Note from our sponsor: Bookish Brunch is cancelled

We just heard from Seattle7Writers, and they're sorry to report the Bookish Brunch had to be cancelled.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Bookish Brunch is cancelled. Thank you for your support of Seattle7Writers; we look forward to seeing you at another event soon!

Big thanks to Seattle7Writers for their sponsorship this week. Be sure to keep in touch with them, maybe pop your name onto their mailing list, so you know when the next event is coming up.

Now is the time to RSVP for a free workshop on racial equity and the literary arts

On Thursday, June 2nd, Seattle City of Literature, with support from Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights, will present the first of three free workshops on racial equity in the literary arts. This is important stuff; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who argues that literature is anywhere near parity in its representation. In fact, we saw some high-profile incidents last year — the Seattle literature anthology, the ridiculous white dude who pretended to be a different race and then pretended it was a political statement — that reminded us of exactly how far we have to go.

Stesha Brandon, the interim executive director of Seattle City of Literature, helped organize the workshop. “What we’re hearing is that people know there’s a problem and they don’t know what to do about it,” she says. “We’re hoping this will be one step toward addressing the issue.”

Brandon interviewed a number of prospective facilitators, but she settled on Dr. Caprice Hollins because Hollins “understood the challenges of working with a group as diffuse as the literary community, as well as the challenges of crafting a workshop that will meet different individuals and different organizations where they are on the continuum of race and social justice.” Hollins oversaw the creation and the implementation of the Department of Equity & Race Relations for Seattle Public Schools, and she has over two decades of experience working on racial equity issues.

This will be the first of three workshops that are open to anyone who participates in the Seattle-area literary community: writers, booksellers, publishers, editors, readers. The subjects of the next two workshops could potentially change, depending on how this first one goes, but they are tentatively scheduled to be about the power of stereotypes and understanding privilege.

The first workshop will take place between 1:30 and 5 pm on Thursday the 2nd. If you would like to attend, please send an email to rsvp@seattlecityoflit.org by May 31st. If you’re unable to attend next week but would like to be alerted about future workshops, Brandon urges you to send an email, too.

Seattle loves to have conversations about the conversations that Seattle should have. This is an opportunity to finally be in the room and have a real conversation about a real problem in the community. Frankly, when it comes to matters of race and representation, literature should be held to a higher standard than other disciplines, because literature is, at its core, about empathy. If those of us in the literary arts can’t empathize with each other, there’s not much hope that anyone else will be able to do it. We must do better, so that we can lead the way for everyone else.

And it’s important to note that these sorts of workshops are exactly why an organization like Seattle City of Literature is so necessary; we have such a bustling, always-moving scene here that it’s important for someone to have oversight over the whole community and to keep an eye on what we need. Thanks to City of Lit and to Brandon for fulfilling their charge and bringing something meaningful to the community that wasn’t here before.

The Help Desk: Checkboxes of despair

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to advice@seattlereviewofbooks.com.

Dear Cienna,

I received the worst rejection slip from a literary magazine in the mail the other day. It was a form letter with check boxes, and at the top it said "NOT ANOTHER…" and then there were a series of options for the editor to check off: "…poem about alcohol," "…short story about horses," that sort of thing. My checked box said "…memoir about mothers and daughters."

Cienna, I'm more than a little annoyed about this. There's a lot more to my piece than my mom's death, and I think the response is a little bit condescending and, yes, sexist. My friends mostly say I should be happy I got a response at all, but that snotty little checkmark haunts my dreams. Should I blog about this rejection letter experience, or would I just look like a bitter freelancer?

Luann, Rainier Valley

Dear Luann,

I’m sorry, that is both disappointing and unnecessarily catty. Anyone worth their salt — or the salt of your tears — should have the decency to be both honest and kind in their rejection. Like this:

Dear madam,

Thank you for your submission. Your piece was raw and moving, and I encourage you to continue submitting to other publications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit with the tone of our magazine so we have to pass. You see, we are a literary magazine and thus we have a high bar to uphold in terms of both quality and content for our reader. From the feedback we receive, we know our reader is sophisticated, she enjoys sleepy short stories about the middle class in which nothing more startling happens than a blink. She is also a deep thinker who hates poetry and horses, and who happens to resent her own mother, which is why your story simply won’t suit (unless your mother’s death could be rewritten as more of a comedy?).

You may have noticed that literary magazines are experiencing something of an ecdysis, like when a snake sheds its skin only to reveal a dead snake underneath. Imagine a carpet of dying, molting snakes. In the literary world, we call this a “niche market.” In this niche market it pays to pander to our loyal audience of reader, and right now we’re niched so tight we can hear each other’s dying heartbeats. To mix a few metaphors, we are niched to the hilt. To Hell and back. I’m sure you understand we must keep our reader happy. Keep writing!

Fondly,
XXXXXXXXXX

P.S. Change your gender and maybe we’ll talk!

I hope that letter helps put things in perspective. And yes, when in doubt you should always blog about your feelings. The internet is a carpetbag of freaks and wonder; someone is bound to find your insights helpful. Where else could I find a support group of fellow spider lovers struggling to discipline their out-of-control teens AND sweet discounts on Spanx?

Kisses!

Cienna

Portrait Gallery: Lindy West

Each week, Christine Marie Larsen creates a portrait of a new author for us. Have any favorites you’d love to see immortalized? Let us know

For my thirtieth portrait for Portrait Gallery, I picked Seattle's own Lindy West. She has been everywhere lately: we reviewed her book, and Paul did this amazing interview with her. She was at Town Hall last night, but if you missed it, you can still catch her tonight at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park before she's off to events around the country and in the UK.

Lindy West's writing process involves "a bat-haunted cabin in Maine"

"This is the weirdest thing that ever happened to me," Lindy West said from the stage at Town Hall last night after being welcomed by a beyond sold-out room — 1200 people — with thunderous applause. West began by talking a little about the writing of her memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. "A book, FYI, is eighty thousand words," she told the room. "That's a lot of words." And it took months to write, many of which she spent "in a bat-haunted cabin in Maine."

West said she was proud of Shrill, that she finds the book to be "very, very vulnerable and very personal," and also "full of butts and periods." What she wanted in the book, she said, was to represent a woman's life as literature, "the way men's lives are presented." She said she's read plenty of "day-to-day experiences of men in literature, and it's been great," but women should be afforded that same kind of representation. Later in the evening, she added that a lot of men online seem to be very upset about the idea of women wanting to be represented, that they argue the fight for representation was pointless. "If representation doesn't matter," West responded, "why won't you fucking let go of it?"

After West read the first chapter of Shrill, the question and answer session mostly involved people seeking advice. How do we convince men to read the stories of women? West replied that everyone should "raise your young baby sons to read books about girls." What's the best way to fight back against trolls? West said she used to believe that it was important to "talk back on Twitter," but lately she's been feeling less inclined to enagage with them. She added, "I'm really into the trend of [sites with] no comments sections."

When asked about how she came to share some of the most personal parts of Shrill, West was clear about the fact that she still has boundaries. And she wanted young writers to know that it's okay to have boundaries of their own. "There is a writing culture that encourages, especially, young women to sell their deepest traumas for fifty dollars and I would encourage them to not do that." Almost as soon as West said that, she said she regretted saying it, because she didn't want to tell young writers what to do. If they wanted to share their story, that's fine, she said, but if they felt alarm bells going off as they turned their memories into writing, they should pay attention to the internal warning. "You don't have to give everything away to be a good writer, or even a good confessional writer," West said.

A lot of the questions had to do with her writing process. West's answers were decidedly not practiced, which seemed to make them more meaningful for the crowd. She said she still pores through Shrill wondering, "was that the best sentence I've ever written or the worst sentence anyone has ever written?" She also said that it took a long time to acknowledge that "me in my underwear at five AM eating Swedish fish and crying" was a natural part of the writing process. But once she accepted that, things got a lot easier. Her words seemed to encourage the aspiring authors who came to see her, and they all offered words of praise before their questions — "I read the book and I fucking loved it," someone said. It was the kind of hometown crowd reading that every author should hope for: a giant, loving room full of people who came not out of obligation, but out of love. That crowd left with the sense that West loved them back. Readings don't get any more meaningful than that.

A few good deals on sponsorships, first come first served!

UPDATE: Well, that was fast. We're sold out! If you're interested in a spot in our upcoming group of days, drop us a line on our contact page, or mail us at sponsorships @ our domain.

When we launched the Seattle Review of Books, we knew our sponsorship model was risky. It required training our readers that advertising doesn't have to be horrible, despite pretty much everything else you find on the internet.

But our sponsorship model is working. It allows us to pay for the reviews, poems, and things like memorials for writers we love, and reporting from special events you see here, and allows us to work on upcoming special projects you're going to love. This is all due to our sponsors, and due to our readers checking each sponsor out, and giving them a fair shake.

We're about to release our next block of openings, for August to January, and before we do that, we'd love to clear the last four slots we have remaining in June and July.

  • We made two slots $100 ($50 off!)
  • We made two slots $125 ($25 off!)

Find out more on our Sponsorship page, and view the open dates here. First come first served, and once they're gone, they're gone.

Thursday Comics Hangover: A lot of heart

A month ago, I referred to the first issue of Heartthrob as “a very promising ghost story/heist comic.” At the time I was giving it a cursory mention as one of a fleet of new heist-themed comics. Now that the second issue of Heartthrob is out in comic shops, I can tell you that it doesn’t deserve to be shoved off into laundry list of trends. This is already shaping up to be a terrific comic book.

Heartthrob is the story of Callie, a quiet young woman with a heart defect who doesn’t feel like the protagonist of her own life. She gets a heart transplant, and she suddenly starts taking risks. Soon enough, she learns the reason for the change in her behavior: the heart in her chest belonged to a career criminal named Mercer. Mercer now appears as a ghost to Callie, and the two of them fall in love. They become a Bonnie and Clyde-style love affair, two souls wrapped in a single body. Or is Callie just losing her mind a little bit?

The second issue of Heartthrob finds Callie and Mercer engaging in a torrid cross-country love affair as he instructs her how to become a criminal. The page where he teaches her skills like pick-pocketing and explosives is laid out like a board game, and though it’s a cute-enough transition, the layout unfortunately doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. It’s a needlessly ostentatious, attention-grabbing moment in a book that ordinarily revels in its own confidence.

Robert Wilson IV’s art is right on the fine line between alternative and mainstream. Sometimes his characters resemble Dan Clowes drawings, and other times they look more like your standard attractive crime comic characters. His lines are thick and his shading is heavy, but a lot of nuance comes through on his characters’ faces. And he seems to revel in the book’s late-70s setting, with all its enormous cars and the polyester clothes that look so fine in Nick Filardi’s burnt-orange color palette. Visually, the book could not be more welcoming.

And Christopher Sebela’s script matches the art with its clarity and its appeal. Heartthrob is an unashamed love story, a straightforward account of a woman finding her voice, and a story of two people taking on the world. It’s a goddamned pleasure from the first page to the last.

Last year, the Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts and Lectures teamed up to promote a popular Summer Book Bingo program. It was such a success — my social media was at times overwhelmed with #BookBingoNW hashtags — that they're doing it again. This year's PDF bingo card includes categories like "Local author," "#WeNeedDiverseBooks," and "Recommended by a librarian." If you black out the whole card, you'll be entered to win a library of books from Seattle Arts and Lectures along with tickets to the 2016-2017 season. If you do a standard bingo column, you'll be entered to win a $30 gift certificate at a local independent bookseller. The deadline is Tuesday, September 6th.

Right now, the internet is exploding with spoilers from Marvel and DC Comics. Which is weird. People seem to be getting genuinely upset over some of these plot twists, and they don't seem to understand that this kind of media feeding frenzy has been going on since at least the late 90s, when Superman died for the first time. Look, it's great to see people get excited about comics — I write a column about comics every week — but we don't need to harangue creators or write very long thinkpieces in response to what is obviously a plot twist in an ongoing story. Corporate superhero comics are all about the illusion of change. Everything will be okay, I promise.

Your Week in Readings: The best literary events from May 25th - May 31st

Wednesday May 25: Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman Reading

See the Event of the Week column. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Thursday May 26: White Sands Reading

Geoff Dyer writes nimbly about difficult concepts that are exceptionally difficult for most writers to explain; he once wrote a book about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. White Sands is about travel, and the idea of travel, and living in the world; I can’t explain it, but I know Dyer can. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Friday May 26: Paper: Paging Through History Reading

In both Cod and Salt, Mark Kurlansky wrote huge, well-researched books about seemingly tiny topics which expand into nuanced histories of the entire world. His newest, Paper, promises to do the same trick with paper and the written word, though it also looks forward, at the prospect (threat?) of a paperless future. Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Saturday May 28: Almost Live: The Show That Wouldn’t Die Reading

Now that we’re a world-class city with our very own giant Amazon balls, it’s hard to remember that Seattle used to have its own local low-budget Saturday Night Live. Bryan Johnston’s history of Almost Live includes interviews with nearly every cast member, making it a must-read for the three natural-born Seattleites who can still afford to live here. Third . Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com. Free. All ages. 6:30 p.m.

Sunday May 29: Literary Events at Fokllife

All weekend long Folklife hosts literary events like readings from the youth-poetry saints of Pongo Publishing, Greg Vandy’s book about Woody Guthrie, and more. On Sunday alone, you can find a whole bunch of children’s storytelling events and a reading from the Jack Straw Fellows hosted by beloved local poetry advocate Kathleen Flenniken. Seattle Center, http://nwfolklife.org. Free. All ages. 11 A.M.

Monday May 30: Author: The JT LeRoy Story Screening

In the late 1990s, everyone was obsessed with JT LeRoy, a media-shy author who wrote thinly veiled novels about his own life as a drug-addicted homeless youth. Then, LeRoy was outed as a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert. Jeff Feuerzeig’s documentary about LeRoy/Albert is coming to SIFF, and today I’ll be joining him for a post-screening interview. Shoreline Community College, 16101 Greenwood Ave. N., 464.5830, http://siff.net. $13. All ages. 3 p.m.

Tuesday May 31: Tribe Reading

Sebastian Junger is not just one of the dreamiest authors alive—he’s a hottie who fearlessly launches himself into dangerous situations—he’s also one of the most compassionate. His newest book, Tribe, documents the many pitfalls that befall veterans when they return to normal life in America, including suicide, PTSD, and drug Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, http://townhallseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Event of the Week: Lindy West reading from Shrill at Town Hall tonight

Tonight, Lindy West reads from her memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman at Town Hall Seattle, and it’s kind of a triumphant homecoming after the first leg of what looks to be a long book tour: she’s debuted the book in Chicago and in Brooklyn but she hasn’t yet read to a hometown crowd.

When she sat down with me for an interview, I asked Lindy something I’ve been meaning to ask for a very long time: there was a point when she and i worked together at The Stranger when she was becoming a nationally famous feminist cultural critic. In the days before the internet, that would have been the exact point when a writer would have packed up, left Seattle, and moved to New York City, to try to land jobs at high-paying magazines. Did Lindy stay in Seattle because the technology allowed her to telecommute, or was there something else that was keeping her here?

“I just love Seattle so much,” Lindy replied, “and I always have. Both of my parents are from here. There’s something about knowing that when I drive through downtown, I can see my dad walking down the street with his briefcase in 1973.” She said she “had the good fortune to keep getting jobs where they said I could work from wherever, so there’s just no compelling reason to go.” That said, “I know that I’m missing out on things. It’s hard to know what my career would be like if I had moved to New York. I definitely miss out on things like,” and here she screwed up her face with a special kind of disdain, “media cool kid happy hour, or whatever.”

It’s hard to imagine a more famous version of Lindy West right now; her book is getting rave reviews everywhere and she’s doing interviews with seemingly every media outlet in the English-speaking world. But part of her appeal is that she can be the totally fearless, brash, hilarious warrior on the internet and in print, and then she can come home and be a Seattleite who loves her family and friends and city in a completely earnest, un-New-York-y way. It’s hard to imagine a Lindy West without Seattle’s influence, and it’s impossible to imagine a Seattle without Lindy West.

Town Hall Seattle, 1119 8th Ave., 652-4255, townhallseattle.org. $5. All ages. 7:30 p.m.

Book News Roundup: Sherman Alexie's six favorite books about identity

  • If you'd like to be an exhibitor in this year's Short Run Comix & Arts festival, you should fill out this form sometime between now and July 15th.

  • Yesterday, Artist Trust announced the recipients of their 2016 Fellowships. Fourteen artists received $7,500. According to Artist Trust, the winners were "selected for their artistic excellence, professional accomplishments, and continuing dedication to their discipline." Here's a list of all the literary winners, who deserve your congratulations:

Bill Carty (Seattle)

Miles Caudesch (Pullman)

Ramon Isao (Seattle)

Robert Lashley (Bellingham)

Michelle Peñaloza (Seattle)

Jekeva Phillips (Seattle)

Nance Van Winckel (Liberty Lake)

  • Sherman Alexie published a list of his six favorite books about identity at The Week. The books, which include Seattle author Sonya Lea, should absolutely be added to your very long list of books to check out the next time you're at the book store. You can also hear a great interview with Alexie about his new kids' book on KUOW's site.

  • As part of their big 40th (!!) anniversary celebration, Fantagraphics announced that they're publishing their own institutional biography, and it sounds incredible.

The highlight of the anniversary celebrations will be the long awaited release of We Told You So: Comics As Art, an irreverent, 600-page oral history of Fantagraphics edited by Tom Spurgeon with Michael Dean, as told through interviews with virtually every key player in the company’s history – as well as a few of its adversaries – and copiously illustrated with hundreds of photos, comics, drawings, and rare ephemera from the Fantagraphics vaults.

Fantagraphics responds to questions about creator involvement in Comixology Unlimited program

I sent an email to Eric Reynolds, the associate publisher at Seattle's Fantagraphics Books, to ask about how his company dealt with the so-called "Netflix of Comics," Amazon's Comixology Unlimited program. Did they alert their creators about the program before it was announced? Do those creators have the right to withdraw from the Unlimited program if they're unhappy with it? Here is Reynolds' response in full:

I did not consult with individual creators, but as with all of our digital sales relationships (subscription or otherwise), I've made a point to enter into non-exclusive and non-binding contracts that allow us to remove any titles at a moment's notice from any platform, in the event that we as a company or an individual author decides they want no part of it (thus far, it's never happened).

I had been approached by a few companies over the past couple of years who have been trying to get a subscription model off the ground, and to be honest, I've resisted for a variety of reasons.

That said, I decided to dip our toes into Comixology's program because I think it is frankly the best positioned to gain traction in the marketplace. We'll see. We are offering a limited selection of backlist -- no frontlist. No frontlist was my primary "demand" in negotiating with Comixology, and they were completely accommodating.

So, yeah, we'll see how it plays out!

(A quick note for those of you who are unfamiliar with book industry terminology: "frontlist" basically means "new releases," the kind of books you'll find at the front of bookstores on display tables and bestseller displays.) Soon after emailing, Reynolds sent a followup message just to clarify a point:

I should also add: I only included titles that we already had rights to sell digitally. Obviously, if we didn't have those rights, then a conversation would need be had. That should go without saying, but just in case.

I'll let you know if Image Comics releases a statement on how they involved their creators in Comixology Unlimited.

Maybe don't sign on to the "Netflix of Comics" just yet, okay?

This morning, when the Amazon-owned digital comics retailer Comixology announced their new Unlimited plan, the comics and tech media were rapturous. "Say what you will about their effect on the print industry, digital comics have made buying [independent comics] easier," Birth.Movies.Death's Siddhant Adlakha wrote, "especially outside North America. What’s more, it’s about to get a whole lot easier with this $5.99 a month subscription service, which includes, of course, a 30-day trial." Bloggers, many of whom were likely working just from the press release, were quick to label it a "Netflix for comics.”

And on first blush, it’s easy to understand why they’d say that. The new Comixology Unlimited plan includes most of the major comics publishers minus the big two of Marvel and DC. (Marvel owns and operates its own $9.99-a-month Unlimited service.) According to Heidi MacDonald at The Beat, who says Comixology “just hit a slam dunk” with Unlimited, the service includes publishers like “Image, Dark HorseIDW Publishing, BOOM!, Dynamite, Kodansha, Oni, Valiant Entertainment, Archie , Fantagraphics, Humanoids, Action Lab Entertainment, Aspen, Zenescope and more.”

But there are a few problems with the Unlimited plan. Jude Terror at The Outhousers notes that…

…most of the comics available on the service are the first one or two trades of series, meaning they serve more as an advertisement to purchase further issues than a truly "unlimited" reading experience. For instance, you can read the first two Walking Dead and Chew trades, or the first six issues of Saga… And to access the service, you'll need to merge your comiXology account with your Amazon account, because Amazon would really like to store all the data they're collecting on you in one place.

Especially interesting is the fact that it’s looking like a lot of creators weren’t told about Comixology Unlimited in advance. And many of them are not happy about it:

Other factors, including how much creators are going to be compensated for their books’ involvement in Unlimited, aren’t public yet. It’s especially surprising to see Image Comics, which prides itself on the fact that every single one of their titles are creator-owned, seemingly signing on to this plan without telling creators first.

It’s unclear if Image told any of their creators, but Jamie McKelvie, whose tweet is quoted above, is the artist of The Wicked + The Divine, which is one of the most popular Image Comics right now. If he wasn’t told, it’s clear that communication between Image and their creators was lax. In a threaded Twitter conversation with McKelvie, cartoonist and self-publisher Spike Trotman said that she "was emailed weeks ago and asked to participate in the launch," and that she "had to sign a contract and NDA and everything!" McKelvie confirmed that she was a publisher and concluded that Comixology "[t]alked to publishers, but not creators," to which Trotman replied, "I hope that's not the case!"

At least partly, it does seem to be the case. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Comixology co-founder and CEO David Steinberger says that he doesn't "get between our publishers and their creators," meaning that Amazon/Comixology didn't contact any creators on their own. Steinberger also refused to comment about potential royalties.

I have emails out to several publishers and creators. We’ll have more on this story as it develops.

UPDATE 12:17 PM: I've just published Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds' response to my questions about creator involvement in Comixology Unlimited.

Talking with Rufi Thorpe about writing and her latest novel

Rufi Thorpe gained accolades for her first book The Girls From Corona Del Mar, which was long listed for both the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize, and the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her latest book, Dear Fang, With Love, is being released today (we ran our review yesterday). I talked to Thorpe over Skype from her home in California. (Author photo by Nina Subin)

You start the book with that great poem from Czesław Miłosz. Can you talk a little bit about that?

The book originally had three quotes from different Czesław Miłosz poems in it, and then the copyright was such a disaster, it was so expensive to keep them in, so I fought for that one poem to at least get to stay, and even still, it's not going to be in the audio book, it's not going to be in the UK addition, it's just…I don't feel like you can really write a book that is set in Vilnius without talking about Czesław Miłosz. You can't even walk around that city without seeing images of Czesław Miłosz. He is beloved in Vilnius and really is sort of like the patron saint of poetry for Vilnius.

I personally just find his writing…I have a huge connection with it and I find it very, I don't know, like someone's been writing down all of your secret thoughts that you didn't know how to put into words. Those poets that are personal for you. It's not even that you academically admire them, it's just that they're your guy, and he's one of my guys.

You spent time in Vilnius, right?

Yeah, I went there as part of an SLS. There's a program called Summer Literary Seminars run by Mikhail Iossel that has contests, so I placed, I forget if it was second place or if I did even worse than that, but I won free admission to one of their programs, and the one that I could do with my adjuncting schedule was in Lithuania because it was the only one in the summer time. I went, even though I didn't know a ton about Lithuania, and I didn't really have any conception of Vilnius as a city, in particular, and then was just blown away by it.

It was sort of paired with a history program, so we got to attend all the events being run by the history program. We would go on these walking tours with a historian who is very much like Darius and, in fact, I felt that Darius was such an homage to him that I had him read it before we published it. I was so nervous because he's this deeply, I think, this daemon of historical knowledge, but he's also kind of funny in the book, and I could see someone really taking it the wrong way, but instead was like, "I love it." I got very lucky, I guess.

I knew pretty much nothing about Vilnius, so it was a great introduction. I came in, I felt a little bit like some of the characters, coming in a little blind and not knowing, but learning quite a bit. That trip started your history, but did you have to do more research? Did you go back?

I mean, it's not like I was taking notes. We were wandering around and then…I got to know Vilnius that way, and then I read…I recommend it, I think, in my acknowledgments, but it's Laimonas Briedis book, Vilnius: City of Strangers and it's such an enchanting, very cerebral history of the place, filled with incredible anecdotes, and then I read a ton of other books, too. I wanted to include a bibliography, but I guess you're not supposed to do that with fiction.

Lucas is a really interesting character. Do you consider Lucas your protagonist or do you consider Vera the protagonist?

I think that they're both main characters, in the sense that I think that ultimately the entire book is held within Lucas' mind, since even her letters, we later come to understand, are texts that he has discovered. I consider him the protagonist. In the original version of the book, her letters were not part of the text. It was told entirely from his point of view, and then she sort of emerged through later drafts. Once you get her talking, she'll just talk and talk, so a lot of it was trying to keep a balance between the two of them in the book, but I think it is, in many ways, his book.

What was missing without her letters, because I can't imagine the book without it, frankly.

I know, right? It was a much quieter book, but I think that there was a certain tension created, just in terms of having her not understand her parents' relationship creates this tension for the reader about trying to understand the relationship, so it makes that whole back story a little bit more than back story. It certainly makes the book more dynamic, I think, from the reader's perspective. Whenever the reader gets to be putting two things together and trying to see how they match, I feel like that's a much more engaging. I think that when it was all from his point of view it was a little bit one note. It was a lot more about, he had a fiancee and this whole other plot line about his love life and what kind of man he wanted to be, and it was all a little much, so I kind of cut out even that whole question of his love life and refocused the book on his relationship with his daughter. That enabled the book to…It just gave it a much clearer focus. It was a little bit more trying to be about his whole life, and this made it much more focused and I think more dynamic between the two of them.

It feels like you have a very assured prose style. Immediately, from the first sentence, I totally trusted where you were going. I trusted Lucas as the storyteller, to a certain degree, you kind of see the cracks in his veneer a little bit. You also see the cracks in other people's veneers, which was really an interesting experience trying to see those undercurrents. Your characters are very sharply drawn, but they're also very layered, and seeing them from the different angles kind of brings it on.

One thing in particular that I noticed was you have all of these women throughout different periods of their life, but you have this almost stair-step from Vera to Rüda to Justine to Katya up to Judith, and it's really fascinating to see Lucas react to women in different parts of their lives, and obviously very different relationships with them, some of them circumstantial, but that was really interesting, I thought.

Character is, I think, what I'm in it for, and it's certainly what I seek in novels, as a reader. If the characterization is good, I'll read about anything forever with no plot. Just character I'll read forever, if it's good enough. I think it's a huge compliment for you to say that the characters seem like they have layers. It's a book that's almost all women. I guess there are male characters and there's the issue of Lucas' cousin and this doppelganger of self, but it's funny. Different interviewers have asked me how it was that I felt writing a man and whether that was okay, and I'm like, "Well, I didn't create him in a world of almost exclusively women."

It was a unique opportunity, I think, in writing. I feel like I'm answering your question so diffusely and roundabout, but I guess what I would say is, I didn't intentionally set out to draw portraits of women in different stages of their lives, but I think that when you're talking about family and you start to have different generations, that is fundamentally what the activity of understanding a family is, is understanding not only these generations of women, but how they have reflected each other and informed each other and the ways that they are reacting against each other, and the ways that Lucas' own mother was formed by Grandma Sylvie and the way that all of that came to be.

I think that that's really fascinating for me. Families and the ways that we process where we came from and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our parents. I'm always really baffled. When I'm getting to know people, one of the first things I'm like, "What's your mom like?" Really want to know about their family. Some people are really incurious about their parents' lives, and I have grilled my mother. I don't think there's a single one night stand she's ever had that I haven't asked the details about. It was very frustrating. My grandmother would always claim to just forget huge swathes of her life. I'm like, "Why did you do that?" She's like, "I don't know." How could you not know? You're holding back!

Does your mom actually like sharing that or is it something that you push her to do?

She didn't have very much choice. We spent a lot of time in each others' company. She was a single mom, I was an only child, we talked a lot. Our relationship has always been more friendly than strictly parental. She's very open. I'll write about her life in essays and publish it and stuff, and she's always very "Fine, write about it, that's fine," but then I started drafting this piece about how many pets of ours died when I was little and she was like, "Uh, maybe not that. Maybe not that."

That's hilarious. The relationships with mothers, especially, in the book, and grandmothers, very important. It's interesting that…. There's a couple things. First of all, there's a moment later in the book where he says something to Katya about the guilt of Lucas not being there and Katya basically put it on it's ears, you know, "You've got it wrong. I felt sorry for you. You were the one that wasn't there." It's a very sweet moment, especially, I think, for a parent who's "How could you make that choice to not be there?" Obviously some people do and they have their reasons, but seeing Lucas grapple with that and seeing it through his eyes was really an interesting moment.

There's a couple ways that you flipped expectations in really nice ways that I thought spoke to really interesting things. One was that against classical gender roles, Lucas is a little meander-y, a little unsure about what he wants, and most of the women in the book are like, "This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to go do it." And also this idea of a Catholic man investigating his past which has to do with his Catholic grandmother in a Nazi death camp, which is kind of a twist, and some irony there to her escaping, I think.

I definitely think that I have a tendency to go about things sideways. I think that I do that all the time. The book, I think, to me, is very much a book about California and Californians, even though it's a book about Lithuania also, in the sense that I grew up where almost everybody had some sort of roots to a past or a religion, but they didn't even really have any significance anymore. Maybe it was small and faded, but no one was really going to church that I knew growing up, so whether you were Catholic or whether you were Jewish or whether you were Mormon….

We were all basically just secular Californians, and I feel like there's something amnesiac about California in particular, where it almost seems to be ahistorical in some way, and part of it's the newness of the construction, and part of it's maybe even, especially in southern California, the desert and the sun, and maybe you jut have too much serotonin. You're not actually able to remember anything, you're just blasted by the sun and the beauty and you're like, "Whatever, we'll just let it go." I think that there's this meandering journey between remembering and forgetting, so I really wanted the book to have people who come from all sorts of different backgrounds.

I also was very keenly aware that I was trying to write about the Holocaust and I am not in any way Jewish, and I didn't want to be trying to say that I was saying anything unique or remarkable about the Jewish experience or about Jewish diaspora. I fundamentally believe that people can understand each other and that that material is within my ability to understand, but I'm not going to have anything unique or profound to say about that because it's just not my personal experience. I think it was a lot of a balancing act to try and find the places where I could be authentic in writing from a man's point of view, in writing about characters who had Jewish backgrounds. As a fiction writer you can't only write about people who are exactly like yourself, or you would have an extraordinarily small cast. You would have one person who is an idealized image of just yourself.

I think you kind of saw some of that between Vera and Judith, where Vera was looking up to Judith and asking her these questions that Judith was perhaps not really prepared to answer because she was struggling with some of them herself. This idea that we're not all completely settled on our identities or our past.

Exactly, and that they're very much in progress, and that everyone is sort of cobbling them together from whatever happened to be at hand for them. I think that that's very true of my own experience, anyway.

You have two kids, is that right? How do you make writing happen? It's tough, especially for women, I know, often times, who get the brunt of caregiving in the house, no matter how equitable the relationship, so how do you make that happen?

How do I make it happen? Right now it's as scrunched as I think it's ever going to be. I actually wrote the first draft of Dear Fang when I was pregnant with baby number two, and even before then, I wrote it basically the year before selling The Girls from Corona Del Mar and The Girls from Corona Del Mar came out, and then I spent about a year revising it and rewriting it, and it substantially changed. Then I think I got the manuscript in final edits for this book right before giving birth to my second, who's now almost one. For the past year, really, we had a move across country and then I've been doing publicity stuff and edits, and this kind of work.

I started the next book, but I'm really only 60 pages in and I'm doing just a ton of reading and notes and I'm not producing polished pages every day, and it makes me a little bit insane, but it's also doing something kind of interesting to be book because not being allowed to write it, it's not getting smaller and smaller, it's getting bigger and bigger in my head. Maybe being forced to hurry slowly will kind of pay off in the end. Right now my elder son goes to preschool and my little one has a morning nap, and that is my productive time, is those two hours. You can actually get a lot done in two hours if you're desperate. I try and do my emailing or my other stuff and times when he's awake and playing on the floor or something and save those two hours for whatever I'm most desperately trying to get done.

I think that by the time he's two then he'll be in some kind of nursery school of something, and then my mornings will really open back up again. The main thing right now is that I'm not teaching, and that's kind of a calculated risk that we're taking right now to try and launch my career and make sure that I have time to write a third book, but also because the kids are only little once and it's hard to not want to spend time with them.

It's pretty fun, at that age.

It's pretty fun. It's not fun when you feel like you're losing part of your adult identity or when you don't have time to shower, when you're just feeling frazzled, and that can happen sometimes, but if you can find the balance…I feel like I can see a golden world here I get to pick everybody up and two in the afternoon and then just spend all afternoon in kid world, but that I still have this sacred adult time in the morning, so I'm just trying to work towards that.

What are you reading now?

What am I reading? Right now I'm reading Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. It's really good. Have you read it?

No.

It just came out. It's about this family…it's kind of a big family drama. It reminded me a lot of Ann Packer's latest. It's about a family where the father is extremely clinically depressed and then winds up killing himself, and then it's about the children as adults. It's an intensely weird book and I love it when books are weird.

How do you feel about the push towards more plot driven, I would even say Hollywood influenced works, these days? It seems to be that's the general movement in literature these days.

I think that I'm kind of squarely in between commercial and literary concerns and affiliations. Commercial people always consider me so literary, and for literary people I'm never literary enough. I studied with a writer who was very much a commercial writer, did a lot of ghost writing, and I learned a lot of craft, and the idea of pay-off scenes, and a lot of screen writing-y type strategies, and I really like them. I think it's really important, as a writer, to be worried about whether or not your reader is enjoying it and having a good time and it with you. I think that ultimately, all those tricks are just designed to make sure that the reader is engaged. I don't think that there's any reason why being meaningful also has to mean being boring. Being interesting seems to me to be the goal. I also think that you just have to write what's interesting to you, and it's possible that my own personal proclivities really place me where I am, and if I had a longer attention span my books would be more boring, or something like this.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't mind it. The books that I read that I'm obsessed with and that I consider the novelists that I wish I could grow up to be, like Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Elizabeth Strout, Jane Smiley, they're all best sellers because they're incredibly readable, but they all are saying deep things, and they all, actually universally, have an amazing ability to create memorable characters. If that's what we mean by Hollywood writing, is writers like that, then I'm like, "Yes, bring it on. More of it," but it's just sort of like…I have a harder time with books that turn on a trick.

Like Gone Girl. I think the writing was so good and I like all her books, honestly, but I couldn't handle the end. It lost me because it felt too much like playing a trick on the reader.

Moth (Persius Duskywing)

Its wings don’t ground into dust, nor do they signal
another ending. That is up to us, our rippled fingertips

smoothing the brown contours that flutter away
from our wish. The wings’ scales are tiny windows,

cathedrals of solar dust sealed into letters
that contain all of our questions: why are we here?

where do we go when we die? are we really so alone?
The moth collides endlessly with the moon, we see

its celestial weaving with immeasurable fragility,
and we feel night exposed for the first time again:

chafing pine needles erasing all we thought we knew
of this life, the owl screeching the universe’s original

vowel. When the earth is no longer ours the letters
will slide open easily as a palm cupping water

or a moth revolving around a porch light pouring
fine dust into a thirsty mouth that calls everything loss.

The Hugo House wept for itself

Last Friday night, at the Hugo House's very last reading in its old site, House Executive Director Tree Swenson pulled off a first in the history of readings: her introduction was perhaps more interesting than the headlining authors. Swenson told the audience about the House's penultimate reading, an event called "Where the House Was," hosted by Frances McCue. It seems that in the middle of the reading, the event was interrupted by the sound of running water coming from somewhere inside the house. It sounded like a gushing leak, Swenson said, and so the House staff went in search of the noise as the reading below was put on pause. They soon discovered that an upstairs drain had been clogged and water was flowing, river-like, indoors.

Downstairs, in the cabaret space, a light fixture, which had filled with water, dropped from the ceiling and hit a woman in the knees before crashing to the floor. (The woman said she was fine, Swenson assures us.) This alarming Phantom of the Opera moment was accompanied by electrical sparks. At this point, everyone became very concerned, and so House staff vacated the building and called the fire department, who showed up and declared everything to be fine. (One of the firefighters, Swenson said, assured her that his wife loved the Hugo House, but he was more of a comics person.) So after an eventful delay, the show went on in the theater space. The best part of the evening, Swenson told the audience on Friday night, was that because the House was scheduled for demolition, she knew she wouldn't have to repair any of the damage.

The symbolism of a house shedding tears on the eve of its destruction is almost too on-the-nose, of course, but somehow — for the Hugo House — it works. I don't believe in ghosts, but I want to set my disbelief aside for a moment to congratulate whatever spirit it was that decided to go operatic in the closing days of the Hugo House. Your spectral works did not go unappreciated.

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Five reviews in different styles of Rufi Thorpe's brilliant new novel

Published May 23, 2016, at 11:58am

Martin McClellan reviews Rufi Thorpe's Dear Fang, With Love.

Even by our standards, Martin went a bit overboard with this review, but what else can you do when you fall hard for a novel?

Read this review now