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Reader's Guides

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Colum McCann and Liz Strout

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-27 at 10.48.41 AM Two Random House Reader’s Circle literary greats, Elizabeth Strout and Colum McCann, get together to chat about McCann’s TransAtlantic, which is on sale in paperback this month! These two have so much to share…read on!

A Conversation with Colum McCann and Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Burgess Boys and Olive Kitteridge, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the national bestseller Abide with Me; and Amy and Isabelle, winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in London. She lives in Maine and New York City.

Elizabeth Strout: I love the wide range of your narratives, how you dare to cover so many aspects of world events through the personal stories of those involved. How do you make the decision to end where you end, and begin where you begin? Is this an intuitive sense for you?

Colum McCann: Writing is very much about the intuitive, the gut instinct, the shotgun leap into the unknown. Most of the time, I don’t necessarily know where I’m going. I have a general goal, an end-line, but I’m not sure how it is that I’m going to get there. Being too conscious of a journey brings a malady to it. You can overthink it sometimes. It’s better to go with the gut feeling. I think it’s very much akin to being an adventurer or an explorer. You know you want to find new territory. The nature of its newness makes it inherently exciting. You cast yourself out in a small boat in the hope that you will get somewhere. Most of the time you end up capsizing or catching the wrong current or, even worse, shipwrecking. But every now and then—when the words are moving, and the sentences begin to align themselves, and the imaginative intent has caught fire with language—you strike new land. A sort of Galápagos of the imagination, I suppose. This is where the real exploration begins. You walk out and you meet new characters. And, in the best writing, you might create what amounts to a new theory.

And there ’s something about the explorer in the reader too. You are casting into a new land, a new way of seeing. That’s how I feel when I read your work—when I got to explore Crosby in Olive Kitteridge, it was that sort of journey, it just opened me up. I love when that happens. So for me it’s all about intuition. And beyond intuition lies what is hopefully a deep intelligence that we were looking for all along.

ES: You have a great understanding of how to use “real-life” events, and people, within the texture of the novel. What is your sense of fact versus fiction, and why do you think people tend to believe they are so different? I always get a kick out of people who say they don’t read fiction because it isn’t “true.” I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

CM: Ah, yes, what about all those embarrassing parties where you have to introduce yourself? You meet a couple and say, or rather admit, that you’re a writer of…stories. The woman’s face lights up and she says she loves to read fiction but her husband (always a little comfortably smug) looks beyond your shoulder and says he doesn’t read fiction at all, as if to put an end to the conversation—he only reads nonfiction because he is only interested in “fact.” It happens so often, I’m amazed by it. “Oh, yes, I don’t read fiction at all.” As if it’s a strange badge of honor.

But this line between fiction and nonfiction is a solid indicator of where we are right now, where so much of our national thinking occurs. If we watch Fox News, do we really think that we are witnesses to “fact”? If we allow our politicians to send our children off to war, do we really take on face value the “fact” that the offending nation has chemical weapons? What is fact? What is fiction? It’s one of our great political and social conundrums.

I suppose one of the reasons for writing TransAtlantic is that I wanted to question the gulf between what is “real” and what is “imagined.” Is there any difference at all? Can the imagined be considered real? And vice versa? Is Tom Joad not “real” because he was imagined by Steinbeck, for instance? Does this mean that the book we consider to be iconic in relation to our understanding of the Great Depression is actually irrelevant? To me, a much more interesting word than fiction is story, and then the word truth. Steinbeck allows us to know the Great Depression precisely because he fictionalized the truth. It is this way with so many of the great books. Why do I understand early-twentieth-century Ireland? Because I read Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Why do I love turn-of-the-century New Orleans? Because I read about Buddy Bolden in Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter.

A story is a story whether it is based on real-life characters or not. A “real” person should be as fully fleshed as an “invented.” I have a duty to all my characters. And I want to braid the tapestry together so that “fiction” and “nonfiction” get confused.

Another question that fascinates me is the way in which we construct fictions around “historical” figures. Who owns history? Who has a right to tell it? What about the smaller, more anonymous moments? Aren’t they the glue of history? What about the little guy? Where is his or her voice? And when the little guys get together to shout, do they have a loud enough voice to topple the microphones of the ones who supposedly own history?

ES: Wonderful! Yes, real people should be as fully fleshed as invented people (and who isn’t invented, I ask you?). The women you invent feel as fully fleshed as anyone. It seems clear to me that you are just as invested in their stories as in any man’s. Is this a conscious decision? Or more of that gut working intuitively?

CM: I think we all know that women are so often excluded from the history books. As if guns and testosterone rule the world. In writing about the women, I felt like they were partly correcting a little corner of history. I wanted the women to own the novel. To say that their stories matter, not only to themselves but to history too. And, frankly, I like women. I like writing about them, I like imagining them, I like spending time with them as characters and as people.

There’s a symmetry in the book—three male “nonfiction” narratives, three female “fiction” narratives, and then a lone voice at the end, almost as if she has been narrating the whole novel. There’s a meaning behind this madness, I hope…it is, after all, a fairly anonymous woman, or rather a supposedly anonymous woman, who gets to have the last say. “We have to admire the world for not ending on us.”

ES: One of my favorite parts of this book involves Frederick Douglass going to Ireland. I think a lot of Americans may not realize he took this trip, and yet it is such an amazing tale. Was this something that you wanted to write about for a while, or did it arise out of the history of Ireland as you were rendering it?

CM: Douglass led me into the book. That was the original impetus. Not many Americans knew about his trip to Ireland and England, but not many Irish people even knew who Frederick Douglass was. He was largely omitted from the Irish history books, at least up until the 1990s (150 years after his journey), when scholars started to re-discover him when shaping up narratives that examined the history between the Irish and the Africans and the African Americans. Most people had relegated the story to the footnotes of history. But it was an incredible journey and a tremendous insight into the depth and character of Douglass.

Originally, after Let the Great World Spin, I wanted to write another sort of book altogether, a piece about contemporary surveil- lance cameras, believe it or not. But I just couldn’t catch that book, in fact I hated it, and I kept coming back to the idea of Douglass in Ire- land. And the fact that his trip coincided with the beginning of the Famine. I was corralled. The only way I could shake it would be if I wrote about him. That’s how it is—we write towards our obsessions. And I was especially taken by this notion of a young black slave land- ing in Ireland and having enough experience to say, “Lo! the chattel becomes a man!” Then he looks around and knows that there are many forms of chatteldom. He struggles to become himself, as we all eventually do.

I hope my Douglass is texturally true. Facts can be misdirected and shoehorned in. Texture is a different story. It relates to an idea of general honesty. I wanted my Douglass to be authentic. I wanted him to emerge in all his complications.

ES: You do even more, though, which is to carry this up to the present day, and that’s so important, I think, to show the continuum we are all existing on.

CM: I suppose I wanted to write about Douglass because he could lead me up to examine some issues in contemporary Ireland…especially the peace process and the idea of the Celtic Tiger, our collapsing economy. The peace process in particular is crucial to our ex- perience of the twentieth century. So I began with Douglass…and ended up with Senator George Mitchell. Two incredible statesmen who had made significant transatlantic journeys.

From there I began to try to weave all the stories together. The novel, therefore, I suppose, tries to become an alternative way of telling history. We cannot understand the present unless we dissect the past.

ES: How long do ideas tend to germinate in your mind before you find yourself setting them down on the page?

CM: I wish I knew! Douglass had been hanging around for a couple of years. Mitchell too. But you never really know what it is that fires them into the front of your brain. Perhaps it is desperation, or perhaps it’s inspiration. Most likely a combination of both.

ES: There is clearly an enormous amount of what one would call research that goes into this book. Did you write with one hand and read with the other? Or do these two parts of the process take place quite separately for you?

CM: I love research. That’s the part of the “job” that fires me up. I generally write towards something I want to know. I hope that I am learning all the time. Stepping out into new territory. But you can do too much research sometimes and it can begin to hinder the novel. So one has to be very careful. I always look for the “divine detail” in my research, that one thing that only an expert might know but the gen- eral public can recognize as being true.

For example, I give Douglass a pair of barbells when he is in Ireland. I know for a fact that he had barbells later in his life because they are on display in Washington, D.C., but I have no idea whether or not he brought them with him to Ireland. In fact, he probably didn’t. But it says so much about his character—his vanity, his stubborness, his awareness of his body in space, his forward thinking, his stamina. Furthermore, I have the barbells made from old slave chains. This is poetic license, but hopefully poetic enough that it rings true.

So the research blends in with the imaginative act until, really, they are one and the same.

ES: Of course, I am always interested in the concept of home, and the changing face of home. I wonder what you feel about this, having been born in Ireland and living in New York. Is writing about Ireland a form of love?

CM: I like this concept of trying to understand what is “home,” and I think you do it beautifully, whether that be the coast of Maine or the meadows of New Hampshire, and I love those writers who make me rethink my notions of home, whether they be a physical place or an imaginative space.
I was born in Dublin, but—right up until TransAtlantic—I had only really mentioned Dublin in one short story and a small section of Let the Great World Spin. That’s twenty-five years of writing and I had more or less ignored the town where I spent my first twenty years. This baffles me, and I have no real answer for it. Of course, I do go back in TransAtlantic, but even then mostly as a visitor. I wish I could understand this better, but I’m forced to say that I’m stumped. I’m much more comfortable being “elsewhere.” Of course, New York is my home now, and I have a family here.

I like the notion that we can belong in many different places, what Ondaatje calls the “international mongrels” of the world.

ES: Tell us about the nonprofit organization Narrative 4 that you are involved with; it sounds fascinating to me. I’ve always thought of novels as powerful social tools that can teach through empathy what it is like to be another person.

CM: In 2012, a group of about twenty-five writers and activists got together and began developing a story exchange program where we wanted to develop notions of radical empathy. We wanted, as writers, to give something back. To be socially engaged. To push the parameters. And, quite frankly, to be relevant. We were all of the opinion that one of the big failures we have in the world these days is the failure of empathy. And so in 2013 we founded a group called Narrative 4.

What the group had in common was our love of storytelling, and we knew that storytelling legislates the world in so many ways. Stories are our vast democracy. We all have them. We all need them. They cross all boundaries. And so we wanted to concentrate, at first, on young people and have them step into each other’s shoes. The goal is to get young people together to tell one another’s stories. The kid from Belfast with the kid from Detroit. The teen from Nazareth with the teen from Haiti. For them to get together and share one another’s stories and walk in one another’s shoes. To have a responsibility for someone else’s life—if even for just a moment, which, if we do this correctly, will move through a lifetime and become part of a global narrative. The key to transformation lies in the sharing: when you hear someone else’s story deeply enough to inhabit it and retell it as if you’ve lived it, you become “the other” and see the world through his or her eyes.
I personally don’t think that literature or stories can necessarily change the world—but they can become a wall against the general despair.

ES: Narrative 4 sounds like an amazing organization, very exciting. I wonder if there is any one moment in your career that stands out when you felt you experienced your work as, as you say, a wall against despair.

CM: Oh, absolutely. Just last year I had a moment that floored me, humbled me, taught me—I don’t really know how to describe it, except that it went to the heart of my ideas about literature. Shortly after the massacre at Sandy Hook, I got a letter from Lee Keylock, a high school teacher in Newtown. He said that he and a couple of other teachers had been searching for a book to help navigate the grief of the older students. They chose Let the Great World Spin. I was stunned. It seemed to validate so much of what I had been saying about literature for years: that we enter into these narratives to learn and to heal. We move beyond empathy to experience. In April 2013, I visited the school and sat with those kids. But I didn’t end up teaching them anything—they taught me. They were the ones who talked about morality, about finding light in the dark. And the fact that this teacher recognized that literature makes itself available for that is to me a stunning thing. It was one of the most defining moments of my literary career. It was a difficult experience but profoundly touching. Lee is now a significant part of Narrative 4. The story goes on. Once again, the world doesn’t end on us….

Read more about Colum’s visit to Newtown, CT here

Reader’s Guide: TRANSATLANTIC by Colum McCann

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

McCann_TransAtlantic You and your book club will be swept away by Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. This New York Times bestselling novel spans continents, leaps centuries, and unites a cast of deftly rendered characters, both real and imagined.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. In this novel, Colum McCann writes about four men: Jack Alcock, Teddy Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Senator George Mitchell. Were you familiar with any or all of these figures before reading TransAtlantic? Did what you learn about them surprise you? Do you find their journeys thematically linked?

2. As Alcock and Brown fly across the Atlantic they have several close calls, including a moment when their plane spins out of control and a rough landing, all in the fierce cold and damp. Do you think anyone could, nowadays, make the same sort of journey they did? Why or why not? What sorts of physical challenges remain for adventurers and explorers?

3. Douglass forms relationships with several women in the novel: we see him write home to his wife, Anna, but he also indelibly shapes the maid Lily and becomes friends with Isabel Jennings. What do you think draws these very different people together? How do these small threads eventually create a tapestry?

4. Why do you think Lily follows Douglass to America? What does she hope to find there? Does this novel confront the impossibility of the American dream?

5. Book One is not chronological: after Alcock and Brown’s flight in 1919, we travel back to Douglass’s tour of Ireland in 1845, and then move forward once more to 1998 and Mitchell. How would your reading of the novel change if this section were differently arranged? What would happen to the novel if the sections concerning the women were woven directly into the stories of the men?

6. In the third section of the book, McCann takes us into the mind of Senator George Mitchell during the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. What do you know about the Irish “Troubles”? How does Mitchell’s story enrich or change what you already knew?

7. The novel is structured so we meet the four men, seemingly unrelated, first—and then learn that women connected to all of them are multiple generations of one family. Why do you think McCann structures TransAtlantic in this way? What do the very male first half of the book and the very female second half tell us about men, women, and how we legislate history?

8. Lily loses most of the men she loves—the father of her first son, Tad; her sons, Tad, Adam, and Benjamin; and her husband, Jon. What do you think gives her the strength to continue on and become a successful merchant? Do you admire her? What does this say about the role of women in history?

9. In the course of TransAtlantic we see many technologies—to which we’re well accustomed today—at the moments they were still new, including airplanes, cameras, and automobiles. What does the novel tell us about these devices and how they bring people together (and tear people apart)?

10. There are two civil wars in the novel: the American Civil War, in which Lily loses her son, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which takes Lottie ’s grandson, Hannah’s son. What does TransAtlantic show us about war? Who are its victims?

11. Why do you think Hannah leaves the letter behind with her hosts?

12. Some of the characters in the novel are based on real figures; others are entirely fictional. Is it easy to tell the two apart? How do these sets of characters illuminate one another? McCann has said in interviews that “the real is often imagined,” and “the imagined is often real.” What do you think he means by this?

13. The novel begins with an Eduardo Galeano quote that ends, “the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.” Why do you think McCann chose to open TransAtlantic this way? How do you see the stories in the novel—“the time that was”—relating to today, “the time that is”?

14. As its title suggests, TransAtlantic is about Ireland and North America, and the ideas and people that cross between the two. What do you feel makes this international relationship special? What draws families and individuals back and forth between these countries?

15. What is the function of the Prologue of the novel, set in 2012? How does it frame the novel? How does it tie in with the last line of the book? What is McCann suggesting about the circularity of human experience?

Stay up to date with news, events, and updates about Colum on his website.

Reader’s Guide: CARTWHEEL by Jennifer DuBois

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

DuBois_Cartwheel Cartwheel is sure to spark a robust book club discussion, and Random House Reader’s Circle is here to help! Below are our questions and topics for discussion. Read on and enjoy!

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. The first paragraph of Cartwheel ends with a chilling statement: “The things that go wrong are rarely the things you’ve thought to worry about.” Why do you think the author makes such a pronouncement at the beginning of the novel? What does she mean? Is this true in your life?

2. The story in Cartwheel is very much of our time. Lily’s case becomes an international sensation because of Facebook, blogs, and the way shocking news and information can travel around the world within minutes. Social media plays a big role in Cartwheel. Does this change your view of social media? How do you use social media to share details of your life? What about your family members?

3. Why do you think Jennifer duBois chose to tell the story from four points of view? How does that affect the experience of reading it?

4. At one point, Lily’s sister Anna says “everyone wants to love Lily,” and that she’s always played by different rules. Why does Anna think this?

5. Lily’s father, Andrew, believes “everything vile about your children was to some degree vile about yourself.” Is this a fair statement? Do Lily’s parents fail her, or is this parental guilt?

6. What impact does her sister’s ordeal have on Anna?

7. The title of the book comes from the cartwheel Lily turned between interrogation sessions. Why did the author choose this image as significant?

8. In what ways are Lily and Katy different? Why does Lily feel Katy’s life was “easy”? Is she being fair?

9. Have you, or someone you know, studied abroad? Do you think it benefits college students to visit other countries? Why do you think Lily wanted to study abroad? What was she looking for?

10. Eduardo, attorney for the prosecution, believes Lily is guilty but that she doesn’t understand why what she did was wrong. Do you agree?

11. Sebastien is an enigmatic character. What do you think Lily is attracted to about him? Where do you think his addiction for obscuring half-irony comes from? What consequences does it have for the unfolding of events?

12. The author uses ambiguity to tell this story. How does that affect your understanding of what happened? Which character do you trust the most?

13. Lily calls her family “repressed,” saying they never learned how to mourn their first child, the sister who died before Lily and Anna were born. Why does she say she and Anna were treated like “replacement children”?

14. Do you believe the whole story comes out at Lily’s trial?

Stay connected with Jennifer on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: A Conversation with Michelle Richmond and Dani Atkins

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Atkins_ThenandAlways

A Conversation with Michelle Richmond and Dani Atkins

Michelle Richmond is the bestselling author of The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. A native of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, she makes her home in Northern California. Her newest novel is Golden State.

Michelle Richmond: I can’t believe this is your first novel! The tension and pacing here are remarkable. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Dani Atkins: Even as a child I was always scribbling away at short stories and poems, so I guess the dream was always there. As a young adult I wrote a few short stories and a couple of very lightweight romances.They weren’t published, and with good reason:They weren’t very good. Not that I realized that at the time, of course. There were huge gaps between my literary endeavors, where I wouldn’t write anything more challenging than the weekly shopping list. However, when my children were older I once again felt the urge to write. Then and Always was different from anything I had attempted before. When it was done I felt confident it was the best thing I’d ever written. (Of course, bearing in mind what had come before, some of my earlier shopping lists could also have claimed that title!)

MR: How did you get the inspiration for the novel?

DA: I’ve always enjoyed novels or films that keep you guessing and make you question what you believe to be true. I’m also a fan of thrillers and books with a supernatural twist. But most of all, I adore a good old-fashioned love story. Then and Always is a blend of all the genres I most enjoy reading.

MR: The novel’s ending is sure to cause discussion. Did you know how the novel was going to end when you started writing it?

DA: Yes, I did. From the moment I sat down and wrote Chapter 1 on the first page, I always knew how the final chapter of Then and Always would end. What I didn’t know—what I never seem to know when writing—is the journey the book will take me on before I get there.

MR: Did you have any hopes for what the reader might take away from the novel?

DA: I think if I had to choose just one message, it would be that you should make the most of every opportunity in life. Seize the day. Your whole world can be irrevocably changed in the blink of an eye, and if someone is important to you . . . you should tell them, because you never know when it might be too late. We’re not all lucky enough to get Rachel’s rather unique second chance.

MR: What are your writing habits?

DA: I truly don’t know if I can say I have been doing this long enough to have a normal writing routine or habits just yet. When I began, I had every good intention of making writing my nine-to-five job. I learned very quickly that it doesn’t work like that. In reality, I seem to achieve very little in the mornings and am much more productive in the mid- to late afternoon and evening. I do find that I get most of my ideas for plot and dialogue when I am walking our dog (a two-year-old border collie). He is benefitting enormously from my new routine. My husband, who now seems to have taken on all cooking duties—otherwise neither of us would eat an evening meal—sadly is not.

MR: Who are your favorite authors?

DA: I like many different genres and authors, with my personal favorites ranging from Stephen King (love him) to Sophie Kinsella (want to be her). I also enjoy many young adult titles, and am not ashamed to admit it, and loved the Between the Lines series by Tammara Webber, and the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I have recently “discovered” and am really enjoying reading the novels of Paige Toon.

MR: Are you working on something new? Can you share anything with us about your next project?

DA: My second novel is well under way. It is a powerful love story that is told from the point of view of Emma, the main character, and covers many issues, including friendship, family, loyalty, trust, and betrayal.

Stay up to date with Dani Atkins on Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: & SONS by David Gilbert

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Gilbert_AndSons Wouldn’t it be great if David Gilbert, author of & Sons, could join your book club meeting? With these Random House Reader’s Circle discussion questions written by David, it feels like he is there chatting about the book with you! So, if you are planning the next book club discussion then have no fear- David Gilbert has expert questions and topics to facilitate what is sure to be a robust meeting!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. First of all, thank you for reading the book. Want to get that out of the way. A big thanks. One of the scariest things a person can tell me is “Oh, hey, I’m reading your book.” It makes me want to crawl directly into the nearest hole. Funny choice of career. Here I’ve published a book with a big-time publisher—dream come true— and the knowledge that someone might actually read my book makes me cringe to the point of splitting in two. I’m cringing now. The other scary thing you can tell me is “Oh, hey, I read your book,” particularly if you tweak the verb with a raised eyebrow, like a hairy umlaut. I might smile in return and say, Oh Great, that’s great, but in reality I’m performing a private Seppuku ceremony, a thousand doubts the blade. Anyway, discuss vis-à-vis A. N. Dyer and ask yourself, “Why would anyone want to be a writer?”

2. It took me six years to write this book, which seems a ridiculous amount of time. I mean, it’s a kind of a long book, but six years long? At best three years, maybe three and a half while also maintaining a full-time gig with Doctors Without Borders. Now A. N. Dyer hasn’t written a truly new book in something like twenty years (forgive the vagueness, but it’s been a year since I actually read this book). Why do you think he’s stopped writing? I have my ideas, obviously. I think it has something to do with the breakup of his marriage—duh—but also with the birth of his third son, the young Andy. Has this boy perhaps taken on the role of fiction? What is Andy’s relationship with fiction in terms of his relationship with his father? Did I just answer my own question? I don’t think I’m very good at this.

3. You know when you go to the theater and you read the Playbill and there are those bios for the actors and the director and the playwright (I love reading those bios)? Did you know that those bios are actually written by the actors and the director and the playwright? You probably did, but for some reason I didn’t, or not until maybe ten years ago. I just assumed there was a national bio database, very official, probably housed in a suburb of D.C., that fact-checked and sourced and confirmed all this professional information. Yes, yes, Patty St. John did indeed play Fastrada in the Tacoma Players’ 2007 production of Pippin. It wasn’t until I started seeing those personalized messages that suddenly became popular—“Ms. St. John would like to express her gratitude to her Chihuahua Chekhov for teach- ing her how to be human”—that I realized, Wait a sec, these things are actually self-constructed. At first I was shocked. It seemed dubious. And kind of braggy too. How much of this is truly true? But then I found myself digging into these credits, not only to suss out a career but also to suss out a person, and suddenly a deeper appreciation began to emerge from those handmade bios. A trajectory. I mean, how do we compose our lives for public consumption? What do we say? And where are the divergences, the betraying tells? Who is composing who? Or is it whom? And does David Gilbert live in New York City or does he live in Brooklyn or in Queens? Is that a question?

4. I don’t normally like books about writers. A writer writing about a writer writing, well, that sentence alone is tedious. I want to read about someone who does something. Like I wish someone would write the great American novel about scuba diving. That would be cool. Shipwrecks. Sharks. Those giant clams and your foot is suddenly caught. There has to be treasure too. We as a nation deserve a fabulous piece of scuba diving literature. But another book about a writer? And an old privileged white male writer at that? I almost feel as if I should apologize. That said, what interested me was the tension between fiction and life and how we twist our own stories to suit our will. I remember in fifth-grade English class the teacher mentioning in Huck Finn the theme of Appearance Versus Reality, underlined twice on the chalkboard, and I was blown away by the notion—yes, yes, appearance versus reality! It was my Matrix moment. My teenage anthem. Like Jake with Chinatown, it explained all things without explaining a thing. It is, after all, the mother of all themes and introduces by far the most interesting element of any decent piece of writing, the subtext. So: What is the subtext of & Sons? Sorry, that’s a terrible question.

5. Okay, how about this: Who is telling the story? And how is he telling the story? Is this an act of autobiography or an act of fiction, and is there a difference between the two? I mean, we have the one narrator and then we have each chapter divided into three separate character-driven parts (and here I have to acknowledge Richard Powers since I essentially stole that structure from him—a really useful structure by the way, if you’re ever looking for structure— and Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books in the way Zuckerman jumps into other people’s heads yet always remains distinctly individual). I guess the question is: How good a writer is Philip Topping? Also, a follow-up: What writer is the biographer of your life? (For me, it’s Charles Schulz.)

6. Why all the Wizard of Oz allusions? Seriously. I think a lot of readers assume that the writer has relative control of his/her text, but I can tell you that that simply is not true. I mean, that’s not true either, and no need to bring up Derrida or any of the deconstructionists, please God no, though during the eighties I used to say Paul-De-Man instead of You’re Da Man (and got just as many laughs), but in all seriousness, I wrote a draft of this book and looked over it and saw all of these Wizard of Oz references, which I then burnished since it seemed so odd and unexpected and must mean something. So tell me about Dorothy. And Kansas and Oz. Who is the Wicked Witch?

7. Is this tedious?

8. Why did I write this book? Finally, a question for me. I wrote this book because I have a son and a father and I myself am a son and a father and this funhouse mirror effect has been interesting, to say the least. Raising children is an act of love as well as an act of fiction in which the characters slowly free themselves from the supposed author. I remember being scared about having a boy. There seemed so much pressure involved. How would I teach someone how to be a man when I had no idea how to be a man myself? My own father is a wonderful guy, very impressive, an intimidating figure to me when I was growing up, as well as bit distant. He himself was the product of a strict family, raised by a stepfather after his own father’s early death. Anyway, my dad had a successful career in banking, and I remember when I was in my early thirties and just starting my own family, I was at an event and my father had to get up and say a few words and he was as always confident and charming, a commanding presence, and this old friend of his was sitting next to me and she leaned over and said, “It really is amazing, seeing your dad in these situations, so comfortable and at ease, considering how painfully shy he was as a boy. I mean, he could barely look you in the eye and had a bit of stammer. Amazing, the transformation.” Now this surprised me. I’ve always known him as a reserved and self-contained man, a bit unknowable, but never as a shy and awkward boy, and so I remember imagining: What if I could meet him when he was younger, say seventeen? How would my impressions change? That was the impetus behind & Sons. Hence this follow-up question: What if you could meet your father when he was five, or ten, or fifteen, at the height of his vulnerability? How would your feelings for the man change? We all reinvent ourselves with our children.

9. Let’s talk about the book within the book, Ampersand. Go ahead, I’m listening.

10. Okay, the women in the book—I know, what women? But hey, the book’s called & Sons, what did you expect? That said, there are women, in particular Isabel Dyer and Eleanor Topping, and they do play their part. How do these women function within this world of boys (notice I didn’t use the word men)? Does it ring true? I really wanted to make Richard’s wife, Candy, a bigger character and there was a scene in an early outline where she bonded with A. N. Dyer (much to the frustration of Richard), but I couldn’t quite find the narrative space for its inclusion. I’m curious, did I get away with my impersonation of Alice Munro in that Isabel chapter? I’m a fan of her stories and I loved trying to write in her particular style, not just overtly but covertly (and setting some action on a train). That said, is there a deeper purpose to my impersonation? What does it say about the fluid nature of authorship?

11. The novel has a prologue and an epilogue, though thankfully not tagged as prologue and epilogue since I myself always skip prologues and epilogues. I’ve never understood their purpose. Just start the book and end the book. I’ve never read a prologue and said, “Wow, now that’s a great prologue.” And an epilogue is like that awkward encounter with a friend after you say goodbye and depart down the street in the same direction. “Oh, yeah, hey [awkward laugh].” That said, I am guilty of writing a prologue and epilogue (italicized, no less). For me to stoop to this shame, there must be a reason . . . I hope.

12. Does Phillip Topping work as a narrator? I mean, yeah, he’s kind of unreliable, (unreliable narrator is like Subtext 101), but do you believe him? I know, I know, I just said he’s unreliable, but how much of what he says is believable? The same with A. N. Dyer. I know, I know, A. N. Dyer is being filtered through Phillip, his big- gest fan, who at the same time is trying to channel A. N. Dyer—so many layers of fiction. I guess the question is: Who is the dog and who is the tail?

13. Do you like the letters? Regardless, they look great. The Random House interior designers did an incredible job to create that sense of reality. That was very important to me, to maintain a tight grip on the real, just like all the locations in New York and beyond are very real places, the same with the schools. That reality was key. Why do you think I cared so much? Sometimes I think of A. N. Dyer as a spider who has spun his web in the corner of these realities, a beautiful and intricate construction, lovely to behold, and not once does he think of the poor creatures who blindly fly into these traps and find themselves stuck and immobilized, a sudden character in one of his dramas. What stories do you tell yourself about your own life that you know are untrue, those exaggerations that have become fact? How much of who we are is what we steal? And if fiction can bring a family together, do we care about the truth?

14. If you called someone up and told them to come find you in front of your favorite work of art, where would you be standing?

15. With Richard in the beginning, when he’s at the movie studio and feels as if his dreams are about to come true, Richard playing the fantasy forward and then discovering, too late for his ego, that he has misread the situation, can you relate to this mortifying situation? I certainly can. I once thought a girl was madly in love with me but actually she was in love with my best friend— wait, is that me or a movie I saw? How much of our memory is collage? games interest you? If they do, play on.

17. When I started & Sons I wrote a single word on a Post-it note and stuck it to the wall in front of my desk. What was that word? Five dollars to anyone who guesses right.

Have more to say about the book? Connect with David Gilbert on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with Curtis Sittenfeld and The Rumpus’s Amy Gentry

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Sittenfeld_Sisterland “[Sittenfeld’s] gifts are in full effect with this novel, and she uses them to create a genuinely engrossing sense of uncertainty and suspense.”—Sloane Crosley, NPR’s All Things Considered

A Conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld and The Rumpus’s Amy Gentry, August 2013

Amy Gentry: A lot of your female, first-person characters have an investment in conformity and flying under the radar. Why are you interested in those characters particularly? Because, especially in Sisterland, you had a choice. You could have written from Vi’s point of view instead.

Curtis Sittenfeld: I find people who, at first glance, appear to be typical or average, whatever that means, and then turn out to have hidden qualities, to be very interesting—much more interesting than someone whose eccentricities announce themselves immediately and can turn out to be superficial. So I think that that’s part of it. When I was younger—when I, myself, was a teenager—I gave people the benefit of the doubt, thinking, so many people that appear very calm and even boring must have all these wild emotions and crazy ideas. As I’ve gotten older I’ve unfortunately come to the conclusion that a lot of people who seem normal and boring are normal and boring. But in a novel, I have the privilege of making people more layered.

AG: You include a lot of finely rendered psychological detail. I wonder how that developed for you? Were you conscious of going after that psychological realism?

CS: I wouldn’t ever, while writing, think to myself, “I need a little more psychological realism.” I write what’s interesting to me, and so if I’m reading I like to have a very thorough idea of a character in a book that’s by someone else. I like it when characters are some combination of appealing and flawed or self-interested. I think in terms of scenes, and what I want a scene to achieve, and the psychological realism arises from that. It just kind of works its way up. I have my first-person narrators make a lot of observations, I have lots of dialogue, and so it bubbles up out of that.

AG: A lot of the psychological details tend to be these very fine observations that the character is making about the social interactions happening around her. Do you have a special interest in social dynamics?

CS: To some extent, I do. Tonight I’ll go with my family to a neighbor’s house for a little cookout, and it’s not as if I’ll be mentally taking notes. I would not be above borrowing something juicy if it happened, but I interact fairly normally in social situations. I think that a lot of people can be having these interactions, and then afterwards you make some observations that you weren’t even conscious of making in the moment.

AG: Did you ever wish that you were a twin?

CS: Yeah, I would have liked to have been a twin. I have a sister who’s two years older, a sister who’s five years younger, and a brother who’s nine years younger, so there was lots of sibling in my life already. But I will say that sometimes my sisters and I get mistaken for twins, and I always take it as a compliment. My sisters and I were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., and we got mistaken for triplets, and we were extra-complimented. At least I was. Maybe they weren’t, but I was.

AG: Why is that, do you think?

CS: I guess because twins have this mystique, and triplets—the normal sibling connection potentially can be very powerful, and there’s this idea that it’s even more powerful with twins. It really is not just someone like me, but another version of me.

AG: Did you talk to identical twins when you wrote the book?

CS: Yes. I’m friends with these twins who, they’re about to turn forty, and they don’t know if they’re identical or not. I guess they’ve never had the test, and I think they are, but I guess it’s not clear. By total coincidence, my British editor is an identical twin. So my friend Emily the twin—she’s a novelist, too, Emily Jeanne Miller—and my British editor read early drafts, and I specifically asked them to pay attention to any- thing that smelled wrong, twin-wise, and actually, neither of them had any twin concerns. Then the funny thing was, a magazine editor read an early copy, and I didn’t even know this woman was an identical twin. She said, “You nailed it.” But there’s a part where it’s New Year’s Eve and the twins are at a party and one of them kisses the other on the lips, and she said, “That was totally disgusting, but otherwise everything rang true.”

AG: Yet you kept it in.

CS: I did keep it in. I think by the time she read it, it was too late to change it. Being disgusting wouldn’t have deterred me anyway.

AG: Were you ever tempted to write from multiple points of view? From Violet’s point of view?

CS: No, I wasn’t. I understand why that question would come up. It’s funny, because readers like Vi. Some readers don’t, but a lot of readers think she’s refreshing and funny. But if she were the one telling the story, I think they would not like her. People would find her kind of obnoxious.

AG: Yeah, she’s a great character, but I can see where she’s better from the outside.

CS: Less is more.

AG: Part of what makes her great is how monstrous she is.

CS: Unapologetically monstrous—and the fact that she’s unapologetically monstrous, but she’s not a hundred percent monstrous. I think that she has very endearing qualities.

AG: Like what?

CS: She’s very blunt. She’s very entertaining. She’s unapologetic. She has an ability to enjoy herself.

AG: And yet you feel like if you were with her she might be enjoying herself more than you.

CS: Yeah, at your expense.

AG: Getting to the psychic connection the twins have, their powers—we never find out if there’s an entity behind their psychic abilities, and if it’s a force for good or evil. How did you make that decision, not to explain?

CS: The twins believe that they are psychic, and so essentially the book accepts that they are psychic, and neither the book nor the characters are trying to prove to the reader that they are. They just believe they are, which I think is much more natural. It’s almost like in life we’re most hell-bent on proving things that we’re not really sure are true. I didn’t want to present it in a defensive way, I wanted to present it in a matter-of-fact way.

AG: Is Sisterland your first exploration of nonrealist themes?

CS: It’s funny when someone says that, because now I know whether you believe in psychic ability.

AG: Well, do you believe in psychic abilities?

CS: I’m open to them. So you know, in the book, there’s the character Hank? He basically says there are a lot of things in the world that are weirder than psychic abilities, that we accept as true. There’s a lot that’s not explained about the universe. And so, psychicness is not stranger than that. And I’m in agreement with Hank. It’s not like I consider myself to have psychic abilities. I guess I consider myself at times to have intuition. But I also don’t feel the book is supposed to be an exposé about how psychics are frauds.

AG: I certainly didn’t read it that way. But at the same time it was interesting trying to suss out where the book was going to fall on that issue. I never thought that the book was debunking their psychic abilities, but there were times when intuitions proved to be slippery things.

CS: The book is obviously told in first person from the point of view of Kate, who believes that she has psychic abilities and believes that her sister has psychic abilities. And so the book allows for the possibility, no matter what I personally believe. But there came a point where I realized I do have to come down on one side or the other in terms of how much credibility I’m going to give both the sisters.

AG: Did you do a lot of research about psychics?

CS: I interviewed a psychic years ago for an article before ever writing this, and then I interviewed a different one while working on the book. I went to this New Age bookstore in a distant suburb of St. Louis, where I live. I basically went there thinking, “I’m doing research,” and then I un-ironically bought some crystals. There’s some confusion in my own mind about what I believe. Now that this is my fourth book, I know that writing a novel is not a way to sort out your confusion. I have some confusion about boarding school and what I think of having gone to boarding school, and it turns out that writing Prep did not help me sort out that confusion.

AG: What are you working on now?

CS: Usually I’m very secretive about what I’m doing, but the British publisher HarperCollins has commissioned this project where they’ll have six contemporary writers rewrite each of Jane Austen’s six novels. I’ll be rewriting Pride and Prejudice.

AG: Wow, jackpot.

CS: It’s meant to be fun and amusing. It’ll be set in the United States in the present day. And of course I feel a little ridiculous talking about it, because I understand that I’m not Jane Austen, but it’s—sort of in the way that Clueless is fun, it’s meant to be fun.

AG: Is that a lot of pressure?

CS: It would be pressure if I were saying, “Now I’m going to officially step into Jane Austen’s shoes.” But I don’t feel like that’s what this is.

AG: Sure. And you’ve been at it a long time! You started writing very early.

CS: I did start early. Basically, I started writing fiction as soon as I knew how to read and write. So, whatever, five or six. Then I started being published when I was in high school, which is a double-edged sword. Yes, I have been at it for a while. Now I’m a crusty thirty-seven.

AG: What was the first thing you ever remember writing? The first piece of fiction you ever wrote.

CS: I saw the movie of Annie. I saw it in the theater for my seventh birthday. I remember after that, taking this piece of paper, and—it was actually very Freudian—leaving it on my dad’s desk. It was like: “I am an orphan. My name is Annie.” It was essentially plagiarism. But I believed myself to be writing a story. I would sometimes do research by asking my parents questions. One time I said to them—this was kind of dark—I said to them, “Are people that have cancer not hungry?” And they were very alarmed. They said, “Why?” “I’m writing a story.” I was definitely, obviously weird.

AG: What shaped your tastes as a weird young child writing stories?

CS: My parents would read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to us, and they also read Stuart Little. We were definitely a reading family, and I loved books. I still feel this way, that a book—and a magazine, too—is what’s interesting about life in this distilled format that you can hold, and there’s something very enchanting to me about that. That it’s interesting stories and pictures, and someone took all this time to strip away the boring stuff, and just give you this story and these facts. If I’m at somebody’s house and they have magazines on the table and people are chatting, I feel almost a physical urge to start reading the magazines instead of talking to people. Of course a magazine is usually more interesting than a conversation, because so much more time and preparation has gone into it.

Curtis wants to hear from you! Share your thoughts and let her know what you are reading on Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Johnston_ THIS ONE_ RMLTBret Anthony Johnston is the author of the award-winning Corpus Christi: Stories. This month, his debut novel, Remember Me Like This, hits bookshelves and this is one you must read! This gripping novel has the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels. It introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today.

Random House Reader’s Circle has exclusive book club discussion questions to share with you today! If you and your book club are planning a discussion of this novel, be sure to take a look at the below! And, stay up to date with the author on his Facebook page.

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. Remember Me Like This is rendered through the perspectives of various characters, but never Justin’s. Why do you think Johnston decided not to include his point-of-view? What did the alternating perspectives do for the story?

2. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Which character did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

3. Johnston alludes to the abuse that Justin endured during his “away life,” but a definitive answer of what he suffered is never offered. Why would he leave that information out?

4. The novel takes place over a hot summer in South Texas and Johnston asks the reader to pay a lot of attention to the heat and weather. How might these choices relate to the themes of the book?

5. What are the themes of Remember Me Like This?

6. Most of the characters have at least one significant secret in the novel. What role do secrets play in the book? Early in the novel, the reader learns that Cecil believes love can be shown through not disclosing what you know. Do you agree with him?

7. Are Eric and Laura good parents? Why or why not?

8. Each of the Campbells seeks different kinds of shelter in the book: Eric is involved in an extra-marital affair; Laura spends much of her time volunteering at Marine Lab; Griffin devotes most of his energy to skateboarding and Fiona; and Cecil retreats deeper into the grooves of his life. What do these shelters offer them? What do the shelters reveal about the characters? Do the shelters hold up?

9. Most of the novel takes place in Southport, a small coastal town, and on Mustang Island. Discuss the role of place in the story? Does the isolation of the landscape relate in any way to the characters? If so, how?

10. Which character do you identify with the most and why?

11. If you are a parent, which parent most resembles you in the novel?

12. Had Cecil’s plan worked, what do you think he would have done with Buford? Do you believe the story he told Eric about taking Buford into Mexico? Did he ever intend to include Eric in the plan? Why does he decide against including him?

13. Do you think Buford’s father was being honest with Cecil about just wanting one last day on the water with his family?

14. The novel ends with Eric imagining what might have happened to Buford. What do you think happened to Buford? Do you think Laura had anything to do with it?

15. Where you do you imagine each of the Campbells in a year? In five years? In ten?

A Q&A with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Brockmole_Letters from Skye Kate Alcott, author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell, sat down with fellow author, Jessica Brockmole, to discuss Brockmole’s debut, Letters from Skye.

A Conversation with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

KATE ALCOTT was a reporter covering politics in Washington D.C., where she and her husband still live. She is the author of The Dressmaker and The Daring Ladies of Lowell.

Kate Alcott: Your story maps the lives of two solitary souls who open up to each other in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without letters. How do you think the story of Elspeth and Davey would have played out in our Internet world?

Jessica Brockmole: There are some aspects of the story that I think could only work with letters, and with the specific era in which the letters were written: the social restrictions on a man writing to a woman, and the woman responding, the unhurried pace in which Elspeth and David’s relationship unfolds, the interruption of the war, the almost painful anticipation of waiting for letters sent in wartime, the desperate reliance on ephemeral pieces of paper to hold together a relationship.
Yet, in many ways their story is still relevant today. People fall in love online—whether through emails, instant messages, inter- actions on forums, or social media sites. They go through the early stages of a relationship, sometimes without a picture ex- changed, relying solely on the written word and the shared passions lying between the lines. Though they don’t often have to wait so long for responses, the anticipation is still there, as is the anxiety about building something through nothing more solid than sentences.

If Elspeth and Davey were telling their story now, via email, the lags might not be there. They wouldn’t have to worry so much about messages waylaid or messages lost (though, as we all know, emails occasionally do disappear into the ether). Yet there would still be counted moments between replies, joy when the replies finally came, anxiety about that first meeting, about hearing words spoken rather than seeing them written. The power of the written word exists no matter what the medium.

KA: What gave you the idea to tell your story solely through letters? Could you tell us more about the benefits and pitfalls of that structure?

JB: One reason that I decided to tell Elspeth and Davey’s story solely through letters is that I really enjoy reading real collections of historical letters. I’m fascinated by what’s said and what’s left unsaid, by the story told between the lines. I thought this would be an intriguing way to write a novel, limiting myself in format, yet allowing the story to unfold in a very organic manner.

Another big reason was that I had just moved to Scotland, an ocean away from friends and family. We had to, out of necessity, shift our communication to the epistolary. We had to trust in our words. I found it intriguing how relationships could be held together with nothing but words and sentences (even though those words are mostly emailed these days), without touch and sound. I wanted to explore that in a book.

There were certainly difficulties in limiting myself to this structure. Description of setting and of character had to be approached carefully, so as to sound natural in a letter. Recounting events that involved both the sender and the recipient, such as the three times Elspeth and Davey meet, were tricky. The reader needed to experience those meetings, but both characters already had and didn’t need to recall every detail. I had to strike a balance between story and structure, between giving the reader the neces- sary information without sacrificing the authenticity of the letters.

KA: Were Elspeth and Davey based on real people?

JB: They weren’t based on real people, but I’m sure that both hold characteristics of myself. Like Elspeth, I’m hesitant to venture far from home. I’m sometimes turned so inward that I can lose hours to poetry. Like Davey, I use books as security in a turbulent world, as lucky charms to hold tight to when life seems uncertain. Like Margaret, I’m fascinated by family history. Like Finlay, I sometimes find it hard to apologize. I think it’s unavoidable when writing to prevent little pieces of yourself from sneaking into the story and the characters.

KA: What kind of research did you do?

JB: Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of letters and postcards written during the time, both from published works, from digital ar- chives, and from my own personal collection. I did read many between sweethearts—from soldiers on the field of battle and the loved ones waiting at home—but I discovered that those weren’t always the best representatives of epistolary voice from the era. Soldiers’ letters came with a filter. They were always subject to the censor and were often meant to be shared among friends and family at home. It wasn’t uncommon to read aloud a new letter to the larger family group. Many of these letters were polite and formal and careful, even to wives or sweethearts.

To really get a more representative feel for the epistolary language of the time, especially between correspondents who wrote for nobody but each other, I had to look at other exchanges. I read letters between siblings, between best friends, between young couples writing in secret. I read letters written outside of wartime, in the relative freedom of peace. I read letters from men and women, from those young, old, and in-between. The voices in these letters often felt more relaxed, somehow more true. They chatted casually and unguardedly. So, while the letters from the front gave me specifics about life in a warzone and the emotions carried through battle, all of the details needed for my story, many of the other letters gave me the language that I needed to tell it.

KA: You create a deep sense of place in your novel. What is it about Skye that drew you to that setting?

JB: When I visited Skye years ago, I was struck by the starkness of the landscape, but also by the rich beauty. The rain, the sea, the impossible green of the hills, centuries of myth tucked along the coast. Though I hadn’t written poetry for years, I wanted to then, as I felt ordinary prose couldn’t do the place justice. I began researching the island during the world wars and found more reason to set a novel there. There was such a strong sense of isolation, especially during the First World War, a feeling (at least among some) that the conflict was distant enough to not affect them. I thought this would be intriguing to explore, through a character connected to the war, but not initially expecting to be impacted by it.

KA: You’ve also framed your story between the universal truths and tragedies of two world wars. What do you hope your readers will take away from this novel?

JB: I’d like readers to think about the sense that history can and does repeat itself. Love happens, in and out of wartime. Family secrets and family quarrels happen, regardless of where in the world you are. A generation and a war apart, the same struggles exist. Reading through wartime letters, I see this over and over, the same sorts of heartbreak and worry and joy that people face today.

KA: What are some of your favorite novels—and why?

JB: Like Davey, my favorite book is very much a security blanket. It’s the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book I love as much for its history and for its complex, real characters as for the role it plays in my life. It’s the last thing I pack in moments of upheaval—college, moves, hospital stays—and the first thing I unpack.

Apart from that steady favorite, my list changes often, every time I read something new that I can’t stop talking about. I read and enjoy a lot of novels contemporary to the eras I write, like All Quiet on the Western Front or Humphrey Cobb’s wrenching Paths of Glory. Though not contemporary to that era, I was blown away by Sébastien Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, which brought me to laughter and to tears. I strive to write like that.

Other favorites from recent years include the often-reread Alyson Richman’s The Lost Wife, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk, and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans. I love books with strong characters, with enduring love, with difficult decisions. And, of course, history.

KA: What are your writing habits?

JB: Though I do write every day, I don’t have a set routine. In fact, I intentionally mix things up to keep from growing complacent. I am constantly changing location, to various spots both in and out of the house. The few constants, though, are my music, which is always going in the background, and a cup of tea. Something about curling my hands around a steaming cup of tea really helps me to focus.

JB: I wrote the first draft of Letters from Skye in ten months of steady writing, and then gradually revised over the following several years. It was the first novel I completed and, as I wrote others and learned more about my process, I was able to apply that knowledge to Skye.

KA: Are you working on a new book? Can you share anything with us about your next project?

JB: I am! My next book is also set during the Great War and centers around a pair of artists—one Scottish, one French—trying to recapture a lost summer of innocence in the midst of war.

Reader’s Guide: A Q&A with David Gilbert and Curtis Sittenfeld

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 1.22.15 PM New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld sat down with David Gilbert to discuss & Sons, a wonderful work of literary fiction on sale in paperback this month. Together, these two authors discuss the characters, plot twists, the novel’s title, and more in this Random House Reader’s Circle Q&A for you and your book club.

“In terms of sheer reading pleasure, my favorite book this year was & Sons, David Gilbert’s big, intelligent, richly textured novel about fathers, sons, friendship, and legacies. . . . From [A. N.] Dyer’s slacker sons to a J. Crew-wearing young seductress, every member of Gilbert’s cast of characters is perfectly drawn.”—Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

Curtis Sittenfeld is the bestselling author of four novels, Sisterland, American Wife, The Man of My Dreams, and Prep. Her books have been translated into twenty-five languages. Visit her website at www.curtissittenfeld.com.

Curtis Sittenfeld: The narrator of & Sons is a peripheral character. I love this choice, but it’s also surprising. What made you select the narrator you did rather than going with a more central character or just using a third-person omniscient point of view?

David Gilbert: I always knew I wanted to write the book in the first person but, in a tricky way, a sort of omniscient first person who by dint of his omniscience is unreliable. That’s Philip Topping. I have a soft spot for unreliable narrators, in the subtext they can generate, in the extra work the reader has to do in order to glean the “truth” of the story, in the pure fun of their uncertain claims; I also have a soft spot for outsiders peeking in through the glass, seeing a world they’re desperate to inhabit. In this book I wanted to have this question hang in the air: Who is the author of this story? Is Philip Topping truly in control? Does he have the artistic chops? If not him, then who? I wanted a certain kind of narrative shimmer, if that makes sense.

CS: Given that the focus of the novel shifts among a few characters, I’m wondering if you have a special fondness for anyone. In many books, the author’s favorite is obvious, but you’re very even-handed in making everyone flawed yet endearing.

DG: A. N. Dyer was a favorite, mainly because of his crankiness, which was enjoyable and perhaps all too natural to inhabit. Intelligence unhinged is always interesting and allows for particular flights of fancy through time. Plus it was fun to create all those unwritten novels, three hundred pages condensed into a paragraph or a line. The Andy sections were also a blast, what with the straight-ahead definition of his desire and the riff-like quality of his mind. And at the end of the day we’re both seventeen, only I’m wearing the mask of a forty-six-year-old.

CS: Although the book is primarily about fathers and sons, I admired your believable and well-rounded female characters, especially Jeanie Spokes. Do you have any favorite female characters created by either male or female novelists?

DG: I’ve always been a tremendous fan of Lily Bart and Isabel Archer, which is appropriate since their creators had such a deep friendship. I also love Matilda, especially from reading the book to my girls. And there’s Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. And Emily Dickinson, who seems like a character of her own creation. And all the women in Housekeeping. And . . .

CS: The novel includes a few dramatic plot twists, especially one at the end. Did you always know what was coming or did you surprise yourself as you were writing?

DG: I had things pretty well mapped out when I started and understood the route of the plot, the ups and downs and sharp turns. But there were smaller moments that surprised me, like when Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk in Central Park, suddenly flew into the book, as did a poem about an owl, and a certain statue at 70th and Fifth Avenue, and the Von Trapp Family Singers, and how much a pretzel resembles an ampersand, which resembles a strand of DNA, and the prologue and the epilogue—those small moments of discovery can be quite novel-affirming, an unexpected detail that opens up the story and confirms you are on the right track (forgive the pun).

CS: A. N. Dyer reveals a bombshell to his adult sons, who don’t entirely believe him. Do you want readers to believe Dyer’s claim, or did you intentionally leave it open to interpretation?

DG: Hmm, how to answer this, Curtis? I certainly have my opinion, though I do want it to remain open to interpretation, but since whoever is reading this has likely read the book (and by the way, thank you, and if you are skimming the back in your local bookstore, I highly recommend The Flamethrowers and Black Swan Green and Skippy Dies and Sisterland too). I can say that I think A. N. Dyer is quite unstable at this point and he is merely weaving another tale, another piece of fiction that he hopes somehow will bring his family back together and forgive his past and ease his future. He is a professional storyteller, after all.

CS: I can’t resist asking: What’s your opinion of J. D. Salinger in general and The Catcher in the Rye specifically?

DG: The thing about J. D. Salinger—the weird thing, once you’ve read the short stories and The Catcher in the Rye—is that he sort of becomes part of you, maybe because of the age in which you access his writing, those late teen years when you yourself struggle between the poles of public and private, which often invert, so that you can feel alone among friends or totally in touch with the pulse of the world locked up in your room, and Salinger writes to this, hears our call, and also fulfills our own immature dream of mammoth success followed by the fantasy of dying while still alive, of being present at our own funeral (hello, Tom Sawyer), of feeling beloved from a self-imposed distance, without the complications of actual contact and possible compromise—Salinger is adolescence, and reading him today is like watching a home movie as directed by a master: it is artful, often wonderful, but sometimes I have to look away, sometimes the sentiment is too awkward, too trapped in a sense of self-absorbed unfairness. Did I really look that way back then? I think the lack of material has done Salinger a favor. That said, I reread The Catcher in the Rye every few years, mainly to see how I have aged.

CS: Another reason I admired this book is that the New York it evokes simultaneously feels authentic and insiderish but not off-puttingly smug. (I say this having never lived there.) I believe you grew up in New York and live there currently, and I’m curious about your relationship with the city. Have you lived elsewhere? Did you worry at all that non–New York readers might miss some of the book’s references?

DG: I have a strange relationship with New York. It is my hometown. I have lived in other places for stretches of a few years, but I always seem to find myself back in New York. I married a New Yorker. I am raising little New Yorkers. I still live on the Magic Mountain that is Manhattan, unable to escape even to Brooklyn. I am doomed. And New York has changed from the New York of my youth. (Wait a sec while I put on my Old Crank hat.) New York oozes with money now, like an infected open wound. Oh, there has always been money flowing through the bloodstream of this city, but today it feels different, today it feels stifling, apocalyptic even, the walking dead of the rich. That said, there are still the museums (though art nowadays is equated with cash), and there is the theater (which on average costs around $100 per seat), and many movie houses (mostly playing blockbusters) and great restaurants (don’t get me started). Still, there is a surviving culture here, and by that I mean the culture of the street and the subway, the park, the packed-in people, the blunt edge of close inhabitation mixed with the collective cause of being trapped and toughened and oddly dependent on one another to remain cool, i.e., New Yorkers. There remains a self-generating energy, a great grand orgy of everyday desire. I could only leave New York for Berlin or Paris or Rome, Madrid maybe, but I don’t speak those languages. I speak New York. And I hope in this novel, no matter where you’re from, you can understand the words.

CS: The title of this novel is simultaneously perfect and kind of awkward, especially to say aloud. Did you have reservations about giving your book an unwieldy title?

DG: It was always going to contain an ampersand. The title kind of dropped in fully formed. And I twisted much of the novel around that shape, in the obvious narcissistic reflection in A. N. Dyer’s name, and in his first novel, Ampersand; even in the titles of his subsequent books, there is a hint of an ampersand. Growing up I also remember seeing old ghostly advertisements on the sides of building, often with only an “& Sons” visible, the father faint and undecipherable. So I was totally committed to the title and its lack of a solid foundation.

CS: Did you use any particular strategy for writing the sections of the book that are “excerpts” of A. N. Dyer’s novels? Did you feel pressure, given that these novels are supposed to be iconic?

DG: Like I said before, that was actually fun. I could write a whole novel in a snippet without the hassle of plot and character development and pages and pages of actual painstaking writing. It was different with Ampersand since there’s a large chunk of that novel contained within the book, and it’s so beloved and acclaimed by its readership (it won a Pulitzer, after all). I just kind of held my breath (and at times my nose) and dove in. I had the whole internal novel pretty well mapped out, to the point where it seems like I’ve written it. But it does set up as an easy target: This is meant to be great? Yeah, right. But I understood that going into the project, that there was that danger, and to be honest, it was thrilling to take on the challenge.

CS: This is your third book. What do you know now about writing and publishing that you didn’t know before your first?

DG: Unfortunately, not a lot. The first blank page is always a mystery. Maybe when I first started writing I disparaged plot, thinking it a hack’s course, but nowadays, we novelists have to compete with so many other easier (and frankly wonderful) entertainments, we need to remember the basics of story and plot and forward momentum and character and, most important, the pleasures to be found on that once blank page. We need to prove ourselves worthy of the most precious commodity: time.

Reader’s Guide: THE TELLING ROOM by Michael Paterniti

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Paterniti_TheTellingRoom In The Telling Room, Michael Paterniti showcases his storytelling craft to tell the tale of the world’s greatest piece of cheese.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. This book starts in a deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and leads to a small village in Spain, all in a quest for some cheese. What do you make of the author’s impulsivity, and does it resemble a seemingly random decision in your own life that somehow led to an unexpected result?

2. Do you agree with the author’s assessment of modern society as TK? If so, what might be a solution, short of moving to a small village in Spain?

3. When Mike first meets Ambrosio in the telling room, the cheesemaker expounds on the importance of taking time to cultivate food, to prepare it, to enjoy it, and — finally — to pass that food from our bodies as waste. How much do you agree with Ambrosio’s way of living? Do you believe that what we consume and the way we consume it has such a pronounced effect on our lives?

4. Ambrosio’s slow-food style of living proves deeply seductive to the author—carrying him back again and again to Spain. Would you say such a lifestyle is equally feasible in our convenience-oriented society? How might it be achieved?

5. Do you have a place that you return to, and if so, what is it that you find there?

6. On page 71, the author includes the following footnote: “I would soon find out that digression was a national pastime in Castile, that to get to the crux of any matter you had to listen for hours, weeks, months, years.” What do you think is his intention by including this note to the story? How did it affect the way that you read the footnotes that followed?

7. Ambrosio has a phrase, “the disability of memory,” which he defines by saying, “Everything is rushing forward, so I must go back.” In what ways is Ambrosio’s story emblematic of this idea? Why do you think this idea captured Mike’s imagination so completely?

8. Can you name some more of the many conflicts in the book?

9. When Mike first returns to Guzman, he writes that “[I didn’t] care to hold myself to the normal journalistic standard, for I wasn’t entirely playing a journalist here. I was playing myself for once.” Do you think that, by entering the story simply as himself, different opportunities were open to Mike than if he had maintained his journalistic distance? What issues might have been avoided had he been more of an objective observer? How might a more objective book about Ambrosio feel different than the one Mike ultimately wrote? Have you ever started something as your job that ultimately became something deeply personal?

10. In THE TELLING ROOM the idea of memory takes many forms, such as Luis’s keys, or the cheese itself. Why do you think memory becomes such an important theme as the book goes on?

11. When Ambrosio gives Mike a key to the telling room, he says that it’s where Mike will write “their” book. Who do you think the book ultimately belongs to? In what ways is the story more Ambrosio’s, and in what ways Mike’s? What does it mean to own a story?

12. What obligation does the writer have to his or her subject?

13. At the outset, Ambrosio is portrayed as a mythic figure, and is later revealed to be, simply, a man. How does this shift occur? What parts of Ambrosio the man have to be cloaked so that we can believe in Ambrosio the myth? Why does the author slowly pull back the curtain like this?

14. The idea of fatherhood is another recurring theme, and particularly the ways that children carry on the traditions, ideas, and lives of their parents. On page 195, Paterniti writes, “This was one form of enlace, too, the attachment of the child to the father, and with the passing of time the father to the child, so that even in death one lived on, carrying the ghost of the other like a baby inside.” How are Ambrosio and Michael each defined by their roles as fathers? As sons?

15. The whole of Castile shares a fascination with the legend of El Cid, a story that likely glosses over some harsher truths. How does the story of El Cid relate to Paterniti’s relationship to Castile? How does it relate to his relationship with Ambrosio?

16. On page 204, Paterniti describes a scene in which the mistranslation of a word – barber for sheep shearer – leads him to “float away with the myth,” imagining a barbershop for animals. What are some other instances of “floating away with the myth” in this book?

17. Sara, Mike’s wife, describes the idea that some people see the world as being clearly delineated (1 + 1 = 2), while other see it as a web of possible connections and fruitful contradictions. Do either of these outlooks match up with your own worldview?

18. Towards the end of the book, Paterniti describes the act of telling stories to his children as one that unites them as a family, and as “some way of saying, ‘History repeats.’ And: ‘You’re going to be alright.’” Do the stories you remember hearing as a child and the stories you tell now have a similar impact on you? What other ways do stories – and the act of storytelling itself – affect us?

19. Ultimately, what do you think of Ambrosio, the myth and the man? Do you think that the author finds what he’s looking for?

Are you planning a book club discussion for The Telling Room? Invite Michael Paterniti to join your chat. Email rhrc (at) randomhouse (dot) com to request a Skype visit from the author! Scheduling depending.

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