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This Just In...News From The Agony Column


NPR Report Sunday: Getting Your First Novel Published: Jon Clinch on 'Finn' : UPDATE with NPR URL

07-01-07: Here's the "Email this story" URL for my piece on Jon Clinch and Finn. Later on today, you'll be able to listen to the story here as well. Much hope here (and work as well) for those aspiring to write and sell the first novel. Again, reader's work on emailing this story is greatly appreciated. Thanks!

NPR is going to run my report on getting a first novel published. I'm hoping to see this become a series of reports with writers who have just published their first book, and provide a lot of variety in the process. This report focuses on Jon Clinch, author of 'Finn'. Here's a link to my interview with the author. I'm not sure at the moment if the report is running on Wesun or Weekend ATC, but I'll update this when I get more information. As ever, readers, please email this story early and often. Your support helps me get access to the authors you want to hear from. NPR does pay attention to most emailed! Thanks ever so much; now back to your summer reading!


06-29-07: Kaui Hart Hemmings Gathers 'The Descendents'

Family Fires

Family trees. Oh, the humanity.
"I think paradise can go fuck itself," Matt King tells readers early on in 'The Descendents' (Random House ; May 15, 2007; $24.95) by Kaui Hart Hemmings. "The tropics make it difficult to mope."

He's got his reasons to mope, enough that even living in Hawaii can't compensate. For all you Smiths fans out there, he's got a wife, not a girlfriend, in a coma. But as comas go, it's every bit as comedic as that experienced by moping Morrissey's girlfriend. As comas go.

And then there are the kids. Two girls; Scottie is ten years old and still in the pre-evil, smart-ass stage. But his seventeen-year old girl, Alex, is a former model and just out from rehab. This cannot be a good sign. Or even if it is good, it's not easy to deal with. But Matt King gets to put it in perspective. Since his wife was having an affair before the accident that put her in that coma, Matt gets to take both kids to meet up with Mom's boyfriend. Sounds like a gas.

Hemmings' first novel is a treat for anyone who has a family that is less than perfect, which suggests that she has a very large potential audience. It seems that the King family, and there are a lot of them, are land-rich, cash-poor Hawaiians with the opportunity to sell out, grab the cash and leave a lovely Wal-Mart in their wake. So what do you do when your wife's in a coma and your life's in the shit? Wisecrack, early and often.

Hemmings is a master of the middle-aged male wistful wisecrack, and if you want to read some 283 pages of dryly-humorous yet emotionally honest perceptions of a family under stress then 'The Descendents' is definitely your cuppa. It's a rather remarkable performance, a pitch-perfect spiel set amidst beauty with which the humans who live there cannot compete. So they don’t bother. Instead, the whole damnable family comes out of the woodwork and squabbles their way into your tiny brain, taking up residence and offering lots of lessons in the power of negative kvetching.

The temptation is to think of 'The Descendents' as a "dysfunctional" family drama, but in point of fact Matt and his clan are pretty damn functional. But even paradise is on a short road to shithood, so merely functional doesn't exactly cut it. Nor is being functional a day in the park, especially when you have to cart your two apples who have not fallen so far from the tree from Oahu to Kauai to confront mom's beau. This is not the sort of thing you foresee when you sign up for fatherhood, but the point is that nothing you expect from fatherhood materializes in the manner you expect. So you just soldier on. Seems to help.

Hemmings' strength is her narrative voice, and 'The Descendents' is the sort of novel that sells well to readers who are of the "pick it up and read it in the store" variety. It's hard not to love the book from the get-go. Sure, there's a lot of drama going on, what with the coma, the Wal-Mart deal, whinging, money-clutching relatives and two children who are not exactly easy. You come to realize that even if Matt King were to be complaining about the travails of being in the grocery store express lane behind the person who forgot that they’re writing an out-of-state check with no identification, he'd still be entertaining. But Hemmings leaves the groceries to us, as she's given Matt the wife in a coma to deal with. Of life in a coma, as it were, up until his wife moved into that state. Sometimes, what we like to disingenuously describe as a wake-up call involves a loved one not awakening. And if you can write a scene with two girls and a dad standing over Mom in a coma and make readers laugh, out loud, in the store, then that can make the readers wake up. Or better still keep them awake after they’ve taken the book home.


06-28-07: Henghis Hapthorn Enters 'The Spiral Labyrinth'

Scroot for Hire

Not the final cover, etc, etc. And yes, that is my cover blurb.
Just look around. Go to the bookstore and boggle your mind with the piles of crap that present themselves. Celebrity bios. Literally tons of books offering advice on how to lose weight. Happy-wappy self-help books that promise perfection for those whose fingers rarely leave the TV remote. Series mysteries, ranging from great to dross. Romance. More romance. And in case you needed romance in your friggin' life, more romance. Well-meaning exhortations of the virtues of this or that society, this or that philosophical slant. Slit your wrists and hope to die novels of despair from the four corners of the earth. Aaargh!

Where can a guy get a decent friggin' book that is not part of some media-ruled empire of shit? I'll tell you where. From Night Shade Books, that's where. In this case, 'The Spiral Labyrinth' (Night Shade Books duh! ; September 25, 2007 ; $24.95), the latest Henghis Hapthorn novel by Matthew Hughes. And you know, if you missed 'Majestrum', which came out last year, you might want to pick that one up as well, but you don't have to. Or his novel for SF big-boys Tor, 'Black Brillion'. Sure, miss out on sparkling prose, etc. etc. There's a celebrity bio with your name – on the credit card slip you get when you pay for it.

All froth-mouthed ranting aside, 'The Spiral Labyrinth' is a perfect example of how important prose skills are to what we read. Sure it seems obvious, but it's easy and actually the idea to get caught up content of a novel. Do they live or die? Who did it and why? Books transport us to an indescribable realm. And if we're willing to do the work, that can be really fun, even when the prose is just the literary equivalent of a Honda Civic. Such a work can be really important. I've been driven through many a great novel by Honda prose. Nothing wrong with it, and quite a bit right with it. Sometimes anything more would be distracting.

But ah. Matthew Hughes. If the plots weren't so compelling, if the worlds he creates weren't so sparklingly original, I could read about Henghis Hapthorn going to the grocery store, nabbing a few veggies and coming home to make a nice stir-fry. Pick up, please, do yourself a favor and just pick up this novel and read the first few pages. Hughes writing is a Rolls Royce Corniche convertible and it is a gorgeous summer's day. Why not get behind the wheel and take a spin?

'The Spiral Labyrinth' fires off with a pretty straightforward mystery. Effrayne Choweri's husband, Chup didn't return last night. Hapthorn needs some money. He's for hire, he's hired and then things get more complex. Much more complex.

I mentioned the prose, right? Incredibly witty and funny, it rolls trippingly through your mind as you read it. But given that the prose is so tremendously funny and gorgeously, ornately well-written, how do the ideas, plots and characters fare? Well, they're all mind-bogglingly able to keep up with Hughes' prose. Now, look, from the get-go you’re going to have be OK with some really weird settings, characters and concepts. This is not simply some TV detective franchise in spaceship drag. Hughes offers us a complex vision of magic and science, of reason and wonder separated at birth and in close competition. You’re going to encounter all manner of sorcerers and mad scientists, monsters and men in here. Rest assured that conceptually it all hangs together. But be certain as well that getting to the point is going to be more fun than you can possibly imagine.

I've mentioned that Night Shade Books is bringing you 'The Spiral Labyrinth'. This means a quality hardcover at regular NY publisher prices with a great cover by Tom Kidd. Night Shade gets pretty good distribution, so you should be able to find this pretty much anywhere, though given that you’re reading this review on the web, your best bet is to order it straight up from Night Shade. They deserve your support for giving us books like this and moreover, it's a great deal.

Of course, there are equal arguments for going to your local independent bookseller. Brush past the piles of celebrity bios, the glossy covers of crapola between hardcovers. You’re probably going to have to dig for this one. But if you like say, Philip K. Dick, or wish that P. G. Wodehouse were still alive and writing surreal science fiction, then you need to hitch a ride with the gorgeous prose in 'The Spiral Labyrinth'. Then just look around. Somehow it will all seem better.


06-27-07: Kate Christensen's Dueling Biographers

'The Great Man'

Not a whitewash job.
We all know that there are lives within lives, that each of us leads different versions of our own lives. For our family, we may be the tired-but-loving father and husband; for our co-workers, we may be the goofy techno-guy; for our friends, we may be a musician, or a golfer, or a sports fan. Somehow we manage to play all these roles and be a single person. The lives overlap in a manner that may be joyous or simply tiring. But they do overlap.


Unless you've got a secret life–and that's less unusual than you might wish to think.

It's been too long since we've heard from Kate Christensen. I had a great conversation with her when I read her last novel, 'The Epicure's Lament', a hysterical novel of voice, told by one of my favorite cranks in literature, Hugo Whittier. I loved this novel and have been waiting not-so-patiently for what proves to be 'The Great Man' (Doubleday / Random House ; August 14, 2007 ; $23.95), a novel about one man, four women and two biographers. And more lives than people.

Oscar Feldman is The Great Man, a painter who helped define a generation of painting but for one little quirk. While the Pollacks and Rothkos were living in an abstract world, Feldman was exploring something a little more earthy. He spent his entire artistic life painting the female nude. Now that's a career.

The novel begins with his obit, and it is duly noted that he leaves behind a wife, Abigail, an autistic son and a sister, Maxine, who just happens to be a noteworthy abstract artist. Of course these were all from his first life.

And while the rest of today's world goes ga-ga at Second Life, it's not as if second lives are anything new. Turns out that Oscar had a second life, in Brooklyn with his mistress Teddy St. Cloud and their twin daughters. One can imagine what the biographers are going to make of this. And what the women will make of one another.

Christensen is a perfect match for this tangled web woven by a single deceiver. Few writers can match her ability to pack a sentence with dripping, venomous, bitter bile and remain smiling. The trick is that no matter how venal her characters, no matter how cruel and selfish they may be, she loves every damn one of them, every selfish bone in every aging, decaying body. Age matters in this novel where the median is one that suggests grandmotherhood or more. Christensen goes straight for the heart of our discomfort with the facts of our biological lives, writing frankly about the sex lives of characters in their 70's and 80's. The secret lives. Because it's no longer "This is Your Life". Sorry. That was then; this is now. "These are Your Lives". Enjoy them–or at least, reading about them.


06-26-07: Jeffrey E. Barlough Visits 'Bertram of Butter Cross'

Sundered World, Western Lights

More the cover magic we're seeking.
"The years rush by us like wind."

Indeed they do. And not often enough comes a year that brings a new novel by Jeffrey E. Barlough. Of the many writers working the borders of weird fiction, there are few as original or as hard-headed as Barlough. By that I mean that Barlough seems to be particularly focused on a vision of fiction that only he can see, until he writes the words down and gives us a new book. Each work in his Western Lights series is a wonderfully out-there unique creation, unlike anything else anyone else is writing. He truly seems to inhabit the odd little world he's created.

He first introduced us to that world in 2000 with 'Dark Sleeper'. The novel, set in "Salthead", takes place in an oddly conjoined combination of Victorian England and the Western States after some sort of "sundering". Mammoths roam the hills as well as headless ghosts. Told in a mannered Victorian prose style, Barlough's debut managed to combine sweet and lovable characters, low humor and deep Lovecraftian horrors. It was simply unique. His follow-up novel, 'The House in the High Wood: A Story of Old Talbotshire' was to my mind even better. The characters were etched a bit more sharply, the milieu remained unbelievably odd but utterly coherent and the horror – simply breathtaking. It was a three year wait for 'Strange Cargo', and worth every single second. Barlough's 2004 novel was bigger, odder and never swayed from the original vision that illuminates this series from within. As a reader, you can tell that Barlough is pursuing a goal that only he can imagine. The opportunity to explore his prose creation is to my mind, unmissable.

But unique visions aren't easy for the mass-marketing divisions of major publishers to sell. One has to give Ace / Penguin Putnam credit for picking up Barlough in the first place, but the cover art for his first two books was tragic. Readers really couldn’t tell what they were getting into, and I will allow that Ace had a hard job on their hands. How to sell Barlough's Sundered World? He himself had avoided articulating the thoughts behind his creation in the works themselves. This was part of their delight. They did not seem to be about a world, they seemed to come from a world. They weren't fantasy, though they were fantastic. They weren't horror, though they were horrific. They weren't science fiction either. There wasn't a lot of technology hanging round. They were simply great and very unusual reading.

I feared we had seen the last of Barlough, but after three years he'd given us another gift from the sundered world, 'Bertram of Butter Cross' (Gresham & Doyle ; August 1, 2007 ; $14.95). And what a joy it is to have Barlough back among us. Perhaps the fantasy genre has evolved enough to accommodate Barlough, because on the back of the book, they're calling it fantasy. With a cover from a painting by Elizabeth Adela Stanforth Forbes, I'm really hoping that guys get the kind of distribution that helps this book land amidst the piles of trade paperbacks from Susanna Clarke and Gordon Dahlquist. One of the strengths of the Western Lights series is that the book stand well on their own, so that a reader who managed to lay hands on 'Bertram of Butter Cross' might well be enchanted enough to seek the other books in the series and not suffer any problems in terms of the order they were read in.

'Bertram of Butter Cross' unfolds in the environs of Marley Wood, where something odd has taken up residence. Jemma Hathaway, her brother Richard and a gallery of delightfully named and framed characters shall have to sort it out, and probably enjoy a few delightful repasts in the process. Readers can only hope for more, and apparently more is on tap. For in spite of my earlier assurances that you can read these books in any order, Barlough promises that next year we'll have his first true sequel, a novel set in Salthead, last seen in 'Dark Sleeper'.

Readers who have not yet had the delight of discovering Barlough's work should definitely take a look at the Western Lights website. It's nicely designed, easy-to-read and will give you a handsome précis for the Sundered World and Barlough's odd vision. Better yet, buy the books. They are a truly unique reading experience. The years do rush by like wind. But 'tis better to have at least realized this is so. Better to have the memories of the books we read to hand.


06-25-07: A 2007 Interview with Susanna Moore

"There's something about it that bothers you"


Susanna Moore at KQED.
It is inevitably true that humans love nothing more than to see other humans make mistakes. Oh how we desire those cherished moments when we can enjoy someone else's screw-ups, those stolen jolts of joy we experience when someone other than ourselves makes a dog's breakfast of it all.
Most of us are smart enough not to publicize such moments, but apparently, I'm not most of us. I know that many readers, "bloggers" and listeners live for those audio gaffes that inevitably occur when I, not to put too fine a point upon it, screw it up, or an author shows me up. Listen up then, because my interview with Susanna Moore is a gold mine of screw-ups on my part. None of that smooth interviewer stuff going on here. No, some 48 minutes in you'll hear me attempt to end the interview. Unsuccessfully. To be fair, my engineer had recently told me that I needed to end my interviews on time, as I tend to run long, stray into the next time block and they end up with people waiting in the green room. Susanna More had just uttered a nice "stopping point" phrase, and I thought, well, here goes.

Not quite the case. In fact, the whole interview with Susanna Moore was off my usual track. To my mind, it was for the better. Moore and I engaged on a rather closer, more personal level than usual. She wanted to interview me, something I tend to resist. I figure that over the long haul, my listeners get more than enough of me, and so I try to stay out of my own way. But Moore was pretty insistent upon it, and in the end, I just thought, "What the hell!"

Her new novel unlocks some secrets.
Let's ratchet back a bit OK? Part of the reason things went rather oddly was that Moore's driver thought she knew who I was. So driving Moore over, she told the author that I may or may not have bothered to read the book beforehand. Moore arrived ready to talk to someone who hadn't a clue as to who she was or what the book was about. So when she arrived to find a guy with an entire stack of yellow stickies marking note points in her slim but powerful novel 'The Big Girls', I think that she was taken aback. Plus, I was early in the interview process. As usual, I started the interview with a request for readings. I wanted two readings, one from the point-of-view of Dr. Forrest, and the other from the point-of-view of Helen, the abuse survivor and murderess. Generally, I try to pre-select, but not too rigidly, since authors often have some passage they'd prefer to read. In this case, I picked out something from Helens POV kind of on the fly. I'd read it myself, but as Moore read it aloud, I realized just how horrific it was. By the time she finished, I was squirming. Where do we go from here? I wondered.

Moore and I talked for well over an hour, and even then I managed to turn off the recording a bit too early. Be that as it may, readers can hear what I did record. At 48'34" you can hear my gaffe, so to speak, on the MP3 or RealAudio file. After that things get really interesting as Moore grills me on why I find a book about child abuse and child murder so disturbing. 'The Big Girls' is a fascinating novel, but I've not read anything quite so heinous in terms of the human horror it portrays. To me it's patently obvious why this book is so disturbing. It's about the worst that humanity has on offer. But it is gloriously well-written in super-scrubbed-clean prose. It's an excellent novel. And despite my discomfited state, I think the interview is at least pretty entertaining. I hope my listeners are ready to enjoy another Kleffel screw-up. It won’t be the last, I hope.


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