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Posts Tagged ‘random house reader’s circle’

Reader’s Guide: ENON by Paul Harding

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Harding_ENON We can’t say enough things about Paul Harding’s novel Enon. The story is emotional and heartwrenching, yes, but his prose is outstanding! We hope you and your book club agree.

“Harding conveys the common but powerful bond of parental love with devastating accuracy. . . . Enon confirms what the Pulitzer jury decided: Paul Harding—no longer a ‘find’—is a major voice in American fiction.”—Chicago Tribune

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Enon begins with Kate’s death. Why do you think Paul Harding put her death up front? How did facing her death on the first page affect your reading of the novel and your expectations for the plot?

2. Much of the story involves Charlie’s family history and connections to the past, but without Kate and Susan, Charlie is the last Crosby in Enon: “My whole family made a circumference of ghosts, with me the sole living member in the middle.” How does this fact add to and change how he mourns his daughter?

3. What role has the town of Enon itself played in Charlie’s life? How does the place contain and amplify his grief?

4. As Charlie spirals deeper into his despair and into addiction, he feels shame for what he has become and how his life has decayed. What does Charlie’s story have to say about the personal responsibility of a grieving person? To whom does he feel responsible? Are there boundaries to dealing with loss?

5. While remembering Kate, Charlie also imagines differ- ent scenarios in which she is alive, including a scene where he imagines multiple Kates. How do these imagined scenes reflect Charlie’s grief or his real life in any given moment?

6. Harding writes many beautiful passages to convey Charlie’s inner life. How does Harding’s writing immerse readers directly in Charlie’s life? Are there any passages in particular that made his experience real for you?

7. At the end of the book, Charlie faces two anniversaries—a year since Kate’s death, and her fourteenth birthday. He is then recovering from his addictions. What turned Charlie toward recovery? How does he begin to turn things around?

8. Charlie lets Susan go with relatively little struggle. It becomes clear early on that while Susan and Charlie loved each other, Kate bound them together. What do you think of the way Susan’s response to Kate’s death is portrayed, and of her separation from Charlie?

9. How do drugs change Charlie and how he handles loss?

10. Throughout the novel, Charlie creates routines to help him get from day to day. How do his routines help him cope with his loss? How do they serve both to isolate him from the world and, later, to help him reenter it?

Reader’s Guide: THE ALL-GIRL FILLING STATION’S LAST REUNION by Fannie Flagg

Monday, July 14th, 2014

Flagg_AllGirls We love her and we love her some more. (And we know you agree!) Fannie Flagg’s latest bestselling novel The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion is out in paperback next week. If you and your book club have it on the to-read list, then be sure to check out our discussion questions below. And stop by Fannie’s Facebook page to tell her hello! She loves hearing from readers like you!!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. A lot of Southern identity is wrapped up in one’s family history. “Now, just who are your people?” is an oft-quoted phrase around the region. Sookie’s biggest crisis comes when she realizes that her “people” aren’t actually who she thought they were. How does Sookie’s discovery of her true family affect her identity? How does your own heritage affect your identity?

2. Though Sookie tells us that Lenore’s nickname, “Winged Victory,” came from the way she entered a room—as if she were the statuesque piece on the hood of a car rushing in—how might “Winged Victory” reflect Lenore’s personality in other ways? Does her representation as a classical goddess serve to heighten the air of history and tradition that surrounds her? How might the image of a winged woman tie Lenore in with the ladies of the WASPs?

3. One of the things that we hear repeatedly from Sookie is that she can never stand up for herself—especially to Lenore. We see Fritzi, on the other hand, repeatedly breaking down barriers in her own time. How would you characterize the different kinds of courage that Fritzi and Sookie exhibit? In what ways are they similar and in what ways different?

4. Sookie’s best friend, Marvaleen, is constantly trying different suggestions from her life coach, Edna Yorba Zorbra. From journaling to yoga to the Goddess Within group, which meets in a yurt, Marvaleen tries every method possible to get over her divorce. How does Sookie’s approach to dealing with her problems differ from Marvaleen’s? Do you think her friendship with Marvaleen might have helped push her to confront the question of her mother?

5. In The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, we learn about a mostly unknown part of American history—the WASPs of World War II. These women went for thirty-five years without recognition because their records of service were sealed and classified. Were you surprised to learn about this? What parts of the WASPs’ story spoke to you?

6. As Sookie comes to terms with her new identity, so must the rest of her family. Sookie’s realization that “Dee Dee may not be a Simmons by birth, but she was certainly Lenore’s granddaughter, all right” becomes a comforting thought. Have there been times in your life when you have felt so connected to people that you considered them family? What types of circumstances can create such a bond?

7. Sookie tells her friend one day, “I’m telling you, Dena, when you live long enough to see your children begin to look at you with dif- ferent eyes, and you can look at them not as your children, but as people, it’s worth getting older with all the creaks and wrinkles.” Have you experienced this change yet with your own parents or children? If so, what were the circumstances in which you began to see them in a different light? How did this make your relationship even more special?

8. “Blue Jay Away,” Sookie’s brand-new invention, keeps Sookie’s house finches and chickadees fed, while also making Sookie famous. Who do you think have been the blue jays in Sookie’s own life? Has she learned to manage them successfully?

9. As Pat Conroy says, Fannie Flagg can make even the Polish seem Southern. A large part of Southern and Polish identity is found in their culture—the food, the music, the values. What are some of the things that are unique to your culture? How do they help bring people together?

10. Throughout the book, Dee Dee and Lenore often represent many characteristics that Sookie finds frustrating about being a Simmons, such as the time Dee Dee had to be driven to the church in the back of a moving van so that her Gone with the Wind wedding dress wouldn’t be messed up. Once Sookie gains perspective on her family, however, she comes to love and accept Dee Dee’s obsession with their history. Have there been times when your own friends or family have frustrated you with their opinions? How were you able to gain perspective and accept their differences?

11. A major theme in this book is accepting your home. Sookie experiences a homecoming many times—after she first meets Fritzi and returns to Point Clear, when she goes to Lenore’s bedside at Westminster Village, and when she flies to Pulaski for the All-Girl Filling Station’s last reunion. What is your favorite part about going home? Who are the people who make home a home for you?

Author Spotlight: Ellen Sussman, author of A WEDDING IN PROVENCE, talks about LOVE

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Sussman_Wedding in Provence Ellen Sussman hits the nail on the head with this beautiful essay written especially for Random House Reader’s Circle. We don’t think we could have expressed this better ourselves. Your book club meeting with her upcoming novel, A Wedding in Provence, also calls for a bottle of bubbly to accompany what is bound to be a great conversation.

Let’s Talk about Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about love this summer. My older daughter got married last weekend – at my house! – with all our friends and family gathered round. In my toast to her and her new husband I talked about how important it is to find love in one’s life. And then there’s the care of love, tending the fire, learning to be partners in the world. Love deserves our full attention.

On July 15th, my novel, A Wedding in Provence, hits the shelves. My fictional wedding has nothing to do with my daughter’s wedding – she wasn’t even engaged when I wrote the first draft. But the timing is great fun – I think I’ll drink champagne all summer. And this question of love – its importance, its place in our lives – bubbles to the surface (sorry – champagne on my mind) as I get ready to talk about my novel to my readers.

I’m often asked to visit book clubs that have read my novels and want to share their thoughts with me. I love having the chance to meet my readers and chat with them. I ask them how they choose which books to read each month. They often point to critics who say: read these books about war and politics and history. They have depth! They matter! And yet my readers often want to read and talk about family, about the struggles in their personal lives. They like to talk about relationships and love.

There’s a curious way in which “domestic novels” or “women’s novels” are looked at as less serious than the weighty literature which men write. I can’t think of a topic more serious than love. The bride and groom in my novel – a couple in their 50s – say at one point: how do we commit to love when we know how complicated relationships are? (All the wedding guests seem to struggle in love!) And yet, in a leap of faith, they say: I do.

So this summer I say yes to love. Let’s talk about it. Let’s dig deep and examine what makes us fall wildly madly in love. What keeps us in love? What tears love apart? What could be more important than these questions? Sure, we need great jobs and healthy children and a safe world and an end to global warming. But let’s start with love.

Connect with Ellen on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for Dean Koontz’s THE CITY

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Koontz_TheCity Diving into the latest Koontz this summer? Join us with these questions and topics for discussion. Happy Reading!

1. Jonah recounts his story beginning when he’s eight years old, but in present time, he’s an older man reflecting on and retelling the story of his childhood self. How do you think time and distance have affected Jonah’s retelling of his story? Do you find that the more time you are removed from experiences in your own life, your story—or your view of it—changes? If so, how? What advantages, and challenges, might telling the story from such a perspective bring to an author?

2. Jonah begins his story asserting: “The last thing I am is a closet pessimist. I’m an optimist and always have been. Life’s given me no reason to expect the worst.” As you read, you learn that Jonah’s life hasn’t exactly been easy and he’s experienced real tragedy. Why do you think he’s such an optimist? Which relationships in his life contribute to that? Do you find that your own difficult life experiences make you more optimistic, or conversely, more pessimistic?

3. Both Jonah’s grandfather and Mr. Yoshioka serve as father figures to him. How are their ways of relating to him similar? How different? What are the most important lessons and examples that each impart? What scenes best captured these central relationships? Describe Jonah’s relationship with his mother. What makes their relationship so special? What scenes between them did you find most telling? Most affecting? Do you see such a mother-child relationship reflected in other works of literature? In your experience?

4. Jonah calls his narration an “oral history,” as he’s recording himself “shooting off his mouth.” How do you feel about Jonah as a narrator? Did knowing that his recitation is meant to be more conversational than formal color your relationship with the story in any way? Do you feel more affected by a story told from such an intimate point of view, rather than a story told at a remove, say by an omniscient narrator? How would the story have changed, told from another perspective? Jonah also admits that he plans to edit his recording to “spare the reader all the you-knows and uhs and dead-end sentences, also to make myself sound smarter than I really am.” He says this in jest, but in what ways might we all be guilty of editing our own stories? Consider the way we present ourselves through social media and online profiles. Did this admission make Jonah any less trustworthy as a narrator, considering the things we might leave out of our own narratives? Or did it make him more authentic?

5. Music is such a powerful, pervasive, magical part of this story, and there’s a scintillating soundtrack in the background, transporting us to another time. How did this contribute to your reading experience? What types of music do you envision might reflect Jonah’s later life? Consider what music means to you. What songs or styles of music might comprise the score for the movie of your life?

6. Thinking back, Jonah says, “all children are prone to voodoo thinking because they’re essentially powerless and because they lack so much knowledge of how the world works….” Jonah, of course, believes in juju to some extent, deeming his pendant capable of providing the “ultimate protection,” and safeguarding treasured objects in the La Florentine box. Did you have any of your own superstitions as a child? Ones that may seem silly now or that you still cling to in whatever way? Did you have your own “La Florentine box” and if so, what are some of the objects you valued most dearly? How did Jonah’s beliefs play out thematically in the book? Is there a connection between these so-called “childish” beliefs and belief of a deeper nature, as reflected by Miss Pearl?

7. The “all-seeing eye” is a major theme throughout the novel. There’s the faux eye that must have sprung from a stuffed toy, which Jonah keeps, sensing it has “some ominous significance”; there’s the magazine clipping that Fiona Cassidy contributed to Jonah’s box, having drawn in the eyes with a color that matched her own; and there’s the Fabritius painting, The Goldfinch, the eye of which Jonah feels all of nature peering through, seeing all sides of him and all the lies he’s ever told. In each case, Jonah feels equally unnerved, as though these eyes are portals through which some presence can analyze and judge him. Does he seem to feel the same anxiety when being viewed through each set, or is there an important difference between them? In some ways, do you think he’s attributing his own self-reflection to these “artificial eyes?” Have you ever encountered a set of “eyes” that provoked something in you in the same way? That made you uncomfortable or brought you face-to-face with a truth you wouldn’t have seen otherwise? Can you name similar symbols in other works of literature?

8. What did you make of the haikus strewn throughout the novel? Were you surprised by how moments of great joy and sorrow are captured so sparingly? How did this help put order and simplicity in Jonah’s world, as he was coming of age during a time of such turmoil? What lessons did they instill? Was there one poem in particular that stood out as especially inspirational or beautiful?

9. Jonah remarks on the fact that there weren’t many heroes for him to emulate growing up, as most prominent African Americans in pop culture were either sports stars or musicians, never the champions who took down the bad guys, and “taking down bad guys is fundamentally what you want in your model of a hero.” That definition changes for him over time, and the everyday heroes he comes to worship include his mother, his grandfather, Mr. Yoshioka, and Vermeer, to name a few. How do these figures influence the person he becomes, enabling him to persevere in the face of hardships and ultimately inspiring him to maintain his optimism where others might have given up under the circumstances? Do you have your own unsung heroes who’ve inspired you to do the same? In what ways does the influence of such individuals ripple outward, extending beyond their immediate circles to the wider world, in the novel and in reality?

10. Consider the role of race and identity throughout the narrative, and what it means to different characters. Think about Jonah’s narration as an African American boy coming of age during a time of national unrest, when race riots were the norm. What special insights into the era did you gain from Jonah’s unique perspective? Did anything about his attitude or his family’s attitude about race surprise you? What did you make of Mr. Yoshioka’s Manzanar “posse” and the relationships among them? How did the core values of the various characters inform their approach to this element of their lives?

11. The question of fate versus free will takes center stage in this novel, with Jonah coming to believe that “There is no fate, only free will.” Consider the instance in which he decided to see for himself who Tilton was eating lunch with at The Royal, and wondered what course his life would have taken if he had followed his instinct to run instead. Have you ever been at a crossroad in your life where events could have gone very differently had you taken the road untraveled? Do you consider the outcome of these instances fate, or like Jonah, do you believe that it was one of the times that you listened to the “small voice” that “wants only what is best for us?” What are other critical moments of decision in the novel? How did you feel about the fates of the various characters? What did you make of Miss Pearl’s special relationship with Jonah and her actions toward him at the end of the novel in terms of the question of destiny?

12. On the interpretation of art, Amalia says, “when it comes to what it means, no stuffy expert in the world has a right to tell you what you should think about a painting. Art is subjective. Whatever comfort or delight you get from a painting is your business.” Do you agree with this? Do you think there’s a tendency for people to find art intimidating or prohibitive because they’re supposed to take a specific meaning away from it, or arrive at it with some type of context? Is it liberating to embrace this idea that art should stand on its own and that we gravitate toward certain pieces for a reason? Are there works that you’ve found particularly evocative or moving based on your own experience at any given time? Has there been someone in your own life responsible for introducing you to beauty in the same way that Amalia does for Jonah? Do you see the world of art, or music, or architecture, or other forms of artistic expression, any differently because of this story?

Author Spotlight: Robin Black and J. Courtney Sullivan

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Black_Life DrawingJ. Courtney Sullivan joins Robin Black to ask her a few questions about her upcoming novel, Life Drawing, on sale next week!

Courtney: Robin, I first fell in love with your work while reading your nonfiction essays about the writer’s life. In the novel, you extend these observations on the indecision, inspiration, and doubt that all artists experience. Was it therapeutic in a way to write about these ideas through your characters?

Robin: I’m so glad you’ve liked the essays. Thank you! I love writing about the creative process in essays, and blog posts, and also in fiction. And you’re right that in a way it is therapeutic to describe what it feels like to be consumed by a creative project or abandoned by one. Those states—both of them, the exhilarating and the depressing—are lonely ones. It’s been important for me to find ways of sharing the sensations since they so often define my daily life.

Courtney: The novel begins with two powerful epigraphs–one from Victor Hugo and one from George Eliot. How did you choose them? Were they part of the inspiration for the story, did they come first, or did you find them a fitting start to a tale you’d already created?

Robin: I found the epigraphs after writing the book. I hadn’t titled it yet and was cruising through quotations looking for relevant phrases, partly to spark title ideas, possibly to use a quote as the title. I think of these two quotations as representing the two gravitational centers of Life Drawing: one being about “our dead,” the ghosts and shades we all carry, and the other being relevant to the evolution and survival of long-time romantic relationships, what it means for a person to be loved in a clear-eyed, realistic way rather than idealized. When I found those two lines and they dovetailed so perfectly with these two aspects of the work, I just had to use them.

Courtney: Novelists have so many choices when it comes to structure. I’m intrigued by the decision-making that goes into such choices. We know about a very big plot point that comes much later from the first sentence of the book. Why did you choose to tell us about that up front? I think it’s a brilliant choice. Did you ever consider doing it differently?

Robin: Strangely enough, the first paragraph was originally the start of another piece of fiction about entirely different people, with a completely different plot. But seventy pages in, I had hit a wall, big time. A writer friend asked me what, if anything, I liked about the work and I said: “Just the first paragraph. ” So I lifted it and started all over. Then, as I was writing the novel that became Life Drawing, I forbade myself to change those lines or take out the plot disclosure. I liked the challenge of finding my way back to it, and I liked what I think of as the tautness of a circular plot. I’m hearing from readers now that many of them forget about opening, and I’m delighted that the early disclosure hasn’t seemed to limit the suspense or surprise of the book, because that was a risk.

Stay up to date with Robin Black on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: ISLAND GIRLS by Nancy Thayer

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Thayer_IslandGirls Kick back and relax with a Random House Reader’s Circle classic! Nancy Thayer brings us another entertaining tale from Nantucket. If this is on your summer reading list, then be sure to check out our questions and topics for discussion below! And feel free to connect with Nancy on her Facebook and Twitter.

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1. Arden, Meg, and Jenny come from what can be called a “blended” family. Do you know any families like this?

2. Do you think the relationship of sisters in a family whose parents never divorce is easer/less complicated/more loving than that of sisters in blended families?

3. The flap copy of Island Girls says: “. . . the push and pull of family altercations make us whole.” Do you agree?

4. Did you identify with any of the three young women? If so, which one? Why?

5. Did you identify with any of the three older women? If so, how?

6. How would you match these qualities to these mothers:
Nora Justine Cyndi
Romantic Martyred Practical

7. Towards the end, the mothers get together at the Nantucket house and end up being friends, or at least friendly. Is this realistic or idealistic?

8. Was Justine justified in exiling the two girls? Was she right to keep the information about Jenny’s natural father from her? Would you have done the same?

9. One of the themes in the book is that of self-esteem. Meg’s lack of self-esteem prevents her from believing Liam could love her. On page 238, Justine’s lack of self-confidence made her want to get Meg and Arden out of her life. Do you think women let the lack of self-esteem influence crucial life choices more than men do?

10. Do you think the women of the Rory Randall fan club made the right decision about helping Marcia? What would you have done?

11. Arden, Meg, and Jenny all have work they love. Which woman do you think is most likely to have children? Which woman is least likely?

12. If you had three months—or even one week—to vacation on Nantucket, away from work, home, and everyday worries, lying on a beach in the sun or walking on the beach looking at the stars, would it change anything in your life?

A Letter to Readers from Darcie Chan, author of THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Chan_MillRiverRecluse Author Darcie Chan writes a letter to readers to share her experience moving from self-publishing her e-book to hitting the New York Times bestseller list to scoring a book deal with Random House. She also reminds us that you should always expect the unexpected,” and we couldn’t agree more! Her sensational story certainly reminds us of that.

Dear Reader,

The Mill River Recluse is my first novel. For most authors, writing a first novel is a learning experience and a labor of love. Trying to get a first novel published is quite another matter. Frustration and disappointment abound. The paths to traditional publication are paved with rejection letters from agents and publishers. Self-publishing these days also presents a host of difficulties. Producing a quality story on one’s own is just the first step; an author must then get that story noticed in an ever-expanding ocean of content. The Mill River Recluse has taken me down both paths, culminating in an amazing, roller-coaster ride that I never expected to experience.

My central story idea for The Mill River Recluse had a real-life origin. The basic concept for the book was inspired by a gentleman named Sol Strauss who lived in Paoli, Indiana, the small town in which I lived during high school and where my mother was born and raised. Mr. Strauss, a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany, operated a dry goods store in Paoli in the 1940s. Even though Mr. Strauss lived quietly alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population, he considered Paoli to be his adopted community. When he died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it a substantial sum, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the people of Paoli.

The Sol Strauss Supporting Organization Fund is still in operation today. Among other things, it provides clothing and other necessities for needy children and an annual supply of new books for the high school English department. Residents of Paoli may also apply to the fund for assistance in carrying out a project that would benefit the town. The fund is the legacy of Mr. Strauss, who continues to be remembered for his extreme and unexpected generosity.

I remembered what Mr. Strauss had done when I was brainstorming ideas for a first novel. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to build a story around a character who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far removed from his or her community may in fact be more special and integral than anyone could imagine.

I began writing for a few hours after work most evenings, and it took two and a half years to complete a first draft. I polished the manuscript as best I could, and I was ecstatic when Laurie Liss, an agent with Sterling Lord Literistic in New York, agreed to shop it around for me. Despite Laurie’s valiant efforts, though, my novel didn’t sell. I put the manuscript in a drawer and resolved that someday, I would write a second book and try again. Life went on.

I didn’t write much during the next several years. My job grew increasingly demanding, my husband finished his residency and accepted a position necessitating a move to a different state, and we had a baby. (I’m still trying to catch up on sleep missed for all those reasons!) But, when my son was a toddler, I started reading articles about how e-books had exploded in popularity. Even more interesting was the fact that apparently it had become very easy for an individual writer to self-publish a book in electronic form. I thought of The Mill River Recluse languishing in my drawer. I figured I had nothing to lose and released it as an e-book in May 2011.

Soon, I realized that no one would find my novel among all the other e-books out there unless I did some sort of marketing for it. After all, publishing companies invest in marketing and publicity for their books. As an individual with a modest budget, there was no way I could fund a major marketing campaign, but I arranged for a few inexpensive online ads to get my novel on readers’ radar screens. I kept the price of my book very low, to encourage people to take a chance on a story by a completely unknown writer. I also set up a website, Twitter account, and Facebook author page. And then, I waited.

Sales started to trickle in. During the first month, I sold around a hundred copies. I was so thrilled! To think, a hundred people had bought my book! My husband, Tim, and I grabbed up our little boy and did a happy dance in the kitchen. “Wow, maybe you’ll be able to sell a thousand,” I remember him saying. I doubted that, but I thought perhaps a few hundred more sales might be possible.

In late June, a feature of my novel popped up on a large website that recommends e-books to readers. Within two days, another six hundred copies sold! After the feature ended, the pace of sales accelerated. Reviews from readers started coming in—and most of them were the kind of glowing, positive reviews that authors dream of receiving. I was hearing directly from those readers, too.

One gentleman sent me an email to tell me that he loved the book, but that he had had to wait until his wife had left the house to read the last few pages. The reason? He didn’t want his wife to see him become “a blubbering mess.” Another woman wrote to tell me that she had read my book aloud to her mother in the hospital, and it brought her mother great comfort during her last days of life. Both of those messages, as well as many others I received, left me in tears. And the emails and Facebook messages kept coming from readers of all ages throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

By mid-July, I knew something extraordinary was happening. I kept my agent in the loop, of course, but I was shocked when she called me in mid-August and left a cryptic message on my answering machine.

“Darcie, it’s Laurie. Check your email.”

I scrambled around and got to my computer. She had sent me an advance copy of the latest New York Times bestseller list.

The Mill River Recluse appeared on it at #12.

To this day, there are no words that are adequate to describe everything I felt in that moment. My novel remained on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for the next several months, and the wonderful notes from readers kept coming. I thought that surely, finally, things had peaked, but I was wrong.

In late November 2011, I was contacted by Alexandra Alter, a book reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She wanted to interview me for a feature story about my writing journey up to that point. Alexandra was cheerful and pleasant when she came to my home on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I didn’t feel at all nervous or odd about speaking with her until she told me that, during the previous week, she had gone up to Maine to interview Stephen King.

I am still mortified when I envision how far my mouth must have dropped open before I regained control of it.

The Wall Street Journal ran Alexandra’s article on December 9, 2011. It appeared on the front page of the Friday magazine, with a full-color photo spread inside and additional teasers on the front page of the whole paper. By late afternoon, the online version of the story had been picked up by Yahoo! News, and my photo was among those circulating on the Yahoo! homepage. Pandemonium ensued.

My phone began ringing off the hook. Other writers were calling, wanting advice or simply to get together for coffee. Other reporters were calling, wanting interviews. (I changed my number to an unlisted one immediately!) My website email inbox was accumulating emails faster than I could scroll down the page. My colleagues were incredulous, as most of them had no idea I’d written a novel years before and had recently, casually decided to self-publish it. Several of my clients emailed, sending me links to the article and saying things like, “Oh my God, is this you?” Laurie was fielding phone calls from publishing companies and film studios. My family and my closest friends, scattered in a half dozen states across the country, were calling and emailing ecstatic messages of support.

I was a quivering mess. All I could do was sit and hug my son. I knew that things had changed permanently for me at that point.

Within a few weeks, I received an offer from Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, to write two new novels. It was an offer to make my childhood dream a reality. The question was, could I continue to work as an attorney and write books in my spare time? Or, did I have to choose between the two?

I loved my legal career and the many colleagues with whom I’d worked for more than a decade. But I knew that I couldn’t live the rest of my life wondering whether I could have had a successful career as a writer, and there was no way I could give writing my best shot if I was constrained by the restrictions that applied to me as an employee of the federal government. It was a difficult decision, but I resigned my attorney position to write full-time in March 2012.

To date, The Mill River Recluse has sold more than 700,000 electronic copies and has been or will be published in nine foreign languages, in addition to its publication in English. The story of its self-publication as an e-book was featured in a documentary film called “Out of Print,” which was directed by Vivienne Roumani-Denn and narrated by Meryl Streep. But now, finally, I feel as if the roller coaster has slowed, and my life is returning to normal. A new normal.

In the short time that I’ve been a writer—which is a description of myself that I’m still getting used to—I’ve learned a few things. First, you should always expect the unexpected. And, there is sometimes more than one path that will enable you to achieve a dream. For me, being able to get my first novel in front of readers changed my career and my life. I will always be grateful for every person who reads The Mill River Recluse, especially those first e-book readers who gave it a chance and took the time to review it, mention it to a friend, or send me a note of encouragement. Those readers—my readers—made my dream of being an author come true. I only hope that this first novel and my future books return to them—and to you—the same great happiness and enjoyment I have experienced in writing them.

My very best wishes,
Darcie Chan
May 2014

Author Spotlight: Susan Vreeland, author of LISETTE’S LIST

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

Vreeland_Lisette's ListGetting a glimpse behind the story of a novel and an author’s inspiration is always a special treat for us. We love learning about the voyage of a novel. New York Times bestselling author Susan Vreeland gracefully combines her travels, research, and pure passion for her subjects. Her latest novel, Lisette’s List, is on sale August 26, 2014. Today she would like to share some “Inklings of Inspiration for Lisette’s List.”

You may wonder how I came to write this book, so different from my others.

It began with a feeling that in terms of my development as a writer, I must not write another novel centered on one artist, bringing to literary life part of a biography, and expanding into the artist’s friendships and associations. That approach has given me much joy for a decade, but recently I began to feel that it was too constraining. The new book came of a need to outgrow that mode and completely invent for myself, and to devote my imagination to creating characters whom I wanted to embrace.

Roussillon-after-a-rain_crop

Enter a Provence-loving friend who insisted that I see the village of Roussillon in Provence on an upcoming trip across the south of France with my husband. With only two hours there, and with rain deepening the red-ochre and rosy ochre and golden ochre of the village, I fell in love, recognizing this perch of harmonious houses high above ochre cliffs as a treasure of ultimate provincialism. I vowed to come again. And I did, with a novel swimming in my head.

© Susan Vreeland

© Susan Vreeland

It also began, before that trip, with a fascination with Varian Fry, the American who, during the German Occupation of France in World War II, orchestrated the clandestine housing and escape of Jewish artists and writers from the Villa-Bel and Marseille in Provence. Although neither Fry nor the villa nor Marseille appear in this novel, Marc Chagall, one of those escaping painters, does.

The rape of Europe of its art, as it has come to be called*, has disturbed me greatly. That entire nations could be deprived of the art of their native sons and daughters by a ruthless foreign tyrant with no appreciation for any painting beyond the Renaissance, was an injury and outrage I feel keenly. That would provide the historic context, and the passion to carry forward this new work.

ochre-canyons-ll_jan2014-003And grounding my passion, like a seed in my soul, the novel grew from my deep love for France, for the French language, for French art, for Provence, and for the French people who have suffered unspeakably during war and its aftermath and whom I have found to be gracious lovers of beauty.

When I learned that near Roussillon there were ochre quarries and mines from which was extracted the ore which produced pigments in all the warm hues of the color wheel, I had a substantial artistic link to this region beyond mere love.

Art history looks at art works and the people who have created them. But what is it called, that exploration of the people who made the things that are the materials of art? The first thing: the pigments, that bright earth. The last thing: the frame around a finished painting. Both are elements in the novel. Because I knew no word for this area of study, that was the new terrain I wished to enter.

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*Nichols, Lynn, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1994.

For more information, stay up to date with Susan on her website and Facebook page.

Reader’s Guide: Jennifer DuBois’s Five Favorite Fictional Journeys

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

DuBois_Cartwheel In Cartwheel, Lily Hayes, an American exchange student in Buenos Aires, is arrested for murder. Since the novel takes place abroad, the author wanted to share her five favorite fictional journeys in literature. Do you have any you’d like to add to this list?

TRAVELERS ABROAD—FIVE FAVORITE FICTIONAL JOURNEYS by JENNIFER DUBOIS

PRAGUE, Arthur Phillips
Arthur Phillips’s smart, sharply funny first novel follows a group of expats in post-Communist Budapest. Collectively, they are plagued by the creeping suspicion that real life is elsewhere—in the past, perhaps, or just possibly in Prague.

THE QUIET AMERICAN, Graham Greene
A prophetic critique of the folly of mapping simple theories onto complex realities, The Quiet American is also a broad reflection on the dangers of innocence itself; innocence, Greene writes, is “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

DEATH IN VENICE, Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann’s classic novella follows a German academic’s consuming obsession with a young boy he spots while traveling in Venice. As his quest to attract the boy grows increasingly grotesque—and the threat of a looming cholera outbreak grows increasingly real—the story’s surreal dreaminess becomes a nightmare’s.

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, Mohsin Hamid
This nuanced meditation on nationality, allegiance, and home is structured as a conversation between two travelers: a Pakistani speaker called Changez, and the unnamed (and possibly armed) American who listens to his story.

PALE FIRE, Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire is full of exiles: there is American writer John Shade, exiled from his own epic poem by the long-winded footnotes of academic Charles Kinbote, himself an exile from the mysterious land of Zembla, whose commentary increasingly concerns the story of Zembla’s own exiled king. A prismatic exploration of narrative itself, Pale Fire is a book that somehow becomes a universe—making dazzled voyagers of us all.

Join the conversation with Jennifer DuBois on Facebook and Twitter!

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

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