"We lost a good one." When I opened my email Monday morning, that was the subject line on a message from Nashville book publicist Tom Robinson about the death of his friend, writer Paul Hemphill. An acclaimed columnist for the Atlanta Journal in the 1960s, Hemphill went on to write 16 books, chronicling the South in essay collections, novels, memoirs and biographies. We asked Tom to share his personal recollections of the soft-spoken writer who captured the South in a way few others have:
Paul Hemphill has been my literary hero since 39 years ago when I first opened the cover of his debut bestseller The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music. Last weekend he passed away in Atlanta.
For the last 30 years “Hemp” allowed me to be one of his many friends. For that I’ll always be thankful. He could weave sentences about the blue-collar South like no one else, because he was blue-collar South. That ability to lay it on paper grabbed so many of us and thank goodness we never shook it. Hemphill’s wheelhouses were the south, sports (with heavy emphasis on his Auburn War Eagles and Atlanta Braves) and country music. “I’m talking REAL country music,” Hemphill would say. “Country music has steel guitars, fiddles and singers with names like Hank, Merle, George, Kitty, Patsy and Loretta.”
So it came as no shock when about six years ago I answered my phone and the familiar soft voice said, “Tom, it’s Hemp. I’m going to write a book on Hank Williams. I think it can work, don’t you?” Work? There was no one better to connect the dots on this one. Hemp was born and raised in Alabama, Williams home state, when the country singer was alive and making his mark on the world. Like Hank, he’d also experienced broken dreams, divorce and a bout with alcohol, all well chronicled by the author. The big difference was that with the love of his wife Susan, Hemphill lived to conquer his demons and saw his life and writing age like fine wine.
“Now I’m planning to come to Nashville and do some serious research,” he said. “I need your help.”
My assignment was to get him together with Don Helms, Hank’s steel guitar player. A quick call to Helms and it was arranged, with a bit of a twist. “Tom, do I need to pull out the steel for Paul?” Helms asked. I’d been to Don’s house when he’d favor guests with those Hank hits, like he did on the historic record sessions. It was incredible how he could still make the lonesome steel cry. “That’d be great,” I said. “We’ll surprise him.”
When the interview day came, Don greeted us at the door and led us to the den, where Hemphill looked with astonishment at the double-neck instrument as Don sat behind it. “Have a seat gentlemen,” Helms offered. We did and he gracefully started in on the chords and reeled off many standards … Cold, Cold Heart, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Your Cheating Heart. The Hank hit parade continued with Hemp grinning like a kid at Christmas. “This is the real deal,” Hemphill whispered to me. As Helms played on the author leaned in, right ear almost touching the chords, making sure not to miss a single, haunting note. The entire time he grinned. “That’s the sound,” Hemp said nodding his head. “Just like on the records.”
He wrote the book, Lovesick Blues, and it earned praise from reviewers across the country. Once again, Hemp nailed it.
Last summer we lost Don Helms. Now Paul Hemphill. Wednesday at his memorial service in Decatur, Georgia, they will read the prologue he penned for Lovesick Blues. In it Hemp reflects on hearing Williams for the first time on radio while riding across the country as a kid with his truck-driving dad. As Hemphill’s loving wife Susan put it, “It’s only right that Paul gets the final word.” Amen to that.
Tom Robinson is a Nashville resident and author/book publicist and media consultant. He also produces the monthly online column, The Author Forum, at BookPage.com.
I didn't catch Little Bee pre-pub, but after reading a few pages in an Oxford bookstore I had to buy it. Luckily the UK practice of putting new books out in paperback made this an affordable and travel-friendly option. If you're put off by the back cover copy (which basically says, this book is so good we can't tell you anything about it), read a few pages and see if you're not captivated by the voice of Little Bee, a 16-year-old Nigerian refugee with a surprising connection to Kidman's well-to-do character, Sarah, and her husband. Unlike many over-hyped novels, this one delivers. Little Bee follows Cleave's Incendiary, a novel in the form of a letter to Osama bin Laden in response to an (imaginary) terror attack on a London football stadium. Unfortunately, the pub date set for Incendiary was July 7, 2005, the day of the London tube bombings, and the novel failed to get the promotion it deserved. We're glad to see Little Bee bring Cleave some well-earned success.
Fun fact: in the UK, Little Bee was called The Other Hand and featured a generic "literary fiction" type cover, a big contrast to the fanciful US jacket. Which do you prefer?
Watch an interview with Chris Cleave here.
Most fans of Audrey Niffenegger’s debut smash The Time Traveler’s Wife know she has a new book coming out this fall. On sale September 29th, Scribner is pitching Her Fearful Symmetry as “a spectacularly compelling ghost story set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London.” We’ve been on pins and needles waiting for our advance copy to arrive, and I was thrilled when I saw it in the mail last week—just in time for the weekend.
Although I’m only 75 pages in, I think it’s safe to say Niffenegger has avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. This novel feels wholly original and it’s something I would have picked up and kept reading even if I didn’t recognize the name on the (very spooky) cover.
The story begins as Elspeth Noblin dies of cancer in London. She has been long-estranged from her twin sister, Edie, but nevertheless leaves her London flat to Edie’s twin daughters—Julia and Valentina—who never knew their Aunt Elspeth. 20-year-old Julia and Valentina have lived in America their whole lives, and they are intrigued by their aunt’s generosity and a chance at an exciting new life in London. But Elspeth’s inheritance has conditions—the twins must live in her apartment together, and they must stay for at least one year; even stranger, Edie and her husband Jack are forbidden to set foot in the flat.
I know from the jacket copy that the twins will have another roommate in their new London home—the ghost of Aunt Elspeth. And I’m excited to see what the girls will learn about each other, their family’s history and why their mother and her twin sister Elspeth have been estranged all these years. In addition to being a fantastically gifted writer, Niffenegger is a guide at Highgate Cemetery—so the reader can expect lots of first hand creepy detail.
I learned from the all-knowing Google that today is Nikola Tesla's 115th birthday.
Surprisingly, this scientist has appeared in at least three recent works of fiction. (Links will take you to the BookPage reviews.)
Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (who doesn't appear in that book?)
Samantha Hunt's The Invention of Everything Else
And Toni Jordan's Addition—but just as a photo on the wall.
Anyone have other Tesla spottings in literature?
Fans of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity have something to sing about: Juliet, Naked, his new novel (on sale September 29th) will take readers back into familiar territory: the music world.
According to USA Today, “[The novel] features a reclusive, Dylan-like, English singer/songwriter who gets involved, via e-mail, with a woman in rural Pennsylvania." As for his novel’s title, Hornby says it has nothing to do with nudity: “It’s comes from the title of the new, acoustic version of 'Juliet,' the greatest album by his fictional musician, who’s hoping to stage a comeback.”
Following a collection of essays, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, a novel for young adults, Slam, and a collection of columns, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, this is Hornby’s first novel since 2005’s A Long Way Down. Music lovers and Hornby readers, rejoice.
When I arrived at the Books-A-Million offices for a few publisher meetings back in May, I had just missed their meeting with Penguin. As Julia and I walked in, most of the reps were talking about one thing: Level 26: Dark Origins, a new "digi-novel" coming in September from Anthony Zuiker, the creator of "CSI." They'd just seen a sample of one of the video "cyber-bridges" that readers will get a link to every 20 pages or so in the book. By all accounts, the video had the same quality as a TV show or film, and the killer was more terrifying than Hannibal Lecter.
This picture certainly lines up with that assessment. Apparently he wears a rubber suit of some kind so as not to leave any forensic info at the crime scenes. Creepy!
Info on the novel's plot is as vague as it gets ("the story of the world’s most heinous serial killer, and the one man who can stop him"—heard that one before?), but with a gimmick like this, they may be thinking it's not necessary. There will be three Level 26 novels, and Dutton paid a reported seven figures for the trilogy.
Soap opera fans will find this blend of TV and books to be nothing new (the novels of "Kendall" from "All My Children" and the unforgettable Hidden Passions by "Tabitha Lennox" spring to mind). But this is the first time readers have to get up after 20 pages, go to the computer and search for a video link, something that seems less than ideal to me—but might appeal to YouTube aficionados with smartphones. And who knows, the online content might be exciting enough to send readers racing through the pages to get to the next "cyber-bridge." I'm happy to see publishers trying something outside the standard print format, though. What do you think? The way forward, or two steps back?
We read with interest Nicholas Kristof's column on the importance of summer reading for children—and plenty of other people did, too. The column rose to the top of the most viewed list at nytimes.com. But surely we won’t be the only ones to question Kristof’s reading recommendations. Almost every book on the list was published decades ago (the two exceptions being Harry Potter and the Alex Rider series). Among Kristof's picks for summer reading were the Hardy Boys, Freddy the Pig and Little Lord Fauntleroy. That’s like telling my teenage son to go see a movie, and suggesting that he choose between Gone With the Wind and The Philadelphia Story. Great films, no doubt, but not as likely to interest kids as a well-done recent release.
We all love the classics, but aren’t there plenty of newer books that would hold the attention of children—and teach them a little something as well? Of course there are, and The Book Case is here to prove it! For technical support, we asked husband-and-wife children’s book experts Dean Schneider (a recent Newbery selection committee member) and Robin Smith (an upcoming Caldecott committee member) for quick, off-the-top-of-their-heads recommendations of a few recent children’s books worth reading.
The US/UK jackets for Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol were released today. What do you think? Will you be scouring the cover for "clues" to the book's content, or are you happy to wait until the novel's release?
For those of you who can't read the fine print/details on the US jacket, this red wax seal includes the image of a Phoenix, the number 33, and the Latin phrase, "Ordo ae Chao," (Order from chaos). But what does it mean?!? Apparently if you follow Brown on Twitter (@lostsymbolbook) or Facebook, you too can devote your summer to piecing together clues about the plot of his long-awaited book. Or you can just wait until September 15. I figure with a 6.5 million print run, there will be enough copies to go around.
And now, I'll leave you with a link to a clip from the "Today Show," where Matt Lauer shows the Lost Symbol cover and describes Brown as an author whose books are "pretty well read." You could say that, Matt.
I've said it before and I'll say it again—we get a lot of mail at BookPage! So when something interesting arrives (and that can really mean anything, depending on the day) we take notice. Case and point—this mysterious and intriguing postcard that arrived last week from Random House.
The back of the postcard simply says:
HOMER & LANGLEY
Random House September 2009
Even though the postcard doesn’t say much—if anything—about the book, it’s a really clever idea to get people interested in Doctorow’s latest novel. If we weren’t already reviewing it in our September issue, I would have definitely gone online to look for more info. And speaking of more info, here is a brief summary, from the publisher:
Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers—the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers—wars, political movements, technological advances—and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves. Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.
Last week, Walt Disney Studios released some concept and publicity art for the new Alice in Wonderland movie, directed by Tim Burton. Fittingly, this mad movie will be released in March—March 5, 2010—but instead of basing the story on Lewis Carroll's novel, this film is a sequel that finds Alice back in Wonderland at 17, with no memory of having been there before. USA Today describes the story as being "freshened with a dose of girl power" by Beauty and the Beast script writer Linda Woolverton, which sounds like fun to me.
Burton did an amazing job of bringing Roald Dahl's imaginary world to life in his version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (though I prefer the Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka—sorry Johnny!), and the concept art for Alice suggests the same applies for this adaptation, which will be in 3-D. Like any good Burton project, Alice in Wonderland will feature his wife, Helena Bonham Carter (the Red Queen) and the amazing Johnny Depp, along with the likes of Anne Hathaway, Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry. And now, the photos (via):