Monday, October 25, 2010

Toby Ball answers our Top Five

Toby Ball is the author of the new dystopian thriller, The Vaults. Michael Harvey, author of The Third Rail has this to say about it: “If George Orwell and Dashiell Hammett had ever decided to collaborate on a book, they might have come up with something like The Vaults…superbly plotted, stylishly written and entirely unique.” Find out for yourself tomorrow night at 7pm, and read his answers to our Top Five right now.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

I am reading a great book called The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. I look forward to my time with it each night. I also have the manuscript for my next book (titled Scorch City) and a signed copy of Jess Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets, which will be my next read.

2. How do you write?

I work full-time and have a 13 year old son and 5 year old daughter. I essentially write from 8 until 10 each night in whatever peace and quiet I can find. I usually have some sporting event on silently in the background for something to distract me when I take an occasional break from banging on the keys.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

This is a tough one to answer. There are so many different moments when you feel like you are taking the next step: the first time you sit down to do some creative writing (this could be when you are four or five years old); when you decide that you are going to put forth the effort necessary to write something that you want to have published; the moment when you start working on a second draft – the beginning of the real work; the moment you get your first rejection from an agent; the moment when you get your first offer from an agent; the moment you sign a publishing contract; the moment that first book arrives in the mail. I’m not sure which of these moments was “the moment,” but each was a milestone in its own right.

4. What are you working on now?

I’m working on the third book in the loose series that began with The Vaults.

5. Favorite recent find?

This website has a list of what it considers the greatest magazine articles ever written along with links to each. It is very heavy on the past twenty years or so, but the ones I’ve read so far have been excellent. For starters, David Foster Wallace is consistently great and the two-part article on Mel Lyman was fascinating. Enjoy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Elyssa East answers our Top Five

Elyssa East is the author of Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. Don't miss her reading at the bookstore on Wednesday, October 20th at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Lots of books and at least a years’ worth of New Yorkers that—let’s just cut to the visual.

It's like a landslide waiting to happen. And it has a tail of books and magazines that has spilled onto the floor. Sometimes I think of the books as an army attempting to conquer my sleep. In this they succeed, as I often wake up in the middle of the night and read.

And since you asked, in these piles are Da Zheng’s Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveler from the East, Erica Hirschler’s Sargent’s Daughters, The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work, The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Richard Burtons’ The Anatomy of Melancholy (always on the nightstand), Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, Katheleen Kent’s The Wolves of Andover, Terese Svoboda’s Pirate Talk or Mermalade, The Selected Prose of Heinrich Von Kleist, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories. I’m on a bit of a story bender right now so I’m definitely moving between the above collections a lot.

2. How do you write?

I would really like to have a sensory deprivation chamber to write in, but I’m not that privileged. I do like being by a window, as I prefer natural light, but can find it distracting. We have a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades and regularly see hawks and sometimes bald eagles out the window. I feel extraordinarily lucky to live in Manhattan and have a nature view with the occasional barge and tugboat passing through.

I teach creative writing at Purchase College. When it comes to writing, though, a lot of days I don’t get going until kind of late. It’s like I need to burn off some anxiety before I can start working. That, or I’m building up steam.

I adopted a dog a few months ago and she likes to nestle under my desk while I’m working and jump up to commandeer my hands for a petting session every so often. She’s helps take the edge off. Here’s her special under-the-desk spot and default mode of sleeping with a paw around one of her teddie bears.

I don’t often listen to music while working as I can get too swept up into it, but that really depends on where I am in my process. When I did listen to music while writing Dogtown I took in a lot of Bach Cantatas and one of my favorite pieces of music ever, Antonin Dvorák’s American Quartet. There was also some Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, Os Mutantes, and Betty Davis on rotation. Plus, my fiancé happens to run an avant-garde jazz label called Pi Recordings, so I logged a lot of time with his beyond hip, fantastically weird music floating in from the other room.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

If I could say I had an a-ha moment it was while reading this gem, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when I was in middle school in Georgia, but I couldn’t write worth a lick and I was one of those lucky people who had teachers that went out of their way to tell me that. Nonetheless, I had known that I wanted to be an artist of some sort, only I had no training in anything other than music—my mother was a piano teacher—and I thought that you just had to be born with some magic ability no matter what creative form you wanted to pursue. So my path from wanting to write to actually doing it and then doing it well enough to be published was akin to snow accumulating and turning into a glacier.

4. What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book, but I can’t say much about it except that it’s a novel about love, an unusual surgery, and a sanatorium. It’s too undefined to say more beyond that and I’m terrified it will flop. I’m also working another nonfiction book proposal about poets and artists during wartime and possibly an anthology about farm animals.

5. Favorite recent find?

The recent Charles Burchfield exhibit at the Whitney blew my mind.

Burchfield paints the sounds of things as well as their colors and energy. His work is wholly, oddly synesthetic and vibrates off the canvas like some strange insect beating its wings. Guernica Magazine, which just celebrated its sixth year, recently published some great photography, including these images by Jason Larkin from an Egyptian history museum. I’m very excited for the Nicolás de Jesús show at the Neuberger Art Museum. I love Mexican art and find De Jesús’s work to be hilarious. You can read it as skeletons making fun of the living or that though we’re all alive we’re somehow dead inside. It’s this reflexive paradox and the idea that the dead are not fully gone and that we are not fully alive that I love so much. And if I don’t catch the Zwelethu Mthethwa show at the Studio Museum of Harlem before it closes next week I don’t know how I’ll ever forgive myself.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Shelf Talker: My Hollywood

My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

I read Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here in high school. Since then, I have been under the impression that I hated it. I remember underlining sentences, but I didn't want to keep the book on my shelf (a big part of the reason was probably that it was a movie tie-in cover, and that I am a snob). 'That mother,' was all I could think; I just hated that mother (if you've read the book, you know what I mean-- she is manipulative and controlling and can't keep her promises). It wasn't until recently that I realized the fact that I hated that mother, that I so identified with and understood the daughter, meant that the book was a success. That I felt like I couldn't keep it on my shelf didn't mean it wasn't good, it meant that it was so well done that I believed it. It worked.

Mona Simpson's latest book, My Hollywood also worked. But unlike Adele in Anywhere But Here, I loved Lola and Claire in My Hollywood. They are the type of characters that you keep on hearing in your head, that are so real you almost feel like you created them, that make you feel you're the only one who really knows them. Lola and Claire live in LA in the latter part of the 20th century. Lola is a woman from the Philippines who is working as a nanny to pay for her children's college educations. When we meet her, she is on the last leg-- her youngest daughter is in medical school. She doesn't resent having to do this-- her children are her whole life, and this is just what a mother does for her children, to give them the best chance. Claire is the woman who hires her to take care of William who is told that, in LA, hiring a nanny is just what a mother does for her children, to give them the best chance. My Hollywood is about motherhood and surrogate motherhood; it's about LA and the TV business and the futility and hopelessness that exist side by side with comedy; it's about falling in love and failing at it and falling in love again. It's about the balance between your work and your life, between what you expect to happen and what really happens, between yourself and everyone else.

Simpson is a challenging writer. She asks you to understand her characters on the same level that she does. You're given the clues; you make the character yourself. This is the most powerful type of fiction, when a writer trusts her reader to create and love her characters as much as she does, but doesn't make it easy.