Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Loaded Questions: "Songs Without Words" author, Ann Packer

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

Songs Without Words by Ann Packer
September, 2007 -- 352 pages -- $24.95

Kelly Hewitt: The relationship between Sarabeth and Liz is really interesting. From the very beginning of Songs Without Words connects these two characters in an almost silent way. We see them in their youth living together and yet spending time apart in a very comfortable way. I am interested in what the process of beginning to write these two characters is like. Does one come to mind first, did one character inspire the other? Or do they first appear to you together as characters?

Ann Packer: I had Liz before I had Sarabeth. Interestingly, given the novel's focus, I actually had Liz's husband, Brody, before I had Liz. I started with an idea of a father in the middle of trying to cope with his daughter's serious depression. From there I moved to the whole nuclear family--father, mother, girl, boy--and from there to the idea of the mother's childhood friend, a character who would function as a counterpoint to the family and as a complicating factor. That said, there was not a lot of time between my first imaginings of these characters. Liz somehow needed a Sarabeth to be in the book with her, and so she got one.

Kelly: I saw the other day that the Washington Posts' Book World review of Songs Without Words starts by saying "Ann Packer has been looking in our windows." The comment is obviously a testament to the intense intimacy that your write about and the close relationships you develop in your characters. I certainly felt like I knew these people. Do you find that you spend time listening to stories and the lives of people around you in order to attain that sense of intimacy, to achieve the feeling that you have looking in on private lives?

Ann: I'm very interested in the texture of how we live: what our lives look like, sound like, etc. I wouldn't say that I spend time listening to stories IN ORDER to attain intimacy in my writing so much as that I'm interested in dailiness and how people's minds work and how they relate to one another, and I bring that interest to my writing. My aim is to find a way to show people in the process of making some of the small, often hard won changes of which we're capable.

Kelly: In another interview you have said that Lauren, Liz's fifteen year old daughter, was perhaps the easiest of the character to write. Which of them was the most difficult for you?

Ann: Brody was the hardest character for me in this book. The difficulty was manifest in my giving him three different occupations in the course of the writing. At first he was, as he is in the final book, an executive at a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, but in that earlier version his company was failing. Next, he was a doctor, albeit a doctor no longer practicing medicine: he was an executive at a biotech company, a doctor without a stethoscope. And finally he returned to the computer industry but in a company that was thriving. All of that said, I think the switches of career probably represent a deeper struggle to figure out, or create, this man in a way that would complement the other characters and enhance the book as a whole.

Kelly: In addition to writing novels such as Songs Without Words you have also written collections of novellas and short stories. How do you prepare differently when writing a novel as opposed to a novella or a short story?

Ann: I haven't had to do research for a story in the way that I did for both this book and my first novel, The Dive from Clausen's Pier. But beyond such practical matters, I don't think there's a difference in preparation--except maybe that there's inevitably more to think about with a longer work.

Kelly: A lot of readers have labeled Sarabeth, definitely living a much more careless life than Liz, as bohemian. Do you think that's a good way of assessing her as a character?

Ann: I've used that word myself about Sarabeth, and in fact I don't think it's really quite the right one. To me, "bohemian" means rejecting certain conventions in favor of a more free-form kind of life--making that choice--but Sarabeth hasn't rejected convention so much as she's been unable to place herself in it. As is often the case with people who've lost a parent in childhood, she yearns for the stability of a family, even as she fails, again and again, to make one for herself.

Kelly: I have read that your next project will be a collection consisting of a novella and some short stories. Can you tell us any more about that project?

Ann: The novella takes place in the early 70s and is about a thirteen-year-old boy whose life is changed when a new family moves into his neighborhood and he is befriended by the very charismatic teenage daughter of this family. There will be several short stories as well, including two I've already written that have in common a parent grappling with the loss of a child. There will be some lighter material as well.

Stay Tuned: Read My Entire Interview with Ann Packer at

Have you written a blog post about Ann Packer or this book? Look below for information about how to share your blog post or review here.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Look at What's Landed on My Front Door

Every couple of days I am lucky enough to have a few great books end up on my front door. Some of them come as a result of an upcoming interview, some I have ordered, and others are a complete surprise.

Here is a rundown of some of the new books that have landed on my front door that I will be writing about and entering into my Library Thing in the days to come.

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Laruen Willig
January, 2008 -- 400 pages -- $24.95

Lauren Willig is a very talented person. When I emailed her recently I also found her to be kind and gracious as well. She has written an amazing series of flower-named spies (Pink Carnation, Black Tulip and now the Crimson Rose) set during the Napoleonic Wars. I have looked at some of the chapters of The Seduction of the Crimson Rose and this book promises to be just as good as the last three. You can read a sneak peak at chapter two of this book by clicking here. There's also a quiz on Willig's site to win a free ARC of the new book, click here for more details. Willig has agree to sit down and talk with me closer to the publication date of the book and I can't wait to get to share it here! Lauren and I had a great time emailing back and forth, connecting as Tudor scholars. It is always a great thing when you find a great author who's also great to chat with.

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
December, 2007 -- 304 pages -- $23.99

A publisher at Little, Brown, and Company sent me some information about this book several months ago, tauting this book as one to watch out for. The moment it arrived I sat down to see what all of the buzz was about. Here's the gist, the twelve gods of Mount Olympus are out about and living amongst us. They aren't happy about it and maybe that's because they're all living together in one cramped London townhouse. How do they pay for the townhouse you ask? They have jobs, of course. Artemis is working as a dog-walker, Apollo as a TV psychic, Aphrodite spends a good deal of her time as a phone sex operator, and Dionysus as first-rate DJ. We all know what happens when twelve people with infinate powers live together in one house, don't we? Real World Imortal eventually errupts in an epic battle between Aphrodite and Apollo and when two humans get caught in the middle it's up to them to save these gods in distress.

The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America by Susan Faludi
October, 2007 -- 368 pages -- $26.00

I have had a goal over the last few months to bring more non-fiction books and authors to Loaded Questions. Susan Faludi writes about the nervous breakdown America experienced after 9/11 in which the myth that we as Americans were safe because of the power of our nation. Faludi does this with a detached, intelligent and sometimes perversly humorous look into the lives of Jessica Lynch, Donald Rumsfeld, and Abu Ghraib's Private Lynndie England. Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. One not need agree with her
views on the issues she writes about to appreciate the brilliant ways in which she writes about them. Faludi will be speaking with me for an interview in the coming weeks.

Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox
December, 2007 -- 400 pages -- $26.95

When I first saw this title I had to stop and think about it for a few moments. A Jane Boleyn? Then I realized that this Jane Boleyn is the wife of George Boleyn, Queen Anne Boleyn's brother. This novel follows the life of Lady Rochford (Jane Boleyn), the woman who testified before court that she believed the accusations of a sexual relationship between Queen Anne and her husband were true, leading to the death of bother her sister-in-law and husband by the order of King Henry VIII. Jane lead a very scandalous life and was herself beheaded along with another of King Henry's wives, Catherine Howard. I think this book is going to be really interesting because I read that Julia Fox, the author, is the wife of well-known Tudor historian John Guy. It'll be interesting to see how Fox handles her historical facts. While I did receive a copy of this book, I haven't yet been able to get in touch with Julia Fox for an interview. Julia! If you, or someone you know, is reading this, please email me at

Henry VIII's Last Victim:

The Life and Times of Henry Howard Earl of Surrey
by Jessie Childs

Henry Howard, The Earl of Surrey, was a poet and a leading figure in the English Renaissance. He was also first cousins to both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (both mentioned above). Jessie Childs has written quite a good biography of one of the most powerful and interesting nobles. Childs writes about Henry Howard's close relationship with Henry VIII's bastard son Henry Fitzroy (Three Henrys in one sentence!), his role as a warrior knight, and perhaps most importantly as a staunch critic of the king's vices. This is not historical fiction, it's history but Childs writes it so well you probably won't notice the difference. I look forward to taking some time to chat with Jessie in our upcoming interview.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What's Next?

Three author interviews in as many days! I told you all that I had a bunch about to come in. I would like to thank Peg Kingman, Erika Mailman, and Charles Holdefer being a part of such great interviews.

A note to readers, please feel free to make comments about the interviews, I would love to hear feedback. Share information about your take on the book, your thoughts of the responses, or just drop a line and let me know if you're reminded of another author I ought to be interviewing.

With all of that settled, here's an update of some of the books that will be coming up in the next few days ...

The Slave Ship: A Human History
by Marcus Rediker
October, 2007 - 448 pages - $27.95

In The Slave Ship: A Human History Marcus Rediker, a history
professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has written an extremely well researched novel about a subject that has never really been studied. These slave ships, which Rediker examines with the help of first hand accounts by Olaudah Equiano, James Field Stanfield, John Newton, were responsible for the capture, torture, and transportation of Africans to the United States. It has been estimated that 1.5 million Africans died during their time on these slave ships. There was also a belief that those who died aboard ship would return to the homeland which prompted suicide.

Rediker mentions in the beginning of the book that this is a tough book to read and h
e isn't joking. The stories of those who were tricked and forced to board slave ships are painful and terrifying. But it's worth it, Rediker's writing and research enhance the book and in the end one can't help but feel that these stories of torture and terror must be told in order remind us all of the past.

I am really looking forward t
o getting a chance to talk with Marcus Rediker about this book, what brought him to work on this piece of history that has been overlooked and the process of research he has done so well.

World Without An End
by Ken Follett
October, 2007 – 1024 pages -- $

Eighteen years ago Ken Follett wrote a 1,000 page novel based the building of a great cathedral in 12th century Europe, The Pillars of Earth . It was a change of
pace from the thrillers that he had written in the past. After that The Pillars of Earth Follett went back to writing the mystery and thrillers that he had written before. Over the years, though, his book based in the 12th century continued to sell and grow via word of mouth. It became so popular that people were constantly asking for more.

With World Without End Ken Follett has responded. The p
lace is the same, the town of Kingsbridge, but two centuries have passed. The beautiful Cathedral built in the first book has become a place solely for the elite and wealthy. Things are coming to a head. This is were we pick up with World Without End. Ken has been nice enough to agree to do an interview for Loaded Questions and I think this is going to be a great interview. Stay tuned.

Dog Says How
by Kevin Kling
October, 2007 – 224 pages -- $22.95

The author of this book, Kevin Kling, is a pretty fascinating guy. I look at a lot of author’s websites and I can honestly say that when I discovered his I spent quite a bit of time clicking around and reading (its simple, Kling is the kind of author who writes about the absurdity of the human experience and does so in small intricate ways. On his website there’s this quote that I really like. When talking about his writing Kevin says: "I have a small command of the English language so I try to make each word a hero." I like that.

Oh, did I mention he’s also a frequent and witty NPR commentator on All Things Considered?

Dog Says How is a collection of autobiographical stories, each absurd and yet profound with messages about overcoming adversity, finding friendships, and dealing with the occasional tragedy. Let us not forget about the time his father got hit by lightening or the occasion when Kevin himself joined a traveling circus. These stories are all good. Don’t be worried NPR listeners because Kling assures us that they are new. This’ll be an interview to watch out for.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Loaded Questions: "Not Yet Drown'd Author" Peg Kingman

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

Not Yet Drown'd by Peg Kingman
September, 2007 -- 384 pages -- $24.95

Not Yet Drown'd, Peg Kingman's debut novel, is full of multi-faceted characters, a detailed storyline, and beautiful settings that take the reader from Scotland, across the Atlantic, and to Imperial India. Kingman has done a great job of paying attention to the culture and history of the countries featured in the book which makes the diverse settings all the more palatable. The story is of a young widow, Catherine MacDonald, who faces a crisis in the wake of her husband's death. A series of events set Catherine fleeing from Scotland to India in search of her twin brother whom she had believed to be dead. The cast of characters quickly form around Catherine, the central character. We have her step daughter who is actively being sought by relations determined to remove her from Catherine's charge. There's also two maids that come into Catherine's service as her boat leaves shore headed for a surprising journey. I would recommend this book for the setting, the cast of characters, and Kingman's attention to detail. To top it all off I can say that at the end of my interview experience with Peg she proved to be kind,
helpful and genuine.

Kelly Hewitt: Not Yet Drown’d is your debut novel. What part of the process, from writing to getting it on the shelf, have you found to be the most surprising? Have you learned any important lessons along the way?

Peg Kingman: The most valuable lesson I've learned is not to dread and loathe the rewrite process. I now recognize that revisions are golden opportunities. The difference between pretty good and superb may just be a rewrite (or three). And how lucky we are, we writers, that our craft doesn't require that we get it right in real time, in front of an audience (as performing musicians must, for example)! We get to pat and pick and carve at it - in private - until we get exactly what we want. If you're working in watercolor, one clumsy brushstroke wrecks your whole painting - but we writers just hit that handy Delete key, and try again.

Another lesson I've learned - a corollary - is not to be appalled and discouraged by the hideousness of my first draft. It's not a sign that the project is doomed or that I'm on the wrong track; it only means I'm trying to do something that is difficult. Now I know that I'll take all the necessary time and care required to fix it - later.

Kelly: This novel in many ways feels like a love song to India, perhaps a tribute. What is your prior experience with the region?

Peg: Oddly enough, it was not until I was two-thirds of the way through writing Not Yet Drown'd that I finally visited India. Nevertheless, India had figured large in my imaginative life since my early twenties (when I'd first attempted a serious novel with an Indian setting), and for nearly thirty years I have been collecting and reading history and memoirs about the experience of the British in India. Why? I can't account for this in any rational way (but was fascinated to learn that Patrick O'Brian's early "entertainment" Hussein, set in India, was written when he was in his early twenties, and before he'd ever visited India).

As for Scotland - I first visited there as an au pair when I was seventeen. I fell madly - embarrassingly - in love with the place and the people, and ever since have returned there whenever I could.

Kelly: You have quite a cast of characters in this book and a few very different settings. Was there any one particular scene or setting that was harder to write than the rest?

Peg: The hardest - and most frightening - scene for me to write was when I finally assembled my entire cast of characters in one room (well, a shipboard cuddy cabin, actually), around a dining table. I knew that they must be talking animatedly with one another - I could see their lips moving! - but what were they saying? I could not hear a word. It was as though a thick soundproof sheet of glass separated me from them. I had to wait, and listen very hard, very patiently, until, as I grew to know each individual better, I gradually could hear them, very faintly at first . . .and set down what they had to say. Quite weird.

Kelly: When reading your biography (available at it become clear that you're quite an eclectic person -- at one point working as a tea merchant and a beginning bagpiper. The connection between Scotland and India suddenly becomes clear. Where do you think you get your tastes in such different activities and cultures?

Peg: Perhaps from never having felt quite at home in the here-and-now of mainstream American culture? In terms of my imaginative life, I have never really inhabited the twentieth century - far less the twenty-first. I seldom understand what's going on in real time, unfortunately. . . it takes a lot of time passing before I get it. (I'm not the person to write contemporary analysis or commentary). On the other hand, working in distant time and place settings lets me slip in what seems to me some pretty trenchant stuff about the more timeless (as opposed to timely) aspects of human experience.

Kelly: I have read that you have two teenage sons. How do they feel about having a mother who is becoming a pretty successful author?

Peg: Three teenage sons, actually. I put your question to one of them, who said that he's "pretty impressed that someone who's just our mother, to us - is world- well, country-renowned." Another son assures me that this book is a "good piece of art" and that he'd like to have the cover image on a T-shirt. The son who made the technical drawings for Not Yet Drown'd tells me that he's proud to be my "offspring." What I hope they have absorbed from observing my work process is that creative work requires painstaking care, energy, courage, and persistence - and is nevertheless well worth doing, even though one may become (what must seem to them) ancient before achieving anything resembling recognition or success.

Kelly: You're probably already tired of hearing this question but I suppose I owe it to my readers to ask: What's next? Can you tell us anything about upcoming projects that might give us a chance to read more of your work?

Peg: I can tell you this: My working title for the next novel is Too Long in This Condition (though that could change, depending on what my publisher thinks of it). Expect to encounter several of the same characters, at another time, in a different part of the world, with a different problem. (Didn't give away much, did I?)

Stay Tuned for the Complete Interview with Peg Kingman at

Monday, October 22, 2007

Loaded Questions: "The Contractor" Author, Charles Holdefer

The Contractor
by Charles Holdefer
September, 2007 - 200 pages - $26.00

George Young has a demanding job, working on a secret island prison as freelance interrogator for the US government. He's good at what he does and doesn't mind the job until prisoner #4141 dies during an interrogation, haunting George enough to make him think twice about his job and what kind of person he wants to be. The job, though, isn't George's only problem. As part of a morale-boosting experiment George's family joins him on the island and it soon become clear there's crisis too where his family is concerned.

Holdefer has written about a hot button issue without relying on sensationalism. The Contractor deals with aspects of torture, interrogation and contractors doing governmental work. But Holdefer doesn't stop there, displaying the deep pain and conflict of a man who must come to terms his role in the death of a prisoner and perhaps more importantly the effects of George's dilemma on a family already careening towards a crisis. The detailed nature of Holdefer's writing and attention paid to both aspects of George Young's life make this book a recommended read.

Kelly Hewitt: Some of the reviews of The Contractor have billed the interrogation scenes in the book vivid enough to make the reader squeamish. It feels to me as though you’ve written very authentic scenes that are sometimes tough to read but in the end quite necessary to the book. How much thought did you put into the reader’s response when writing those parts of the book? Did you ever think about making them more or less dramatic?

Charles Holdefer: There’s surely less violence in The Contractor than in a typical action movie that adolescents go and see. Maybe what some people are reacting to is the fact that the book doesn’t respect certain formulas. That’s on purpose. Not sucking up to people is actually a form of respect, treating them like adults. Action formulas are patronizing. Maybe some people have forgotten how to be frank.

Kelly: The Contractor is a work based on an issue, with its secret island used for interrogation, that is currently very important to the American public. Is this your first experience writing about such a hot button issue?

Charles: Yes, it’s turned out to be that way. But that wasn’t planned. Writing a book is a long-term project. It took me a couple of years, while it’s only since last month that the major media decided that contractors were a big story. But it’s been there a long time now, a slow-motion train wreck. My publisher, Martin Shepard at the Permanent Press, believed in the book and started pushing it early and now there’s some momentum. But so many things are beyond one’s control.

Kelly: The protagonist in your book, George, works as an interrogator for the US government at a military camp on a secret island. As part of an experiment George is allowed to bring his family along with him – a family that is facing its own crisis. Do you think that government officials should be allowed to bring their families with them in situations like George’s?

Charles: The particulars of the family arrangement are a fictional liberty, but it was worth taking because I wanted to address a general truth, about the toll on families. The divorces, the grief, the trouble for children. These are real. These are a story you don’t hear enough about, for troops or contractors. And in the end I could tell the story better by thrusting the characters closely together. In earlier drafts of the book, George spends more time on the airplane, between work and home. That’s probably more realistic, strictly speaking. But airplanes are so boring, you know! I like a concentrated effect.

Kelly: You have worked on honing your writing skills in some very interesting places, spending time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and then at the University of Paris – two very different places. How was the transition from Iowa to Paris? How did the curriculum vary?

Charles: The transition to Paris was more about people than about schools. At the time I was in love with a French woman. So I followed her to France. At first I had no intention of ever going back to school. The reason I enrolled in the Sorbonne was because my job prospects as a foreigner were shaky and being a student was on way to get carte de séjour, a residence card. It’s a classic immigrant dodge. Having valid papers is a big deal in this world, anyone who’s experienced that pressure will tell you. Pretty soon I began to see other advantages, too, because universities in France are almost free, which was an eye-opener. One of the reasons I’d thought I was finished with school was because I was already in debt for student loans and didn’t want to go deeper in that hole. But here tuition wasn’t an issue. So I gave it a try and there were some bumps but eventually it worked out. The main difficulty was language. It was tough writing academic work in French. It’s one thing to speak a language, but producing good prose is something else altogether. It’s hard as hell. I had some long-suffering proofreaders. But I don’t regret the experience. Actually I think it was good for my fiction, because writing in a language that wasn’t my own was like trying to run a race with weights on my feet, and when I got back to telling stories in English, it felt so good. So light! I really started having fun again. That’s how I remember writing my novel Apology For Big Rod. Like somebody opened a window and I just ran up and jumped out.

Kelly: The Contractor has been getting some great pre-release buzz. The book has been selected as an ABA "Book Sense Pick" for November and there have been some really positive reviews. How does that make you feel? Did you feel like this book was really going to take off like this?

Charles: I’m grateful for any good review, sure. And to the ABA . I’ve been an obscure writer and now I’m a slightly less obscure writer. But to be honest, I’ve always felt that any of my books might take off. Of course I’m prejudiced. Every writer has an ego! And you know some of the places giving me good reviews now didn’t give me bad reviews before. They simply didn’t review me at all. There wasn’t the same coverage. And some of the limited coverage was clueless—that’s not ego, that’s just a fact. The most hostile review I ever had was when Publishers Weekly panned my novel Nice by dissing Iowa , when anyone who’s read the book will know that the story isn’t set there. Actually the word only appears once in the entire text, in reference to the character’s mother. I was a bit shocked at the time but it’s surely a common thing. A book appears, people act out their feelings, and the book disappears. So you sit down and write another.

Kelly: You have been doing some advanced press for the book, traveling to radio stations around the country. Is that something that you've done for previous books? How have
these radio interviews been going?

Charles: Since I live in Europe, radio is a good way to maintain a presence in the US . We do interviews over the phone. The internet makes it easier, too. What usually happens, though, is the host hasn’t read the book and the conversation is about politics. I have my opinions like anybody else, but why should anybody give a damn about what some writer guy thinks about, say, the attorney general? It’s a fine line, really. A novel is richer and more complicated than a soundbite. I’m grateful to be invited but I'm also pretty sick of post 9/11 careerism by politicians and by people in the entertainment industry. It's important to avoid that horseshit. One thing that strikes me in interviews is how controlled everything is, how much the language is policed. Lots of people will refer to “enhanced interrogation methods” when they talk about what used to be called torture. Even the word “abuse” is abused, made into something more familiar like substance abuse, in order to avoid the word torture. I’m sure it conditions how people think, or even if they think. I used to believe it was trivial if a movie on an airplane began with an announcement that it had been “edited” for in-flight viewing—instead of “censored”—it was to protect the kiddies, I’d supposed. Then I’d arrive at my destination and pick up my “previously-owned vehicle”, which was somehow supposedly better than a used car. It was so dumb and transparent I used to laugh at that stuff. But now I’m tired of it. I don’t like being treated like one of the kiddies.

In this morning’s New York Times , there’s a reference to an audit of contractors allegedly over-billing, and it says that many passages have been “redacted” by the government. Of course they mean censored, but a chronic gutlessness has infected their usage. I had an interview on Air America which was “live” but with a time delay of a few seconds, so it wasn’t, actually, "live". I guess they were afraid I’d have a wardrobe malfunction on the radio. It’s true, for instance, that the word “fuck” appears in The Contractor , because sometimes people speak that way. But it would’ve been more acceptable (and not legally actionable) to read aloud a torture scene than to have that word uttered on air. As if, with that word, all of a sudden dams would break and planes fall out of the sky and in the sandbox little Johnny would hit his playmate over the head with a sand-shovel. In a novel, at least, I can say what I want.

Kelly: In a few days the book will be released. What goes through the mind of an author who is preparing for the release of a book with as much promise as yours?

Charles: That’s a friendly question. The book is already out before the official release date in many places. My main feeling is that, well, the situation is out of my hands now. Whatever happens happens. I’m working pretty hard on the next book, actually. That’s what occupies my mind.

Kelly: With the great response you've been getting from The Contractor readers will be eager to find out about your next book, what can you tell us?

Charles: It’s too early to generalize about response, but as I said, that’s out of my control now. I wrote what I wanted to. Now there’s another turn of the wheel. My next book has some fun with the idea of the “Post-American”. The postmodern was always a dubious catch-all, and now it’s outdated. The Post-American is both parochial and global, which is where a lot of us live now. It’s a love story, too. Mainly, I should say. Politics will only take you so far.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Loaded Questions: "The Wich's Trinity" Author, Erika Mailman

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt

The Witch's Trinity by Erika Mailman
September, 2007 - 288 pages - $23.95
The Witch's Trinity is the story of a real horror come true. After as small medieval German town experiences a famine an unknown friar appears with a book, Malleus Maleficarum, which he uses to convince the towns residents that a real witch is among them. The friar is soon aided by a woman eager to dispose of an unwanted mother-in-law. The cast out grandmother Güde begins to fear for her life when the famine doesn't end and the town is turned upside down. Resident's clamor to find the source of their trouble as the town turns on itself and no one is safe. Erika Mailman has written a difficult novel, showing the reader what really happens self-preservation becomes the rule and death by fire is believed to be the only way to end the madness. Mailman's scenes of chaos and impending death are vivid and filled with characters confused, betrayed, dedicated, and deadly.

Kelly Hewitt: I read in your bio that you write a weekly local historical for the Montclarion newspaper. I am assuming you don't always write about witches and women of ill fame. What sort of things do you write about for the newspaper? How has that experience been different than writing novels?

Erika Mailman: The column I write for the Montclarion is about the history of Oakland, California. I have complete freedom to come up with a topic, so often I find myself in the Oakland History Room (top floor of one of the library branches) combing through the photos or digging around the files until I find something that interests me. Being in the History Room actually led me to write my first historical novel Woman of Ill Fame, because one day my eye fell on a series of nonfiction books about early prostitution. Writing for a newspaper is quite different than writing a novel—I feel much more confined to truth-telling and getting facts straight. I think this was good practice for writing the Afterword for The Witch’s Trinity, in which I write about my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons, who was accused of witchcraft in 1600s Massachusetts.

Kelly: The friar in your book who comes to save the town brings with him the Malleus Maleficarum. This isn't a book that I am very familiar with. Is it a fictional creation that you have used for your novel or does the Malleus Maleficarum really exist?

Erika: Sadly, the Malleus Maleficarum really does exist. It was written in 1486 by two German inquisitors blessed by the pope in their witchhunting duties. The book provides guidelines for how to locate witches, what to ask them, when to use torture, etc. Five hundred years later, you can still order a copy of this book! Its pseudo-legal language leaves your jaw hanging open at times in disbelief. Reading it is ultimately depressing. I highlighted my copy every time a quote left me enraged or sad… the whole thing is basically yellow now! My editor at Crown, Allison McCabe, had the idea of including a quote from this book at the beginning of each chapter of The Witch’s Trinity. I think that goes a long way to underscore the idea that although my novel is fiction, it could really be any woman’s story from that time. At my website, I am working on having quotations from the Malleus Maleficarum constantly rotating on my home page. A typical one is this, which conveys both the assured tone and the shocking ludicrousness: “Although the devil can work without a witch, he yet very much prefers to work with one.”

Kelly: Güde , the elderly woman who fears that she will be pegged the town's witch, is a fascinating character. The reader isn't quite sure if she's stark raving mad or somebody's grandmother who has stumbled into a really bad situation. On the other hand there's the friar -- the instigator of the small German town's witch hunt. It's unclear if he's incredibly pious and abiding by his faith or evil and purposely tearing this town apart. I am interested in how you developed these two complex characters. Who did you envision first?

Erika: Güde came first. I knew from listening to audiotaped lectures of UCLA history professor Teo Ruiz that oftentimes mothers-in-law would be accused of witchcraft by their daughters-in-law. So instantly that small family structure was created: Güde, her son Jost, and his wife Irmeltrud. The friar character came later. I wanted to show a village that was riding the uneasy edge of transition from pagan beliefs to Christianity, so I felt it was important that someone from outside should come in to disturb that balance. As for whether Güde is mad… When I was in college, I took a class in gothic fiction with professor Cedric Bryant. We spent two whole weeks discussing The Turn of the Screw (this during a special “semester” called Jan Plan, where you meet daily for five hours during January), and in particular James’ mastery of the unreliable narrator. Those of you who have read the Turn of the Screw remember that it is about two children reputedly haunted by evil servant ghosts. Yet, the story is told from the point of view of their current governess who seems unstable. James provides equal balanced evidence for whichever stance you adopt, that there are ghosts or that the narrator is insane. I was very, very inspired by this kind of plotting and tried my own hand at it. However, by the end of the novel I felt it would be an unkindness to the real women who were tortured and executed as witches to leave it hanging, so the main character comes to a pretty definitive conclusion about her own state of mind.

Kelly: Witch's Trinity isn't your first book. Can you tell us about Woman of Ill Fame?

Erika: My first book is Woman of Ill Fame (The Witch’s Trinity is, however, considered my debut since the first was published by a wonderful small press in a very small edition). It follows the story of Nora Simms, a young prostitute in Gold Rush San Francisco who has aspirations of wealth and must avoid being targeted by a serial killer. In many ways, it’s the direct antithesis of The Witch’s Trinity—it’s a light romp, it’s funny. But the two novels share a few things, one being the idea of hunger. In The Witch’s Trinity, the main character is in danger because the village she lives in is famine-struck and hungry neighbors are seeking a scapegoat to blame. And in Woman of Ill Fame, the main character unashamedly plies her trade because she knows it is one of the few things she can do to put food in her mouth. Both novels also concern themselves with aspects of women’s history that is uncomfortable to think about: for The Witch’s Trinity, the four hundred years that women were persecuted as witches in Europe, and in Woman of Ill Fame, the fact that women were not permitted to seek employment other than in a small handful of trades. I still find it almost unbelievable that in the U.S. women were not allowed to vote until 1920… many of us know people who were alive back then! I spend quite a lot of time considering how lucky I am to have been born in this era-- and in this country where women fare better than in some others-- while at the same time being very drawn to the past.

Kelly: Your blog, The World of Mailman, has some really great information about shape shifters, pamphlets, and wood cut prints from the time period in which Witch's Trinity is placed. It's clear that you know your stuff. What sparked your interest in this area?

Erika: First of all, thank you!

I have always been interested in witchcraft. I was a true bookworm and early on devoured everything I could read on the subject, so those ideas have been moiling around in my head for several decades. As I mentioned before, the audiotapes of Teo Ruiz were the direct inspiration—hearing that desperately hungry people would accuse family members of witchcraft to have fewer mouths at the table made me determined to explore that terrible psychology. Another thread was learning about my own ancestor who was termed a witch and suffered through two trials. To my vast relief, she was acquitted and eventually died as an old woman. It felt strange to have witchcraft come so close to home, especially at a time when I was working on a novel about it! My hope with The Witch’s Trinity is that it motivates people to do some looking on their own, to learn more about this shameful time period—and then to reflect on the advances we’ve made towards understanding the world better… that random bad things happen and are not the fault of one’s neighbor.

Kelly: Readers have really loved Witch's Trinity and so I have have to ask the next question. What's next? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

Erika: I’m working on a modern day novel about medical students, infertility, and parallel lives. I also outlined a novel taking place in revolutionary France and firmly believe I’ll get to it someday...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Something so familiar. . .


I was looking through upcoming books the other day and saw the cover of a book that looked incredibly familiar and then I realized what it was.

Ann Packer's Songs Without Words and Alan Lightman's upcoming Ghost both display a single light with a red shade positioned eerily in the middle of the cover. To make it even more interesting, the books will have been released one month apart. Interesting, huh?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Top Five Funny Titles I Picked in a Pinch: And Two Honorable Mentions I Didn't

A few random notes...

A friend emailed me asking for five funny books I would suggest to a coworker. I spent a few minutes thinking and then sent it off. I decided I might as well put it up here as well.

TOP 5 Funny Books I Picked in a Pinch:
Plus Two Honorable Mentions I Didn't

#1 Lamb by Christopher Moore

If you don't mind church humor (and by that I mean poking a little fun at religion) I always suggest Lamb by Christopher Moore the story of the thirteenth apostle, Biff, being brought to life to tell his story. He was a childhood friend of Jesus who spent a majority of his life running around trying to keep the "man who could not lie" out of trouble. Biff writes the thirteenth apostle in which he writes about meeting Jesus as a child resurrecting frogs and killing them again. The characters are funny and ... human. Biff falls victim to a pair of crushes, Mary the Virgin, Jesus' mother, and Mary Magdelene. Don't miss this book or any books by Moore.

#2 A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole

I also think that A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kenney Toole is really funny. The book follows a thirty-something super intellectual but inevitably lacking in common sense guy who still lives at home with this mother who happens to drink wine from time to time. The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, has grown up in New Orleans, has a very strange view of life and ends up in hilarious, and embarrassing, situations on a frequent basis. I think that Will Farrell has been in negotiations to play Ignatius for the last few years (if someone knows more about this please leave a comment and let me know!) -- that'll give you some kind of idea of what you're in for. It comes highly rated, though, and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It's poignant, sometimes sad, but always witty.

#3 The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

Another funny author is Sarah Vowell who is a frequent guest on David Letterman andwho has worked quite a bit on NPR's This American Life. She has written four or five books but the best one to start with is Take the Cannoli which is a book about her eccentric Italian family (which I couldn't find a photo of). If you like something with more action she has written two books about thoughtful family vacations gone wrong, The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation. The later is a trip with her sister and nephew in which they travel the US to visit the places where important politicians, presidents, and leaders have been assassinated. Sounds deep but Sarah makes a lot of things funny. There's another book entitled Radio On which is a kind of diary she wrote about listening to the radio but she's actually told me once herself that it's not really any good!

#4 Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
by David Sedaris

I always suggest David Sedaris. His most recent book, in which he writes about his crazy family and equally crazy adult life is Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I happen to think he's the funniest author alive today. If you're feeling like getting ready for the holidays read Holidays on Ice with stories like "Dinah the Christmas Whore". It certainly warms my heart. Having trouble learning languages or suffering from OCD? Me Talk Pretty One Day is a great choice while Naked deals with traveling the northwestern states and spending some time at a nudist park. As always there are stories of David's upbringing with a strangely wonderful family scattered throughout. I would love to someday do an interview with David - if you have information about how to reach him, I have a right arm.

#5 Notes from a Small Island - The Mother Tounge, The Lost Continent, and In a Sunburned Country
by Bill Bryson

Hmm. I realize that I don't really read all that many funny books. Let see. Bill Bryson is funny. He writes book about traveling to Europe, Australia and around the world that are always fully of funny observations, stories, and predicaments he gets himself caught in. Traveling to England he wrote: Notes from a Small Island, The Lost Continent while traveling in small town America, The Mother Tongue which covers the history of English, and In a Sunburned Country while traveling in Australia. They may not always *sound* funny but they are... he's a great author.

Honorable Mentions (Shorter Funny Books I didn't Add Because They are Short and Perhaps More Controversial)

Yiddish with Dick and Jane
by Ellis Weiner and
Barbara Davilman

I love this book and bought it the moment I laid eyes on it. The synopsis on the website is better than I could do. So here goes:

Dick and Jane are all grown up, and they’re living in the real world--and it’s full of tsuris (troubles). That’s the premise of this hilarious little book, which functions both as a humorous tale and a genuine guide to a language with a sentiment and world view all its own. Jane is married to Bob and has two perfect children. Dick schmoozes with business people over golf: "Schmooze, Dick. Schmooze...." Their sister, Sally, who teaches a course in "Transgressive Feminist Ceramics," can see that life is not perfect, even though dear Dick and Jane cannot. Their mother has a stroke ("Oy vey, Jane," says Dick when he learns the news). Bob’s best friend’s wife is having an affair because the best friend himself is gay ("‘Tom is more than gay, Sally,’ says Dick. ‘He is overjoyed.’... ‘Oy Gotenyu [oh, God help us],’ sighs Sally.")

Here is an even funner online book trailer where you can get to see some of the scenes in the book in cartoon format! Yiddish with Dick and Jane Online.

How to Be Pope by Piers Marchant

This is another one of my big time favorites. It's a book for big dreamers. Have you ever thought that it might be nice to be in fallible or to wear gold slippers? I admitt that I certainly have. And so this book offers you tips on getting elected and then what to do once you've gone through one of the biggest job interviews of your career. I personally love that Amazon has a "Buy this with" feature that pairs the book with Inisde the Vatican National Geographic pamphlet. This is serious business.

Here's the book's synopsis from the back cover:

Congratulations, Your Holiness, and welcome to your first day at the Holy See. After being elected by the College of Cardinals, you'll need to don the papal vestments and get right to work. Armed with this manual, compiled over the last 2,000 years, you'll be able to navigate the Why's, How's, and Who's of your new life as Pontifex Maximus. What is your official job title? Why do you need to choose a papal name? Who does your laundry? While the church has long maintained an aura of complete secrecy to outsiders, the facts, figures, and historical anecdotes found here give the crucial information you'll need to fulfill your papal duties.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hot Titles: What's Coming in October

Hot October Titles:
Books you shouldn't leave the store without.

There are a great deal of author interviews in the final steps and almost ready to be published. While we're waiting I thought I would give you a glimpse at what kind of new and exciting titles are coming up in October. As always -- I'll be doing an interview with each of these authors...

Upcoming titles this month cover a variety of different topics. There's the light-hearted approach to living according to the Biblical commandments, two fictional titles that deal with the subtlties of marriage and relationships, and some great history books on a number of subjects.

A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
October 9, 2007 - 400 pages - $25.00

A.J. Jacobs isn't particularly religious. But he decides to find out what it would be like to live by all of the commandments of the Bible for one year. The result is a book that is hilarious, ironic, and inevitably insightful. Jacobs travels too, heading out to visit others who live strictly by the rules, visiting Samaritans in Israel, snake handlers in Appalachia, Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., and biblical creationists in Kentucky.

I turns out the the rules of the Bible are kind of hard, if not impossible to live by! There are restriction in clothing, mandatory cricket eating, and the practice of the ten-string harp. Did I just read crickets? Yes -- you did.

Jacobs is a funny guy and I am looking forward to this one.

Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
October 2, 2007 - 304 pages - $23.95

Henkin tackles the word that strikes fear into the hearts of many. Matrimony is a book that follows the lives of four people, two couples, that meet each other in college. The center couple of the novel are Mia and Julian whom the readers follow through college towns, family dramas, failed literary projects and the dot-com boom. Readers of the novel have called the book patient and yet sharp and entertaining. How does love change over the course of fifteen years? Henkin tries to show us how.

Waiting to Surface by Emily Listfield
October 2, 2007 - 320 pages - $24.95

No stranger to publication, this is Listfield's sixth novel. Waiting to Surface follows the life of a woman struggling to live in New York City with all of its complexities. The main character, Sarah Larkin, is a lover of art who is genuinely happy working at a women's magazine. Sarah's husband, however, isn't enjoying life nearly as much as she is. He's an alcoholic who leaves New York for Florida in order to meet up with an old friend.

Sarah's husband, Todd, doesn't come home as expected and is soon part of an investigation in which he, and the woman he has been staying with, have disappeared. What makes this novel so personal is that the novel is loosely based off of Listfield's own relationship in which her husband disappeared.

Poor Sarah is left trying to help find her missing husband, lead her magazine, and raise her daughter alone. The book provides an interesting and truthful look at a life come unraveled

Mozart's Sister by Rita Charbonnier
October 9th, 2007 - 336 pages - $23.95

I have written about this book before and now that I have gotten a chance to beginning reading I have to say that Mozart's Sister is very interesting. I look forward to reporting back soon about the entire book. Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl by her brother Wolfgang Amadeus, was also a very gifted musical child prodigy. However, Nannerl found herself living in the shadow of her brother, Mozart. This is the first novel by Italian TV scriptwriter Charbonnier. The fictional account of Maria Anna Mozart details her difficult childhood at the hands of sometimes tyrannical Leopold Mozart. What follows is a secret love affair and a bond between siblings that is never quite severed.

Stay tuned for more books coming out this month.

Related Posts with Thumbnails