Archive for July, 2009


N.C. Lit Festival Line-up Tops 100

July 31, 2009

The North Carolina Literary Festival announced today another 78 writers for its Sept. 10-13 schedule — including some big, big names that promise to make this a not-to-be-missed weekend for book lovers across North Carolina and even beyond the state’s borders. From this afternoon’s press release:

Novelist John Grisham
Novelist John Grisham

John Grisham, Elizabeth Edwards and Pulitzer Prize winners Douglas Blackmon, Rick Bragg and Elizabeth Strout are among authors to be featured at the North Carolina Literary Festival Sept. 10-13.

Others among the 102 authors appearing at the free public festival, to be held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, include Will Blythe, author of the Carolina-Duke basketball rivalry tome To Hate Like This Is to Be Happy Forever, former North Carolina Poet Laureate Fred Chappell, forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs and favorite North Carolina novelists Doris Betts and Clyde Edgerton.

The rest of the line-up is equally compelling, with some of my own favorites (and some folks I’ve interviewed/reviewed recently) including Dorothy Allison, James Applewhite, Michael Chitwood, William Conescu (interviewed here), Sarah Dessen, Pamela Duncan, Bill Ferris, Marianne Gingher, John Hart (reviewed here), John Kessel, Michael Malone (interviewed here), Lydia Millet, Robert Morgan, Ron Rash, Jaki Shelton Greene, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Wells Tower, and Matthew Vollmer (interviewed here). A full list of participants is here, and a full schedule of these authors’ appearances will be announced next month.

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Southern Writers Earns High Marks From NYT

July 31, 2009

Chapel Hill author Nic Brown‘s debut book, Floodmarkers, is the focus of a rave review in this Sunday’s New York Times. After assessing several selections from the novel-in-stories, set in the shadow of Hurricane Hugo, reviewer Joe Meno concludes:

Reading Floodmarkers and peering into the lives of this town’s fully formed fictional inhabitants, it’s impossible not to wonder about the real-life human stories at the heart of recent large-scale catastrophes, both natural and manmade. What Brown does so expertly is to summon the brief, intimate moments — the single word shared between two characters, the simple gesture that quietly reveals hope.

Brown’s book tour has already taken him to Durham’s Regulator Bookshop, but more chances await to catch this young talent on his home turf. Mark your calendars now for Saturday, August 15, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village.

And Nashville-based writer Lydia Peelle, another Southerner soon to be making the rounds of N.C. bookstores, gets an equally fine treatment from this week’s NYT in a review of her debut story collection. That article begins with these lines:

Lydia Peelle’s lovely, fluid voice lures you into a world full of heartbreak and devastation. Her powerful first collection of stories, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, depicts the modern American South as a civilization that has pushed disastrously to the edges of everything. Nature is being systematically destroyed. People search in vain for some connection to the land or the past, or anything at all. The title of the collection strikes an uncharacteristically mannered note — and belongs, curiously, to the one story set in the North — but it does convey the book’s underlying stance: given the state of things, staying alive is something a reasonable person might have to be talked into. 

Peelle has a couple of signings scheduled for the Triangle. She’ll be at The Regulator Bookshop on Tuesday evening, August 11, and at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Wednesday evening, August 12.

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N.C. Events: Silva, Gilmer, Chappell, Holmstedt

July 30, 2009

A quick addition to the calendar here offers another chance for N.C. readers to catch Kirsten Holmstedt talking about her new book, The Girls Come Marching Home: The Saga of Women Returning From the War  in Iraq, the follow-up to her successful Band of Sisters. Holmstedt will be at Pomegranate Books in Wilmington tonight, Thursday, July 30, at 7 p.m.

Also on this weekend’s calendar are two thriller writers — one a local talent, one nationally and internationally known. First up, Durham author Bryan Gilmer reads from his new novel, Felonious Jazz, on Friday evening, July 31, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop. The book pits a Audi-driving detective against a class-conscious, criminally minded jazz bassist in a string of McMansion murders. The jazz group Sawyer-Goldberg provides some background music for the 7 p.m. reading.

Then on Saturday, Daniel Silva brings The Defector, the ninth novel in his series about Israeli intelligence agent Gabriel Allon, to Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books for a 3 p.m. signing. Note that this is a ticketed event — a signing line ticket available with purchase. 

And looking toward next week: Quail Ridge will also host the first area reading by poet Fred Chappell from his new collection, Shadow Box. That event takes place on Wednesday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m., and watch this space for an interview with Chappell in the wake of that event.

For complete information N.C. readings from the Triangle to the coast, check out the MetroBooks calendar.

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John Hart’s “The Last Child”

July 29, 2009

Today, the Washington Post runs my review of John Hart’s third — and in my opinion best — novel, The Last Child. While I generally enjoyed Hart’s first two novels, The King of Lies and Down River, those books still struck me as uneven at best, often slipping into melodrama, and their mysteries seemed marred by solutions that most readers probably figured out about eighteen steps ahead of the narrators themselves. I was amazed and even a little disappointed (I’ll admit it) when Down River won the Edgar for best novel a couple of years back. In contrast, however,  The Last Child seems to have put aside any clumsiness and keeps the surprises coming at a furious pace. I rushed through this new novel at a fast clip myself, enjoying every moment, and soon after submitting my review, I had the opportunity to hear some of the audiobook version, read by Scott Sowers, and got pulled in again!

Want a longer assessment of Hart’s novels? Look for my upcoming essay in the North Carolina Literary Review, in which I try to come to terms with why the author’s first two books found such critical and commercial success despite being matched, at the Edgars for example, against far superior mysteries.

Don’t agree with my digs at those first books? Well, even The Last Child has illustrated for me that it’s tough to find consensus among critics. My own review calls it an “early masterpiece” in Hart’s hopefully much longer career; critic Sarah Weinman of the L.A. Times and the Baltimore Sun said that she remained “amazed at how his storytelling ability draws me into his North Carolina gothic tales”; and Rod Cockshutt at the Raleigh News & Observer began his glowing review with the phrase “John Hart had me at ‘I’ve’.” Meanwhile, on the other side, Marilyn Stasio‘s New York Times review concluded that “borrowing from Huck Finn doesn’t turn Hart into Mark Twain, and his methodical writing style plods along these Southern roads without kicking up anything but dust,” and my friend and fellow writer Laura Ellen Scott — whose opinions on all matters I greatly trust — admitted to me offline that she couldn’t get past the opening and simply put the book aside. 

A wide range of experiences with this book, to say the least, and a wide range of opinions all Hart’s novels.

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Michael Taeckens Talks About His New Anthology, “Love Is A Four-Letter Word”

July 27, 2009

Michael Taeckens received his MFA in poetry from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and now works as publicity director at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. While much of Taeckens’ time is spent championing the work of other writers, this month sees the publication of his own book, one of the most hotly anticipated and most highly acclaimed titles of the summer. 

Love Is a Four-Letter Word: True Stories of Breakups, Bad Realtionships, and Broken Hearts, an anthology edited by Taeckens, features contributions by authors including Lynda BerryKate Christensen, Brock ClarkeJunot Diaz, Dan KennedyMaud Newton, Margaret Sartor, Gary ShteyngartGeorge Singleton, and the incomparable Wendy Brenner (one of my favorite writers anytime, anyplace), among many others. People just gave the collection a four-star review, and a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal offered equal praise, noting that “All happy romances resemble one another, but each nasty, painful, blow-out breakup is nasty and painful in its own way.” Other publications joining the chorus range from The New York Times Paper Cuts (“Pretty irresistible”) to the Daily Beast (also “irresistible”) to Real Simple (“Funny, poignant”) to Bookpage, Elle, Spin, and Vanity Fair. 

Taeckens’ own contribution to the collection, “The Book of Love and Transformation,” reflects on his own short-lived relationship with a visiting classics scholar during his junior year in college and hearkens back to his early days of poetry: “I wrote poetry as if my life depended on it, stark and bleak poems full of barren and blasted landscapes,” he says early in the essay. “I had been confusing beauty and sadness for a long time, apparently.”  In many ways as a model of frankness, introspection, and reevaluation, the essay offers a couple of layers of epiphany — about himself as both a poet and as a person.

Love Is A Four-Letter Word officially publishes tomorrow, and a book tour follows, with contributors joining Taeckens for a launch party on Wednesday and a series of events throughout New York, plus a number of readings in Taeckens’ home state of North Carolina, including Friday evening, August 21, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop (with Brenner, Sartor, and Patty Van Norman), and two events on Wednesday, September 16: an afternoon reading at the Bull’s Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill and an evening appearance at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books (both with Sartor and Van Norman). 

On the eve of the tour, Taeckens and I exchanged some emails about the new book. 

Art Taylor: How did the idea first come to you for this collection? And how did you choose the writers included here?


Michael Taeckens

Michael Taeckens: I’ve always been a huge fan of anthologies (fiction and nonfiction) and always wanted to collect and edit one someday. The theme was inspired by my friend Pamela Strauss, who one evening commented that she called her exes her “insignificant others.” I laughed and commented that “Insignificant Others” would make for a wonderful book title. Later that night the light bulb went off and I had my anthology idea — writers musing on their doomed romantic relationships. I contacted a few friends, who said they loved the idea and could think of many different relationships to write about. After about five people signed on, I started contacting many authors I admire and I also put out feelers for other writers  — my friends, especially Maud Newton, were incredibly helpful in suggesting other names and providing contact information.

What guidelines/instructions did you give your contributers?

The guidelines were fairly basic and broad: Write about one of your worst romantic relationships — but make it original. Of course, a few of the writers played with the theme a bit, but all of the pieces in the collection fall under the umbrella of “breakups, bad relationships, and broken hearts.”

And was there anybody whom you really, really wanted to include but who just said no?

There was one writer who I really wanted to include but who — and very kindly, I might add — said no: David Rakoff.

Many of the stories here are, obviously, very personal, often intimately so and even embarrassingly so in a couple of cases — and all the more revealing because of it. Were there any instances where you had to urge a contributor to dig deeper in order to reach that point?

There were quite a few instances where I had to ask the authors to dig deeper. I think that’s natural with the writing process, especially with personal essays. But I think it’s especially true when you’re asking a writer to revisit a somewhat horrifying experience. Some of the writers nailed it on the first go-round (Wendy McClure and Maud Newton spring to mind), but by and large, everyone — including myself — had to revisit first drafts to peel back more layers. I really wanted the writers to push it as far as they could, and I think all of the pieces that made it into the collection are honest, open, hilarious or poignant (or both), and sometimes outrageous.

In his introduction, Neal Pollack writes, “The stories in this volume follow two different paths toward catharsis. There’s relief, and there’s regret.” Do you agree with that broad assessment, and what other recurrent patterns or themes did you see emerging?

I do agree that relief and regret are the two predominant themes, but there are many different shades of each. And some of the essays convey both relief and regret. I also see patterns of hard-won emotional maturity, wistfulness, and a reveling in the comedy of painful situations in hindsight. One of the things that I love most about this collection is the diversity of voices — caustic, ruminative, slapstick, poetic, ribald, straightforward, meandering. So while all of the twenty-three pieces may fall along the theme of relief or regret, each stands out in its own distinctive way.

In writing your own essay here, did you find it difficult to confront old emotions or troubling to look back at who you were as a younger man? And in the process of writing that essay, what, if anything, did you see about the story or about yourself that you hadn’t seen before? Some new epiphany perhaps?

Writing the essay was difficult in many ways, and it dredged up a fair amount of painful memories. But it was also a huge gift. I was able to laugh at myself, at “Theo,” and at the entire situation, whereas previously I preferred to gloss over that period in my life. I hadn’t realized exactly how I was really hitting a turning point in my maturity—becoming more independent, being able to laugh at myself and my actions — until after I finished the piece. With the hindsight of almost two decades, I realize how much my worldview has changed. For the better, thankfully.

Flipside of that question in some ways: In Brock Clarke’s essay, he writes, “There is a special place in hell reserved for writers — for people, for that matter — who look back at their former selves and try to force some larger meaning, to attach some redeeming lesson, to all the random, idiotic, hurtful, wrongheaded things they did” — a line which struck me mightily. Isn’t it part of this kind of creative nonfiction — these essays, in fact — to find some previously unglimpsed aspect of what the hell happened? To understand the past and the selves of that past with a larger perspective?

I think Brock’s line is hilarious, and it fits perfectly within his essay. And even though Brock doesn’t try to force some larger meaning or lesson in his piece, he does pose questions as to why we feel naturally compelled to do this. I would say his opinion is true of maybe a couple other writers in the collection, who avoid trying to tie everything up into a tidy bow, but not every author here views their past behavior in the same way. Some writers psychoanalyze it, others think of it as fodder for a funny story and move on. Some of the pieces are short and punchy, others are digressive and questioning. I’d like to think the emphasis in Brock’s point is on “try to force.” It’s natural to analyze past behavior and events, especially when one’s self is involved, to try to understand the deeper layers involved. I think any larger meanings or redeeming lessons that occurred in these essays happened organically.

Finally, the last story here, Wendy Brenner’s “I Love You In Twelve Languages,” ends without any real resolution — or rather with the sense that this romance, this man, and these troubles can’t be entirely resolved and will still be with her long after the last word of that last page. Do you think that writing about “breakups, bad relationships, and broken hearts” can help people to mend and move past? Or does your choice to close the book in this way, with this essay, suggest that real “closure” may ultimately be elusive?

I’ve always believed that writing can help people mend, no matter what the circumstance. But I also believe that closure can be elusive. I decided to end with Wendy Brenner’s essay because her piece is so incredibly powerful and haunting — and also because it is the most immediate of the pieces, since a crucial part of it happened in the recent past. Her piece is not about a simple break-up; there’s not room for absolute closure yet because there simply hasn’t been enough time. But I think her experience would be just as valid if it had happened decades ago and there still wasn’t closure. I didn’t intend for her piece to be a commentary on relationships overall. Ending with it simply seemed like the natural choice, especially ending with that voice of the dead lover caught on audiotape. It’s a perfect metaphor for how voices from our past can always stay with us.

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N.C. Events: Dessen, Holmstedt & Carter

July 24, 2009

Just a quick look at what’s on tap over the next few days on the N.C. lit scene. 

First up, one of my favorite writers, Sarah Dessen, reads from her latest book, Along for the Ride, at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village on Saturday, July 25, at 11 a.m. I was just talking two days ago about Dessen’s novels with a friend who’s now reading one of her earlier books, and we both agreed in our appreciation of her skill at crafting characters and pulling us into a story. While I’ve been waylaid in my own reading of the new book, Along for the Ride was recently named one of Good Morning America‘s Picks for Teen Summer Reading. Check it out.

Also on Saturday, Kirsten Holmstedt reads discusses her new book, The Girls Come Marching Home: The Saga of Women Returning From the War  in Iraq, a follow-up to her Band of Sisters, at the Fayetteville Barnes & Noble; that event begins at 2 p.m. The New York Post recently featured the new book in its Required Reading column, and closer to home, the Wilmington Star-News published a nice profile of both the book and the author earlier this month. 

Finally, Durham’s Regulator Bookshop welcome Stephen L. Carter on Tuesday evening, July 28, to discuss his new book, Jericho’s Fall. Check out the Washington Post review here, which called the book an “odd but readable mixture of spy thriller, literary novel and haunted-house mystery” and ultimately complained that the climax was “too exciting.” Despite the review’s fine points, however, “too exciting” might very possibly be just what some readers are looking for in an action thriller this time of year.

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Alexandra Sokoloff Talks About “The Unseen”

July 20, 2009

Alexandra Sokoloff’s new novel, The Unseen, takes as its starting point a set of real-life experiments done by Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University from the late 1920s until the mid-1960s. As explained in the novel, Rhine and his colleagues — including William McDougall, Karl Zener, and Rhine’s wife Louisa — investigated widely into ESP and psychokinesis, and Rhine’s own seminal publications, including Extra-Sensory Perception (1934) and New Frontiers of the Mind (1937), not only helped to popularize the term parapsychology but also brought many of these possibilities to the wider American public for the first time. Seven hundred boxes of original files from the lab were stored at Duke when it closed in 1965 and have only recently been made available to the public.

In Sokoloff’s novel, Laurel MacDonald flees a disastrous engagement in California for a tenure-track position in Duke’s psychology department. When she happens upon those newly released research papers, she thinks she may also have stumbled into a project that will help turn tenure-track into full tenure — and soon discovers a companion in that quest, a handsome professor who’s also been sifting through the files. But surprises await, of course: The charming young professor may well be a devil in disguise; Laurel’s own uncle may have been involved in one of the more disturbing of the Rhine’s experiments; and family skeletons aren’t the only dark secrets that might be discovered in those research papers, potentially a Pandora’s box of trouble for everyone involved.

The News and Observer called The Unseen “a classic haunted house story with a decidedly local flavor” and wrote that “Sokoloff has found a groove” with this third novel, after successes with The Harrowing and The Price. In addition, Sokoloff recently enjoyed a top honor for her short fiction, earning the Best Short Story award at this year’s Thrillerfest for “The Edge of Seventeen.”

Sokoloff’s tour continues this week with a reading at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop on Wednesday, July 22, at 7 p.m., and she’ll also be joining the Mystery Book Club at the Cary Barnes & Noble on Monday, July 27, at 7 p.m. Further out, look for her at the Barnes & Noble at New Hope Commons in Durham on Saturday afternoon, August 29, and on North Carolina Bookwatch later this year. (For complete information, check out Sokoloff’s own website here.) In the meantime, Sokoloff fit in a quick interview below.

Art Taylor: One of your inspirations for The Unseen was the real-life parapsychology lab at Duke University. What are the advantages — and on the other hand, the challenges — of writing a novel that has some basis in documented historical events, rather than working solely from imagination or being inspired by more personal events?

Alexandra Sokoloff: I love working from real life because with everything I write I want the reader to believe that the story could really happen. All of my novels walk a very fine line between reality and the supernatural; part of the whole mystery and spookiness is that question: “Is this really happening, or is it a hoax or a criminal conspiracy, or is it even just all in the main character’s mind?” I like to keep readers guessing! So working from real-life paranormal case studies — how ESP and poltergeist experiences are reported by real people — helps me keep the story believable.

The particular challenge of The Unseen was to use the real-life history of the Rhine experiments and the Duke parapsychology lab in a thriller, without doing anything to dishonor the work that Dr. J.B. Rhine and Dr. Louisa Rhine did, which was not only groundbreaking but I think noble, dedicated to the advancement of human knowledge and potential. But in a thriller, there has to be a dark side, and jeopardy, so I was creating a mystery that never happened, and not-so-pure characters who never existed, but basing it all completely in a factual history. I wrote the Afterword in the book to make sure readers understand what is fact and what is fiction.

While much of the plot concentrates on the supernatural, The Unseen also focuses on family and on the secrets of the past — persistent themes in Southern literature — and throughout the book, Laurel is often offering perspectives on her new home in North Carolina: regional attitudes, customs, manners, fashion, food, etc. She even comments about feeling like she’s trapped in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. What brought you to the South? How has your own time in the region influenced your writing? And beyond the setting itself, would you consider this book a “Southern novel”?

One of you charming Southern men brought me to the South.

Don’t kid yourself, we have family secrets in California, too! I would never dare to call The Unseen a “Southern novel.” I’m not sure I could write a truly Southern novel even if I’d lived here 25 years. My time here has been so short, and the region and the people are so complex. I knew the only chance I had of pulling The Unseen off in any kind of truthful way was to tell it from the point of view of a total transplant like myself, a California fish-out-of-water. So through Laurel MacDonald I was able to tap into my own sense of wonder and alienation about North Carolina and North Carolinians, and draw the Southern characters from the perspective of that outsider character. And that’s a good point of view for a thriller, especially a supernatural thriller, because the character is already disoriented and isolated and off-balance. And of course, it provides some humor.

And as to how living in the region has influenced my writing… I’m not sure I can answer that one yet, although fireflies have something to do with it, but I do know that it’s a very rich environment, while L.A. tends to be a vacuum, albeit a glamorous one. It saps creative energy and you have to go elsewhere to renew, whereas here the lifestyle is more rejuvenating.

Speaking of disoriented: In one scene, Laurel struggles with trying to answer questions for the Paranormal Belief Scale that she and her colleague are going to administer to the students — a scale for determining a subject’s “preestablished paranormal beliefs.” You’ve written about enjoying ghost stories as a child; you’ve written about experimenting with the paranormal as a teenager. How has writing your three books so far impacted any of your own beliefs about psychic phenomena or paranormal goings-on?

The interesting thing about writing ghost stories is that people you meet tell you their own paranormal stories (and oh, do Southerners have ghost stories!). So it’s very much reinforced my belief that psi experiences — like precognitive dreams, and crisis apparitions (having a loved one appear to you at a moment of extreme trauma or death), and telepathy, and the sense of a past experience or personality imprinted on a place — really do happen to people. As the Rhines discovered, there’s too much consistency about the stories not to believe that it really occurs. Not all the time, not to everyone, but it does happen.

You mentioned that L.A. tends to sap creative energy. But I’m curious how your novels were helped by your time as a screenwriter in Hollywood — and before that how your background in theater and dance may have influenced you. Is the act of, say, choreographing a dance ultimately more similar to or different from “choreographing” a scene in your novels? Are there “rules” for screenplay writing that particularly helped you in terms of character and plot when you first sat down to write a book?

All of the arts influence the other arts. Choreography and directing taught me how to bring emotion and shape and dramatic tension to characters and an overall story – and also about the importance of production design and visual imagery. They’re all ways of creating a particular emotional experience for a viewer or reader. My background in dance is especially good for rhythm and pacing. I know when a scene is going on too long; I know how to build emotion and intensity; I know where to cut. I know the biggest artistic sin is boring people!

Theater was fabulous training for film writing, and film writing is fantastic training for novel writing. I grew up with the three-act structure in theater and then applied it to film, and I’ve applied the three-act, eight-sequence filmic structure to novels – I’m sure that was why I was able to sell my first novel right away. I would be very uncomfortable saying there are rules to screenwriting – but there are classic structural elements in drama that have worked for thousands of years, since the very beginning of storytelling, and those can be learned and taught. Those elements are what my Screenwriting Tricks For Authors blog and workshops are about.

Finally: Since your story “The Edge of Seventeen” just won the award for Best Short Story at Thrillerfest — and congratulations there! — are there any more short stories in the works? Or are you just concentrating on the next novel?

Thank you! I love that story. I am in fact working on an anthology of four interconnected novellas with three other amazing new female dark suspense authors: Sarah Langan, Sarah Pinborough, and Rhodi Hawk. I’m very excited about that book. I just finished my fourth novel and am outlining two others, and this is my living – short stories don’t pay the bills! So I would really have to have my arm twisted to write another short piece right now.

Famous last words!

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