Monday, September 30, 2013

VIDEO: David Gilbert and Adam Johnson in conversation

My fall got off to a rocky start health-wise. I’ve been out of balance, and I’ve been having trouble writing for the past few weeks. Ridiculous, I know. But the good news is, I’ve been attending some amazing literary events around town. Sometimes I’m bad about sharing or uploading the video I shoot, but I think this week is the week to feature some seriously awesome events.

The following video was shot several weeks ago—shortly before I contracted the flu, hence the delay in posting. This is the sort of evening that makes me grateful to live in San Francisco, a city where authors like David Gilbert come on book tour, and a city that is home to an extraordinary local literary community. The night of Mr. Gilbert’s lit event at the Book Passage Ferry Building store epitomized what I’m talking about.

Make no mistake, I was pretty excited to hear David Gilbert speak. His novel, & Sons, is
unquestionably one of the best novels I will read this (or any) year. You may read my rave review here. The novel is wonderfully substantive, and I was really curious to hear what the author had to say about it. It wasn’t until the day of the event that I learned he’d be “in conversation” with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson. Amazing! Where but San Francisco can you see these two literary powerhouses in conversation at your local independent bookseller’s?

Now, readers of this blog may recall that I’m a huge fan of Adam Johnson, professionally and personally. I don’t know the man well, but as far as I can see, he’s the nicest person on the planet.  Seriously, the man’s sweetness and gentleness has been the subject of more than one conversation among the local literati. The opinion is unanimous. And, Adam, I’m sorry to embarrass you if you ever—God forbid—happen to read this.

Here’s the other thing that is consistently amazing about the San Francisco literary community… They come out to support each other. On this particular evening, Andrew Sean Greer, Scott Hutchins, and Tom Barbash were among the audience. I’m friendly with all of them, so it was a great social atmosphere. And we were discussing this very thing—the terrific, supportive literary community—after the talk. I said something along the lines of San Francisco having possibly the best local lit community in the country. I said that people always talk about Brooklyn, but that by all accounts, it’s super-competitive out there. Tom Barbash came back with a quote from Vendala Vida: “In New York, writers read each other’s reviews. In San Francisco, writers read each other’s books.” That’s it in a nutshell.

It goes without saying that the conversation between Johnson and Gilbert was fascinating. And I’m so delighted to be able to share it with you in its entirety. Enjoy!

P.S.:  I am confident that Book Passage would be happy to sell/ship you a signed copy of either of these authors' work!

Monday, September 9, 2013

GUEST BLOGGER POST: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria Andreu

Note from Susan: Generally, guests posting to this blog meet two criteria: They have a novel out, and they're a friend of mine. Well, I've never met Maria Andreu, and in fact, I've had no contact with her at all.  (The arrangements for this blog post were accomplished with the help of a third party.) Nor does she have a book out--yet. The Secret Side of Empty is coming in March 2014, so it's still six months away. The reason I agreed to invite Ms. Andrea to post here is that she has an amazing story, and I think she's got some interesting things to say. I'll look forward to eventually reading her fictionalized account of the life she led as an undocumented teen in America.

Now here's Maria...

My book wanted to be a YA novel. I was not happy with its decision at all. The story of an undocumented girl and what her life is like on the precipice, knowing that “real” life will begin for all her friends but not for her, was so intimately mine that I very much wanted to tell it as my story. But the book had other ideas.

I was born in Spain two months before my parents decided to bring me with them on their grand adventure of making it in America. They were Argentinian by upbringing, Spanish by citizenship. Although they projected both those things on me, what I really became was an American kid. I learned my English on Sesame Street. I loved my Baby Crissy doll with her magical, growing red hair. I wore bad 1970s bellbottoms and envied Marcia Brady along with all the other girls my age.

When I was six, my grandfather died in Argentina. Off my mother and I went to the funeral for what we thought would be a two-week stay. My father stayed behind in the U.S. to send us money. Two weeks turned into two years. Finally, out of ideas on how to reunite with his family, my father paid some coyotes to smuggle us across the Mexican border. In many ways I count that as the start of my story, looking across a border you couldn’t see, wondering why I wasn’t good enough to cross it except against the rules. I was 8 years old. It shaped my personality and world view like few other things have.

As I grew into a teenager I understood the real meaning of being undocumented. No social security number. No college. No job. No “normal” life like the one I saw my friends planning so happily. I looked into the future and saw a blank. And then, in a twist almost too cinematic to work in a book, an amnesty law was passed. Three months after I turned 18, I was put on a path to citizenship and my entire future changed.

I spent decades trying to forget all that, trying to “pass.” Finally, it was an angry pundit on the radio ranting about how we should kick out all the “illegals” that got me thinking. I was proof that people just want dignity and a chance at a good life, that we didn’t want to ruin America, but participate in it. Once I’d gotten a chance at that, I turned my back on the people who were struggling the way I had struggled. I still remember the exact spot of road on which I was driving when I understood that I needed to end my silence.

So I began to speak and write about my experiences. I wrote an essay that appeared in Newsweek, another in The Washington Post. I found my voice. I began writing my story as a memoir.

I shopped that version of the story for 4 years. I got rejected by more than 70 agencies. I fought off well-meaning friends who said, “Just self publish.” There is nothing wrong with self-publishing, but I knew that as someone who had felt so marginalized I needed to sell at least her first book the “traditional” way. I was doggedly, unreasonably determined. So I kept at it. I went to workshops. I got critiques. I rewrote. I got such lovely rejections filled with praise for my prose and my voice. Each one broke my heart and echoed with just how much I didn’t belong.

Finally, it was an impossibly young-looking agent at a pitch conference who told me, “The problem with your pitch is that all the action happens when the protagonist is a teenager. Your book wants to be a YA novel.” I thanked her and rolled my eyes internally. Didn’t she get I wanted to be a Real Writer? There was so much I didn’t understand about Real Writing and about the wonderful literature now finding its way out into the world as YA. It would be months before I’d be ready to understand that she was right.

Everything flowed almost as if by magic when I finally let it sink in. I opened up the big YA titles of the time and saw one agency name over and over again: Writers House. I sent a pitch to their slush pile. Within days I had a response from someone. I Googled her name and my heart started pounding when I learned that she was the same person who had pulled Twilight from the slush pile too. I had queried too soon – I only had 3 chapters, and here they were, asking for the whole manuscript. I pounded it out in 10 days. Of course I’d told many versions of this story, so it was ready to be told quickly. I kicked myself at probably blowing my chance… until they accepted me as a client. So, yes, technically I got the first agent I pitched. Their “we’d love for you to be our client” email still sits framed in my living room. They sold my book in a multiple-offers situation in the first round.

So I feel a certain peace with the story coming to the world as a YA novel. I am a big believer in “flow” and things happening as they should. I don’t know if I fully understand the mystery of why this book wanted to happen this way, but I can’t deny the unmistakable ease with which it did. If I were hard-pressed to come up with a theory it would be this: we all love stories. People may resist something that feels pedantic or is trying to push a certain worldview, as a memoir might have. As a novel, The Secret Side of Empty does none of that. It will appeal to anyone who has ever felt left out or who has ever faced a problem that has felt too big to figure out. The Secret Side of Empty lets you get a glimpse into a life you otherwise would probably never see. It has a love story, characters I hope people will like and, at its core, this very complicated problem of the restricted choices faced by undocumented people in general and kids in particular. But it doesn’t tell you what to think. It just lets you inside. Hopefully, that will spark conversations.

ABOUT The Secret Side of Empty

It's the story of a teen girl that is American in every way except for in one very important way: on paper. She was brought to the U.S. as a baby without proper documentation, so she's "illegal." As the end of the safe haven of her high school days draw near, she faces an uncertain future. Full of humor and frustration and love, The Secret Side of Empty speaks to the part in all of us that has felt excluded or has had a secret too scary to share. What M.T., the main character, finally discovers is the strength of the human spirit and the power that's unleashed when you finally live the truth.

Giveaway Info:

Maria is giving away two separate prizes on her tour, a $250 Amazon Gift Card AND a Kindle Fire.

1) For a chance to win the $250 Amazon gift card, OR the Kindle Fire leave a comment on her blog post for that day. Winners will be randomly selected on September 30th.

Maria Andreu’s Bio:

Maria’s writing has appeared in Newsweek, The Washington Post and the Star Ledger. Her debut novel, The Secret Side of Empty, is the story of an “illegal” high school senior. It was inspired by Maria’s own experiences as an undocumented teen. Since becoming a citizen, Maria has run her own business and has become a soccer mom. She lives with her 13-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son in northern New Jersey.

Links Maria Andreu’s website-
Maria Andreu on Twitter:
Maria Andreu on Facebook:
Preorder The Secret Side of Empty

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Psycho killer qu’est-ce que c’est?

Cain's Blood
by Geoffrey Girard

I heard about this novel’s audacious high-concept premise several months before its publication. Marketing copy said:
“A terrifying debut novel about the evil in each of us: when clones of infamous serial killers escape from a secret government facility, it’s up to a former Army Ranger to stop them… with the help of a teenage killer clone.”
And I was basically like: You had me at ‘clones of infamous serial killers.’ I mean, with a premise like that, it was either going to be unbelievably awesome or excruciating bad. Execution would be everything. And I am officially declaring Geoffrey Girard’s debut thriller UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME. If Cain’s Blood doesn’t rocket to the top of the bestseller list in the land of Hannibal Lecter, well, there is no justice in the world of publishing. And, of course, there isn’t, so who knows.

Okay, back to the story… Honestly, beyond the blurb above, there’s nothing you really need to know. Well, I’ll mention that teenage helper is an innocent, 15-year-old clone of Jeffrey Dahmer. Oh yeah, Girard’s not playing around. This novel is a who’s who of serial murder, with appearances by Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, Ed Gein, etc. The gang’s all here. As I stated above, execution is everything with a premise this bold. Mr. Girard starts things off provocatively by giving readers a prologue in the form of “A Brief History of Cloning” in which he writes, “Cloning humans, by the way, is still completely legal in the United States, everyone just assumes it’s not.” Uh, I certainly did. Mr. Girard has done his homework on everything from genetics to the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths:
“About one half of one percent of Americans could be diagnosed as sociopaths or psychopaths. So says the National Institute of Mental Health… There are degrees to everything. Ninety-eight percent of that two million are only sociopaths, and most sociopaths are little more than flaming assholes… Guys with no regard for the feelings and rights of others. Care only about Number One, steal for the hell of it, moody guys who screw over coworkers, start bar fights out of boredom, won’t talk to their kids…that kind of thing. True psychopaths are much, much rarer. The difference is important, and also horrible.” [I’ve condensed the quote above with ellipses.]
How is that not fascinating? When it comes to science thrillers, the science doesn’t have to be rock solid, but you have to make me believe it. Mr. Girard did a laudable job of making his outrageous premise plausible. And there was neither too much nor too little of the science. He got the balance just right.

Now, obviously a tale like this lives and dies with plotting and pace. Honestly, there wasn’t a whole
lot to the plot. Some bad dudes escaped and a good, if damaged, soldier had to round them up. But within that simple structure, Girard kept his tale lively, offered up some surprises, and kept things moving at a lightning pace. Turning pages was not only effortless, it was mandatory. I can’t imagine that any reader will be surprised to learn that this novel is full of the most lurid and graphic kind of violence. It’s definitely not for everyone. I’m not generally a fan of gratuitous violence, but I’m not even sure it was gratuitous. All I know is that I couldn’t look away.

Character development is not what drives this sort of story. The damaged soldier thing is a bit of a cliché, but Shane Castillo was a likeable enough protagonist. And Mr. Girard did a fine job with his teen Dahmer, making him sympathic and creepy all at once. There is much that is black and white in this tale, but the author also makes good fodder of the moral ambiguities inherent in the situation. Should Cain’s Blood be your next book club pick? Probably not. But I say give yourself a pass and enjoy the guilty pleasure of this very wild ride.

And one more note: Cain’s Blood is actually one half of Mr. Girard’s debut. It’s a complete novel, but he is simultaneously publishing a young adult novel called Project Cain. It tells the exact same story as this novel, but from the POV of the teen Dahmer. I haven’t read it yet, and I know it will be somewhat redundant, but I have to admit I’m curious.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

“There’s the story, then there’s the real story…”

by Margaret Atwood

Early on in the long-awaited conclusion to her MaddAddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood writes:
“There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told. Then there’s what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”
And in MaddAddam, at last, Ms. Atwood gives us all of the above.

It’s been a decade since I first read Oryx & Crake, and four years since I read The Year of the Flood. I loved both books, loved the way the two intertwined and complemented each other. So, in preparation for this final volume, I started by rereading the first two novels of the trilogy. Wow, oh wow, did they hold up well! I realize that not all readers have the time or inclination to revisit books they’ve already read, but in this case it was well worth the extra effort, if only to fully appreciate the connections between the three novels. I don’t believe that a trilogy was planned when Ms. Atwood wrote Oryx & Crake, and yet it was almost as if she had salted away loose ends a decade ago as part of some subconscious, brilliant master plan. For those who aren’t inclined to follow my suit, MaddAddam helpfully opens with a four-page summary entitled, “The Story So Far.” Personally, I wouldn’t consider reading this final volume without having first read the prior two at some point.

When last we visited with the God’s Gardeners, it was the post-pandemic Year of the Flood. We’d been on a harrowing journey narrated through the eyes and voices of two Gardeners, Toby and Ren. In MaddAddam, Toby is back as narrator, and while Ren is a secondary character in the novel, I have to admit that I missed her voice. This time around, the tale is told by Toby alone until late in the novel a surprising second narrative voice emerges.

And it’s appropriate that Toby tells the tale, because it is primarily (Finally!) the story of Zeb, a man that Toby has secretly desired for years. Up until now, Zeb has been an enigmatic character, always hard to pin down. In MaddAddam, it becomes clear that Zeb’s history is inextricably linked to that of Adam One and the God’s Gardeners, as well as that of Crake and the Crakers.

But in addition to looking backward, the story of Toby, Zeb, Snowman, the God’s Gardeners, the Crakers, and the “MaddAddamites” who engineered them, moves forward. The whole bunch of them are joined in an uneasy community. The Crakers are an alien intelligence. Says one of the MaddAddamites, “Their brains are more malleable than Crake intended. They’ve been doing several things we didn’t anticipate during the construction phase.” Amen to that! There are many unexpected complications of joining humans and Crakers together, many of them quite comic. The comic relief is welcome, because Atwood’s post-apocalyptic future is dark. Of all the Craker characters, there is really only one who stands out, a young boy christened Blackbeard. He befriends Toby, and is, simply put, adorable. He is also the entrée for readers into the Craker mind. Can it possibly be accurate to say he “humanizes” them?

There are many dangers facing this little tribe. Probably the most aggressive threat is that of the
Painballers—escaped prisoners who have all but lost their humanity. The matter of humanity is, I think, central to this tale because if humanity is to be measured among the characters, it’s a broad spectrum. The Gardeners and their allies are a fairly admirable bunch, trying to live in peace, sustainably, and protect the Crakers. While the Crakers have some extraordinary natural defences and abilities, left to their own devices in this harsh world, these childlike beings would surely perish. The Painballers are entirely human, but have regressed to an almost animalistic state. And then there are the pigoons—the enormous, genetically-engineered pigs that have acquired an unknown degree of human intelligence in addition to the transplant organ-compatibility they were designed for. The pigoons are a threat to all constituencies, and in MaddAddam, we learn a great deal more about these animals.

I can only write so much here, and yet it is a testament to Ms. Atwood’s epic achievement with this final volume that there is so much substance contained within a mere 416 pages. I want to discuss the role of mythology and written language within this tale, the allegorical elements, the cyclic nature of the story being told, and the connectedness of all things. And, I want to quote her at length, for the sheer intelligence of her thoughts, and the beauty of her expression of them. Truly, I could go on and on.

She has given us the story, the real story, and how it came to be told. Ms. Atwood has looked into our future with this trilogy. She has extrapolated trends in our culture today and carried them into a worst possible tomorrow. Her work is disturbing because her vision is undeniable. Different readers will get different messages from this tale, and will take away different lessons. Despite the darkness, I am left with a feeling of hope. And a very strong impulse to start talking with the bees.