Thursday, August 31, 2017

Girls in Lakes, Soldiers in Boots: A Conversation Between Bill Roorbach and David Abrams

David Abrams and Bill Roorbach first met at PNBA, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference, which took place in Tacoma, Washington back in 2012, when David’s book Fobbit was new and Bill’s book Life Among Giants had just been released. These friendships on the road with new books bloom quickly, and are reinforced by chance meetings across years to come. On the occasion of the publication of their newest books, Bill and David thought they’d better have a virtual conversation, as the road wasn’t going to bring them close this time around.

Two dapper gents: Bill Roorbach and David Abrams at PNBA in 2012
Bill:  David, David—if only we could do this in person over a stack of books and a cup of coffee. I’m a fan since Fobbit, and love that you’re continuing to mine your own Iraq War experience for the new novel. I hope it won’t give too much away to say that Brave Deeds follows a squad of six men going AWOL and crossing an explosive Baghdad to attend the funeral of their late, lamented leader—sounds like they’re going to be up against it from both sides. Is there an incident in your own experience that got you inventing this terrifying journey?

David:  Bill, first of all, it’s great to have a dialogue with you again. We need to make plans to reunite more than once every five years; that PNBA encounter was too long ago, my friend. Fortunately, I have your newest book, the short story collection The Girl of the Lake, to keep your wonderful voice close at hand. I gotta tell you, I am enjoying the hell out of these stories!
       You know, I actually tried stalking you last autumn. My wife and I spent two weeks in Maine, driving all over the eastern half of the state. I never did see you, though. You’re elusive. Do you retreat to a rustic cabin in the Allagash and write your novels by kerosene light?
       But circling back to your question to me....
       Brave Deeds was initially inspired by a 2007 Washington Post article by David Finkel (whose The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service are war literature classics). In that account, an entire company of soldiers--27 of them--performed a similar “memorial march” across Baghdad to attend a funeral for their sergeant killed in a bomb blast a week earlier. While nearly every mission in Iraq at that time carried a considerable weight of danger, these particular soldiers were backed up by a full contingent of Humvees, gunners, maps, and compasses. In Brave Deeds, as a cruel creator, I stripped away all of that security. Despite their best-laid plans, my six soldiers are left with no Humvee, no maps, no compass, no food, and only limited ammunition for their rifles. They are AWOL and they have gotten in way over their heads. I thought that might make for more interesting reading. And so, I stripped away the reliable “comforts” of military life, heightening the “strangers in a strange land” aspect of wartime deployment and giving them a ticking-clock timeline to get the job done. So that’s how it began: I read a story in the newspaper while drinking my morning coffee and started plotting the fates of these foolhardy, loyal, and brave soldiers. Never having walked in the figurative footsteps of my characters--my deployment to Baghdad in 2005 was nearly all served within the confines of the Forward Operating Base--I was definitely writing as an outsider, a non-infantry soldier. But none of that mattered much once I got underway with this book because my intent was not to write a bombs-and-bullets military thriller but a character-driven story about six co-workers who go off the grid and must survive not only the enemy but themselves.
       How do you approach writing something that’s well outside of your experience? I’ve just finished reading the first story in your collection, the wonderfully-named “Harbinger Hall.” Surprises peel like an onion in these thirty pages, so I won’t say too much except that we, the reader, eventually end up in Russia around the time of the 1917 Revolution. How did this story come about? What paths brought you to these two characters--a sixth-grade boy skipping school and an elderly recluse whose first words to the boy are “You want to play war?”—and this dazzling story?

Bill:  I love that you stripped away the security apparatus. Your mission sounds like it cost a lot less! At least in dollars and cents. Yes, I felt your presence in Maine. Actually, I saw you were here through your posts on Twitter. We live a little isolated from the coast world up in Farmington, which is western Maine, foothills of the White Mountains. It’s been a great place to live relatively inexpensively and at the edge of civilization. We have a place now in Scarborough, too, that puts us closer to the sea and to Portland, a city I love, and full of writers, too.
       I wrote “Harbinger Hall” a while back, published it in The Atlantic, and then revised it for this collection. It starts with a ten-year-old deciding to bail out of school forever, using a method I dreamed up in sixth grade but never dared try. Great thing about fiction is you get to see what might have happened. We kids used to play war extensively, and one of our battlefields was on an estate you could approach through the forest from my neighborhood. We’d spy on the old guy who lived there, pretend we were going to rescue him or kill him or kidnap him depending on the various storylines. This story has a kid braver than I who goes ahead and skips out of school, begins to hang around the estate on the far side of the woods. But he gets caught, and gets a dose of history. I’ve always been fascinated by the Russian Revolution and all the mayhem that preceded it. Here was a chance to be in two worlds at once. I did a lot of research, but in the end, as you say, the story has to be about characters in motion. And really, a boy’s imagination, which is still alive in me.
       Did you have any personal experience to go on for Brave Deeds? I know you were part of some dark times in Iraq. Have you been back at all since? Is it hard to sit still and write when the memories, or the imagination they've unleashed, start coming back to life on the page?

David:  While portions of Fobbit were lifted almost whole-cloth from my war diary, the plot, characters and much of the setting in Brave Deeds were far beyond the scope of my experience in Iraq in 2005. I was, sadly, a headquarters-bound Fobbit during my entire time in-country. So, Brave Deeds gave me a chance to think about soldiers whose lives were vastly different than my own (infantry vs. support soldier) and to virtually and vicariously step out into the more dangerous world of Baghdad beyond the Forward Operating Base. If I had “dark times” during my time in Iraq, they came when I read about (or, worse, saw photos of) the grisly and unpredictable violence which more courageous soldiers saw nearly every day. Looking at a photo on your computer screen in an air-conditioned office is nothing compared to actually standing on a street, staring down into a crater made by an exploding mortar, smelling the blood, and seeing--well, sights too horrible to describe. I’ve seen the pictures—many of them—from these types of attacks and they were enough for me.
       To answer your other question: no, I have not been back to Iraq. Nor do I plan to vacation there in the future. Baghdad is a chapter in my life I hope to never re-read.     
       Speaking of stretching exercises we authors perform at the keyboard, what about your story “Broadax, Inc.”? The narrator is a self-proclaimed corporate shark who finds himself deep in a love triangle (and, boy, do I dig these lines: “Sharks do fall in love. It isn’t all just gnashing and splashing and arms coming off clean.”). You don’t strike me as the Wall Street executive type. (But maybe you have a hidden double life? If so, I have a few questions about how I can sweeten my investment portfolio.) Ted Broadax is the kind of guy who bites his sentences into chunks, prides himself on his immense wealth, and is a total mess when it comes to personal relationships. This doesn’t sound like the Bill Roorbach I know. How did Ted arrive in your head? And have you ever watched the Showtime series Billions? Your Ted reminds me an awful lot of Bobby Axelrod (whose name, if you stutter-slur resembles “Broadax”).

Bill:  Well, I’m loving seeing your imagination at work--it’s clearly well informed. I haven’t seen Billions, not yet, but I’m really enjoying these long-form cable series, which are like novels on TV. I can even read them the way I read novels, going back to check on plot elements I might have missed, flipping back a few pages when I realize I’ve been spacing out. I worked with HBO a while developing a show based on my novel Life Among Giants. It was fascinating to pull that thing apart into seasons and episodes, and to write scripts as opposed to novels, where nothing’s getting done by actors or cinematographers—that’s all in our hands. These are great narrative minds, is what I’m saying, and I learned a lot from them. Before they killed my show, that is. You wouldn’t want to see the pictures of that carnage. Though in fact my main emotion was relief--I could get back to being a novelist, which is where I live.
       As for Broadax—I just wanted a name that included a weapon, because that’s the way he’d come to see himself as the story opens. I’ve got a number of high school friends who went into finance, as they used to call it, and these guys, math whizzes, all of them, seemed pretty mild-mannered sitting in Algebra II. But the aggression when they went out in the world, and the pure focus on money! Astounding what was hiding behind those khaki slacks and Bass Weejuns. I just wanted to see what was left of a particular guy if every bit of his business success and money dependence was taken away from him. I’m also interested in how easy it might be to manipulate the electronic everything of our lives to destroy someone. Or a country, come to think of it. “Broadax” the story comes from that. In the end, what he’s got is love, and that turns out to be enough.
       You’ve been busy--this I know based on our exchange, which has taken quite a few weeks between questions and answers. A new book is a whirlwind, even months before it ever hits the shelves. The Girl of the Lake is my tenth book, amazingly, and the experience of every single book has been different, with emotions from despair to ecstasy along the way, and back again. And again. Second books are notoriously tough—how is this one different from your first? The reception has been fantastic. Did you feel more prepared?

David:  Putting out a second book is like the Grand Central Station of Neuroses for self-doubters like me. On the exterior, I may look much the same like I did when Fobbit came out in 2012; but inside, I’m a storm of worry. The early reviews for Brave Deeds and the reception I’ve gotten from readers on this book tour have certainly been reassuring. And yet, there’s always that second-guessing that goes on: a reverse of Sally Fields’ famous line from her Oscar acceptance speech, “Do you really like me?” But that’s just ego talking and has nothing to do with the finished, published book we now hold in our hands. No matter what my conflicted, complicated feelings are about the so-called “sophomore slump,” Brave Deeds the novel stands on its own. It’s written, it’s published, I’ve tossed it like a homing pigeon from my worrisome grip. It has to fly to readers with its own wings. But, yes, anxious voices inside my head still clamor. I’m not sure how to tamp them down, muffle the overthinking. As a seasoned veteran in this business (ten books!!), do you have any Rilke Letters to a Young Poet type of advice for me?

Bill:  We really like you! I have no advice for you—I think your art and life are well in hand. The only observation I really have after a lot of ups and downs is that nearly all of the pleasure of writing comes in the making. That’s what lasts, and that’s where we’re most in our element. Please keep it coming!

David:  You are entirely right! I will carry that forward with me to Books 3 and 4 and beyond. Thanks again, my friend.

Bill:  But wait—I want to ask you about the Cave of Rewrite you mention on your Twitter page. It sounds fucking scary!

David:  The Cave of Rewrite can be a dreadful place, can’t it? Sometimes I look at the process with the same amount of joy I once felt for trips to the dentist (Dr. Rusty Pliers, DDS). All those words—All. Those. Fucking. Words. –demanding reevaluation and judgment. It’s deflating, isn’t it? Or maybe that’s just me. One of my faults is trying to take an all-encompassing, long-range view instead of just relaxing and taking small bites from the elephant. Too often, I deflate my tires before I start driving. Then again, revision is the time of discovery: plunging my hand into my characters’ chests and pulling out surprises (“Wow, Rusty--I had no idea you were a dentist by day and stamp collector by night!”). So, yes, the Cave of Rewrite is dark and frightening, but if we self-doubting artists can swallow our fear and keep walking forward to that pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the rewards can be infinite.

Bill:  Revision is where it all happens, for me. It’s what makes our stories smarter than we could ever be. Okay, brother! See you in the wings!

David:  Maybe Texas Book Festival?

Bill:  Nope, not me, but I’ll be at National Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. We’ll cross paths again yet, my friend.

David:  Wait, wait! There’s still so much more to talk about. Like how “The Girl of the Lake” is shaping up to be one of my favorite stories of all time--it goes on the shelf of honor next to the other long-time residents: Mr. Carver, Mr. (Richard) Ford, Miz O’Connor, et al. Other things I still want to talk about include “The Fall”--good googly-moogly, I LOVE that freakin’ story about a wilderness hike gone bad!--your style/voice (alluded to a little in that remark about Broadax’s choppy dialogue), and the relationships between men and women in these pages, not to mention your marvelous novel The Remedy for Love. All those things, and more. I think the most bro-romantic thing I could say to you is, “You have a way with words.” So, if you’re up for it, I’d like to sustain this conversation on down the road (the literal and figurative one).

Bill:  That is a promise! Loved it, David. And thanks for kind words. More talk soon!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Sentence: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

I took the orange and my teeth went in. It was like sour sugar.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Sentence: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

How loud is death?
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Monday, August 14, 2017

My First Time: Felicity Everett

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Felicity Everett, author of The People at Number Nine. Felicity grew up in Manchester and attended Sussex University. After an early career in children’s publishing and freelance writing, which produced more than twenty-five works of children’s fiction and non-fiction, her debut adult novel The Story of Us was published in 2011. She has just returned from four years in Australia and lives in Gloucestershire.

My First Children’s Book

My first children’s book was not one I chose to write. It was allocated to me by Usborne Publishing when they took me on as a writer/editor in my second job after graduating. Truth be told, I could scarcely have been less qualified to write it or less interested in the subject matter. It was called Making Clothes–A Practical Guide and was aimed at young teens–well okay, teenage girls (this was the 80s) who wanted to run themselves up a trendy jumpsuit on Mum’s sewing machine. It wasn’t that I had never made clothes myself–there was the A line skirt I had hand-stitched in primary school, which had somehow come out upside down (V-line?), there was a regulation apron with my name embroidered on the waistband, that I had been forced to make in Stalag Needlework at secondary school (this was during the birth of Punk, when I would rather have been running up a pair of bondage trousers). There was the over-sized “boyfriend” shirt I sewed to make myself feel better about not having an over-sized boyfriend. None of these garments would have given Christian Dior a sleepless night. But if Making Clothes was going to be my literary debut, I was determined to make a success of it.

In fact, the process of writing and editing that book gave me a fantastic grounding in the business of children’s publishing. I worked with a young fashion designer on the design and construction of the clothes, and with an in-house book designer on the layout of the spreads. I commissioned a fashion photographer, booked a model and supervised a photo shoot to showcase the finished clothes and found an illustrator to produce step-by-step how-to pictures. More importantly, in the context of my future writing career, I wrote the text. You wouldn’t think that writing four-line captions on how to attach a collar would be the greatest preparation for writing fiction, but it taught me to communicate clearly, economically and as far as possible, in words of one syllable. Short words were easier to edit. The last thing you want when writing to length is a “widow”-printer’s jargon for a single word that goes over to the next line. I don’t know who invented shirring elastic, but for forty-five minutes in 1985, when the sheer number of syllables in that indispensable phrase kept taking my caption over-length, I’d gladly have strangled them with it. Now of course, I would shake them by the hand. Because that process of sifting words, trying out alternatives, checking clarity of meaning again and again and again is what makes good writing.

I can’t claim it was a hop skip and a jump from Making Clothes to my latest work of adult fiction, The People at Number Nine. Quite a lot of water passed under the bridge in between. There were a few more Usborne Practical Guides (Make-up; Fashion Design; Jewelry Making) and, around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair, when Usborne would pitch as-yet-unwritten titles to foreign publishers, a lot of blurb writing. This was my breakthrough. My boss noticed that I had a knack for writing a catchy blurb (which was easy when the book hadn’t been written yet, because you didn’t need to let troublesome things like its contents get in the way). I soon graduated from blurbs to Beginner Readers–simple stories incorporating reading puzzles, for 5 to 9 year olds. As with the Practical Guides, the room for creative maneuver was limited–the first titles were not ones I had come up with myself, but ones which had gone down well at Frankfurt. The Clumsy Crocodile, was my debut and I spent several days cursing the person who dreamed it up even as I pondered in what amusing scenario which lent itself to reading puzzles, a crocodile might be clumsy. Tethered as I was to the practical world, hemmed in by sewing machines, nailed down by hard facts, I found myself thinking too narrowly–a crocodile in the jungle? A crocodile in the zoo? Then I had a eureka moment. This was fiction. It didn’t have to be realistic. I could make it up. I could make my crocodile the manager of a department store. Pit her against a pair of thieving rogues determined to get their hands on a priceless diamond. Make her clumsiness a hilarious impediment to catching them red-handed when they broke in at dead of night. It’s still in print thirty years later.

That lesson–“just make it up”–was key, for me, in becoming a writer of fiction. It’s still my mantra now and one I repeat to myself when I get stuck. What happens next has to make sense within the internal logic of the story. It has to be convincing enough for the readers to suspend their disbelief. What it doesn’t have to be is realistic.

So I have a lot to thank Usborne Publishing for. They gave me a grounding in writing and editing that laid the foundation for my career as a writer and three periods of maternity leave and a freelance writing contract which allowed me to keep my hand in, whilst raising four kids. It’s taken a while, but the journey from Making Clothes to The People at Number Nine hasn’t, in the end, been as circuitous as you might think. One is a couple of thousand words, the other runs to eighty thousand. Both, I hope, convey the essential information in as entertaining a way, and in as few words, as possible.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

He kissed her forehead (coconut, lemon, that sweet tiny pimple), kissed her chin (watermelon, saltwater, salami), kissed her coarse eyebrows, her surprised little nose, kissed her eyes one at a time as she closed them again, kissed her open unresponsive mouth, kissed that watermelon chin, kissed those clavicles, kissed her breasts, her belly, might have tripped all the way over the line, but she squirmed away at the precise moment.

“Princesa” from The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Brave Deeds on tour

The bags are packed. The Jeep is gassed. The road is waiting.

Early Monday morning, I will set out on a driving tour of bookstores in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, signing copies of Brave Deeds and, at various locations, reading from the novel during evening events. I’m looking forward to meeting readers on the road.

Let me rephrase that: I’m looking forward to meeting readers at the bookstore events. Good gracious, I hope they’re not standing on the road, despite the reliability of my new Jeep’s brakes.

My publicist and I are still working on future events--and I’ll add the new dates and events as they come up--but for now, here’s where I’ll be in the next two weeks, with links to the Facebook events page where possible:

August 14:  Ketchum, ID (The Community Library, sponsored by Iconoclast Books)
August 15:  Sunriver, OR (Sunriver Books)
August 16:  Portland, OR (Powell’s Books, Burnside location)
August 17:  Bellingham, WA (Village Books)
August 21:  Seattle, WA (Elliott Bay Book Company)
August 22:  Spokane, WA (Auntie’s Bookstore)
August 23:  Moscow, ID (Book People of Moscow)

And here are some other future events we’ve scheduled:

August 26:  Billings, MT (This House of Books)
August 28:  Bozeman, MT (Country Bookshelf)
August 29:  Livingston, MT (Elk River Books)
September 16:  Great Falls, MT (Casseopeia Books)
September 28-October 1:  Missoula, MT (Montana Book Festival, TBD)
November 4-5:  Austin, TX (Texas Book Festival, TBD)
November 9:  Houston, TX (Brazos Bookstore)
November 10:  Dallas, TX (Interabang Books)
November 11:  St. Petersburg, FL (Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading)
November 13:  New York City (Center for Fiction)

I’ll see you on the road. And hey, remember to watch for cars and be careful out there!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Freebie: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

Congratulations to Bonnie West, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Malin Persson Giolitto’s Quicksand.

This week’s contest is for Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt, now out in paperback from Algonquin Books. I have one copy to put in the hands of a very lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information about the novel...
Sixteen-year-old Lucy Gold is about to run away with a much older man to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default parent for most of their lives, Charlotte has seen her youth marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare. Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, chaos and control, as it explores what happens when you’re responsible for things you cannot make right. Set against a backdrop of peace, love, and the Manson murders, the novel is a reflection of the era: exuberant, defiant, and precarious all at once. And Caroline Leavitt is at her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.

If you’d like a chance at winning Cruel Beautiful World, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 31, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 1. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Front Porch Books: August 2017 edition

The Age of Perpetual Light
by Josh Weil

I look forward to a new Josh Weil book like Donald Trump looks forward to a 2 a.m. Tweet (though my anticipation is decidedly less malicious in intent). From the time I read his debut collection of novellas, The New Valley, to the dazzling dystopian epic novel, The Great Glass Sea, Weil has bound me in a beautiful spiderweb of words. He burrows deep into his characters and, like the cleverest of spiders, draws me closer and closer to the center, where I die in ecstasy. And now comes this new book of stories. From the title to the cover design to the story about an Amish woman discovering the wonders of electricity, light—both manmade and divine—guides us forward into this brilliant fiction.

Jacket Copy:  Following his debut novel, The Great Glass Sea, Josh Weil brings together stories selected from a decade of work in a stellar new collection. Beginning at the dawn of the past century, in the early days of electrification, and moving into an imagined future in which the world is lit day and night, The Age of Perpetual Light follows deeply-felt characters through different eras in American history: from a Jewish dry goods peddler who falls in love with an Amish woman while showing her the wonders of an Edison Lamp, to a 1940 farmers’ uprising against the unfair practices of a power company; a Serbian immigrant teenage boy in 1990’s Vermont desperate to catch a glimpse of an experimental satellite, to a back-to-the-land couple forced to grapple with their daughter’s autism during winter’s longest night. Brilliantly hewn and piercingly observant, these are tales that speak to the all-too-human desire for advancement and the struggle of wounded hearts to find a salve, no matter what the cost. This is a breathtaking book from one of our brightest literary lights.

Opening Lines:  One by one the windows come alight. From up the hill, I watch: the Hartzlers’ old stone house so dark, so still, it might be the new-turned soil of a garden bed—huge, square, black—and in it the orange lamplight blooming. Bloom, bloom, bloom. Mrs. Hartzler lighting the wicks. There: I can see her shape. It goes window to window, a bee drifting, till it reaches the first floor, again, and goes straight to—where else?—the kitchen. My stomach moans. I suck in my gut, tug the rucksack’s belt more tight. On my shoulders I shrug the straps a little higher. Down I start toward the farm.

Blurbworthiness:  “Josh Weil is a lamplighter, the best possible kind. He moves us into each of these earthy, elegant stories and suddenly the light changes in ways we couldn’t have imagined. The Age of Perpetual Light is a special book woven with generosity and grit as it works against the dark to take the true measure of kinship.”  (Ron Carlson, author of Return to Oakpine)

The Grip of It
by Jac Jemc
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I’m going to start building this year’s Halloween reading list with Jac Jemc’s new novel right at the top. From the mad-seeming black-marker scrawl on the front cover and the equally-childlike drawings of screaming heads overlaid on the cover in a near-transparent layer (tilt the book to see the faces in the light) to a groaning haunted house, The Grip of It is the book to prickle my skin with unease this autumn.

Jacket Copy:  Touring their prospective suburban home, Julie and James are stopped by a noise. Deep and vibrating, like throat singing. Ancient, husky, and rasping, but underwater. “That’s just the house settling,” the real estate agent assures them with a smile. He is wrong. The move―prompted by James’s penchant for gambling and his general inability to keep his impulses in check―is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to start afresh. But this house, which sits between a lake and a forest, has its own plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to establish a sense of normalcy, the home and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The framework― claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms―becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall―contracting, expanding―and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of painful, grisly bruises. Like the house that torments the troubled married couple living within its walls, The Grip of It oozes with palpable terror and skin-prickling dread. Its architect, Jac Jemc, meticulously traces Julie and James’s unsettling journey through the depths of their new home as they fight to free themselves from its crushing grip.

Opening Lines:  Maybe we move in and we don’t hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door. Maybe we drag our friends and family into the house and ask them to hear it and they look into the distance and listen as we try to describe it and fail. “You don’t hear it? It’s like a mouth harp. Deep twang. Like throat singing. Ancient. Glottal. Resonant. Husky and rasping, but underwater.” Alone in the house, though, we become less aware of it, like a persistent, dull headache. Deaf to the sound, until the still silence of ownership settles over us. Maybe we decide we will try to like the noise. Maybe we find comfort in it. Maybe an idea insists itself more easily than an action.

Blurbworthiness:  “I mean this in the best possible way: Jac Jemc gives me the creeps. The Grip of It deserves a spot on the shelf beside Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves―not only because it is a masterful haunted house story, but because it, like its literary predecessors, is elegantly written, psychologically rich, and damn terrifying.” (Benjamin Percy, author of The Dark Net)

The Shape of Ideas
by Grant Snider
(Abrams Comicarts)

I have a very short shelf of inspirational books about writing and creativity; right now, the only other residents are Still Writing by Dani Shapiro and On Writing by Stephen King. To that shelf, I am joyfully adding a new member: The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider, creator of the equally-fabulous Incidental Comics. I am only about one-third of the way through this “Illustrated Exploration of Creativity,” but I am taking it slow because smart, beautiful books like this deserve to be savored. The Shape of Ideas is divided into chapters with headings like Inspiration, Perspiration, Aspiration, Contemplation, Pure Elation and other wonderful “-ation” words. Snider is inventive, witty, forthright, and, yes, inspirational. I am hereby declaring this is the Gift Book of the Year for all creators in your life. It is for everyone who, according to Snider in his Dear Reader note, has ever been mocked “for carrying a notebook to bars, restaurants, and children’s birthday parties,” and those who “have been glared at in class or during an important meeting for aimlessly doodling on scrap paper.” Snider is quick to point out The Shape of Ideas won’t help you tap into a bottomless well of creativity (a non-existent well, he says), but it will provide the kind of long-lasting, deep-drilled inspiration that will keep you going when you think all wells have run dry. Want one more scrap of encouragement before you dip your pen in the ink? In addition to being a world-class illustrator, Snider has a full-time day job as an orthodontist. Dentist by day, artist by night. That kind of dedication, perspiration, and aspiration makes me smile.

Jacket Copy:  What does an idea look like? And where do they come from? Grant Snider’s illustrations will motivate you to explore these questions, inspire you to come up with your own answers and, like all Gordian knots, prompt even more questions. Whether you are a professional artist or designer, a student pursuing a creative career, a person of faith, someone who likes walks on the beach, or a dreamer who sits on the front porch contemplating life, this collection of one- and two-page comics will provide insight into the joys and frustrations of creativity, inspiration, and process—no matter your age or creative background.

Opening Lines:

Blurbworthiness:  “Grant Snider’s work delivers introspection, humor, and inspiration in visually stunning drawings. They are a colorful look into the creative process—from the moments of quiet contemplation to the days of frenzied desperation.”  (Susan Cain author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking)

The Standard Grand
by Jay Baron Nicorvo
(St. Martin’s Press)

Some of the best war literature doesn’t involve bullets, blood, or bombs, but centers around what happens to warriors after they redeploy. Think The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman, Redeployment by Phil Klay, and Tim O’Brien’s short story “Speaking of Courage” from The Things They Carried. When you’re in the midst of the fog of war, it’s hard to think; the contemplation—and the nightmares—often don’t hit full force until after you’re back among the uncomfortable comforts of home. That’s one reason I’m looking forward to reading Jay Baron Nicorvo’s The Standard Grand; the other is the dazzling and inventive plot which involves an AWOL vet, a cougar, a resort in the Catskills and Senator Al Franken. Good things wait for us in these pages, dear reader.

Jacket Copy:  When an Army trucker goes AWOL before her third deployment, she ends up sleeping in Central Park. There, she meets a Vietnam vet and widower who inherited a tumbledown Borscht Belt resort. Converted into a halfway house for homeless veterans, the Standard―and its two thousand acres over the Marcellus Shale Formation―is coveted by a Houston-based multinational company. Toward what end, only a corporate executive knows. With three violent acts at its center―a mauling, a shooting, a mysterious death decades in the past―and set largely in the Catskills, The Standard Grand spans an epic year in the lives of its diverse cast: a female veteran protagonist, a Mesoamerican lesbian landman, a mercenary security contractor keeping secrets and seeking answers, a conspiratorial gang of combat vets fighting to get peaceably by, and a cougar―along with appearances by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Senator Al Franken. All of the characters―soldiers, civilians―struggle to discover that what matters most is not that they’ve caused no harm, but how they make amends for the harm they’ve caused. Jay Baron Nicorvo’s The Standard Grand confronts a glaring cultural omission: the absence of women in our war stories. Like the best of its characters―who aspire more to goodness than greatness―this American novel hopes to darn a hole or two in the frayed national fabric.

Opening Lines:  Specialist Smith gunned the gas and popped the clutch in the early Ozark morning. Her Dodge pickup yelped, slid to one side in the blue dark, then shot fishtailing forward. The rear tires burned a loud ten meters of smoking, skunky rubber out front of the stucco ranch house on Tidal Road.
       She felt thankful for her bad marriage. It allowed her the privilege of living off base; she could go AWOL without having to bust the gates of Fort Leonard Wood. Her four-barrel pocket pepperbox, a COP .357—holstered, unloaded—rode on the passenger seat.

Blurbworthiness:  “With profound compassion for his outrageously wonderful characters, Nicorvo brings readers to a defunct and decaying Catskills resort where a ghost platoon of vets are surviving among dangers both natural and human-made. Insanely funny, by turns tragic and, ultimately, redemptive, The Standard Grand is a desperate masterpiece of a debut: honest, epic, constantly surprising, and relentlessly entertaining.”  (Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of American Salvage)

by Jon Kerstetter

Another promising book about war landed on my doorstep this month and has promptly hooked me inside its pages. Like The Standard Grand, the memoir Crossings reminds us that battles are not fought by faceless robots bent on clinical killing but by men and women with bodies that can bleed and souls that can break. Army physician Jon Kerstetter volunteered for duty in Rwanda, Kosovo, and Bosnia and served three combat tours in Iraq. And then he came home and suffered a stroke. See, no robots here. The military may pride itself on its weaponized machinery, but its heart is still made of flesh and blood.

Jacket Copy:  Every juncture in Jon Kerstetter’s life has been marked by a crossing from one world into another: from civilian to doctor to soldier; between healing and waging war; and between compassion and hatred of the enemy. When an injury led to a stroke that ended his careers as a doctor and a soldier, he faced the most difficult crossing of all, a recovery that proved as shattering as war itself. Crossings is a memoir of an improbable, powerfully drawn life, one that began in poverty on the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin but grew by force of will to encompass a remarkable medical practice. Trained as an emergency physician, Kerstetter’s thirst for intensity led him to volunteer in war-torn Rwanda, Kosovo, and Bosnia, and to join the Army National Guard. His three tours in the Iraq War marked the height of the American struggle there. The story of his work in theater, which involved everything from saving soldiers’ lives to organizing the joint U.S.–Iraqi forensics team tasked with identifying the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s sons, is a bracing, unprecedented evocation of a doctor’s life at war. But war was only the start of Kerstetter’s struggle. The stroke he suffered upon returning from Iraq led to serious cognitive and physical disabilities. His years-long recovery, impeded by near-unbearable pain and complicated by PTSD, meant overcoming the perceived limits of his body and mind and re-imagining his own capacity for renewal and change. It led him not only to writing as a vocation but to a deeper understanding of how healing means accepting a new identity, and how that acceptance must be fought for with as much tenacity as any battlefield victory.

Opening Lines:  A soldier lies in the sand, blood pooling beneath his head, mouth gulping at the air. His eyes fixed, head tilted off to one side, legs and arms motionless. He’s a young soldier in his early twenties, late teens, a young man who should be a freshman in college or finding a summer job while deciding what to do after high school. In less than five minutes he’ll probably die right there in the dirt, right at your feet. You will carry his bloodstains on your boots and on the sleeves of your uniform.

Blurbworthiness:  “The author’s emergence as a military doctor makes for interesting reading...but what is of greatest value in this narrative is Kerstetter’s ongoing, twofold recovery from a stroke on one hand and PTSD on the other...The author’s medical perspective on his own condition and critical therapeutic moments adds depth to an already solid story. An inspiring memoir.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

Fresh Complaint
by Jeffrey Eugenides
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story collection—his first in a writing career which began in 1993 with The Virgin Suicides—is a virtually gallery of great opening lines. I won’t list them all here—apart from the book’s very first lines (see below)—but as one example, here’s the bold, funny start to “Baster,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker:
The recipe came in the mail:

Mix semen of three men.
Stir vigorously.
Fill turkey baster.
Insert nozzle.

1 pinch Stu Wadsworth
1 pinch Jim Freeson
1 pinch Wally Mars

There was no return address but Tomasina knew who had sent it: Diane, her best friend and, recently, fertility specialist.
Now, that’s funny stuff. The rest of the collection promises even more smart hilarity. No complaints here.

Jacket Copy:  Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestselling novels have shown him to be an astute observer of the crises of adolescence, self-discovery, family love, and what it means to be American in our times. The stories in Fresh Complaint explore equally rich­­––­­and intriguing­­––territory. Ranging from the bitingly reproductive antics of “Baster” to the dreamy, moving account of a young traveler’s search for enlightenment in “Air Mail” (selected by Annie Proulx for Best American Short Stories), this collection presents characters in the midst of personal and national emergencies. We meet a failed poet who, envious of other people’s wealth during the real-estate bubble, becomes an embezzler; a clavichordist whose dreams of art founder under the obligations of marriage and fatherhood; and, in “Fresh Complaint,” a high school student whose wish to escape the strictures of her immigrant family lead her to a drastic decision that upends the life of a middle-aged British physicist. Narratively compelling, beautifully written, and packed with a density of ideas despite their fluid grace, these stories chart the development and maturation of a major American writer.

Opening Lines:  Coming up the drive in the rental car, Cathy sees the sign and has to laugh. “Wyndham Falls. Gracious Retirement Living.”
       Not exactly how Della has described it.
       The building comes into view next. The main entrance looks nice enough. It’s big and glassy, with white benches outside and an air of medical orderliness. But the garden apartments set back on the property are small and shabby. Tiny porches, like animal pens. The sense, outside the curtained windows and weather-beaten doors, of lonely lives within.

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

There Will Be Boxes: Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s Library

Reader:  Caitlin Hamilton Summie
Location:   Knoxville, TN
Collection size:  Estimated 1,000
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  Life in Ancient Rome by F. R. Cowell
Favorite book from childhood:  Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman
Guilty pleasure book:  I don't have one!

The question has always been this: can I fit all the books in the house?

The answer has always been: no.

Growing up, my parents purchased sleek wooden bookcases made in Scandinavia and filled them with volume after volume. Avid readers, they accumulated thousands of books before they retired to the South and downsized both house and library. Yet their house never looked stuffed to spilling. Their books always looked beautifully cared for. Tended. The titles that overflowed the shelves onto end tables and chairs looked loved, the others remaining bright and orderly on their shelves.

Until recently, I’d never settled long enough to tend my shelves. My library was made up of first editions, specialty art editions, cookbooks (for someone who rarely cooked, I always had aspirations), novels, histories, and books I’d promoted. A few computer manuals. Reliable reference books. One beloved children’s book (Friends by Helme Heine).

Once, when I thought I had settled for good in the West, I had visions of building an entire wall of bookshelves in my condo, but then shortly thereafter I met my husband and we moved to a larger space. Oh, the glory of space! But our rental wouldn’t allow us to hang pictures let alone build bookshelves. Most of my library ended up in boxes stacked in an unfinished basement.

Why unpack? we thought then. After all, we planned to head out in a year, aiming East. It took much longer than a year for us to head East, though, and for many years it seemed moving along the Front Range in Colorado was a tradition as we bounced from one home to the next, boxes and people more raggedy with each displacement.

When we finally decided it was time to head East toward family, I unloaded boxes of books. To see what we had. Here we were, off again, but this time cross country and once again moving ourselves. It was time to consider what we could carry with us. In addition to my books, we now had our children’s books (roughly 300-plus), and my husband needed to be allowed a few, though his collection is small and curated, whereas everyone else’s book collection sprawls.

As I unloaded the boxes, I developed a new rule: if I had owned the book for twenty years and not read it, it went into the “donate” pile. Stacks and stacks of books went out of the house to the library, along with a few titles I decided I would never read again or which had gotten bumped down a notch or two in my esteem. I donated my Madhur Jaffrey cookbook, feeling sad but resolute. If I hadn’t needed the cookbook for many years while it waited in a box, it would be best to pass it along.

When you are loading your own moving van (again), a person gets tough.

Except with children’s books. Chewed, crusty, a few pristine—they all moved with us.

And so we Summies collected our beloved stories and headed out.

We arrived here in the South deep at night, into a neighborhood without many streetlights and no sidewalks and quiet enough to hear the thrum of crickets. I was so grateful to have arrived safely that I couldn’t absorb much, except that we had made it. In the morning I got a good look at the house and yard. Lots of beautiful trees and a wide swath of land. Not a lot of house. Ideal, except for the book situation. As my children relished playing in the dirt in their first-ever yard, and running across the stretch of grass that was now theirs to run every day, we did what we’d always done: we unloaded boxes into the garage for lack of space.

Which is what we did a year later when we moved.


At that point, I quoted my friend Natalie to my husband: “The next time I move, it will be because they are carrying me out.”

After six years here (the longest time I have lived anywhere in so long, I can’t remember), I began to unpack.

Unpack. The word unsettled me. I was so used to moving, I didn’t know how to stay.

Amidst unopened wedding gifts and scads of shoe samples from my husband’s previous job, we found my books. I unloaded them onto IKEA bookshelves which we re-purposed to fit our space. Look at them! I thought, giddy. Children’s books. Histories. Novels. Picture books. A cookbook about foods for the pack that I was pretty sure should have been returned to my friend, Jim, with whom I had lost touch amidst the multiple moves. (Jim, I have your book!)

Later, I got a little upset. My book about everyday life in the Roman Empire was missing. Among the stacks, I noticed that one missing spine... a favorite. Yes, I adore a book that tells me how people dressed and ate in ancient Rome.

Finally, I found it.

Thank goodness.

But what I have not found—still—is room for the rest of my books, presently gathering dust in our ridiculously overfull garage. My old Judy Blumes. A book series my parents had as kids. Literary novels. History titles. But they will stay, even if I can’t fit them in the house.

Lately I have been thinking more carefully about our garage, about how big it is. Our garage is massive. Our house was clearly built by someone with specific ideas about living. It has its quirks. Did the builder have large SUVs to fit into the garage or was he planning to create a wood shop? Why is there no linen closet? Why does the master bath include a make-up desk fit for a theatre actress?

But no matter. Someday I’ll take out the make-up desk and make a linen closet.

And that garage? Well, it could hold bookshelves. Quite a few, in fact.

Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, Mud Season Review, Long Story, Short and other journals. Her first book, a short story collection called To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, is now out from Fomite and earned a starred review from Foreword Reviews. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003. Find her online at

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Author photo by Colin Summie

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

There will be blood. Oh yes, buckets and freshets and rivers of blood. Sniff the first pages of Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done and you’ll catch the unmistakable odor of musky iron, damp earth, old pennies (or, considering the book is about Lizzie Borden, bad pennies). In the first chapter, narrated by Lizzie, Schmidt gives us a gore-streaked description of the axe-work inside the Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts:
Like a tiny looking-glass inside my mind, I saw all of Father’s blood, a meal, the leftovers from a wild dog’s feast. The scraps of skin on his chest, his eye resting on his shoulder. His body the Book of Apocalypse.
Beyond rendering blood into poetry, however, See What I Have Done is a riveting portrait of a mind gripped by madness. What happened in that family home back in 1892 to bring about such personal and deliberate horror from the blade of an axe? Schmidt investigates the mystery and describes the scenes in beautifully-written prose. By the way, contrary to the popular children’s rhyme—heard in the trailer—it probably wasn’t 81 whacks, but more like 30. Still...the horror, the horror.

As for the book trailer (the reason we’re here today), it’s the very best one I’ve seen all year. Here’s what makes it work so well:
  • The haunting children’s chorus singing about the 40 whacks
  • The ticking-clock pace that ratchets up the tension
  • The seep of blood across the wide planks of the wood floor
  • The shifting, geometric angles of the camera, hinting at the jarring, unsettled atmosphere of the house on that August morning in 1892
Visually and aurally, the trailer is a marvel. Listen closely to the way all the sound effects (the pendulum tick, the wasp’s wingbeat, the music-box tinkle, the breathy rush of wind) come together. I also love the yellowed papers where we find some blurbs for the book: “What a book—powerful, visceral and disturbing. I felt like one of the many flies on the walls of that unhappy, blood-drenched house.” (Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of The Last Act of Love)

The book and the trailer are both great. Bloody great.

Trailer Park Tuesday is a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

Monday, August 7, 2017

My First Time: Jay Baron Nicorvo

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jay Baron Nicorvo, author of The Standard Grand, picked for IndieBound’s Indie Next List, Library Journal’s Spring 2017 Debut Novels Great First Acts, and named “New and Noteworthy” by Poets & Writers. He published a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books), and his nonfiction can be found in Salon, The Baffler, The Iowa Review, and The Believer. He lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. Click here to visit his website.

My “First” Novel

My first published novel—The Standard Grand, released earlier this year from St. Martin’s Press—is the fourth novel I’ve finished. I started my first one as an obscenely naïve undergrad. A couple years later, in grad school and no less naïve, I wrestled it to something resembling completion. I spent a year or more trying, and failing, to get an agent—any agent—interested in it. When that didn’t work, I started the next novel. Five years later, the second novel I’d finished landed me my first agent.

That novel went out on submission to editors in September of 2006. I’d just turned 30 and, at that point, I’d been at it, pretty much on a daily basis, for a dozen years. My agent at that time—who isn’t my agent at present—was young, energetic, and enthusiastic. She was far smarter, savvier, and better educated than I. She was slumming somewhat, and I was marrying up, so to speak. She was lovely in every way, and I was in love with her a little. The whole process felt like a courtship.

Publishing people are a bit like the Beatles, and I love the Beatles—if not for love, they’d all be out of jobs. Love is not all you need, but it sells books. And love is also the dominant metaphor when it comes to book acquisitions. Time and again, you’ll hear agents say to writers, and editors say to agents, “I’m sorry but I just didn’t fall in love with this.” Sure, cynically and occasionally, such a euphemism can be read as: “This shit doesn’t deserve a toilet.” But more often, and more readily, didn’t fall in love is shorthand for the following run-on.

The publication process, at the big NYC publishing houses anyway, is so drawn-out (taking years in most cases), so fraught (even the most successful books face far more rejection than acceptance), involves a fair bit of money even at the low end (tens of thousands of dollars), and requires so many people (droves of hardworking individuals across the country), that the principals—writer, agent, editor—must feel the deepest, most abiding of human emotions, for one another and the work itself, otherwise the working relationships, and the books born of them, can only end in personal devastation every bit as fraught—emotionally and financially—as divorce. Turns out, the love metaphor isn’t really a metaphor. It’s literal. And you never really get over your first one, whatever it is (which is why this feature of David’s blog is so damn satisfying and inexhaustible).

That first novel submission of mine spent a year getting kicked around Manhattan, in two different versions, before my then-agent said enough was enough. The experience was brutal, slow psychological torture, and our relationship had a hard time surviving it. By the time I had another finished novel (the third, if you’re counting at home) I needed another agent, the inestimable Jen Carlson, whom—you may well guess—I love. And guess what. Novel number three didn’t sell either, despite accumulating more rejections than I care to count, though Jen has the tally. But by then I was mature enough (read: hardened by heartbreak) that I didn’t let my failure ruin our relationship. It’s a good thing, because some six years and one more novel later, Jen found me my editor. And yes indeed, dear reader, I do love her, too.

Last year, I read a wonderful interview with Emma Straub, a writer whose first published novel was the fifth one she finished. “They all got rejected by every single person in publishing, in the world,” Emma says. “It’s still true that I will go to a publishing party or event, and the first thing I will think of is, ‘I know who you are, you rejected novels 2 and 4.’” Emma has now published three novels, and I wrote her yesterday to ask if any of those unpublished novels went on to see the light of day or if they remain foundation work supporting all that’s come after.

In between opening a beautiful new Brooklyn bookstore, Books Are Magic, with Michael Fusco-Straub, her designer husband, raising a pair of boys, championing books at every available (and even unavailable) opportunity, and surely stealing a moment to write her next critically-acclaimed bestseller, Emma replied to say about those early stabs:
The first three were dead, are dead, remain dead. I say that not unkindly. The first may be resurrected someday, but no day soon. The fourth book I think of as the first draft of what became The Vacationers—or rather, it was a totally different book with most of the same characters. I struggled with it for years, and published two other books before I went back to those characters. The second time around, it was easy as pie—I knew every inch of those people. Then I just had to write it down.

What I love most about this—and, Beatles-like, I love it all—is the loving ruthlessness: dead, dead, dead. If you don’t reach that point, it’s easy to become precious and protective of your every written word. That attitude rarely, if ever, leads to publication.

Because publishing a novel isn’t just a matter of murdering your darlings. Killing darlings is easy by comparison. (While the love metaphor is lovely, if not very insightful, I’m afraid another favorite figure of speech, the war metaphor, is far more telling.) You’ve got to be willing to firebomb Dresden. To fly the plane. Identify the target. And ride a bomb giddyupping on down to the goddamn ground. Lay utter waste to years, even decades, of building sentences and characters and settings, bringing it all lovingly to life, only to be the one to give the awful order and, in the aftermath, dance madly round your own intimate devastation. On top of the ashes of first times—and first novels, plural—you may then, if you’re lucky, make something that, in the full maturity of repeated but ever greater failures, comes to feel like second nature. As Emma says, “The second time around, it was easy as pie.” The hellish part, I’ve found, is getting there in the first place.

Author photo by Thisbe Nissen

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

May 3, 2002
New York

       The dumbest words ever spoken in New York are “I think I’ll wear my new shoes.” I left the hotel yesterday at ten, and when I returned seven hours later, it looked as if I’d jumped into a wood chipper.

Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

Friday, August 4, 2017

Friday Freebie: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolitto

Congratulations to Tim Schultz, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: As Good As Gone by Larry Watson.

This week’s contest is for Malin Persson Giolitto’s Quicksand, named the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year by the Swedish Crime Writers Academy. I have a new hardcover copy to give away to one lucky reader. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

A mass shooting has taken place at a prep school in Stockholm’s wealthiest suburb. Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is charged for her involvement in the massacre that left her boyfriend and her best friend dead. She has spent nine months in jail awaiting trial. Now the time has come for her to enter the courtroom. How did Maja—popular, privileged, and a top student—become a cold-blooded killer in the eyes of the public? What did Maja do? Or is it what she failed to do that brought her here? Quicksand is an incisive courtroom thriller and a drama that raises questions about the nature of love, the disastrous side effects of guilt, and the function of justice.

If you’d like a chance at winning Quicksand, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 10, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 11. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.