Friday, June 29, 2018

Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler's best-known fiction includes the Legends of Muirwood & Covenant of Muirwood trilogies, The Whispers from Mirrowen trilogy, and a graphic novel, The Lost Abbey.

His new novel is Storm Glass.

Recently I asked Wheeler about what he was reading. His reply:
The Casquette Girls, by Alys Arden

Ok, so I’m not that keen on vampire novels, but the premise of this one grabbed me. It’s set in New Orleans after Katrina. So imagine a place with no reliable power, complete devastation, and now the undead are on the loose. I also grabbed this one on audiobook because the narrator (Kate Rudd) does my novels and she’s so amazing, I knew she’d do a great job with the characters. So far, Casquette Girls hasn’t fallen victim to some of the main vampire tropes I’ve read in other paranormal books. There is a lot of suspense, mystery, and I love the author’s knowledge of New Orleans life. She’s made the city a character and it’s easy to relate to the trouble Adele, the protagonist, faces with her dad as they try to rebuild their lives following a major natural disaster, which I imagine, turns into a major supernatural disaster as well. The author has a great voice, good tension, and an edge of darkness that’s already creeping me out.

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, by Dan Ariely

I picked this one up after really enjoying his book Predictably Irrational. It’s a book about the science of human nature and the research done to delve into the why of what people do. In this case, specifically, why people are only honest to the point that makes them feel they are good enough. The research and case studies really showcase how people can make decisions which they then justify. I’ve always been impressed with the author’s tongue in cheek humor (for example, how so many college students’ grandparents die right before final exams…that going to college should be considered a health hazard for relatives). And it was also surprising to me how some companies don’t really want to explore this area, accepting the effects of dishonesty in their employees and customers without a willingness to understand or even improve it. As I’ve found before with this author, his insights and research are top notch and books like this give me great fodder for character development in my own writing.
Visit Jeff Wheeler's website.

My Book, The Movie: Storm Glass.

The Page 69 Test: Storm Glass.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Margaret Bradham Thornton

Margaret Bradham Thornton is the author of the novels A Theory Of Love and Charleston and the editor of Tennessee Williams’s Notebooks, for which she received the Bronze ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award in autobiography/memoir and the C. Hugh Holman Prize for the best volume of southern literary scholarship published in 2006, given by the Society for the Study of Southern Literature.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’ve just finished Trust by Alphonso Lingis, given to me by the poet Eleanor Chai. It is one of those rare books that maps its own genre - combining philosophy, anthropology, personal reflection, and travel writing. I was hooked by the third page in the essay on Araouane with Lingis’s observation, “when the sky is overcast a Tuareg verifies the way by tasting the sand.” In my own novel, A Theory of Love, I begin with the story of a sea captain who was so well traveled that he could be blindfolded and dropped in any body of water and the moment he took off his blindfold, he would know where he was. The idea that color or taste can be a type of compass intrigues me, and I like the way the two books talk to each other.

Next up is another book given by a friend, the Faulkner scholar Ann Abadie. Ann edited Faulkner: International Perspectives, which includes papers from scholars around the world including China. My husband is a professor at Tsinghua University, and I find from my personal survey that Faulkner is one of the most widely read American novelists in China so I am curious to understand how Chinese scholars discuss him. I have also just finished reading a wonderful essay in another book Ann is editing on an exhibition of William Eggleston photographs from a collection at the University of Mississippi Museum and Historic Houses. In this insightful and amusing piece, its author, Michael Almereyda, mentions that while he was interviewing Eggleston over two days, a DVD of Tennessee Williams’ film Baby Doll played without sound on a flat screen monitor across the room. Toward the end of his essay he asks mid paragraph, “Do I need to mention that we were drinking bourbon?” After spending ten years editing the Notebooks of Tennessee Williams, I can say with almost certainty, Almereyda’s question would have brought a smile to his face.
Visit Margaret Bradham Thornton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 25, 2018

Stephanie Butland

Stephanie Butland lives with her family near the sea in the North East of England. She writes in a studio at the bottom of her garden, and when she's not writing, she trains people to think more creatively. For fun, she reads, knits, sews, bakes, and spins. She is an occasional performance poet.

Butland's new novel is The Lost for Words Bookshop.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
When I'm in the writing phase of a book, rather than the research or edit, as I am now, I need to stay away from contemporary fiction, as I just confuse myself! (It's very easily done.) So at the moment I am on a Muriel Spark jag: I re-read The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and went on to The Girls Of Slender Means and now The Driver's Seat. Her writing is immaculate: sparse and deeply expressive. And she wrote, I think, with no regard for making the reader comfortable or happy, which makes for unsettling, compelling books.
Follow Stephanie Butland on Twitter and Facebook.

My Book, The Movie: The Lost for Words Bookshop.

The Page 69 Test: The Lost for Words Bookshop.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Lillian Li

Lillian Li's work has been published in Guernica, Granta, Glimmer Train, Bon Appetit, and Jezebel. Originally from the D.C. metro area, she lives in Ann Arbor.

Li's new novel is Number One Chinese Restaurant.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
If you love trippy, experimental ruminations on the intersections of technology and the human condition, read Rubik by Elizabeth Tan. A connected short story collection, it's so smart, so inventive, and so emotionally resonant. Every story stacks on top of the one before, but also the one that comes after, like one of Escher's staircases. An example of its brilliance? The "Homestyle Country Pie" one of the characters eats right before she's hit by a car is reincarnated in a later story where we follow it in gorgeous, chilling detail from factory birth to convenience store life to roadside death.

I've also been reeling over Casey Plett's Little Fish. Plett can fucking write. And she can fucking feel. Little Fish follows Wendy Reimer, a Canadian trans woman who's in her stagnating thirties, and what happens after she finds out her late grandfather, a devout Mennonite, might have been transgender himself. It's also about so much more: the power and limitation of friendship, the conditional love of family, the world's cruelty toward the marginalized and the ongoing resistance of staying alive. I think these blurbs from two fellow trans writers Meredith Russo and Zoey Leigh Person (respectively) say it best: "Casey remains one of THE authors to read if you want to understand the interior lives of trans women in this century." "There is a dark place most novels don't touch. If you've ever been there, maybe you know how exhilarating it can be to read a book like this, a book that captures the darkness so honestly, so accurately, that you can finally begin to let it go."

Finally, in honor of Anthony Bourdain, I've been reading Kitchen Confidential aloud. I've read and reread this book countless times, but it's been a whole new experience to hear it. Every sentence, every word is perfect; a delight, and sometimes a welcome assault to all the senses.
Visit Lillian Li's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Cara Black

Cara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 18 books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris. Murder on the Left Bank is the latest installment. Black has received multiple nominations for the Anthony and Macavity Awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture—and invitations to be the Guest of Honor at conferences such as the Paris Polar Crime Festival and Left Coast Crime. With more than 400,000 books in print, the Aimée Leduc series has been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew.

Recently I asked Black about what she was reading. Her reply:
This summer, I’m re-reading Philip Kerr’s books, the Bernie Gunther series.

In March, after ordering Kerr’s latest book, Greeks Bearing Gifts, and planning to spend a long weekend with Bernie in his latest investigation, shocking news came. I was at Left Coast Crime, and the rumor spreading around the conference was sadly true. Philip Kerr had passed two weeks before his book was coming out.

I’ve been a reader and fan since the 90’s. Bernie Gunther’s wise cracking, irreverent, police detective, then PI with a conscience in Berlin pre and post WW2 stuck with me. Kerr’s writing and the way he referenced history and that time so vivid in detail, had influenced me.

After the author’s untimely death, I missed Bernie, and definitely missed that this would be the author’s last book. I’ve re-read Berlin Noir, the trilogy of his first three books; March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem. Not only do they stand up, but the universality of crime, prejudice and what is done in the name of the state apply today.

To me, it’s a grieving process, thinking about this character’s movement in that chaotic time and his moral compass affected me then, still does today. His voice which will only appear in these books and how it will be missed. And for the world today, how little have we learned.

PS: Happy note Philip Kerr’s editor revealed he’d finished his next Bernie Gunther book and submitted it to her. Bernie will live another year.
Visit Cara Black's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Kyle Burke

Kyle Burke is the Nicholas D. Chabraja postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. Starting fall 2018, he will be assistant professor of history at Hartwick College.

His new book is Revolutionaries for the Right: Anticommunist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War.

Recently I asked Burke about what he was reading. His reply:
As a history professor, I’m often reading several books at the same time. Most are non-fiction works related to my teaching and research, though I generally have a novel or two in the mix.

I just finished Kathleen Belew’s outstanding and dismaying Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Based on deep research into FBI files, obscure far-right publications, and other sources, Belew explains the origin and evolution of a militarized white power movement that now spans the country. Starting in the late 1970s, disparate sets of Klansman, neo-Nazis, tax protesters, Christian Identarians, and others joined forces. But rather than unite under a single banner, they utilized a strategy of “leaderless resistance,” which bred dispersed acts of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. Few authorities or commentators were able to link seemingly diffuse acts of violence to each other, or to the world of white power. Instead, they explained the far-right’s growing capacity for violence as the work of “lone wolves,” a framing that persists today. But, as Belew shows, they were in fact part of a decades-old, well-organized, nation-spanning movement. Bring the War Home is required reading for anyone who hopes to understand the far right today.

For fun, I’ve been reading Chilean novelist and poet Robert Bolaño. I first encountered his novella, By Night in Chile, which a friend bought me. A stream-of-fever dream of a Chilean priest on his death bed, By Night in Chile shows Bolaño grappling with the grim years of the murderous Pinochet dictatorship. The Savage Detectives follows two young, disillusioned poets across continents and decades, trying to make sense of a terrible act of violence that set them on the path to exile. I’ve recently begun Bolaño’s hefty 2666, which centers on the fictional Mexican town of Santa Teresa, based on Ciudad Juárez, where several characters investigate the fate of hundreds of missing women. Bolaño, who passed away in 2003, was a writer of extraordinary depth and lyricism. His books are immersive, wickedly funny, and heartbreakingly sad.
Learn more about Revolutionaries for the Right at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Demetra Brodsky

Demetra Brodsky is an award-winning graphic designer & art director turned writer. She has a B.F.A. from The Massachusetts College of Art and Design and lives in Southern California with her family of four and two lovable rescue dogs where she is always trying to make more time for the beach. Her new novel Dive Smack is dedicated to Pumpkin, the monarch butterfly she once saved from the brink of death. Once you read the book, you'll understand why.

Recently I asked Brodsky about what she was reading. Her reply:
This interview came at an odd time in my reading queue, because when I’m drafting I like to read non-fiction so the voice of whatever I’m reading doesn’t spill into my own writing. I’m currently working on a new thriller and reading two fascinating books as research for that novel. The first is The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber. What’s interesting about this read is that there are so many people, including myself who listen to murder podcasts that the fascination with how cold cases are cracked has grown with the increased access to that knowledge. Naturally. Deborah Halber’s book paints individual portraits and opens with a case about a body that was found wrapped in a carnival tent and the man who’s been interviewed and questioned about Tent Girl since his discovery four decades earlier. The whole book gives readers a peek into the methods of armchair sleuths who are combing the Internet for answers on crimes that didn’t have that technology available to law enforcement when they were committed. Those strategies have been be helpful to me as a writer because I can pick out small ideas and weave them into a fictional search of my own, whether that’s going to be used finding a missing person or for clues to a crime. I recommend it to everyone who writes crime fiction, mysteries, or thrillers.

The second non-fiction I’m reading is titled The Girls Of Atomic City: The Untold Story Of The Women Who Helped Win World War II. I’m just getting into this one, but it’s about the women who were recruited from all across the United States to a city in the Appalachian Mountains that wasn’t on any maps. They came to work for the government on a secret project meant to help end the war, and by the title I’m sure you can guess what that secret project was. The women recruited weren’t allowed to talk about their work to anyone, not even each other, and it’s mind-boggling to me how readily they agreed to this work. At the time, though, money and jobs were scarce because of the war and many of these women saw this as a great opportunity to earn more than they might otherwise. Times haven’t changed that much in terms of wage equality, so it’s also understandable. I’d love to tell you more but I’m just getting started and anyway, I think it would ruin the shocking surprises that are layered throughout even if I could.
Visit Demetra Brodsky's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Demetra Brodsky & L.B. and Ponyboy Curtis.

The Page 69 Test: Dive Smack.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle is the 2017-2019 national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and a USBBY 2019 Astrid Lindgren Award nominee. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, and Arnold Adoff Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.

Her newest books are The Flying Girl, How Aída de Acosta learned to Soar, and Jazz Owls, a Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots. Pending publication in September is a picture book titled A Dog Named Haku, A Holiday Story From Nepal, co-authored with Amish and Nicole Karanjit. Soaring Earth, a sequel to Enchanted Air, will be published by Atheneum in February, 2019.

Engle was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She studied agronomy and botany along with creative writing. She lives in central California with her husband and his wilderness search and rescue dogs.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Engle's reply:
This is an unusual moment for me, because I’m only reading a few books, instead of many. It’s also unusual because none of them are children’s books. I seem to have entered a summer of grownup books, even though I’m usually surrounded by piles of published and advanced review copies of works for young readers. I’m sure this strangely adult reading phase will pass soon, because I go to the library several times per week, and I visit every bookstore in town almost as often. (I’ve never ordered any book online. I prefer to support bookstores, especially the independent ones.)

There There by Tommy Orange

Wow! What a powerful and beautifully written novel about the urban Native American community in Oakland, California. I love the way chapters are in different voices, all so different and unique, yet united by heritage and a page-turning plot.

Neruda, the Poet’s Calling by Mark Eisner

I’m enjoying this thoughtful and comprehensive biography, but I’m a bit disappointed that poem excerpts are only in English, translations without including the original Spanish.

Fugues by Claribel Alegría

I’m re-reading this bilingual edition by one of El Salvador’s best-known poets because Central America is on my mind, with riots in Nicaragua, volcanic eruptions in Guatemala, and refugees from various countries being separated from their children at the U.S. border. I don’t know how reading helps, but somehow it does, simply by reminding me that the horrific stories we hear in the news happen to real people in real places.

The Dirt is Red Here, Art and Poetry From Native California, edited by Margaret Dubin

One of the privileges of my position as Young People’s Poet Laureate is recommending a children’s poetry book each month, on the Poetry Foundation website. I want to choose a book for Native American Heritage Month in November, but there are very few recent children’s books by Native American poets. I find this frustrating, because there are so many wonderful new adult poetry books by incredible Native poets. So I’m reading many adult ones, searching for a few that have poems accessible to children. The Dirt is Red Here is really beautiful, with photographs of art as well as poems by a wide variety of California poets from many Nations. I haven’t finalized my decision yet, but this just might be the one I’ll choose.
Visit Margarita Engle's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Margarita Engle & Maggi and Chance.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 15, 2018

Yoon Ha Lee

A Korean-American sf/f writer who received a B.A. in math from Cornell University and an M.A. in math education from Stanford University, Yoon Ha Lee finds it a source of continual delight that math can be mined for story ideas.

Lee's new novel is Revenant Gun.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I usually have a few books going at the same time, partly because I am distractible, but partly because I like to have a book for every mood.

The first is an ARC, Max Gladstone's delightful The Empress of Forever. When Max told me he had written a space opera based on the Chinese epic Journey to the West and asked if I was interested in reading it, there was only one possible answer--yes! Max's breathtakingly vivid prose and explosively detailed invention would make this wonderful all by itself, but even beyond that, there are the characters: Viv, an entrepreneur from our world trying to get back home, and her lover the born star-pilot Xiara, and the ferocious pirate-queen Zanj, among others. Every page is a discovery; I'm going to be sorry when it ends.

The second, for something completely different, is the Charles Bargue Drawing Course, edited by Gerald M. Ackerman with the collaboration of Graydon Parrish. I've been trying to teach myself how to draw as a hobby, which started because I wanted to be able to "see" what my characters looked like. I've tried various approaches over the years, from life drawing to generalized flailing around, and found out about this book, which has the student learning to draw from exemplars graded in difficulty. The amusing story behind it is that in 1865 in France, there was an exhibition of works by student artists, and apparently art critics and instructors found the results so universally atrocious that the French decided to overhaul their method of teaching art; the Bargue course was the result. I don't expect to "finish" going through this anytime soon, but everyone needs a project!

Finally, for something different yet again, I'm reading Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, ed. Max Brooks, John Amble, M. L. Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates. I'm only casually acquainted with the Star Wars universe, but I enjoy reading military history and space opera, and this marries the two in one enticing package. I was especially intrigued by the Preface by Cavanaugh, who's taught strategy at West Point: he explains that in trying to discuss strategy with colleagues in South Korea, he needed to find common ground as South Koreans will not necessarily, say, have a clue about American Civil War battles that are well-known in the United States. So the solution was to talk about strategy through the lens of Star Wars! (My sister and I, who have both lived in South Korea, were impressed Star Wars worked for this purpose. Who knew!) The essays run the gamut from satire to serious analysis, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of the book!
Visit Yoon Ha Lee's website.

The Page 69 Test: Revenant Gun.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Eric Bernt

Eric Bernt was born in Marion, Ohio, and raised in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and Madison, Wisconsin. He attended Northwestern University, where he learned that journalism was not for him—but storytelling was. Upon graduation, he moved to Hollywood, where he wrote seven feature films including Virtuosity (starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe) and Surviving the Game (starring Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, and F. Murray Abraham). He has also written for television (Z Nation). Bernt lives in Agoura Hills, California, with his wife and three children.

His new novel is The Speed of Sound.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Bernt's reply:
I just finished reading Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker because after reading The Better Angels of Our Nature, I simply had to. Pinker is one of the smartest minds writing today. I find his framing of today's world through an objective and well-researched historical lens to be incredibly insightful. He gives me hope.

I reread Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint in tribute to his passing, as well as to remind myself what genuine, shocking honesty looks like. And his voice. Philip Roth was a master.

For research, I read In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker, because I cannot know enough about the subject. There is so much coming out now about the history of the diagnosis that I need to be familiar with. As an author who writes about a character on the spectrum, I consider it one of my responsibilities.

I also read True Fiction by Lee Goldberg because he's a new friend and fellow author at Thomas & Mercer. I needed something lighter in tone after some of the more serious reading I've been doing.
Visit Eric Bernt's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Seth Perry

Seth Perry is assistant professor of religion at Princeton University.

His new book is Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Perry's reply:
Like probably any academic, I’m “reading” a dozen books at any one time, with varying degrees of attentiveness and intention (intention to finish, I mean), but I have to admit that the first thing that comes to mind with this prompt is that I just started Woken Furies, the third book in Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series. I picked up the first one, Altered Carbon, after watching the Netflix show. These sci fi novels are not high art, and I actually find the Byzantine complexity of the plots perfectly bewildering, but Morgan’s world building is a lot of fun, and there are flashes of real artistry and depth – I can’t put it down.

My next book is something of a biography (of Lorenzo Dow, the most famous itinerant preacher in America in the early nineteenth century), and I’ve been re-reading Nabokov’s biography of Gogol to get some inspiration – not being Nabokov, I don’t think I’ll be able to get away with copying that style (it is a strange and wonderful book – he starts with Gogol’s death and ends with his birth), but I think this is a fun way to start thinking about writing my next book.

Beyond that, with two weeks of vacation coming up I have accumulated a hefty stack of books I’m taking along. I am most looking forward to Emily Ogden’s Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism – she has me with the boldness of the title! Mesmerism is long overdue for a new theoretically-sophisticated treatment. Also, I’m taking a large volume of Arthur C. Clarke stories, because a student recommended Clarke to me and I’ve never read any.
Learn more about Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 11, 2018

Liz Rosenberg

Liz Rosenberg is the author of, most recently, House of Dreams: The Life of L. M. Montgomery and a forthcoming novel, Indigo Hill. At any given moment when not asleep she is usually reading, writing, or taking a walk with her camera.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Rosenberg's reply:
At any given time I am usually reading 4-5 books at once.

At the moment they are:

Elizabeth Enright's Gone-Away Lake. This is a children's novel by an author I truly love, but I'm not altogether loving this one. I'd rather be re-reading her Thimble Summer or The Saturdays. All the same, you have to admire the sheer gorgeousness of her prose.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. I am a thorough fan of Ann Patchett's books; she's written one beauty after another and especially Bel Canto. This is a non-fiction memoir of sorts, and I'm finding it lovely, funny, inspirational, useful. Great material on becoming-and-being a writer. I keep this one in my car so anytime I am stuck anywhere for any reason I can take it out and feel patient while I wait.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. When I'm a fan it's not unusual for me to re-read books again and again. Recently I finished re-reading both Goodman's novel Intuition and her Kaaterskill Falls. The Cookbook Collector was new to me. I know when I really like a book, because as soon as I'm done I go back to the first page and start over again. I find it's kind of a relief to read a book without the what-will-happen next anxiety. (Unless it's a book like Scarlet Letter, with a huge secret in it.) I am now on that immediate re-read. It's about IPOs and the dot com bubble, but mostly it's an exquisite love story.

And of course I am currently reading at least 6 or 7 books by or about Louisa May Alcott all at the same time, because I am hard at work on a biography. Alcott is almost inseparable from her eccentric, exasperating, wonderful family and friends (including, among others, Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne).

With all this you wouldn't think I'd still be on the lookout for more books to read-- but I am.
Keep up with Liz Rosenberg's observations and photos on Facebook.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Randall Klein

Randall Klein is a writer and book editor living in Charlottesville, VA. Little Disasters is his first novel.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Klein's reply:
Untitled, by Cynthia Voigt

Cynthia Voigt has enjoyed a long and much-lauded career primarily writing for the teenage audience, winning the Newberry Medal in 1983 for Dicey’s Song and getting the Margaret Edwards Award (a career achievement) in 1995. She has officially reached the point in her career where she can follow her muse wherever it may take her, and of late it has taken her to writing for adults. I had the good fortune of being Cynthia’s editor for a wonderful book she wrote called By Any Name. Since then, periodically, Cynthia will send me a new manuscript and ask me for my take on it, as she has done recently with a book I’m calling Untitled.

When reading an author’s work, it helps to note what the author is particularly good at. There are two reasons for this. First, you don’t want to write a criticism that solely reads as criticism. Everyone creates art more or less believing they are doing it “right,” and hearing only how they got it “wrong” gets up all sorts of defenses. It helps to frame the weaknesses of a manuscript within the contexts, or in contrast to, its strengths. The second reason is that those strengths can frequently be used later to fix the weaknesses. In Cynthia’s case, her strongest quality as an author is her character work. She writes three-dimensional characters who have rich inner lives that draw a reader into their external actions. Her talent in immediately investing the reader in the actions her characters perform mean that frequently my job is working with her on the structuring of a novel. We’re going to invest in her protagonist as a given, so what are we investing in? This is also the well we’ll return to in the revisions. Cynthia, in both By Any Name and now in Untitled, has penned a ferociously strong-willed central female character whose opinions rankle some of those around her but whose convictions also inspire devotion. So, if a scene isn’t working, we’ve found a lot of progress in looking to those strong, central characters, because they hold the gravity from which everything around them swirls.

Right now, the main issue with Untitled is structural, as it usually is in any early draft. The author has a clear idea of where the book should go, but isn’t quite taking the best path to get there. Scenes can sag because the author has so much information to get out. Or, simply put, not every author handles building suspense or tension with the alacrity with which they build characters or write engaging prose. Cynthia is better than most at this—one never gets the sense that she’s meandering because she doesn’t know what should happen next—but even she still needs a fresh pair of eyes to say, “I think this is the story you are trying to tell, and I think here, here, and here is where that breaks down.”

Obviously there are specifics to Untitled, but I don’t want to go into them here because it’s a work in progress and because Cynthia does the thing that I wish every author did. She moves in miles rather than inches. This is something I try to get across to every author. When an agent or an editor gives you a note, it’s distressingly rare for it to be something small. If I don’t like a word choice on page 47, I will go to page 47 and note in the margins what I think the word should be. Then, you can either take or leave my suggestion. But if an agent or editor asks you to revise, they aren’t asking to get back a manuscript that resembles the previous draft save for a few cosmetic changes. If they can’t tell what is new, it’s wasting everyone’s time. Authors frequently get nervous that they can’t then go back to an earlier draft, but by giving your reader a few looks at how a plot progresses, or how a character’s arc builds, you also provide evidence to argue over. Some of the most productive conversations I’ve had with authors involve them making those bigger changes, really committing to the note and handing me back something fresh, and then we discuss what the new material has done to the overall story.

Cynthia has her process, one honed over decades of success. She’s a consummate professional who is still passionate about her work, the ideal combination. She’s going to go off and work on Untitled, and I’m positive that what I get back will retain the qualities that are emblematic of Cynthia’s work and have made her an acclaimed author, but also something entirely new that addresses our concerns over the manuscript and take it in bold new directions. I’m overjoyed to have read Cynthia’s Voigt’s latest, and perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to an author is that I’m even more excited to read it again.
Visit Randall Klein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, June 8, 2018

Amber Royer

Amber Royer teaches enrichment and continuing education creative writing classes for teens and adults. She spent five years as a youth librarian, where she organized teen writers’ groups and teen writing contests. In addition to two cookbooks co-authored with her husband, Royer has published a number of articles on gardening, crafting and cooking for print and on-line publications.

Her debut science fiction novel, Free Chocolate, just came out June 5.

Recently I asked Royer about what she was reading. Her reply:
I’m a writing instructor for both UTA and Writing Workshops Dallas, so a lot of what I read is student work. I’ve got some really talented students, so about three of the novels I’m most excited about right now aren’t even finished yet.

I’ve got a couple of light, fun reads loaded up on Audible for my commute, but I’ve been working on a set of new classes, so I’ve been reading some recent (and not so recent) writing theory guides. One of the most fascinating has been Wired for Story by Lisa Cron. It takes traditional story craft advice and matches it up with “brain science” to zero in on why those techniques work. Some of it is at the same time basic and profound. (For instance, why does your story need a plot? “From birth, our brain’s primary goal is to make causal connections – if this then that.” She then elaborates on that statement for an entire chapter.)

I also went back through What Would Your Character Do? by Ann Maisel and Eric Maisel. This one does have some limits -- it assumes a narrow range of choices for how your character will react in different situations. (For instance, there’s a question about a suitcase left unattended at an airport, and it assumes your character is basically a morally upright person who would either leave it alone or turn it in. Whereas, half of my characters would either open it up or steal it. To their detriment, of course.) But it does get you thinking. What would your protag’s family reunion look like? Who would they talk to if they had been (perhaps mistakenly) diagnosed with a terminal illness?

And I re-read The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson. I made the mistake of getting that one on audio only when I first picked it up, and then had to go back and get the print book. There’s a lot to linguistics that’s more visual than you think. He starts with sounds (explaining how concepts such as phonetics works) then builds up to words, then goes from there, often using his own work as examples. If you’ve ever tried to differentiate between three alien languages (like I did for Free Chocolate) it’s a fascinating guide.
Visit Amber Royer's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Caleb Johnson

Caleb Johnson grew up in Arley, Alabama, studied journalism at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and earned an MFA from the University of Wyoming. He has worked as a small-town newspaper reporter, an early-morning janitor, and a whole-animal butcher, among other jobs.

Johnson's debut novel is Treeborne.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Johnson's reply:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My soon-to-be wife emigrated from the Soviet Union as a young girl. I decided this would be the year I dived into Russian fiction. I asked her to create a reading list and she started me off the Richard Peaver and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Anna Karenina. My favorite parts of Anna were the sections with Konstantin Levin, a Russian landowner who's living out his existential crisis in the countryside. Tolstoy really cut loose at the sentence level in these sections and he writes beautifully of the land and people's relationship to it, which is, if you read my debut novel, Treeborne, an interest of mine.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Having grown up in Alabama, I'm fascinated with Vietnam, which was more recently decimated by civil war. The War is all we seem to talk about in the South, but when I traveled to Vietnam folks didn't seem to want to talk about their war much. It's a young country that's rapidly changing. The characters in these stories confront generational trauma and what it means to leave home, or whether we ever can really leave it.

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

I'm excited to dive into the English-language debut of this Argentine writer. The stories take place in the shadows of Argentina's troubled history and are described as being disturbing and macabre and spooky. A perfect start to summer reading, right?
Visit Caleb Johnson's website.

The Page 69 Test: Treeborne.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, June 4, 2018

Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where she rode horses and trained in classical ballet. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from New York University, and has lived in Beijing, London, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. The Book of M is her first novel.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Shepherd's reply:
I’m excited to answer this question, because I just had one of those magical reading experiences that we all live for—the one where the book is so amazing, it strikes you to your core, and you can’t think about anything else but those characters, that story. Just yesterday, I finally began The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. From the very first page, I was spellbound! The voice is so haunting and singular, and the writing so beautiful and absorbing, I’m afraid I might forget to breathe while reading. I’m only a few chapters in, but I can already tell this is going to be one of my favorite books of all time.

Jumping genres, the book I read just before The Song of Achilles was The Power by Naomi Alderman, which was so intense it almost felt more like I was reading a thriller than a science fiction dystopia. The speed with which Alderman tears the old world down once women realize they have deadly electrical powers should have felt unrealistic except that it was so expertly crafted, it was impossible not to believe.

I’m also trying to branch out into more non-fiction this year, and bought, started, and finished I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara on the same day, unable to put it down. Following McNamara’s tireless quest to bring the Golden State Killer to justice was such an gripping experience to begin with, but it was all the more poignant because she passed away just before finishing the book. Then when the news broke that police might have caught the murderer, and that the attention I’ll Be Gone in the Dark brought anew to the old case might have contributed to the arrest—it was such an emotional reminder of the power that books can have.
Visit Peng Shepherd's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Emily Devenport

Emily Devenport has written several novels under various pseudonyms including one which was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award. She currently studies Geology and works as a volunteer at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

Devenport's new novel is Medusa Uploaded.

Recently I asked the author about what she was reading. Her reply:
I love audio books. At one time I used to consider them the cheater's way of reading books (with more than a tad of arrogant dismissal in my tone). And you know what? Maybe they are the cheater's way – and that's fine with me. Because I have a full-time day job (I'm a buyer at the Heard Museum book store in Phoenix), a writing career, a household, and a (wreck of a) garden to maintain. At the end of the day, my eyeballs feel pretty fried.

A good audiobook is like one of the old radio shows. It's really more of a dramatization. Over the last few years, I've heard some of the best narrators reading books by my favorite authors. I love Michael Connelly, Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, Robert McCammon, Elizabeth Peters, Craig Johnson, and many others. Some of my favorite narrators are Caitlin Davies, Kate Reading, Barbara Rosenblat, George Guidall, Craig Wasson, Edoardo Ballerini, Steven Crossley, Adam Grupper, Jeff Lindsay, and Susan Bennett. Currently I'm listening to the latest installment of Dean Koontz's Jane Hawk series. Soon I'll have the new Stephen King novel in my queue.

I listen to audiobooks while I'm driving, cleaning, cooking, and doing yard maintenance. It turns work into a treasured time when I get to hear a good story. Audiobooks are da bomb. Take it from a cheater (who still has fried eyeballs).
Visit Emily Devenport's blog.

The Page 69 Test: Medusa Uploaded.

--Marshal Zeringue