuckles. “I’m too small.”

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When faced with a book this dark and strange, will readers understand? “That can be challenging,” Weltz says. “I tested it in my office, giving it to readers who don’t usually like books about talking animals. They couldn’t put it down. That’s when I knew I had something that could reach a wider audience.”

But she admits reaching that audience posed a challenge. “It’s not the kind of book I could send to just anyone. A lot of publishers would be like, ‘What the hell are you sending me?’” Weltz laughs--that laugh again, the joy of this book. “When you have a debut author,” she says, “there’s a lot more to factor in. Hopefully it’s the beginning of an exciting career. As an agent, you feel that responsibility--to make sure you’re getting the author somewhere that will have a vision for the book and value it.”

MORT(E) finally ended up with Soho Press, a New York-based independent publisher. When I ask senior editor Mark Doten about what drew him in, he lists three other recent Soho releases that feature anthropomorphic animals. “I guess I just enjoy those books,” he jokes.

Like Weltz, Doten feels very optimistic about MORT(E)’s chances in the marketplace. “I think this book is a weird one,” he says, “but I can’t think of one I’ve worked on where the basic pitch gets people more excited. People like cats with guns fighting an apocalyptic war.”

Then, Doten mentions perhaps the most telling detail thus far about MORT(E)’s roll-out: “Someone already got a tattoo of it.” By it, he means Kapo Amos Ng’s back cover art: a big cat facing down an even bigger ant, both of them drawn in bright orange.

When I ask Weltz about this, she’s enthusiastic but also unsurprised that the book has sparked this sort of fandom: “Either you love it or you don’t get it. There’s no middle ground.”

The specificity--the utter strangeness and uniqueness--of MORT(E) has paid off, it seems. But the tattoo has certainly raised the bar. “I’ve been joking,” Repino says, “if you want to come to one of my readings, you have to get the tattoo.”


Mort(e) Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9781616954277
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Soho Press - January 20th, 2015

Staff Chat: Sarah Gerard’s BINARY STAR

The Chatters: Annalia Linnan (Bookseller) and Ben Rybeck (Events Coordinator)

The Book: BINARY STAR, Sarah Gerard’s debut novel

The Context: The newest title from Two Dollar Radio, the Columbus indie press whose recent releases include THE ABSOLUTION OF ROBERTO ACESTES LAING by Nicholas Rombes and ANCIENT OCEANS OF CENTRAL KENTUCKY by David Connerley Nahm

The Plot: Two young misfits take a roadtrip, throwing themselves upon a wasted American landscape. The narrator, a graduate student studying astronomy, struggles with bulimia. Her boyfriend and companion, John, drinks too much and takes pills. Brash, surreal, and experimental, BINARY STAR is a portrait of loneliness and codependency—of two people adrift in an onslaught of American culture.

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Annalia: The first part of this book devastated me.

Ben: With all the declarative, enigmatic statements? The narrator keeps telling the reader things like, “Tonight I want to stop time,” and, “I eat nothing but time,” and “I’m disgusting.”

Annalia: Yeah. It felt very personal—very present.

Ben: It’s interesting, because there’s really no “setting” in the first thirty pages—no “plot,” per se. We just know that the narrator and her boyfriend are orbiting near each other, and she’s telling the reader some pretty direct shit about her life—about her bulimia, her depression, her angst—even if it seems removed from time. How do you process that as a reader? Do you try to build some kind of a narrative out of it, or do you just take it as an onslaught?

Annalia: I mostly followed the emotional arc. That's always how it is for me. When you think about and remember things, it's always jumbled—always more about sensation than about coherent reality. The first part of BINARY STAR captures that. But now after reading the book, I feel like that first section is maybe just a broader picture of the rest of the novel—an overview, almost—and the other chapters fill in the details. In terms of form, I didn't know at first whether John would be a character that we get to see, and whether he would get to speak for himself or it would always be filtered through her brain, the I/you narrative. I think the strongest thing about the first section—and the whole novel, really—is illustrating how you can feel even more alone with another person than you do on your own sometimes.

Ben: I know what you mean. What I liked so much about the first thirty pages was the way the narrator seems to talk about, and address, a person [John] who never gets described, never gets to be heard, never appears in a conventional scene with dialogue and stuff—is basically never there. Although the narrator talks about another person, that person is, at first, an absence in the book.

Annalia: Exactly. Because he isn’t there, it allows the narrator to express all her contradictory feelings about him. She doesn’t have to commit to loving him or not. She can just blurt everything out, and I really connected with that: not knowing what you think and being generally bewildered, the idea of looking at a situation and not knowing what is the most broken thing or when it started breaking.

Ben: So why do we care about the characters? The book is taking the chance, I think, that the ugliness of the characters is inherently interesting. Or that the ideas that the characters have—about politics, about culture, about veganism—are inherently interesting. But some things remain vague.

Annalia: It felt purposeful to me.

Ben: Yeah, me too.

Annalia: After the first thirty pages, when the “plot” starts and the book gets more conventional—

Ben: You mean, there are scenes where characters actually, like, talk to each other and do things?

Annalia: [Laughs] Yeah...and they’re driving around the country...yet I never quite understood the purpose of their journey—nor do I think I was meant to.

Ben: But other things became very specific, like the way the narrator compulsively focuses on her body: “The tops of my thighs almost touch. My lower stomach extends past my hip bones. My upper arms look flabby. I can’t see my chest bones. My ass should have its own atmosphere.” It reads as this almost cubist deconstruction and exaggeration of the human form. There are also scenes in the grocery store, where the author will sometimes just list brand names for a page or so. It becomes surreal, with all these bizarre words, these brand names—Mrs. Buttersworth, Heinz, MorningStar, Rice-A-Roni, and so on—piling up. Very specific, and in its specificity, sort of nightmarish. On the other hand, the narrator calls her mother from time to time, and you never know what her mother is saying; you only get one side of the conversation.

Annalia: I thought some of those conversations might not have even been real, just things that the narrator wanted to say to her mom. Then again, that’s just another absence in the book that feels purposeful—part of the author’s larger vision. You also don’t know much about the narrator and John’s relationship—like, what things were like before the book begins—but I was fine with that. It felt reflective of the way somebody might live in a sort of heightened state: the present seems very specific, but the way you got there might feel a little hazy.

Ben: So what do John and the narrator see in each other? What is the nature of that relationship?

Annalia: I dunno. It’s a little hard to understand what their relationship is exactly. They say that they’re boyfriend and girlfriend, but they don’t behave that way, and they don’t seem to agree on anything, so I think all of that just complicates it. There’s maybe two or three scenes I remember where they actually have sex instead of just talking about it. One of those times is when they’re at that friend of her mom’s [somewhere they spend the night on their cross-country journey], and I think it was just something that happened because they were in this space completely removed from everything that they’re familiar with except each other. But the other sex scenes are so violent. I wasn’t sure what that meant about their relationship. But it made me uncomfortable.

Ben: What are the virtues of being uncomfortable when you read a book? This book or other books?

Annalia: It can be great! Whenever you pick up a novel, there are certain things you want to find, or expect to find, and when things don’t go according to plan, it just makes you question what you’re missing, and why that’s upsetting you. I guess we haven’t talked about the idea of the binary star itself—the details of astronomy and space that form the novel’s governing metaphor.

Ben: Sure, the author really isn’t shy about that stuff. But it makes sense as a detail of characterization. Of course the narrator would be thinking about astronomy; that’s what she’s studying, and therefore how she would make sense of the world around her. It helped build voice. And there’s a moment of it that I especially love: “When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was going to the moon. We weren’t thinking about looking back at Earth. But now that we’ve done it, that may as well have been the most important reason we went.” I love that moment. It seems to give some kind of perspective to the story, or to signal to some future where they would be looking back at the things that they had done. The book feels almost suffocatingly in the present tense, but I like that moment with the moon because it lets us see outside of their moment, you know?

Annalia: So you’d recommend this book then?

Ben: Yeah, totally. It’s challenging, but fascinating. You?

Annalia: Definitely—even if for no other reason than it’s just unlike anything else out there.

Ben: It kind of reminded me of Merrit Tierce's novel, LOVE ME BACK. In both of them, you have these narrators who are really forthcoming and seem to think a lot and feel a lot and are always up front about it. But by the end of the book, it seems like their “honesty” is as a mask for the fact that they really have very little interiority whatsoever. The voice of BINARY STAR in particular almost seems to mimic her bulimia to me, because it becomes so compulsive, the urge to just say things and be direct and be honest with the reader. At a certain point, it really did end up feeling like she’s not only emptying her body, but she’s also emptying her head. Does that make sense?

Annalia: Yeah. By the end, it feels like the narrator isn’t even a person anymore. She seems like a vessel for something else. I’m not sure what—the novel’s enigmatic that way—but by the end, I found myself thinking, “These are not your feelings. You’re not feeling these things anymore.”

Binary Star Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781937512255
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Two Dollar Radio - January 13th, 2015

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