Returning to fiction is like sitting down and having stiff drinks or strong coffee with old friends you’ve not seen in years. You miss them deeply, and are so happy to see them, and you can’t believe it’s been so long since you’ve all gotten together. I wrote my first novel, The Joy of Funerals, in 2003. This month, HarperCollins releases my new novel, Based Upon Availability. In between that time and now, I penned two nonfiction books, and so I’ve been looking forward to getting back to a place where one doesn’t need to fact-check, and I can just create the people and situations.
I’m so fascinated by human behavior and the strange, odd and outrageous things people do. And I wanted a place where all of my characters passed by each other, even bleed into each others lives that was very self contained. Based Upon Availability, centers on eight women who pass through the doors of Manhattan's signature, ultra swanky Four Seasons Hotel—either for an hour, for several days, or number of weeks—offering sanctuary to some, solace to others, and even despair. Here, they grapple with family, sex, power, love and death as they explore the basic need for human connection while seeking to understand themselves better.
Truth be told, I have a love affair with hotels, and I secretly long to live in one.
Hotels are sexy and offer a strange kind of mystery, a retreat from real life. I love the idea that you can be anyone from anywhere and that once you've check out, the rooms are stripped down, wiped clean and all traces of you are erased, as if you'd never been there. That was an intriguing concept to play with. I wanted to ask and answer the age-old question; ‘what happens behind closed doors’ while examining the walls we put up as we attempt intimacy, and inspecting the ruins when they’re knocked down.
As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels—some amazing, some, sadly, not so much—and so for Based Upon Availability , I really wanted to bring some of that experience to the page. I wanted the reader to really get a feel for the inner workings of a property while showing the gritty, sometimes dirty, reality of daily life. I spent a lot of time sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel and stayed in one of the suites. I pretended to be one of the characters—Unlimited Lou, the aging rock star who’s in dire need of detoxing….in fact, she’s brought to the hotel by her publicist to dry out, having failed at the rehab centers. To give it an authentic touch I dangled an unlit cigarette from my lips, slapped on some removable tattoos, brought a bottle of vodka with me—have you seen the prices for a mini bottle of booze?—and played a lot of rock songs I thought the character would like or have written herself. Of course I remained sober for the experience—though I did walk around naked, as the character does, but of course, this may be far more info than anyone wanted to know. . . . Oh, the need to be honest.
I chose the Four Seasons because I’m a fan, mostly because it’s such a signature, classic, and high-end spot for many New Yorkers and out-of-towners, with instant name recognition. It’s also incredibly large with over 350 rooms so there’s a feeling of vastness and anonymity. Hopefully readers won’t have to get on a plane to feel as though they’ve traveled to New York and stayed at the hotel. But rather Based Upon Availability will make them feel as though they have.
Today is the first-ever Book Blogger Convention, and instead of posting the usual "Best of the Blogs" roundup, we are thrilled to welcome Rebecca Joines Schinsky to The Book Case. Rebecca is Associate Director of the convention, but she is probably better known for her smart and funny posts at The Book Lady's Blog--on everything from author events, to new books to her disdain for Nicholas Sparks. Below, Rebecca offers her advice for starting a book blog; if you've ever wondered about sharing your love for reading with a larger audience, you've come to the right place. Thank you, Rebecca!
When Eliza asked me to write this post, my first thought was, “Finally! An excuse to share all of the wisdom I’ve earned the hard way these past two years!”
Then I remembered that I’m really just making it up as I go along…
But I must be faking it pretty well if Eliza thought I actually, like, know things about blogging, so I figure I’ll take a stab at it. How bad could it get? I mean, I’m already known as that girl who talks about throwing her panties at authors.
(See what I mean about making it up as I go along? You can plan that kind of ridiculousness.)
Anyway, without further ado, my top five tips for new and would-be book bloggers.
Do Your Homework
I started blogging the way I do most things--I jumped right in. That was fun, but I did it without any real knowledge of different blogging platforms, software, gadgets, etc. I had (briefly) used Blogger in the past and didn’t love it, and several of the blogs I was reading at the time were on Wordpress, so I just trotted over to wordpress.com and signed up for an account. Then I proceeded to stumble my way through it.
That’s not a bad way to learn, but it is very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, and it can be stressful. If I had it to do over again, I’d spend more time learning about the options, talking to established bloggers (BTW, I love getting email from new bloggers and people who are thinking about starting), and considering the possibility of self-hosting. I’ve just made the transition, and I wish I’d started off self-hosted from the very beginning.
Also: do some googling and make sure there’s not already a blog or business with the title you’re considering. I really learned this one the hard way, as The Book Lady’s Blog started under a different name and changed when I got a scary “cease and desist” email from a business I’d never heard of but who had a copyright on the title I’d chosen.
Don’t Obsess About Free Books
Getting review copies and ARCs (advance reading copies, which are also called galleys) is privilege, not a right, and you don’t have to get them in order to write a fabulous blog.
Start off reviewing whatever you like, whatever you are reading. Sign up for the early reviewer programs at Goodreads and LibraryThing. Subscribe to Shelf Awareness, and click on their banner ads for ARCs. (You’ll be tempted to go crazy on it at first, but beware: the TBR pile will quickly grow to frightening size, and you’ll be wondering why the hell you requested that book in the first place.)
As you develop your blog and build your profile in the community, publishers and authors might reach out to you to ask you to read and review their books. It’s exciting when that happens, but don’t lose your head---accept the books you are actually interested in and pass on the rest. Consider posting a review policy on your blog that will help interested parties identify the books that will be a good fit for you.
Bottom line: you’re not entitled to free books, and it’s important to learn the etiquette that goes along with requesting them and reviewing them.
Regardless of what your goals for your blog may be, you need to get connected and meet people. If you *really* just wanted a place to record your thoughts, you’d write a diary. Blogging is about sharing your thoughts in a public forum, and it is much more fun when you have a little help from your friends.
Visit and comment on blogs you enjoy. Participate in the conversations that crop in the comments on your blog. Jump into the craziness that is Twitter. Don’t be intimidated by the supposedly “big bloggers.”
Social media is the great equalizer---you can tweet alongside your favorite authors and your idol bloggers, and there’s a good chance they’ll tweet back. All you have to do is reach out.
Which brings me to:
Save the Drama for Your Mama
So the post you wrote didn’t get any comments, or a blogger you’ve visited and commented on hasn’t commented on your blog, or someone didn’t respond to your tweet, or maybe you’re just feeling left out and lonely. These things happen. To all of us. You and your angst are not special.
Put your big kid underpants on and deal with it.
Nobody likes to read a whiny blog post about how alone you feel and how badly you wish more people would comment on your blog (hello, can we say fishing for compliments?), and nobody---really, nobody!---wants to read another post or tweet about blogging cliques. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no two people define the “big bloggers” the same way, and there’s no secret blogging mafia who controls the internet.
Really, it’s the internet. It’s open to EVERYONE.
Take a few days off if you need to. Think about why you started blogging in the first place. Send an email to a trusted blogging friend. Remember that other bloggers have lives, too, and it’s probably not personal.
But keep it to yourself.
And please, for the love of all things sacred, don’t write a post that you know will be controversial just to stir the pot and drive traffic to your blog. Yes, the bump in hits will be nice, but it is so not worth it. Do you really want to be thought of as that person?
Be Yourself and Have Fun
Yes, it’s the same advice your mother gave you when you headed off to summer camp, but it’s still applicable. In fact, starting a blog is a lot like going off to camp in some ways. You don’t really know anybody, and you have to just put yourself out there.
My blog has A LOT of my personality in it, but that’s not a requirement. You can be as private or public as you like, but be true to yourself and your voice. Sure, it might sound like fun to write all of your reviews in Yoda-speak at the beginning, but how sustainable is that? Do you really want to be saying, “Loved this book a lot, I did” for the next ten years?
Talk about books the way you’d talk about anything else. Let your readers get to know you.
Anybody can write a summary or review of a book and post it on the internet. By being yourself, you make your blog a unique space, and you give readers a reason to keep coming back.
Also: do what works for you. There’s no right or wrong way to write a blog, no set number of required posts per week, no mandate on how often you blog or what you blog about.
If you build it, they will come. Write great content that reflects who you really are, and you’ll eventually find the right audience.
Photo by PJ Sykes.
Paul Doiron is the author of The Poacher’s Son (published May 11 by Minotaur Books), a crime novel about a rookie Maine game warden who is thrust into the hunt for a murderous fugitive—his own father. Doiron is also the editor-in-chief of Down East: The Magazine of Maine and a Registered Maine Guide. In a guest blog post for BookPage, the author describes the night a game warden first came to his rescue and how the experience has haunted him ever since.
I was struck by lightning.
People use that term as a metaphor all the time, but in my case it actually happened. Beyond being a nightmare experience, it also served as the starting point for both my writing career and my lifelong fascination with Maine game wardens.
On Memorial Day weekend 22 years ago I went camping with two friends in the Mahoosuc Mountains of western Maine. I was fast asleep when the lightning struck. The bolt hit a fir-tree at the edge of the clearing where we had made our camp, and the electricity traveled through the roots. I was actually blown off the ground and received a burn the size of a quarter on my side.
My friend, sleeping in a tent nearer the tree, was not so lucky: the current nearly electrocuted him. We were miles from the nearest road, one thousand feet up. I spent five hours alone with my friend, thinking he would die, while his brother fetched help.
Just before dawn, help finally arrived—two emergency medical technicians, and the district game warden, a rugged man named Don Gray. They stabilized my friend’s breathing. Soon volunteers from the Appalachian Mountain Club and Outward Bound arrived to carry the litter down the steep hill to the ambulance.
My friend spent a week in the hospital, and doctors told us that his heart had stopped when the lightning struck. He recovered fully except that he had no memory of that night. I, however, will never forget it.
The article I wrote about our ordeal was the first I ever published, and it appeared in Down East, the magazine I now edit.
Despite my own trauma, I continued to explore the Maine woods, finding my way into the remote and dangerous backcountry. I met other game wardens and made friends with old loggers and trappers, even a former poacher or two. I started writing about some of these people, first for Down East and later in The Poacher’s Son.
In time I decided I was ready to take the test to become a Registered Maine Guide. Maine is one of the only states to require that anyone who guides people into the wilderness be licensed. At my oral exam I would face a panel of experienced and unforgiving outdoorsmen who would grill me on using a map and compass, first aid, woodcraft, canoeing and finding lost people.
On the morning of my exam, I was surprised to find, sitting across the table from me, a familiar face. Don Gray had retired from the Maine Warden Service, but he was still testing the mettle of potential guides.
I introduced myself as one of the boys struck by lightning on Baldpate Mountain so long ago.
Don nodded knowingly. “God,” he said, “Wasn’t that one hell of a night, though?”
An hour later I passed the test.
Editor's note: In BookPage, mystery columnist Bruce Tierney writes that The Poacher's Son is "easily one of the best debut novels in recent memory." Do you agree? What other mysteries or thrillers would you recommend to those who enjoyed The Poacher's Son?
Author photo by Mark Fleming
Author (and double Gemini!) Bonnie Hearn Hill launches a new young adult series, Star Crossed, this month. In a guest post, she explains how astrology can help a writer get to know her characters. Share your thoughts on her post in the comments by Friday, April 2, and you'll be entered to win a copy of the first book in the series, Aries Rising.
When I first started trying to write fiction many years ago, I was told by a well meaning teacher that I needed to decide if I was writing action-driven fiction (thrillers), voice-driven fiction (literary) or character-driven fiction. That didn't make sense to me even then. Isn't all memorable fiction character-driven? An intriguing character can save a mediocre plot, but the best plot in the world can't rescue a mediocre character.
Can using astrology help you create memorable characters? I think so. It's helped me, but then I haven't relied on it alone. So you need a proactive protagonist, and you say, "Okay, Aries is the Ram, a Fire sign. That's proactive enough." True, but Aries is not always a finisher. Or you say, "I want an emotional sign, so I'll choose a Water sign like Scorpio." But many Scorpios are too secretive to be proactive. You need to know more about your character than her Sun sign. Much more. That information should come from her.
Some of my writer friends believe in the character charts that ask everything from hair color to family history. Those lists make me feel as if I am taking a multiple-choice test. "Eyes? Blue! Hair? Black!" Although they request all of the pertinent information, the quizzes seem too left-brain to let me create organic characters.
When I began my Star Crossed young adult series, I had to hear the voice of Logan, my protagonist. I asked her to write me a letter. I've done this before when characters elude me. I ask them to write something like: "Dear Bonnie, My name is Logan McRae, and I was born . . . I live in . . . I have no siblings, and my mom spends most of her time on a golf tour. I miss her, but I'm happy she's living her dream. At least that's what my dad and I tell each other. My problem now is . . ."
These letters from my characters are usually five or more pages. Of course, I resist this exercise because I want to do the "real writing," but I know the writing won't be real until I truly know my character. Once I do it, and once I hear my character telling me about her life, I can say, "She's not an Aries. This character is an Earth sign who is willing to work hard for what she wants. She sounds like a Capricorn."
Use all of the tools you have. Start with the character's voice, and then you'll be ready to shade in the rest with astrology. Here's the down and dirty on the different signs. Don't let it limit you, though. As Logan learns in the Star Crossed series, the Sun sign is not the sum of a person's personality.
Fire signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
They get things done. Aries rams. Leo likes attention. Sadge travels and talks.
Earth signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
They keep things stable. Taurus is stubborn but loyal. Virgo is detail-oriented and sometimes critical. Capricorn works really hard and may worry about money when young.
Air signs: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
They are the communicators. Gemini spreads the news, often without filtering it. Libra speaks frequently of self as if trying to understand what to do. Aquarius speaks from an intellectual plane and with a desire to do well for all.
Water signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
These are the emotional signs. Frequently they have difficulty breaking from the past. They can also be supportive friends. Cancer is loyal to family and will destroy anyone who challenges or threatens family members. Scorpio is secretive with unfinished business, and loyal to the end. Pisces is a dreamer who has earned the doormat reputation. He's also one of the most spiritual and creative signs.
Less than a year after the publication of South of Broad, Pat Conroy has signed a deal to write My Life in Books, a nonfiction account of the “people, writers and books that made him into the reader and writer he is today, from Tolstoy to Thomas Wolfe and beyond,” according to an announcement yesterday in Publisher’s Marketplace.
This will not be the best-selling author’s first foray into nonfiction. The Water Is Wide (1972) is based on his experiences as a schoolteacher, and in 2002, Conroy published My Losing Season, a memoir inspired by his senior year season as starting point guard on The Citadel’s basketball team. In 2004, he published The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life, which includes personal stories in addition to recipes.
No doubt My Life in Books will be eagerly anticipated; Conroy is a favorite of BookPage readers—South of Broad was our cover story in August (read a review of this “lush, remarkable new novel”), and we interviewed him in 2002 about My Losing Season.
I wonder how the book will be organized—chronologically based on what he was reading when? By author that inspired him? When Gay Talese (the husband of Conroy’s editor, coincidentally) described some of the stories and inspiration behind his books in 2006’s A Writer’s Life, I thought the result was a bit disjointed; he bounced from anecdote to anecdote, with long digressions thrown in. I hope Conroy’s book has a clearer narrative structure.
Will you read My Life in Books?
J. Sydney Jones is the author of 12 books, including 2009’s The Empty Mirror, a “stylish and atmospheric” mystery novel that “breathes life into turn-of-the-century Vienna.” Jones’ latest novel is Requiem in Vienna (published Feb. 2 by Minotaur Books), another mystery starring Viennese lawyer Karl Werthen and criminologist Hans Gross. In a guest blog post for BookPage, the author shares the experience that inspired his series—when, as a young man living in Vienna, he was tailed by a watcher for the state police.
I'll Be Watching You
At first I thought it might be a shopkeeper I did occasional business with. That would explain why he looked so familiar. The butcher on Langegasse or the wine merchant in the Altstadt. He had the same general features: slight build, medium height, light brown hair and eyes, gray overcoat. Nothing stood out. A figure that blends into the background.
I would catch sight of him across the Josefstaedterstrasse on my way to the language institute where I taught; see his reflection in a store window on Graben and he would quickly turn away; pass by him leaving the Stadtbahn station, his back to me, his head buried in a day-old issue of the Kurier. Once I actually came upon him talking with my building portier, a guilty look on both their faces.
This was the Vienna of several decades ago. It was still the Cold War. Foreigners living in Vienna fit into a risk category for the state police, anxious to protect Austria’s neutrality. It did not help that a childhood friend, also living in Vienna at the time, had become involved in a nationalist cause in Yugoslavia.
Still, until I discovered that I had my very own watcher, I had been living in another make-believe Vienna of schlagobers and Mozart. I had believed the tourist propaganda of the city of dreams and waltz.
My watcher stayed with me for over half a year, until I moved on for a time to Greece. Returning to Vienna the next fall, I no longer saw him or sensed his presence. But it was a wake up for me. I began to look at the underside of Vienna after the watcher; seeing the city as not only beautiful, but also treacherous. It is a vision that has remained with me, informing all of my writing about Vienna.
—J. Sydney Jones
British author Andrew Grant hit the thriller scene in a big way with his 2009 debut, Even. Starring rogue spy David Trevellyan, the novel was a favorite of Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney, among others, and marked the launch of a series that will continue in May with Die Twice. Recently Grant traveled from his home in Birmingham, England, to participate in a conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Here, he gives a behind-the-scenes look at the weekend's events.
Half an hour from the airport, bogged down in heavy traffic, threading our way through the lattice of raised, sweeping concrete highways towards Birmingham city centre. I was starting to feel right at home. But this wasn’t spaghetti junction, and we weren’t in the heartland of England. We were in Birmingham, Alabama, on our way to the Murder in the Magic City writing conference—followed by the annual Murder on the Menu dinner in nearby Wetumpka—over the weekend of February 6 and 7. The first included talks by authors, featuring best-selling writers S.J. Rozan and C.J. Box on Saturday, and the second was a ‘moving feast’ with the same 16 crime fiction authors on Sunday.
Both days offered a wonderful opportunity to meet enthusiastic readers, talk to other writers and listen to a wide variety of stimulating and informative panels. I’d be hard pressed to say which I enjoyed more, but was delighted to part of two evenings that were not only enjoyable, but which raised funds for two very worthwhile causes—the national Crime Lab project, and the Wetumpka Public Library.
Jennie Bentley is the author of the best-selling Do-It-Yourself home renovation mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime. She doesn't just write about home renovation, she lives it—working as a renovator and real estate assistant as well as a writer. Today, Jennie shares her top 5 cheap and easy renovation tips with Book Case readers.
On March 2, the third installment in my Do-It-Yourself Home Renovation mysteries featuring textile-designer-turned-renovator Avery Baker, and her boyfriend, handyman Derek Ellis, will be in bookstores everywhere.
I’ve always done my best to make Avery and Derek ‘real people,’ the kind of fictional characters most of us can relate to and that we might like to hang out with. Inherited house and lapsed medical degree notwithstanding, they’re not independently wealthy and they’re not dilettantes. They’re hard-working people trying to make ends meet the same as the rest of us. At the beginning of Plaster and Poison, they find themselves in a place we all are likely to find ourselves sooner or later, especially in these economic times: short of cash.
In Derek’s and Avery’s case, what this means is that instead of buying a new house to renovate, they’re forced to go to work for someone else until their cash flow situation improves. For the rest of us, being short of cash usually means tightening the belt, skimping on luxuries like going out to eat and going to the movies. Updating our homes go on the back burner, except for fixing important things like leaking roofs or dripping faucets.
Sometimes, though, a change of scenery can do wonders for the morale. Here are a few tips from Avery for updating the look of your home on a budget:
Rearrange your furniture. You’d be amazed at the difference it can make. While you’re at it, try to get rid of some of the clutter, too. We all accumulate lots, and it can obscure and even make you forget the things you like about your home.
Paint a wall—or four. At $20-$25 per gallon, paint is the quickest and cheapest picker-upper, because it can totally change the look of a room. Even if all you do is paint one wall, it’ll change the entire space. With not much more money and a little more work, try a special effect, like sponge painting or crackling. Remember too, that paint doesn’t just work on walls: you can paint floors, doors, furniture, kitchen cabinets . . . all kinds of things.
Have some fun with fabrics. New curtains can make a huge difference, at not too prohibitive a price. Slipcovers are great: they totally change the look of a sofa or chair. Toss some new, cheap throw pillows on the furniture to update the look. For a dining room or kitchen, try a new tablecloth. If you’re feeling adventurous—and have access to a sewing machine—grab some cheap fabric remnants at a craft store and whip up your own pillows and window treatments. Or do a Scarlett O’Hara and recycle an old pair of curtains or even a shirt or sweater. Slipcovers, pillows, and window treatments in different fabrics can transform a room in no time flat.
Update your accessories. It’s amazing how the artwork on the walls and the tchotchkes on the table can define a room. Try changing your accessories to get a different look. Move things from one room to another, and update both spaces at the same time.
Play hardball with your hardware. Change out your doorknobs, the kitchen or bathroom faucets, or the cabinet handles and drawer pulls. The difference something so small can make is profound. On a slightly larger scale, a new chandelier above the dining room table, or replacing an outdated ceiling fan with a new, streamlined model, can make a world of difference as well.
So there you have it. It doesn’t have to take an arm and a leg, or a fortune, to update your house. And if you run out of ideas, you can always pick up a DIY-book for some inspiration. Preferably one of mine.
Jennie Bentley lives in Nashville with her husband (a realtor), two kids, two frogs, two goldfish, a parakeet, and a hyperactive dog. Learn more about Jennie and the DIY books on her website.
Yesterday we highlighted features from our February issue, including an interview with romance novelist Kristan Higgins, author of The Next Best Thing (February 1 from Harlequin). Today, we have a special treat: A guest post from interviewer (and BookPage Production Designer) Karen Elley, who brings us more behind-the-book quotes from her conversation with Higgins.
Ever wondered why your favorite romance heroine has a pet? Or how an author feels at the conclusion of writing a book? Read on to get the scoop. Then tell us in the comments: What's your favorite romance novel?
Recently I interviewed romance author Kristan Higgins for the February issue of BookPage. Due to space constraints, several paragraphs had to be cut from the article. So, just in case inquiring minds want to know what I left out, here are more insights into Higgins and her writing style.
For instance, Higgins writes from the first person narrative point of view, something that is unusual in contemporary romance. She said it provides a truer point of view for her because the heroine doesn’t know what the hero is thinking, and neither does the reader.
“In real life,” Higgins says, “you don’t get the other person’s point of view—you have to make assumptions by going on what’s showing in their actions and by what’s being said. It feels like a very natural and honest way to write.”
In Higgins' previous books, a dog is usually the heroine’s best friend, but in The Next Best Thing, Fat Mikey, a cranky, overweight cat takes on that role. “I’m definitely a dog person,” Higgins says, “but I also own a cat.” (Dear reader, cat people will understand that no matter what the author believes, no one owns a cat.) “I decided to pick a pet for each of my (five so far) heroines,” she explained, “because I think the pet the character chooses, and how they relate to it, is very revealing.”
Actually, in The Next Best Thing, the heroine doesn’t pick him; her friend with benefits, Ethan, gets Fat Mikey for Lucy—to be with her while he’s away.” Higgins felt a dog would be too much for Lucy to handle with her job at a bakery and the unusual hours that go with it. “A cat is company but more independent and less needy.” Darn straight.
When she moves on to write a new book, Higgins admits that it’s hard to get the current book’s characters out of her head. “You fall in love with these people. They are so real to you. In your heart you feel their pain, you laugh at what they say, you cry with their sorrows and then when the book is done, I don’t get to see them anymore. It’s almost like breaking up.”
Higgins gave BookPage a sneak preview of the book she’s currently writing, scheduled for publication in August of 2010. All I Ever Wanted is a tale of opposites who attract, starring a woman who has a toxic crush on her boss: “When the book opens it’s her 30th birthday, and she thinks he has given her some reason to hope that things are going to be different. But as it turns out what he really wants to tell her is that he is seeing someone else. The plot revolves around a quirky, funny family and a heroine who feels that if she does everything right, she can fix everything. She’s always trying to solve other people’s problems and make everybody happy.” The hero this time is a vet. “With all the pet references in my other books, sooner or later it had to happen,” Higgins said.
When asked what she likes to read, and what authors influenced her writing, Higgins replied, “I just finished a wonderful book, Thanksgiving Night by Richard Bausch, an absolutely lyrical book about a family.” Other authors she loves and appreciates are Eleanor Lipman, Elizabeth Strout, Monica Macanerny, Steven King, Sherry Thomas and Susan Mallory. “It depends on my mood of the moment. I read a lot of different genres. But I think because I hadn’t always planned to be a writer, I didn’t look at the books I was reading as influence, more as enjoyment.
Higgins admits she doesn’t have a clue as to what the next big thing in romance novels might be. “I don’t pay attention to market trends and predictions, but I think readers are always hungry for great stories. They love characters with conflicts and issues to overcome, and they love when it’s difficult. They love the struggle. A good book with great characters will always sell.”
If she had to do something other than writing, what would it be? “I think I’d like to be an editor, that way I could still read all these great stories.”
Longtime BookPage interviewer Alden Mudge talked to Greg Mortenson for our December issue. Here, he shares his impressions of the best-selling author and a few of the more memorable quotes that didn't make it into the finished piece.
I am by temperament knee-jerk skeptical of heroes and hero worshipers. So for several years I resisted the Three-Cups-of-Tea fever that had infected a good number of my intelligent, well-read friends. Then I was assigned to interview Greg Mortenson about his new book Stones into Schools. Call me a believer.
During a long phone call, I was utterly convinced and charmed by Mortenson. He was both forceful and self-effacing, remarkably candid, completely dedicated to his cause, and very opinionated. Not all of his opinions fit in the BookPage print interview, so I thought I’d offer a few outtakes here:
“I love to talk with students around the country, and one of the main topics we end up talking about is failure. As a society we’re very loath to talk about failure. When I ask an adult audience ‘who can tell me what the first chapter of Three Cups of Tea is called?’ not one hand goes up. But if I ask college kids or high school kids, nearly all their hands go up. They know it’s called “Failure.” Kind of interesting. I think in order to succeed you need failure. If we could admit that we failed a little bit once in a while—especially our government—we’d be better off. I think the military actually gets this. They’re willing to admit that in many ways they failed originally in Afghanistan.”
“The Afghanistan government was set up at the Bonn Conference in December 2001. Eighteen countries met and decided how to rebuild Afghanistan. The problem was that it was set up as a centralized, deprovincialized system, very U.S.-oriented, very bureaucratic. But Afghanistan is a feudal, multiethnic society. Power is really with the shura, the elders. I’ve studied the Marshall Plan extensively. It was quite a brilliant plan. The main component was that it was provincialized and decentralized, especially in Italy and Japan. In Afghanistan the U.S. completely flipped it around, made it exactly the opposite. Only in the last two or three years—ironically through the military—has this started to change.”
AFGHANISTAN, THE POSITIVE AND THE NEGATIVE
“What I try and tell the public is here’s what you have to look at, the positive things and then negative things in Afghanistan. The positive things are: In 2000, which was nine years ago at the height of the Taliban, there were 800,000 kids in school, ages 5 to 15, and 99 percent were boys. Today there are 8.4 million in school, including 3.5 [million] females. The goal is 13 million, so that is like 60 percent of the way there. The Afghan army is at 80,000 and the goal is 180,000, so that’s 40 percent of the way there. There is now a central banking system in the country, which started in 2006, which is huge. There’s an Eisenhower-era road building program; the road now from north to south is completely done and the road from the east to west is about half done, so the roads are about 70 percent finished—the main trunk roads. If you go into a district court, the amount of women and men, but especially women, filing titles and deeds for landownership is just skyrocketing. So those are the positive things.
And the negative things are: the U.S. is taking more hits. A lot of that is because starting two years ago—it was actually General McKiernan and now General McChrystal—have put a huge emphasis on cutting down on bombings. There have unfortunately been some deaths from bombings, very tragic. But the amount of bombings has gone down 70 percent in the last three years—the number of bombs and the frequency and the weight. Two years ago the U.S. started deploying forward operating bases out into the very rural areas. Their job was to embed with villagers or with the Afghan army and build relationships. Unfortunately what that does is exposes the U.S. so we’re going to take more hits, more casualties. But the alternative is to do more bombings. One thing that all the shura agree with—and they’re very vehement about it—is that the top priority is not to kill innocent civilians. And their message is being heard quite loud and clear in the military. The military kind of has a choice—pull back our troops, put them in garrisons or compounds— but if they do that they’re going to have to do more bombing and then the civilian casualties will go up and there will be public outcry both there and here at home. The other thing that I think the military and our government has done a very poor job at is telling the public that nearly half of these troops are trainer troops, or brainpower; they’re not firepower. Eight thousand of the 22,000 troops that the U.S. put into Afghanistan this year are dentists, engineers, agronomists, horticulturalists, civil engineers, nurses, doctors, trainers, police trainers, anti-mining personnel. Of these 40,000 new troops they’ve asked for, they want approximately 15,000 of them to be what I call brainpower or trainer troops. I don’t know if the public is aware of that.”
ON BOOKS THAT SHAPED HIM
“The first real relevant book I read—I was about eight—was called Reverence for Life by Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He was a medical missionary in the Congo. He talked about how all living things are sacred—animals, plants, and humans. It actually had a big impact on me. My first big book—I read it at about 11 or 12—was called The Territorial Imperative which looked at the animal kingdom and at how humans also are territorial. It was a pretty heavy read but it had quite a dramatic influence on me. So did Jonathan Livingston Seagull—remember that book?—about thinking out of the box. After I read those books I was really inspired.”
Alden Mudge has been interviewing authors for BookPage for more than 15 years. He lives in Berkeley, California.