Summer is here! If you’re compiling your summer reading list, the very first book I’d recommend would be The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by my friend Hannah Tinti. Here’s the dazzled and breathless email I wrote to Hannah when I read it in manuscript form last year.
Oh my god. Your book is magnificent! I started reading it on the ferry and got so completely lost in it I didn't realize the boat had docked, missed my cue to disembark, and made all the cars behind me wait until I threw my iPad aside, frantically tried to start the car, stalled the engine, and finally drove off. I took a bumpy puddle jumper to Vancouver and read all the way and made myself sick, and then continued on the Skytrain into town and almost missed my stop. That was Thursday. This morning I was reading again on the Skytrain on the way back to the airport, and rode to the end of the line before realizing that I actually had missed my stop this time, and so I doubled back, barely made it to the airport, sprinted to the departure gate and arrived just as the doors were closing. When I finally got home, I crawled into bed, where I've been reading ever since, much to the consternation of my husband, who thinks I'm sick. And I just this moment finished, and my heart is racing, and I'm utterly wretched that I have to leave Loo and Hawley behind....Noooooooooo!
Huge congratulations! I don't even know where to begin with my praises. It's such a damn good story, gripping, suspenseful, and full of heart, and so exquisitely structured, too, so at the same time I was biting my knuckles and falling more and more deeply in love with the characters and their world, the writerly part of me was just gasping in awe at what you were doing technically, and tracking the way the story cycles back on itself and moves through time in these great spiraling orbits. And then, there's the overall gorgeousness of the language and imagery, but never too much, never detracting from the story, never getting in the way. So satisfying on every level.
I absolutely love it. This is truly one of the most enjoyable and satisfying reading experiences I've had in recent memory.
So go and get this amazing book and enjoy it, but do be careful where and when you read it!
Now, more than ever, the world needs books like This Is How It Always Is, a warm, funny and deeply moving new novel about gender identity, by my good friend Laurie Frankel. The novel tells the story of Claude, the youngest boy in a family of five sons, who, at the age of five, announces that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. Claude’s extraordinary family tries to figure out how best to support their bright, funny and beautiful little boy as he slowly transforms into a bright, funny and beautiful little girl named Poppy, while Poppy tries to grow up in a world that is not quite ready to welcome her.
As has recently become painfully clear, we live in a world that is not ready to welcome many of us, especially those of us who do not conform to its dominant ideological “norms.” Laurie’s book encourages us to look beyond these binary, either/or identities—boy/girl, black/white, us/them—and to embrace and defend the vast all-inclusive spectrum of the in-between, where most of us live.
Laurie writes with great compassion and courage, not to mention great humor! She is an inspiration. We all need friends like her. So read this book. Be inspired. Take back the world.
On Tuesday morning, I sat down at my computer to find my inbox flooded with the loveliest messages of congratulations. It took me a while to figure out why. My well-wishers seemed to think that A Tale for the Time Being had been longlisted for the Booker Prize, but I figured it must be a mistake. Only the day before, I'd learned that a kind reader had nominated the book for the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize, and so I assumed that my friends had gotten the two prizes confused. Silly friends. How awkward. But then it occurred to me to check the Man Booker Prize website, and I discovered that in fact they were right, the book had been longlisted, and as usual I was the last to know. This is what happens when you live in Desolation Sound.
Thank you, everyone, for your kind wishes.
I just got back home to Whaletown after a wonderful trip to Spain, France and the UK, doing promotional stuff for the novel. It was fascinating to realize that while I think of the book as A Tale for the Time Being, that's only its English name and identity. In other countries, it has different identities, since each country has its own take on both the title and the cover design.
Here is the French Belfond edition:
They're playing with the line from the English translation of Dōgen Zenji's essay, Uji, which reads "For the time being, the entire earth and the boundless sky." The wave and the grey sky reflect this beautifully.
And Planeta has done something entirely different with the Spanish title and cover design:
They're playing off of the notion of the "Butterfly Effect"—the flutter of a butterfly's wing in Japan. It's a lovely image.
Canongate's UK editions have been stunning. The hardcover has an exposed Nepalese binding on the spine, which I love, because of the way it echoes one of the themes of the book, which is the hacking and deconstruction of the book-as-object. The paperback is equally clever, and it has an augmented reality feature which you activate with smart phone app called Blippar. The cover image animates, literally comes to life, and leads you to various online resources, and this again recalls the virtual realities evoked in the story.
The occasion for the UK tour was that A Tale for the Time Being won the 2013 Independent Booksellers Award, which is a special prize given by the UK Indie booksellers during Independent Booksellers Week. I was honored and delighted to receive this award. I love Independent bookstores. They are a lifeline for writers like me, and I doubt I would be publishing books without the support of the booksellers who are so passionate about books and know their customers and can take the time to hand-sell the titles they love. I wrote an essay for The Bookseller weblog, which talks about independent bookstores as the keystone species that determines the health of the cultural ecosystem.
Oh, and here's a picture of me receiving my award from Patrick Neale, at the lovely Jaffe & Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton.
The UK Indie Bookshop Tour was really wonderful. It seemed to me that although many expressed concern about the sustainability of indie bookstores, the ones I visited were thriving. They'd built devoted communities of readers, were sponsoring all sorts of interesting events and offering a brilliant range of customer services, including book clubs and book spas and personal consultations with bookish professionals. And British bookshops serve wine at author readings...it really helps!
One of the highlights of the UK Indie Bookshop Tour was the visit to Bath and my reading at Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights. It's an absolutely lovely bookshop, and they were celebrating its 7th birthday. (Among Mr. B's specialized customer service offerings is a Proust Support Group. They are on Volume III, Chapter 2. How can you not love this? It's enough to make me want to move to Bath.) After the reading, we had sushi and wine and a beautiful birthday book cake (which I'm cutting it here, wearing my "fictional character" shirt from Village Books, in Bellingham, WA).
But the highlight of the evening for me took place before the reading, when The Bookshop Band performed two songs inspired by A Tale for the Time Being. The band is a trio comprised of two guitarists, Poppy Pitt and Ben Please and a cellist, Beth Porter, who write songs based on books they read and then they play them at bookshops before author readings. They started out performing mostly at Mr. B's, but since then they've gotten quite famous and now they travel all over. The two songs they wrote about my book were heartbreakingly beautiful, and as I listened to them sing, big fat tears just kept rolling down my face.
And it seems I'm not the first author to be so moved by their performance, and here's why. To a writer, a book is a gift. It comes to you more or less unbidden. If you're paying attention and you're willing to put in the hard work and the long years, maybe your book will find its way onto the page, into the bookshops, and into readers hands. At that point, your work is done and the book is no longer yours. You've given it away, because that's what you do with gifts. That's the nature of gifts, to be freely given.
But then, by some remarkable serendipity, a lovely trio of musicians reads your book and they are moved by it to write beautiful songs, and these songs are gifts, too, and they are unspeakably precious because rarely do writers get to experience their work so exquisitely received.
Much has been happening these past few weeks in preparation for the launch of A Tale for the Time Being, and it's been a real team effort!
My friend & fellow filmmaker Bill Weaver and I shot a book trailer up on Cortes, with the backdrop of the brooding Pacific Northwest landscape and a lovely song by Le Mépris, which I listened to over and over again when I was writing the novel.
The trailer lives my homepage and on my beautiful new Facebook author page, which my friend Laura Trippi of Latrippi Designs made for me. If you "like" it, you'll be able to keep tabs on my tour schedule and the reviews as they come in, and find links to booksellers where you can pre-order the new book. I'll be uploading stories and pictures from the road, posting excerpts from the novel, and maybe some audio recordings, too…
Laura has also set up a tiny newsletter for me, which you can join here, or from the Facebook page, or from my website. I promise not spam you if you join. It's just another way of staying in touch, and I can let you know about readings, workshops, and other goings on.
And finally, Carole DeSanti, my friend, fellow novelist, and editor at Viking Penguin, is like a captain at the helm of a ship, keeping it, and me, on course!
It's been wonderful to be working with all my wonderful and talented friends to bring this book out into the world for all you wonderful and talented friends and readers. So thanks for your interest, and I hope to see you down the road!
Everything's up to date in Kansas City
They gone about as fer as they can go
They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a buildin' orta grow.
Winter Institute - Kansas City, MO. Just about to head down to the Century Ballroom to the gathering of my tribe—booksellers and booklovers, from around the country. How cool is that?
But before I go, I just want to upload, quickly, this interesting bit of information: Kansas City was the city chosen by Google to launch their Google Fiber 1. For about $70/month, households here can have access to 1 gig/sec broadband speeds. This, according to Google Access General Manager Kevin Lo, is "more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have today."
Hmm. Last I heard, our Internet in the East Village of Manhattan was still down, after Hurricane Sandy.
Earlier this month I was delighted to learn that the Vancouver Public Library had selected “My Year of Meats” as the 2007 choice for One Book One Vancouver, a municipal reading program described as “a book club for the entire city.” It’s the oldest program of its kind in Canada, and it’s been great. I’ve been going down to Vancouver every couple of weeks to do events of various kinds, but the highlights have been the visits to the branch libraries, where I’ve had a chance to meet with smaller groups of readers and talk about the novel and the issues that it raises. This month, we'll be screening film, “Halving the Bones,” on Tuesday, June 11, and the program culminates at the Word on the Street festival in September.
I was especially moved when I heard about the selection because I wrote “My Year of Meats” while living in Vancouver in 1996-7, and I did most of the research for that book at the Vancouver Public Library. I remember how excited I was when I first visited the Central Library. I was really hard up for money that year, and I felt like I’d just won the lottery. The grand new building had just opened, and it was so airy and bright, with lots of crannies to curl up in, and carrels with electrical outlets, and even a food court with good coffee right outside. I would bike across the Georgia Viaduct from East Vancouver, where I was living at the time, grab a coffee, and then hit the stacks, searching for books on the meat, food and pharmaceutical industries, on synthetic hormones and antibiotic resistance, on the media and television and cultural theory, on roadside attractions in America. Other times I’d just wander, following some inchoate and undeniable pull toward Cannibalism, say, or Paleogeography, or Parapsychology.
Browsing the stacks is one of the true pleasures of a library. You walk slowly along with your head cocked, neck bent at a 90 degree angle and eyes perpendicular to the floor, skimming the shelves and letting the words drift from the spines into your subconscious where (you hope) they will spark new ideas and associations you’d never have thought of if you’d known what you were looking for. Occasionally, (frequently), you’ll reach out and pull a book off from the shelf and flip quickly through it, maybe adding it to the pile that’s growing in your arms. You’ll take it home. Maybe you’ll read it, or maybe just having it on your desk, largely unread, for three weeks will be enough to inspire. So much of fiction writing depends on the random factor, the fortuitous juxtaposition of mood and word and place that gives rise to the quirk of a character or the twist of a plot, so writers are browsers, culling for luck. You increase your odds by browsing, and true browsability can only be achieved in a real library, with real stacks, filled with real books on shelves. The digital world is infinitely rich in ideas and information, and keywords, metatag clouds and search engines greatly enhance its browsability, but nothing compares to the physical act of lurking in the stacks.
When I finished the draft of “My Year of Meats,” I took out books on How to Get Your Novel Published. I learned How To Write An Effective Query Letter, and How To Format A Manuscript For Submission, and How To Get an Agent. And I did these things. “My Year of Meats” owes its existence largely to what I learned at the public library.
So, this is why I am so happy that this particular book was chosen, but there’s another reason, too, which is that libraries are miracles of public munificence in an age of privatized corporate greed. Think about it. Imagine if there were no libraries, anywhere. The concept does not exist. And a politician comes up with this idea and goes to the legislature with a proposal. “I propose we take millions, no, billions of taxpayer dollars, and hire the most famous architects in the world to design and construct monumental landmark buildings in all of the big cities, and the small cities, too, and, hell, even the littlest towns, and when the buildings are built, we’ll fill ‘em up with books of all different kinds, which represent the entirety of human knowledge and experience, and then we’ll pass out these cards, see, and everyone, even people who don’t have any money or property, can come into the library and find the books they want to read, and take ‘em home and read ‘em! For free! Won’t that be great!?”
Uh huh. Right.
So we’re really lucky to have libraries, and we should use them all the time, and I'm happy to be the poster child for the library to which I am so deeply and gladly indebted.
Libraries will get you though times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.
- Anne Herbert - Writer, editor of Co-Evolutionary Quarterly
Chandra contacted me a while ago about contributing a story to the anthology, and when I found out that she had graduated from Yale and still lived in New Haven, I decided to write a short story using that very strange city, where I grew up, as a location. So I wrote "The Anthropologists' Kids," which is sort of an espionage thriller, featuring mixed race spy kids, set in the Anthropology Department at Yale. It was really fun to write.
Mixed got a very nice review in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I know that there are various readings and book events around the country, all of which I will try to post, if I can stay on top of it.
Meanwhile, here's some praise for Mixed:
“For those of us who are mixed, the question ‘what are you?’ is never simple. The stories in this groundbreaking anthology remind us that the answers are also never uninteresting. Nuanced, thoughtful, and deeply human, MIXED will appeal to anyone for whom the idea of ‘homeland’ is less a place than a state of mind.” - Bliss Broyard, author of My Father, Dancing
“You may not have heard of some of these writers--but one day soon you will. In the meantime, don’t miss this chance to read their sometimes painful but always exhilarating fiction. With great skill, these stories convey the shades of gray--or black, yellow and brown--that get lost amid easy labels.” - Paul Zakrzewski, editor of Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge
Here is an Op Ed essay that I wrote for the New York Times. I got a very kind email from the editor turning it down on the grounds that the Op Ed page does not currently accept fiction. Oh well.
To the Editor,
I would like to state an opinion in response to the growing debate over genetically modified crops, but before I go any further, I must speak straight and tell the whole truth about myself.
I am a retired potato farmer from Liberty Falls, Idaho, but I am not real. I am a fictional character in a novel. I know that it is unusual (and mighty presumptuous) for a fictional character in a novel to have strong political opinions, never mind to try to contribute one to the country’s “newspaper of record.” However, the fictionalized (as many would call it) nature of our current administration’s claim to office, the steady stream of invention issuing from the press rooms of our nation’s capital, and finally the imaginary characters and dramatized scenes that have recently appeared in the general media and even in these distinguished pages, all lead me to believe that since nobody knows what the truth is anymore, I might as well try my hand at telling it.
So here goes:
1. The argument that GMO crops are necessary to solve world hunger is a fiction designed by corporate PR offices to overcome consumer resistance to transgenic food, sell patented and lucrative seed to skeptical farmers, and further expand and strengthen US trade in developing countries. As such, this argument is unconscionable.
2. There is no shortage of food that could be offered to nations in need. Take potatoes, for example. In 2001, overproduction drove potato prices so low that desperate spud farmers in Idaho chose to dump 410 million pounds of potatoes, plowing them back into the ground to drive up prices and make room to store the next year’s crops. Similar overproduction of corn, wheat, milk, and most of the staples needed to provide nutrition to starving people occurs regularly, and what is not dumped here is dumped abroad. Oxfam, the London-based relief organization, noted last year that the United States has been selling surplus wheat on world markets at prices 46% below the cost of production, and corn at 20% below costs.
3. The evidence that genetically modified crops are of agronomic benefit to anyone, other than the CEO’s and shareholders of the corporations that sell them, is marginal. The premium prices farmers pay for transgenic seed often outweigh the profit that may derive from increase in crop yield or savings in pest or weed control inputs.
4. Plants cross-pollinate and breed. Wherever GMO varieties are planted, there will be some degree of genetic pollution of native species, and the “novel” traits expressed are likely to be unexpected and possibly dangerous to local ecosystems. Gene flow is real, not a science fiction.
5. “Buffer” or containment zones to prevent gene flow are not effective or enforced, nor are the so-called “refuges” aimed at preventing pests from developing immunity to the bacterial pesticides spliced into some GMO crops. According to an article published in your newspaper on June 19, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a report stating that the biotech industry has been misreporting farmers’ compliance with E.P.A. standards governing the planting of GMO crops.
6. There have been no long term, government-mandated studies on the human health impact of GMOs, either in this country, or anywhere else.
Hearing me talk like this, you might think I was one of those liberal environmental types, which I’m not. However, I do find it mysterious that those people, who think that this earth and all its wonder was an accident, could treat nature with far more reverence and respect than those of us who believe it is God’s gift and creation.
And if your readers take issue with the idea of a character like me appearing in your newspaper, well, I guess I can understand that. As a fictional character, I have a high regard for reality. Novel creations belong in novels, not in nature, and on the page, not on the dinner plate.
Potato Farmer (retired), Liberty Fall, Idaho
Character (fictional), “All Over Creation”