Thursday, July 22, 2010

Soup and Salad: Reading David Mitchell, The World's Coolest Bookshelf, Writers' Houses, Josh Weil interview, Susanna Daniel toughs it out, Flannery the Back-Cracker, Reading Addiction

On today's menu:

1.  At The Millions, Lydia Kiesling has a thoughtful, personal review of David Mitchell's new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  Excellent reviews like this are the kind that make me want to rush right out and read the book:
I had half-open boxes all about me, a room full of upside-down rugs, two sneezing cats, and lots and lots to do.  But I was yearning to read this book, so I left the apartment wild-eyed, dust-streaked, and sweat-soaked, and handed over a shocking twenty-eight dollars.  Then I marched home with my long-anticipated booty, sat down amid boxes, and read until night.  In the morning I woke up, put on my dirty clothes, and read until it was finished.  And then I cried, and picked up my vacuum and went to work feeling sort of elevated and melancholy for the rest of the day.  It’s hard to imagine a better reading experience.

2.  A free-standing, five-storey bookshelf that you can climb....on the inside??  Be still, my biblio-beating heart!  It's called The Ark and it would just barely hold the 6,000-plus volumes in my library:
I ascend the stairs cocooned by books.  Books, books, books.  Every few floors there is a little alcove seat to rest and read in.  I feel like an intellectual Rapunzel....I am so happy.  I could stay here for ever.
Read more about it here (including a link to a video).
3.  The newest slobber-worthy literary website?  Writers' Houses.  Good Lord, this is a good one.  Only a few days old and it's already easy to get lost inside the rooms of this website.  (I'm not sure why Andalusia's not on there, but I'm sure its day is coming soon...)

4.  One of America's newest lit mags, Prime Number, talks to Josh Weil about novellas, getting published, and the luck of fame.  Like most of us, Weil wrote and abandoned a couple of novels before he found his groove with The New Valley:
Clifford Garstang: I’m curious about your path to publication.  I know you got your MFA at Columbia, but how did this book come about?  What was your publishing experience before you finished the book, and what did agents and editors say when they saw the novellas?
Josh Weil: It was a slog; it was really draining and really tough and often depressing and, if it weren’t so invigorating when a few things came through, I don’t know that I would have kept at it.  Not the novellas, but the path to publication in general.  I wrote some failed novels first; I ought to just put that out there.  They were long and I put my heart into them and worked like hell at them and I just wasn’t ready.  So I consider that my training ground, maybe even a kind of proving ground.  It wasn’t short stories; I didn’t write short stories, not seriously, until just before the MFA, and then not successfully until afterwards.  But, as is common, they were my first way into publication.  And I went a pretty typical route: publishing first in smaller journals, then gradually in better ones, until finally Granta took a story of mine and that really did feel like a shift, like I had crossed some kind of fault line.  The thing is, I crossed it when I was ready to cross it.  I really do believe that if you do the work, and work at it, and keep improving, when you’re ready the world will be ready, too.  It’s just a matter of pushing yourself to that point, and pushing through the hard, hard times that build up to it.
Part of those hard times, for me, was my first experience with an agent.  I signed with a great agent at a big agency and she took on a novel that I thought was good and that she loved and it almost sold—came so close—but never did.  That was tough.  Seeing it slip away from me.  And then seeing her slip away from me, because after the novel what I had was the novellas.  And she didn’t want anything to do with them.  She read one, came back to me with the dreaded “Can’t you make this into a novel?” and started another and hated it and wouldn’t even read the third.  Which probably would have been the reaction of most agents: novellas?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  But, luckily, I found an agent—PJ Mark, who I’m with now—who was brave and wise and wonderful in all ways.  He took a look at the novellas, read them over the weekend, got back to me and said, This is what we’re going out with.  I thought he was nuts.  Everyone thought he was.  I’m sure people in his office probably thought so too.  A no-name author with a collection of quiet novellas about rural people?  Good Lord.  I felt like I could hear the whole publishing world chuckling.  But then—after we went out with it to five editors—it got picked up in about a week.  By a wonderful house and a legendary editor, both of which I love.  I sat there in the editor’s office the day she said she wanted to buy it and felt like there were two of me in the room: the one sitting in the chair, all professionalism and calm, and the one that had stepped out of my body and was doing fist-pumps and full-throat-hollers all around the room.

5.  I've been writing Fobbit for five years; Susanna Daniel worked on her manuscript for twice that long.  This summer, she'll reap the reward of that decade-long toil when her novel Stiltsville hits bookstores.  (I enjoyed the excerpt which One Story published this summer and am looking forward to reading the whole thing.)  Between first word and last period, however, Daniel suffered tremendous bouts of self-doubt, panic, and distraction.  She writes about that decade of "non-accomplishment" in a wonderful essay at Slate:
During my should-be-writing years, I thought about my novel all the time. Increasingly, these were not happy or satisfying thoughts.  My "novel" (which had started to wear its own air quotes in my head) became something closer to enemy than lover.  A person and his creative work exist in a relationship very much like a marriage:  When it's good, it's very good, and when it's bad, it's ugly.  And when it's been bad for a long, long time, you start to think about divorce.

6.  Aimee Bender has a few nice words to say about Flannery O'Connor over at NPR's "You Must Read This" feature:
[S]he blasts religious people who are acting poorly in the name of religion.  She blasts writers who are pretending to say writing is important while only wanting to get published.  She blasts all the ways we take shortcuts from meaningful experience, from looking at the world closely and truthfully.  Reading her feels chiropractic -- she drives to the core, to the big stuff, to the spine, and in this way, she's asking us, over and over, to be better.
She's a teacher, a back-cracker, a preacher, a visionary.
Speaking of Flannery, she allegedly once said she received a letter from a woman who complained “that my book left a bad taste in her mouth. I wrote back to her and said, ‘You weren’t supposed to eat it.’”

7.  This account of a year in the life of a reader (by Doug Bruns at--yes, again--The Millions) comes about as close as anything to describing my own reading life, including this passage:
I am a reader first.  If I were an addict, I would get high and while high, presumably, worry about where I was to get my next fix.  Reading is not all that different, I think.  As a reader, I am always looking over the binding thinking about the next read, in some instances, longing for it.  Some books, like some highs, are better than others.  But even with not-so-good books–and there where two this past year I did not see to completion–I will come back to the drug, seeking the next high.  I will always be a reader.  Of this I am certain.

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