An interview with former poet laureate Billy Collins

Interview With Poet Laureate Billy Collins

Billy Collins

I had the pleasure of interviewing former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins via telephone. Mr. Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate, from 2001 – 2003. He was also selected as New York State Poet for 2004.

Billy Collins has published several collections of poetry (bibliography below, from wikipedia.com), and he’s been included in many anthologies.

LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

BC: I was not only an avid reader but I used to pretend to read before I could read. I was an only child and that lead to a very rich reading life. When my parents would have people over I would pretend to be reading. I would have an encyclopedia on my lap and I’d pretend to be reading it. I knew which way to turn it because of the pictures.

Later, when I was able to read, I read all the Hardy boys, and the Albert Payson Terhune books about Lad and Lassie. They’re basically all the same story, with the names changed. I read Black Beauty and The Yearling. Those I read a number of times and had them read to me.

My parents didn’t have a TV until everyone else had a TV. We had the collected Dickens in the house, and my mother said, half-jokingly, if I read all of Dickens we could get a TV. I didn’t read all of Dickens.

Mother Goose is the original inspiration for all poets. That’s where they get an idea of rhythm and rhyme. My mother had memorized a lot of poetry as a schoolgirl. She went to a rural school in Ontario, Canada. She housed hundreds and hundreds of lines of poetry. If any occasion arose she’d have a few lines of poetry about it.

LG: When did you start writing poetry?

BC: I don’t think anyone escapes childhood, or adolescence, without writing some really horrible, usually lovesick, poetry, poems of a misunderstood adolescent who was convinced no one in the course of history had ever felt this way before.

I didn’t write my first book until I was in my 40s. It took me a long time to figure it out, or find my voice, or combine these different influences so it sounded like me. I was writing all along, kind of on the side. I went to grad school and began teaching literature in college. I’ve been doing that most of my life. I used to be a professor who wrote poetry. Now I’m a poet who happens to be a professor.

LG: How many hours a day do you write? Do you keep a strict schedule?

BC: I have no work habits whatsoever. I don’t write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don’t sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch.

LG: That sounds a lot different than writing fiction.

BC: It is very different from fiction writing. As Hemingway said you always knock off for the day in the middle of a scene, but poets have to restart themselves all the time. Poets return much more often to the blank page.

I heard about a survey once, the results of which are poets are more inclined to suicide because of the anxiety of starting afresh. Depression visits poets more frequently. You can write a lyric poem in a couple of hours. You don’t know if the next poem will start the next hour or a month from now. Poetry’s known for its brevity, but that’s also the bad news for writers.

LG: Do you do a lot of re-writing?

BC: Less and less. I try to make it right the first time. The conceptual journey of the poetry is all done in one sitting, from beginning to middle to end. I hardly ever change the movement of the poem as it navigates itself. What I do change are matters of rhythm and sound, finding an adjective. But I never go back and say this is all wrong.

LG: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

BC: I write with a pencil, always longhand. I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid. I put it on the computer at the very last minute, when I think it’s done. On the computer it looks fixed in place and it’s pretty much done. When you put it on a computer you see what it looks like. The look of prose is irrelevant, but the poem has a shape to it which is the result of line breaks and stanza breaks, so you can see what you couldn’t see with the pencil. Shapeliness is one of the attractive aspects of poetry. When I get it on the screen I do some shaping to make it look right.

LG: Do any other genres, besides poetry, appeal to you?

BC: Not really. I think it’s sort of like in music. It’s enough to be able to play one fairly well. That’s the question musicians never get, do you play any other instruments.

I write some prose, I write essays on poetry. Criticism. I wouldn’t know what I was doing if I wrote a short story.

LG: What writers have influenced you the most?

BC: That’s a tough question. There are too many to name. It’s not even clear the degree of influence. Often people will spout names like Yeats, Coleridge, etc., but I think these are flags of convenience. It’s hard to think of something that hasn’t influenced me, positively or negatively.

I’ve taught literature in college for so many years. Every semester I re-read Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Marvel. I read them all semester after semester.

What I think of as an influence is a poet who makes you jealous. It’s a polite way of saying other writers inflame you with jealousy. Driven by a jealous rage you go off and try to write something like that, or try to steal from them in order to exact revenge.

LG: I’ve read that you consider your poetry to be “hospitable,” which some refer to as accessible. How do you distinguish between hospitable and poetry that’s considered difficult or obscure?

BC: I think I discovered that you can write clearly in clear language and still have access to areas of great mystery. To write doesn’t mean to get stuck on a literal level. There are poets who follow etiquette. I write in sentences. I use standard punctuation, beginning with a standard note the reader can identify with. Once that engagement is made the poet can head off in less familiar directions and take the reader on an imaginative journey in which the writer doesn’t know where he’s going.

A poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery, if a poet is able to understand that distinction and knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. It’s important to know which cards to turn over, and which to leave face down. In the worst poetry all the cards are face down.

LG: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

BC: I play the piano. I have a dog I’m obsessed with.

LG: What kind of dog?

BC: She’s a mutt, mostly collie. It goes back to those Albert Payson Terhune books. I live in New York City, on the Hudson River in the Village. That’s a good opportunity for walking.

LG: What projects are you working on currently?

BC: I’m finishing a manuscript but I don’t know if it’s done yet. I think the publisher would like it but I’m not sure it’s ready. I don’t want to rush it into print. I don’t know how many aces I have.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

BC: That goes back to that influence question. Just read. Find poets that make you jealous. The only hope you have in what would be called originality is through a process of imitation. It’s a matter of getting rid of the young poet’s delusion that your experiences are so original that you’re going to announce this in original language. What inspires poetry is poetry. It’s not the muse. It’s not nature. It’s not emotion. It’s other poetry that inspires poetry. When you write poetry you’re adding your voice to this long historic voice. You need to listen to these for a long time before you even know what your voice would possibly add. Read widely and quickly. Don’t waste your time on poetry that doesn’t talk to you.

LG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BC: Thank you.

Special thanks to Steven Barclay, of Steven Barclay Agency, for putting me in touch with Mr. Collins, and to Billy Collins, for his generosity in granting the interview.

A Sunday Commonplace

Books mentioned in this post:

Purchases:

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Novel by Alfonso Zapico

Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss by Donald E. Pease

Review copies:

Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan

He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell

Up Soon in Reading:

The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors – The Story of a Literary Family by Juliet Barker

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton (NYRB)

Etc.

 

Sampling.

Sampling.

 

Loads of overtime hours this week: 14, to be precise. Overtime means time and a half, and time and a half means money I’m lusting to spend. A responsible adult, I realize no money should be squandered, which is why I wasted none of it on groceries or rent. As long as there’s money jingling in the buy one, get one Egg McMuffin fund, I see no problem here.

It was a bookwhorish week dreams are made of, both purchased and review books hitting the doorstep with a frequency impressing even me, no stranger to One Click frenzies – the nerdy equivalent of drunk dialing. But books arriving unbidden, oh GOD what a beautiful thing.

It’s best when you don’t anticipate them coming, in a way. Don’t you agree? Slavering for the UPS man is all well and good, but boxes hitting the front door after you’ve torn up the stairs to find a dark place to sit and stroke your new presshussses, well that’s the equivalent of God leaning down and whispering he exists and has a place for you after all, despite all your atheistic snark.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is one of the Booker nominees I spoke of a mere couple days ago. It’s the easiest Shortlist title attainable, so I snatched it. Levy’s Hot Milk, Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Moshfeh’s Eileen (PEN Hemingway winner) are available now; Szalay’s All That Man Is and Graeme MaCrae Burne’s His Bloody Project are due in early October.

Resist, Amazon one click finger. Mama has bills.

I’ve paged through Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance during Barnes & Noble lurks, but never properly read it. Scoring one of the wingback chairs on my last visit, settled into read the first four or five pages and my hands couldn’t let go. A portrait of the economically depressed South that’s also home to my family, it appeals to my great need for an empathetic portrayal of my roots.

“There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.” – J.D. Vance

 

Next up: a graphic books.  No good reason I haven’t read more save the old complaint about that thief time.  James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner – A Graphic Biography leapt off the shelf and hit me in the head. No hesitation; this book was mine.

In 2014 I visited a Dublin bursting with echoes of Joyce. Of course I made a vow to read more of his work, and of course I haven’t since. Goodbye, guilt and hello to a genre I’ve neglected, all in one go.

Bargains!:

The Literature Book by James Canton– $ 1.99

The Harvard Classics in a Year: A Liberal Education in 365 Days – $ 2.51

The Yellow Room by Mary R. Rinehart – $ 1.99

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick – $ 1.99

Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties by Rachel Cooke – $1.99

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym – $ 1.99

 

As much out of left field as the graphic bio, Theodor Geisel: A Portrait of the Man Who Became Dr. Seuss happened. Ironic it’s another literary biography with A Portrait in the title. It’s like Barnes & Noble had a plan for me, like they’ve been stalking me. Looks like it worked.

Now, the review books – bookwhore crack that didn’t make my credit card scream in agony.

Atticus sent me two: Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown Ups by Christopher DeWan and He Comes in Fire by Aaron R. Even, both of which are completely unknown to me – books and authors.

Kevin Brockmeier, a writer I met a few years ago and whose writing takes my breath away, had this to say about Hoopty:

Hoopty Time Machines is much like a bag of M&M’s, in that it’s nearly impossible, once you’ve opened it, not to consume it down to the last morsel, and fast. It is less like a bag of M&M’s in that you never know what you’ll find beneath the candy coating: a peanut or an amphetamine, a rosary bead or a thumbtack.” –Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination

A bit baffled by Aaron R. Even. He’s not coming up on Amazon searches. Seldom do I make time for writers with no creds, no blurbs by authors I respect. This one’s described as Southern gothic, an appealing term. Nevertheless, it’s a descriptive thrown around liberally, seemingly by those who have no idea of the true meaning – or less about the meaning than profit margins.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Atticus books feeding my sickness.

Two books I’m wildly excited about are also freebies:

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride and A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell. I hang out with Matt on FB, share taste in beer, and was floored by his 2015 Scrapper. I hadn’t yet worked up to asking him up for a review copy; it’s like his publisher read my mind.

FREAKY.

And Eimear McBride. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book which left me conflicted, but ultimately impressed. I said in my review I’d gladly read more of her work. I’m getting that chance.

I was going to write about current reads, but covering this week’s literary immigration into my apartment exhausted me. Disclosure: at least three others didn’t make this report. They were late night One Clickers that haven’t arrived yet, bless their papery hearts. Next time.

Always next time.

Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge

whatharrietsaid

Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge * Virago Press * Intro by Linda Grant c. 2012 * Originally published 1972 – Duckworth

 

A chilling tale, Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge explores the dark side of adolescence, the very particular point at which childhood morphs into sexual awakening. Two 13-year old girls: thin and lovely Harriet, and an unnamed pudgy and unattractive narrator who’s never named, live in Merseyside. Returned from boarding school, the narrator resumes her traditional role as sidekick and adorer of the beautiful Harriet, groomed to serve and carry out the whims of her friend.

Desperate to keep her friendship and approval, the unattractive girl would do absolutely anything. Slave to her idolatry, the narrator cannot oppose the prettier girl. Even when she determines to defy her, one look a the girl’s pretty face stops her in her tracks. She becomes powerless.

Following what Bainbridge subtly depicts as the sexual assault of Harriet, the girl turns into a menacing, creeping creature bent on wreaking as much havoc as possible by leading men astray. Her particular prey is a 56-year old man the two girls refer to as “the Tsar,” a man named Mr. Biggs who lives in their village.

By no means faultless, the Tsar is goaded into beginning an affair of sorts with the narrator. Alternately teasing and ridiculing him, the two girls arrange to meet him in out of the way places, presenting him with the opportunity to engage in lascivious behavior with the child. And when he takes the bait, that’s when Harriet’s true evil rises to the surface.

The two perpetrate increasingly horrendous acts on both Mr. Biggs and his wife, a hulking figure of a woman who sees right through them. The cruelty and level of cunning accelerates as the narrator is persuaded to take the baiting even further.

 

“Harriet spoke in the same reasonable way she talked to her mother.

‘At thirteen there is very little you can expect to salvage from loving someone than experience. You’ll go back to school for years, you’ll wear a gym tunic long after this is over… And all he’ll feel for you is a sort of gentle nostalgia. No – bring it to its logical conclusion. If you don’t you’ll feel emotional for ages over something that was pretty trivial.’

‘But what if we find it’s not trivial?’ I was appalled by the wisdom of us both. It seemed unnatural. Why had I not noticed it before?

 

I knew the book would be dark, but had no idea to what extent. The horror is paced well, building to the inevitable and brutal end by degrees. The thing is, I cannot say much more about the plot without risking the spoiling of it. The book’s quite short, at 175 pages, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for discussion without giving too much away.

I thought it was brilliantly done, though I enjoy dark writing. I’ve read other Bainbridge, though it’s been several years, and I remember her other stuff is similar to Harriet Said… I expect it’s something you either like or don’t. I fall quite firmly into the like camp.

Stories about the potential for brutality in adolescents aren’t rare. If you’ve been 13 you’ll understand why. It can be a nasty age, with all those hormones raging. Of course, not everyone is Harriet – and thank God for that.

It’s at this age children become narcissistic, rebellious and downright nasty – to different degrees, of course, and not universally but to a large extent. Thankfully, for most it’s a phase. Just sometimes, it’s taken to a fatal extreme. It’s in this dark place Bainbridge set this novel.

A dark delight, once started it demands you don’t put it down. Morbid fascination carries the reader along to the end we both know and hope isn’t inevitable. And Bainbridge does not flinch. She takes it to the bitter end, all innocence lost.

Now I know why I’d meant to get back to her writing. I enjoy the shiver of it, the dark recesses of wickedness. A wonderful short novel. Highly recommended.

Baileys Longlist 2016: Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The Secret Chord’

baileysprize2016

 

The addition of Geraldine Brooks to this year’s Baileys Prize longlist gives Australia yet more reason to cheer. And well it should. Its prodigious literary talent has never been in doubt, but it’s wonderful seeing it recognized so enthusiastically.

 

quotesI was a news reporter for 16 years, seven of them a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. Perhaps the most useful equipment I acquired in that time is a lack of preciousness about the act of writing. A reporter must write. There must be a story. The mot juste unarriving? Tell that to your desk.

  • Geraldine Brooks

 

Brooks, awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, is married to fellow author/journalist Tony Horwitz, with whom she won the Overseas Press Club Award for best coverage of the Gulf War. A past reporter for the The Sydney Morning Herald, she has also written for The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and The New Yorker.

The Secret Chord is her fifth novel.

 

thesecretcord

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; First edition (October 6, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670025771
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670025770

Geraldine Brooks is one of that very rare breed of writers capable of penning both bestselling and literary novels. The two seldom go hand in hand. Popular very rarely means writing of great merit. From her take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women  in March to her current work centered on the life of the biblical King David, you can’t say the woman doesn’t have incredible reach.

I’m not sure there’s anything this woman can’t write, including the story of a Jewish king. Raised a Roman Catholic, Brooks converted to Judaism following her marriage to the Jewish Horwitz. “I am interested in places where the historical record has voids and silences” she wrote in an interview with Moment Magazine, “The only way to fill those is by imagination.”

If there’s one thing Geraldine Brooks does not lack, it’s imagination.

quotes
With more than two million copies of her novels sold, New York Times bestselling author Geraldine Brooks has achieved both popular and critical acclaim. Now, Brooks takes on one of literature’s richest and most enigmatic figures: a man who shimmers between history and legend. Peeling away the myth to bring David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.

 

An interview with Geraldine Brooks:

Can’t get enough Australian lit? Check out this list of 50 Must Read Australian Novels via Booktopia.com.au.

an evening with irvine welsh and jessa crispin, the bookslut

chflogoI’m a bit miffed the moniker “bookslut” belongs to another. Jessa Crispin got to it first, growing from blogger to literary phenomenon by virtue of honest labor. It describes me so aptly, but it’s very much engaged.

Always a bridesmaid.

I could be more involved in the Chicago literary scene. There are opportunities. Remind me next time I take aim at others who’ve done the work and gone the distance. Shut up and just do it, for Chrissake. Blaze your own, etc.

 

Irving Welsh, in conversation with Jessa Crispin

Irving Welsh, in conversation with Jessa Crispin

Take the Chicago Humanities Festival. I attended an event this evening at Bottom Lounge, a conversation with Jessa Crispin and Scottish author turned ex-pat Irvine Welsh. The CHF offers loads of opportunities to volunteer, and it’s but one of several.

Bottom Lounge is located under the L tracks on Lake Street in Chicago, where it’s been in operation since 2008. A popular local indie concert venue, it also hosts events such as this evening’s.

 

bottomlounge2

 

I’m not at all familiar with this area of Chicago, so I arrived two hours early.  Yes, that felt every bit as weird and uncomfortable as you’d expect. It’s the city, and it’s for cool people. I live in the suburbs, the poor cousin wearing overalls, sucking on straw. Downright embarrassing.

Like a creepy stranger cruising streets looking for vulnerable kids, I felt like a low-life sitting there alone. Keeping my head down, I ostentatiously scribbled away in a review book to look Very Busy Indeed, every few minutes checking my cell phone as if some imaginary person I was meeting hadn’t yet shown.

Inside, turns out it’s an actual restaurant with tables and a bar and normalcy. Imagine. It’s a funky part Deco, part industrial chic comfortable little place. I can imagine it lit up with musical energy, but it’s equally appropriate for literary events.

 

chfirvinewelsh

 

Author/journalist Jessa Crispin, Bookslut, lead the discussion with Welsh. She asked him about continuity in his work, characters who made re-appearances in his novels. Characters are like a set of tools, he told her. When you have a theme, there they are, in your toolbox ready to go. His book Porno, sequel to Trainspotting, was prime example. Porno‘s being adapted to film this year, important to note.

 

quotesA selfish bastard’s game, writing is.

– Irvine Welsh

 

Of all they discussed, perhaps the most intriguing was how the novel of the working class has fared in this era of political correctness. “When you don’t portray marginalized people as victims, you have problems, ” said Welsh. Because “that’s not how things should operate.”

This is an age of great change.  It’s important to note, Welsh reminded, this is the first time in American history in which children will not do better than their parents. Crippled by the debt of a university education, parents mortgage their homes for children who have no guarantee that degree will ever pay them a dime. It’s a terrible situation, in which “drugs fill the vacuum.” The kids should tell their parents “fuck the degree, just give me the money!”

And he has a point.

First coming to America in his 20s, life now is far different for the ex-pat author. It’s social media that’s made the difference. It’s like he never left home, he said. With social media everything is immediate. You never miss a moment.

 

Translation: "Lisa, I'm not fucking Rankin!" Irvine Welsh

Translation: “Lisa, I’m not fucking Rankin!” Irvine Welsh

 

As for the usual question “what is your process,” for Welsh it’s a matter of “mixing it up.” Used to be, the image of the writer meant solitude, plugging away through the night. It doesn’t allow for life, not to mention a family, yet the 9 – 5:00 is too much like every other sort of work.  The answer: visit coffee shops, sometimes work at home, but sometimes go away, check into a hotel and refuse to leave until you’ve produced something.

If all else fails, he has a plastic dalek on his desk to scream, “Exterminate!” when he can’t think of anything.

I like this man.

I’ll end with a video I took, from the reading he did of his new book A Decent Ride. So much fun, so much profanity. Did I mention so much fun?

Thank you, Chicago Humanities Festival and Jessa Crispin. Thank you and I’m so sorry I was creepy, Bottom Lounge.

Thank you to Irvine Welsh, as well, for humoUring my strange inscription request.

And to all a good night.

Enjoy.

interview with edwidge danticat, author of ‘Untwine’

  • untwine.
    .
    • Age Range: 12 and up
    • Grade Level: 7 and up
    • Hardcover: 320 pages
    • Publisher: Scholastic Press (September 29, 2015)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0545423031
    • ISBN-13: 978-054542303

    .

    .

     Edwidge Danticat’s latest novel Untwined explores the relationship between teenage twins Giselle and Isabelle Boyer, daughters of divorcing parents. When the family is involved in a tragic car accident, one of the twins is killed. At first, the family believes it’s Isabelle who has died – Isabelle the talented musician, whose recital the family was headed to at the time of the accident. Once Giselle is able to communicate, the family learns they had mixed up the two girls. Beset by terrible guilt, Giselle must face the fact of her survival, simultaneously coming to grips with the loss of the one person she was closest to in the world.
    .
    .
     I interviewed Edwidge Danticat shortly after the publication of her new book, written for a YA audience.
    .
    ,
    LG:    What triggered your interest in writing about twins? Do they share a universal bond unique to them, setting them apart from siblings who are not twins?
    .
    ED:   Twins have always intrigued me, particular twin mythology, from the Ancient Greeks to what twins mean in my home culture, Haitian culture. I had twin neighbors when I was growing up in Haiti and people were very careful not to upset them, because their very special bond was believed to be a kind of power. I always thought that was amazing. There are twins now in my family and in my close circle of friends and I see how their closeness is a gift to them, how having someone who is just like you and loves you and understands you super well is really amazing. From the outside it looks like they have an incredible bond, but maybe I’m over
    idealizing. I know there are also twins who are separated at birth and never meet and other twins who hate each other.
    .
    .
    LG:   Having two daughters of your own, did you draw from their lives in creating these characters?
    .
    ED:   My daughters are still rather young. They’re not even tweens yet, but I did borrow some moments from their childhood to use as parts of the twins’ lives and memories of when they were younger. I also drew from observing interactions between the twins in my life, whom I adore.
    .
    .
    LG:  Why did you aim Untwine at a YA audience?
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    ED:   I wrote it with young adults in mind because the characters are teenagers throughout the whole book. I supposed if the book extended to their lives, or one twin’s life, as a woman then I would have reconsidered. I do think though that this is a book adults can also read and enjoy.
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    LG:  How is it different writing for a YA audience? Are there challenges specific to books geared toward them?
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    ED:   There was really no big difference for me between writing this book and writing my other books. When you write a first person narrator, you always have the challenge of trying to sound like that person, whether she is 16 or 86. In this case, what was most challenging for me was trying to sound like a sixteen-year-old young woman. But I have written about people in the first person before who are not like me. You just have to channel that person and find some way to get to know them inside out so that you can write in that voice.
    .
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    LG:   The absence of parents, or a united parental influence, is frequently employed in writing for this age group. Is the estrangement between the parents an intentional device following this common theme and how does it enhance the plot’s dynamic?
    .
    ED:   I really wasn’t thinking about it like that. What was most interesting to me was exploring the fact that the mother is someone who had children—twins on top of it—at a very young age and is now trying to figure out what to do with her life, as her children are getting older. I understand why in these types of books the writers might want to give the teens the full story and put the parents in the margins, but I really wanted to integrate the parents’ love as well as their issues and make them part of the story.
    .
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    LG:   Who are the most influential young adult writers today? Any you particularly admire?
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    ED:   There are so many wonderful ones. Jacqueline Woodson is a favorite. I went to Brown University with Jandy Nelson, who is amazing. She’s tackled twins in a powerful way in I’ll Give You The Sun. My oldest daughter is also madly in love with the books of Christopher Paul
    Curtis. But now a classic that I read when I was a kid and reread every now and then is Rosa Guy’s The Friends. It was the first young adult book I read that featured Caribbean characters.
    .
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    LG:   Are young people reading quality writing these days? Do you have any concerns the Internet, social media in particular, is or will supplant reading for this demographic?
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    ED:   There is so much quality writing specifically for young adults these days. And of course all the classics and other books young people might also read. There were probably always things to distract us from reading, if we don’t want to read. The young people in my life who are voracious readers seem to somehow manage to balance the internet and all of these other things out there and I don’t think they’re the only ones.
    .
    .
    LG:    You write from the perspective of Americans of Haitian descent, an ancestry you share. Do you believe a writer should “write what they know,” are more effective slanting their writing toward their own background?
    .
    ED:   I think people should write whatever they want. You don’t necessarily have to write what you know, as long as you put in the work and don’t just rehash stereotypes. Of course if you’re going to write beyond your regular field of knowledge or experience, you might have to do some research, which is also a great way of opening up your world and learning something
    new.
    .
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    LG:   What’s up next for you? Have you begun another book and will it be for an adult or young adult audience?
    .
    ED:   I am working on a nonfiction book about the art of writing about death and how some writers have done it. It will have some personal reflections as well. It’s not going to be labeled a young adult book, but I think everyone will be able to read it.
    .

    .

edwidgedanticat

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American novelist and short story writer. Among her numerous awards, she won the NBCC Award for her 2007 memoir Brother, I’m Dying.  Oprah’s Book Club chose to read her first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1998 and she has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellows Genius Grant.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

 

Kafkaesque, actually

 

 

There’s a certain thematic consonance to my reading last evening and this morning, inadvertent though it was.

Denis Johnson’s ‘The Angels,’ the tale of two people from the fringes of society – a young mother escaping from her marriage and a former Navy serviceman drinking his aimless way across the country – who share oddly disjointed experiences, both together and apart, has proven remarkably similar in tone and style to my other read: ‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka.

What connects the two is the ubiquitous “Kafkaesque” nature of dreamlike prose, as well as the terrifying nature of seemingly random, often threatening, happenings which cannot always be explained logically.

I certainly didn’t pair these two intentionally, yet having done so sets up its own Kafkaesque serendipity.

Curiouser and curiouser.

I enjoy darkly psychological examinations of the mind, fiction exploring humanity through a Baroque lens. Things which are disturbing jerk us out of our zone of comfort, our safe little worlds. The reminder is what we believe to be static is anything but.

At any moment, what you believe you are seeing can turn, ever so fractionally, revealing the angel to be a monster. Or the monster, an angel.

Don’t get too comfortable. You never know when you might have to move.

Perhaps very quickly.

 

Review, Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe

deathbywater

Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe brings the novelist career of his literary alter-ego, Kogito Choko, to a close with the publication of his new novel, the most recent in the series, Death by Water. This installment explores the intensity of interconnectedness between parents and their children, particularly, but not exclusively, between fathers and sons.

Its themes of regret and loss saturate the book with a heavy sense of sadness it’s difficult to shake, flirting with the point of wallowing. Oe doesn’t shy away from the bald illustration the sins of the fathers are often visited upon the sons, the mistakes of one generation teaching subsequent generations little about averting the same disastrous behavior.

Choko is a writer haunted for a lifetime by the sudden and violent death of his father, when Choko was a child, a death obscured by secrecy and silence. As a result of his loss, grief and guilt infuse all his relationships, threaten to destroy his mental state, and stunt his career. The specter of his father’s last moments torture him, to the extent happiness in any other aspect of his life is severely compromised.  Oe has created a man damned by his own regret, a character nearly impossible to sympathize with due to his single-minded intention to see all his life through a prism of self-imposed, exaggerated mourning.

The adults in the protagonist’s life made matters far worse for Choko by remaining closed-mouthed, shrouding the already traumatic event in forbidden mystery, leaving him to think the worst. Reeling, all he knows for certain is documents locked inside a red leather trunk, an object he will spend the greater part of his life coveting, can explain all. Little else is said, next to no effort made to comfort the child, to help him move beyond his sadness. Small wonder he found himself stymied.

A later rift with his mother denies Choko hope of exploring the secrets contained in the trunk, his one link to revealing the past. Having published a novel speculating on one possibility explaining his father’s death, his mother becomes so irate at what she sees as a weak and pathetic characterization of her husband she cuts off her only son, disowning him.

It’s only later, when Choko’s son is born with a defect in his skull—mirroring a situation in Oe’s own life, leading him to create Choko’s story—that she relents. Even then, by the time he’s allowed possession, ten years later, he finds his mother has decimated the contents, burning the most damning documents.

What she did leave, however, was an audiocassette containing an explanation of the truth. Ironically, this truth leaves Choko with little useful information for use as the framework of his final novel. It had been his dream to end his career by writing his father’s story, through the lens of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Death by Water,” from which poem Oe takes the title of this book. In one final punch to the stomach, Choko sees his dream slip away. For better or worse, his mother has won.

Fortunately for the novelist, a company of actors known as the Caveman Group has dedicated itself to the revival of his by now languishing canon. Through the determination of a young actress and budding director, Unaiko, as well as the theatre’s manager, Masao, his deflated dream will be revived, the story’s focus changed from his father’s death to the imaginary friend he created as a child, named Kogii, a name his family had chosen as a fond diminutive of his own. This creature of his imagination, always a larger than life figure to him, takes center stage in the dramatization of his works.

For the first time in his 70 years of life, focus is shifted from his loss to a much more positive childhood experience. In an unexpected reversal, the curse of disappointment suffered from the empty trunk becomes a blessing.

For all Choko’s newfound renewal, he fails to notice how his great hypocrisy toward his own son is perhaps an even more grievous and abhorrent transgression than any perpetrated on him. His justification for his behavior, that his son is a great disappointment, reflects frustration in the face of his failed quest. Despite the lift he feels from his exciting new project, he remains unable to change the landscape of his life, neglecting to turn lessons learned from traumatic childhood experiences into the chance for happiness with his own family.

Once again Choko has suffered a loss, this time one he can’t seem to recognize, in the way of estrangement from his son. Nearing the end of his life, he has become a very selfish, hardened man toward all but the members of the theater company who stroke his ego. But, in yet another twist, life swiftly delivers a strong reprisal, a consequence so severe it can’t help but change him. At last, things have come full circle.

Death by Water is ostensibly the prolonged keening of a son for his lost father, running parallel with the story of a mother’s grief for the son whose fixation with her husband’s death threatens to destroy his relationship with his own son. While it does have the redeeming grace of interesting sub-plots, the whole of it is fixated on often-repetitive expressions of misery. This, as well as the often simplistic, occasionally pedestrian prose is a large flaw. Whether the prose failings are a result of translation is difficult to say. In any event, the novel could have stood deeper editing.

Not having read the previous novels in the series may be a hindrance; I can only speculate on that. Still, knowing more of the backstory of Kogito Choko would do nothing to rectify the shortfalls in the prose.

Overall, the story is a moving one. Regret and loss are powerful forces in a life, the loss of large parts of childhood a travesty. Oe does a masterful job expressing these themes through his characters. Unfortunately, the novel is alternately so stylistically over-wrought and stilted as to jerk the reader out of the tale, inhibiting its flow and power.

Pruned to a leaner work, Death by Water may have been a thoroughly impressive book. As it is, the story is weakened, its truths strained. If this is the last we see of main character Kogito Choko, it seems a sad farewell.

After seven novels, the reader can’t help believing this semi-autobiographical character deserved so much more.

432 pages
Grove Press (October 6, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0802124011
ISBN-13: 978-0802124012

Publicist: John Mark Boling: jmboling@groveatlantic.com

reading a nobel laureate and other slutty adventures

fall2015reads

It’s time to sweep away books from the summer and queue up titles for winter review. That’s my grubby lace arm you see, sliding down the table, knocking off old wedding cake and all the spring and summer ARCs. Estella, get the door! It’s the postman again.

What I didn’t get around to reading I’m abandoning, like a tiresome orphan at a train station, a pin with the plea “please take care of this book, thank you” clipped to its little wool jacket. We had a lovely time, only my apartment space is very limited and every corner filled. You see how it is.

Don’t look at me with those sad eyes…

The fall and winter publication lists have been eyeing me seductively, saucy things. They’re shiny and new and exotic with all their tantalizing promise.  Arrivals are coming fast and furious now, thick brown envelopes tracking me everywhere, plopping upon my doormat, the front door of the apartment building I’m in, even the marital house I’ve left. You unread or unpromising lot from earlier in the year are a bit worse for wear, your covers scuffed from being shuffled between rooms, all the novelty worn off. I’ve had you; now I want them.

The bloom is off your rose.

New and different things have a delicious appeal, when you’re a reviewer. It’s what ensures the perpetuation of the species. What’s being talked about this week or month or season has a buzz my kind knows how to generate well enough we can’t resist each other’s hyperbole. It’s what keeps me poring through the lists of up and coming releases, grabbing what looks promising, adding to the piles slated for the long, cold winter.

Despite feeling a little hesitant to take it on, I chose Kenzaburo Oe’s newest novel, Death by Water, for this round of reviews via New York Journal of Books. I heard the announcement it had come in – I was right there and it would have been a little silly if I hadn’t – and that no one else had claimed it. Snatch it up, a voice crooned in my ear…

SNATCH IT UP and run!

deathbywater

Spoiler alert: I snatched.

I’ve never read anything by Oe, a relatively recent Nobel Laureate, so it’s a little unnerving my first foray with him will necessitate pronouncing on his work in a loud and public review forum. If I don’t like the book, I’ll be the reviewer who was too good for a writer who’s won the big prize. If I do, I’ll be one of the adoring. Whichever way it falls, the pressure’s turned up a bit. Not that it’s ever stopped me; I’m unafraid of challenging icons (SEE: Tyler, Anne). Still, I admit I feel it.

Hold me; this is a tender moment. I’m feeling a little fragile.

Mood’s over. Go sit across the room. I’m busy.

schiffwitches

In other reading, I’ve begun Stacy Schiff’s marvelous nonfiction work The Witches: Salem, 1692. Always been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, as iconic an American story as any, plus all my family ancestral lines were already in this country well before this nastiness occurred, making the possibility they knew of it – during or not long after – very real.

The story’s enticing enough for all its swirling darkness and edge of menace, made more enigmatic by a surprising dearth of existing evidence, the fact of which coming as a complete shock to me. Having done a fair amount of genealogy over the past year and a half, I’ve learned what meticulous record-keepers the early colonists were. Finding a gap of over a year in personal and official papers is shocking. This was intentional. And I’m hooked.

While Oe’s occupying the bulk of my reading time, I’ve also been trailing a finger in other advance copies. On a whim, I grabbed a new YA title by Edwidge Danticat, called Untwine. Don’t know why I picked it, to be honest. Change of pace? It’s about twin sisters of Haitian Creole ancestry, which is of course Danticat’s own heritage. When the family gets into a terrible accident, not everyone survives. It’s about the bonds of twins and having read the first third, I’ve known for dozens of pages the complexity’s not going to engage my attention all that well. Pitted against the other, far more compelling stuff I’m into, no surprise. Not a promising first taste of this author.

Far more to my taste is Andrew Motion’s latest, The New World. His second sequel to RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island, this one finds hero Jim Hawkins stranded on the Gulf Coast of Texas, returned for the silver left buried there lo these many years.

andrewmotionnewworld

More titles in flux, on the way or dropped behind furniture, temporarily lost. I do my level best, I do, but it’s a madhouse. As a change of pace,  I was just offered a CD for review, by a Grammy-winning artist. I’ve turned down other music review requests. This one just got lucky being in the right place, catching me in the right mood. Plus, it’s a sort of easy listening genre, which will pair well with my new Lush bath stuff and a bathroom full of candles.

Hey, I can be bought.

But enough blather. I’m in the middle of that Oe review, first draft, and want to get that one pushed out of here before the book waiting on deck, written by a friend of a friend (another avenue into my good graces), steps up to the plate.

Busy, busy, never ending. Circle of life. Shoulder to the grindstone and don’t spare the horses!