On Novels and Novelists

What’s Changed, and What Hasn’t, in the Town That Inspired “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn a long piece for Smithsonian Magazine, Paul Theroux describes a visit to Monroeville, AL, home of author Harper Lee and inspiration for the fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird:

Monroeville is like many towns of its size in Alabama—indeed the Deep South: a town square of decaying elegance, most of the downtown shops and businesses closed or faltering, the main industries shut down. I was to discover that To Kill A Mockingbird is a minor aspect of Monroeville, a place of hospitable and hard-working people, but a dying town, with a population of 6,300 (and declining), undercut by NAFTA, overlooked by Washington, dumped by manufacturers like Vanity Fair Mills (employing at its peak 2,500 people, many of them women) and Georgia Pacific, which shut down its plywood plant when demand for lumber declined. The usual Deep South challenges in education and housing apply here, and almost a third of Monroe County (29 percent) lives in poverty.

Theroux’s piece anticipates the July 14th publication of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in which a grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns home and reminisces about the trial of Tom Robinson that occurred 20 years earlier (the trial depicted in Mockingbird.) Ever since the announcement of the discovery and publication of this manuscript, Harper Lee’s only other novel, there has been speculation about whether this novel will be as good as her first.

There’s also been speculation about whether the second novel, set 20 years after the first, will portray a Maycomb essentially different. Or will it provide the same Southern vision?

And that’s the odd thing about a great deal of a certain sort of Deep South fiction—its grotesquerie and gothic, its high color and fantastication, the emphasis on freakishness. Look no further than Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell, but there’s plenty in Harper Lee too, in Mockingbird, the Boo Radley factor, the Misses Tutti and Frutti, and the racist Mrs. Dubose, who is a morphine addict: “Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin.” This sort of prose acts as a kind of indirection, dramatizing weirdness as a way of distracting the reader from day to day indignities.

In a bit more than a week we’ll find out if Go Set a Watchman, written long ago but published only now, is an anachronism in an age when “few Southern writers concern themselves with the new realities” of poverty, education, and race relations in the American South.

What novelist Kent Haruf taught me about writing and life

Cover: PlainsongMichael Rosenwald, a reporter for the Washington Post, talks about what novelist Kent Haruf meant to him. Rosenwald enrolled in Haruf’s beginning fiction class at Southern Illinois University in 1993, six years before the publication of Plainsong, Haruf’s break-out novel.

Storytelling, I’d learn, is about what happens next, and this story, about what happened after I met Kent, proves that what he taught me about stories is true: They have the power to exalt and transform. In this story, a little-known writer — gentle, fatherly, good — shapes a young man’s life, becomes renowned and never changes.

Although Haruf wrote fiction and Rosenwald concentrated on nonfiction, the two remained close:

After the success of “Plainsong,” Kent moved back to Colorado to write full time. I’d call him now and then. We began ­e-mailing, teasing each other about football, sharing news of what we’d read lately. And I began to see him more and more in my life. He was in the stories I pursued about ordinary people, in the strands of dialogue I’d hear and jot down, in the kindness I’d extend to students asking for advice. “Find your Kent,” I’d tell them.

Such a moving tribute to Haruf, who died last November. May we all find our own Kent.

10 influential pulp novels that are criminally good

Pulp fiction is called that because it first appeared in the early 20th century in fiction magazines published on cheap paper made from wood pulp. Read why Molly Lynch recommends these pulp fiction novels:

  1. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip Jose Farmer
  2. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. Judgment Night by C. L. Moore
  4. John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  5. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
  6. Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair
  7. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  9. No Good From a Corpse by Leigh Brackett
  10. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

JK Rowling reveals why the Dursleys dislike Harry Potter so much

Harry Potter boxed setJ.K. Rowling may have finished the Harry Potter series, but she apparently can’t quite let it go. In a piece for her web site Pottermore, she explains the back story of the Dursleys’ dislike of their nephew Harry and the reason why Aunt Petunia does not offer Harry any work of kindness in the final novel of the series.

Here Alison Flood fills in the history of Harry’s relationship with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, for those of us who have forgotten some of the details.

On Novels and Novelists

Here’s Why Famous Authors Chose Their Fake Names

For as long as there have been books, there have been authors disguising themselves behind pseudonyms. Some do it for political reasons, others for personal concerns, and some simply for the joy of mischief. In any case, pseudonyms are a tpower tool for writers, allowing their pens to say what perhaps their mouths couldn’t.

Sara Boboltz has put together information on authors who have used the following pseudonyms:

  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Voltaire
  • Stendhal
  • George Sand
  • Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Lewis Carroll
  • George Eliot
  • Mark Twain
  • Joseph Conrad
  • O. Henry
  • Pablo Neruda
  • Isak Dinesen
  • George Orwell
  • Claire Morgan
  • Ayn Rand
  • Stan Lee
  • Victoria Lucas
  • Toni Morrison
  • Lemony Snicket

Remembering Kent Haruf

Gary Fisketjon was Kent Haruf’s long-time editor at Knopf. Here he talks about their friendship and Haruf’s last novel, Our Souls at Night, the writing of which seemed to carry the writer through the final months of his life:

So this was why his mood had lightened over these months when he sounded like himself again. It is, after all, what writers do — they write. In his last interview, Kent describes the importance of concentration, and it seems to me he was a master of it, that this is what powered his ability to reveal, as he hoped to, “the fundamental, irreducible structure of life, and of our lives with one another.”

Haruf finished the copyediting of this last novel just days before his death in November 2014. Our Souls at Night is available now.

The Best William Gaddis Novels

Joseph Tabbi’s outstanding new biography of postmodern master William Gaddis, Nobody Grew But the Business, is a fascinating look at a well-known reclusive writer. It also reveals that much of Gaddis’s writing was autobiographical, and that Gaddis mined his 20 years in corporate America, as well as his own family history, for characters, themes, and stories. Tabbi ranks Gaddis’s novels.

There’s something sad about encountering an author only after his or her death. But there’s something exhilarating as well, because now we have a whole new body of work to pick up and get to know.

Here’s some advice on tackling the work of William Gaddis, whom biographer Joseph Tabbi describes as “a writer who can change how a reader looks at the world.”

“No writer is better than Gaddis at portraying the corporatization of America,” Tabbi says. Read why he recommendations tackling Gaddis’s output in this order:

  • J R (1975)
  • The Recognitions (1955)
  • Carpenter’s Gothic (1985)
  • A Frolic of His Own (1994)
  • Agapē Agape (2002)

Why write a collaborative novel? Well … why write alone?

Buddies Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite have recently published their first collaborative novel, War of the Encyclopaedists. Robinson is a MacDowell Colony fellow and a Yale Younger Poets Prize finalist. Kovite, an infantry platoon leader in Baghdad in 2004–2005, attended NYU law school and is now an Army lawyer and fiction writer.

In this piece they address the question of why they co-wrote a novel, a question they say seems to be based on the assumption that writing one’s own novel would be a greater achievement. Read the story of how their collaboration lead to this conclusion:

And yet here we are, awaiting the publication of our debut novel. It’s almost too difficult for us to believe. Without Chris’ drive, organization and friendly harassment, Gavin would never have made the time to contribute. And without Gavin’s contributions, Chris would be staring into the void. It was writing a novel together—a novel with its fair share of buoyant humor, but weighted with the melancholy and trepidation of growing up—that deepened our friendship and changed the course of our lives. In learning how to write vulnerable characters, we strengthened our empathy muscles, and learned how to be vulnerable to each other.

The new reign of writing from Spain is far above the plain

Eileen Battersby invites you to say Si Si to great writing from Spain, the mother country of a magnificent global literature, and salutes Hispabooks, a Madrid publisher commissioning English translations of contemporary classics

Archaeologists and anthropologists recently announced the discovery of the grave of Spanird Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), author of literature’s first novel, Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Using this announcement as a springboard, Eileen Battersby writes in The Irish Times about Cervantes, the father of Spanish literature, and the literary tradition he inspired.

Her list “conveys some idea of their artistry and stylistic panache as well as their flair for very human stories with Everyman narrators” and includes authors whose work has now been translated into English:

  • The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Pushkin Press, London)
  • All is Silence by Manuel Rivas, translated from the Galician by Jonathan Dunne (Vintage, London)
  • Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago Books, New York)
  • Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (MacLehose Press, London)
  • Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Pushkin Press, London)
  • The Stein Report by Jose Carlos Llop, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Hispabooks, Madrid)
  • The Birthday Buyer by Adolfo Garcia Ortega, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Hispabooks, Madrid)
  • Uppsala Woods by Alvaro Colomer, translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne (Hispabooks, Madrid)
  • The Faint-Hearted Bolshevik by Lorenzo Silva, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Isabelle Kaufeler (Hispabooks, Madrid)

Battersby’s list and descriptions offer readers a good opportunity to stretch their boundaries and try reading something from another country and culture.

On Novels and Novelists

10 authors who excel on the internet

If you love literature, here’s your chance to connect with some of the most technologically savvy writers:

a few [writers] are using the etherland as a canvas for experimentation and play. They have moved their storytelling, wit and insight from page to pixel, winning fans and readers in the process.

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Paulo Coelho
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Teju Cole
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Gary Shteyngart
  • Haruki Murakami
  • David Mitchell
  • Veronica Roth

What I particularly like about this list is that it proves that technology isn’t just for the young and the hip.

10 Best Dark Books

Here’s Publishers Weekly’s introduction to this article:

Amelia Gray’s wonderfully dark story collection Gutshot features a giant snake bisecting a town and a man, afraid of losing his beloved, soothed by her detached sensory perceptions. Gray, a master of haunting storytelling, picks 10 of her favorite books.

And here’s Gray’s introduction to her list:

Whether it’s borne out of some kind of bizarro escapism or the desire to see the dark mind confirmed and confined on the page, the urge to read and write dark fiction has been steady in my life. Here are ten books that have left their mark on my mind and my work.

I don’t like straight horror, but most of Gray’s choices here seem to pertain more to the dark depths of the human heart rather than to supernatural or unnatural machinations.

Read why she’s been influenced by the following books:

  1. Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
  2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  5. Life Is With People by Atticus Lish
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
  8. Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
  9. The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain
  10. Bird by Noy Holland

I do, however, disagree with one of her choices, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. That’s the book that made me decide, many years ago, that I don’t have to finish reading every book that I start.

Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter

I have loved the work of Kent Haruf ever since I read his 1999 novel Plainsong, which became his most popular work. That novel dealt with life on the plains of Colorado, in the fictional town of Holt. Two subsequent novels continue the story.

Haruf died last November at age 71. He completed one last work before his death:

Normally, it took him six years or more to write a novel. But in a rush of creative energy, he wrote a chapter a day. Roughly 45 days later, he had finished a draft of his final novel, “Our Souls at Night.”

Also set in Holt, Colorado, but otherwise unrelated to the earlier novels, this novel focuses on finding love late in life. Its inspiration was Haruf’s relationship with his wife, Cathy.

Our Souls at Night will be released on May 28. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

Can’t wait for “True Detective 2″? Dive into Ross Macdonald’s California noir masterpieces

The legendary writer of psychoanalytic mysteries captured the culture of postwar California better than anyone

Noir-heads and private-eye fans have long known that the detective novels of Ross Macdonald hit a sweet spot between plot-driven pulp writing and character-driven literary fiction. Inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett (especially “The Maltese Falcon”), taught about symbolism by W.H. Auden, hailed by Eudora Welty for “serious and complex” work, he wrote 18 novels driven by the gloomy, ambiguous detective Lew Archer.

Scott Timberg interviews Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan for online magazine Salon. Says Nolan:

He felt that the character of the detective was really not the most important character in the books. In fact, he started out thinking the perpetrator was of more interest than the detective — there was opportunity for tragedy, with the criminal — but in later years, he felt the victim was the most important or significant character.

Timberg also quotes Salon music and culture critic Greil Marcus, who has read all of Macdonald’s books:

“If you read Macdonald’s psychoanalytic mysteries in order, as the theme took on greater and greater power for him, the feeling that comes up builds book by book: that just as the reader is scared to reach the ending, so is Lew Archer, and so is Ross Macdonald.”

Top 10 (unconventional) ghosts in literature

Author Judith Claire Mitchell examines the function of ghosts in literature in this piece for The Guardian:

When Barry Hannah, the late novelist of the American south, taught fiction workshops, he would begin by writing those two words on the blackboard. All stories, he’d say, are ghost stories. Something haunts the work and the reader turns the pages to find out what it is. As a student of Hannah’s back in the day, I took these words to heart. Literary ghosts didn’t have to scare; what they had to do was haunt.

“In literature,” says the writer Tabitha King, “the ghost is almost always a metaphor for the past.” This is true for literal ghosts who manifest in graveyards, and it’s true for figurative ghosts who are no more substantive than insistent memory.

Here’s Mitchell’s list of “the phantoms that kept me turning pages, the ones I never forgot when I finished the book”:

  1. Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead”
  2. The highboy in Alison Lurie’s “The Highboy”
  3. Holiday in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
  4. A missing child in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia
  5. Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
  6. The parrot in Robert Olen Butler’s Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot
  7. Americans like me in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior
  8. The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
  9. Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  10. Any of the demons in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons