St Patrick’s Day Gift: interviews with three great Irish writers


Irish countryside – 2014


Happy St. Patrick’s Day, y’all! I do have a bit of genuine Irish in me, but the bulk of my heritage is English, Scottish and Dutch. What Irish I do have I magnify on March 17th, as one does.

My daughter and I toured Ireland together back in 2014. She was finishing up a semester in Swansea, Wales, so I made the sacrifice and flew into Dublin at the tail end of her time there. I ferried her over for a week or so in Ireland, then we popped back to Wales. I proceeded to take her on a trip around the perimeter, to areas in the north she hadn’t seen during her semester. After dropping her back in Swansea, I took the ferry back to Ireland, spending three more days wandering lovely Dublin.


Trinity College Library


In Ireland I bought a claddagh ring I haven’t taken off to this day. I fell in love with the country. It’s as magical as you’d think, and then some.

My appreciation for the staggering literary tradition of Ireland is boundless. I’ve read a good deal of writing by Irish authors, though not yet the great Ulysses. I’m going to give that a stab over the summer, starting in June, natch, as Bloomsday is the 16th of June. I’ve tried stabbing it a couple times before.

It’s never ended well.

But hope springs.

To celebrate St. Patrick’s day – on which I’ll be sober as a judge, thanks for asking, because old and no longer interested in alcohol – I’m posting three interviews from the Bluestalking Archives, with three huge Irish writers kind enough to indulge me:


An Interview with Colm Tóibín

We had no symphonies, no great paintings, but slowly writing began to matter. Paper was cheap; literacy was the only way out of poverty; London was close and London publishers were interested in stories about strange places. The traditional music survived mainly in the west, and partly because of poverty. The language – Irish – did not survive as well because parents became aware that you would need English to go to England or America, as so many did.



An Interview with Sebastian Barry

The strange thing is, my family was full of both stories and silence. Pregnant with silence.



An Interview with Frank Delaney


Writing drives me. Writing ignites my passion. The challenge of telling a good story clearly and, I hope, in excellent and vivacious language, across a cultural arc that is as wide as I can make it – that gets me out of bed with delight every morning of my life. Just think of it – the very notion of providing a reader with a book that they find enriching and rewarding is a privilege that I try to service every day.


Enjoy the interviews and the day. Have a stout for me.

sláinte mhaith


Interview with A.J. Jacobs – ‘Drop Dead Healthy’





He's a little crazy, a little nutty and a whole lot of fun. A.J. Jacobs, editor at large of Esquire magazine and author of several self-improvement books, also happens to be an at large acquaintance of mine. We "met" after I'd posted a review of The Know It All on Amazon, writing about how this book pulled me out of a period of grief after the death of one of my best friends. I guess it touched something within him, as a writer, knowing his work had had such a healing effect on me. It was the nature of his book, the ease of putting it down after reading each short entry and picking it up again whenever I felt like it, that kept me going. And the humor didn't hurt, either.

We still "chat" via email now and then. He helps me out by giving me the occasional writerly advice and is generally a kind soul and wonderful person to know.

He granted me an interview previously, after the publication of My Year of Living Biblically, and now, once again, upon publication of Drop Dead Healthy. I am a very lucky person, indeed, to know him.

Here's the interview:

1).  What drew you to write a series of human experiment/self education/self help books? Did you intend this to become your niche, after The Know-It-All?
I wish I could say it was a master plan. I love to test things out, and I love to write. So this kind of journalism seemed a good match. (I just re-read this answer. I lied. I don’t love to write. I love to research, interview people and think about stuff. The act of writing is about as pleasant to me as a catheterization). 
2).  What was the reaction from your wife and family when it became obvious you were writing more books a lot of people would consider overly-ambitious? 
My wife keeps asking me to write something that doesn’t involve major lifestyle disruptions. Maybe a history of wicker furniture.
3).  Your books require vast amounts of research. Is it annoying how quickly the reader is able to read it? I imagine it's like Thanksgiving dinner. It takes forever to cook but only about fifteen minutes to eat…

Good point! I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you point it out, I am quite irritated. Slow down, people. Try a word or two a day. 
4).  Do you have help with your research? Considering my "day job" profession, I have to ask, do you make use of libraries or librarians when working on the background information? This is where you say how great libraries are.
First, I want to say how great libraries are. I love libraries, librarians and the library sciences in general. (I’m not kidding. I really do love libraries. I even like library gossip. I once heard that Melvil Dewey, of decimal system fame, was a big womanizer. True?) 


Second, I definitely borrowed stacks of books from the NYPL when writing ‘Drop Dead Healthy.’ But I didn’t delegate much of the research. I love to explore the informational detours, which you can only do if you’re researching it yourself.
5).   Ever consider writing fiction? If not, why and if yes, where is it?

I have considered writing a children’s book. I’m looking for an animal that has never been featured in a story before. My latest idea is to give the blobfish a moment in the sun.
6).    Which of your books took longest to write? Which made your family question your sanity the most?

The new one, Drop Dead Healthy, took a huge amount of time. It should have been out a year ago. But I had a long journey before I could declare myself healthy. As for sanity-questioning, probably The Year of Living Biblically. Like with the biblical rules about purity. Leviticus says you cannot touch women during certain times for the month. And it even says that you cannot sit in a seat where  menstruating woman has sat, because then the seat is impure. My wife found this offensive, so she sat in every seat in our apartment.
7).   Have you ever had to scrap a book idea because it was too much work or just too difficult?

Not because it was too much work. But I’ve certainly scrapped ideas because they were vetoed by my wife. I wanted to spend a month without face to face communication – live my life totally on line with Facebook and IMs and so on. But my wife said our niece’s bat mitzvah was coming up, and that I was not going to attend by having a monitor at the table with me Skyping from home.
8).  Do you have downtime when you can actually read for pleasure? Anything good you've read lately?

I just read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt. It’s a great study of how we form political opinions, and why we are so convinced the other side is a bunch of idiots, when in fact we are often idiots ourselves.
9). Any idea what project you'll try tackling next? Will you tell me if I promise not to (verbally) tell anyone else?

My kids are lobbying hard for “A Year of Eating Nothing But Candy.” They said they would join me. That aside, I’m not sure what is next. But I do love getting reader suggestions.
10). Is there anything you wouldn't do, or have been warned you'd better not do, even if it would produce a really great book?

I don’t like to go undercover. I tell people right up front that I’m writing a book and I’m here to report. Maybe I was influenced by an experiment I once did in which I practiced Radical Honesty for a month. This is a movement that believes you shouldn’t lie. But more important, whatever’s on your brain should come out of your mouth. No filter.

Overall, this was a horrible month. But it also taught me the liberating feeling of telling the truth and the stress that lies can cause.


Here's a very loooong interview with A.J. I found on YouTube. Unfortunately, I couldn't embed the much shorter interview he did with CBS News, because they wouldn't allow it. Well la-di-da.
You don't have to watch all of this one, obviously, since it is almost half an hour long. It's not like I'm going to show up at your house and beat you up if you don't (unless you provide an address in the comments section). However, if you do watch it you're guaranteed to be one of God's chosen people and chocolate will rain from the skies. Your choice, people.



An Interview with Adam Ross




Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross, Vintage (2011), Review Copy from Publisher/Publicist


What does it say about me that I read this book last year and am posting my equally vintage interview with Adam Ross just now? That would be one of those questions I hope no one would ask. So I’m throwing it at myself, in a fit of self-flagellation.

But the answer actually approaches logical, believe it or not. Mr. Peanut is a complex book, so complex a once-over reading isn’t nearly enough to catch all the sneaky and brilliant little allusions, the references to things philosphical, art history, etc. My intention was to read the book through once more, before posting the interview. And at the time that seemed like a logical proposal. Now, looking back, it seems rather lame.

In any event, here it is, finally, my interview with Adam Ross – the original Mr. Peanut:


1). Do you practice any writing rituals, any special things you do to prepare?


I wake very early, write for three hours. Take a break. Run, lift weights, play tennis, take a jiu-jitsu class, something physical. Eat. Hopefully talk to a human being for a while. Do a second two-hour session. Repeat the following day. Sunday is Sabbath, depending on my wife’s Honey-Do list. This is only when I’m cooking with gas, by the way.   


2). Do you write longhand or on the computer?


Computer for fiction but I journal longhand.


3). Can you recall when you knew you wanted to be a writer?


 I’ve been scribbling stories forever, honestly. I nearly bored my third-grade class to death with a 13-page long epic about superhuman mercenaries that I read in its entirety during “show and tell,” which come to think of it now should have been called “show don’t tell.” From there I moved to comics, creating scores of superheroes and drawing my own books. Caught the literature bug at Vassar and it was curtains afterward.


4). Were you a bookish child? How about your family? Were there many books in your home, growing up?


My mom has an MA in literature, she wrote her thesis on Henry James, so yes, there were books everywhere. But I wouldn’t describe myself as bookish. I was a comic book freak, as I mentioned, and my first passionate reading experience came, really, in high school, when I read Frank Herbert’s Dune series and studied the Bible intensively.


5). What is your educational background? Was that a good basis for your writing?

 New York’s Trinity School for middle and high school. English degree from Vassar, followed by an MA and MFA from Hollins and Washington University respectively. I don’t see how writing programs hurt an aspiring writer in any way, though in truth it was the exposure to fully formed artists like Richard Dillard, William Gass, and Stanley Elkin that had more of an impact than anything else on my development.


6). What are your biggest challenges as a writer, things you struggle with?

I struggle every time I put words to the page. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s no small thing to write an inspired sentence that becomes a paragraph that becomes a scene, and so on. Like any writer, of course, I want to grow, which for me means I’d like to create on a bigger canvas. We’ll see if I can pull it off in my next novel.


7). What do you feel are your writing strengths?

 My father says my dialogue is terrific and most people tell me that my writing is highly cinematic. This is very important to me because I’ve always given credence to Conrad’s mantra about making the reader see.


8). In Mr. Peanut, was it difficult separating and then weaving together the plot lines? Did you use any particular method for keeping track of plot points?

It was and there came a period during the last two years of drafting where the whiteboard in my office was covered with the most elaborate outlines that only I could read—P1 and D1 and Mp1 and MD1, bizarre stuff that led my wife to occasionally doubt my sanity.


9).  What are you saying about marriage in the novel?

There’s this mysterious, paradoxical way in which marriage distances the lover from the beloved while also making her more vital to the lover. Consequently, we occasionally dream of freedom from the person we depend on most in life. The kind of marriage I’m describing is modern marriage, mind: chosen, willful companionship grounded in that most unstable of emotions: love.  


10). Are you, or have you, been married?

My wife, Beth, and I will celebrate our 17th anniversary this August. We’ve been together since 1991 and every day has been bliss, especially after I got her pregnant five months after she gave birth to our first daughter. Yes, in spite of the fact that she was still breast-feeding, we still made time to take long baths together, give each other back- and foot-massages every night, and never, ever fought. Not once.

She also happens to be my best friend on the planet and here comes a whopper cliché: we seem incapable of boring each other.


11). Do you feel your book depicts marriage honestly? Is it intended to be realistic?

It depicts a single marriage honestly, the marriage of David and Alice. In his own. In his own novel, David sees aspects of his marriage in the investigating detectives’ marriages, just as they see aspects of their own in his. The Sheppard material, meanwhile, verges on historical fiction: it’s a fact that Sheppard behaved the way he did with his wife Marilyn and his mistress, Susan Hayes. And the astute Hitchcock fan will note that the Hastroll section exactly mirrors the marriages portrayed in Rear Window, including the killer, Lars Thorwald (whose name recombines into Ward Hastroll). So the majority of the book steals data history or another artist reports to us about marriage.


12).  How long did you spend researching for MP?

It’s hard to say. A solid year if you combine all the Hitchcock criticism I read as well as the Sheppard material.


13). What about Escher and Hitchcock drew you to pull from their philosphies/works?

Those are really two questions. With Escher it was several things. First, his use of tessellation: two connected images that trace the outline of their opposites. I like to say that Mr. Peanut is about three marriages that tell the story of one marriage—an Escher-idea, really. Second, the sudden loss of perspective you experience looking at his work, the ceiling becoming the floor, etc. Marriage can feel similarly emotionally vertiginous. Just ask my wife.

As for Hitchcock, well, there are too many things to enumerate. His obsession with male anxiety and the controlling gaze men try to exert on idealized women, not to mention his obsession with the destructive and saving power of idleness that I noticed in his films when I studied them at Hollins. Idle characters in Rear Window and Vertigo, say, slip into moral hazard but also exorcise themselves of their compulsions during this slide. I use a similar strategy in the novel.


14). Are you working on anything new currently? Anything you can share about it?

My short story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, comes out June 28. I’m very proud of it. It’s really a companion to Mr. Peanut since the stories were written during breaks from the novel.


15). What authors do you admire/enjoy reading? Do you credit them with influencing your writing style?

I’m omnivorous but I love Cormac McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Alice Munro, Joseph Conrad, Nabokov, John Hawkes. In all the writers I mentioned there’s this amazing combination of exuberance, intelligence, and great-heartedness that I aspire to in my own work.


Thank you, Adam Ross, for the work you put into answering my plethora of questions. And hopefully you’ll consider late better than never. Either that or you’ll snub me at literary soirees and other events, in which case I will cry quietly into my Diet Pepsi. My life is in your hands.

Visit Adam’s website for a complete listing of his works and a bunch of other cool stuff.

And buy his books. You will love them.




Bleak House, Various and sundry.

My hands were itching to talk books with you all week but my wishes were thwarted due to a Typepad glitch. Seems the goodly blogging platform had quite a taste for all things Bluestalking. Not only would it not let me save new posts, it ate the last two I wrote as well and of course I hadn't backed them up because nothing like this has happened in forever. And I hope it had galloping indigestion to match my level of irritation.

Appealing to them via Twitter did me no good, a tactic that's served me well in the resolution of other consumer complaints, most recently in the replacement of a brand new sofa with a mangled underside. If there's one thing you never want it's a mangled underside and I was certainly having no part of that, especially when it's literally just been brought through the door. The store refused to replace it, offering instead to "fix" it. Unacceptable. Telling over a thousand followers of my woes got immediate attention. The store tweeted me within minutes and I had a phone call to schedule a re-delivery/switch the next business day. Now that is customer service, even if I had to lean on them to get it. Let them push me around? I think not.

That explains, in more detail than you needed, my relative internet silence over the past few days. But today I'm having another go, cautiously optimistic my computer won't blow up or my underside become mangled. If it does, I'm relying on all of you to Tweet it to the world.


In Progress:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Yes, yes I was supposed to have finished it for last Wednesday's book discussion but that didn't happen. It was nearly impossible reading Dickens at the galumphing pace required, but luck was with me and no one else save our brave facilitator had finished, either. In fact, I'd gotten the furthest of us all, save the one person who finished but was unable to attend. Victory! Well, of sorts.

Consensus was the book was very, very long. A wise conclusion considering how much paper is between the covers. As to the story itself, opinion was a bit more mixed. Keeping all gazillion characters and plotlines straight proved a difficulty not worth the effort for some, roughly half I would say. One gentleman, after reading only the first few pages, saw fit to pick up the Cliff Notes instead, eschewing the original for the shortcut. What's discouraging is he seemed to have as good a grip on things as I did, having finished roughly 85%. Then again, he wasn't obliged to read the vast quantity of words with which I grappled. So there.



We spent an awful lot of time asking each other, "What was the name of the _____ family's friend's servant?" and trying to untangle everyone with a similar name to another character. Partly because of this, if you haven't read Bleak House (or have but still aren't sure exactly what was happening) it's almost impossible spoiling the plot for you. The question would be, which plot are you even talking about, since there are so many. Of course they all funnel into the main plot regarding Esther Summerson (and cousins Richard and Ada), Lady Dedlock and the ongoing court case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in one way or other. It's always baffling how Dickens will manage to bring it all together by the end, yet always he does, minus a few characters who wander off but in some ways that's for the best, for the sanity of the reader.


So, what does BH say about Dickens and the Victorians? Jarndyce v. Jarndyce illustrates opinion about lawyers and court cases hasn't changed at all since the Victorians. Lawyers are generally nasty, self-serving creatures and court cases convoluted and dull. Shock horror!

As for the innocents, they so often suffer, sometimes losing their lives in unjust and unnecessary circumstances. Innocents include those with mental disabilities, children and those from the lower social order in general. BH is particularly sharp in the anger it directs at do-gooders, Mrs. Jellyby being a prime example, the woman so concerned with a village in Africa she doesn't notice anything happening in her own home. And I do mean anything. And Mr. Jellyby! If there's a better example of deep clinical depression in all of Victorian fiction I haven't read it.

Poor Mr. Jellyby, forever sitting with his head against a wall.

So, what of charity, to Dickens? Certainly not much of merit, extending past temporarily alleviating the suffering of those at hand. But even in that case, using Jo and his illness as an example, charity can backfire, leaving the best-intentioned permanently blemished. Going out of your way to help take care of your fellow wo/man doesn't fare well at all in BH.

Dickens has been called out before re: his depiction of women as either saints or whores. BH is filled with examples of saints – the "angels" in the house – with only one true "whore" in Lady Dedlock. She pays the price of her transgressions, in cruel ways. To be fair, so does the man who was the other half of that relationship, but he's largely shrouded in mystery. We know how he dies – destitute and alone – and there's a suggestion it was intentional, but Dickens shows us every bit of Lady Dedlock's agony.



The saint above all saints in BH is Esther Summerson, a character who may – I'm warning you – drive you barking mad by mid-book. She's exaggeratedly kind (and I really don't think it's intented ironically). Her interaction with Ada made me feel vaguely nauseous. There's friendship, then there's over the top and saccharine. But even the saints don't escape some very steep trials.



Did Dickens hate women? Oh, I don't know. There's lots written about it. I can tell you he treated his wife with callous indifference and almost surely had an affair with a beautiful actress. He also had a sort of crush on his dead sister-in-law, practically throwing himself in her grave when she died. Not sure what all that proves, if anything.

Ask me more later in the year. I'll know better by then.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, BBC – 2005


Dickens at 200

Serendipitous Bleak House was the January read in our classics book group, considering the Inimitable's 200th birthday is coming up February 7th.

Martin Chuzzlewit is next up for me, in my personal celebration of all things Dickens. MC and the recent Claire Tomalin bio. This will be my first foray into MC and I know nothing about it – one reason I'm looking forward to the experience.

After MC I honestly can't say I'll have the luxury to fit in another Dickens novel in 2012, since I am attacking Ulysses starting Bloomsday this year (June 6). I'm allowing the rest of the year to read that one properly, relying heavily on true Irishman Frank Delaney and his podcasts on Ulysses to minimize my inevitable confusion.

To celebrate properly I'd need to take a trip to Dublin. I'm cheating myself by not doing so and I think I'll put that on my official Bucket List. There's a pub out there, somewhere, that has a stool with my name on it, and a few barrels of Guinness to get together a good drinking game to go along with a public reading of the book. One swallow for every swear should have me under the table in less than two hours. Change that to every sentence longer than a page and I'll be out in half that time. Of course it's likely I'd wake up with a shamrock – or worse – drawn on my forehead and my hair matted in who knows what.

Yes, onto the Bucket List it goes.




From an article in The Guardian



A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

Heartrendingly gorgeous and I'm in no hurry to finish, as Sebastian Barry hasn't written all that many novels. I do so love his writing and this in no way involves a massive crush of an adolescent nature, mixed with a great appreciation of his lyricism and unfailingly gorgeous writing.

I'm further along but reluctantly so. It's difficult reading about the horrors of war and I've grown so fond of Willie Dunne it's hard seeing inhumane events through his eyes. Right now I'm just past the point at which he realizes his last letter offended his father, though he's not positive why. And as for the lovely Gretta… I just don't trust that one. Great looking or not, I have a feeling Willie could have chosen better than herself with the green eyes.




Author Sam Savage


Glass by Sam Savage – Currently reading for review.

I have loved Sam Savage's writing since his first novel, Firmin:

"Savage's sentimental debut concerns the coming-of-age of a well-read rat in 1960s Boston. In the basement of Pembroke Books, a bookstore on Scollay Square, Firmin is the runt of the litter born to Mama Flo, who makes confetti of Moby-Dick and Don Quixote for her offspring's cradle."

Publishers Weekly

I interviewed him following the publication of that novel, now that I think of it. Such a dear man.

Glass is about a widow asked to write a new introduction for the re-issue of her late husband's book but actually more about her life, memories and adjustment to being alone. What's sweetly poignant is there's a rat in this novel, as well, though the standard mammal who isn't able to read and express himself in words. Loads more than this is poignant but it was the rat that really got to me.

Between Firmin and Glass there was The Cry of the  Sloth:

"Living on a diet of fried Spam, vodka, sardines, cupcakes, and Southern Comfort, Andrew Whittaker is slowly being sucked into the morass of middle age. A negligent landlord, small-time literary journal editor, and aspiring novelist, he is—quite literally— authoring his own downfall. From his letters, diary entries, and fragments of fiction, to grocery lists and posted signs, this novel is a collection of everything Whittaker commits to paper over the course of four critical months."

– from

I love books that rip out my heart, dice it to bits and toss it onto a plate. Even better are those with a wicked dark sense of humor involving books, readers and/or writers. Sam Savage manages to hit my soft spots in every, single book he writes. He's not nearly as well known as he should be.

Read him. Do.


Restoring Grace by Katie Fforde – Reading for librarian group.

Nope, I'm not one for conventional romance and my last reading round up covered the reasons I chose this when forced to read outside my genre comfort zone: British, ancient home and single women living together, making a go of it sans men. Oh, and the Irishman, coming to woo the owner of the ancient home…



Losing It: In Which An Aging Professor Laments His Shrinking Brain by William Ian Miller

From the good people at Yale U.P. and it's basically about what it says. It makes a good NF read to pick up while the rest of the family's watching t.v.  I can read NF with noise going on around me but not fiction. Not without a rise in blood pressure that's not worth it, I should say.


Coming Soon:

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – next read for classics group.

Love this book, can't wait to re-read, so you know it must be a heart-ripper. Also planning to squeeze in McCullers's unfinished autobiography, an Amazon purchase I allowed myself last week, though my fondness for the Amazon Daily Deal eBook has me well on my way toward addiction. Funny how I managed to side-step making an actual resolution about book buying this year. Or, not so much funny as frightening.



In between reads for BookBrowse, LibraryJournal and Booklist. Then there are the various and sundry review books, otherwise known as The Great Horde, including Barry Unsworth's latest The Quality of Mercy.

Also checked out from the library: How it All Began by Penelope Lively and Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare. Re: the latter, right now I can't recall what it's about or why I ordered it. Must have had some good reason. Funny, the ILL books that wind up on my desk are usually of this ilk. I either can't remember requesting them or why.


As usual, I'm obviously bereft of great reading material. All my time is wasted on breathing, eating and sleeping until such time as I can find my way back to reading. They say Americans are reading less and less every year, though whether that includes Tweets and McDonald's game pieces I don't know.

I smell another government study that needs funding! Perhaps I'll drop past Twitter and mention it.







Horse, Flower, Bird: Stories by Kate Bernheimer: A review and interview



“There is more life in fish than in jewels, though diamonds do glint.”


We never outgrow our fascination with fairy tales. It may be easy to dismiss fantastic stories as the stuff of childhood, but fairy tales are deceptively multi-layered. On the surface  may be a young girl falling down a  rabbit hole, meeting odd creatures in improbable – and often humorous – circumstances, but behind the apparent innocence lies a cleverly hidden sense of menace, separated by the thinnest of membranes. 

And why is that? For what reason have writers of  fairy tales chosen to couch evil within seemingly innocuous stories? Not an expert on the subject by any means, I would suggest the moral beneath the story is meant to sink into a child’s subconcious, threatening him or her with all manner of punishment for misbehaving. And because the violence is subsumed, only occasionally stated expressly, to an innocent mind it may not be obvious at all. But the moral of the story will certainly creep in, nonetheless.

Like works of fantasy, fiction is thinly disguised reality: depicting stories about love and loss, sorrow and death, characters set apart from the mainstream, and all the tragedy and comedy that is life. Not much about fantasy needs to be tweaked to turn it into fiction, and vice versa. In both, worlds are created – internally or externally. Themes may not carry a distinct, identifiable moral in general fiction, but regardless there is an author writing the story, an author who, no matter how hard he or she intends to be objective, cannot help but insinuate personal bias into the prose. And that bias sinks into the reader, who may choose to accept or reject the principle, but will nevertheless have experienced the impact of subconscious suggestion.

So, is that equivalent to the suggestion fairy tales inject into children? Children are like sponges, absorbing at an amazingly fast rate while they’re young. And adults? We’re still suggestible, but have built up our own ideas of morality and life lessons. So perhaps for us fairy tales, and fiction in general, have less of an impact. But that doesn’t make the reading less enjoyable. As adults we’re capable of seeing both layers of meaning, which may shock us when we remember reading fairy tales to our children.

What sets a fairy tale apart? They’re deceptively simple tales that teach a lesson or moral value of some sort. Innocent children regularly figure in the stories, thrust into a world that feels over-sized and menacing. Often they have a dream-like feel, the same disconnect from reality our subconscious generates, carrying over impressions formed during the day, connecting them in often nonsensical ways. 

Evil, or a feeling of unease, is palpable in fairy tales. There is no lasting sense of safety; around every corner is the potential for surprise. And not every surprise is good.

Kate Bernheimer’s collection Horse, Flower, Bird contains eight fairy tales featuring women. In each the female protagonist is ultimately left alone, marginalized or contained in some way. A few choose isolation,  and selective mutism, drawing into themselves as a means of self-preservation. The cages these characters choose are real, and often of their own making. Which isn’t to say there is no attempt to find happiness, but, rather, circumstances assume the same larger-than-life control that exists in fairy tales geared toward children.

In the first story, “A Cuckoo Tale,” an innocent child learns she cannot be loved unless she is obedient to the point of subservience. “A Tulip’s Tale” could be summed up by the line, “The home in which you reside is not forever.”  Loss is one theme in “A Doll’s Tale,” but so is the development of a child’s imagination as a result of that loss. “A Petting Zoo Tale” is a particularly surreal and strange imagining about what happens to a woman when she subsumes her own happiness for the sake of her husband. That true happiness cannot be held onto too tightly or it will either cease to thrive, or even die, is a theme in “A Cageling Tale.” In “Garibaldi,” a young girl with a physical deformity learns she will never be in a position to ask for what she wants from life. “A Star Wars Tale” is about two sisters too well aware of the looming menace of sexual violence, and, finally, “Whitework” reminded  me of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the story of a woman driven to madness, restricted for what others consider to be her own good.

Of course my descriptions are very brief. That’s because the stories themselves are very short. Expanding on them would be the equivalent of spoiling them, which is the last thing I want to do.

I hope readers who don’t consider fairy tales to be normal reading fare will consider giving this collection a try. You just may be surprised how well you enjoy them.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Coffee House Press (August 24, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1566892473
  • ISBN-13: 978-1566892476


 An Interview with Author Kate Bernheimer




1.    What influenced you to pursue the writing life? Does the reality of it
    match what you imagined?

When I was a kid my parents let me lug home all the books I could carry from the Waban Public Library. Thank goodness for the 1970’s librarian there, who had stocked fairy-tale books in the “adult room” upstairs and downstairs, too, where I fell in love with Kenneth Grahame, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, E. Nesbit, Joan Aiken, and so many others. It was a love of reading that led me to write—it was a way to be in a storybook world all of the time, to furnish its little rooms and go on an adventure from there. I associated writing with being at home, with reading, and with hanging out at the library. These were the things I most liked to do and they still are. That I get to call reading and writing fairy tales, and teaching and lecturing on them, and working on a fairy-tale revival my actual mode of employment? I never imagined it possible! I was just a kid who loved reading fairy tales.

2. Why fairy tales? What, or perhaps who, originally drew you to this genre?
I loved them the moment I met them as a reader, which was pretty young, via Golden Books, and books like The Lonely Doll and Little Fur Family. The first story I ever published (in a circular my dearest friend and I mimeographed and distributed to family members)  was a serialized fairy tale. That was 1977. Fairy tales felt like the world I liked to imagine, perhaps. So I read lots of fairy-tale books, but I also encountered fairy tales other places—movies, ballets. I had a friend who was in the Boston Ballet and I’d go see her perform, get seats in the way back of the theater. My mother bought me paper doll books of ballet characters and books such as “Tales from the Ballet” with the beautiful illustrations by the Provensens, and took me to ballet movies. My grandfather showed us the Disney movies in his basement on a projector—he borrowed the reels through some mysterious business arrangement we never quite understood—I remember that once, during “Snow White” or maybe “Fantasia,” the film started to melt at the edges. We thought the melting was part of the movie! It all seemed very magical, Oz-like, down there. And the friend I did the circular with for years, her father told us fairy tales up in her attic when I’d sleep over, starting at age six or so.  Then, in my twenties, I was lucky enough to stumble across the fairy-tale scholarship in the library one day, which I had no idea previously even existed; fairy tales hadn’t made their way into my college classrooms, never one time. The scholarly books were just as amazing as the tales, full of wise mystery and wonder. It all began in the library.
And all of this magnetized me to “the fairy-tale genre,” though I should state that I think of fairy tales as The Genre, the most dynamic and becoming genre, in that, as a minoritarian art form excluded from the literary mainstream (see the National Book Foundation’s award guidelines, which exclude retellings of fairy tales from eligibility), they enter all stories whether via reflection or via resistance.

Certainly, I am drawn to one of the primary motifs of many traditional tales: the weak prevailing over the strong. It’s a big one for me. And I am drawn to their hard facts (as Maria Tatar calls them in her brilliant study, The Hard Facts of The Grimms’ Fairy Tales). Bad things happen in these stories, very bad things. Just like out here. Also some pretty nice things happen too: sublime things that shimmer. “The folktale is real,” as Italo Calvino once said. As a person trying to make art, I am drawn to their techniques and how they help me tell stories better, techniques like abstraction, everyday magic, isolation, intuitive logic, depthlessness. The more fairy tales I read and the more I learn about their history from scholars, the more I am indebted to fairy tales for offering boundless possibility spaces for readers.

3. For someone who hasn’t read fairy tales, how would you describe the genre?
What keywords would you use to describe essential elements?
Really anyone who has read a story has read a fairy tale—Runaway Bunny is a fairy tale. So is Twilight. So is Lolita.  So, fairy tales are everywhere you want to look for them, if you follow their breadcrumbs; they are stories with a fairy-tale affect.  (A friend just gave me a tiny vintage baby doll head with elephant ears and a trunk for a nose: that’s a fairy tale too.)  Some of the key words to describe their techniques—which collapse and expand, disappear and transform, depending on author—are abstraction, realism, intuitive logic, depthlessness, and everyday magic.
It might do well to note what fairy tales are not: they are not, when you look at the thousands of variants of stories around the world, insider stories. They are not frothy stories of princesses getting saved and married. Some girls in the stories are princesses who get saved and married, but there are also boys who get saved and married, and girls who get married and eaten, and boys who get married and turned into dogs. There are three-headed men who eat too much, and old women who give birth to hedgehogs and love them. There are girls who are chopped up and carried in baskets and then put back together and live, who are saved by their sisters. There are boys who are foolish, and girls who are nasty, and kind stepmothers and wicked children. They are not whatever celebrity magazines in the grocery store claim when they announce the next “fairy-tale wedding,” unless you consider that often, such a headline is predictive of certain disaster, and you can count on a fairy tale to have certain disaster, even if it had a happy ending at last. Tolkien felt that the happy ending of a fairy tale was drastically underappreciated as an art form; I agree so much that I used his quote about that as the epigraph to my most recent novel, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold.
It’s important to note for readers who might not be aware–which is understandable since this is not much discussed by anyone but me, because I’m obsessed–that fairy tales come in all forms and styles; though every fairy tale will share the affect of fairy tales with other fairy tales, each fairy tale will reveal amplified and minimized fairy-tale techniques that suit its little, temporary author. Every fairy tale is a kind of humpty dumpty: it’s been taken apart and put back together again, by someone. We recognize fairy tales when we see them, though they always look a little bit . . . different. As examples of the variation: “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, a great suburban fairy tale, is very different from a much more abstract story actually called “Suburban Fairy Tale” by Katherine Mansfield; Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf” bears little resemblance in length, but shares in exquisite motifs, to the masterful, long Kathryn Davis novel of the same title.

4. What draws the adult reader to fairy tales, in your opinion?
Well, they are great fun to read, and smart, and peculiar, and difficult, and exciting, and they make you think and imagine.  Fairy tales perform all of the wonders of reading—through alchemy they bring the reader inside the story, where he seems pretty happy to live: “man and boy, sir, man and boy,” as the writer and fairy-tale enthusiast Lydia Millet’s father used to say (though he said it about smoking, not reading, but I like the phrase and I was challenged to use it publicly over drinks a couple of weeks ago, and I think it works here).  The saying means, of course, something enjoyed from childhood to adulthood, and/or passed down from adult to child, but I say “where he seems pretty happy to live” intentionally, and not he or she, beca
use I think men are discouraged from reading fairy tales by misinformation about what they are—again, they are not fragile-princess-gets-married stories at all.  And I find that some writers are afraid they won’t be considered serious authors if they admit to liking fairy tales, which is really sad and a sign of prejudice against them. Some writers have told me point blank that this is the reason for their declining my invitation to contribute to an edited book. There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs, which I am speculating about in a new essay.
Those many readers I meet who LOVE fairy tales–and they REALLY LOVE THEM–are usually proud to be in the know that in their early manifestations fairy tales were not intended for children, even though they often featured children, and over the years were rewritten to “teach” children (oddly). Retelling after retelling cannot shake them from those knotted and bottomless roots. The adult reader, as a “former child” (Andre Breton’s phrase) still has access to wonder. Thank goodness. Whenever I give a fairy-tale book to an adult to read, they are enchanted—I like playing fairy godmother this way, finding just the right book for this or that person, to reintroduce them to stories they have forgotten were so strange.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that he preferred fairy tales when he was older, because he could “put more into them, and thus get more out of them.”  I don’t know that I feel like that, but I’m glad that he did.

5.    How is the writing of fantasy/fairy tale books for children different than writing for adults? Is the quality of darkness the same, or do you lighten that for children?

Whatever I am working on at a given time—it simply makes a better or worse book for a particular age when it’s done. For me, sitting at the desk, the art of writing for children is no different from the art of writing for grown-ups at all. It takes exactly the same mind for me, that is to say the only one that I have (so far at least).

And alas! I have not been bestowed with the gift of ‘lightening’ things up, pretty much ever. But lots of children’s books don’t lighten things up. There are some pretty glum moments in Bread and Jam for Frances—those sad songs she sings to herself! She was the world’s first depressed little badger! And not-lightening, that’s why Goodnight Moon can give you the shivers though it’s hardly frightening to children.  “Goodnight nobody, goodnight air.” Heart-wrenching for me when I read it to my kid—that nothing beyond—it’s hard to read that with her in her pajamas, all beatific and cozy in bed, without tearing up, but I’m a sap.

My short stories for grown-ups are often considered quite dark—and I must say, I am not the cheeriest person. But I do keep things sparse, because I am easily frightened by my own language—this is how it may seem that I ‘lighten’ things up. I take things out of the sentences, but leave their shadow in there. That is, perhaps, a way of lightening, now that I think about it.

6.    I have to ask… What is the significance of the color pink in your latest collection?   
    Did I guess correctly that it has significance?

Thank you for asking this question. Pink is, indeed, often in Horse, Flower, Bird. I also have a new collection recently completed with many pink moments, including a story called “Pink Horse Tale” about a glass figurine.  This color also appears a lot in my novel trilogy about three sisters (Lucy, the happy sister, is literally enchanted by pink; Ketzia, the sad sister, once wears an awkward pink dress embroidered with little mice figures;  and Merry, the mean sister, denounces the color. ) 

I have a long history with the color pink; some but not all of it happy.  Associating pink with fairy tales specifically began with The Pink Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. It was the first one of his volumes I read. I chose it for the color of the cover of course, and it forever affixed the color pink to fairy tales. Pink itself wasn’t much of a factor in the stories themselves. But yet—it happened. The saying about looking at things through rose-colored glasses interested me as a kid; I didn’t understand what anyone meant by the saying but the idea of rose-colored glasses—a world where people looked through these—seemed amazing to me. As a child I named my bedroom “The Pink Palace.” Imagine my delight when as an adult I discovered that Joseph Cornell has an artwork of the same title.  I had a pink shag rug. I wanted very much to be a ballerina in large part because of the opportunity to wear pink toe shoes and tutus.  So, as with fairy tales, I was simply drawn in . . .

But a deep association between the color pink and my own fairy tales was set in stone when my dear friend, the poet Sarah Hannah, and I learned in high school via research that Sylvia Plath (who loved fairy tales) wrote the drafts of her poems on pink paper.  So Sarah and I began to write on pink paper too—fairy-tale poems—and sent each other pink gifts over the years after college (which we attended together): candles, stationery, t-shirts. She once mailed me two pink curtains.  When Sarah died I committed myself even more to pink fairy tales. The color, for me, represents, too the egregious belittlement of girls’ nursery rooms, which have been for a very long time one of the safe havens for fairy tales.

7.    I also saw the theme of the isolation/marginalization (is that a word?!) of women
    in your book. Is there a message you sought to convey, or is this the natural
    direction your writing took you?

Isolation is an interest of mine—that is, I like to think about it. Fairy tales isolate their characters; they’re pretty much always isolated from home or connection to family. The trilogy of novels is very much a meditation on isolation. The girls are isolated inside of books—as avid readers of fairy tales. And they are isolated as characters too: though they are unaware, much of their solitude has been the result of stigmatization. I am interested in how fairy tale characters are isolated from social community and must often fend for themselves—yet how the traditional tales escape tedious self-involvement (a selfish character in a fairy tale is frequently punished). The trilogy is, for me, the girls’ safety zone, but alas, a false one: a “little coffin of hope,” to borrow a phrase from novelist Timothy Schaffert. There is no innocent magic, as Kathryn Davis’s lovely blurb for the book suggests. And the details of fairy tales are isolated too.  In a room, like the room in my story “Whitework,” there are only a few things, just the essentials, what the story needs to go forth and continue: things are isolated in rooms and in stories, which is a technique, and it is not the same thing as minimalism.

I like your idea that the stories in Horse, Flower, Bird might seek to convey messages, via telepathy, or if you read the book backwards, or soaked it in water and put it out in the sun and saw which letters faded, leaving only a secret code that you then keyed into a locket that opened.  I’m often asked what meanings I am trying to conceal in my stories.  Truly I am always trying to write the most lucid and clear possible thing.

8.    Nicoletta Ceccoli illustrated your children’s book The Girl in the Castle Inside the
    Museum, and I see she’s illustrated many other works with fantasy/fairy tale
    elements. What drew you to her work?

I was introduced to Nicoletta’s work through my editor at Random
House, Anne Schwartz (of the brilliant team Schwartz & Wade). She invited Nicoletta to illustrate that story—and what a perfect invitation it was. When the first images arrived in the mail I got shivers; they’re gorgeous, haunting, strange, and very lonely, but not in the end, which is the whole idea of the book: that art can make you less lonely, that a book or picture is always your friend.  She got that—and our correspondence over the years since the book came out has been so meaningful to me. More to the point her work is just amazing, all of it. I had the honor of writing a foreword to a book of her adult art that just came out in France, called Beautiful Nightmares—I would love to collaborate with her again. Her work—like that of Mark Ryden, Ruby Osorio, Kiki Smith, Julie Heffernan, Rachel Feinstein, and many others—reveals the deep influence of fairy tales on contemporary art.

13.    Do you believe eBooks will eventually come to replace paper and glue books?

I’m fairly sure that the fairy-tale revival we’re seeing—which I have dedicated the past 15 years of my life to introducing to readers—has a lot to do with a great love of story books—that magical turning of pages—and will help to preserve them, at least for a while.

 14.   Are you alarmed by or accepting of the rapid rise of digital technology and
    electronic readers?

There are wonderful scholars of the book, and heroic archivists and librarians—such as Gary Frost of the University of Iowa, whom I saw speak last year at the Omaha Lit Fest—who are not alarmed, who are accepting, and I will go with them, since they’re experts in the history of books, and have dedicated their lives to books more selflessly than I have.

And as a fairy-tale author and reader, I’m made happy by the heightened awareness these technologies have brought to bear on theoretical questions of authenticity, originality, property, narrative distribution, replication, reproduction, and copies. Less worship of the individual hero—more appreciation for something that (gasp) may not be ‘original’—is nothing but good. Technological inventions have helped set the stage for us to look back and forward for fairy tales in thousands of versions, and appreciate these replications as art. I am kept awake worrying about extinction, but not of books. I think that we are returning to fairy tales in part because we wish for the alarming extinction to cease.

15.    What’s next for you? Are you working on anything presently?

Thanks for asking! I recently completed a collection of stories in the style of Horse, Flower, Bird and I am about to finish writing a novel about suicide based in part on Goodnight, Moon and other childhood favorites (boy, that sounds cheery). It is set largely at night in a park a lot like my favorite city park: Mt. Tabor in Portland, Oregon. I’m also working on a script with someone who is interested in optioning The Girl in The Castle inside The Museum for animation. Starting in June—when my lecturing and reading and teaching schedule winds down and I meet a few pressing deadlines, all wonderful but keeping me from the storybook desk—I am really looking forward to beginning a long series of classic fairy-tale retellings; these are not the stories I have ever approached for a number of reasons as an author—though I have as an editor and critic, of course. I feel, after fifteen-plus years of study, I am ready to set myself free upon them. 

Thank you for asking and for such wonderful questions on the whole—for caring about fairy tales.  Readers, please head to the library and take out some dusty old volumes, and ask your librarians to add specific fairy-tale books to the collection; some libraries allow patron donations of brand-new volumes, if you can afford that. Speaking of which, I have started a program, still in nascent stages, called the Fairy-Tale Repository—in an effort to gather forgotten fairy-tale books. Please check it out here:


An Interview with Samantha Hunt – Orange Prize Longlist Candidate




I wrote down a few thoughts about Samantha Hunt's Orange Prize Longlist title, The Seas, a few days ago. It blew me away, it was so wonderful.




Despite her incredibly busy schedule (including three children under age four!) Ms. Hunt very generously agreed to answer a few interview questions:


1.)        What inspired you to incorporate elements of fantasy/fairy tales into The Seas? Is this how you initially planned to write the novel, or did it develop as you wrote?

The novel is about identity and the creation of singular realities. Identity and reality are nothing without fantasy. Also, I was reading Undine at the time. In my copy, an old copy, a few pages were missing and so it seemed natural to begin rewriting her story.

2).        Are their special challenges inherent in writing a novel with fairy tale elements, or is it more freeing creating an alternate reality?

The only myth I felt bound by was the very strange idea that mermaids, the sexiest of the sexless, love men so much they want to kill them. That and the myth of a young girl’s identity in a small town that thinks it knows her.

 3).        Do you feel a special connection with the sea? Did you spend time there while writing or researching The Seas?

Is there a person ‑- including those who has never seen the ocean – who don’t have a special connection to the sea? It’s all mystery, all beauty, all terror, all the time. I studied shoreline in geology in college and lived in Maine for awhile but was actually in a land locked state when I wrote The Seas.

4).        Why did you choose not to give a name to the main character?  

At first it was simply because no name seemed to suit her and then I realized she had no name because she was looking for identity. How could she have one before she knew who she was?

5).        The grandfather is obsessed with typesetting, and at one point the main character falls onto some of the letters, embedding the impressions in her flesh. Why is the creation of words so important?

Along with music, it is one of the great joys, my favorite game.

6).        Do you keep a strict schedule for writing, or are you more a “when the spirit moves me” writer? Is there a physical location in which you prefer to write?

I have three children under the age of four and so I get two to three hours four times a week to write. I’m very strict. No computer so I won’t be tempted to google my fifth grade math teacher. I write long hand in the local library in a comfy chair.

7).        Were you a bookish child? Was there a standout book or writer who influenced your desire to be a writer?

I was a very bookish kid. I read, and still do, everything. I find it difficult, awkward, painful even, to sit at a table and not have reading material in front of me. I couldn’t choose one book or writer from childhood. There are too many: Norton Juster, Johnny Gruelle, Ul de Rico, Mary Rodgers, Robert Cormier, Liesel Moak Skorpen, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Tolkien are only a fraction of the writers who influenced me as a child.

8).        Have you read a book recently that you’d recommend?

I loved Tom McCarthy’s C. Magnificent. And for a kid’s book, Tao Nyeu’s Wonder Bear.

9).        Silly question, but how did it feel when you were nominated for the Orange Prize? How difficult is it to remain grounded in the midst of all the attention you’re getting for your writing?

It is magnificent and surprising. A fantastic honor to be grouped with these other wonderful books. I am so alone when I write that it still surprises me other people can see the words I scribbled down.

10).      What is your next project? Have you started it?

I am working, hoping soon to finish, a new project but as an extremely superstitious person, will say no more on that topic.


Other books by Samantha Hunt:

The Invention of Everything Else



Visit Samantha Hunt's website.

My interview with author A.J. Jacobs

Biblically In the beginning was the encyclopedia. Yea, verily. I looketh upon it with mine own eyes. And I saw that it was good. There was evening and morning whilst I readeth it. Then again, there’s evening and morning pretty much every day (unless you live really, really far north). But I digresseth.

A score of months later (give or take, who can count), came the Bible. It was fruitful. It multiplied. It cracketh me up. It restoreth my sense of humor. I laugheth, as it led me to the path of righteousness. Or not.

Yea, verily, I did then contact A.J., and he doth reply. I asketh, and he answereth. And here it is, now, for thine own eyes. Enjoyeth.

BSR:   It’s a little trite to ask you where on earth you come up with your book ideas, but where on earth do you come up with  your book ideas? What inspires (or possesses) you to embark on these incredibly ambitious projects?

AJJ:   Well, I love the idea of quests. But I’m not much of an outdoor person, so I don’t see myself climbing K2 or doing the Iditarod race. So my quests tend to be intellectual or spiritual. Things I can do without getting frostbite. I also like taking things to the extreme. So I figure, if I’m interested in religion, why not go all the way – live the entire Bible – and see what works? And I love first-person writing. I love to read it and I love to write it. If it’s done well, it can be like you’re right there with the author on the journey.

BSR:  Out of all the trials and tribulations from your biblical year, what was the toughest thing you endured? And, by the way, did you get to keep the slave?

AJJ:   I’d say there were two parts that were the toughest. There was the attempt to avoid the little sins we all commit every day – the lying, the coveting, the gossiping. I live in New York and work for the media. So that was pretty much 75 percent of my day. The second tough part was trying to obey laws that will get you into a little trouble if you follow them in 21st century America. Like stoning adulterers. Or owning a slave. (For slavery, the closest thing I could find was a summer intern. He was great. But he had to go back to college.

BSR:   With three little ones at home and what I presume is a full-time writing job, how do you find time to write your books, much less do the extensive research?

AJJ:   I am having a tough time.

My sons haven’t embraced the distinction between work hours and play hours. Right now, I’m working about 16 hours a day, and getting about two hours of actual work done, because my kids come into my office every three minutes to have an important discussion about bananas or Dora the Explorer. So I don’t think I’ve mastered the balance yet.

My only trick is that I try not to waste a single second. I don’t let my mind wander too often. If I’m going around the corner to get a bunch of grapes (as I had to do today), I try to have something specific to think about while I’m walking. A little project. Like, what headline an article should have. Or a list of people I’d like to profile for Esquire.

BSR:   Have you ever given thought to writing fiction, or actually, have you ever written fiction?

AJJ:   I’ve dabbled a couple of times. But I just don’t think I’m built for it. Even in my reading choices I tend toward nonfiction. When I was young, I remember reading Tom Wolfe talking about how nonfiction – when it’s written in a vibrant way – is more compelling than fiction. So that really influenced me. Then he decides to write nothing but fiction. So I don’t know where that leaves me.

BSR:   What are you reading lately? Anything you’d recommend?

AJJ:   I wish my friends would stop writing good books. I keep feeling compelled to read them. My friend Jennifer Traig wrote a book about hypochondria called Well Enough Alone, which will be out later this year. Also, though he’s not a friend, I’m in the middle of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. I loved the description of Manhattan before people came in, plowed the hills down, and put up a Duane Read drugstore on every block.

BSR:   What on earth (or heaven) is next for you after a year spent following the Bible?

AJJ:   Well, my wife says I owe her after all I put her through with the encyclopedia and Bible projects. She’s pressuring me to to The Year of Giving My Wife Foot Massages. But I’m not sure how mass the appeal would be. But I do want to do one more of the immersion projects.

BSR:  Finally, for someone whose writing ambition is to follow the same sort of path you have, what advice would you give?

AJJ:   I’m worried my advice will be stuff they’ve heard before. I don’t have any huge original secrets like "use more umlauts." To me, the most important thing, I think, is just to generate ideas nonstop. Be an idea machine. Because rarely – especially when you’re starting out – will someone assign you a book or a freelance article. You have to pitch relentlessly. And second, over-report. Especially if you’re describing a scene. Write down every detail, even the ones that seem trivial – the sound of American Gladiators playing in the background, for instance. You never know what you’ll end up using .

Blesseth thee, A.J. Jacobs. I hath enjoyed this very much. Verily, verily much, I say unto theeBiblically2.

P.S.: This before/after will never stop crackething (?) me up.

An Interview with Literary Essayist (and endearing curmudgeon) Arthur Krystal

Do pop by and have a look at my interview with essayist Arthur Krystal. He’s such a delight.

Krystal His latest book, The Half-Life of the American Essayist, is a read I’d recommend very highly to those who, like me, enjoy the literary essay.

If you care about literature and the fate of the literary essay make sure you "vote" for them via your pocketbook. It’s  a genre that’s imperiled at the least, possibly even endangered, and we don’t need to lose any more of these gems than we already have.

Publishers aren’t willing to risk much money on genres that don’t sell boatloads of books. And these essays fall into that category.

We all know newspapers are cutting back their books sections, but you may not realize how difficult it actually is to get a book of literary essays published. Those who care about the fate of serious literature need to dig in their heels now, before we lose anything else we can’t afford to.

And I don’t think we can afford to lose the Arthur Krystals of the world.

Guest Blogger This Week: Lisa Adams, co-author of ‘Why We Read What We Read’


I’m thrilled to hand over my forum to Lisa Adams this week, co-author along with John Heath, of the recent wonderful book about current bestselling books and why people read them. Lisa will be guest posting on Wednesday and Friday.

To kick things off, here is an interview I conducted with Lisa. If this whets your appetite, you can visit her website and learn more about the book. The authors also maintain a blog featuring lots more updates on subjects related to books and reading. Check it out!

LG: What inspired you to write ‘Why We Read What We Read?’ What message do you hope readers will take away, after reading it?

LA: We wrote Why We Read What We Read because we were just plain curious about bestsellers and reading habits. We knew the titles of many bestsellers and had even read some, but we noticed that our own reading did not correlate very well with the official lists. (Man, has THAT changed!) What were we missing? What has America been interested in, and how in or out of touch were we? We really had no clue about the overall picture—the kinds of books people were reading, or how they tied together across genres. And what we found was so shocking, dismaying and hilarious all at once that we just had to share.

Mainly, we want readers to learn a bit about what’s going on out there in American bestsellers and have a fun time doing it. Most previous books on bestsellers have been scholarly and straightforward, but that just wouldn’t do for silly people like us. We wanted the book to be entertaining in its own right, so we had to go for spunky and irreverent. And we certainly hope people enjoy that.

Buried in the spunkiness, though, is a serious message: the way we are reading is actually pretty dangerous from a democratic perspective. When you have a whole society of people choosing to read books that attempt to deny/eliminate complexity and confirm what readers already believe, you don’t end up with a community that knows how to discuss or resolve real-world problems. It actually does matter if, how, and why we read.

LG: How long did it take to research such an ambitious, informative book?

LA: We started working on the book in spring of 2003. We were all gleeful and excited and so we began our research and wrote the first few chapters over a period of several months.

That’s about the time we realized we had made a serious mistake in writing a time-sensitive book. Our chapters were pure genius (we agreed on that), yet wicked people kept putting out more bestsellers, thus requiring us almost daily to alter our brilliant prose! We knew we had two choices: 1) finish the dang thing, or 2) spend our lives rewriting it.

Or did we? We opted for hidden choice #3: seeing if anyone was actually interested in publishing our book. When we got our contract with Sourcebooks, we had six weeks to write the last three chapters! We had tried to keep up with our reading, but Lisa still had to read something like 30 novels last December. And John had to read another book by Ann Coulter. It was insane, but at least it stopped the endless revising.

So, concept to publication, it took about three and a half years.

LG: Was it difficult collaborating on this project?

LA: After the first year it became increasingly difficult to work together, since we had each taken out a restraining order on the other.

No, seriously, it was so much easier than either of us expected. As writers we have different strengths, but they both work well in a silly, snarky book like this one. We knew the style and structure we wanted. So the collaboration was great. For each section, one of us would take a stab at a first draft, and the other would then edit. Sure, we had our disagreements over various words and passages, but one of us always managed to intimidate the other into submission. The collaboration worked because each of us genuinely appreciated what the other person brought to the book, and in the end it was better than it would have been had either of us gone solo.

LG: What’s your background? How did you come to be so interested in the subjects of books and reading?

LA: No secret here: we’re just big nerds. We’ve always been book-lovers. John’s a nerdy literature professor, and Lisa is a nerdy writer and a nerdy writing instructor. Even our dog is nerdy, constantly pointing out passages in Marley and Me in a vain effort to prove she could be worse. We fantasize about having our own library all the time.

But we’re also fascinated by American culture. We kept hearing people talking at social events about the books they were reading, and we started to wonder how much their choices overlapped with our own and those of the majority of Americans.

LG: Which authors do you admire? What books have most shaped your life?

John: Although there have been numerous books, both novels and non-fiction, that have been influential, it’s more a matter of style and tone. The authors who first made me want to read, and especially write, were the great New Yorker authors of the 20s and 30s: White, Thurber, Parker, and Benchley, as well as the biting wit of Mencken. Clearly I’m hopelessly out of date, which is why Why We Read What We Read was such an eye-opener.
Lisa: I remember lying face-down on my bed as a kid, sobbing my eyes out because Mary—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s snotty sister, who happened to be my favorite character in the Little House on the Prairie books—had just gone blind. Though I had always loved books, I think it was at that moment that I realized how real they were to me. They’ve always been part of my life, my thinking. Nowadays I love just about anything that is both beautifully crafted and thematically compelling. The topic or genre isn’t as important as the construction of the language and the exploration of the characters and/or ideas.

LG: Is there anything you’ve read this year that’s been particularly impressive, and that you’d recommend?

LA: Since we’ve mainly been keeping up with the bestseller lists this year, we probably haven’t come across too many hidden gems—but we quite enjoyed The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr (a surprisingly fascinating book about the science of smell).

LG: What sort of writing schedule do you keep? Are you disciplined about it, and how do you balance life and writing?

LA: Oh man. We wish we could say we write every day, but that’s not even close to true. The ironic thing is, as wonderful as it is to get published, the revisions, editing, and post-publication PR kind of suck up all the time and energy that you’d normally put in to writing. So that’s mainly what we’ve been doing this year. In general, we both have flexible jobs, but not a whole lot of spare time. We simply try to write as much as we can, taking advantage of the windows of opportunity that open. And, of course, we play the lottery.

LG: What writing projects are you working on now? What’s next for the both of you?

LA: Prepare for a freakishly eclectic list!

Right now we are starting work on a vocabulary textbook for middle schools, to be followed by a romantic comedy screenplay. (Yes, two great tastes that go great together.) Then separately, we’ve always got various works in progress. John co-writes musical plays for elementary school classrooms and is working on a book about the ancient Greek tragic vision (fun stuff!), while Lisa is chipping away at her adult and juvenile fiction.