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04-14-11: A 2011 Phone Interview with Ann Packer

"What are the sort of behaviors and problems that are happening around the edges of ordinary life?"

—Ann Packer

Ann Packer writes about the people who live in my kind of town — the sort of suburbs that surround bigger cities and seem to blend into them, one freeway exit to the next. Of course, she does live just over the hill, so she's surely following the age-old saw of writing about what you know. But so much so-called "American" literature has so little to do with the America I know that when a writer gets it right, I pay close attention; and hope for the opportunity to ask questions.

Anne Packer is just about to head out to an American town just like yours, and if you get the chance to see her read, I'd suggest she is more than worth your time. Her writing features the kind of craftsmanship that is so seamless, it seems easy. But of course, it is not. Packer's ability to evoke natural life with language is quite unique and her books simply replace your world with the one she's talking about.

Her latest book is a collection of five stories and a novella titled, 'Swim Back to Me.' I was lucky enough to get her to talk to me about the book on the phone, and I really wanted to explore her travels through Northern California. The stories that frame the book are linked and take place over a lifetime that is fairly similar to my own. There's something masterful about her writing. She knows when to add details and when to hold back and let the reader fill in the blanks. She gets the emotional lives of her characters quietly perfect. When you finish this book, you'll feel not like you read some new stories but rather that you met some new people.

I'll be sitting down with Ann Packer when she's in town next week, but here's a sneak preview of what you can expect as she crosses America with her book. You can hear our chat about her tour and her new book by following this link to the MP3 audio file of our conversation.

04-13-11: Ann VanderMeer Interviewed at SF in SF on March 12, 2011

"We're not turning your entire world upside-down."

—Ann VanderMeer

SF in SF has been having busy months of late, with extra shows and extra guests. But how can they resist the ever-popular VanderMeers, who were in town for Fogcon? Obviously, they could not and I was on hand to interview them. This time around, I elected to speak to each separately, and first up is Ann VanderMeer, who has recently turned Weird Tales into an all-girl show.

While I thought this a bit unusual, Ann was quick to point out that woman have always played a big part in Weird Tales, and some of the most famous lurid covers that we all love to love were created by women. Now, generally interviewers are supposed to always know the answers to the questions they ask, but I find it bracing to ask actual questions. It makes for a more surprising and interesting conversation, as opposed to a series of set-ups.

I also asked a bit about the Ann and Jeff partnership. They work different sides of the creative aisle and manage to work together, which is rather remarkable. To hear Ann's side of the story, follow this link to the MP3 audio file.

04-12-11: Patrick Rothfuss Interviewed at SF in SF on March 3, 2011

"...the sort of culture that develops a Robin Hood myth, that tells you a lot about the time and place that story comes from..."

—Patrick Rothfuss

The action was intense at the Patrick Rothfuss reading, with the house packed and everyone holding a number of copies of his books. I confess thinking that it was unlikely I'd get a chance to interview the NYT-bestselling author, as the publisher had jam-packed his schedule so tight the only time I had was literally at the show.

But Rothfuss, who was an engaging reader and speaker, was more than happy to take a few minutes to speak with me about his fantasy novels 'The Name of the Wind' and 'The Wise Man's Fear.' These are mammoth novels in a classic mode, with all the frills carefully etched in and worked out. Rothfuss made it clear that he intends these book not just to be read, but re-read, and he puts in plenty of work to make sure that the re-read is rewarding.

One of the things that he said that I liked best was that "every good story has an ending," and that the end is clearly in sight for Kvothe, the boy-man-hero who promises to tell his tale in the three days — and three books — of the Kingkiller Chronicles. Rothfuss is an accomplished storyteller, even when he is telling his own story, which is at least as complicated at that of Kvothe. I suspect that there are just as many supernatural entities involved as well.

I also talked to Rothfuss about his other work, 'The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed,' a very unusual tale from Subterranean Press, which is probably sold out like, ten thousand times over. He found that the one-off was not a distraction, but a means to help focus his work on The Third Tome, which itself sounds like a fantasy title. So long as it arrives sooner rather than later, his readers will feel happy. In the interim, here's a conversation with Patrick Rothfuss, complete with loud background noise, which you can hear by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

04-11-11: A 2011 Interview with Billy Collins

You can always click on the image to reach the audio link

"I guess we're always just talking, poets, about a handful of things...I've never read it before, let me see if I even have it here."

—Billy Collins

That may be the case, but the handful of which Billy Collins speaks matter the most. I'd spoken with Billy Collins when his last collection, 'Ballistics,' came out but that had been via ISDN. Yes, the voice sound is perfect over ISDN, but nothing can replace eye-to-eye contact when you're talking with anyone for any reason. I'm tempted to say it applies more to poets; but Collins is as much an archetype as he is poet, even if he says, "I'm no drum-banger for poetry."

Collins is also a teacher, which I would suggest is a vital source of his ability to communicate as a poet. It's not that he's always teaching so much as it is that those who listen to him are always learning. He can tell you your own name in a way that informs you. The skills that lead his language into poetry are all the skills of leadership. It's clear that when he is speaking, he will tell you something you have never known.

As we sat down to talk he told me first of how he'd come to choose the cover painting for the book, which he first saw in a New York Gallery. I really love the image; there's something about it that speaks perfectly to both his work and the title, though it does not have anything obvious to do with either. I guess what I enjoy is that it seems like a boyhood vision of heaven — an aeroplane skimming over high clouds. Collins liked the painting so much that he decided to buy it. The gallery owner told him it was $6,000, but that he could get it for the "poet's discount" of $3,000.

When he told his publisher about this, they told him there was a problem with the painting and that he couldn't buy it, because they had bought it for him. He'd been with them ten years, though he himself wasn't counting. As I tried to articulate what I liked about the image, I told him it reminded me of something from my boyhood. Collins takes joy in his boyhood memories, which inform his poetry.

By then the tape had been rolling for almost ten minutes and I asked him to pick a poem to read for the opening. And by the time he and I finished speaking, he debuted a new poem, one that he had just finished earlier that morning. Titled "Orient," he told me it's a love poem. Of course, the world of Billy Collins' love poems is unlike any other. You can hear the poem he chose to begin with and his newest poem — by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 186: Tad Williams : Sleeping Late on Judgment Day

12-04-14: Commentary : Anne Rice Crowns 'Prince Lestat' : A Unified Theory of Vampires

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Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 184: William Gibson : The Peripheral

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11-10-14: Commentary : Dana Cowin 'Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen' : Learning to Cook — and Live

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11-09-14:Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 182: Dana Cowin : Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook with 65 Great Chefs and Over 100 Delicious Recipes

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11-04-14: Commentary : Paolo Bacigalupi Believes In 'The Doubt Factory' : Thrills Matter

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10-30-14: Commentary : Brian J. Showers Opens 'The Green Book, Issue 4' : 200 Years of Le Fanu

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