If you have ever attended the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, you know that many of the authors' sessions take place in the Legislative Plaza, in very formal hearing rooms with fluorescent lighting. As best-selling author Lauren Oliver said as she sat at the front of the room, it looks a bit like the author is going to be handing out prison sentences.
Halfway through Oliver's session last weekend, she accidentally knocked the State of Tennessee seal off the table, announced, "This is so me!" and held it up for fans to snap a picture. I can think of no better moment to illustrate Oliver's relationship with her readership.
After her session, Oliver sat with me and talked about her first novel for adults, Rooms. While she's clearly fascinated by haunted houses, her book is more concerned with the haunted relationships between generations. Check out the Q&A here.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bret Anthony Johnston, Creative Writing Director at Harvard and author of Remember Me Like This, during the Southern Festival of Books. He was also a contestant in Nashville's first ever Literary Death Match, which was described by the velvet-jacketed host as a “highbrow, lowbrow literary clusterf__k.” It was indeed. During our interview, I asked Johnston about his involvement and wondered if he was afraid of sudden death.
So what is the Literary Death Match, and how did you get roped in?
Well, they’ve asked me to do it a number of times, because this thing is all around the country. But we had never been able to make the schedule work. But the Southern Festival of Books asked me to do it, and they’ve been incredibly good to me, so I'm doing it. I’m debating whether or not I should open with a really dirty Willie Nelson joke. (Editor's note: He did.) I wanted to show up in one of those Olympic wrestling outfits, like a onesie with shorts. But in my very lazy research, it didn’t seem like I could get it. But if you want to wrestle one up, I’ll totally wear it. (Editor's note: Sadly, I didn’t.) So my strategy is a half-assed costume, then I’m going to read something that’s about three minutes long that I didn’t write but relates to me, and then I’m going to read a three minute short story, because you just get seven minutes. And that’s the best I can do.
Johnston did exactly that, taking the stage at Third Man Records in a Lucha Libre mask and warming up the crowd with hilarious (well, hilarious in light of his success) rejection letters he's received throughout his career. (Letter: "The dead donkey was a bit much." Johnston's reply: "What dead donkey?") He then read his short story "Boy," inspired by Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl."
Johnston was competing against Pulitzer-Prize finalist Adrian Matejka, who performed a poem with musical accompaniment; Patricia Lockwood, whose short piece is so dirty we can't even tell you the title; and Abraham Smith, whose mesmerizing performance entranced the audience. It all came down to a sudden death match of "fictionary," in which audience members with questionable artistic ability drew book titles for the authors to guess. Smith was declared the champion, but not without the help of Johnston, who flexed his preternatural fictionary skills. Luckily, no authors were seriously injured during the Death Match, and afterwards, being in Nashville, we line-danced off into the sunset.
Read the interview with Bret Anthony Johnston here.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Marilynne Robinson, Lila
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
Phil Klay, Redeployment
Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence
Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes
Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China
John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh
Maureen N. McLane, This Blue
Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night
Fanny Howe, Second Childhood
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
John Corey Whaley, Noggin
Deborah Wiles, Revolution
Eliot Schrefer, Threatened
In the mood for a scary story, but want to keep it real this Halloween? You're in luck, because sometimes, reality is far more terrifying than fiction. Check out the most terrifying novels of the year here.
Walter Kirn used to have a friend. This friend, he slowly discovered over the course of their 15-year friendship, was a murderer. It's a fact that could float this bizarre, dark memoir, but Kirn goes deeper, drawing disturbing parallels between himself and the psychopathic charlatan who became his friend.
It's like an apocalypse novel about the destruction of humanity! Except it's real. Ackerman explores just what humans have done to this fair planet of ours and what it all means for our future.
This account of a doomed Arctic exploration is filled with icy suspense and dread, despite the fact that you already know how this tragic tale ends.
Want to be terrified of the direction humanity is heading? Read this book. At least you won't be looking at your phone!
What could be creepier than trusting someone, only to find out they are not remotely who you thought they were? This book details the life of CIA double agent Kim Philby, as well as the lives of his friends and colleagues. Those closest to Philby never quite recovered from the incredible shock of discovering his true identity.
Religion and the terrifying corrupting capabilities of power are explored in this detailed account of the strange life and brutal death of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church.
In 1961, 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller capsized his canoe in New Guinea. He was never heard from again. No one knows what happened to him, but Hoffman has a theory. And it involves cannibalism.
Did we miss any? Tell us in the comments!
There might not be a lot of action in David Bell's new novel, but there's plenty of moodiness and tension-filled looks to slowly build a mystery. And I sure do love a slow burner, expecially when a book fills the air with on-point characterization.
The questions begin after Jason Danvers' sister Hayden, a former addict, appears at his doorstep with an apology and her teenage daughter in tow. Hayden is super cryptic about some "things" she has to take care of, so it's no surprise that she leaves her daughter with Jason and his wife and doesn't come back. All of this is curious timing, considering that Jason was recently questioned by police about his missing friend, Logan, who disappeared 17 years ago. The truth has to come out sometime . . .
Jason drove with no destination in mind. He considered going home but decided that Nora was right and what Sierra needed more than anything was distraction. She didn't speak as they drove away from the Owl and back toward downtown. She stopped commenting on passing sights. She didn't say anything. She pulled her feet up onto the seat and stared out the window, her fingernail in her mouth again.
"Do you want to see the house your mom and I grew up in?" Jason asked.
"Always," Sierra said.
"You've always wanted to see it?"
"Why did she say 'always'?" Her voice was hollow. She kept her head turned away from Jason. "It would be one thing if she just wrote and told me that she loved me. She does that kind of stuff all the time. But why did she say she'd always love me? Isn't that what you say to someone when you think you're never going to see them again?"
What are you reading?
Christina Baker Kline's session last weekend was one of the most well-attended events I went to at the Southern Festival of Books. Come to think of it, it was one of the most well-attended author events I've been to—ever.
Which is really no surprise considering the runaway success of her 2013 novel, Orphan Train. With a contemporary story of two women forming a tentative friendship set against a little-known historical backdrop, it's perfect for sparking questions for reading groups.
Not only that, but the true story of the orphan trains has inspired many readers to discover the truth of their own histories, which happens to be one Kline's favorite things about the book's success. You can read all about it in our Q&A with Kline.
Readers who have read Orphan Train: What questions would you like to ask Kline?
Elizabeth Hoyt's latest romance in her Maiden Lane series, Darling Beast, is out today. In this guest post, Hoyt writes about her love of myths, second chances and the unexpected inspiration behind the novel.
Myths and fairy tales have always fascinated me, perhaps because they’re a pre-Freud peek into how the human brain works—what frightens us, what awes us and what we desire deep in our hearts. Fairy tales and myths are storytelling at its most basic. There is no room for character development. Dialogue, setting and description are all usually very sketchy. What remains are stories in which the fat has been removed; underneath are bare, beautiful bones in which it’s easy to trace motif, themes and morality.
I like to include an accompanying fairy tale in each of my books as a sort of foil to the main story. My latest book, Darling Beast, is no exception. The hero of Darling Beast, Apollo Greaves, Viscount Kilbourne is on the run from the law after escaping Bedlam. He’s a big, rather physically intimidating man, and he’s lost his voice after being viciously beaten by the guards in Bedlam. Apollo is in hiding in an isolated, ruined pleasure garden where he’s supervising the restoration of the grounds. Living in the back of the burned-out theater in the gardens is Lily Stump, a successful actress and playwright who’s a bit down on her luck. As far as Lily knows, she has the gardens to herself. . . that is until her 7-year-old son, Indio, comes home one day and informs her that he’s seen a ‘monster’ in the gardens.
Now you might think that the obvious fairy tale for this story would be Beauty and the Beast—and in a way you’re right—but I chose a much older myth to highlight the story—The Minotaur. If you know your Greek myths, you’ll remember that the Minotaur was half man, half bull, born out of the unnatural union of a spell-bound queen and a magical bull. The Minotaur was a monster in the true sense of the word—in the original myth he lived at the center of a labyrinth and he ate human sacrifices. He provokes some of our most basic fears: deformity, unnatural sexual urges, cannibalism and being eaten by a big scary monster.
But what of the Minotaur? What does he think about a fate he never asked for? After all, he didn’t choose to be born a monster. Is he a cannibal by choice or because no one ever sends in anything else to eat but nubile youths and girls? In the original myth, the Minotaur has no voice. He’s simply a thing to be feared. He has the head—and tongue—of a bull and, like Apollo, he’s physically unable to speak. And isn’t speech the thing that makes us human and sets us apart from the animals?
Here’s the thing. I believe that often monsters—both in real life and in myth—are simply ourselves in a form we cannot recognize. We get caught up in that bull-head thing, in primitive fear and faulty first impressions, and fail to look beneath the outer horror.
Fortunately for Apollo, Lily is a kind woman—a woman willing to allow her opinions to change when she gets to know more about him. And isn’t that all each of us needs? Kindness and the willingness to give people—even monsters—a second chance.
Here's some timely news as we approach Halloween: Mary Downing Hahn's spooky 1980s classic, Wait Till Helen Comes, is heading to the big screen. The story of two fractious stepsisters, Molly and Heather, who move to an isolated old home where one of them is befriended by a ghost is deliciously creepy, and contains real emotional heart. Eight-year-old me must have read this book a dozen times—each time, I was scared by but also sorry for Helen, whose loneliness allows her to connect to the similarly isolated and unhappy Heather. Wait Till Helen Comes is a true classic—it's been in print since it was first published in 1986—and Hahn is still writing today.
The sisters will be played by real-life sisters Isabelle (Mama) and Sophie (The Book Thief) Nelisse, and Maria Bello has been cast as the mother/stepmother.
In spite of the fact that it's directed by Jennifer Love Hewitt, I'm still hoping this adaptation turns out better than the one for another of my childhood favorites, Betty Ren Wright's The Dollhouse Murders (aka Secrets in the Attic). Now if someone will just make a movie of Christopher Pike's Remember Me, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Cupid series or some of Richard Peck's Blossom Culp novels, I can relive my childhood ghost story addiction in full . . .
What's your favorite ghost story?
For many writers, especially the authors of memoirs, it can be hard to predict where and how readers will make the strongest connection to their stories. For Richard Blanco, whose The Prince of los Cocuyos is one of our favorite memoirs of 2014, the part of his book that seems to be attracting the most attention is especially surprising: It involves a can of Easy Cheese.
Growing up in Miami in a family of Cuban immigrants, little Ricky Blanco accompanied his cantankerous abuela (grandmother) to Winn-Dixie, a rare incursion onto the turf of los americanos. Blanco yearned to fit in with his American schoolmates, so he asked his abuela to buy a can of that uniquely American food, Easy Cheese. ("What? Queso en una lata? she questioned, unable to fathom the idea of cheese in a can. But I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was intrigued.") We won't spoil the story by telling you what happened next, but it's clear that the anecdote is making an impression on readers.
Blanco, the inaugural poet at President Obama's second inauguration in 2012, recently began a tour to promote The Prince of los Cocuyos. During one of his first stops, at Brookline Brooksmith in Massachusetts, a reader presented him with a very special gift—you guessed it: a can of Easy Cheese.
Will the gifts become a trend? No Easy Cheese was evident during Blanco's weekend appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but we have a feeling that Blanco might end up with a lifetime supply of canned cheese before his book tour is over.
To learn more about Blanco and his tender and keenly observed coming-of-age memoir, check out our Q&A with the author.
Of all the many authors I had the pleasure of seeing and meeting at this year's Southern Festival of Books, it was especially thrilling to take a moment with award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson to talk about her new memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming.
This truly marvelous book reveals a childhood caught between worlds, and her poignant verse succeeds in stripping away extraneous details, allowing room for readers to make an instant emotional connection.
Throughout her session, Woodson quoted from several of her books, including a selection from Locomotion that instructed a young mind to "be quiet" and to allow memories to make themselves known. She read several of the poems from Brown Girl Dreaming, including her favorite, "Music," which begins:
Every morning the radio come on seven o'clock
Sometimes Michael Jackson is singing that A-B-C
is as easy as 1-2-3
or Sly and the Family Stone are thanking us for
Sometimes it's slower music, the Five Stairsteps
things are going to get easier, or the Hollies singing,
He ain't heavy, he's my brother
So on we go . . .
After her session, Woodson graciously agreed to chat with me about the book, her complex relationships with music and the South, and so much more. A preview:
Why did you think verse works so well for this book?
It’s how memory comes. Memories come in these small moments, with all of this white space around them, but the moments are very distinct. I feel like I have all this information, [but I'm] not sure what it’s connected to. And then the exploration of years and months and days brings the connection together. But it wouldn’t have been a straight narrative. A straight narrative would’ve been a lie. It’s not how you remember things—you remember them in small moments.