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Indie Spotlight: New Directions

by Mark Haber

 

New Directions was founded in 1932 by James Laughlin, due, in large part, to the insistence of Laughlin’s friend, Ezra Pound. To my mind, it is the quintessential American independent publisher. From the start, the focus was on brave and original works of literature--and it still is. Its aesthetic, from book design to choice of author and title, is peerless. During the Second World War, Alvin Lustig designed many of New Directions’ book jackets, using a modernist abstract style that became, for many years, the publisher’s hallmark. Though its designs have changed, its list of releases is still as varied and bold as the 20th century books it published.

 

Who was Vladimir Nabokov’s first American publisher? New Directions. Who first published SIDDHARTHA in America? New Directions. The list--which includes Henry Miller, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Nathanael West, and Javier Marías--goes on and on.

The influence New Directions has had on me as a reader cannot be put into words. Through New Directions, I discovered Louis Ferdinand Céline, the horribly vulgar genius who mixed the argot of the Parisian slums with the poetry of madness and created something altogether new. One doesn’t read Céline as much as experience Céline. His first two novels, JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT and DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN, made me realize the importance of literature in translation, something that has become a lifelong passion. 

In 2008, I discovered the author that, for me, would soon become larger-than-life: Roberto Bolaño. Who was America’s first publisher of Bolaño? You guessed it. Bolaño’s first work to appear in America, BY NIGHT IN CHILE, is a perfect example of Bolaño’s unparalleled style, command of language, and powerful imagination. In recent years, New Directions has been a wellspring of Spanish and Latin American writers, from Enrique Vila-Matas to Cesar Aira, from Clarice Lispector to Horacio Castellanos Moya. These writers bring an amazing diversity of voices and styles, as well as a sense of place, to the literary canon. 

Today, I can peruse any bookstore and spot New Directions’ familiar colophon on the spine immediately. That emblem is a sign of quality, of a book that has been thoughtfully read and curated, and which speaks to the tradition behind this singular and iconic publisher.

 

A Chat on the National Book Awards

It’s awards season for the book world, and the booksellers of Brazos are keeping a close eye on the races for the big ones--like the National Book Award, the winner of which will be announced in two weeks. When we like a book, we REALLY like it, so as you can imagine, we’re watching this one closely, and have undeniable favorites. Liz, Ben, and Keaton had an impromptu chat around the counter one evening this week about the fiction shortlist for the National Book Award.

Liz: Ben, who are you rooting for?

Ben: I'm rooting for Marilynne Robinson and LILA. She's my bet. There's a patience in her fiction I admire a lot, that you don't see very much of these days. I think her books would be hard to publish if she weren't Marilynne Robinson, because they're sort of slow, and languid. (...Are you transcribing this? ...Did you just transcribe that?) Keaton, do you have feelings?

Keaton: I’m abstaining from feelings because no one gave ORFEO [a longlisted title by Richard Powers] any love. [laughs] ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE is probably the front runner. But I wouldn't be surprised if they gave it to Marilynne Robinson for her whole trilogy.

Ben: But, you know, they’ve given it to some dark horses: Jesmyn Ward [for SALVAGE THE BONES], THE GOOD LORD BIRD. Who’s your dark horse?

Keaton: Oh, STATION ELEVEN, definitely.

Ben: And I know SALVAGE THE BONES and THE GOOD LORD BIRD had some cultural heaviness to them, too. What’s the cultural heaviness of STATION ELEVEN?

Liz: I’d say that STATION ELEVEN is controversial, almost, among literature these days, in that it doesn’t think the modern world is completely irredeemable and gross. It thinks very fondly about some of the conveniences of the modern world, the smaller stuff that most fiction thinks is, y’know, kinda dumb. The motto of the Traveling Symphony, and one of the main characters’ favorite quotes, is “Survival is insufficient.” That’s a Seven of Nine quote from Star Trek: Voyager. And it is treated with due reverence. Which is kind of a controversial stance in mainstream literature, that those forms of art are acceptable.

Keaton: It’s more optimistic.

Liz: Yeah, and that seems sort of unpopular these days.

Keaton: [laughs]What does it say about our cynical, cynical world, that optimism is a faux pas?

Liz: [laughs] Exactly. STATION ELEVEN is more about the collective, how we’re better off together.

Ben: So you think that ties in with the zeitgeist right now?

Liz: It’s hard to articulate. Especially when I know the tape is on. [laughs] I think it’s partially--the backlash to the backlash against society right now, saying that there are still some good things about it. It has great things to say about how people as a whole are all responsible for our cultural legacy, even in the silly choices we make day to day about something as simple as reading comics.

Keaton: It makes me think about how art programs are being cut from schools, because people think they aren’t necessary. When, in this book, it seems to be the only necessary thing.

Liz: Very much. It has a great stance on art being important.

Ben: Do you think the discourse about the book that’s swirled around it--whether it’s “genre” or not--will help the book or hurt it? Or is it just time for that sort of book to win?

Liz: I think it’s hurting it--because it’s not actually hard genre, or science fiction. It’s speculative fiction, in that it considers not-the-world-that-we-live-in, a world beyond. Don’t get me wrong, I love science fiction! I would be happy to give it the label; I’m just not sure it’s accurate. But I think science fiction is far more literary than most people give it credit for being, and STATION ELEVEN does what good science fiction does: it interrogates our own world through a removed lens. But I think it’s being hurt because a lot of people are writing it off because of this whole genre discussion, because so many people still dismiss genre fiction out of hand.

Keaton: And in a time when so many literary writers now are playing around with genre a lot more. It’d be a nice coup d’etat for genre!

Liz: One of the reasons I’m rooting for it!

Ben: It feels like Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner [THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY]; it was about comic books, sort of, but more than that, it had that sweep of history that important literature has.

Liz: Exactly--it was about the world. And STATION ELEVEN is so much about the world, and people’s individual histories and choices, and their relationships to art. That is SO literary.

Ben: So about that sweep of history, then--Keaton, you’re pulling for REDEPLOYMENT because…?

Keaton: I think it’s the best piece of war literature for our contemporary times--and I loved [similarly-themed 2012 finalist] THE YELLOW BIRDS. With REDEPLOYMENT, more than half the short stories don’t even take place on the battlefield. A lot of them are about soldiers before they leave, or after they come home, and how they deal with that. It has a whole bunch of different perspectives--it destroys the idea that there’s only one type of war experience you can have.

Ben: Does it have that same poetic feel THE YELLOW BIRDS had?

Keaton: It’s definitely not as lyrical; it’s more dirty realism.

Ben: Were there any stories that really struck you?

Keaton: Oh, the whole book really struck me. But yeah, there’s a few--there’s one story about a couple of returning young vets, one of whom is very badly injured, in a bar in Brooklyn. And they’re talking to a very liberal Brooklynite girl who wants their stories for an anti-war play, to express soldiers' experiences, but it has to have a political slant. And it’s interesting because they don't agree with her on anything--the story is very much about how there are things about war that cannot be communicated if you haven’t actually experienced it.
And then there’s a story about an artillery team--they fire on an enemy location, miles and miles away, that they’ve never seen. They know that they’ve got multiple confirmed kills--of people they've never seen, and will never see. And one of the younger guys on the artillery team can't really wrap his head around it. So he goes to the morgue to see if he can find out what happened, and if he can see the people he killed. And it’s about his experience--not about the fight, or the combat. Well--there are a few combat scenes. But there’s no real combat in REDEPLOYMENT. It’s more ruminative.

[Store manager Jeremy drifts past the counter.]

Ben: So, Jeremy, what are your thoughts?

Jeremy: On what?

Ben: On the National Book Award fiction list. Who’s worthy?

Jeremy. Oh. It's awards season. It's not about who's worthy. [laughs]

So who do you think is worthy, Houston? The National Book Awards will be announced November 19!

An Unnecessary Woman Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9780802122940
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grove Press - November 11th, 2014

All the Light We Cannot See Cover Image
$27.00
ISBN: 9781476746586
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Scribner Book Company - May 6th, 2014

Staff Pick Logo
Redeployment Cover Image
$26.95
ISBN: 9781594204999
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Press - March 4th, 2014

Lila Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9780374187613
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Farrar Straus Giroux - October 7th, 2014

Station Eleven Cover Image
$24.95
ISBN: 9780385353304
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - September 9th, 2014

Announcing the Brazos/AFA Collaboration Contest

Brazos Bookstore and American Festival for the Arts (AFA), Houston’s largest non-profit music education provider for kids, are teaming up to develop a new musical/literary work celebrating AFA’s twentieth anniversary serving kids throughout Southeast Texas.

Writers from all backgrounds and working in any genre are invited to submit a short work of no more than 500 words on the theme "Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.” The winning selection will be used as the basis and/or inspiration for a musical composition by award-winning composer Hugh Lobel that will be premiered at the AFA Collaborations Concert (two performances in May and July). Dr. Lobel is an AFA alumnus who is being commissioned for this special work to mark AFA’s twentieth anniversary.

There is no submission fee.

The winning author will be invited to read his/her work at the performances, and will also receive $500.

The Judge


Ben Fountain, acclaimed author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, finalist for the National Book Award). We wanted a judge whose writing reflects the spirit of Texas, but who isn’t closely associated with Houston (as to remove the possibility of the judge recognizing a particular submission or the style of a submitter). Ben Fountain, a Dallas resident who represents Texas literature at its best, seemed like a no brainer.

 

The Guidelines


* You must live in Houston to submit.
* One submission is allowed per person.
* All submissions must be previously unpublished.
* There are zero genre/form restrictions. Send us flash fiction, poetry, nonfiction, lyric essays, lists—whatever, so long as the submissions are made from words.
* No submission can be longer than 500 words. Submissions that exceed this word length will be disqualified.

 

 

 

How to Submit


Email your submission in the body of an email to ben@brazosbookstore.com. You may include a cover letter, but it’s not necessary.

The Deadline


The deadline for submissions is December 15, 11:59 p.m. Winners will be announced on January 1, 2015, on the websites of Brazos Bookstore and AFA.

Good luck!

"I Was Off on a Journey Into the Jungle"

by Benjamin Rybeck

 

“This might take a while,” Peter Turchi tells me as he stares at the Ginger Man’s beer list, trying to pick the right one. Turchi takes his time—now, and in general. He wants to get things right.

 

Most people don’t take so long to order a beer. But that’s because most people don’t see a beer list as a list of clues to parse, a problem to be solved. Turchi’s brain seems to work this way—viewing life as a series of puzzles demanding specific answers.

 

I don’t mean to suggest that Turchi is stern or unapproachable. On the contrary, he has the affable air of a ‘90s sitcom neighbor. He allows himself to get excited about things, and as soon as we sit down together with our beers (he settled on a pumpkin ale), he starts to tell me about something he just heard on NPR’s Science Friday.

 

“They were doing a Halloween-themed show,” he says, “about what makes scary music scary. There was somebody who wrote a book called THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC, and he was talking about the part of the brain that searches for order, and how dissonance is scary--which, of course, is right up my alley right now.”

 

He refers, of course, to A MUSE AND A MAZE, an expansive work that examines a disparate series of materials—including Orson Welles, Thomas Bernhard, Sudoku, Looney Tunes, and Oulipo—to tease out the reasons we feel so drawn to puzzles, and how this connects with the act of writing.

 

“The tension between puzzle and mystery is the tension between pattern recognition and the things that don’t make sense,” Turchi says. “If you’re reading and you can’t find any progression pattern, you’re probably not going to continue reading.”

 

What he means is, basically, that a good piece of fiction needs to operate like a good puzzle: whether or not strictly “realistic,” a story or a novel needs to walk a line between mystery and making sense (i.e., being “solvable”). 

 

As an example, Turchi tells me about an unpublished story he read recently, which describes an infidelity with which everyone—spouses, lovers, kids, etc.—is completely happy. He laughs. “There’s a problem there. I don’t know anybody in my life who has had an affair without anxiety or depression.” Because there’s no realistic tension, the story doesn’t seem solvable.

 

At this point, it seems important to mention that Turchi has been teaching for a very long time, most notably at Arizona State University, Warren Wilson College, and now, the University of Houston. He seems delighted to talk about matters of craft, and I press him to speak a bit more about mystery in fiction—and especially how it relates to puzzles. After all, a good puzzle works because it withholds just enough information to make it challenging, but not so much that it seems to cheat. Is it the same way in fiction?

 

“There are cases where [the author] withholds information, and it’s a useful manipulation. That’s how most narratives work: the writer knows something the reader doesn’t.” He mentions Michael Ondaatje’s COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER, which “withholds all kinds of information to pull us into this complex constellation of ideas that he will eventually draw together, though it takes a while. Thomas Bernhard denies us all sorts of grounding information, too. But Chekhov said that the most boring person in the world is the person who tells you everything. As readers, we want to feel like we can fill in some blanks.”

 

Turchi quickly pulls an example of this from ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN—an example, perhaps, he uses when talking to students (which I suddenly feel like). “When we get to the line where Huck says, ‘All right, I’ll go to hell’ for deciding to help Jim, we know that Twain doesn’t think Huck’s going to hell, and we know Huck isn’t going to hell. There’s a pleasure in knowing that, even though nobody has said, ‘He wasn’t going to hell.’”

 

Turchi has knowledge of film too, and he discusses Asghar Farhadi’s A SEPARATION, which he admires for its willingness to omit information about its characters. For instance, he mentions one of the film’s central characters—a husband who seems needlessly difficult, until we learn the pressures he faces dealing with a senile father. “We’re encouraged to judge [the husband], but then another point of view is added, and we’re moved to sympathy for that character.”

 

I wonder whether such puzzle-making can go too far, or whether there can be too much pressure on contemporary writers to launch those puzzles immediately. I ask Turchi about this, mentioning the languid openings of some of Alice Munro’s works—stories that take pages to develop characters and settings before any conventional tension has been introduced.

 

“Munro has a story that opens with the narrator seeing a father carrying a drowned boy,” he reminds me, patiently. “There’s another where a plane is about to hit a house…”

 

I take his point.

 

###

 

Turchi’s earliest writing jobs were in journalism, in which he worked from high school on. “I was published every week in some form,” he says, “and that was very useful, because when you misquote the head of the English department, you hear about it, and you’re reminded of the importance of doing these things correctly.” Through journalism, he got his “publication itch scratched.” 

 

He earned his MFA from the University of Arizona, where he met Robert Boswell, Tony Hoagland, and Antonya Nelson—lifelong friends that he now teaches with in Houston. Turchi’s first novel, THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR, came out in 1989. He had worked on it for six years and was still young (in his late twenties) at the time of publication. A collection of short stories—MAGICIAN (a title that already hints at Turchi’s later interest in puzzles)—followed in 1991.

 

From there, though, the traditional path of a fiction writer got somewhat disrupted. In 1993, he became the director of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College—widely considered the finest low-residency creative writing program in the country. “When I became director,” he tells me, “there was a cardboard box under the chair. I had to kick it to sit down.” What was left behind? “It was the text of some of the lectures that had been given at Warren Wilson—some in fiction, some in poetry.” There seemed to be an anthology to produce from those lectures, so Turchi got to work.

 

As of now, Turchi has co-edited three anthologies of writers discussing their craft—including THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY, which he worked on with Andrea Barrett. “We wanted to take a bunch of writers and ask them very difficult questions about how they wrote their stories. So we came up with three questions and sent them out. But nobody answered them! They avoided them in every possible way.”

 

This preoccupation with rules and constraints is also evident in another, earlier work: SUBURBAN JOURNALS, a book in collaboration with artist Charles Ritchie. “For a long time, [Ritchie] only made images the size of a postcard. They had to be in black and white. They had to be things he could see through the windows of his house at dusk. Those are a lot of constraints. What he wanted to do was observe, as carefully as he could, just a few things: how trees moved, how houses decayed, and all that.”

 

Turchi’s interest in art, constraint, and writing led him to 2004’s MAPS OF THE IMAGINATION: THE WRITER AS CARTOGRAPHER. In it, he examines the philosophical connections between mapmaking and writing, mingling culture both high (the ancient Greeks) and low (Roadrunner cartoons) to parse out the conventions and rules that artists employ across disciplines.

 

“I get excited by things that make me think about writing differently,” Turchi says, “and I want to try to create that experience for readers. In MAPS, it worked more than I would’ve ever imagined. I could’ve written a sequel, but that wasn’t interesting. People said, ‘You could write about these maps, or those maps,’ but mapping itself was never my interest. My interest was in how mapping was like writing. To really get excited about a new book, I needed a new metaphor, a new tension.”

 

Thus, puzzle-making. Thus, A MUSE AND A MAZE.

 

“I just about killed myself writing this book,” he says.

 

In asking Turchi a bit more about that—as our beers get low—I learn that a book like A MUSE AND A MAZE becomes its own sort of puzzle. Each individual piece might seem clear, but what shape does the whole need to take?

 

Or, as Turchi puts it, “I felt like I was off on a journey into the jungle and I might not get home. It felt more like fiction. There were really stretches where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. Even though, at any individual moment, I had a sense of what I wanted to say, I couldn’t figure out how it would all fit together.”

 

Does he have the same sort of doubts about his fiction? Do his stories and novels come together through the same sort of process—tiny pieces of culture in his brain, forming and breaking apart and forming again?

 

“It seems to me that the thing I have to have for everything to come together is voice. If I can’t get the narrator’s voice in my head, whether it’s first person or third person, I can’t figure out the story. The stories aren’t necessarily about the voice—they’re about a person with a problem, or a particular image that gives somebody a problem—but if I can find the voice, then I can pursue all the rest.” For Turchi, voice collects the world around it.

 

“You know,” Turchi says, our beers gone now, “I went to go see Jesse Schell [author of THE ART OF GAME DESIGN] at Carnegie Mellon, where he teaches video game design. I said, ‘Tell me one thing: if you’ve got a game, and you’re trying to make decisions about it, is there one thing that you have to lock down to figure out all the rest of the problems?’ And he said, ‘The music. If I know the music for the game, then I can figure out everything else.’ It’s always interesting what people build from.”

 

As usual, it’s not enough for Turchi to limit himself to his own work, or even to writing in general. There’s a whole outside world worth drawing from.

Peter Turchi will sign A MUSE AND A MAZE at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, November 4 at 7PM. Reserve your copy here! 

 

A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic Cover Image
$29.95
ISBN: 9781595341938
Availability: Backordered
Published: Trinity University Press - November 11th, 2014

#WritersRead -- María Dueñas

Before her first novel, THE TIME IN BETWEEN, became an international bestseller, María Dueñas was like many of us: a writer with a homeless manuscript, armed with nothing but the vague hope her story would be good enough. But with her unpretentious language, globetrotting narratives, and complex leading ladies, Dueñas makes herself easy to love.

In her second novel, THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS, she gives us Blanca Perea, a professor in Madrid who takes to distant California when some unexpected news demands a change of scenery. With her husband gone and her sons fully grown, Perea’s time in a foreign land allows her to discover the solitude in independence and the joy of searching.

We talked to Dueñas about the research process, international audiences, and fantasies of bookselling in this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: As in your first novel THE TIME IN BETWEEN, THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS has strong links to Spanish history. What type of research do you do when constructing your novels?

María Dueñas: The research process of a novel is something that fascinates me. Sometimes I even have to force myself to stop; that's when I say, "Enough, my dear. You are writing fiction, not a PhD dissertation." While researching, I'm like a vampire; I manage to suck information from all possible sources. I use the most orthodox channels: books, academic journals, period newspapers. I also watch films and documentaries, and search for all type of images: old photographs, paintings… I talk to people connected with the moments or the scenarios I'm going to use. And I listen to music: old songs are wonderful tools to create atmospheres. Once I have a sound knowledge of the real times and places, I start building my fiction on top of it.

BB: How has having an international audience shaped the stories you tell?

MD: When I wrote THE TIME IN BETWEEN, I was unable to think about any audience at all. I didn't even know if I was going to be able to get my novel published. To my huge surprise (and unexpected satisfaction), the legendary word-of-mouth phenomenon made my novel become a wonderful success in Spain and, after that, international publishers started showing their interest. It ended up being translated into twenty-something languages, and I have been invited to many different countries to talk about it. From Sweden to China, from Italy to Taiwan. And to the U.S., of course. And, to my astonishment, readers of fully divergent cultures, ages, interests and backgrounds, enjoyed my book equally. So my guess is that if you have a good story that reaches the readers' soul, it can be equally appreciated globally regardless of where it comes from.

As for my second novel, THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS (in Spanish, originally titled MISIÓN OLVIDO), it's a story that crosses decades and geographies (1999, the fifties, the US, Spain...), but again it talks about human feelings and hopes and frustrations and passions. And once again, it's being appreciated by divergent readers all over the world.

BB: What Spanish language authors would you recommend?

MD: A lot, dead and alive, from Latin America and from Spain. Unfortunately, not all of them have been translated into English. But among the ones who are available in translation, I would start with the big names--Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa--and continue with some younger ones: Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Javier Cercas, Javier Sierra, Rosa Montero…

BB: What are some of your fondest memories of bookstores?

MD: I adore bookstores. I've always envied booksellers, among whom I have great friends. I have even fantasized with my sisters and with friends about embarking on the adventure of owning one. I love the whole variety, from tiny corner stores in which you can buy newspapers and candy--very common in Spain--to huge chains expanded all over a country. But I very particularly love those ones run by brave, inspirational, knowledgeable individuals who appreciate good books and contribute to create good readers.

BB: You have no idea whom we'll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

MD: I'm very curious about other writers' lives and work, so I'd have an enormous list of questions. Starting with, “Why do you write--and where, and how…?” and ending with questions about little details and tricks.

BB: Speaking of which, Gary Shteyngart wants to know: How do you keep your hair so beautiful?

MD: Are you sure this question is for me? I would give you all the talent I have as a writer if you could get me a wonderful, thick, shiny mane of hair.

 

María Dueñas reads and signs her novel THE HEART HAS ITS REASONS Wednesday, November 12 at 7PM. Reserve your copy here!

The Heart Has Its Reasons Cover Image
By Maria Duenas, Elie Kerrigan (Translator)
$26.00
ISBN: 9781451668339
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Atria Books - November 11th, 2014

#debooze: Smith Henderson

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: FOURTH OF JULY CREEK by Smith Henderson

The Booze: “Deerwater”

FOURTH OF JULY CREEK began after my first weekend working at a group home. I can’t talk in much detail about the kids I worked with, the specifics of their abuse, the challenges of caring for them—that stuff is their story, and sacred to me.

But I can talk about how that experience affected me. How long, long hours with intensely disturbed but ultimately blameless teenage boys trying simply to cope with life would inform my brief stint in a Texas prison. How I saw those frightening and hardened men as an outcome for the boys I’d worked with a year or two before. How I began to see that I was but a few horrific incidents away from a lifetime of poverty or neglect or abuse. How the world visits upon us every manner of tragedy. How Bad Luck’s worst attribute is its self-multiplier, a cancer on a biography.

I saw some shit in that group home, and it was just the tip of the ice cube in the glass of whiskey. I drank beer after that first weekend, my mind revving like an engine that could not get past first gear. There were six empty cans of PBR in front of me, and I didn’t feel the alcohol at all.

When I was elbow deep in this novel, I was also reading voraciously. I believe in psychic ratios. You can’t have too much material or influence in your head, and you can’t run on empty either. But I was angry about all that I hadn’t read, anxious to dive into it and know it and let myself steep in it. So I drove all night with Barry Hannah (the work, not the man, though I did get to have dinner with him one night, to my great delight) or some Faulkner deep cuts. I read N. Scott Momoday and Jim Welch and Marilynne Robinson and the great, absurd Flannery. And so on. Man, did I hang with these motherfuckers. Hard. I sipped Old Grandad and water and stayed up all night with WOODCUTS OF WOMEN or NINETY-TWO IN THE SHADE or some other ripping badass book—something that would give me a clue on how to leaven all the heaviness of what I wanted to write about. I was looking for joy, mastery, artistic multipliers to take on the multipliers of tragedy.

Not for me to say whether I got there. I did my damnedest, especially in those final stretches when my personal life dive-bombed and veered like the clever, well-meaning fuck up I’d construed into a protagonist. When you’re all alone with an editor’s notes and you’re afraid to touch the damn thing in the absurd fear that you might violate some artistic Hippocratic oath to do no harm, you need the right drink at the end of the day. A drink that soothes but doesn’t cloy. A drink that kicks but isn’t trying so hard to establish its bona fides. So I settled into the following, which I have recently christened “Deerwater."

Deerwater:
Take one nice glass. Faceted and heavy, preferably.
Fill halfway with ice. Distinct cubes—avoid chips or small, broken pieces of ice from the bag in the back of the freezer.
Pour over enough Bulleit Rye to just float the cubes. Then another splash.
Top with ice-cold soda.
Dash of bitters if you deserve it.
Repeat as necessary, and get back to work in the morning.

Smith Henderson will be in-store Wednesday, Oct. 29 with his novel FOURTH OF JULY CREEK. Reserve your copy today!

Fourth of July Creek Cover Image
$26.99
ISBN: 9780062286444
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Ecco Press - May 27th, 2014

Hana Sasaki's Misadventure in the Movies

By Annalia Linnan 

The biggest advantage to independent presses is their freedom (dare I say obligation?) to take risks. If our Minneapolis friend Coffee House Press is a symphony that hosts established soloists, our Austin neighbor A Strange Object seems more like a coveted record producer, always on the hunt for unknown talent.

 

Since its founding in 2012, A Strange Object has specialized in “surprising, heartbreaking fiction” with an edge. Take, for example, Kelly Luce's THREE SCENARIOS IN WHICH HANA SASAKI GROWS A TAIL. Though Luce herself hails from Illinois, she draws on her three years of living and working in Japan to create a piercing voice that meditates on myths, habits, and traditions that shirk the hustle and individualism of her motherland.

 

In Luce's version of Japan, there is a man that can hear the wishes of strangers who throw coins into the fountain at a local park. A woman discovers her toaster can produce the kanji for how a person will die. Young schoolgirls disappear into karaoke machines. Yet the thread that holds Luce's stories together is her tendency to take a single idea--a dead sibling, a distant spouse--and examine it as deeply as possible.

 

The last story in the book starts with something simple: a letter in the mail. “I write in the spirit of greatest hope, and am aiming to reach the Ms. Aya Kawaguchi who was the student of Keio University in 1969,” it reads. “If this is not she, please ignore this letter.” The Aya who receives this letter knows she is not the Aya this professor seeks--the legendary one whose profound capacity to love was recorded by Keio University’s Amorometer--but she feels drawn by the coincidence. She breaks out her old viola, tells her husband a white lie about joining a string quartet, then takes the train to Tokyo to meet her correspondent and her new identity. But how does assuming somebody else’s life affect Aya’s internal state? This story is emblematic of Luce’s mission as a writer: to focus on the slow shifting of a mind rather than a series of actions.

 

Press mate Nicholas Grider also concerns himself with the internal in his short story collection MISADVENTURE. The introduction, "Millions of Americans Are Strange," pins readers to a landscape of agoraphobia, seemingly useless college degrees, a plethora of debit cards, and millions of people who live alone. But do not be mistaken: Grider's stories aren't about those millions en masse. It is about you and me among those millions, our unspoken neuroticism, secrets, letters we write then throw away.

 

Here's the typical grit Grider offers: his title story documents two deaths, one the police rule as "misadventure" (drowning) and another by suicide. When the group that once contained these friends unhinges, the narrator continues to try misguided ways of dispelling his grief until he finds himself tying up strangers with ropes in a swimsuit similar to the one his friend was wearing the night he died. He wants the men he has bound to tell him how it feels.

 

With its third publication (coming November 4), A Strange Object turns to the visual media with Michael McGriff and J.M. Tyree's OUR SECRET LIFE IN THE MOVIES. Inspired by everything from the Criterion Collection to music videos, McGriff and Tyree speak as two boys growing up in the 1980s, dreaming of space walks and nuclear wastelands as movies like Blade Runner and Red Dawn echo the chaotic world around them. This book asks questions about our relationship with the movies: Can we ever truly separate ourselves from the constructs in which we lose ourselves? If I fall asleep with the TV on, who is to say what’s real--my sleeping self traipsing around my imagination, or the characters on screen pontificating into the dark?

 

On November 6, we're hosting a release party for OUR SECRET LIFE IN THE MOVIES and a celebration of A Strange Object at Grand Prize Bar. Join us! 

 

Walking the Brazos Neighborhood

At Brazos, we often busy ourselves with books and authors from around the country, but we are, at our core, a neighborhood bookstore, here to serve the people who live and work within walking distance. We’re a place for family events (like Saturday morning story time) as well as a place for neighborhood residents to browse books and gift items for all ages.

Usually we dedicate our web features to new releases, upcoming events, and great people in publishing--but this week, we want to turn the focus away from us and, instead, highlight some local businesses that help to make our neighborhood what it is.

Take, for instance, FUNdamentally Toys, a business we’ve partnered with before (most recently for this past summer’s Where’s Waldo scavenger hunt). Owner Debbie Scholl describes FUNdamentally Toys as “a neighborhood toy store,” and she’s not kidding. It’s a one-stop shop for all things kids: toys, costumes, even family events such as story time and face painting. With a focus on toys that “blend creative development with entertainment value,” shoppers know their selections will be fun for all ages. Scholl loves Rice Village because of its variety of local businesses and its walkability. Indeed, our shared neighborhood is one of the best places in Houston to ditch the car for a day and hoof it, New York- or Boston-style.

We love FUNdamentally Toys, but we love many, many other neighborhood businesses too. Here’s a mere sampling of some others that you should visit the next time you’re walking around.

Benjy's/Local Foods
Neighborhood foodies love Benjy’s and its new sister restaurant, Local Foods. The two spots share a philosophy of fresh, farm-to-table, seasonal fare. Local Foods is a bustling spot at lunchtime; Benjy’s turns into a upscale restaurant with a full bar come nightfall. The older of the two spots, Benjy’s features small plates such as a bone marrow puff pastry and the chef's signature pan-seared East Coast flounder. It’s decadent enough to make you feel like you're dining downtown without the hassle of leaving the neighborhood.

Mercantile
Mercantile is an oasis among the slew of coffee shops clogged with laptop cord spaghetti. It has a central counter with a modest clipboard menu, a few homemade baked goods, a handful of wooden tables, and a specialty grocery. With premium beans from Amaya Roasting Company and the rare “flat white,” Mercantile is a place for coffee lovers. Many patrons enjoy people-watching from the bar that faces Morningside, or sitting outside at one of the outdoor tables. An elegant experience compared to the usual Starbucks hubbub.

Dromgoole's Fine Writing and Stationery
Callinebephiles look no further: Dromgoole’s Fine Writing and Stationery has you covered. In addition to nearly thirty different brands of quality writing instruments, inks, journals, and stationery, Dromgoole’s has leather accessories, knives, and a resident “pen doctor.” Dr. Stephen Pustilnik works in the store on Saturdays to help you customize your pen, whether it’s custom nibs, adjusting ink flow, repairs, pen appraisals, or modifications for left-handed writers. Dromgoole’s also happily creates custom wedding invitations and hosts in-store events, including events for Oktoberfest and Valentine’s Eve.

Under the Volcano
Under the Volcano is the perfect neighbor--after all, what makes more sense than a bar named for Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece situated right next door to a bookstore? Owner Pete Mitchell and his staff offer us a spot for special events, including a recent after-party for poet Tony Hoagland’s August reading. But even if Under the Volcano weren’t our neighbor, it’d still be worth visiting. Thirsty? Grab its popular frozen screwdriver or a tasty “Mexican Martini” (made with orange juice). Hungry? Swing by for Monday steak night. Under the Volcano draws a crowd so eclectic that, over the course of any given night, the bar feels as though it’s growing, garden-like. Remember the question Lowry famously poses (in Spanish) throughout his novel: “Do you like this garden of yours?” When it’s Under the Volcano, our perfect literary neighbor, we sure do.

The Minneapolis Model

Nobody was expecting Ben Lerner’s first novel.

A poet and critic, Lerner had found success in the limited way academics often do: much respected within his circle, but not well known beyond it. That changed in 2011 with LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION, an elliptical meta-narrative that won the Believer Book Award and was a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award.

It was a surprising success, not only for Lerner, but also for Coffee House Press, the Minneapolis-based independent publisher that took a chance on the novel. Soon, Lerner’s more experimental follow-up, 10:04, landed at Faber and Faber, a larger publisher with a wider reach. Big prizes and bigger advances will likely dot the landscape of Lerner’s career from here on out.

It’s an increasingly familiar narrative in the world of publishing—indie publishers becoming springboards for more conventional literary success (just ask Roxane Gay or Emily St. John Mandel)—and Lerner’s story seems so pure it’s almost wholesome: success hatched from talent, hard work, and belief.

As Caroline Casey, the Managing Director of Coffee House Press, puts it: “We create spaces for art to happen in. It’s great to see [Lerner] embraced. The initial space we made for his book will create a long-term career, hopefully.”

It’s a friendly notion, very different from the usual cutthroat hysterics associated with business—a sort of anti-competition. But then, as Casey herself points out, what does every review of 10:04 at some point mention?

Coffee House Press. The flag, planted.

 

 

 

In recent decades, Minneapolis has become a fecund place for the literary arts, providing a home not only for Coffee House Press but also for Milkweed Editions, another successful independent publisher, and Graywolf Press, a third—and particularly high-profile—indie. This plurality of literary voices in a relatively condensed space has become an inspiration for endeavors across the country. Recently, when Dallas-based Will Evans launched a new translation publisher, Deep Vellum, his model for Dallas’s literary future was simple: Minneapolis.

What has created this environment? Largely, it’s due to generous and widespread funding for the arts from private foundations, individual philanthropists, and governmental action. (For more on this, read Claire Kirch’s “Western Great Lakes: Land of 10,000 Presses.”) “A relatively low cost of living [in Minneapolis],” Casey adds, “means that you can be an artist and still have a house and a life.”

This notion—that there’s enough funding to go around—helps to create in the city a sense of community and pleasure. Free from oppressive financial constraints, Casey describes her job as fun, although “fun” may not be how the average reader would describe some of Coffee House Press’s books.

Take, for instance, Valeria Luiselli’s FACES IN THE CROWD (published in May), a novel in translation about a young writer wandering New York. The book contains slyness and humor, but Luiselli writes in fragmented, poetic style, resulting in a novel that seems broken into pieces and rearranged from page to page. Does it reflect reality? Yes—but so do the shards of a shattered mirror.

It’s a challenging book, no doubt, but challenge draws a reader like Casey. “I like a book that forces me to slow down and pay attention,” because otherwise, she says, “I have the tendency to read a book like a magazine—just skimming across its surface.”

Casey bets that other readers will find pleasure in challenge. She likens it to hiking: “People love to hike. They don’t complain about it because it’s too hard. They don’t walk around the block instead. It’s enjoyable to engage with a text instead of being passive and entertained.”

The success Coffee House Press has found with authors like Luiselli certainly argues that readers are ready for a hike.

 

 

 

Patrick Thomas, Managing Director of Milkweed Editions, stresses the importance of independent, not-for-profit publishers taking on projects that big, for-profit publishers have ignored, often because of dim financial prospects. Without a bottom line, Milkweed can publish artistically valuable books, even if they lack commercial viability. Thomas says that sometimes the risk of losing money is worth it to “fulfill some artistic or social good that’s related to our mission.”

Yet Thomas hasn’t resigned himself to financial despair; like Coffee House, Milkweed has had unexpected successes. He mentions A WHALER’S DICTIONARY by poet Dan Beachy-Quick, a book for “people who really love MOBY DICK and experimental nonfiction.” Thomas chuckles as he says this, adding, “When we sell more than a couple thousand copies of that, we’re blown away.” (It’s worth mentioning that Coffee House Press also took a recent chance on Beachy-Quick, publishing the poet’s first novel, AN IMPENETRABLE SCREEN OF PUREST SKY, perhaps with sepia-toned memories of Ben Lerner’s ascension in mind.)

An even bigger success for Milkweed was THINGS THAT ARE, Amy Leach’s collection of what Thomas describes as “short, artful, incredibly dense essays.” A tough sell, sure, but Thomas had a sense that indie bookstores would know what to do with it. So Milkweed worked especially hard on the design of the book itself, including intricate illustrations, to make an argument for the book as an art object, something that indie bookstores could get excited about. It worked, and THINGS THAT ARE became an unlikely success.

Or was it so unlikely? “Insanely,” Thomas says, maybe only half joking, “I thought it would work all along.”

 

 

 

Thomas’s “insane” confidence suggests an appealing feature of the contemporary independent publisher: editors are mostly free to pursue the projects that grab them as fans, first and foremost. Casey likens an independent publisher to “your favorite staff-pick person at the bookstore”—in other words, a consistent and trustworthy aesthetic can emerge.

Consider this against the environment of “big publishing,” which Casey has obviously given thought to: “Nobody says, ‘I can’t wait for the next Random House book!’ That doesn’t mean anything. But with a small press, consistency can develop, which gives readers a sense of what to expect.”

The equivalent I always think of is the world of independent record labels, especially those of the ‘80s and ‘90s, like K Records and Elephant 6, which seemed built out of a sense of community. People came together to make music on the fringes, and if a lot of the songs sounded sort of the same, it was because the artists were like-minded and went where their impulses took them.

A romantic vision, to be sure—one that, I’d guess, Casey might nod along to, at least half-agreeing with. But she’s also a businesswoman, and she boils that romance down to something a lot more practical (and, dare I say, commercial): “It’s important to develop a brand.”

Thomas agrees with this, though somewhat reluctantly. When I ask him whether Milkweed has an audience as a publisher or whether individual books have their own discrete audiences, he says, “That’s the million-dollar question.

“The majority of readers,” he continues, “are publisher agnostic—interested in authors instead. If people are discovering our authors, that’s fantastic. If they have no clue what Milkweed Editions is, that’s fine too. But like any small business, we’re trying to make sure that customers who’ve liked one of our books know that there are others out there.”

Recently, Milkweed acquired the debut of a University of Houston MFA graduate: Murray Farish’s INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR, a short story collection full of dark material—madness, assassinations, shitty parents and shittier kids—that mainstream publishing passed over for a variety of reasons. But the editors of Milkweed were able to look beyond the content. Instead, they saw in Farish a potential friend, somebody they wanted to work with, just as they had successfully worked with several other authors from the University of Houston program—including Sean Hill, Wayne Miller, and Joni Tevis—in recent years. In other words, the editors felt drawn to Farish and his work, commercial prospects be damned.

“We get to follow our hunches,” Thomas says. “Which is fun.”

Fun for readers, too. Whenever I encounter a new independent publisher and cram its books into my bag to take home, I’m reminded of the early days of a close friendship—days when the mundane pressures of adult life fade out, and nothing seems more important than sitting with a person for hour after hour, sharing drinks and conversation, the questions becoming more personal, the answers more revealing, as the sun dips, as twilight gives way to cool night air, as you reach for sweaters and two more drinks, as you feel like the evening will never end.

In a recent feature for our website, Mark Haber wrote, “Discovering a new indie publisher is like finding a new friend.” So, please, meet Coffee House Press and Milkweed Editions. I’ll let you all talk awhile.

Oh, and the first drink’s on me.

Faces in the Crowd Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9781566893541
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Coffee House Press - May 13th, 2014

Inappropriate Behavior Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781571311078
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Milkweed Editions - March 11th, 2014


Luiselli will visit Brazos on Thursday, 10/23, at 7PM. Farish will visit Brazos on Monday, 10/27, at 7PM. Order your books today.


#WritersRead - Gary Shteyngart

I first discovered Gary Shteyngart in 2007 with his second novel ABSURDISTAN. I don’t remember how I discovered the book, whether it was suggested to me by a friend, or perhaps a review I’d come across, or whether I’d noticed its spine among all the others along the shelf of S’s--the kind of pure chance indigenous to bookstores. In any event, ABSURDISTAN was a revelation, a novel full of manic energy and hysterical satire, so inventive and audacious I didn’t think it could be pulled off. But perhaps to prove me wrong, that’s exactly what Shteyngart did. He pulled it off. I immediately knew I’d found a fellow traveler (or guide) in the world of contemporary writing. Screamingly funny. Painfully self-deprecating. Worldly and literary. The humor, the voice! I’d just finished a three-year affair with Malamud and Roth and, of course, Bellow--those twentieth-century writers, either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants--and here came Shteyngart, this upstart (a mere two weeks older than me!) who seemingly burst from the gate armed with his own voice and all the other tools necessary to be a great novelist. Yes, I wanted to hate him, but I loved him too much.

Needless to say, I went back and read his other novels, THE RUSSIAN DEBUTANTE’S HANDBOOK and SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY, both of which awed me too. With the publication of his memoir LITTLE FAILURE earlier this year, readers could see the origins of Shteyngart’s voice--that his humor wasn’t something that came easily. In fact, it was something that came, like most types of wisdom, from suffering. In LITTLE FAILURE, Shteyngart illustrates the challenges of migrating from Russia at age seven (amidst the Cold War) and how asthma, overbearing parents and Hebrew school all colluded to make the novelist you read today.

I was honored to talk to Shteyngart before his visit on Thursday, Oct. 16 for this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: In LITTLE FAILURE, you describe reading out loud the first novel you wrote in English, THE CHALENGE, to your elementary school class. The recognition you get (perhaps your first experience of good attention) is very moving, but equally important is your sudden realization that telling stories equates to love. You write that with this “comes the responsibility that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The responsibility of writing something every day.” Do you still feel that responsibility? Do you still write for love?

Gary Shteyngart: After my first novel was published--and I don't mean THE CHALENGE [sic]--I guess the writing-for-love abated a bit and I started to write as a career. It was a little sad, actually. Writing was a kind of salvation for me growing up, even as far as college and a little bit beyond, so when writing also became a means of paying the mortgage, I felt I had lost something. The near-holy nature of it was gone.

BB: Suffering often seems to be the fate of artists. LITTLE FAILURE is suffused with scenes of vivid suffering--asthma attacks, bullying, parental injustice. Do you feel the suffering was necessary to make you the writer that you are?

GS: Yeah, how many happy writers or artists do you know? There aren't tons of them out there. The feeling of being an outsider (at least initially) is essential in trying to understand the society in which the artist finds herself.

BB: Your novels often mix high and low culture. Is this a goal or just something that happens organically because of your interests?

GS: Oh, I'm all about low culture, believe me. I'm not even sure where Lincoln Center is located.

BB: The New Yorker recently published your (semi) retirement from blurbing books and I was wondering, having just had my first blurb appear in a book, if you’d be willing to have a BLURB-OFF when you visit Brazos in October? The rules are simple. Anonymous blurbs are read aloud and the players (you and I) must guess the author of the blurb. Some will be contemporary and others will be old and obscure (Sophocles ripping apart Socrates’ first horrible novella, for example). Just something to consider.

GS:I feel like my blurbing has gotten rusty. I used to blurb everything in sight. I blurbed a cheeseburger once.

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

GS: How do you keep your hair so beautiful?

BB: Speaking of which, René Steinke (author of FRIENDSWOOD) wants to know: What's the craziest thing you've ever seen in Texas?

GS: I've spent about two months of my life in Texas and every single moment has been crazy.

Gary Shteyngart visits Brazos and signs his memoir LITTLE FAILURE on Thursday, Oct. 16. Reserve your ticket today!

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