LA Times on Best Young American Novelists

Interesting article in today's LA Times about the Granta list of Best Young American Novelists. Iowa is very well represented. Daniel and Yiyun (whom I haven't met, but everyone raves about) are there, as are ZZ Packer (see Yiyun parenthetical) and Kevin Brockmeier, who was exceedingly gracious when I met him at last year's Virginia Festival of the Book. I knew Rattawut in Ann Arbor when he was in the MFA program at Michigan. Cool guy. And then there are several other people who may or may not have gone to Iowa. No idea.

Anyhow, the article says lots of inflammatory things that I'd like people to comment on now, please. I'll start. An editor at FSG says something that I completely disagree with an am tired of hearing. It was bad enough when The Atlantic jumped on this bandwagon. My question: what are people basing this on exactly? I want to know.

Lorin Stein: "The readership has fractured, and reads less, and spends more time e-mailing. And it makes less sense to talk about novelists now — the really creative writing is being done in other genres" such as the personal essay, reportage and criticism."

Also: some of these people like Jonathan Safran Foer are super famous, and some I've never heard of previous to the list. Anyone adore any of these authors?

OK bye.


Time for a Riot

Sir chad sent me this link the other day, and I had to share the fury. Yes, it's Fox News and it's bad and you'll want to look away. But, seriously, don't turn it off before the final line.

So it goes.


Book recommendation: The Possibility of an Island

I don't often do this, but once in a while a book is so well written (and translated) and stays in my mind so solidly for days or, in this case, weeks, that I feel it would advantage others to be tipped off to it. Such a book is Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island.

The book has an interesting and unusual plot, but what got me is the narrator. The nastiest, most unlikable one I've encountered since Notes from Underground or Lolita. And yet ... and yet ... did you not secretly, with a perverse shiver, sorta kinda like Humbert, did you not connect via humilation with the Underground Man? I had similar fights with myself over Daniel1, the ex-comedian who sets down his story in most of the book, and Daniel24 and Daniel25, his clones, who finish things up 1000 years later.

Love and lust and growing old among the ruins of moral bankruptcy in the West -- all the Daniels bring down blunt hammers on these topics. I just love honesty in a narrator. There is not a moment of relief here, not a chipper falsehood in sight, not a whiff of sentiment. Yet having Daniel1 be a famous former comedian allows Houellebecq to have some serious fun -- one of his hit sketches is called "We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts." Add to this a UFO/cloning cult, a nymphomaniac actress, and a scheme by which humans become replaced by neohumans who have replaced eating with photosynthesis and sex with "intermediation," blend it all up good with a rich cynicism that is somehow actually refreshing, and top it off with healthy sprinkles of good old French libertinism, and you have, in my opinion, a tasty -- yet nutritious -- read.

John Updike prissily slammed the book in the New Yorker some time ago, which should only whet your appetite (I could not understand any of his objections). Other critics can't seem to get enough of this precocious writer. I think he has his finger correctly on the pulse of the times. Diagnosis: Species-wide suicidal madness. Prognosis: Terminal. Prescription: Brutal candor.

Oh, and here is the European cover, which is oh so tackily ooh la la, and which, when I brought it out at pubs and cafes, did of course make me feel a bit dirty.

Come on, now, surely you've been reading and want to also share what's getting you worked up nowadays?


Alas, poor Vonnegut

So it goes.

In my teens, I read everything up through Jailbird. His simple writing style, combined with the fact that he was from Indianapolis, made me believe (secretly) that I could become a writer, too. Then in college I decided I had outgrown him and stopped reading his books. Many years later, he came to talk to us at Iowa. He walked into the crowded room, made his way to the table in front, pulled an ashtray from his rumpled coat pocket and clanged it on the table. "You can't smoke in here," he reminded us. "But I can." He told us that the thing writers do is important. He told us we have a responsibility to the people of the world. "Do something worthwhile. Do something that helps us all." He was quiet and intense and earnest. This was not long after September 11.

The world is poorer today. I feel like pouting.

He once wrote down some rules for writing a short story. They are sensible. Here they are:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.


Rebecca Johns interview

Fellow Goat Rebecca Johns, aka The Lovely Becky, has just returned from the 2007 PEN/Hemingway award ceremony in Boston, where her novel Icebergs was honored as a finalist -- meaning the book was judged to be one of the top three by a first-time novelist. We sat down with her, put our feet up on the Internet, and chatted over this delightful news and other topics. Let's listen in:

EG: Being a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award must have been tremendously exciting. How did you find out? How do you think this will affect things for you?

RJ: My editor called me the last week in February with the news. I think she was as excited as I was. Of all the editors I spoke to during the time the book was up for sale, she was the one who "got" the kind of book I wanted to write, who believed in it and me, so I think it was a validation for her as well.

As far as how it will affect things, I really don't know. I'm curious about that myself.

EG: Icebergs was recently released in the UK. Have you had feedback from Scottish or British readers yet? How have Canadians reacted to an American writing a Canadian story?

RJ: I have heard from Canadian readers about the book, and their reactions have been very positive. No one's seemed surprised that an American would write about Canada, but then, others have done it before me. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News was set largely in Newfoundland, and Stef Penney, the British author, wrote The Tenderness of Wolves without once having been to Canada. My Canadian relatives all seemed to enjoy the book, and they're as loud and opinionated as I am, so believe me, I would have heard if they'd been displeased.

The British reviews have been extremely positive. It's been interesting to see the book come out there and in Australia and how the process has been different in each place.

EG: The book concerns a family that emigrates from Scotland to Canada, as your own ancestors did. How much of the book is based on your family? What was it like writing about characters from your own family? Is it harder or easier to base characters on people you know (or knew)?

RJ: My grandmother was an emigrant from Scotland as a girl, but aside from her father, who appears in the story pretty much as I remember him, the rest of the characters took on very distinct personalities of their own early on, and that made them easier to write about. The demands of fiction required this change: I discovered I could not write about people I had known and loved well, because they weren't my creations. I couldn't make them behave the way I wanted. In the end the two families in the novel were vastly different from mine in makeup and circumstances. The last generation of the Dunmore family, coming of age in 1999, is completely unrecognizable from my own. I think that's the way it should be, though. I was inspired by people in my own life, as most writers are, but with any luck the end result is art masquerading as life instead of the other way around.

EG: The story takes place in three distinct time periods. How did you decide on that structure, to skip across the years like that?

RJ: The structure was suggested by the very first piece of the novel I wrote, which started out as a short story and is now Chapter Two of the novel. There was a significant jump of time at the end of the short story between the present events and a distant future in which Dottie was an old woman, looking back at that heady time in her life with a sense that something had gone off, that some potential had been lost. The other people in workshop (you included, G!) thought the jump was too sudden, and it was, so I spent the next three years filling in the things that happened in-between. The final scene of the book is almost identical to the final scene in that short story version.

The three-part structure seemed to work because of the three generations of family that ended up in the book. I wanted something that would be large in its scope but intimate in its details, and the three-part structure allowed me to have my cake and eat it too, so to speak. At least, I hope it did.

EG: Icebergs must have taken a ton of research. What kinds of things did you do to research your book?

RJ: I had to do quite a lot of research on two things: B-24 planes and Newfoundland, neither of which I'd ever set foot inside. I had a bunch of old newspaper clippings of my grandfather's plane crash that my grandmother had kept, and I thought those would be enough to help me write the crash scene, but it wasn't--I ended up needing far more detail than I ever thought I would. There is only one B-24 in the world that still flies, and it came through the Midwest in the summer of 2003, so I took a half-hour ride in it out over Lake Michigan and back. That part of the research was fun. So was the trip I took to Newfoundland the next summer, to the Gander air base and St. John's. I saw my first iceberg there. I tried to go on a whale-watching tour, but it was too early in the year for that, so all I managed to find were Arctic birds and a little seasickness. But Newfoundland is unlike any other place I've been to, and it was definitely necessary to have gone. I couldn't write the ending until I'd been there.

Mostly I wrote the scenes I wanted first and went back later to fill in the blanks with research. This method was more efficient than trying to do all the research first, which could easily have taken me ten years.

EG: You've had some odd jobs. Did they "build character" -- or were they struggles you just wanted to get through?

RJ: You mean my stint at McDonald's when I lived in Manhattan? I don't know if that built character, but it certainly got me used to humiliation. After having hookers come in to laugh at you in your little hat and uniform, I have found that book critics just don't seem as threatening.

I worked there the summer after I graduated from college, when the country was in the middle of a recession and no one was hiring. There was a day that summer when I literally wandered Manhattan with $1 in my pocket trying to decide if I should buy something to eat or a lottery ticket. That was a very bad day. I ended up buying something to eat, and the next day I walked into Mickey D's and got a job, because I never wanted to have that feeling again.

I've done all kinds of jobs over the years. I've worked in libraries and waitressed at pizza places and clerked at hospitals and been a stringer for national magazines and written at third-rate newspapers and done almost everything short of selling blood and sex. And each job seemed like the only thing to do at the time. I have to work, though--when I have too much time on my hands I end up wasting it.

EG: How did the workshop affect your writing or your sense of yourself as a writer? What do you feel like you took away from your time in the program?

RJ: I came to the Workshop as someone who already had a career and a mortgage and a marriage, and it was no small thing to pick up and move here and leave most of that behind [not the marriage--ed.], but it also meant I came to Iowa already with a strong sense of what I wanted to accomplish while I was a grad student.

The reason I decided to apply to the Workshop in the first place was that even though I'd written two novels and a bunch of short stories in my twenties, I felt like I had little control over them. I had ideas that I loved, but they seemed to appear on the page too haphazardly to be meaningful. I needed more understanding of craft, and I was right in assuming that the Workshop would provide the guidance I needed in that area. Workshops can't do everything, but they can do that much. Ethan Canin was helpful with things like using flashbacks and writing better dialogue; Sam Chang taught a great class on structure; Marilynne Robinson looked for moral and meaning; Frank Conroy was all about precision in language. Now when I sit down to work I feel I can make better narrative choices, or at least make them consciously, with an understanding of what I'm getting myself into.

EG: We hear you're working on something new. What can you tell us about it?

RJ: I was so exhausted from writing Icebergs that it's taken me a while to figure that out, but lately I'm starting to get back into it, and I might have a couple of things in the works. Surprisingly, because I've never thought of myself as a short story writer, I feel like I might be on the verge of a collection. But of course there's always another novel to write. It's still in the beginning stages, though, so I don't want to ruin the mojo by talking about it too much right now. Mojo is a terrible thing to waste.


Trendy But Casual

The illustrious, inimitable, incomparable Paula Morris has published her third novel, Trendy But Casual, with Penguin New Zealand, which you can (and really ought to) order here, and which has been described as a "sassy and sparkling novel ... a parody of chick-lit novels, a satire of the PR world and a very funny comedy of manners -- or should that be bad manners." She has also started a blog for the book. Let's hear it for T. Middy's shorty!


Poetry from Guantanamo

This fall, the University of Iowa Press will publish Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak.

A sample:
Just as the heart beats in the darkness of the body,
so I, despite this cage, continue to beat with life.
Those who have no courage or honor consider themselves free,
but they are slaves.
I am flying on the wings of thought, and so,
even in this cage, I know a greater freedom.
Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost scratched that one on a styrofoam cup with his fingernail.
(Via DailyKOS diary)


Finding a writing community

One of the things we worried about a little in leaving Iowa and moving here was that we would really miss being with writers, and that if there even were people writing in English in Holland they would be far-flung and hard to find. (I was all set to start stalking Harry Mulisch, who I had heard frequented a local pub here in Haarlem, but it turns out he moved to Amsterdam long ago.)

Then traca de broon found Words in Here, and I wrote to Robert Glick who met me at a cafe in Amsterdam and started recommending some European writers, such as Michel Houellebecq, whom I had never heard of but whose novel The Possibility of an Island I am now halfway through and really digging. I delivered a standard list of American writers he should be reading, and several of the names were unfamiliar to him. So already a substantial exchange has begun. His group publishes a literary magazine called Versal and runs workshops. T and I went to their monthly get-together at this lovely bookshop last Thursday and then down the street to a cozy bar for more talking and pizza and beer and pool playing.

The participants were poets and fiction writers and a few others simply interested in writing. The ones who showed up that night come from Australia, California, Curacao, Montana, France, South Africa, Holland, and Germany. Some are beginners, some are published -- but the main point is they all live here and have found each other.

P.S. The photo for this post has nothing to do with writing. It's the new statue of the "unknown sex worker" that was unveiled in the red light district during an "open day" this weekend. We were there, but the little square by the Old Church was too crowded to actually get a look -- yes, the statue stands proudly in the courtyard around the church. This photo is the first look I've had of it.