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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.


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.


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.

Screen shot 2014-05-28 at 12.11.17 PM

*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: TRANSATLANTIC by Colum McCann

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

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

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Guide: CARTWHEEL by Jennifer DuBois

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay connected with Jennifer on Facebook and Twitter!

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

Monday, May 19th, 2014


A Conversation with Michelle Richmond and Dani Atkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MR: What are your writing habits?

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

MR: Who are your favorite authors?

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

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

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

Stay up to date with Dani Atkins on Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: & SONS by David Gilbert

Monday, May 19th, 2014

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

Questions and Topics for Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Is this tedious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reader’s Guide: 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?

Author Spotlight: Elizabeth McCracken and her Publishing Team

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

McCracken_Thunderstruck“Magnetic . . . Anyone who enjoys short fiction will find pleasure and substance in McCracken’s witty, world-wise collection.”—Library Journal

Elizabeth McCracken has been gracing the literary scene with her beloved short story collections and novels for many years. Thunderstruck & Other Stories, a nine story collection and her first in twenty years, navigate the fragile space between love and loneliness. The author sat down with some members of her Random House publishing team to answer a few questions.

Susan Kamil: Publisher & Editor-in-Chief asks…
What authors have influenced your work the most and why?

It’s so hard to say! Every time I name check a famous writer, I hear a little voice saying, Yeah, you wish. That said: I think all the time about Grace Paley, who understood that brilliance and kindness were not mutually exclusive. Dickens and his lack of restraint. Gish Jen, whose first published stories were appearing just when I first thought I would be a serious writer, in all of their hilariousness and braininess. It was a revelation to me, that it was all right to want to be both funny and serious. & Carson McCullers, for no doubt obvious oddball reasons.

Noah Eaker: Senior Editor asks…
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Juliet,” which is set in a public library, as is your novel The Giant’s House. I know you spent time as a librarian. Can you explain the Dewey Decimal system to me? Just kidding. But I would love to know: What was your favorite thing about working in a library? And were there any great, obscure books you would have never discovered had you not worked in one?

There were a lot of things I loved about working in a library, but mostly I miss the library patrons. I love books, but books are everywhere. Library patrons are as various and oddball and democratic as library books. I really loved being a municipal employee. I can’t think of any obscure books, but I will always have a soft spot for Edwidge Danticat, beyond her brilliance: Breath, Eyes, Memory came across my circulation desk. I thought (having never heard of her) “Well, this looks interesting” and read it and of course it knocked me out. I feel the same way about Leah Hager Cohen and Train Go Sorry. She turned out to be a library patron, and I think I terrified her by being excited when I saw her name on her library card.

Karen Fink: Assistant Director of Publicity asks…
An active participant on Twitter (@elizmccracken), you often tweet about unique pieces found on auction. Do these pieces ever make their way into your writing and what are some of the most bizarre or different pieces you have ever seen on auction?

Well, I love objects. I like them around the house and I like them in fiction. So far I’m not sure that I’ve actually put anything directly into fiction (though my husband, Edward Carey, has put an oil painting we bought in England into his latest book). I have a set of Bakelite teeth that I keep trying to put into fiction but I don’t think I’ve succeeded yet. My favorite online auction objects are weird dolls—there was one a while ago with a porcelain head and a stick for a body which (according to the description) “played music,” though I still don’t know by what method. Tweeting about objects means I don’t need to bid on them, which is a blessing. Buying something is a way of saying look at this! So is tweeting. So, I guess, is writing fiction.

Selby McRae: Marketing Coordinator asks…
What did you learn about your writing going from short stories to novels and back to short stories? What drew you back to short stories?

There was a time in my life when I wasn’t sure I’d ever write a short story again, because I had started writing novels and I am fundamentally a lazy person and the fact is that a novel is a lazy person’s form, really. That is: you can amble, you can digress. You can let your attention wander. Your mistakes are better disguised, I think. A short story requires more work, somehow, more attention, and a collection of short stories is that much more, times 7 (or 9, or 12). There is no such thing as a perfect novel, but I can think of dozens of perfect short stories: I just knew I wasn’t capable of writing one myself. So I wrote a couple of novels, which I published, and then a couple of novels that didn’t work out. Michael Ray, an editor at Zoetrope All-Story, started asking me for short stories. He asked, I wrote one, he asked for another, I wrote another—really, I was a cartoon mouse lured out by cartoon cheese. And I remembered what I loved about writing short stories, even if I knew I wasn’t writing perfect ones: that sudden flash of light that (you hope) illuminates everything that goes before.

Benjamin Dreyer: Vice President, Executive Mangaing Editor, & Copy Chief asks…
Are you a tinkerer? Or do you find that once you’ve finished a story you’re apt to leave it alone unless, say, prodded by an editor or copy editor?

Oh, I’m a terrible tinkerer. I need people to slap my work out of my hands. I don’t much (as some writers claim) spend hours putting a comma in only to take it out, but I fiddle with word choice, I try to make the characters gesture in a more interesting way, I cut and cut and cut. And I love copy editors. I love line-editing, even if I don’t agree with the edit. The thing that most interests me about writing—there are lots of things, but the thing I can’t do without—is the hit of happiness a lovely sentence delivers. I mean that as a writer or a reader. People who are compelled by sentences are my people. I take their advice, or take great pleasure in explaining why I think they’re wrong.

Stay in touch with Elizabeth on Twitter and check out her latest collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories- on sale now!

A Q&A with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

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

A Conversation with Jessica Brockmole and Kate Alcott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KA: Were Elspeth and Davey based on real people?

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

KA: What kind of research did you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KA: What are your writing habits?

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

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

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

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

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