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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

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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: A Novel 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?

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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.”

#

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

Q&A: Chad Broughton

Living in a city like Houston—a global metropolis that currently enjoys an economic boom—it’s sometimes easy to forget that the reality of globalization for many, many people looks closer to what happened in 2004 to the town of Galesburg, Illinois: the relocation of a Maytag refrigerator plant—long the backbone of that community—to Reynosa, Mexico. Although these two cities had nothing in common before, this corporate decision intertwined their destinies, and as Galesburg fell into decline, Reynosa started to develop into a thriving urban area. But what of the families in these two cities? What of the workers? What does globalization look like when you sit down across from other human beings and stare into their eyes? These are the questions of Chad Broughton’s BOOM, BUST, EXODUS.

Broughton, who teaches at the University of Chicago, covers this subject with an academic’s skill, but his book reaches beyond that too, delving into the lives of people in Galesburg and Reynosa with the precision and sweep of a social novelist. BOOM, BUST, EXODUS tells the story of globalization through the voices of the people struck most deeply by it, and in so doing, Broughton creates a portrait of two countries—the United States and Mexico—in the throes of great change.

Broughton will visit Brazos on Monday, January 19, at 7pm. In anticipation of that visit, I spoke to him about audience, responsibility, and the virtues of grimness.


BRAZOS BOOKSTORE: Given your academic background, readers might find this book a little intimidating. How would you describe it to somebody who claims not to like books about economics?

CHAD BROUGHTON: I would describe it as a book about ordinary people caught up in a time of extraordinary economic change—the dilemmas they face, how they adapt, where they fall down, how they pick themselves up. I tried to write an engaging book about people and the places they live, with brief explorations of the historical, sociological, and economic contexts in which they find themselves.

BB: So are you writing for an academic audience or a more “general” audience—however you define that?

CB: I have been driven for the past decade or so by the desire to craft a book that would not only be well-received by my colleagues in sociology, but also a book that my family and friends would enjoy. It’s a fine balance, and one runs the risk of pleasing neither audience. I hope the final product works on both levels, but I’m especially hoping book lovers of all sorts will like it. I think a general audience—all of us who are curious and love to read, really—relates to storytelling about people and places, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.

BB: Well, certainly storytelling is the backbone of this book. How did you decide which personal stories to include or exclude?

CB: That’s a great question. You’re right; I didn’t include everyone I interviewed. Instead I focused deeply on stories that I found to be suggestive of common experiences in both Galesburg and Reynosa—and, more generally, of the Rust Belt and the U.S.-Mexico border.

BB: Do you feel responsible for these people after you write about them?

CB: I’ve known many of the subjects of the book for over twelve years now, and they’ve been incredibly generous to me. So it’s essential to represent faithfully the facts and lives of the people with whom I spoke, and to do so with empathy and compassion. When people invite you into their lives for that long and agree to share their life stories—especially in this case, in times of hardship and turmoil for many—one has to get it right, down to every detail.

BB: What surprised you most in writing this book?

CB: That everyone has an interesting story if you’re willing to listen. Whether it was in Galesburg, Reynosa, or Veracruz, I found people who not only had something to say, but something they wanted to say—and these are people who are not typically listened to by journalists, politicians, or corporate leaders. I love to listen and to try to draw out insights, to have conversations with people from all types of backgrounds. That has been surprisingly easy and incredibly rewarding, given the openness of the people I’ve met. At the same time, I was surprised by how long and challenging the task of interweaving all those stories in the book ultimately was. That was the hard part, but rewarding in its own ways.

BB: Did you have literary models for that task of interweaving?

CB: THERE ARE NO CHILDREN HERE, FAST FOOD NATION, and FACTORY GIRLS are journalistic accounts of important economic, social, and policy questions, but beautifully and poignantly embedded in the lives of ordinary people. We sociologists sometimes write leaden, dull, and jargon-filled prose. If we are to be relevant, we ought to aspire to Kotlowitz, Schlosser, Chang, and other investigative journalists who tackle important and timely topics in an engaging way. UNBROKEN, THE PERFECT STORM, and THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS were also inspirations.

BB: BOOM, BUST, EXODUS covers a grim subject, but do you consider it a grim book?

CB: Honestly, I am drawn to grim topics. I think it’s important we face up to the causes and consequences of growing inequality and the erosion of the middle class in America, what is driving the immigration crisis, and so on. That said, the experience for me has been anything but grim. I was absolutely inspired by some of the people with whom I spoke—people who are carving big lives out of diminished offerings in Galesburg. I was inspired by the sacrifices that parents made for their children in Reynosa. Even when the circumstances are grim, there is grit, resilience, and growth—especially when the circumstances are grim, perhaps.


BOOM, BUST, EXODUS is in stock now.

Boom, Bust, Exodus: The Rust Belt, the Maquilas, and a Tale of Two Cities Cover Image
$29.95
ISBN: 9780199765614
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - January 2nd, 2015

Q&A: Chang-rae Lee

At the beginning of 2014, some Brazos employees decided to begin an in-store book group. Our inaugural choice was Chang-rae Lee’s newest novel, ON SUCH A FULL SEA. The reviews were glowing, and for many of us, it was the first opportunity we’d had to read anything by Lee, a highly regarded and popular author.

We loved this novel, a fantastic, literary, and dystopian story with a complex heroine at the center. ON SUCH A FULL SEA was an ambitious departure from Lee’s previous books like NATIVE SPEAKER and THE SURRENDERED, which were grounded in reality. Lee, however, had not abandoned the themes of identity, race, exclusion, and the anxiety inherent in social upheaval, subjects that all resonate strongly in ON SUCH A FULL SEA. It’s a novel that bristles with tension, written in Chang-Rae Lee’s trademark elegance.

I asked Lee some questions about ON SUCH A FULL SEA.


Brazos Bookstore: ON SUCH A FULL SEA is a departure from your earlier books. Was changing genres a challenge for you; did it ever feel like you were taking a risk?

Chang-rae Lee: To be honest I didn't feel as though I was writing in a different genre, for other than the speculative aspects of the story, it seemed to me that I was writing as I always do, considering language and character and action in much the same ways as in my previous novels, which is to say both rationally and irrationally. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the beginning, when I really did have to institute a 'future' world. But after that, well, I just followed the narrative and laid it down as always...

BB: Fan is such a strong yet sympathetic character; she seems fully realized. Was she a challenge to write, or did she come easily?

CL: I would never say she came easily, but I did 'see' her very clearly, right from the start. That wasn't the case with many of my previous protagonists, who seemed to have hidden mysteries throughout their creation. But Fan I saw in high definition, as it were; the question and mystery was not about her but within the "We" who tells her story, and how the "We" would tell and mull her exploits.

BB: In the novel, the “future” has strong ties to our present-day landscape (culture, race, the environment), as if it would only take a few steps (and perhaps a few decades) to reach that place. Is making a plausible setting important?

CL: Indeed it is, but I think any setting--whether 'realistic' or 'futuristic' or 'dystopian'--is only believable if the people within the setting are believable in what they desire, how they conduct themselves, what they believe in and value, all within the given context. So it's not about 'staging' things faithfully so much as unearthing what makes these particular people in this particular context tick.

BB: There must be a plethora of possibilities when a writer decides to invent his/her own world. Was it difficult to decide what worked in this dystopian future and what to leave out?

CL: I decided very early on that I wasn't interested in filling out every last detail of this new 'world'--I had no desire to write that kind of detailed 'manual' or 'constitution', but to provide only enough to erect a contextual architecture, if you will, for the inhabitants, who only live in their time and can see no others.

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

CL: What keeps you up at night?


Please join us Wednesday, January 14th, to see Chang-rae Lee read from this remarkable novel and sign books after.

Other Duties As Assigned: The Asia Society Texas

By Annalia Linnan

Dark hall, small stage, a woman singing about persimmons, Nick Flynn reading a poem about his dead father and Lou Reed, a montage of adults and children holding AK-47s: where am I? The Asia Society of Texas this time last year, my first visit. Now: lime green paper lanterns dot the trees. The sideways Texas rain. Locked out. I push the buzzer near the front entrance and a man pokes his head out to ask me what I need. “I'm here to meet with Evan Wildstein,” I say.

When Wildstein--Director of Performing Arts and Culture--appears, he wears a tie but not a jacket and holds a coffee mug. The public is not here yet: all around us, things are being broken down, moved, cleaned, or otherwise reset from the night before. We go upstairs to escape the hubbub, but the normal setup is in shambles: no furniture, no people, just a display filled with giant rocks. Wildstein sighs and ushers us back downstairs. We settle at the only available place: exactly where we started, a nook near the front of the building with a small round table and chairs too short to match. On Wildstein's side: a small journal and the aforementioned coffee mug of beans that he tells me run twenty dollars a bag. It’s 10 A.M., and this is my challenge: to get Wildstein to give me a version of the Asia Society that I cannot find on a website.

#

Though the building is young (it will be three years old this April), the Asia Society Texas Center has actually been part of the Houston tapestry since 1979, even before it had a permanent home. It is one of eleven Asia Societies throughout the world. Founded in 1956, the first Asia Society in New York began as a policy institute. Wildstein waxes on about these things: how the Rockefellers could sense, even in the 1950s, that “the coming age of Asia, or the Asian century, [would become] a very important player in the world dynamic.” Centers appeared as needed, but the Asia Society Texas distinguishes itself in its diversity, flexibility, and constant expansion.

“We do so much,” says Wildstein. “We are not just a museum space, nor are we just the policy institute anymore.” Often, Asia Society will rent out its building for holiday parties or weddings, and guests will “not even know that throughout the year you can come to upwards of 150 programs focusing on everything that includes Asia.” And when Wildstein says Asia, he means all of it. Recalling his first impressions of the Asia Society, Wildstein said, “I thought when I came here that the Asia focus would be limiting--but for us, the definition of Asia is fifty-two countries, from Iran to the Oceanic.” Think of it this way: if they covered one country per week, they would have the whole year programmed.

Still, balance is important, both in the types of programs offered and distribution of the work. While a thirty person staff is certainly more nimble than the six or seven that managed the Asia Society before Wildstein moved to Houston, there are still only one or two people per department. Wildstein says this makes for a sixty- to seventy-hour work week on average--and that's when they don't have programming. Not one to complain, he explains such challenges come with the territory: “You know, in any job description, that last line: 'Other duties as assigned?' That’s the dictum we live by in small non-profits.”

He laughs, but I believe him. At a smaller institution that must stand up to monoliths such as The Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston--world-renowned collections that boast staff numbers in the hundreds--there is no room to pretend someone else will do your work for you. Take, for example, when the Asia Society invites Brazos Bookstore to come sell books at its events on its behalf: it is not Wildstein’s assistant who welcomes me with my two-wheel dolly full of boxes. It’s Wildstein himself.

Maybe this says it best: in the middle of our chat, the custodial staff comes through and the sound clicks so loud against the concrete that we are forced to stop. Wildstein puts up his index finger and waits.

“That's the joy of this building,” he says. Work never stops.

#

In its thirty-five-year history, the Asia Society has never been a stranger to new work. It has partnered with the Houston Grand Opera to premiere at least four new Asian chamber operas and hosted two new pieces by local dance legend Dominic Walsh. Its recent Indian deities exhibit was the first time Manjari Sharma and Abhishek Singh have ever been on view together. But the Asia Society has never initiated its own original creation, and that’s something Wildstein wants to change. This summer, the Asia Society and the Houston Ballet will co-create a project named Tsuru that focuses on the Japanese crane wife folk tale.

“I'm hoping to weave that spirit of 'new stuff'--commissions, new productions, new things--[into our regular programming] one to three times every year,” Wildstein said. “And that could be commissioning a composer to write a chamber piece that we could partner with some of the local musicians on, or that could be commissioning an author to write a new book. We have a lot of opportunity.”

However, Wildstein stresses that what makes opportunity possible is partnership. And not just having partners available, but that “everyone just seems really interested in working together in a way here that I don't find in other big cities.” As a transplant from New York, Wildstein has enjoyed “trying to see how those little moving parts work together.”

“That's what's going to make or break the success of the Asia Society,” Wildstein says. “How much people are willing to give, to work with us.”

Lucky for the Asia Society, Wildstein makes giving easy. When I push stop on the recorder, he asks me about this article. He asks about writing and music and how each inspires me, and he wants to know specifics. This is the part I'm supposed to skip for this interview, yet it’s the part that shows me Wildstein views his position as more than just a job: he sees himself as a catalyst for change. If that’s not the essence of the Asia Society, what is?

Behind Our Style

Over recent years, there has been a rise in blogs and books surrounding our individual styles. What has been missing are the reasons behind our style choices. Heidi Julavits--along with two collaborators, Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton--decided to tackle the reasons behind individual style choices by sending a fifty-item questionnaire to thousands of women.

This became WOMEN IN CLOTHES, a book full of personal voices from around the world.

This isn’t your typical fashion book with this season's trends, or a retrospective of past styles and their influences. It’s also not a do and don’t list. WOMEN IN CLOTHES is something more: it gives the reader insight into women’s style choices and the story behind them. It strips away the fashion language and gives the reader stories--some funny, some personal, some empowering. After reading each woman's story, you will start to see your own choices in a different light.

You can read WOMEN IN CLOTHES cover to cover, or dip in and out of it casually. Either way, you will leave with wonderful stories and insights about fashion, and you will want to start a conversation with others about the choices we all make every day in our individual styles.


Wednesday, November 19, please join WOMEN IN CLOTHES contributor Sasha Plotnikova at Leap for a clothes swap. Bring with you items from your closet that aren’t working for you (but in good condition) to trade with others at the swap! Anything remaining at the end of the night will be donated to Dress for Success and Goodwill.

Brazos Bookstore will be on-hand to sell copies of WOMEN IN CLOTHES. Pre-order your book and we’ll deliver it to Leap for you on November 19.

Women in Clothes Cover Image
$30.00
ISBN: 9780399166563
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Riverhead Books - September 4th, 2014

Indie Spotlight: Open Letter Books

Easily my favorite discovery in the last two years, Open Letter Books is a non-profit publisher of literature in translation. I first read THE DARK by Argentine novelist Sergio Chejfec and was blown away, mesmerized. I went backwards and read every Chejfec novel published by Open Letter, including MY TWO WORLDS and THE PLANETS. Chejfec’s books are very insular and meditative with echoes of W.G. Sebald. Another title is NAVIDAD AND MATANZA by Chilean Carlos Labbé, a small and experimental novel with hints of Bolaňo that manages in ninety-two pages the breadth of a large novel. I’m currently reading Rubem Fonseca’s THE TAKER, a short story collection brimming with the violence and humor of life in Rio de Janeiro.

Open Letter capped 2014 with A THOUSAND FORESTS IN ONE ACORN an inexhaustible, nearly endless anthology of Spanish fiction. It includes interviews with twenty-eight authors as diverse as Carlos Fuentes to Esther Tusquets, with each explaining the sample of their writing they believe best exemplifies their body of work.

Open Letter books are always wonderful to hold with gorgeous and minimal book designs that somehow speak to the work. I can’t begin to do justice to all the great books Open Letter is publishing and the many languages and countries they’re translated from. With publishing houses like Open Letter, there is hope in the world for serious and quality literature in translation. Open Letter is a treasure.

Staff Pick Logo
The Dark Cover Image
By Sergio Chejfec, Heather Cleary (Translator)
$14.95
ISBN: 9781934824436
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Open Letter - December 11th, 2013

My Two Worlds Cover Image
By Sergio Chejfec, Margaret Carson (Translator), Enrique Vila-Matas (Introduction by)
$12.95
ISBN: 9781934824283
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Open Letter - August 16th, 2011

The Planets Cover Image
By Sergio Chejfec, Heather Cleary (Translator)
$13.95
ISBN: 9781934824399
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Open Letter - June 12th, 2012

Navidad & Matanza Cover Image
By Carlos Labbe, Will Vanderhyden (Translator)
$12.95
ISBN: 9781934824924
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Open Letter - April 15th, 2014

The Taker and Other Stories Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9781934824023
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Open Letter - November 15th, 2008

A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction Cover Image
$19.95
ISBN: 9781934824917
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Open Letter - September 2nd, 2014

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