Saturday, May 19, 2012

Soup and Salad: Richard Ford's Attempt to Revive His Father, Chris Ware Covers Crockett Johnson, Dan Chaon's Dark Shadows, Max Barry Explains the Publication Process, Authors Who Slack Off, John Updike's Childhood Home, Walking With F. Scott Fitzgerald, One-Word Book Titles, Jennifer Miller Defends Autobiographical Fiction, Author Introductions, The Difficult Second Novel, 15 Ways to Stay Married 15 Years

On today's menu:

1.  Did you know Richard Ford was 16 when his father had a heart attack?  And did you know he tried to revive him, but couldn't?  Neither did I.  You'll learn this and a few other things about the author--including tacit acknowledgement of the infamous Colson Whitehead spitting incident--in a short but revealing interview in the New York Times Magazine:
I remember being waked up on a Saturday morning by my father gasping for breath in the next room. My mother was trying to wake him up by shaking him, and she was saying his name, “Carrol, Carrol.” He kept having these big upheaval gasps, and I got into the bed with him and breathed in his mouth to perform some kind of resuscitative magic, but I think he was dead. My mother became hysterical at that point.

2.  The recent deaths of Maurice Sendak and Jean Craighead George have us thinking about children's literature a lot more these days--at least, those of us who are above a certain age and fondly recall days curled up with stories of wild rumpuses and girls who live with wolves.  That's why just seeing Chris Ware's cover design for an upcoming biography of Crockett Johnson (author of Harold and the Purple Crayon) and Ruth Krauss provoked such a visceral reaction in me.  The book is called Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature and won't be out until September.  In the meantime, we can all enjoy Ware's clean, beautiful design which spreads across the entire dustjacket, front and back (if I'm not mistaken, those shadowy FBI figures are on the book's spine, neatly dividing the cover):

Click to enlarge

3.  January Magazine sat down to talk with novelist and short story writer Dan Chaon and the conversation predictably turned to his childhood and how it influenced the dark themes in his fiction:
I grew up in a very small town in Western Nebraska. One of those little “grain-elevator towns” along the Union Pacific railroad line--not unlike the one in “St. Dismas,” actually. There were about 50 people there when I was growing up, and most of them were my relatives. I was the only kid my age in town. I learned pretty quickly to entertain myself, and books were a big part of that. I loved Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, all kinds of dark fantasy and horror. From quite a young age, I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock. I thought I was going to be a writer/film director/composer. I walked around my little town, a single block, playing with various concepts, acting them out and directing them. I can't say exactly what attracted me to the weird and bizarre, except that first of all, there was something quite gothic about the Nebraska landscape itself. And also, I was a real scaredy kid--terrified of the dark, of monsters, serial killers, everything. Jaws frightened me so badly I was afraid to go into a swimming pool, despite the fact that I'd never been to the ocean. Oddly enough, the thing that made me feel better was making up creepy stories. I guess it made me feel somehow in control--perhaps I hoped that if the monsters knew I was on their side, they'd leave me alone.

4.  This may only be funny if you're a writer--and only truly hilarious if you are a debut novelist anticipating the publication of his book in four months (4 months??  YIKES!!), but Max Barry has nailed it, pinned it to the wrestling mat, plugged a bullet through the bull's-eye heart of what it's like to take a book through the editorial process.  (Warning: egregious misuse of the English language--e.g., "fantasticer.")

5.  Speaking of process and publishing, if you're an author who only produces one book per year, you're a slacker.  I blame impatient readers.  And James Patterson.

6.  Literary tourism alert: John Updike's childhood home in Shillington, Pennsylvania will be turned into a museum.  Updike lived here until he was 13, so I doubt there will be too many artifacts from his Episcopalian sex years.  The John Updike Society anticipates it will be "a destination for writers and scholars."

7.  Speaking of author's homes, have you been on the F. Scott Fitzgerald walking tour through St. Paul's neighborhoods?  Warning to the architecturally-obsessed: this is nothing but 100% house porn.

8.  As the author of Fobbit, should I be worried?  At The Millions, Bill Morris talks about the appeals and perils of one-word titles:  "....they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand."  Morris examines everything from Hamlet to Swamplandia!.

9.  Another Fobbit-related piece at The Millions talks about how much of the novelist's personal experience should be poured onto the page.  It will come as little surprise to anyone who knows my background as an Army journalist who worked in public affairs for 20 years and deployed to Iraq in 2005 that there are some very autobiographical scenes in the book.  Fobbit is heavy on outrageous characters and situations who sprang wet and squalling from the womb of my fertile imagination, but there are also many pages of "truthiness" to be found.  At The Millions, Jennifer Miller (author of The Year of the Gadfly) has a splendid essay In Defense of Autobiography: "....if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief — that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts."

10.  Sticking with The Millions a moment longer, here's some required reading for every bookstore emcee: How to Introduce an Author.  There are some pretty jaw-dropping examples of what not to do in those first few minutes of a reading.  To wit:
The worst author introduction I ever saw is making me cringe, right now, as I remember it. The co-owner of the bookstore started by reading through the store’s upcoming events flier, pausing to extemporize on each event. This took a full 10 minutes. Then she spent 5 minutes talking about the plight of independent bookstores, and how they need money to do things like community book nights, and hey she’s got this newsletter sign-up sheet that she’s going to pass around. And while we’re at it, the store actually has two different email newsletters that they send out, and she described them both in great detail. Another sign-up sheet is passed around.  Having already wasted close to 20 minutes of our time, she launched into a synopsis of the book, interspersed with her own impressions, leaving no secondary character or minor scene unnamed. Worst of all, the book has a rather large twist in the second half, and she was explicitly hinting at what it is. Someone in the audience actually yelled out, “Don’t give it away!” This was advice she did not take.

11.  At the Book Pregnant blog (where I'm an occasional contributor), Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) confesses to The Difficult Second Novel:
It's sitting there in a file on my computer. My second novel, as yet untitled. It is a first draft, which means it hulks and skitters across the page. It is unfinished, which means I don't know all its secret agendas and devious little plans yet. It might change. It's full of stupidly repeated words. It's got place-holder dialogue and language, like "Describe the institute lobby here, fool, if you can." And I'm a little afraid of it.

12.  Non-book-related but essential--nay, REQUIRED--reading for anyone who's made it this far in Soup and Salad: in addition to her fantastic novel Shine Shine Shine (coming soon to a bookstore near you), Lydia Netzer has also written one of TheBest.  Marriage Primers I've ever read.  Whether you've been married 50 years, 5 years, are engaged, are dating, or are single and wondering about the secret ingredients in Mate Soup, I urge you to take note of Netzer's "15 Ways to Stay Married 15 Years."  You may not agree with all the rules (I'm not endorsing Rule #1, for instance), but I guarantee you will come away thinking about how you can improve your relationship.  Or, at the very least, how to become the perfect "sex machine" for your partner.


  1. I read this in your email -- "Oh yeah, the biggest and brightest news to come my way this month: Fobbit has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program."

    Congratualtions! This is great news.

  2. Thanks, Rooie! And thanks to the wonderful folks at B&N who have such faith in "Fobbit."