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An Interview with Lonesome Wyatt

Lonesome Wyatt photoLonesome Wyatt is the Ambrose Bierce of underground country. He plays the kind of music you’d hear while walking down a dirt road headed deep into the woods weaving your way through haints and shadows. When he isn’t touring with Those Poor Bastards, Wyatt’s penning pulp novels to support their albums or working on his side project, Lonesome Wyatt and the Holy Spooks. His music is dark, atmospheric, desperate, and pained by life and the people in it. Murder ballads, ghost tales, broken hearts, bad relationships, benders, lost souls – it isn’t exactly uplifting, and yet, this isn’t a man who is weltering in misery. There’s a difference between shouting out wrongs and awfuls and wallowing in them.

Lonesome Wyatt is a mad-eyed architect of exquisitely desperate music. The Library was able to steal some of his time for a short talk about his reading habits and upcoming projects.


Mount Prospect Public Library: What was the last good book you read?

Lonesome Wyatt: The last two books I read were The Mammoth Book of Frankenstein and Farewell, My Lovely and they were both very enjoyable.

MPPL: Is there any genre or author you refuse to read? Why or why not?

LW: I don’t like to read things about teens or romance unless it’s from the 1950’s or earlier. I’m just not interested.

MPPL: How often do you read? What genres are your go-tos?

Mammoth Book of Frankenstein book coverLW: I read around 2-3 hours every day. My favorite genres are mystery, horror, western, science fiction and anything strange or offbeat.

MPPL: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that Poe and Lovecraft have been inspirations to you…what other writers (or musicians…or artists) inspire you?

LW: I like the author Robert Lowry a whole bunch. His book The Big Cage really got me going. Also Nightmare Alley, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, and all those classic noir stories are very inspiring.  The Silver Surfer 1968 series and the Ghost Rider 1970’s series have a lot of great stuff in them too. That’s what comes to mind right now, but the list of brain expanding and inspiring creations is almost endless.

MPPL: What book could draw you into joining a book club?

LW: I don’t know. I’m pretty sure it would have to have a monster or robot on the cover though.

MPPL: When was the last time you were in a library? Do you think libraries are still important in today’s world?

LW: I go to the library at least once a week. It’s one of my favorite places. You can get almost anything you want to read or watch without having to spend your hard earned dough on it. We always went to the library when I was growing up and I discovered some great things just browsing around. Libraries are full of an endless supply of fertilizer for the imagination. They are immeasurably important.

MPPL: Both books and music are becoming more and more a digital culture. Do you think anything is lost when the physical world gets digitized?

LW: I have absolutely no interest in digital stuff. I can’t understand the appeal. This old goat prefers paperback books and either vinyl records, cassette tapes, or CDs as a last resort.

MPPL: We heard tell that there’s a Halloween album in the works. Tell us more…and is there a novel to go with it?

A Bitter Havest album coverLW: Some of my favorite albums are those old Halloween ones from the 60’s and 70’s. It’s a real shame that no one makes that kind of stuff anymore. Nothing beats listening to them in the gloom of the basement on a 1978 Fisher Price record player. It’s just perfect. They’re often refreshingly weird and unique.

Anyhow, those old records really moved me and I wanted to try to make something special out of that initial spark of inspiration. This record is like the musical equivalent of a homemade Halloween costume; kind of strange and clunky, but made with real heart. I’m awful fond of the thing. There’s no book with this one. It’s just a collection of stories and songs about monsters and death.

MPPL: What else is upcoming for you and Those Poor Bastards in 2013?

LW: Those Poor Bastards are playing some shows in August, then I’ll be releasing that Halloween album in October, and finally an Edgar Switchblade 7” will arrive in December. It should be a pretty frightening year.


For more information on the fantastic and foreboding art of Lonesome Wyatt, check him out on tour or at his website. Gotta have Lonesome Wyatt in your life right now? Stop by the Fiction/AV/Teen desk at the Library for Gospel Haunted by Those Poor Bastards or Lonesome Wyatt’s duet album with Rachel Brooke, Bitter Harvest.

By Readers' Advisor on August 15, 2013 Categories: Horror, Interviews, Music

An Interview with John Joseph Adams

John Joseph Adams editor photoJohn Joseph Adams is an editor, anthologist, and king taste-maker of sci-fi and fantasy. He’s been a six-time finalist for the Hugo Award and a four-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award. When he isn’t busy creating anthologies and being lauded for them, Adams publishes Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines. He also co-hosts The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, a podcast presented by Wired.

The Mount Prospect Public Library talked to Mr. Adams about his process and most recent anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination – a fabulous collection of mad scientist stories by the likes of Seanan McGuire, Carrie Vaughn, Naomi Novik, and Diana Gabaldon.


Mount Prospect Public Library: What is your process to ensure a diverse selection of stories for each anthology you create?

John Joseph Adams: For an original anthology, I start by inviting a diverse selection of authors; I think about the people who seem like obvious fits given the theme, and then I try to think outside that box and come up with authors who might enjoy writing for the theme but are not necessarily the people you would expect to appear in such an anthology.

Then, to help ensure that the stories themselves are diverse takes on the theme, I typically ask the authors to send me a little one or two sentence pitch for their story, just so I have some idea what they’ll be working on – that way if two people end up coming up with something that seems overly similar, I can encourage one or the other to take it in a different direction sooner rather than later.

For a reprint anthology, the process is a bit simpler (though often more time-consuming), since basically you try to read everything and then whittle it down to the best. In the process of doing so, you can make note of the kinds of authors and stories you’re filling the book with and adjust accordingly if you end up with too much of one thing and not enough of another. To help me find a wide variety, after I announce the project I typically ask for reader and colleague suggestions, in addition to doing my own research.

MPPL: While you are creating an anthology, how do you decide what order to put stories in?

JJA: That’s definitely more of an art than a science and, as a result, is kind of hard to explain the method to my madness. Essentially I do it by feel; I want there to be a certain flow to the anthology, and everything I do is an attempt to achieve that flow. I like to lead off and end the book with two of the strongest stories (with the final story also ideally providing a lot of emotional impact that will resonate with the reader long after they put down the book). I also tend to put one of the other strongest stories somewhere around the middle of the book – what I think of a “tentpole” story. With those three in place, I then go about trying to achieve my desired flow. I think about each story and what it would be like to read that story and then to read the story after that, and so on. Another factor is story length; I find that it’s usually best for the flow of the anthology if you don’t clump too many long stories together, so in my spreadsheet where I have all the stories listed, I have all their word counts there so I can see that as I’m sorting the contents out, and I try to balance out longer stories by running shorter ones afterward. Speaking of my spreadsheet, that’s what I use to actually figure out the order. I have a column for the table of contents order, and in that column I put a number for the “slot” that story is slated for, that way I can sort the spreadsheet and have it thus put the stories in TOC order.

The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination book coverMPPL: What guidelines did you give yourself on what sort of stories to select for this anthology?

JJA: I started off thinking that I wanted to keep the book very strictly on-theme so as to avoid the title being misleading in any way. So I gave the authors very specific instructions that their stories should all be specifically from the POV of the mad scientist/evil genius or that of someone in their organization, etc. (i.e., not from the POV of someone trying to stop them). But as the stories started coming in, some of the authors went in a different direction, and ultimately I think that the book is better for it; there is a high percentage of stories in the anthology that do in fact tell the story from the mad scientist POV, but I think having some stories that don’t adds a nice bit of variety to the book that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

MPPL: Is there one type of mad scientist story you are sick of?

JJA: Not really. The mad scientist trope is a really fun one, and I think there are lots of different ways you can explore it and make even the most familiar iterations of it feel fresh and amusing.

MPPL: You also edit Lightspeed and Nightmare magazines. How is selection and editing for a magazine different than for an anthology?

JJA: You have to worry about a lot of the same things, in terms of diversity of contributors and contents, but it’s a much more open process than with an anthology, which will have a lot of restrictions placed upon it. With an anthology, you’ve got a word count restriction for the overall book; you’ve (usually) got a thematic restriction; (depending on your publisher) you’ve probably got an obligation to include a certain number of “big name” authors in your book…

With a magazine, you don’t have any of that, really. Thematically, obviously, a magazine is almost entirely open, except for the general genre guidelines you lay out (i.e., SF/Fantasy for Lightspeed, horror/dark fantasy for Nightmare). With a magazine, if you keep an inventory of material as I do, you don’t have a word count restriction either, since you’re not filling issues, you’re just buying good stories as they come in and storing them until you’re ready to publish them. And as for big names…of course when you’re publishing a magazine you’d love to have stories by prominent authors grace your pages, but it’s much less important than it is in an anthology – I think that is probably largely because people who like short stories enough to read short fiction magazines are not as likely to care as much about who is doing the writing as much as they are trusting the editor to present them with good stories; whereas anthologies have to appeal to a wider demographic, and thus they need more prominent authors in the mix to help lure those more casual (short fiction) readers into buying the book. Because of all that, to me, editing a short fiction magazine feels like the purest form of editing.

MPPL: Yes, we know, they are all your favorites, but if you had to pick…what are your favorite favorite stories in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination?

JJA: Well, you can infer from my earlier comments that Austin Grossman’s and Ben Winters’s stories were among my favorites, since I placed them first and last in the anthology. Jeremiah Tolbert’s story (one of the reprints in the book) was one of my primary inspirations for the book, so that’s a favorite. Otherwise, I’d just note that via a couple of different publishing ventures – which didn’t work out for one reason or another – I’ve been trying to publish Marjorie Liu’s story for many years now, so that one feels like an old friend, and I’m glad to be able to finally bring it to light. David Levine’s “Letter to the Editor” is another favorite – especially if you hear him read it aloud himself. It was probably one of my favorites already, but once I heard him read it at a convention it made me like it even more. (You can actually watch or listen to David reading the story online.)

David Levine author photoMPPL: If you were a mad scientist, would you be the stained lab coat, mismatched shoes type or the sleek academic?

JJA: I would probably attempt to be the sleek academic, but would end up more like the guy in the stained lab coat with mismatched shoes.

MPPL: What would be your mad scientist specialty?

JJA: Editing anthologies, obviously! Though I would say it’s more of an art than a science. Maybe I could be a mad artist. On the other hand, although my Bachelor’s degree in English is technically a B.A., a lot of people consider it a BS degree. So maybe a career in the arts is actually the maddest kind of science there is. Or something.

I think maybe Paul Goat Allen missed the mark when he called me “the reigning king of the anthology world”; clearly what he should have said was “the mad scientist who has dominated the anthology world” or something like that. If he didn’t so consistently give me such glowing reviews I would have him disintegrated immediately for that insolence.

MPPL: Would you want a sidekick/lab assistant or would you be a solo lunatic?

JJA: Take a look at the About Our Staff pages on Lightspeed and Nightmare and astound at the list of (volunteer!) staff I have working at the magazines. Given all those helpers I currently have, what do you think? (And that doesn’t even list all our many slush readers!)

MPPL: Hit us up with your favorite mad scientist film.

JJA: I’d have to go with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. As it happens, I conceived of the anthology before Dr. Horrible came out, but publishing is a slow process – sometimes an extremely slow process – and so the anthology didn’t end up coming out until long after that debuted. I also owe it a debt, though, as its surprise success probably helped me sell the anthology in the first place, so that was just great timing for me. (Thanks, Joss!) You asked about film, not TV, I realize – I think of Dr. Horrible as more of a film than a TV miniseries, even though that’s how it was presented – but if I were to name my favorite mad scientist TV show I’d have to go with The Venture Bros., and that was another important inspiration to me in doing the book.

MPPL: What about your favorite mad scientist in fiction?

JJA: Is it a cheat if I name a real mad scientist who has frequently been depicted in fiction instead? If not, then I would say Nikola Tesla, because, seriously, how awesome was that guy? If I had to pick an actual fictional person, though, from fiction as opposed to TV/film, I guess I’d have to go with the original, Dr. Frankenstein. Leaving aside, of course, all of the excellent mad scientists that appear in the pages of my book, all of whom are vastly, VASTLY superior to both Tesla and Frankenstein.

Dr. Horrible's Sing A Long Blog DVD coverMPPL: Why do you think so many mad scientists are cast in fiction and film as male? Do you think this will change anytime soon?

JJA: That’s a good question, but yes I would expect it to change sometime soon. Maybe if something like the Girl Genius comics are adapted to film, that’ll change things, or something Seanan McGuire writes (or has written) maybe. (When I think of a female mad scientist, I just imagine Seanan in a lab coat smiling gleefully with a petri dish of some horrible virus in her hand.)

MPPL: Who are your editor heroes?

JJA: First and foremost, Gordon Van Gelder at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was my mentor, and gave me my start in the industry, so he’ll always be an editorial hero of mine. I learned so much from him that I can never adequately thank him for all that he taught me.

Ellen Datlow also provided some editorial tutelage, particularly in regard to putting together anthologies and anthology proposals. But aside from that, she’d long been a favorite editor of mine, and the fact that I can count her as a friend is one of those really surreal things about my life.

Then there’s folks like David Hartwell, whose retrospective anthologies like The Dark Descent and The Hard SF Renaissance helped set the standard for such books. And there’s Gardner Dozois – I would wager that of all the books in my house, his name graces the spine of the largest percentage of them of any author/editor.

There’s Ben Bova, who was probably the first short fiction editor I was ever aware of; I discovered him as a writer, but then learned of Analog because of his introductions and commentary in his collections.

Other than Ellen, in the realm of horror there’s Stephen Jones for his long-running year’s best anthologies, and there’s Kirby McCauley for his influential books like Dark Forces. More than anything, though, Charles Grant’s Shadows series – and his idea of “quiet horror” – is what most has shaped the kind of magazine Nightmare is.

Of course, any anthology editor owes a debt to Harlan Ellison because of his Dangerous Visions anthologies, along with other seminal folks like Damon Knight, Terry Carr, Robert Silverberg, Judith Merrill, Groff Conklin… And then of course there’s all the great magazine editors, like John W. Campbell and Ed Ferman and Horace Gold, etc., etc. I’d better stop here otherwise we might be here all day.

MPPL: If you had to publish a themed anthology outside of sci-fi and fantasy, what would be its theme?

JJA: I’d say the most likely non-SF/fantasy anthology I might do some day would be a mystery/crime type of thing; I’m really interested in crime fiction – my favorite TV show is The Wire, for instance, and I’m currently really enjoying Southland – I came of age reading mysteries and thrillers. I also read a lot of medical thrillers growing up, so possibly something like that.

I actually did put together a proposal for a crime anthology within the last couple of years, something that I thought was a really good concept, but also with a strong social commentary aspect that made it feel very relevant, and also was geared to be at least partially be a charity project. So I drew up my list of contributors, mostly of notable/bestselling authors in the mystery/crime field…but not a single author I approached about it said yes. I saw this societal injustice, and I thought, well, what can I do about it? I figured the best way for me personally to try to make social change is through my art. And I thought: these mystery and crime writers, they write about this kind of injustice all the time in one form or another, surely they would get behind a project that sought to explore and humanize the victims of this injustice, surely they would get behind a book whose proceeds would go help benefit the victims. But no – not a single author gave me even a maybe. That was…disheartening, to say the least.

MPPL: What was the societal injustice you were interested in creating a crime anthology around?Dangerous Visions book cover

JJA: I guess there’s no harm in saying since the project never went anywhere and isn’t likely to. Here’s a bit about it from my pitch to authors:

On September 21, 2011, people of good conscience all over the world stood vigil as Troy Davis was put to death for a crime he may not have committed. In the absence of a shred of physical evidence, with seven of nine witnesses recanting their testimony, and accounts of a confession from one of the remaining two, the death penalty was still carried out. On that grim day protesters carried signs that read “I am Troy Davis” – a reminder that our justice system is far from infallible, and that any one of us could find ourselves in the same position, accused of the worst possible crime, without the resources to prove our innocence.

We may never know whether Troy Davis committed the crime that he died for, and that burden of doubt weighs on people today. What we do know is that since 1989, 250 people convicted of violent crimes have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.

The idea for this anthology is that the stories would focus on those affected by wrongful conviction – be it the convict, their family, the people working to exonerate them, or perhaps even the family of the victim, faced with the terrible truth that the authorities have the wrong man.

Since 1992 the Innocence Project has been dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. This not-for-profit entity works tirelessly on behalf of those who have run out of options, and provides much-needed services those who find themselves finally innocent, free, and still without support or resources. I had planned for the anthology to serve as a charity fundraiser to benefit The Innocence Project and support them in their fight for true justice. (I should note that I left it up to the contributors whether or not their proceeds would be donated, and had planned on paying them up front for their stories, so lack of payment can’t be the reason why everyone said no.)

MPPL: Finally, who are the writers you are dying to work with?

JJA: Most of the writers I’d be dying to work with, I already have worked with in some capacity if you count reprinting their work as “working with them.” But as far as working with them on original projects, I’d certainly love to do something with Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Junot Diaz, just to name a few people off the top of my head. But there are so many super talented writers out there that I haven’t gotten the chance to publish yet, so such a list could go on and on.


For more information on John Joseph Adams, check out his blog or twitter. You can also click here for author interviews and other extras pertaining to The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. Then don’t forget to stop by the Fiction/AV/Teen desk at the Library to find more works edited by John Joseph Adams.

Don’t have time to stop in at the Library, but still want book suggestions?

Click here for recent fantasy anthologies and here for recent sci-fi anthologies.

By Readers' Advisor on June 27, 2013 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Interviews

An Interview with Todd Robinson, Author of The Hard Bounce

Todd Robinson author photoTodd Robinson, also known as Big Daddy Thug, is similar to Pat Benatar in one essential way – he hits you with his best shot. His debut novel, The Hard Bounce, is a fast-paced, heart-pounder of a gritty mystery. Unlike Benatar, who shoulder shimmied her way out of knife fights, Robinson looks like he could punch a knife out of your hand, catch it mid-air, and fling it past your ear as a warning without breaking a sweat. He’s broad, bearded, often in black – and thank the literary gods – a peaceable author, too busy writing to get in many fights.

Robinson is the Chief Editor of Thuglit, a crime fiction journal dedicated to “writing about wrongs”. His novel, The Hard Bounce, came out in January. It focuses on Boo and Junior, two regular guys who are bouncers at a Boston punk rock bar. Their security company, 4DC (Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap), is hired to find a missing girl. What begins as an easy job quickly spirals out of control.

Robinson kindly took time out of his editing and writing to speak a piece to the Mount Prospect Public Library.


Mount Prospect Public Library: Where did the idea for The Hard Bounce come from?

Todd Robinson: Many years ago, I worked at a legendary rock club in Boston called The Rathskeller that would throw all-ages punk shows on Sunday afternoons. One afternoon, this young girl in pink dreads caught my eye. I remembered her, because I marveled at the courage of that kid—to do her own thing at an age when most kids try anything to “fit in”. A few hours later, her father showed up at the bar looking for her. I guess she broke curfew. He had a picture of her that showed a clean-cut kid, not the dreadlocked individualist I’d seen only a few hours later. Three things stuck with me from that incident. The first was that I never found out what happened from that point. The second was: what turned that kid from the one in the picture to the one I saw? The third was: were I suddenly put in a position to find that kid, how would I go about it?


MPPL: The Hard Bounce is set in Boston. Do you think this story could have been told anywhere else?

TR: I don’t know. I live in New York now, and I know that the same story couldn’t happen here the way it did in Boston. I’m not even sure that it could unfold the way it does in today’s Boston. I more or less dropped the story into the old Boston that I knew and loved—that really isn’t there anymore. It’s a love letter to a particular time and place in my life.


MPPL: Is The Hard Bounce a standalone novel or can we expect to see more of Boo and Junior?

TR: As of right now, it’s a standalone simply because I only have a one book contract. Hell, right now my “career” is a standalone. However, I always planned out the stories of Boo & Junior as a series, and am working on #2 right now.


The Hard Bounce book coverMPPL: How do you want to leave your readers feeling?

TR: Less like they’ve been on a wild ride, but that they’ve shared a particularly rough and tumble episode in a person’s life. That’s what I want the entire series to feel like. I want the reader to experience moments within the character’s lives more than skipping through individual episodes. I want there to be repercussions in book 4 from book 1.


MPPL: Have you ever been called to write in a genre outside of noir or mystery?

TR: Matter of fact, I was working on a horror novel when the call came in on The Hard Bounce. Frankly, I’d given up on it. I wrote one horror short story, and then adapted it into a screenplay. That screenplay made it very far in the Nicholl Fellowships Competition, so I thought I should try my hand at horror on a larger scale.


MPPL: You are the creator and Chief Editor of Thuglit. What has editing others taught you about your own writing?

TR: Man, nothing has taught me more about the flaws in my own writing than nitpicking the work of others. It’s an epiphany when you find something that you absolutely hate in someone else’s work—and then realize that you do the exact same thing.


MPPL: Recently on The Daily Beast, Frank Bill asked, “Is Masculine Writing Dead?” He laments the loss of physical labor and ruggedness represented in contemporary fiction. Do you agree with this? Do you feel yourself to be a “masculine” writer?

TR: Beyond him being one hell of a writer, I consider Frank Bill a friend, so I’m not going to go into detail on the piece (since the Internet has already praised to high heaven AND torn it a new butthole). So, without sounding judgmental or getting political and avoiding the question, I’ll just say this about the piece: I agree with a lot of the sentiment within the opinion, but I don’t necessarily agree with Frankie’s narrow definition of masculinity.

I do consider myself to be a writer of masculine fiction, which is why I’m a little surprised at the incredibly positive response that The Hard Bounce has been getting from female readers. Just goes to show you how much I know about women. (Sighs)


MPPL: What are several classic crime novels or short stories that everyone should read?

TR: John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series is a must. They were just re-issued. Start with The Deep Blue Good-by. He created the classic template for the modern American crime series. Then read The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins. It’s THE classic Boston crime novel. More people need to read it. I’m amazed at how little known it is outside of the hardcore fans.


MPPL: What about several newer writers you’ve enjoyed lately?

TR: I already mentioned Frank Bill, so let’s add Josh Stallings, Matt McBride, Johnny Shaw, Chris Holm, to name the most recent that I’ve read. Two guys to watch out for are Joe Clifford, Justin Porter, and Jordan Harper. All of these guys absolutely kill it on the short story scene and have in-the-works novels that I’m really looking forward to reading.


MPPL: The Hard Bounce is chock full of music references. Is music important to your creative process?Social Distortion dancing skeleton logo

TR: It is. I like setting a musical tone to write to, to help set a scene in my head emotionally. For the longest time, I couldn’t listen to anything with a lyric. I was such a bad typist any external words would f— up my own. I did most of my writing to jazz and opera—opera not counting, since I couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying.


MPPL: What albums are always on your rotation?

TR: Anything by Social Distortion, Clutch, The Cramps, and Tom Waits. Those are my big four. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Black Keys, Mumford & Sons, and Florence and the Machine. I know that’s all over the place, but it’s what I dig.


MPPL: It took 10 years, 5 agents, 4 publishers, and 37 drafts to get The Hard Bounce out…how’s the timeline looking for your next novel?

TR: No better…(Sighs)


MPPL: What does success mean to you? How do you know when you’ve “made it”?

TR: I pay my bills with bartending. Every once in a while, somebody comes in and asks, “Hey! How goes the writing?” My answer is always the same. It’s, “I’m still on this side of the bar, ain’t I? You’ll know it’s going well by either my absence or when I’m sitting at the bar next to you.”


Be sure to check out Todd Robinson’s tough-talking, hard-hitting first novel, The Hard Bounce. Then come to the Fiction/AV/Teen desk to share your thoughts or get great suggestions on what to read next.

By Readers' Advisor on April 18, 2013 Categories: Books, Interviews, Mysteries/Thrillers/Suspense

Playing Favorites: A Talk with Myke Cole

Author Photo of Myke ColeMyke Cole’s first novel, SHADOW OPS: Control Point, makes for excellent weekend reading. Oscar Britton is an Army officer turned fugitive sorcerer. Britton isn’t a bad guy, but he is dangerous. He’s manifested magical powers that he can’t control (like thousands of others across the world) and the government he formerly worked for is now determined to collect and control him…or take him out.

Cole has the chops to write military fantasy. He’s been a security contractor, government civilian, and military officer. He’s worked everything from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare, in addition to serving three tours in Iraq and being recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The Library got a hold of Myke Cole to talk about good books, good movies, and a few other things between.

Mount Prospect Public Library: What are a few of your favorite nonfiction military books?

Myke Cole: Wow. There are so many that have been incredibly influential throughout my career. This is almost like asking me to pick my favorite fantasy novels or comic books. The problem is that they’re pretty much all my favorites. Let me give you three:

The first is Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman’s The Art of War in the Middle Ages. It’s dated, but it has mapped layouts of most of the major battles I was interested in and forms the basis for many of my favorite table top historical wargames.

The second would have to be Carl Philip Gottfried von Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege. I swear, I’m not just Shadow Ops: Control Point book coverpicking these guys because they have long names. Vom Kriege is the seminal text on modern warfare (the kind of warfare that company grade officers like myself have been trained to fight and is now being rendered partially obsolete by the rise of transnational insurgency). It has helped define how an entire generation of military leaders think about war. It has set our vocabulary, and given us a context for discussion.

The third is The Western Way of War, by Victor Davis Hanson. It’s a foundational book that helps lay the ancient groundwork that would eventually become my trade.

Keep in mind, these are just three good books. They are not my three favorite by any means. You’ll also want to read Martin Van Creveld‘s The Transformation of War, Mao Tse-Tung’s On Guerrilla Warfare, Sun Tzu (and commentaries), Musashi, Fussel, Gibbon and on and on and on.

By Readers' Advisor on May 10, 2012 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Interviews

Time Travel and YA Lit: A Talk with Delia Sherman

The Freedom Maze book coverDelia Sherman is a phenomenal writer. She’s a founding member of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, received a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies, and has taught writing at Clarion, the Odyssey Workshop in New Hampshire, the Cape Cod Writers’ Workshop, and the American Book Center in Amsterdam. She travels often and writes wherever she happens to be. Her fiction has appeared in Steampunk!, Naked City and Teeth: Vampire Tales. Her most recent novel, The Freedom Maze, is a young adult time travel tale set in antebellum Louisiana.

In one of her few spare moments, Delia Sherman spoke with the Mount Prospect Public Library about The Freedom Maze, YA lit, and the challenges of writing a novel over 18 years.

 Mount Prospect Public Library: What were some of the challenges of writing a book so focused on race and slavery issues?

Delia Sherman: The major one would have to be trying not to make a complete racist ass of myself, simply by virtue of having been raised in a time in which casual (as opposed to violent) racism was as ubiquitous as the air we breathed. I ran the manuscript by a panel of four smart, political, honest black women and one man, listened when they told me Sophie’s white privilege was showing, and did my best – not to erase it: Sophie’s skin would have given her privilege in a slave culture – to acknowledge it. The second challenge (more significant when I began this project in 1987) was accessing the historical record of the daily life of a worker on a sugar plantation in 1860. There was lots easily available about life in the Big House, but in the Quarters? Not so much. It’s better now, with new books and exhibits (some of them actually assembled by POC [People of Color]). I’m actually grateful it took so long to get the book into print so that I could consult my panel. They made a real difference in my worldbuilding.

MPPL: Were there any challenges in writing about Voudon?Steampunk! book cover

DS: There’s always a challenge in writing about religion. Usually, I deal with fairy tales and folklore whose origins are either frankly fictional, like “Puss in Boots” and “The Little Mermaid,” or have been through the folk mill of many ages and many lands. Voudon is different. Voudon is a living religion. Without the patient teaching of my two kind friends who practice it, I could not have written this book.


MPPL: Were there any drafts of The Freedom Maze that would surprise us with strange points of view or story arcs that got chopped?

DS: Well, there were several much longer drafts, in which both Sophie’s pre-time-travel life and my research on plantation life in 1860 got a lot more airtime. But that was just clutter – although I didn’t know it when I wrote them. I particularly regret the scene I had to cut when Sophie first arrived in the past. It was set in the slave quarters and described how the children were cared for by an elderly woman and fed from a trough. It’s factual, and it’s very dramatic. But it’s not part of Sophie’s story, and I couldn’t make it part of Sophie’s story, so it had to go.

 MPPL: Were there any scenes in The Freedom Maze that surprised the heck out of you when you wrote them?

DS: The Creature was a complete surprise. It was a long time ago, but the way I remember it, I was writing along, wondering how Sophie was going to get into the past, when suddenly I found myself writing a conversation with a voice I had no idea what it was. When the Creature finally manifested itself, I was as surprised by its appearance as Sophie was. Now, I realize that its calico skin is probably some kind of metaphor for the Native American, African, and Caucasian peoples who lived, intermarried, fought, loved, hated, feared, and helped each other in ante-bellum Louisiana. And I certainly got its disappearing act from the Cheshire Cat. But where its toothless gums, its deer-like ears and its fat belly came from, only it and my subconscious know for sure. 

The Globe Theatre illustration by Wenceslas Hollar, 1647

The Globe Theatre (Wenceslas Hollar, 1647)

MPPL: Are there any eras you’d be tempted to travel back in time to for an adventure?

DS:Unfortunately, I know too much history to be quite comfortable about actual time-travel. Reading about what London and Paris were like underfoot and smelled like in almost any century you’d like to name, not to mention the epidemic diseases and the footpads and pickpockets and the way they treated women and how much effort keeping clean and fed and housed took for all but the upper fraction of a percent of society and the illiteracy and the rest of it, have taken some of the glow of romance out of it for me. But Paris between the wars has a certain charm. If I could be guaranteed a bottomless purse of contemporary money and a pair of unbreakable glasses. And I might like to spend a day in Elizabethan London, so I could catch a play. Any play.

 MPPL: Who are some of the classic or contemporary YA authors you love to read?

DS: I could fill a whole page with names. But I will content myself with Diana Wynne Jones, C. S. Lewis, Ysabeau Wilce, Elizabeth Knox, Holly Black, Terry Pratchett, Lisa Mantchev, Leon Garfield, Joan Aiken and Franny Billingsley.

 MPPL: If there was one YA author, living or gone, that you could have a conversation about craft with, who would it be?

DS: I’m lucky enough to be able to talk about craft with many of my favorite authors. And writing a beautiful book doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to talk about how you did it. But this is a blue-sky question, isn’t it? Well, then. I’d love to talk writing with Leon Garfield, whose wonderful Howl's Moving Castle book coverhistorical novels, set mostly in the 18th and early 19th centuries, are marvels of style and tension and mystery.

 MPPL: Why do you think YA lit has become so popular with adult readers?

DS: Well, it’s popular with me because so much of it is innovative and fresh and well-written. Also, “Fantasy” is not quite as dirty a word in the YA world as it is in adult literary circles. I suspect that its growing popularity with the wider adult population has to do with fast pacing, exciting plots, engaging characters, and colorful backgrounds, all of which are thin on the ground in most adult fiction – outside of genre, of course. And writers like Alice Hoffman and Michael Chabon, who also write YA.

MPPL: Do you have anything to say to critics who think adults shouldn’t “waste their time” on YA lit?

DS: “If you haven’t read any YA, you shouldn’t knock it. If you have, and you don’t like it, that’s fine – for you. You still have no right to pass out blanket judgments on how other people choose to spend their time. As far as I know, nobody has died and made any of you God Of All Possible Taste.”

 MPPL: Why do you think so many writers of adult fiction, like James Patterson, JohnAbarat book cover Grisham, and Clive Barker, have crossed over into YA?

DS: The cynical answer is, that’s where the money is these days. The idealistic answer is that young adults are a wonderful audience. When they like something, they’re responsive, enthusiastic, engaged, loyal. They’ll follow a writer they love into the adult world. And they write you honest, thoughtful letters.

MPPL: What’s one publishing trend (YA or otherwise) that you wish would die a fiery death?

DS: I hate and despise Women in Jeopardy stories. Other than that (which, as a feminist, I find infuriating, and as a writer, lazy story-telling), I’m content to let readers like what they like, even if I don’t. Most trends die natural deaths sooner or later. That said, I suspect that Vampire Romance, like its undead subjects, is going to be around (in one form or another) forever and ever and ever and ever.

MPPL: If you could create a soundtrack for The Freedom Maze, what are a couple songs that might be on it?

DS: Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More;” “We Shall Overcome.”


Dragon Keeper book coverMPPL: What are you reading now?

DS: Piled by my bed are:  the ARC of Tiffany Trent’s The Unnaturalists; One Man’s Meat by E.B. White; West of the Moon by Katherine Langrish, all in progress. In my gym bag is Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb. Beside the chair in the living room is Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Under it is Wolf Hall, which I’ll start as soon as I’m done with the Gardam. I’m looking forward to E. Wein’s Code Verity, too. I’ve sniffed at the opening chapter, and it was all I could do not to ignore the others and just dive into that.

MPPL: The popularity of books in digital formats is skyrocketing. What are your thoughts on digital book culture? Are you anxious, indifferent or excited about e-books?

DS: Excited. I read them, mostly on my phone. It’s a way never to be without something to read without weighing down my purse or squinting at too-small print in a too-dim light. It’s also instant gratification – I hear of something, I order it – especially if it’s some weighty classic (like Dickens or Trollope or Thorne Smith) I can get for free because it’s Public Domain. If I really love a new book, I’ll buy the paper version as well, and find room for it on my bulging shelves. Because, when all is said and done, there’s nothing like holding a book in your hands and turning the pages. It’s possible that eventually there will be a generation of readers who won’t have this kind of relationship with paper books. But I don’t expect it’ll happen any time soon.

MPPL: Do you have any favorite bookstores you’d like to give a shout out to?

Delia Sherman author photo

Delia Sherman

DS: Books of Wonder on 18th Street in New York is one of the best and most variously stocked children’s bookstores in the world. Also Porter Square Booksin Cambridge, MA. Small, choice collection, lovely proprietors.

MPPL: What about favorite libraries?

DS: Our local branch of the New York Public Library is wonderful – lots of good kid’s books, lots of good movies. The Research Collection of the NYPL, of course, is beyond compare. Over the years, I’ve probably spent a couple of months in total sitting in their beautiful, beautiful reading room, communing with books I would not otherwise be able to see or touch.

 To further commune with Delia Sherman, check out her blog and website. Then stop by the Library’s Fiction/AV/Teen desk to find her books, and other tales of the fantastic.

Don’t have time to stop in the Library, but still want book suggestions?

Click here for adult fantasy reads.
Click here for teen fantasy books with adult crossover appeal.
Then click here and here for more teen fantasy reads.

By Readers' Advisor on April 12, 2012 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Historical Fiction, Interviews

Rolling Cities and Ship Building: A Talk with Frederic S. Durbin

Frederic S. Durbin author photo

Frederic S. Durbin

In a Frederic S. Durbin story, you’re as likely to get a chattering, boxed skull secreted away on an enormous mobile city as you are to get an ominous underground world directly beneath a funeral parlor. Durbin writes dark stories with a light touch. His detailed settings come close to becoming characters themselves. Though his audience is mainly a younger crowd, his fantasy novels can be enjoyed by all.

Durbin was born in Illinois, taught English and creative writing in Japan for twenty years, and now resides in Pittsburgh, PA. His most recent novel, The Star Shard, was released in February.

The Library had an electronic sit down with Frederic S. Durbin and learned the secrets of his soul…or at least a few of his writerly ways.


Mount Prospect Public Library: What draws you to writing for a young adult audience?

Frederic S. Durbin: It’s said that everyone has an inner age, an age of truest self. Mine is somewhere between ten and twelve, the kid who sees that the world holds infinite possibility and adventure, and who is just discovering that he has powers that can do remarkable things; the kid who believes there might be a monster on the other side of the hedge. At the latest World Fantasy Convention, I heard panelist William Alexander say, “I love books now, but I’ve never loved books Watership Down book covermore than I did then” – meaning when he was a kid – so (I’m paraphrasing now) what grander thing can there be than writing books aimed for the time in people’s lives when books have the maximum emotional impact?

For me, there are really only two books in the world:  Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings. Oh, yes, there are countless other wonderful books, but those are The Two; and I read them when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. I remember what that was like, and that’s what makes me want to write for a young audience. But notice what’s included in that answer:  Watership Down is arguably a “children’s book” on one level, because Richard Adams wrote it originally for his kids. The Lord of the Rings is decidedly not a children’s book, but I read it as a child. So when I say I write for a young audience, I don’t necessarily mean only what today’s marketing departments would label “children’s fiction.” I’m talking about timeless, wonderful stories; that’s what I aspire to.


MPPL: You also write for adult audiences. How do you know when a story you are telling is going to be YA or Adult reading?

FSD: I often don’t know until I’ve gotten a ways into the writing. If it gets too long, if it gets too complex, if it gets too dark or violent, there comes a time when I think, “Okay. This is probably for grown-ups.” That’s not to say that all my stories start out as kids’ stories. Sometimes thematically, I just know it’s an adult story from the outset. For example, “The Bone Man” (Fantasy & Science Fiction, December 2007) is told from the POV (point of view) of a hit man who is a moral vacuum. I knew right away that wasn’t going to be for Cricket!


MPPL: When you are writing for a younger audience, how does your writing style change? Is it a conscious choice?

FSD: There’s relatively little change because I’m always writing for myself. I never write “down” to kids. If the story doesn’t entertain me, I don’t think it would entertain anyone, and it’s not worth writing. When I know I’m writing for a children’s market, I just have to focus carefully. There isn’t the space for digressions, extensive descriptions, or interior monologues. And of course, I try not to kill off too many characters! When I know I’m writing for adults, I guess there is a kind of relaxing. For grown-ups, you don’t have to be as presentable or quite as responsible. They’re more prepared to make intuitive leaps. They have more life experience, so they will naturally work with you more, for better or worse. Usually for better, I believe.


MPPL: Who are some of your favorite characters in fantasy?Elrond from Lord of the Rings

FSD: Elrond. He’s both a formidable warrior (just look to the Second Age!) and a wise scholar.

Master Nathaniel Chanticleer in Lud-in-the-Mist. I want to be him when I’m in my fifties.

Molly Grue in The Last Unicorn. I think I understand her. No one writes characters like Peter S. Beagle.

Toad in The Wind in the Willows.

Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I can count that, right?)

Peter Pan. He is me!


MPPL: The Star Shard was originally a novella serialized in Cricket, what was the process like of re-writing it as a novel?

FSD: Oh my goodness, it was not easy. Imagine that you have a shirt that fits a two-year-old. It’s a perfectly good shirt, complete, functional, newly-laundered. Then you set out to make it fit an adult. You’re defying natural law. First, I took the Cricket story and tried to add more on to the end of it. What I got was two books, uncomfortably joined at the hip, and publishers didn’t hesitate to point that out to me. So then I realized the story should end where the Cricket story ended, but that meant expanding a lot on what was already there, adding subplots and so on. That’s when the hard work really began. A publisher liked my draft, but wanted the characters to be older, about 16-17, with more romance. I tried that and didn’t like it. The editors of a major house did, and they were within inches of making an offer, but they were overruled at the last second by the marketing department. Eventually, we found Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and a wonderful editor who appreciated the original version and let me bring the ages back down again to where they belonged. I did a lot more revision, and finally we have the book as it is today. My editor at HMH is very insightful and wise. This was the most difficult of all ways for a novel to be born. I guess that means it was meant to come into the world. A very significant point is that it was shaped and refined by every one of those stages, even the directions that weren’t right for it. Every step of the odyssey left its mark and its relics. The book is stronger for its long journey.


The Star Shard book coverMPPL: In The Star Shard, the main character, Cymbril, is a 12-year-old girl. In Dragonfly, your main character is also female. Do you purposefully write female fantasy leads or is that “just the way the story comes out”?

FSD: Neither of those were conscious choices, so I guess your theory is right: those were the stories that found me, and those were the characters that stood in front of my desk, hands on their hips, demanding to be written about.

Honestly, I don’t know why cross-gender POV characters aren’t more common. As a guy, I like women. If I’m going to sit in a very narrow seat with someone for 304 pages, I’d much rather it be a fascinating woman than some dude like me.

But for the record, to give you some perspective, I have three novels that have yet to find publishers. In one, the protagonist is a young boy. In another, it’s a man in his thirties. In the third, yes, I’m back to a teenage female POV. In a fourth, which is in the pipeline with Black Gate Books, there are multiple female protagonists. So you’re right:  more often than not, I seem to be drawn to female characters.


MPPL: In The Star Shard, the Thunder Rake, a massive city on wheels, almost becomes a character. How did you come up with the Thunder Rake?

FSD: I was considering this question recently, and it occurred to me that the Thunder Rake comes most directly from the old barn I played in as a kid. Like the Thunder Rake, the barn was a place of shadowy secrets – main walkways, ladders, stalls, a loft, and closed-off spaces that only we kids could wriggle into. Like the Rake, the barn had architecture that was added to over the years by different farmers with different purposes, so nothing matched up perfectly. Weird creatures inhabited it, both of the scaly and winged varieties. There were cats and dogs. Danger was ever-present, the possibility of real injury. But it was, in my childhood, a place for kids, a structure that adults had all but abandoned. One farmer stored hay bales there (which became our building blocks), but the horses were long gone. Sun through the blanketing vines filled it with green light. It was stamped with the marks of generations of previous occupants and owners, and yet it was ours alone for the time we were there. That combination of functionality and history, of dimness and memory and mystery – that is precisely the atmosphere of the Thunder Rake.


MPPL: Would you ever write any other stories aboard the Thunder Rake or about its origins?

FSD: Absolutely! Cymbril’s story is conceived as a trilogy. In Book Two, there’s a lot more about the Thunder Rake. I have thought about its origins, too, and that would make a good story as well, how Master Tycho (Rombol’s father) put it together and got it rolling. Before it was a Rake, though, it was already old . . .


MPPL: In your books, setting is integral to the plot. Can you think of a setting in

Balin's Tomb in Moria illustration

"Balin's Tomb in Moria" by Tony Galuidi

another writer’s novel that you wished to all-get-out that you’d thought of first?

FSD: Moria! Or Khazad-dum, I should say, because that’s when it was more visitor-friendly. Think about what Tolkien gave us with Moria. The whole premise of Dungeons & Dragons was spawned by those one-and-a-half chapters. Oh, how the dark mansions of the Dwarves enchanted my imagination as a pre-teen! In the history of our genre since then, the shadow of Moria looms large.


MPPL: Can you think of a famous setting that you’d love to write in (if only for your own personal fan-fic)?

FSD: I thought long and hard about this question, but no, I really can’t. The settings that I love in great works of fantasy are so uniquely the authors’ own that no one else could do them justice. And I have so many of my own that I want to write in…I just don’t have time to think about writing fan-fic!


MPPL: Are there any quirks to your writing process? (Ex:  Jonathan Franzen staring at a blank wall listening to white noise on headphones, Truman Capote could only think while lying down, Carson McCullers had a lucky sweater she wrote in…)

FSD: I tend to work out plot problems and answer questions for myself when I’m walking. Long walks seem integral to my writing process. I also do a lot of my best work at a kitchen table or on a park bench – places that aren’t primarily designed for writing, where there’s other stuff going on, but not stuff that’s too distracting. I like to have people nearby who aren’t demanding my attention.


MPPL: Are you firmly rooted within writing fantasy or are there other genres you’d like to explore?

FSD: I’ve tried writing literary fiction before, but invariably, some fantastic element finds its way in. For instance, the closest I’ve done to a non-fantasy story was one that appeared in Cicada in January-February of 2006. Called “A Tale of Silences,” it’s set in a remote mountain village in Japan in 1970, a quarter-century after WWII. It’s about a way of life that’s ending. A new dam is being built which will mean the evacuation of the community, the relocation of people who have lived there all their lives. The main character is an old man spending his last year in the village before it’s shut down. His life is intertwined in various ways with those of his neighbors as they remember the ghosts of their past and contemplate the future – sounds very literary, right? But then the old man meets a giant bear who is the nushi of the mountain, its guardian spirit . . .

Japanese Mountain village photograph

Photograph by Michael S. Yamashita/National Geographic Stock

I think I’m rooted pretty firmly in fantasy. But fantasy covers a wide range of writing. As you know, I recently wrote a weird alternate history story. I live on the border between fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror. One reviewer has said that in The Star Shard, “the charm of old-school fantasy blends with the mechanics of steampunk.” I’d like to explore all these subgenres more. The latest piece I’ve finished is a tiny burst of flash fiction that’s a dramatic monologue with no supernatural element.

An idea that’s been returning to me again and again lately, that doesn’t want to leave me alone, is what would be a memoir of one particular year in my life – a story about memory and transition and discovery and family. It would be like nothing else I’ve ever done, and I’m not sure what shape it would take. I guess I’d better not jinx it by talking it to death! But as I understand it now, it would have very few overt fantasy elements – maybe none – except that the world around us and the experiences we go through are all numinous.


MPPL: What’s the hardest element of storytelling for you? What takes the most work to get on the page?

FSD: Oh, man, getting started. I’m a very slow starter, and I will think of a thousand things to do before starting any actual writing. One summer, I built two model ships of my own design out of balsa wood, because I wanted to use them as reference when I wrote about events taking place inside and on them. These are ships, with intricate pieces, delicate threads, etc. Then I painted the ships. Then I made some little fired-clay crew members to go on the decks, and I painted those . . . I’m like an 18-wheeler, a semi truck: once I’m rolling, there’s mass and power in the momentum, and I can keep up a high wordcount day after day, and that’s when I’m happiest. But it takes an awful lot of force to overcome the inertia and get all that moving. Like all writers, I’m miserable when I’m not writing, but I find ways to prolong that misery. Then it’s like a static charge builds up, like a thunderstorm moving in. I get more and more agitated. When it’s unbearable, there’s an arc, a lightning bolt, and I start writing, and there’s blessed relief. I know, this sounds like a certain brand of insanity. I suppose that’s what writing is.


MPPL: Do you know your ending before you start writing?

FSD: Yes and no. I know it as you might know a relative you haven’t met. You know about this person; you’ve heard the family stories, seen a photo or two. I don’t know many details of the ending, but I know very generally what has to happen. Discovering all the territory and events along the way are, for me, what keeps the book alive and interesting. When I get to the ending, it’s never quite the ending I thought I knew, but I understand why it is that way.

You really can’t make your characters do anything- or you shouldn’t, anyway. They act and thinkCharlotte's Web book cover like the living people they are, and the paths they take are what shapes the ending.


MPPL: Speaking of endings, if you could butcher the timeless prose of a past author and change someone’s ending…is there an ending in literature that you’d change?

FSD: You’ve stumped me again. I’ve scoured my memory, and I just don’t have any such experience. Yes, there were endings that upset me. I remembering during free reading time in first grade when I finished Charlotte’s Web, and I was sitting there at my desk crying buckets, hoping no one would notice. The ending hurt, but I was crying over how right E.B. White was. That experience made me realize how powerful books can be. I knew that I wanted to write books like that, or die trying.


MPPL: At WFC 2011,  you read a story that was chock full of pig-spiders, guns and action hero adventure. Do you have any more Die Hard fantasy thrillers to be told?

FSD: I would like to produce a whole collection of stories about that same main character in the same general setting. That story was a delight to write! There are so many possibilities to explore there. Yes, I love action sequences. They’re the easiest scenes in the world to create, and telling an action story is therapeutic.


MPPL: You spent a large number of years working as a teacher in Japan. Do you think that your ex-pat experiences have affected your writing or the stories that you want to tell?

FSD: Yes. Everything we live through affects our writing and our perceptions of story. For one thing, I’ve been an alien in a different culture, so when I write about the encounters between characters of different species or different worlds, I have some real emotional truth to draw upon. There are commonalities that link sentient beings together, but there are also real differences in thought patterns, reflected in language and culture. I’ve waded neck-deep in those differences. I’ve swum in them!

What’s funny is when the Japan part of my life influences a story in ways that I don’t realize. One of my test readers was confused about a strange bathtub I had included in a story. When she asked what was going on, it dawned on me that it was a Japanese-style bathtub. I’d been there for so long that I wrote it that way without thinking.

I think the perspective of having lived overseas has broadened my view of things, which helps me as a writer. The world is wider and older than we are usually conscious of. There are cultures besides ours.


MPPL: Are there any stories you’ve wanted to write, but you can’t corral onto the

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael or Holy Grail by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Damsel of the Sanct Grael or Holy Grail by Dante Grabriel Rossetti

page? Is there a Holy Grail of Durbin writing yet to be done?

FSD: Oh, wow. That book I made those ships for . . . I started that eighteen years ago. I spent the first five years (after the model-making) producing a version that I thought was finally ready to show to editors and agents, and everyone hated it. It was as inaccessible as Ulysses, with none of the brilliance of James Joyce. Then I spent another several years writing a radically different draft with a greatly different plot using the same characters and basic premise, but with a more focused storyline. This time, instead of the pros, I showed it to a few friends. Again, the response was underwhelming. I wanted people to fall in love with it, but they were like, “Wow. That’s…complex.” The thing was about 150,000 words long.

What happened was this: I was creating a world from scratch, and it was so different from our own that human readers were lost. They had no footing on which to base their perceptions. Out of 338 single-spaced pages, 49 of them were glossary. Can you imagine a fifty-page glossary that you really need to refer to all the time? I would have sentences in the text that were more than half in the jargon of the story’s world. And that’s just not cool. I’d spent so long with the world that it all made sense to me, but it didn’t to anyone else.

I haven’t worked on it for a long time. Someday, hopefully before much longer, I’d like to go back and rework it. I’d like to keep the richness and grandeur, but make it comprehensible and compelling. Yes, that’s a Holy Grail, because I don’t know yet if it’s doable.


MPPL: Are you at all worried or interested in the shift of reading from book to e-book?

FSD: I’m not worried. It’s one of those things that there’s utterly no point in my worrying about. Since I’m still thinking about that book I was just describing, I’ll draw an analogy. In one of the rare lucid moments – heh, heh! – there’s a scene in which a tiger-like beast charges from the jungle into a semicircle of men who are on the ground, at the foot of some scaffolding. No one is significantly armed and no one has time to climb to safety. It becomes simply a question of which man the predator will choose.

All the shifts we face as writers and book-lovers are like that, in a way, and I don’t mean it to sound fatalistic. E-books are emerging. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are vanishing. Mid-list careers are disappearing. We can’t control these things, and we can’t run.

What we have some control over is what we write. We can calmly keep telling our stories, singing from the depths of our souls, and trusting that stories endure.

Am I interested? Yes, I’d like to try out an e-book. I don’t expect I’ll like it as well as I love the heft and texture and smell of a real book, but if someone gave me an e-book, I’d use it.


The Knife Thrower and Other Stories book coverMPPL: Speaking of reading, what was the last great book that you read?

FSD: I thought Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October was a lot of fun. I don’t know if “great” is the right word, but it was clever, unique, and highly enjoyable. It belongs on the smallish shelf of books I’d like to revisit. This one is especially good for the Halloween season.

The last great book I read was probably Steven Millhauser’s The Knife Thrower and Other Stories. Millhauser is a virtuoso. I love this book and his Enchanted Night novella with a passion.


MPPL: Are there any bookstores (online or brick and mortar) that you wanna give a shout out to?

FSD: I would most certainly like to thank Beyond Bedtime Books in Dormont, Pittsburgh and Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley, Pennsylvania for hosting book-launchings for The Star Shard! Readers can watch my web site for the dates and times. (Their addresses and phone numbers are on my site, too.) All we know so far is that the event at Beyond Bedtime Books will be on April 21st, and that the composer of the book’s music, Dorothy VanAndel Frisch, will also be present!

I’d also like to thank Barnes & Noble for stocking, in most cases, multiple copies of the book in their stores! Hurray!

There are six vendors listed on my site, all clickable links, all places where The Star Shard is available. They are: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, IndieBound, and Powell’s.


MPPL: What about favorite libraries that people should visit if they are in town?

FSD: Well, yours, but it’s not in my town! Here in Pittsburgh, The Place to Go is the Carnegie Library. It is sprawling and totally tremendous, with locations all over the area. On my blog, I recently posted an aerial view of the main branch. When I visited Pittsburgh before moving here, the Carnegie Library was a big plus in this town’s favor. It even has dinosaurs!



When he’s not being kind to interruptive librarians, Frederic S. Durbin can be found writing novels and teaching creative writing workshops. He’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and also of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. For more information on Frederic S. Durbin, check out his website or drop him a line on GoodReads.

If you want more suggestions of YA fantasy novels with adult crossover appeal, stop by the Library’s Fiction/AV/Teen desk, or click here.

By Readers' Advisor on March 29, 2012 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Interviews

A Talk with Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer author photoAre you interested in ominous cities covered in creeping, mysterious fungi? What about flamboyant narrators, noir and the New Weird? Yeah? Good. Sit down a spell and have a listen to a man who has written it all – Jeff VanderMeer. The two-time World Fantasy Award winner and creator of Ambergris talked a slice of time to MPPL about music, new writers and a hep bit of miscellaneous more.

Mount Prospect Public Library:  What do you think are the three best, new albums to come out in 2011?

Jeff VanderMeer: That’s tough for me because I haven’t listened consistently to a lot of music. What I can tell you is that I’m really high on The Black Keys’ El Camino, and the latest releases by Ringside, Three Mile Pilot, Steve Wynn, and the Rosebuds.

MPPL:  Who are three bands that you “discovered” in 2011 and now can’t live without?

JV: I really delved back into bands I already knew, for the most part. However, I can say I can’t live without Murder by Death, Black Heart Procession, and the sadly defunct Pleasure Forever.

Murder by Death band photo

MPPL:  You have blogged about working with Murder by Death to create a soundtrack for Finch. How did you first find their music?

JV: That’s a really good question. I believe I heard a song from Red of Tooth and Claw, and just started to explore them more and more from there, picking up a lot of their back catalogue at the local CD store. I really love what you might call dark alt-country or Americana, stuff that’s also very dynamic and atmospheric, and they fit the bill. They tell stories a lot, too, which I like.

MPPL:  What was it about their music that drew you to approach them about creating a soundtrack?

JV: I was listening to their music a lot while I worked on my novel Finch, which while fantasy has a really dark noir side to it, and again their music really clicked with me. So since I’d been inspired while writing, I thought perhaps they might be inspired to do a soundtrack. I really think it came out beautifully—it’s just a wonderful, wonderful CD. Sometimes I catch a track on Pandora and I think “what the heck is that amazing stuff?” and I look and it’s from the soundtrack. They even reproduced a song by a band in the novel, using the same instruments.

MPPL:  What sort of music do you think Thackery T. Lambshead liked?

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities book coverJV: Wow. I’ve never thought about that before. I’m tempted to say more experimental classical, but he might also like a bit of jazz. But for all I know he was completely contemporary up until his death and loved the Beatles and Radiohead and all of that stuff.

MPPL:  If you were to gather musicians to be on a dream soundtrack for the Thackery T. Lambshed anthologies…who would be on your shortlist?

JV: The anthologies are so broad that we could get a lot of different bands in. I think definitely return to Murder by Death and The Church (who did a soundtrack for my second Ambergris novel), along with Black Heart Procession, Murder City Devils (if they were still around!), Spoon, Radiohead, Robbers on the High Street, and…hmmm. So many possibles it’s hard to narrow it down, but probably get Ray Davies to do a lot of it, to be honest. My co-editor and wife Ann would want XTC and British power pop in the mix.

MPPL:  The most recent Lambshead collection was The Thackery T. Lambshed Cabinet of Curiosities, is there another one coming down the line?

JV: There are rumors of a Lambshead bestiary, but nothing we can as yet confirm or deny…

MPPL:  Who are three up and coming writers that you’ve recently anthologized that everyone should know?

JV: Amal El-Mohtar is a really great new writer as is new Swedish sensation Karin Tidbeck, along with Micaela Morrissette. A couple who aren’t new but really ought to be better-known are Karin Lowachee and Michael Cisco.

MPPL:  Similarly, what are three online journals that everyone should know about?

JV: Collapse isn’t necessarily online-only, but I think they do important work and I’m always fascinated by what they put together. The World SF Blog is doing very cool stuff, and do publish fiction. You can’t go wrong with either the online version of Rain Taxi or the content that Conjunctions posts online. All the usual suspects I think people already know about, like Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy Magazine.

The Weird book coverMPPL:  Speaking of online journals, the Weird Fiction Review is one of your new online endeavors. Why the focus on publishing nonfiction rather than fiction?

JV: WFR is a joint enterprise from my wife Ann and me that aims to be an online repository of all things related to weird fiction, headlined to begin with by our massive 750,000-word, 100-year, 1,200-page overview of weird fiction, The Weird (Atlantic). We actually do run fiction, although at a somewhat slower pace than the nonfiction. We’ve published interviews with the likes of Thomas Ligotti, Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, and Tanith Lee, features on Jean Ray, Leonora Carrington, and critical pieces by China Miéville, among others. Fiction has included Caitlin R. Kiernan, Jean Ray, Kathe Koja, Jerome Bixby, Steve Rasnic Tem, and much more. We’ve published several pieces of fiction in translation, as well, by Leena Krohn, Jean Ferry, and Michal Ajvaz.

MPPL:  What’s been the biggest joy to come out of the WFR so far?

JV: Just about everything, to be honest. We love weird fiction and we’re in our element. We’ve also done so much research for The Weird and other reprint anthologies that it allows us to share a lot of what couldn’t go into our books, as well as follow up on leads to bring readers a lot of things they cannot find anywhere else. We also have a brilliant site design by Luis Rodrigues that makes us look extremely good. Also, this sense of community—that people understand and appreciate that we’re a nexus for all kinds of weird fiction and nonfiction. We’re not an advocate for the Lovecraftians or the Ligottians, or European weird or any particular group, but for all of it. We’re also operating at what we feel is an extremely high level of quality and readers appreciate that.

MPPL:  What about the biggest hardship?Finch Soundtrack cover

JV: It does take a lot of our time, and the time of our many volunteers—your donations really do make a difference. We feel like it’s a blessing for the most part, though, and we’re happy to have added new columnists like Nancy Hightower, Edward Gauvin, Matthew Pridham, and more. I mean, who else but Gauvin could have brought us news of the Weird Questionnaire?

MPPL:  What was the last excellent book you read?

JV: Hygiene and the Assassin by Amelie Nothomb blew my mind and made me re-evaluate certain aspects of narrative in my own writing. So did The Great Lover by Michael Cisco.

MPPL:  What about the next book you’re dying to read?

JV: I am just about three-fourths of the way through Murakami’s latest, and one recent joy was getting to interview him. As for upcoming books, I have a whole bunch of novels from the Europa imprint that I want to make headway on. I also have finally picked up Tristram Shandy and hope to read it soon. I have more and more given up on trying to stay current with genre books and to instead pursue all kinds of other enthusiasms.

MPPL:  Finally, what do you look forward to working on in the new year?

JV: My last novel was Finch in 2009, but I am currently finishing up work on a new one called Borne, as well as something called The Book Murderer and another novel called The Journals of Doctor Mormeck. In addition to writing Wonderbook, a unique visual guide to writing fiction from Abrams Image.


For all things VanderWeird, click it over to Jeff VanderMeer’s blog and the Weird Fiction Review. Then stop on by the Library’s Fiction/AV/Teen desk for Jeff VanderMeer’s books and other fantasy recommendations.

By MPPL on December 22, 2011 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Interviews

A Talk with Amal El-Mohtar

The Honey Month book cover When you taste honey, do you think of ravenfolk, the wicked and the lovely? Do you find sex, death and trickery on your tongue? Ms. Amal El-Mohtar does. Amal was given 28 vials of honey. She tasted one vial per day over the course of one month and wrote down her impressions – some days in prose, others in poetry. These writings have been published as The Honey Month.

Here is the Library’s chat with Ms. El-Mohtar:

Mount Prospect Public Library:  Do you think poetry is as important today as it was in the ages of Milton, Keats or even Ginsberg?

AMAL EL-MOHTAR:  I think it depends on where you are and what’s going on. I was raised with the understanding that poetry was a Big Deal, and that To Be a Poet was a huge deal. To Be a Poet was to speak for your generation, your nation, your historical moment, to raise your voice above empty noise or enforced silence and speak what couldn’t otherwise be spoken. But my parents grew up in the context of civil war and unrest in Lebanon, and my grand-father spoke poetry while imprisoned for his politics, so my perspective is informed by their experience.

It’s very interesting to me that the most common reaction I see people having to poetry is one of recoil, one of I don’t understand. I wonder, sometimes, if that lack of understanding comes from not needing to understand – from not having anything in one’s life that yearns and longs for articulation in a way that prose can’t quite satisfy.

MPPL:  Do you think that the value that was placed on poets and writers has shifted to other artistic cultures or dried up completely?

AE:  I don’t like to think of things ever drying up completely, unless we’re talking about the evaporation necessary before precipitation. So let’s say shifted – phase-shifted, even. Also I’m suspicious of any “it was so much better back then” rhetoric; I might think of the early nineteenth century as a time when literature really mattered, or when a writer could make a significant wage from their work, but how many people could read, then, versus now? Who was placing that cultural value, and deciding what culture was? I don’t know – but I’d rather not assume that things have gone downhill, I suppose.

MPPL:  Who are three dead poets you’d have everyone know?

AE:  Oh, just three! Augh! And there are so many dead poets I have yet to know as well as I should, like Edna St. Vincent-Millay, whom I can’t believe I’m only just developing an acquaintance with! Keats, Rossetti, H.D., off the top of my head, because theirs are poems I sing, but you’ve gone and made me leave out Shakespeare and Yeats only on the basis that everyone probably DOES know them, but then that could go for my mentioned three as well, so maybe I ought to think of obscure poets, but then I won’t stop, and anyway if everyone knew all the poets I loved I wouldn’t be able to introduce them to anyone, so I think I’ll leave it at that.

MPPL:  What about three living poets folks should know? Into the Night Garden book cover

AE:  Catherynne M. Valente, Lisel Mueller, Sonya Taaffe, though again, the list could and should go on and on and on. Robin Robertson! David O’Meara! JoSelle Vanderhooft! Ach.

MPPL:  The Honey Month isn’t a book of poetry and it isn’t a book of prose, what is it? Where would you want it found in a library or bookstore?

AE:  I think I’d love it to be shelved in Fantasy. That’s what it is, more than anything else, I think – though I daresay readers of poetry tend to be more forgiving of prose in their books than vice versa, so perhaps it should be in poetry. But in my ideal imagined world, someone would see it in the Fantasy section with a hand-written shelf-talker beneath it proclaiming it to be delicious, and home it would go with a curious bystander who’s always kind of liked honey and has been dazzled by Oliver Hunter’s art, and who then, after reading it, thinks “well, if that’s poetry, that wasn’t so bad,” and start attending local readings and open up to a shiny new art form.

MPPL:  With all the free form writing going on, when does a piece stop being a poem and become prose?

AE:  This is how I think of it: the difference between poetry and prose is the difference between singing and speaking. You are using a different part of your brain. You are performing a different action, though you are using the same physical muscles.

MPPL:  Were you to put music to The Honey Month, who do you think the ideal musician(s) would be?

AE:  Oh, what a beautiful thought! I have had one very dear musician friend whose work I adore suggest she’d be interested, so S. J. Tucker is the first to spring to mind – but honestly, I don’t want to think of ideals here so much as of how profoundly grateful I would be to have anyone be inspired enough by my words to make art of their own. I don’t want the limit of the Platonic – I want to hope for a wellspring of songs and tunes from different people, as many flavours of sound as there are flavours of honey, and more.

MPPL:  Does music feature into your writing process?

AE:  Absolutely. Characters often have playlists; a given musical mood will seep into a story here or a poem there. Sometimes when I really want to write but nothing’s coming, I put on ache-inducing songs and transcribe the lyrics until something breaks and pours out.

MPPL:  If The Honey Month became an audiobook and you had an unlimited budget, what actor(s) would you want to read it aloud?

AE:  Oh wow. Ideally I’d want many different voices, I think, for different pieces – and different accents and cadences. Similarly to the music question, I just feel that the aggregated nature of this project requires something similar in performance. I’d want some pieces sung and some pieces spoken, some pieces acted, perhaps another (Ugandan Honey!) danced… But again, less a matter of big names than of people who’ve loved it and want to make something of it.
MPPL:  Was there a day that was harder to write than others?

AE:  There were a few that I had to sit with for a while, and that didn’t come easily, or that I wasn’t quite happy with when they were done. Day 4, Raspberry Rose Honey, I didn’t feel I had quite right by the end of it; Day 13, Black Locust Blossom Honey, came out as a villanelle, and trying to keep the rhymes from jangling awkwardly was tricky; Day 20, Blackberry Honey (2), begins “It’s gone, now” because I sat down with my head swimming with wants and needs and the desire to pour it all out, but then it just vanished, and I had nothing to say except that I had nothing to say. It came ’round to something eventually, but that loss was palpable.

MPPL:  How about giving a shout out to a few of your favorite bookstores and libraries?

AE:  Oh, definitely! My favourite bookstore is hands-down Perfect Books, in Ottawa, Canada, where I worked for five years, and felt I got to be part of a family; also in Ottawa is Collected Works, which has a gorgeous poetry selection, in addition to a non-Starbucks coffee shop and splendid staff and performance space. The Ottawa Public Library (Metcalf branch, represent!) is dear to me, as is the University of Ottawa’s (MORISSETTE!) library, but dearest is the Aylmer Public Library, which is in a new location attached to Aylmer’s City Hall, but previously was in a gorgeous old building which used to be a prison and is almost certainly haunted. That’s where I spent hundreds of childhood hours, and where I first felt any measure of autonomy, being able to bike there by myself whenever I wanted. I also adore the Comic Book Shoppe on Bank Street in Ottawa.

MPPL:  What was the last excellent book you read?

AE:  Oh gosh. I’ve got a pile of NO DOUBT excellent books TO read, and am in the middle of Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch, which is awesome so far, but the last excellent thing I read was the last volume of the Scott Pilgrim comics, ‘coz I re-devoured them all over Christmas.
MPPL:  What writing projects do you have in the fire (outside of your PhD work and Goblin Fruit)? Goblin Fruit online magazine logo

AE:  I want to build up more of my Steampunky Damascus, and revisit some of the characters from “To Follow the Waves” — but I also want to revisit the world of “The Green Book,” and wrap my brain around the science required for my sentient-diamond-oceans story. Also I want to finally freakin’ write a novel, but the biggest writing project I currently have on my plate is my PhD thesis (about representations of fairies and other supernatural creatures in Romantic-era British writing), and it gets priority. Still, the World Fantasy Convention is happening in Toronto in 2012, and I would dearly love to have a novel to promote at that point, assuming the world hasn’t ended.

Bonus Round

Fill in the blanks:

On Sunday afternoons I am composing hand-written letters to my best beloveds and on Wednesdays at 3 a.m. I am dreaming of ritualized adventure.

The first time I realized the world epically sucked was while watching a documentary about how we’re destroying the planet, I think. But I can’t remember how old I was. Otherwise it’s when I was seven, and saw a young boy selling gum on the streets of Beirut, and my grand-mother explained to me that he did that to support his baby sister because their parents had been killed in the civil war.

The first time I realized the world was epically beautiful was when I saw just how many stars there were in the sky, far away from city lights.
Swordspoint book cover Were I to duel any character in fictional history, it’d be St. Vier from Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, because I would be training with him in the ideal world that exists in my head.

With one day left in life, I would read some of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, eat acres of my mom’s tabbouli and sing all the songs my sister and I know together.

By MPPL on January 27, 2011 Categories: Books, Fantasy & Sci-Fi, Interviews

A Talk with Glenn Taylor

Marrowbone Marble Company book coverGlenn Taylor is the author of The Marrowbone Marble Company. In it we meet Loyal Ledford, an orphan who becomes a working class man then a whiskey-drenched WWII vet and finally the proprietor of an egalitarian marble factory in West Virginia during the violent racial unrest of the 1960s. The Marrowbone Marble Company is founded by Ledford, his half-Indian cousins – the Bonecutter Brothers, a wide-eyed, philosophical preacher and Mack Wells – an African American man well aware of the civil strife associated with skin color. Equality becomes a battle and Ledford finds himself fighting for the future of the Marrowbone, its workers and his family.

MPPL chatted with Glenn Taylor about The Marrowbone Marble Company and more.

MPPL:  What sparked the idea for The Marrowbone Marble Company and how long has it been stewing around on your desk?

GLENN TAYLOR:  I had been reading a good bit about World War II, after having picked up a copy of Donald L. Miller’s The Story of World War II. It really got to me, reading of what young men endured, and I began to recognize how young enlisted men and women are still enduring it today. I teach several sections of required Freshman Composition each semester, and inevitably, I always have a few students who have recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. Once, when I asked a particularly bright and thoughtful young man (who had served three tours) how he had come to be in the military, he told me, “I enlisted on September 12, 2001.” That kind of answer sticks with you. I had Ledford in mind, and I knew that after Pearl Harbor, Ledford was the type to do the same thing my student did. Beyond this little spark of instigation, I was very drawn to glass making. And, like always, I feel compelled to write of folks who struggle against oppression.

MPPL:  Some writers can’t or don’t write about a certain setting until they have lived there and left. For example, Joyce wrote all his best work set in Ireland after he’d left his home country. The Marrowbone Marble Company is set in West Virginia, as was your first novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, how tied to place are you as a writer?

GT:  I am very tied to place. The question here is so insightful that it reveals its own answer. For me, it took leaving home to discover how to write about it. I spent the first eighteen years of my life in West Virginia, and during that time I was not drawn to investigate its history. Only upon moving to Texas did I fully develop the pride that leads to digging up the past. And what a past it is. Only upon moving to Illinois did I fully develop an appreciation for hilly terrain. And what hills they are.

MPPL:  It’s been said that there is a “hidden south,” meaning that there’s the magazine Southern Living and then there’s real life. Does that idea hold true to you? If so, who are the people and places of your “hidden south?”

GT:  I suppose the people and places of my “hidden south” are those oft misunderstood people of Matewan DVD coverthe southern coalfields of West Virginia. My father grew up in Matewan, Mingo County, and I visited there quite a bit as a child. It’s a complex place that the national media has not ever taken the time to understand. The people are diverse and tough and possess great ingenuity, I think. Yet, the civic resources to build on such qualities are long since gone. The boom and bust of the coal industry has left some scarring and heartache in its wake. The “hidden” part comes about in the media presentations of the people of such areas. These presentations usually involve very little historical perspective, so that contemporary viewers never realize how relatively socially and racially progressive such places once were, before the money disappeared.

MPPL:  What kind of research did you wrestle through to nail down the setting in The Marrowbone Marble Company?

GT:  The book takes place in Huntington, my hometown, and in Wayne County, my neighboring county, so I had that advantage. Time was more of a stumbling block than place. And the spot where I envisioned Marrowbone Cut itself is now covered over by a 1200 acre, man-made lake, so that was a challenge. I suppose it was a combination of reading and talking to older folks. I read books like Huey Perry’s They’ll Cut off Your Project, and I talked to people like C. Michael Gray, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement in Huntington and elsewhere.

MPPL:  Were there any bits of phenomenal research that grabbed your brain that you couldn’t squeeze into the novel?

GT:  So many accounts of World War II experiences were either too painful or too beyond my realm of understanding to fully convey. I felt strange just trying to write about a few select days on Guadalcanal, as if I was treading ground I shouldn’t be, having never served in the military. Beyond that, there was research on glass blowing that was fascinating that simply didn’t fit, as well as a wealth of knowledge concerning the War on Poverty.

MPPL:  Do you think you’ll ever write any full-length nonfiction?

GT:  I’m open to it. It would probably be down the road a ways.

MPPL:  How’s about a short story collection?

GT:  Though I’m open to that too, I don’t foresee ever returning to the short form. I’m simply not as good at it. In hindsight, there was a reason for all those rejection slips over the years. Some writers can make stories feel full, like little novels. Mine have traditionally run the risk of seeming gimmicky, or too clever for their own good. We’ll have to wait and see if I have the time and energy to change that down the road.

MPPL:  Speaking of short stories, have you read any good ones lately?

GT:  Yes. I’m reading Ron Rash’s Burning Bright, and they are all good. He is a true storyteller, no gimmick.

MPPL:  Do you have a favorite bookstore around Chicagoland?

GT:  I must admit my lack of experience here. Where we live, the chains are easiest to visit. Beyond those, I’ve visited a decent range of city and suburban stores, yet I haven’t scratched the surface. I’ve been to Quimby’s, which I found very unique and interesting. I like the other style too, the old “stacked to the ceiling” kind, like Jack’s Used Books on Northwest Highway used to be. I got a signed first edition of a Harry Crews book there once upon a time. And I look forward to doing a reading at The Book Table in Oak Park. I hear it’s a great one.

MPPL:  What about favorite libraries you’ve visited while winding around on book tours?

GT:  I did a reading once at Barnes & Noble Georgetown, and it was embarrassingly sparsely attended. But the trip was worth it in the end, as I spent a day at the Library of Congress. It was incredible. I filled out the paperwork, got my researcher card, and had at it. I could’ve spent a year inside those rooms. Little staircases connected little alcoves of book-lined treasure chests, room after room after room. A couple was getting married in the main hall. Hell of a library.


Bonus Round:

MPPL:  In a bout of drag-down, knock-out literary fisticuffs, who would win in a cage match?

Flannery O’Connor vs. Carson McCullers

GT:  O’Connor. She’d throw mud in the eyes if she had to.

William Faulkner vs. William Gay

GT:  Tough one to call. I suppose Gay might triumph, even if it wasn’t in a totally “fair” manner.

Mark Twain vs. Harper Lee

GT:  Twain would go down by decision and claim later he let her win, but that would be a bald-faced lie.

Stephen King vs. James Patterson

GT:  I’ll go with King here. I heard Patterson has other writers do some of his legwork, which leads me to believe he’d slack on training.

Dorothy Parker vs. Shirley Jackson

GT:  A draw. Neither would manage to do much more than pull a few loose stands of hair out.


Stop by the Fiction/AV desk to find a copy of The Marrowbone Marble Company or Taylor’s first novel, The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart – a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award.



By MPPL on July 15, 2010 Categories: Books, Interviews

A Talk with Joe Meno

The Great Perhaps book coverJonathan Casper is too busy searching for a prehistoric squid to realize his wife is falling out of love with him. Madeline Casper studies the pecking order of pigeons at the University of Chicago and has fallen in love with a man she sees in the clouds. Their eldest child, Amelia, wants to be a revolutionary. Their youngest, Thisbe, searches for God, and Grandpa Henry wants to disappear. If he eats a little less each day, if he speaks one word fewer, if he erases enough memories by writing them down and mailing them away, eventually he will be gone from the world. The Great Perhaps reveals the tense, insular worlds created when families split apart.

The Great Perhaps is Joe Meno’s seventh book. He is a novelist, playwright, music journalist and professor at Columbia College Chicago. Recently, MPPL sat down with Mr. Meno and talked about how libraries intersect with his writing process, the future of the book and his newest endeavor, The Great Perhaps.

MPPL: Do libraries ever play a role in your writing process?

Joe Meno: All throughout undergrad and grad school I almost always got the novels, short story collections and any books that were assigned, at libraries. So I spent tons of time at the Columbia library and I spent a lot of time at the Harold Washington.

I also really like the idea of an actual physical place that is dedicated to books, in the way that I really like the idea of a record store where you can get lost. It kind of makes me a little nervous at the preponderance of music sites and the disappearance of record stores and book stores. Libraries themselves are going to be going more digital and there is less of an opportunity to walk down an aisle and see a title or see a book cover that captures your attention. I can’t tell you how many times I just kind of stumbled on a book. I think it is a very different experience, you know?

There is also something about solitude that I think is very important and I think it is almost the complete opposite of the experience of living in a city. There aren’t too many places of solitude. The idea of spending a couple of minutes imagining by yourself seems really important. So a library is kind of like a temple or a church or an art museum and I feel like those places, as technology increases, become infinitely more important. Almost like an antidote.

MPPL: The Great Perhaps is on the Kindle. What is your stance on gadgets like the Kindle or Sony Reader? Will there always be room in the world for the printed word?

Joe Meno: When the Kindle first came out I was really upset about it. Again because I grew up with records and going to record stores and all that changed so quickly. The disappearance of record stores, it happened within years, literally within three years these places disappeared. And I spent all my teenage years and my early twenties going to record stores and now those places are just gone. Yeah it is definitely more convenient to go online, but then again there is this thing that you are alone and that’s the thing about record stores and libraries, there are other people around you and I’m not saying that you have to have these long conversations, but I feel like there are these places and we are missing out on these opportunities for these moments of surprise and interaction with other people and for the sake of convenience. So I’m not worried. I think people have an innate desire, whether they like it or not, to be around other people. Libraries fill that need, especially with the current economy. Those Kindles are three hundred bucks. I don’t know anyone who has that kind of spare money to shell out. That doesn’t even cover the cost of the title you are downloading. Then there are some people, editors and people I’ve talked to, and maybe they have an environmental concern, you know? They are able to read a book without having to create the book and gasoline to distribute the book and I think that realistically in probably thirty, forty years that the book itself, the actually hardbound book will be a lot more like vinyl records, where…

MPPL: It’s collectible?

Joe Meno: Well not just collectible, not like old jazz records, but records where small labels are now putting something out on vinyl and inside the sleeve there is a download code and then you can download the whole thing to your iPod for free. So if you want the actual object, you can have it. Then it is convenient because you also have it on your iPod.

When the Kindle was released, there were a lot of people and they were ringing their hands that this is the end of the book and I just think it is maybe a moment for reinvention. There is no reason why you can’t have both and some people are going to prefer to read on their Kindle and a lot of people are not going to be able to afford it and they just like the tactile experience of actually holding a book.

The other thing, when you talk about the library as a place, to me a book is. It’s like this really interesting thing. It is this place that you take with you and there is nothing else really like it. It is like a portable world and I just don’t get that same feeling from the Kindle. It is not to disparage those things. It is just that it is different. It’s like the difference between an mp3 and actual vinyl record. So it is like this affordable art object. I take everything from the look of the book and the illustrations, really seriously, because that is how I feel. They are these pieces of art.

MPPL: It always seems like you attempt to make affordable art. For the longest while you attempted to keep your books in paperback rather than hardcover. Has your stance on that changed?

Joe Meno: Well, you know, I have had the great opportunity to work with a lot of different publishers over the course of seven books and certain publishers have certain preferences and a lot of it has a lot to do with libraries. A lot of libraries have a preference for hardcover books over softcover.

There is also this really arcane review system in place where reviewers are more likely to review books if they come in hardcover first. And it’s funny because it is true. I have seen it over and over again with my books. The Great Perhaps got a New York Times Editor’s Choice notice and that’s the first time I’ve had that. I think that the book is really good and everything, but people for whatever reason, have this archaic notion that because it is hardcover it is more legitimate and that is a totally ridiculous idea. So, I love people to be able to afford my books. It makes me honestly really, really nervous to have a book come out in the middle of a recession that is twenty-five dollars and I had a long discussion with my editor at Norton about it. It was ultimately their decision to go ahead with that, but you know in some ways it is the form. Books are so much a part of history and the way you transfer information that sometimes it kind of steps on its own toe or prevents its own development because of these connections it has. I just have a hard time understanding the point of hardcover anymore. Before you could say they last longer if you have hardcover books in a library, but there are tons of paperback books in libraries now and if you were really that concerned about a book withstanding the test of time you could scan it now.

MPPL: Then we get back into a changed experience via reading from a computer instead of a physical object.

Joe Meno: Well you can scan it and print on demand. Hardcover is this weird holdover…like the appendix, you know? It doesn’t really have a function. It is beautiful. The reason we did The Great Perhaps in hardcover was to be an affordable art object, a keepsake. It’s engraved with a cloud on the cover and it is not just this disposable form, but then at the same time it is less affordable than a softcover, but more of an experience. Hardcovers are often times beautiful, but I have complicated feelings about them. I think, again, it is one of those things that with technology in progress you are probably going to see less and less hardcover books, especially with the economy.

MPPL: In general, libraries seem to be ordering more in paperback than they ever have before. Paperbacks used to be secondary copies, if anything, but now with so many small presses and independent workings going on libraries are now giving paperback first editions a chance. Accessibility is key whether that be for paperback or hardcover. Hardcovers will have a hard time disappearing.

Joe Meno: Then at the same time when you are twenty-two and working at a part time job and you want to buy a book, twenty-five bucks is a lot. That is a huge investment especially for something that is a commitment. You don’t know if it is going to be good. Like I said, I have mixed feelings. I think the older I get the more hardcovers I buy. I have a little more money. I love them. I love having them in my house, but to me the goal of a writer is to get as many people in contact with your work as possible and sometimes hardcover is an obstacle to that.

MPPL: Did you know that you keep appearing everywhere?

Joe Meno: Really?

MPPL: A runner-up for the Story Prize against Tobias Wolff and Jhumpa Lahiri. Your nonfiction was in the New York Times Book Review. Most recently a sixteen year old girl came in looking for The Great Perhaps because she had loved Hairstyles of the Damned and The Boy Detective Fails.

Joe Meno: That’s the best. One of my favorite quotes is F. Scott Fitzgerald and he says that you should write for the youth of today, the critics of tomorrow and then the teachers of the generation after that. And I really think that’s true. It really means a lot to hear that you can get someone who has all these other choices and they have all this other stuff going on in their life and they pick up one of your books.

MPPL: Would you discuss why your writing usually has a fantastical or unusual element whether in story or format?

Joe Meno: I try really hard to make each book its own thing. The difference with this book, The Great Perhaps, is that it is very realistic. It is set in a specific time, a couple of weeks in October, with family members who are some of the most complicated characters I’ve ever written and the problems that they have in the family, and the questions of family and what they’re struggling with in their own lives are very realistic. But there are these strange things that happen and the father has this kind of absurd work and there are other things that happen through the book and, to me, it wasn’t a stylistic choice of ‘Oh let’s have something strange happen’ it was, well I actually tried to sit down and write a realistic depiction of the few weeks before the 2004 presidential election. I was trying really hard and the more I wrote the more I thought that there was no way for me to capture what was going on in those weeks without resorting to some kind of surreal or absurd turn of events. That moment, even looking back now, five years later, it seemed like this whole other time in ways, but to be fair, to get to the complexity of what was going on in those weeks, I had to bring in those elements, but I would never want to get to the point where I thought I had to do those things.

I am really happy with the short story collection Demons in the Spring because half of them are surreal or absurdist and the other half are very, very autobiographical or realistic. The writers that I admire, most are not one to limit themselves to one particular style, so to me it is like a challenge that is really, really frustrating because every time you start a book you have to invent a whole new language and the weird things that happened in The Great Perhaps, those surreal moments, they were very, very different than in The Boy Detective Fails which is way more cartoony. Even the language and the forms that you use. What makes it really interesting is that you are kind of starting from scratch every single time and then it actually gets harder because you are like, ‘Well I already did that thing,’ I already did things with the text and making different shapes on the page and I’m not going to go back and do that again or I did a book of very short chapters and so now I’m going to go do a book of longer chapters and the more books you write the less you have to explore so you don’t repeat yourself. So it actually forces you to be way more aware and sharper and that’s great. I feel like the kinds of constraints that you put on yourself as any kind of artist usually have great results. You take that form and use it to create something new and interesting. It is difficult. Every time you start a new book, in the way that I work, you have to invent the form from scratch and make something fit. But that’s what I love and I would hate to get to a point where I think I have run out of ideas or I have gone back to this one thing over and over again because it “works” like writing a sequel or writing something that has the same exact feel as something from before and because some people really, really love one book and hate the next one. There are some people that love Hairstyles and they are really devoted to it and thoughtful about it at readings, but they will be very honest about saying ‘I didn’t like The Boy Detective book.’ And it is really interesting. There are people who get really attached to one book and the next book is not going to be like that one and each time you start over, but it is also with a new audience.

I think there is a group of people who like that idea that ‘This guy is gonna give me something a little bit different every time.’ There are certain things: ideas, approaches, questions and even certain images that I seem to go back to again and again. Stylistically and structurally they are different, but there is definitely a core group of people who like that reinvention and there are other people who, my gosh, I just feel so lucky to have anybody like one book, let alone two. You know? I mean yesterday I got on the train and I saw this person reading Hairstyles of the Damned and what an amazing feeling…somebody is reading my book and if that’s the only book of mine that he reads and likes that’s fine. I would be totally content.

MPPL: Are there any bookstores that have been a key part in your development as a writer?

Joe Meno: Quimby’s. Quimby’s has been so incredibly supportive and has done so many events and I’ve worked so closely with those guys and it feels like home. The more I travel and the more bookstores I visit…It’s really nice because it is almost like in every town there is a bookstore that is similar to Quimby’s, but not quite. That place is its own unique world. You know? That’s how willing they are to work with writers and showcase their work. They are incredibly supportive. And it is an experience, going into that store. You really can’t keep your eyes focused on any one thing. I go to readings there all the time and I’m listening, but a lot of the times your eye is moving from one book to the next and then there’s like this weird Japanese erotica and then amazing art books and then comic books and novels and it is like walking into someone’s imagination which is nice and interesting.

MPPL: Earlier on you mentioned working with five publishers over the course of seven books. What are the criteria you use for the publishers you work with?

Joe Meno: I think the more I publish the more narrow and developed my criteria have become. I sold my first book when I was twenty-two to St. Martins and I was just happy, overjoyed, that someone was going to put my book out. I had no criteria. The only criteria was… ’Are they gonna let me put my name on the cover?’ Even money. Nothing. I didn’t even care about getting paid. Well I did, but that was all secondary. I had worked on this book and just to see it come out in print I felt completely blessed and grateful and I was so young I didn’t know any better. I completely didn’t know anything about publishing. We have these amazing classes at Columbia now, but in the early 90s, I really wasn’t informed. I was happy that somebody put my book out and that’s pretty much all they did. There was no publicity, which was fine.

Then with the next book, again I was still pretty young and didn’t have a real firm grasp on how the industry worked and it was with a bigger publisher, Harper Collins, and the money was better and there was a publicist that was assigned to me and I was like ‘This is amazing.’ It took me a long time to figure out that as a writer I am most happy when I am involved in the entire process and not only writing the book. My argument is that artists need to be involved in the entire process and these great things happen when the publisher allows or invites the writer to have conversations about the cover or about marketing and touring and things like that and so the industry has built opposition. Most corporate publishers really don’t want you involved in any of those decisions. And now after working with Akashic and Norton they’re very similar. They are both independent. Norton is the oldest independent in the country. They have a very similar ethic with keeping the writer involved in the process. So that’s really a deal breaker to me. Am I going to be able to make decisions about the cover, about touring, about publicity and things like that?

MPPL: Whether you are writing about young adults or complex stories about war, there is always a little bit of beautiful heartache in your books. Why?

Joe Meno: I don’t know. It’s really odd. It’s not consciously that this person is going to be sad and this one’s going to be funny. I guess it is just how I experience life and it’s what I find in the books that I love. Faulkner or Toni Morrison or Barthelme. Their writing, there is an element of tragedy but at the same time there is black humor that offsets it. It is just like the music that I love. It doesn’t rely on one particular tone or one particular mood and it moves in-between. Like Faulkner, he is my favorite writer because he does that so well. He moves from these terrible tragedies to moments of grotesque humor and you laugh in spite of yourself and that is really important to me in this book. The whole book is complexity and why we need complexity and history and politics and I needed to and wanted to write a book with complexity in it. The complexity of the characters emotionally and the mood. It is also more than enough to read four hundred pages of sadness and heartbreak. There have to be moments that offset these tragedies and challenges that these characters go through.

MPPL: Or else you end up like Cormac McCarthy. Very good, but very dark.

Joe Meno: The Road is a complete masterpiece, but some of his other work, his earlier works, are so grim that they are really not enjoyable. I mean I can appreciate the writing and the language and what he is doing, but they are not enjoyable to read. I don’t mean it as an escapist, but there is a level of engagement where you are connected to the characters and Blood Meridian, for example, to me is beautifully written but so over the top gruesome that I finished it because I felt like I had to not because I wanted to. I don’t even know though. In The Road there is a scene where they share a can of Coke and the dad lets the kid have the can of Coke and it’s beautiful and so poignant and a touching moment. And that’s probably why I like that book so much more because it feels a little more even and balanced. They eat bacon or whatever, ham, in the basement and they are happy. It is typical for the writers I love to have that dynamic tone or quality to their work.

MPPL: Were there any particular bands that you listened to when you were writing The Great Perhaps?

Joe Meno: Yeah. It was definitely the Beatles. Revolver. The White Album. They came out in ’66 and ’68. The White Album is really expansive. There are four different singers. There are so many different styles of music. The kind of songs that are poppy and ballads and weird, early proto-metal like “Helter Skelter” and country and “Rocky Raccoon” and it tried to contain everything and I love it for that. I mean, I don’t love every song on the double album, but I love their ambition and their intent to do that. Then they also swing wildly from “Revolution” to some totally absurd song like “Honey Pie” where it is so weird and cartoony. I felt like I understood why they had decided to do that. There was a lot of art made in the ‘60s like Slaughterhouse Five and all the early work of Thomas Pynchon that has the same expansive quality where it is surreal and funny and strange and set in a specific historical moment. In The Great Perhaps you have the family riding in the car in the first chapter of the book and they are listening to “Yellow Submarine.” There were a lot of reasons why I picked that song. Jonathan’s search for the squid, but also it is about how I feel the characters are cut off from the rest of the world and each other. They’re in their own little, hermetically sealed world and there is also this really disturbed song playing. It is completely ridiculous and so I wanted to try to translate some of those ideas into a book.

MPPL: Continuing on with music, there are rumblings that you are possibly writing a musical?

Joe Meno: I did!

It’s great. It was commissioned by Signature Theatre in Washington DC and it was an adaptation for The Boy Detective Fails, which I had already written as a stage play. It was performed here in Chicago right before the book came out. Signature Theatre commissioned me to write a new script and I worked to collaborate with a composer and lyricist named Adam Gwon from New York. In July we went to DC and worked with ten actors on work-shopping the show and building it. Then they did one staged performance where they had scripts and everything. It was great and so the company will produce it one year from now in October which is amazing. It will have an eight piece orchestra and it will be really beautiful and the music is incredible and it’s like everything I loved about working on the book but with this really lush music. It was an amazing experience and it was one of my favorite collaborations of all time.

MPPL: Do you think it will ever play in Chicago?

Joe Meno: I don’t know. We’ll see. These guys, Signature Theatre, just got a Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre and that is all they do. What they do is build a show and then try to send it to New York or these other places. I will definitely keep my fingers crossed.

MPPL: To wind down with a final question, what would your perfect library look like and contain?

Joe Meno: I love the Harold Washington. I love the architecture. I love the big bronze owls and then there’s the Brooklyn Public Library. They are both amazing to look at and to behold. To walk inside. It is an older building, in Brooklyn, and it has this great mood to it. The Harold Washington is amazing, but it is a newer building so it’s a little more modern. But both of those are some of my favorite pieces of architecture in either city. Outside of Chicago, I have been to some, but those are the two that live on in my platonic idea of what a library should be.

MPPL: Maybe add a spiral staircase or two to the Harold Washington…

Joe Meno: Actually, that’s funny because I think there is a spiral in the Brooklyn one. It has a different feeling than some libraries which were created in the last ten years and look a little more functional. It is a temple. It is totally a church of books, you know? I just really like what that means, you make this beautiful building because what is inside is so important.

By MPPL on September 24, 2009 Categories: Books, Interviews