Archive for February, 2009


Novelist Jayne Anne Phillips in North Carolina; More Than A Dozen Authors in D.C.

February 27, 2009

33491468Among the big literary events in North Carolina this weekend is a visit by Jayne Anne Phillips, discussing her highly acclaimed new novel, Lark & Termite, which tells twin stories: the first set in the Korean War; the second in a small West Virginia community. In his review for the Washington Post, critic Ron Charles said, “With her striking mixture of hallucinatory poetry and gritty realism, Phillips is trying to articulate the transcendence of love, the sort of unity among deeply devoted people that reverberates beneath the rational world. As the novel moves toward a crescendo of harrowing revelations and brutal confrontations, Phillips surprises us again with another disorienting touch of mysticism and a finale that mingles despair and triumph, naiveté and spiritual insight, a startling demonstration of ‘how lightning fast things can go right or wrong.'” 

Phillips reads from the new novel tonight (Friday, February 27) at 7:30 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh

In and Around D.C.

Meanwhile, I’ll be attending two events in the D.C. area over the next few days. 

First, on Saturday, February 28, American Independent Writers and George Mason University’s MFA Program host a Fiction Writing Seminar on Mason’s Fairfax, Virginia campus, with headliners Jeffrey Deaver and Marita Golden and featuring a wide array of writers, including yours truly. A full schedule was published earlier on my website here.

Then, on Monday evening, March 2, PEN/Faulkner is hosting a fundraiser for its Writers in Schools Program. The event, at Comet Ping Pong in Northwest D.C., features George Pelecanos , Matthew Klam, Mary Kay Zuravleff, Helon Habila, and others. A donation of $25 gets you free pizza, beer, and more writers than you can shake a stick at. (Not that I would advise shaking a stick at George Pelecanos, of course.)  

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Love It? Hate It? Either Way, It’s Tough To Forget “The Night of the Hunter”

February 26, 2009

night-of-the-hunterOn the drive to campus this morning, I read Tara parts of Michael Dirda’s review of Jeffrey Couchman’s new study, The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. The film “failed miserably when it opened in 1955,” writes Dirda. “But since then it has come to be recognized as one of American cinema’s greater masterpieces.” Tara turned her nose up at that a little, and then showed even more incredulity when Dirda noted that the famed French film journal Cahiers du Cinema ranked The Night of the Hunter the “second most beautiful film of all time (after Citizen Kane and just above The Rules of the Game.)” (That full list is here, in French.)

Tara’s verdict on the film: “Interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying.”

I’m more generous toward the movie — engaged not just by its odd mix of religion and sensuality, of innocence and near-demonic evil, but also by its unique stylistic approach. What stands out best to me isn’t the good versus evil plot — sometimes a little corny, a little over-the-top, a little too black-and-white  — but that  gorgeous cinematography, also black-and-white, of course, but more richly toned. Dirda too comments on the

quality of light that makes each scene of the movie so striking: the sharp clarity of the open-air picnic, the hideous chiaroscuro of a torch-lit revival meeting, the swirling mist that gathers outside the ice cream parlor when the now spiritually “clean” Willa says goodnight, the soft moon shining through a window into the altarlike bedroom, the bright stars speckling the night sky as the children escape down the river.

immortal114I would certainly add to that list the haunting image of a woman’s corpse floating underwater, her hair fanning out, the drifting stillness. It’s the lyricism of such images that stands out and helps to elevate the film above others. I don’t know that I agree with Dirda that the film is “endlessly rewatchable,” but it’s a fine and memorable movie for sure, and I’m intrigued to find out more about its making from the new book. 

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Metro Magazine’s Growing Online Coverage

February 25, 2009

issue_109Metro Magazine, based in North Carolina, has recently been beefing up its online coverage, with extended film commentary by Godfrey Cheshire, music reviews by Philip Van Vleck, and — courtesy of the blog you’re reading now — more expansive coverage of the state’s literary scene. 

Today, in conjunction with Metro (where I serve as contributing editor), I’m introducing an online literary calendar of upcoming events in the Triangle region and throughout Eastern North Carolina. A link to these listings will be a permanent feature of the column to your right, and the MetroBooks Calendar currently features events through the end of March for selected bookstores. Additionally, individual links have been provided within the calendar where an author has been interviewed, reviewed or discussed elsewhere on this site. 

North Carolina bookstores and other literary venues interested in being included on the calendar should contact me at

Weekly previews of particularly noteworthy events will continue to be presented on this site, usually on Thursday of each week. 

Check back often for information and updates!

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Book World’s New Format

February 24, 2009

Because I’m a semi-regular reviewer for the Washington Post, I’ve had a number of people ask me recently about Book World‘s new format: Sunday’s three-page layout in Outlook, for instance, and the plans for a similarly expansive section in Wednesday’s Style section — a fiction-focussed batch in that case, anchored by Ron Charles’ reviews.

I’ll admit that I miss the standalone section, but I also thought that the new format turned out well on Sunday — especially the layering of larger and smaller reviews — and I anticipate that tomorrow’s will be equally impressive. It’s likely been a tough transition to make in many ways; having worked at a paper for many years myself, I know that such shifts in design, layout, and scheduling can be trying if not torturous. But the good news is that none of that shows in the final product.

ph2009022302766And while this is in no way related to the changeover, I have to admit being personally interested in this week’s reviews so far. Patrick Anderson’s take on Spade & Archer let the Post weigh in on one of the most-talked-about recent mystery titles, and Mark Athitakis’ review on Under Their Thumb, a new book on the Rolling Stones, was far from laudatory but still offered an interesting commentary both on the book, the group and their fans, and the music industry itself.

The title of Athitakis’ review, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” looks back to the old Stones’ hit, of course, but maybe it also provides some small commentary on the publishing changes themselves? If so, the new Book World may not be all many of us have wanted, but at least it’s still filling — more than adequately — a need for book coverage on a national level.

Looking forward to what tomorrow brings….

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Lunch with Charles Todd

February 20, 2009
Caroline and Charles Todd

Caroline and Charles Todd

A quick update here on Charles Todd’s visit to North Carolina on Wednesday, February 25. The mother and son team, Caroline and Charles, will be part of an “author luncheon” at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village (instead of a reading, as I’d mentioned earlier this week). The event — beginning at 2:30 p.m. in the Old Granary Restaurant — offers a chance for more extensive time with the bestselling authors, who will discuss their new book, A Matter of Justice. (See my interview with Caroline and Charles Todd here.) 

Tickets for the luncheon are $40 per person, but that price does include a signed hardcover copy of the new book. To sign-up, contact McIntyre’s at (919) 542-3030 or at 

The Todds will also appear later that evening at Quail Ridge Books at 7:30 p.m. for a more conventional reading and signing. 

Additional events on the calendar for the coming week include:

  • Leonard Todd, author of Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave, on Friday, February 20, at 7:30 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
  • The monthly North Carolina Poetry Society Reading with Bill Griffin and Maureen Sherbondy, on Thursday, February 26, at 7 p.m. at McIntyre’s. 
  • And Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark & Termite, on Friday, February 27, at 7:30 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books.

In & Around D.C.

A couple of interesting events on the schedule for the coming week in the D.C. area.

First up, on Sunday afternoon, the Writer’s Center in Bethesda is hosting a talk with literary agent Paige Wheeler, founder of Folio Literary Management. The free event begins at 2 p.m. (and comes in the midst of a very, very busy weekend for the Writer’s Center; check out a full schedule of events here.)

On Thursday, February 26, at 8 p.m., the Cheryl’s Gone Reading Series kicks off its first reading of the new year, featuring fiction by Sara Hov, poetry by Ryan Walker and Zein El-Amine, and music by Spoonboy (of the Max Levine Ensemble). It all takes place at Big Bear Cafe in D.C.

And don’t forget, NEXT Saturday, February 28, brings a Fiction Seminar at George Mason University, co-presented by Mason’s MFA program and American Independent Writers.

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Fall for the Book Forum Poses Provocative Questions

February 18, 2009
"Woman With Book," Pablo Picasso

"Woman With Book," Pablo Picasso

The Fall for the Book Festival has been using the “off season” not only to begin planning for this fall’s festival, but also to crank up some interesting initiatives. One of these is the new Fall for the Book Forum, which is striving to build an online community of readers and writers talking about some topics central to our shared love of literature. Each week, the website is posting a new question on the left-hand side of its homepage; now all that’s needed is some more readers to get in on the discussion.  

This week’s question is a quietly provocative one, stemming from this 2007 NPR story about women reading more than men. Fall for the Book asks:

In late 2007, National Public Radio posted a story revealing that women read far more than men (9 vs. 5 books/year). The statistics gathered from the 2008 Fall for the Book festival show the same trend in those who attended book-related events. Clearly, reading is not inherently a female thing. Why, then, are these statistics showing what they are?

I encourage folks to visit the Fall for the Book site and sign-up to join the discussion. I myself am going to post the following there in just a few minutes as a way to help get the ball rollling.

The NPR story starts with novelist Ian McEwan conducting an informal study that revealed a greater interest in reading by women than by men. Several years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa made a similar observation at the start of his essay “Why Literature?” (first published in The New Republic and reprinted in various spots on the web). The first (longish) section of that essay is below:

It has often happened to me, at book fairs or in bookstores, that a gentleman approaches me and asks me for a signature. “It is for my wife, my young daughter, or my mother,” he explains. “She is a great reader and loves literature.” Immediately I ask: “And what about you? Don’t you like to read?” The answer is almost always the same: “Of course I like to read, but I am a very busy person.” I have heard this explanation dozens of times: this man and many thousands of men like him have so many important things to do, so many obligations, so many responsibilities in life, that they cannot waste their precious time buried in a novel, a book of poetry, or a literary essay for hours and hours. According to this widespread conception, literature is a dispensable activity, no doubt lofty and useful for cultivating sensitivity and good manners, but essentially an entertainment, an adornment that only people with time for recreation can afford. It is something to fit in between sports, the movies, a game of bridge or chess; and it can be sacrificed without scruple when one “prioritizes” the tasks and the duties that are indispensable in the struggle of life.

It seems clear that literature has become more and more a female activity. In bookstores, at conferences or public readings by writers, and even in university departments dedicated to the humanities, the women clearly outnumber the men. The explanation traditionally given is that middle-class women read more because they work fewer hours than men, and so many of them feel that they can justify more easily than men the time that they devote to fantasy and illusion. I am somewhat allergic to explanations that divide men and women into frozen categories and attribute to each sex its characteristic virtues and shortcomings; but there is no doubt that there are fewer and fewer readers of literature, and that among the saving remnant of readers women predominate.

This is the case almost everywhere. In Spain, for example, a recent survey organized by the General Society of Spanish Writers revealed that half of that country’s population has never read a book. The survey also revealed that in the minority that does read, the number of women who admitted to reading surpasses the number of men by 6.2 percent, a difference that appears to be increasing. I am happy for these women, but I feel sorry for these men, and for the millions of human beings who could read but have decided not to read.

They earn my pity not only because they are unaware of the pleasure that they are missing, but also because I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated — like some hidden vice — to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom. I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals….

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The Mother And Son Writing Team Behind Charles Todd Talks About “A Matter of Justice”

February 15, 2009

Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge books have been called by the Washington Post “one of the best historical series being written today”  — a sentiment that their many fans (myself included) will surely echo. Over the course of eleven critically acclaimed and bestselling novels, Charles Todd — a mother and son writing team — has explored the world of post-World War I England through the eyes of Scotland Yard detective Rutledge, a man personally haunted by his own actions during that war, specifically the battlefield execution of young Scotsman Hamish MacLeod for refusing a direct order. 

9780061233593The Great War continues to cast a long shadow over the latest novel in the series, A Matter of Justice; Rutledge first shows up here for the wedding of an old friend who’d been injured in combat, and the detective worries about whether the young wife will be “up to the task of caring for a man who’d lost his leg in France, and with it, for many months, his self-worth.”

But the legacy of another, earlier war also takes center stage. A Matter of Justice opens with reflections on events during the Boer War: a military train carrying money across the South African countryside; an attack by the Boers that decimates the British troops guarding it; and decisions on the part of two of those British soldiers — Harold Quarles and Davis Penrith — to put personal financial gain ahead of any sense of morality or loyalty to their fellow men. Twenty prosperous years later, the secrets they carry with them not only continue to impact each man but may well have also cost one of them his life. When Quarles is found brutally murdered, Rutledge is called in to investigate and to sift through the man’s present and past to discover the truth.

Charles Todd — both the mother, Caroline, and the son, Charles — will be in North Carolina on Wednesday, February 25, to discuss A Matter of Justice; they’ll visit McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village at 2:30 p.m. that afternoon, and then Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books later that evening, at 7:30 p.m.  In advance of those talks, both mother and son spoke with me via email about the new book, the series overall, and the benefits of collaborative writing.

Art Taylor: Ian Rutledge has, of course, been haunted by his actions during the War — particularly the killing of Hamish MacLeod. A Matter of Justice explores, in large part, the legacy of decisions made by Harold Quarles and his partner in an earlier war — decisions which have followed him too and, it’s suggested from the opening pages, may have led to his murder. Had you planned from the beginning for a comparison/contrast of some kind between Rutledge’s situation and Quarles’ — wars, decisions, consequences?

Caroline Todd: Great question! Yes, we’d been thinking about that since I went to South Africa and looked at some of the Boer War sites. Here, it was intended to bring home the fact that terrible things happen in wartime, and different people handle them differently. Rutledge’s shooting of Hamish also went unreported — when the salient blew up, witnesses died too. But his conscience couldn’t deal with the magnitude of what he’d done. Quarles — and to some extent, his partner — benefited from their deeds,and so it must have been easier for them to turn their backs on what had been done. 

Charles Todd: Quarles would have done the same thing in Yorkshire, if the opportunity had arisen. He was that kind of man, and thus he was that kind of soldier. And yet if you notice, there is something about him that intrigues Rutledge, because he isn’t all bad. I think Rutledge was measuring himself by Quarles, although it didn’t offer him solace.

While a sense of history — those many glimpses into this era — form a core aspect of the Ian Rutledge books, there’s also a timeless quality to the issues encountered: morality, integrity, the “justice” of the title here. And your readers are, obviously, encountering these books against a backdrop of today’s ongoing wars and crises. How do you hope that your books speak to readers about today’s news and issues? And do you think about such potential parallels when you’re writing?

Caroline: We don’t intentionally draw parallels, because mysteries shouldn’t preach, but they are there to be identified nevertheless, because the history itself is there. (It’s better to be objective and let readers make their own determinations.) Rutledge is a man of his times, and so we must reflect that time accurately. In doing so, we must make certain that each and every character reflects that same time frame. So what we do is let them write the book, in a sense. What is right for them, what makes them live, is also what makes the book work in every sense.

Charles: Both Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw, in their books on the Twentieth Century, called WWI the pivotal event of that century. And so much that went wrong there, choices made, lines drawn, came back to haunt us, and haunt us still. And that’s one of the reasons, being history buffs ourselves, that we felt this was the perfect time and place to set a story. The other reason was the lack of forensics as we’ve come to know them. Rutledge must solve murders relying on his own skills, and knowing that the man or woman he arrests will be hanged. And if he’s wrong, it may be too late to right it.

What is the most interesting fact about this era that you’ve learned from your research for these books? And separate from facts or research for the books, how has the actual writing of the novels helped you better to understand England in those years?

Charles: We’ve had to read a great deal, mostly first hand accounts or what was actually known at the time, along with whatever research has been done since then. Also sometimes that new material offers an interesting contrast to what is known in the period, even if we can’t address it outright. But the second part of researching is walking the ground in a village that will become the setting, and getting to know the influences there so that you can capture the mood and the feelings of people. Not the modern inhabitants, but those who might have lived there in our time frame. I think out of all I’ve read and learned, the most surprising part has been just what you say, that a hundred years later, there is something about the human experience that is real, no matter what period you’re exploring.  

Caroline: The key, really, is to steep yourself in the period, so that what you write comes naturally. We don’t pause to inject information, we try to work it into the story itself. Think of yourself coming into a new town and getting to know it as you spend a few days there. What the stores are like, what the population is like, what the history has been — whether revolutionary war, war between the states, or the Great Depression, it doesn’t matter. Time leaves its mark. And when you drive away, you carry some of that town with you. Rutledge does as well, although we don’t dwell on that in the next book. It detracts from the new story. But he isn’t coming away scot-free. Someone once said that our scars are from what we’ve passed through to reach today. And in a way, this is true of Rutledge after each case. After all, we write HIS history, with each story. What have we learned from all our research, both in towns and in books? That the suffering didn’t stop on Nov. 11, at 11 a.m., when the fighting stopped.  A generation had been changed, and people had to adjust to that because they had no choice. The fact that Britain survived to fight another war over the same territory in 1939 is amazing. It points to something in the human spirit, doesn’t it, that makes us survivors? But at the time we are passing through this crucible of fire, we don’t have that hope to guide us. We see it only in hindsight. Perhaps at 50, Rutledge will look back at his own nightmares and finally see them for what they are.  

You’ve gotten questions about Hamish many times before, I know, but…. What was the genesis of this character? Was it literary in nature? One might think, for example, of precursors like the ghost of Hamlet’s father or of any number of Poe stories that feature some embodiment of guilt (hearts, cats, etc.). Or was the idea inspired by something psychological or historical? …by which I mean, have you discovered evidence of soldiers haunted specifically in this way?

Caroline: We’ve talked to many men who have served in the Armed Forces, and some of them were suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Others who were never diagnosed as such still had nightmares they never talked about. There was one who could snap into the past in an instant, and be there for several minutes, directing traffic at the crossroads where he was severely wounded. And then he’d snap back into the present and go on if nothing happened. PTSD manifests itself in any number of ways, but in Rutledge’s case, the auditory “haunting” suited the story best. Hamish is dead, and Rutledge can’t face what he did to the young Scots corporal — or to any of the young Scots soldiers he sent to their deaths. Knowingly sent, because he was experienced enough to understand hopeless, militarily unnecessary actions that went nowhere. And if Hamish is talking to him — even in his head — he can avoid the truth of his death. Much as he dreads the voice, the voice is also an avoidance of truth. As for Poe and Hamlet’s father, Poe often used the concept of guilt — some thing or event driving a man mad because he himself knows the truth, and taking on a vivid haunting to bring it out into the open. And Hamlet is in a way part of the same theme — Hamlet needs the assurance of his father that what he suspects did happen. And so the ghost comes to meet that need. Rutledge is probably their heir in his own fashion.

Charles: We can’t use most of the material we learn from vets. It would be too horrific. But what we try to do is create a sense of what PTSD is, drawing on the overall suffering. And Hamish was necessary in a literary sense as well. If Rutledge had come home from France with a missing limb or eye or badly burned, he couldn’t return to the Yard, and so if he is to go forward, his wound must be severe to the point of crippling — but not visible. So many vets — and their families — have told us we’ve got it right, and that I think is what matters most. If you are going to use PTSD, you have to be true to it, for the sake of those who don’t or can’t talk about their suffering. As for Poe and Hamlet’s ghost, the parallel is not direct, but as Caroline says, it is isn’t off base either. 

Finally: another question about craft. From previous interviews, the two of you seem very much in sync, almost seamlessly so, as coauthors of these books, but surely any creative process encounters an occasional false start or brief wandering off down the wrong path. How do the two of you handle any differences of opinion about a plot choice or the direction of a scene or a character? Or do two perspectives simply make it easier to talk out and work through creative choices? 

Caroline: In the beginning, we didn’t really know how to collaborate. Neither of us are very good at outlining, and when we tried, the story sounded dead, even boring. “He does this, and then she says that, and then they go here….”  We’d lose interest quickly. So we worked out our own system, which was to talk about the scene and understand where it was to go — much as we do with the history! — and then put the characters into play and listen to what happens to them. And in talking it out, we sometimes catch the false starts, sometimes have to learn from experience. But what evolves is seamless because we didn’t divide, we coalesced, brought together the workings of two minds and two viewpoints to make a whole.

Charles: We argue. We sometimes get tired and cranky and don’t like what we have before us. That’s why we never work in the same room. Even in the same house, we use our computers on different floors, so that the system doesn’t break down. But as a rule, once the characters begin to take over, it’s hard to keep up with them. We see so much through their eyes, and even if we rip out a paragraph, a page, or a chapter, it’s because somewhere we hadn’t listened to what we’re being told. That’s why it’s seamless. We have already ironed out the problems.

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