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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Reader’s Guide: A WEDDING IN PROVENCE by Ellen Sussman

Friday, July 25th, 2014

Sussman_Wedding in Provence“Utterly charming and wildly romantic.”—Christina Baker Kline, New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train

…And that’s just one bit of praise about this summer’s romantic feast for the senses. A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman

When Olivia and Brody drive up to their friend’s idyllic inn—nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis—they know they’ve chosen the perfect spot for their wedding. The ceremony will be held in the lush garden, and the reception will be a small party of only their closest family and friends. But when Olivia and Brody’s guests check in, their peaceful wedding weekend is quickly thrown off balance.

If this is on your reading list, then we hope you’ll check out these questions and topics for discussion from your friends at Random House Reader’s Circle. Happy Reading!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. A Wedding in Provence starts by introducing a happy couple on the way to their idyllic wedding. How did this affect your expectations for the book? Were you nervous about how events would unravel?

2. Nell is clearly a loose cannon. What were your initial thoughts when she decided to bring Gavin to the wedding? Did you think he was dangerous, or just a fun-loving, spontaneous stranger?

3. Were you surprised when Carly took off with Gavin? Why or why not?

4. In many ways Carly is Nell’s opposite, but the two sisters end up attracted to the same man, however briefly. Is it possible that they aren’t actually as different as they seem? Do you think they share any other qualities?

5. At the beginning of Chapter Sixteen Olivia and Emily are discussing Nell’s vulnerability. Was Emily’s advice to Olivia helpful? How would you have suggested Olivia manage her daughters’ differences?

6. After learning that Sebastien cheated on Emily, Olivia is clearly rattled. She says “We’re brave old fools…. We still choose love when we know everything that can happen,” (pg.19). Do you think a marriage can survive infidelity?

7. What did you think of Sam leaving Fanny after fifty-five years of marriage and refusing to come to Brody’s wedding? Were you surprised when you found out why?

8. Throughout the novel Olivia and Brody are faced with numerous obstacles that threaten to ruin their low-key wedding weekend. From Nell’s surprise guest, to Carly’s disappearance, to Sebastien’s infidelity, which do you think caused the biggest stir? Why?

9. Of all the characters in the novel, which one did you most sympathize with?

10. Even though Olivia’s big day is the backbone of the plot, the narrative rotates between her perspective and each of her daughters’. Was there ever a time when you felt drawn to one of the three points of view more than the others? If so, when and why?

11. As Olivia and Brody get ready to commit to marriage, they witness their friends and family struggling with relationships. Is their love tested by these struggles? Do you think it’s hard to say yes to love when we know everything that might go wrong in a marriage?

12. Of all the themes present in this novel – love, loss, starting fresh – which resonated with you the most? Why?

Stay connected with Ellen 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?

Reader’s Guide: A DUAL INHERITANCE by Joanna Hershon

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Hershon_Dual Inheritance For readers of Rules of Civility and The Marriage Plot, Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is an engrossing novel of passion, friendship, betrayal, and class—and their reverberations across generations.

Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Compare the changes in Murray Cantowitz’s neighborhood and in Fishers Island throughout the four parts of the novel. Why is this difference important? How does this dichotomy relate to larger themes of the book?

2. Discuss Connie’s role in the novel. What does she symbolize for Ed? Why is she important?

3. How are Rebecca and Vivi similar to their parents? How are they different? Does their resemblance to their parents remind you of anyone in your life?

4. Photography is a recurring theme throughout the novel. How does it connect the characters? What else connects the characters throughout the generations in the story?

5. Why is the scene where Hugh cuts o! his “ngers so striking for Rebecca? What do you think about their relationship?

6. There are a few points throughout the novel where Ed realizes that, depending on his actions, his entire life could have evolved differently. What are these points? Do life-changing moments exist in your life?

7. On page 33, the president of the club tells Hugh “man is tribal.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

8. For years, Ed continues to love Helen despite all odds. Do you think this type of prolonged unrequited love is possible? What does it mean that Ed is able to cut Hugh out of his life, but not his love for Helen?

9. At the end of the novel, we learn that Rebecca and Vivi have found out about Ed and Helen’s relationship. Do you think that Hugh ever learns the truth?

10. How different are Hugh and Ed from the beginning to the end of the novel? How do they change, if at all?

11. If you had to write a sequel, what would happen next?

12. Of all the themes in the novel— friendship, upbringing, family, love, etc.— which resonates the most with you? Why?

13. After reading this novel, how important do you think inheritance is? What are your thoughts on dual inheritance theory? Have Ed and Hugh challenged your understanding?

Stay connected with Joanna on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: GOLDEN STATE by Michelle Richmond

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Richmond_Golden State “A breathtaking read and one I’ll not soon forget.”—Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife

“I haven’t read such a gripping, bittersweet, moving novel in ages. Golden State sweeps you up, whisks you away, and doesn’t let you go till the very end. Michelle Richmond, author of the unforgettable The Year of Fog, does it again.”—Tatiana de Rosnay, author of Sarah’s Key

Questions and Topics for Discussion:

1. The author uses an unconventional timeline to tell her story, moving back and forth between past, present, and earlier that morning. What elements does this add to the reading experience? How would the experience have changed had the author used a strictly linear approach?

2. How are music and lyrics important throughout the story? What does the incessancy of Tom’s voice on the radio mean to Julie?

3. Describe how Heather and Julie’s relationship changes. What are the most influential moments? If you were Julie, would you have been able to forgive Heather?

4. On page 148, Julie questions her and Tom’s relationship by saying, “Without a child, are we even a family?” Ethan undoubtedly transforms Julie and Tom’s life, but does he prove that children are necessary to have a real family?

5. On page 80, Julie wonders, “Between a marriage one chooses and a blood relation one doesn’t, shouldn’t marriage be the more powerful bond?” Does Julie find an answer to this question? Which do you think is the stronger bond?

6. What does Julie’s mother represent? Why are Julie’s memories of Mississippi and her childhood so important? Why might she reflect on them during the stress of the hostage situation?

7. The characters in Golden State grapple with the idea of things either happening for a reason or happening due to cause and effect. Julie spends most of the novel defending the latter, but which do you believe in? Why?

8. Explain Dennis and Julie’s relationship. How is it possible that Julie could feel remorse for Dennis in the midst of a hostage crisis?

9. Throughout the novel, Julie views her life as a series of beginnings and endings, rather than a continuum of learning and growing. Does this mindset hurt or help her? Does her attitude change by the end of the novel? Through which interpretation do you view your life?

10. The author leaves certain questions unanswered at the close of the story. If you were to write a sequel, how would you tie up the novel’s loose ends?

11. On page 94, Tom says, “We become so used to the way things are . . . we can’t imagine things being any other way.” What does he mean by this? How does the premise of Golden State encourage readers to imagine the impossible?

12. Of all the themes in the novel—-forgiveness, family, belief, patriotism, identity, etc.—-which was the most relevant to you? Why?

Reader’s Guide: ANDREW’S BRAIN by E.L. Doctorow

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

Doctorow_Andrew's BrainThis brilliant new novel by an American master, the author of Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, Billy Bathgate, and The March, takes us on a radical trip into the mind of a man who, more than once in his life, has been the inadvertent agent of disaster. This book hits bookshelves today and we have discussion questions to kick off your book club discussion!

For more information visit the author’s website.

1. Near the beginning of the story, Andrew says that he is indirectly responsible for Briony’s death: “indirect—not directly causal.” How might he have reasoned that he was responsible for her death? Do you agree that Andrew ultimately has a hand in it, or not?

2. Andrew switches back and forth between telling the story in the first person and the third person, sometimes describing what happened to him, sometimes describing what happened to “Andrew.” Why might he do this switching back-and-forth? Did you notice any patterns in the moments at which Andrew switched from one form of narration to another?

3. In speaking to “Doc,” Andrew says, “Your field is the mind, mine is the brain.” What do you understand to be the difference between mind and brain, within the context of this book? Would the meaning of the title have changed for you, if it was called Andrew’s Mind instead of Andrew’s Brain?

4. Andrew says, “What else can we do as eaters of the fruit of knowledge but biologize ourselves?” Does the quest to “biologize ourselves” contain pitfalls or dangers? How might it relate to the tension, within the story, between the biology of the brain and the more intangible aspects of the mind?

5. Andrew describes the Wasatch mountains as ruling the town, as a “mountain bureaucracy” that negotiated the light and colonized the townspeople. Why might Andrew have decided to describe the mountains in such specific and unusual terms, as a “bureaucracy”? How might this connect with Andrew’s later experience with a different kind of bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.?

6. When Andrew connects Briony to the brain graph machine, he says, “I saw things more intimately Briony’s than if I had seen her undressed.” What does he mean by this? What are the implications of this “cephalic-invasive” voyeurism for Andrew and Briony’s relationship?

7. Mark Twain is a recurring motif in the book. Why do you think Andrew is so drawn to Twain? Think of when Andrew refers to the “imperial outrages annotated by MT in the last years of his life.” Twain lived through a different imperialistic era in America (the late 1800s and early 1900s), but how might this resonate with “imperial outrages” in Andrew’s own lifetime?

8. Andrew describes the possibility of a human yearning for a group brain, a larger social mind: “Perhaps we long for something like the situation these other creatures have— the ants, the bees— where the thinking is outsourced.” He mentions that this kind of thinking “brings us to politics.” What does he mean by this? How might this relate, specifically, to his encounters with the White House later in the book? What are other instances, in the book and in real life, when humans are drawn to this kind of “group brain” phenomenon?

9. Briony seems to transform Andrew. He speaks of how “watching her lifted me into a comparable state of happiness.” How do you think Briony manages to rescue Andrew from his “cold clear emotionless pond of silence”? What is it about her that inspires such life in him?

10. Andrew also remarks about Briony that he finds “redemption” in “the loving attentions of this girl.” Then, at the very end of the book, he describes how Mark Twain found a different kind of redemption in the world, when his children “remember this tale and laugh with love for their father.” What is similar about their two kinds of redemption? What is different?

11. How does love transform Andrew? Is it a permanent transformation, or is it temporary? Andrew describes love as “the blunt concussion that renders us insensible to despair.” He also describes the happiness that stems from love as a feeling “possibly induced by endormorphin, the brain’s opiate.” Why do you think Andrew gravitates towards physical metaphors to describe the power of love?

12. By the end of the story, how much did you trust or believe in the literal truth of what Andrew was saying? Did your attitude towards his narrative reliability change at all, over the course of the novel?

Reader’s Guide: THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Orphan Master's Son with Pulitzer Burst “All of these elements—stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, the single best work of fiction published in 2012. . . . The book’s cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” —The Wall Street Journal

Adam Johnson, recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, sits down with his editor, David Ebershoff, for a Q&A about The Orphan Master’s Son.

As an added bonus, we also have discussion questions (below) to help get you and your book club’s discussion started!

Want more? Be sure to check out the RHRC extra materials in the back of your copy of The Orphan Master’s Son. Also, we’d love to know your thoughts-share with us on Facebook and Twitter.

A Conversation Between Adam Johnson and David Ebershoff

David Ebershoff: Let’s start with Jun Do, your protagonist. Of the one million and one creative decisions you made when writing this book, he was probably your most important. It’s one thing to think about North
Korea as a subject for a novel, but of course countries and political structures are never really the subjects of good fiction—people are. How did you settle on Jun Do as your guide—and ours—through this frightmare of a world?

Adam Johnson: Much is written about the political, military, and economic aspects of the DPRK, but it was always the personal dimension that interested me. I wondered how families huddled under such repression and how people maintained their identities against the tide of propaganda, and whether lovers, despite the dangers, shared their intimate thoughts. So, from the beginning, my goal in this book was to create a single character that felt fully human to me. I should probably say “capture” as much as “create,” because I used so much research to build the story. The first person I interviewed for the book had been an orphan from the North, and the desperation and sadness of his experience steeped the book’s opening. All the stories of defectors fascinated me, and whether they worked at canning factories or on fi shing boats, they all shared common experiences of mandatory military service, the famine years, loved ones disappearing, and brutality from the state. In a world where expression is measured and spontaneity is dangerous, it was especially important to find moments of intimacy and humor and surprise. Jun Do grew out of this research. As the book opens, he’s an everyman, a character who does what he’s told when he’s told, however grim the task, and he doesn’t ask questions. But by listening to foreign broadcasts and through a chance encounter with American sailors, spontaneity and possibility enter Jun Do’s life. From that point on, he decides to act on his own needs and desires, which will bring him into conflict with every aspect of his society.

DE: I think the first time you break my heart in this book—and you break it many times—is within the first few pages when the reader realizes that Jun Do, who is proud to be the only kid at the orphanage with a parent, is also an orphan. In real life, an orphan’s story can be so overwhelmingly sad that we sometimes see him or her only with pity, rather than with complexity. And yet on the page orphans draw us in, as both readers and writers. Why do you think that is?

AJ: Yes, in real life, our hearts extend. I’d never written about an orphan before, and I was struck by Jun Do’s resilience and inquisitiveness. In fiction, a character like this is a blank slate, one without advocates or champions, a person for whom even the basic notions of love and bonding come as big discoveries. And, of course, in North Korea your primary relationship is with the state. Your loyalties must lie with the regime first and your family second, which makes an orphan of everyone to some degree, and the Kim regime the true orphan master.

DE: Yes, the blank slate of the orphan gives the writer a sort of freedom, I think. When I see someone interesting on the subway—the lady with her new Bible, or the delivery guy holding down a dozen Mylar balloons— my mind goes in two different directions. Where are they coming from? And where are they going? Often the second question is what drives a novel forward. But the first question can also be a source of a novel’s depth. With a character who is an orphan, who will never know his family’s true story, the first question will take you only so far, perhaps. Speaking of which, I’ve seen your pictures of the Pyongyang subway. There are no Mylar balloons and definitely no Bibles. When you went to North Korea you had been working on the book for a few years already. You’d been reading and thinking about it for a long time. What most surprised you when you saw it for yourself?

AJ: Actually, the use of balloons is a common tactic of getting information and miniature Bibles to the citizens in the North. The balloons are large, usually the size of a beach ball, and they’re released south of the DMZ to float north with precious items like wool socks attached, things so rare that North Koreans take great risks to track the balloons down, and this is where they discover pro religious material or antiregime material attached. I had been working on The Orphan Master’s Son for a couple years before I finally found a path to Pyongyang. Few people get a chance to travel there, and my minders—bright, funny, interesting people—did not know what to make of me. Because I was deep into the novel, I knew the sites I wanted to visit, and my minders were thrilled when I asked to view monuments of great national pride like the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery (which figures prominently in the book) or the hothouses where the national flowers kimjongilia and kimilsungia are bred. But when I showed interest in visiting an outdated amusement park, I was met with great suspicion. It didn’t help that I asked why there were no disabled people in the capital, where the fire stations were located, and how did the mail get delivered without mailboxes. When I observed that all the women in Pyongyang wore the same shade of lipstick, it was kind of the last straw. The truly shocking, scary things I noted in Pyongyang I put right into the book: a dump truck filled with “volunteers” headed to the country side, a family scrambling to steal chestnuts from a public park, shock-work whistles, chrome Kalashnikovs, and a night watchman sitting up all night to guard the carp in the fishponds.

DE: Did you get to talk to anyone outside the orchestrated tour?

AJ: That’s a good question. Actually, it’s illegal for a citizen of the DPRK to interact with a foreigner. All the people I met had been through special training to handle American visitors. So there wasn’t room for a genuine interaction. Walking the streets of the capital through crowds of Pyongyangites heading to their destinations, I felt a powerful urge to talk to them, to hear their stories, but that wasn’t possible, so I had to bring their stories to life through fiction.

DE: I wonder if you glimpsed, if even through a car window, anyone experiencing something that might be described as joy. Not joy about the political realities, of course, but just a simple joy like walking with a friend or pausing to feel a breeze.

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master’s Son? How has it changed your perspective on life there?

2. The Orphan Master’s Son has been characterized as a thriller, a love story, and a political dystopia. How would you classify the novel in terms of genre? How do you think each of these genres manifests itself
in the book?

3. Speaking of genre, Adam Johnson once categorized the novel as a “trauma narrative.” How do you interpret that term? Do you think it suitably describes the novel, and if so, in what ways?

4. How did you feel about the inclusion of Kim Jong Il as a central character in the book? How would you say Johnson depicts him? Were you surprised by his portrayal?

5. Discuss the differences between the fi rst part of the novel, “The Biography of Jun Do,” and the second, “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”

6. How do the propaganda chapters, written as if spoken from a loudspeaker, play into your reading of the novel?

7. What do you feel the first-person narrative contributed to the story? Did you feel more or less removed from a world so closely guarded?

8. Reviewers have drawn comparisons between The Orphan Master’s Son and classic dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Are these apt comparisons? Does Johnson’s fiction, which is based on fact, have a different impact from that of novels which center on invented worlds?

9. At one point, Dr. Song says to Jun Do, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in confl ict, it is the man who must change.” What does this mean in the context of the novel?

10. In one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the book, one of the interrogators remembers the way in which his father explained life in North Korea: “Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” What does the quote imply about the reality of living in
such a repressive society? How does it speak to humanness in the face of inhumanity?

11. Discuss the significance of “Jun Do” as a homonym for “John Doe,” the Western name for the unnamed and the everyman.

12. Discuss Jun Do’s physical and emotional journey, and his transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end.

13. One critic described The Orphan Master’s Son as “darkly comedic,” and another as, at times, “ridiculously funny.” How do you feel about the use of comedy in conjunction with the brutality of the novel?

14. How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What can we do to help the people of North Korea without supporting its government?

Deb Caletti on Her Love for the Library

Tuesday, May 7th, 2013

Caletti_He's Gone Deb Caletti, National Book Award Finalist and author of numerous young adult novels, is the author of HE’S GONE, a trade paperback original on sale next Tuesday, May 14th. Below, Deb shares her life-long love for one of her favorite places: the library.

One of the most constant and sustaining truths of my life has been this: I love the library. It’s a love that’s been steadfast and unwavering since I was about six years old. I understood right from the start that every set of library doors were the sort of magic portals that lead to other lands. My God, right within reach there were dinosaurs and planets and presidents and girl detectives! It was a blissful mismatch of promises, the very sort I required: adventure and escape all in a setting of order and safety.

From then on, I was the library-goer who needed the library. I was (am) a bit of an addict. The thrill of bringing home a stack of books so heavy you could barely carry them (I can take all these? For free? Really?) began then and has never left me. But even more, all the answers were in that place. I ate lunch in there sometimes when I was a teen and needed a reprieve from being a teen. As a young mother, I trolled the aisles dripping babies and book bags as I tried to learn how to be a writer. And later, I hid in Self Help as I tried to understand – and leave – my abusive marriage. That’s another thing: librarians keep your secrets. Between those walls and those covers there is all of life, the whole record of us poor old souls doing what we can to get through it, and librarians know this.

Every few weeks, I still make my pilgrimage, hauling around my too-full bag. And every time, I still can’t quite believe no one’s chasing me out as I make off with the goods. So, dear librarians, thank you for this greedy joy. Thank you, too, for the life-changing power of information. Your libraries have been my sanctuary and my sigh of relief, and I am ever grateful.

HE’S GONE by Deb Caletti goes on sale May 14, 2013
Join the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, or visit Deb’s website for more information.

THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE by Ellen Sussman, a Reader’s Guide

Friday, February 22nd, 2013

Sussman_The Paradise Guest House_TPA Conversation with Ellen Sussman and Michelle Richmond
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog and No One You Know and the founder of Fiction Attic Press. She lives in Northern California. Her new novel is forthcoming from Bantam.

Michelle Richmond: The Paradise Guest House is loosely based on terrorist bombings that rocked Bali in 2002. So often, we hear about these tragic events, they linger briefly on the edge of our consciousness, and then, very quickly, we forget. What was it about the Indonesia attacks that compelled you to write this story?

Ellen Sussman: My husband and I visited Bali right after the terrorist attacks. Friends suggested we cancel our trip but we were determined to see the country. In some ways it was the best of times and the worst of times. There were very few tourists—-great for us, lousy for Bali. The landscape is astonishingly beautiful but it felt haunted by the horror of those bombings. The Balinese themselves, famous for their smiles and for their peaceful outlook on life, were clearly suffering. The country was struggling to understand what had happened to them and to learn how to move on.

It was the plight of the Balinese that captured my attention. Unlike the rest of us, they couldn’t forget what had happened to their lovely country. They’re still struggling with the consequences of those terrible acts of violence ten years later. In writing The Paradise Guest House, I wanted to take a closer look at terrorism and how it affects us. I also wanted to examine our notion of paradise and why we’re so drawn to places like Bali. There’s a wild disconnect between that act of terrorism and the beauty of Bali. As difficult as it was, I wanted to live there in my imagination.

MR: You spent time in Bali with survivors and family members of the victims. How did your conversations and relationships with these people shape your story? Are any of the characters in your book directly inspired by real–life persons?

ES: When I returned to Bali years later I contacted an organization called YKIP. They arranged the interviews, and a lovely young woman, Ida (Sri Damayanti), accompanied me as interpreter. I could not have written The Paradise Guest House without that experience. I got a chance to talk to many survivors and family members of the victims. One woman took me into her one–room house, held her baby in her lap, and described her struggle to survive after she was severely burned in the bombing. Another woman talked about waiting for her husband to come home the night of the bombings—-many years had passed, but she could still barely tell the story. Her young daughter stepped in and, holding her mother’s hand, described the way the village took care of them for the weeks after her father was killed when he drove his motorcycle by the clubs that night. The stories I heard made the event real for me—-they put a very personal face on the tragedy. I’m so appreciative to all of those brave people who shared their stories with me.

It’s odd—-none of those people directly inspired the creation of my fictional characters, and yet all of them did. They whispered to me every day as I wrote, urging me on.

MR: In your bestselling novel, French Lessons, you explored the magical city of Paris. Bali holds a different kind of magic—-a lush green landscape that, for all its beauty, cannot help but remind Jamie of the tragedy she witnessed there. What role has travel played in your life, and how have your experiences abroad made you a better writer?

ES: I lived abroad for five years, something I’d recommend to absolutely everyone! The experience changes you—-it helps you understand who you are in a way that you can’t quite grasp if you’ve never left your home country. And it gives you a perspective on the world—-how big it is, how diverse, how complicated—-that we Americans, especially, often fail to appreciate.

I was in my early thirties when I lived in Paris for five years—-since then I’ve traveled a great deal. I’ve spent time in Bhutan, Thailand, Argentina, Italy, Morocco, Peru, Spain, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico, and many other wonderful places. I travel to learn the world and to learn myself. I travel so that my eyes are always wide open.

It’s funny—-a writer has to have a kind of split personality. We live our lives and take notes on our experiences, watching it even as it happens. (I once read that Philip Roth took notes at his grandmother’s funeral!) Traveling strengthens that ability for me. My senses are heightened in foreign lands, my attention is sharp. Even as I’m having a grand time, part of me is observing, tucking images and memories away for use in my fiction. And it’s not always a grand time—-we come up against all kinds of obstacles in unfamiliar places. That’s rich material for me.

I leave tomorrow for a hiking trip in the Pyrenees. In January I’m headed to Chile. What am I searching for? More. More of the world, more rich experiences, more insight into myself. I need it for every novel I write.

MR: Do you travel to places that you want to write about, or do you write about places to which you have traveled?

ES:
Both. I didn’t know that I’d write about Bali when I first traveled there. I had the idea for the novel by the time my vacation ended—-and that idea wouldn’t let go. Years later I went back to spend a month there so that I could learn Bali as well as I could.

When I’m traveling I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to return to that country for a longer research trip!

MR: A few years ago, you edited the well–received anthology Bad Girls. There’s a nod to that book in The Paradise Guest House, when Jamie goes swimming with the niece of her host and a posse of “Indonesian bad girls.” While Jamie’s acts in the immediate aftermath of the bombing are heroic, in the days that follow, she does not exactly follow the “good girl” path. I thought it was brave of you to have Jamie respond in a way that, in its realism and complexity, might cast her, for some readers, in a negative light. What inspired you to write Jamie’s relationship with Gabe in the way that you did?

ES: I’m so glad you asked that question—-I’m sure this will be a controversial issue for many readers. As far as my “bad girl” inclinations, it’s true that I’m willing to break rules or to take chances in my fiction that might displease some readers. I believe Jamie’s actions in the days after the bombing. I also believe that when two people meet each other during chaos or tragedy their connection can run very deep. It might move them to surprising actions. (I’m trying not to give anything away here! Please read the novel before you read this interview!)

But I will say this: I read that more babies were born in Manhattan nine months after 9/11 than at any other time.

Sometime it’s our ability to connect deeply with another person that saves us.

MR: In a previously published autobiographical essay, you write about jumping naked into the ocean as your first husband and his shocked colleagues looked on. In The Paradise Guest House, Jamie dives into the sea. For a moment she considers disrobing, but she recalls that she is a foreigner in Bali, and she isn’t a teenager anymore. Are you, like Jamie, particularly drawn to water? Beyond that, how much of yourself do you find in the character of Jamie, and in what ways do you differ?

ES: Funny that you picked up on that! I put together a collection of short stories when I was in high school and I only noticed after I read it as a whole that swimming featured in every story! (And skinny–dipping was pretty common.) I’m not a great swimmer, but I love hot tubs and baths and floating in the pool. And yes, I prefer all of that without my clothes on. (Note to neighbors: our fences are very high.) There’s something so sensual about the water, and so soothing.

As for Jamie and me—-well, she might be a version of who I wish I had been at her age. She’s more independent than I am—-tougher, scrappier, and even more athletic. I’m probably just as competitive, though! If I could start over, I’d love to be an adventure guide, traveling the world.

MR: The book has a beautiful economy. As a writer, I’m very curious how many pages or chapters were left on the editing–room floor. How different is the finished novel from the first draft? Did you lose any characters or scenes that, at some point in the writing of the book, seemed essential?

ES: Oh, you can’t imagine the cutting–room floor on this one! Gabe had a new wife and a baby—-poor things got trashed along with an offer of marriage by Nyoman. The mistakes I made! The drafts that no one will ever see! After one draft I started over completely—-without even looking at the previous draft. It’s never easy. We writers think we learn how novels get written and then the next novel changes all the rules of the game. Grrrr. But I suppose that’s best—-it’s learning how to write each new novel that keeps us fresh and creative.

MR: There is an incredibly harrowing scene in which you describe the bombings and the immediate aftermath. What kind of research did you do to write this scene? Also, when you’ve written an emotionally exhausting scene such as this one, how do you step out of your writing mindset and reenter your life with family and friends? Do residual emotions from the fictional world you’re so immersed in linger as you go about your day?

ES: I did a great deal of research about the bombings in Bali in 2002. In addition to my conversations with survivors, I read many firsthand accounts that I found in books, articles, and on the Internet. I looked at horrifying photos, mostly on the Internet. And yes, it haunted me day in and day out. When I went to visit the memorial site in Bali, I was as shocked as Jamie on her visit: I expected to see the scenes of those clubs ravaged and burned.

I’m the kind of person who works hard and lives hard. At the end of a writing day, I put the project aside and immerse myself in my daily life with family and friends. But during the writing of The Paradise Guest House, I did have my share of nightmares. I felt a little like Jamie, unable to tuck the experience away.

MR: This novel is coming out soon after the publication of French Lessons. Do you work on more than one book at a time, or do you completely finish a book before moving on to the next?

ES: I can work on only one book at a time. I immerse myself so thoroughly in the world of the novel that it would be impossible for me to switch gears. But I do like to know what my next project is—-so that it’s brewing somewhere in the back of my mind. That way, when one is done I’m ready to dive into the next. (I’m happiest when I’m writing. Really.)

I’m able to write quickly because I’m a very disciplined writer. I write every day, five or six days a week. I produce one thousand words a day, and I move through a first draft pretty steadily. I love living in the world of that first draft. I turn off the noise of my critical brain and just luxuriate in the storytelling. It’s the many rewrites that are grueling for me.

MR: We all want to know: What’s your next destination, and what’s your next book?

ES: I’m back to France, though this time I’ve landed in the south of France. It’s too soon to say much about the novel. I’m really in the discovery phase—-who are these people? What will happen to them? What draws me into their circle? But I’ll say this much: There’s a wedding. And there’s mayhem.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Jamie works as an adventure guide, but her experiences in Bali left her with panic attacks and a fear of crowds. If you were Jamie, would you have been able to go back to Bali? Have you ever had to return to the scene of some difficulty in your life?

2. What do you think helped Jamie more—-coming back to the site of her trauma for healing or searching for the man who helped save her life?

3. Jamie gives Bambang a chance even after the wallet–stealing incident. What does that say about Jamie?

4. Nyoman tells Jamie, “I will be your Ganesh,” referring to the statue in his garden of the Hindu deity with the head of an elephant, who is said to protect his believers from demons. In what ways did Nyoman protect Jamie? And how did her presence at the Paradise Guest House change him?

5. Jamie sees her boss, Larson, as a father figure of sorts. What does she see in him that she doesn’t see in her biological father?

6. What did you make of Jamie’s rejection of Miguel’s proposal?

7. How might Jamie and Gabe’s shared experiences in the bombing have changed their feelings for each other? Do you think they would have felt the same way if they had met under different circumstances? Do you think that a relationship that is created during a traumatic event might have a deeper bond?

8. Do you see Gabe’s time in Bali as his way of running from what happened in Boston with his son, Ethan, or as his running to something unknown and new? Or both?

9. How did Gabe’s response to the bombing differ from Jamie’s? How did it differ from that of the residents of Bali?

10. What did you think of the structure of the book? How did the alternating sections from 2002 and 2003 work to advance the narrative in unusual or unexpected ways?

11. There are many themes in this novel—-love, healing, second chances. What struck you as the most important theme? What do you think was ultimately the book’s lesson?

12. What do you imagine happens after the end of the novel?

Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, interviews Téa Obreht about The Tiger’s Wife

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

JenniferEgan9780307477477Jennifer Egan is the recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was also awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the author of The Keep, Look at Me, The Invisible Circus, and the story collection Emerald City. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and sons in Brooklyn.

The following is an excerpt. To read the complete interview, click here.

JE: One of the central powerful relationships in the book is between Natalia and her grandfather: it’s not the type of relationship we usually see as the primary relationship in a novel.  Could you talk a little about that grandparent-grandchild relationship, your feelings about it in your own life and how it became central in this novel?

TO: I grew up with my grandparents on my mother’s side, and they essentially raised me.  As a kid, you resist the idea of your own parents having had lives and pasts of their own.  Snuff me out if I’m wrong here, but I see that as something prevalent in your novel A Visit From the Goon Squad: a sense of the parent-child relationship being very tense and of children not wanting to live in their parents’ shadow.  When you’re growing up, the lives of your parents aren’t that fascinating, but there is this fascination with grandparents.  Because of that great amount of time that has passed between their youth and yours, and the fact that they lived entire lives before you even got there, you can’t really deny their identity as individuals prior to your existence they way perhaps you can with your parents.  There’s also an awareness that the world was very different when they were living their lives.

JE: Animals play such an enormous role in the novel: the tiger, the dog, Sonia the elephant, Dari?a who seems to be part-human, part-bear. You write so movingly about animals that I found myself close to tears every time you wrote about the tiger from the tiger’s point of view.  Do you have a strong connection to animals in your life?  How is it that animals end up figuring so enormously in this story?

obreht_teaThe Tiger's Wife NBA sealTO: I’m definitely, it turns out, the kind of person who’s a total National Geographic nerd.  I’m there for all the TV specials.  As I’ve gotten older I think my awareness of the natural world and animals’ relationship to people – both culturally and biologically – has grown.  It was fun to write from the point of view of the tiger, and emotionally rewarding, but I think the animals also serve almost as markers around which the characters have to navigate.  I don’t think that was something I did consciously, it just sort of happened.  There is something jarring about seeing an animal out of place: there’s a universal feeling of awe when you see an animal, particularly an impressive animal, out of place.

JE: There are really two worlds in the book which mingle and sometimes intersect: there’s the present day political, medical, scientific situation in which Natalia operates, and then there’s this more mystical, folkloric world of the grandfather’s past.  How did these define themselves in your mind?  Was it hard to move between them?

TO: Pretty early on in the writing I realized that mythmaking and storytelling are a way in which people deal with reality.  They’re a coping mechanism.  In Balkan culture, there’s almost a knowledge that reality will eventually become myth.  In ten or twenty years you will be able to recount what happened today with more and more embellishments until you’ve completely altered that reality and funneled it into the world of myth.

**
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