Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Disappeared by Adam Braver


Congratulations to Kerry Pickens, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Montana Noir, edited by James Grady and Kier Graff.

This week’s contest is for the new novel by Adam Braver, The Disappeared. This is one of my Most Anticipated Books of 2017. You can read about my enthusiastic anticipation at this month’s Front Porch Books. Keep scrolling for more information about the book....


A novel of two strangers swept up in the aftermath of two politicized acts of violence. The Disappeared traces a pair of survivors: a woman whose husband is missing in a San Bernardino-type of attack, and a man who believes his sister was an unidentified victim of the ’93 World Trade Center bombing. Here’s what people have been saying about the book:

“Adam Braver’s vivid characters move through a haunted landscape—the world forever changed by terror—that has become all too familiar to many of us. This compelling and elegantly written novel charts the intersections of individual and collective grief, unfolding in unexpected ways. It is both profoundly personal and smartly political, a memorable page turner with urgent, resonant themes.”
       —Alix Ohlin, author of Signs and Wonders

“Braver’s novel is rich and humane, a tightly controlled, beautifully orchestrated portrait of contemporary terrors and the feedback loops of fear and paranoia they create that mesmerize us and, tragically, sometimes drive us mad. There are those that disappear in the violence, and those that disappear searching for them in their wakes, trying to make sense of insanity.”
       —Paul Harding, author of Tinkers

The Disappeared concerns itself with the collateral damage visited upon two families in the aftermath of politically motivated trauma. Its aim is to personalize the effects of foreign dissent, of national protest, of mere happenstance, of sheer bad luck. Its two lead characters pursue their faithful remembrance of those they lost, who, then, after all, have not disappeared. It is a strangely uplifting book, given its subject and the times we live in. Highly recommended.”
       —Antonya Nelson, author of Living to Tell

If you’d like a chance at winning The Disappeared, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 29. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Montana Noir hits the highway


     DezAray stared out the windshield: "There's a whole lot of out there out there."
     The western third of the state was the Rocky Mountains marching down from Canada, pine tree crags soaring more than a mile above sea level. East of the mountains meant scrub-grass prairies and chessboard-brown-and-gold fields of rotated crops, which if you weren't born there looked like one terrifying, big empty.
               "The Road You Take" by James Grady (from Montana Noir)

Montana is indeed a big state with plenty of empty spaces. Four-lane interstates, two-lane highways, and single-track dirt roads beckon and encourage exploration to the intrepid traveler. Starting tomorrow, the Montana Noir posse will hit the road on a whirlwind tour promoting the new anthology from Akashic Books. We'll read from our stories, talk about the nature of noir in film and literature, and generally have a grand old time in the Treasure State. We can't wait to see the out there out there.

If you're in Montana this coming week, we'd love to see you at one of the many events listed below.

Saturday, September 23
5:30–7 p.m.
This House of Books, 224 N Broadway, Billings, MT
With Gwen Florio and Carrie La Seur

Sunday, September 24
7 p.m.
Cassiopeia Books, 721 Central Ave, Great Falls, MT
With David Abrams, Gwen Florio, Jamie Ford, James Grady, Keir Graff, Eric Heidle, Yvonne Seng

Monday, September 25
7 p.m.
Country Bookshelf, 28 W Main St, Bozeman, MT
With David Abrams, James Grady, Keir Graff, Walter Kirn, Yvonne Seng

Tuesday, September 26
NOON
Butte-Silver Bow Public Library, 226 W Broadway St, Butte, MT
With David Abrams, James Grady, Keir Graff, Yvonne Seng

Tuesday, September 26
7 p.m.
Clark Chateau Museum & Gallery, 321 W Broadway St, Butte, MT
With David Abrams, James Grady, Keir Graff, Eric Heidle, Caroline Patterson, Yvonne Seng
Book sales by Books & Books

Wednesday, September 27
6 p.m.
Reception at Blackfoot River Brewing Company, 66 S Park Ave, Helena, MT

Wednesday, September 27
7 p.m.
Lewis & Clark Library, 120 S Last Chance Gulch, Helena, MT
With David Abrams, Gwen Florio, James Grady, Keir Graff, Eric Heidle, Caroline Patterson, Yvonne Seng
Book sales by Montana Book & Toy Co.

Friday, September 29
4 p.m.
Montana Book Festival: Panel and Q&A
Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore, 103 S 3rd St W, Missoula, MT
With David Abrams, Gwen Florio, James Grady, Keir Graff, Eric Heidle, Sidner Larson, Carrie La Seur, Caroline Patterson, Yvonne Seng

Saturday, September 30
6 p.m.
Montana Book Festival: Noir at the Bar
Union Club, 208 E Main St, Missoula, MT
With David Abrams, Gwen Florio, James Grady, Keir Graff, Eric Heidle, Sidner Larson, Carrie La Seur, Caroline Patterson, Yvonne Seng
Featuring music by Russ Nasset and the Revelators!


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Front Porch Books: September 2017 edition



The Disappeared
by Adam Braver
(Outpost19)

You have only to say four words —“Adam Braver” and “new book” — and I’m already halfway to my nearest independent bookstore in search of a copy. Lucky me, as a reviewer and blogger, I already received an advance copy of the new novel The Disappeared (though, a future trip to the aforementioned bookstore will be in order because, damn, I love that cover design!). I have been a die-hard fan of Adam’s work ever since I read Mr. Lincoln’s Wars a decade ago. My love for his prose only intensified when I later picked up a copy of Misfit, an imaginative retelling of Marilyn Monroe’s last days. Now here comes The Disappeared, a bit of a departure for the novelist who has set his previous books in the past (the JFK assassination, the early twentieth-century actress Sarah Bernhardt, etc.). The Disappeared concerns itself with more recent acts of terrorism, of which, sadly, we know all too well. No matter where on history’s timeline Adam chooses to turn his attention, you can bet I’ll be turning the pages eagerly and rapidly.

Jacket Copy:  A novel of two strangers swept up in the aftermath of two politicized acts of violence. The Disappeared traces a pair of survivors: a woman whose husband is missing in a San Bernardino-type of attack, and a man who believes his sister was an unidentified victim of the ’93 World Trade Center bombing. With a remarkable mix of nuance and momentum, Braver portrays their post-trauma experience in the face of relentless public feedback.

Opening Lines:  The morning of the shooting is the last day she’ll go out for a while. Already Lucy had been growing nervous about being out in public. Following a season of international terror attacks, her daily routine had been thus: get in the car, drive to work, eat lunch inside the building, get in the car and come back home. There was no more gathering in large public spaces. No more train to work. The unseen risks outsized the convenience. She’d even conceded all grocery shopping to Henry, refusing to be a target in the Raley’s parking lot or inside the crowded market. Think about it: at the time, who would have thought twice about sitting in a Parisian cafĂ© on that warm November night? Or who would have had any apprehension about just waiting for the usual commuter train in the usual station at the usual time in London or Madrid? The cable news shows said we now lived in an era of vigilance. Lucy saw it more as an era of cautious retreat.

Blurbworthiness:  “Adam Braver’s vivid characters move through a haunted landscape—the world forever changed by terror—that has become all too familiar to many of us. This compelling and elegantly written novel charts the intersections of individual and collective grief, unfolding in unexpected ways. It is both profoundly personal and smartly political, a memorable page turner with urgent, resonant themes.”  (Alix Ohlin, author of Signs and Wonders)



The Overstory
by Richard Powers
(W. W. Norton)

Just like Adam Braver, Richard Powers is another author who will immediately grab my attention when I see one of his books on the New Release table in stores. (If you haven’t read his tour de force about civil rights, The Time of Our Singing, you need to correct that mistake right away). Combine that interest with the subject matter of The Overstory — the fight to save our dwindling forests — and this new novel is a sure thing for me.

Jacket Copy:  The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fable that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. An air force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing-and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by trees, are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

Opening Lines:  First there was nothing. Then there was everything.
      Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages.
      A woman sits on the ground, leaning against a pine. Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, in words before words.



Draft No. 4
by John McPhee
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

      A new book by John McPhee?
      Yes, please.
      A new book by John McPhee with the subtitle “On the Writing Process”?
      Say no more.

Jacket Copy:  Draft No. 4 is a master class on the writer’s craft. In a series of playful, expertly wrought essays, John McPhee shares insights he has gathered over his career and has refined while teaching at Princeton University, where he has nurtured some of the most esteemed writers of recent decades. McPhee offers definitive guidance in the decisions regarding arrangement, diction, and tone that shape nonfiction pieces, and he presents extracts from his work, subjecting them to wry scrutiny. In one essay, he considers the delicate art of getting sources to tell you what they might not otherwise reveal. In another, he discusses how to use flashback to place a bear encounter in a travel narrative, while observing that “readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.” The result is a vivid depiction of the writing process, from reporting to drafting to revising—and revising, and revising. Draft No. 4 is enriched by multiple diagrams and by personal anecdotes and charming reflections on the life of a writer. McPhee describes his enduring relationships with The New Yorker and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and recalls his early years at Time magazine. Throughout, Draft No. 4 is enlivened by his keen sense of writing as a way of being in the world.

Opening Lines:  In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Kasrel, Optometrist. Across the street was the main library of Princeton University. Across the hall was the Swedish Massage. Operated by an Austrian couple who were nearing retirement and had been there for decades, it was a legitimate business. They massaged everything from college football players to arthritic ancients, and they didn’t give sex. This, however, was the era when massage became a sexual synonym, and most evenings—avoiding writing, looking down from my window on the passing scene—I would see men in business suits stop, hesitate, look around, and then move toward the glass door at the foot of the stairs. Eventually, the Austrians had to scrape the words “Swedish Massage” off the door, and replace them with a hanging sign they removed when they went home at night. Meanwhile, the men kept arriving at the top of the stairs, where neither door was marked. When they knocked on mine and I opened it, their faces fell dramatically as the busty Swede they expected turned into a short and bearded man.

Blurbworthiness:  “[Draft No. 4]’s combination of shop talk, war stories, slices of autobiography, and priceless insights and lessons suggests what it must be like to occupy a seat in the McPhee classroom...McPhee’s observations about writing are always invigorating to engage with. And Draft No. 4 belongs on the short shelf of essential books about the craft.”  (The Wall Street Journal)



Sourdough
by Robin Sloan
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Robin Sloan’s debut novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was an odd delight and one of my favorites of 2012. I still think about that shadowy bookstore which served as a nondescript front for an equally-shadowy group of high-tech code breakers. That novel brimmed with all the quirky complexities of Umberto Eco and Haruki Murakami. Sloan’s new novel Sourdough looks just as tasty. There are still strange codes to be broken, but this time they’re leavened by a ceramic crock of yeasty sourdough starter. My interest, like the bread itself, is definitely on the rise.

Jacket Copy:  Lois Clary is a software engineer at General Dexterity, a San Francisco robotics company with world-changing ambitions. She codes all day and collapses at night, her human contact limited to the two brothers who run the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall from which she orders dinner every evening. Then, disaster! Visa issues. The brothers close up shop, and fast. But they have one last delivery for Lois: their culture, the sourdough starter used to bake their bread. She must keep it alive, they tell her—feed it daily, play it music, and learn to bake with it. Lois is no baker, but she could use a roommate, even if it is a needy colony of microorganisms. Soon, not only is she eating her own homemade bread, she’s providing loaves daily to the General Dexterity cafeteria. The company chef urges her to take her product to the farmer’s market, and a whole new world opens up. When Lois comes before the jury that decides who sells what at Bay Area markets, she encounters a close-knit club with no appetite for new members. But then, an alternative emerges: a secret market that aims to fuse food and technology. But who are these people, exactly?

Opening Lines:  It would have been nutritive gel for dinner, same as always, if I had not discovered stuck to my apartment’s front door a paper menu advertising the newly expanded delivery service of a neighborhood restaurant.
      I was just home from work and my face felt brittle from stress—this wasn’t unusual—and I would not normally have been interested in anything unfamiliar. My nightly ration of Slurry waited within.
But the menu intrigued me. The words were written in a dark, confident script—actually, two scripts: each dish was described once using the alphabet I recognized and again using one I didn’t, vaguely Cyrillic-seeming with a profusion of dots and curling connectors. In either case, the menu was compact: available was the Spicy Soup or a Spicy Sandwich or a Combo (double spicy), all of which, the menu explained, were vegetarian.
      At the top, the restaurant’s name was written in humongous, exuberant letters: CLEMENT STREET SOUP AND SOURDOUGH. At the bottom, there was a phone number and the promise of quick delivery. Clement Street was just a few blocks away. The menu charmed me, and as a result, my night, and my life, bent off on a different track.

Blurbworthiness:  “[Sourdough] plunges through so much terrain: microbial nations, assimilation and tradition, embodied consciousness and the crisis of the tech industry, all without losing the light, sweet, ironic Sloanian voice familiar from Mr. Penumbra’s, a plot that makes the book a page-turner and a laugh-out-louder, with sweetness and romance and tartness and irony in perfect balance. What a great book, seriously.”  (Cory Doctorow, author of Walkaway)


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.


Monday, September 18, 2017

My First Time: Jason Tougaw


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jason Tougaw, author of The One You Get, now out from Dzanc Books. In The One You Get, Jason marries neuroscience and family lore to tell his story of growing up gay in 1970s Southern California, raised by hippies who had “dropped out” in the late sixties and couldn’t seem to find their way back in. With shades of Oliver Sacks and Susannah Cahalan, this honest and unexpected true story recasts the memoir to answer some of life’s big questions: “Where did I come from,” “How did I become me,” and “What happens when the family dog accidentally overdoses on acid?” Jason is a professor of literature at City University of New York. He is also the author of two nonfiction books, Strange Cases: The Medical Case History and the British Novel and Touching Brains: Literary Experiments in 21st-Century Neuromania. He blogs about the relationship between art and science at Californica.net.


My First Time

I had sex young, in seventh grade, on the older side of twelve, with my best friend since first grade. I wouldn’t call this childish experimentation. I’d call it experimental sex—adolescent sex on the way to the adult kind. We started out masturbating on opposite sides of the room and graduated to anything we could figure out.

Sometimes people respond to my adolescent sex life with something like moral panic. This must have damaged you. This must have been traumatic. It wasn’t. It didn’t. I could go on about the fact that children are sexual creatures, but instead, I want to take the occasion to be very literal about my first time, about how having sex—gay sex—so young shaped me as a writer.

For a couple of tween years, it hijacked my internal narrative. Maybe this means I’m gay? No, I won’t be. I’ll stop doing it. After next time. I’ll find a girlfriend (I did, several). I’m going to hell. What am I gonna do? This was a kind of writing. I was doing it in my head, the way I start my writing projects now. I was imagining possible realities, scenarios, futures, stories I could tell myself and the world to overcome the shame I felt—shame imposed by the extremely homophobic world I lived in, especially my middle school, where I was routinely taunted, shoved, and sometimes punched.

Then I got a little notebook. I didn’t write this stuff down directly. It was too scary. But I took phrases and images from the nonstop assault of my internal narration and turned them into lyrics I imagined for my favorite bands. I wrote tirades about bullies and popular kids.

The thing is, the writing interrupted the narrative. Slowed it down. The narrator was a source—the source. But it was also a tormentor. I caught a break by snatching bits of dialogue and translating them into marks on pages. When I did this, I changed them. Transformed them. They weren’t recognizable as the detritus of internal dialogue. They became something else. Something I controlled.

A few other fine strokes in this portrait of the sexual adolescent as a writer. My friend and I were doing something taboo. Our parents and our friends would have been horrified. We had a secret. In her novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout describes a novelist mentor whose writing was good—but not as good as it might be, because she was holding something back. The narrator suggests writing that resonates exposes secrets and taboos says and does things decorum asks us to ignore. My adolescent sex was an apprenticeship in the art of exposing difficult secrets.

My friend (who remains a beloved intimate to this day) and I were experimenting with each other’s bodies, with how they felt, what they could do. It was all pretty clinical. It was one more kind of exploration, like the time we spent tracking the behavior of ant colonies or playing Dungeons and Dragons. We were exploring the inarticulate. We didn’t have a theory of ant colonies, and we didn’t have a theory of being naked together. But we did talk our way through it. We used words, tentatively, to say what we thought we wanted to do, or to comment on how it felt. We were playing with the dynamic between the inarticulate and the articulate, what’s conscious and what’s hidden from consciousness. In my experience, that’s what writing is all about.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


She wouldn’t make any more direct reference to Grandpa’s death, Chick knew, and so Chick would say nothing, either. All that could be said about the old man’s death, sadness and grief and abiding love and anger, had been in the hug.

The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach

Friday, September 15, 2017

Friday Freebie: Montana Noir


Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie of three new thrillers: Close to Home by Robert Dugoni, Leona: The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby, and The Savior’s Game by Sean Chercover.

This week’s contest is for the new anthology of crime stories set in Big Sky Country: Montana Noir, edited by James Grady and Kier Graff. As many of you already know, one of my own stories is included in these pages. You can read more about “Red, White, and Butte” here. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


Akashic Books continues its award-winning series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each book comprises all new stories, each one set in a distinct location within the geographic area of the book. Grady and Graff, both Montana natives, masterfully curate this collection of hard-edged Western tales by David Abrams, Caroline Patterson, Eric Heidle, Thomas McGuane, Janet Skeslien Charles, Sidner Larson, Yvonne Seng, James Grady, Jamie Ford, Carrie La Seur, Walter Kirn, Gwen Florio, Debra Magpie Earling, and Keir Graff. From the introduction by James Grady and Keir Graff:
This anthology is a road trip through the dreams and disasters of the true Montana, stories written by authors with Montana in their blood, tales that circle you around the state through its cities and small towns. These are twenty-first century authors writing timeless sagas of choice, crime, and consequences. You’ll meet students and strippers, cops and cons, druggies and dreamers, cold-eyed killers and caught-in-their-gunsights screwed-up souls. But mostly, through all our fiction here, you’ll meet quiet heroes and see the noir side of life that makes our Montana as real as it is mythic. No doubt the state’s beauty will still make the very idea of Montana Noir seem incongruous to some. Noir is black-and-white. Streets and alleys. Flashing neon lighting a rain-streaked window. But while noir was definitely an urban invention, it knows no boundaries. Noir is struggle. It’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. It’s being trapped. It’s hubris. It’s being defeated yet going on. Sometimes it’s being defeated and not going on. That’s life everywhere. This is our Montana.
If you haven’t already done so, check out the sexy new website devoted to Montana Noir, including tour dates (I’ll be joining the editors and other authors as we barnstorm our way through Montana bookstores, culminating in a gala party at the Montana Book Festival in Missoula two weeks from now).

If you’d like a chance at winning Montana Noir, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 22. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Marriage of Shelves: Jay Baron Nicorvo’s Library



Reader:  Jay Baron Nicorvo
Location:  Battle Creek, Michigan
Collection Size:  About 2,000
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  My MacBook Pro. On it is everything! I’d suffer burns on 38 percent of my lower body to save the early starts I have on a new novel and a memoir.
Favorite book from childhood:  My Storybook Dictionary
Guilty pleasure book:  My own. I’m sorry, but here we are a few months post-publication and I still have a hard time believing my novel indeed made it onto shelves, that I did in fact write it, and that someone from St. Martin’s isn’t going to steal into my house, repo all my copies, and leave a note on company letterhead saying the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding, but it wasn’t their fault, it was mine.


I’m fascinated by literary couples. Part of the compulsion is tabloid—I was crushed when Paul Lisicky and Mark Doty split; no book made me sob harder than The Best Day the Worst Day, Donald Hall’s memoir of the life he shared with Jane Kenyon before her death—but some of my interest is logistical.

For instance, when two writers move in together, how in hell do they organize their respective libraries? Is there a trial period of shelf separation—yours, mine—before a ceremonial marrying of the titles? Two well-suited people will surely share some redundancy. What’s to be done with the doubles when shelf space, as it’s bound to, gets scarce? Whose copy is kept? And why? Oh, I see, yours is signed. But so’s mine.

Thisbe Nissen and I met at a writers conference and, a year later, we got engaged at said conference (during my introduction to her reading, I slipped in an on-stage, down-on-bended-knee proposal). When we bought our first house, outside Saugerties, New York, in the foothills of the Catskills, among the first things we did was have bookshelves built. A few years later, when we sold that house and decamped for the Midwest, before we set up our son’s bedroom or renovated the handicapped shower stall in the bathroom—the previous owner was paraplegic—we had bookshelves built.

Thisbe and I merged and purged at the very beginning. But we did decide, for reasons now lost to me, to segregate by genre—poetry from prose. This meant that when my first book, a collection of poems, was published, it got proudly sandwiched between Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish and Nila NorthSun’s Diet Pepsi & Nacho Cheese. But it was far removed from Thisbe’s books of fiction.


Our poetry ghetto. You should be able to see that the Bible is shelved here, alphabetized under G, and at some point Sonne, too, got shelved in poetry. He was just learning to talk then—what a lyrical time. These days, at age seven, his yammering tends more toward prose, but for a wordy kid he’s rarely prosaic.


In our library sits my desk (Thisbe has her own office) which I made from the flooring of a collapsed barn, after planing off the manure, and old porch posts that flake lead paint I try not to eat. Or snort. Over my desk hangs a digitally altered image, in the style of Shepard Fairey, made for me by my brother Dane. The distorted photo is of that uxoricidal addict William S. Burroughs, which I can’t bring myself to shove in a closet. Seems unjust, after what Burroughs went through to get out. I have little loyalty to Old Bull Lee. If anything, I’m drawn more toward his son, William S. Burroughs Jr., 4 years old when his father shot his mother, poet Joan Vollmer, and dead in Florida at age 33, having published two novels, Speed and Kentucky Ham, sometimes misattributed to his deadbeatnik dad. If, like WSB Sr., you’re closeted and you’re married, there are better ways to go about outing yourself than aiming low at the water glass balanced on your wife’s head, but those were, in some ways I suppose, tougher times.

Consider me guilty of harboring the old-school misogynist, little reassured by Patti Smith’s sentiments expressed in Just Kids: “William Burroughs was simultaneously old and young. Part sheriff, part gumshoe. All writer. He had a medicine chest he kept locked, but if you were in pain he would open it. He did not like to see his loved ones suffer. If you were infirm he would feed you. He’d appear at your door with a fish wrapped in newsprint and fry it up. He was inaccessible to a girl but I loved him anyway.” So Burrows looks ever down on me as I write because I love my brother and, too, because Junky, I must admit, was a formative book for me during a drug-addled time. Among the other photos and tchotchkes on my desk—severed foot of a barred owl, anyone?—is a framed letter from Don DeLillo advising me to “forget the chicken suit.” No explanation necessary.

Shelved over the window is just about everything I’ve even written, in draft, printed out and stacked sidelong in chronological order. On the far left is the first creative writing I did at age eighteen. I have no want to look and see what that might be. Likely some functionally illiterate dreck I turned in for a community-college class in Bradenton, Florida. At the far right, 22 years later, is a draft of the last thing I wrote, this.


When my first novel was published earlier this year, my proudest moment was not the generous endorsements from this or that long-idolized writer, nor the call from my editor to tell me my first review earned a star, not the launch reading at Bookbug, the local independent bookstore, or making some fancy list or other. My proudest moment was a quiet one. My box arrived in the mail and I climbed our stairs to our library with a copy. I made room on the alphabetized prose shelf and, thanks to the lucky nearness of our surnames, tucked my novel in beside Thisbe’s. You can see here the galley for her forthcoming novel, Our Lady of the Prairie, rubbing up against The Standard Grand. I like to think we’re inseparable. That is, unless we buy a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra by Nietzsche. That or Sonne—whose last name is an unprecedented portmanteau, illegal in the state of Tennessee, of our last names, Niscorvosen—one day publishes a book of his own. We can only hope it isn’t poetry.



Jay Baron Nicorvo is the author of a novel, The Standard Grand (St. Martin’s Press), picked for IndieBound’s Indie Next List, Library Journal’s Spring 2017 Debut Novels Great First Acts, and named “New and Noteworthy” by Poets & Writers. He’s published a poetry collection, Deadbeat (Four Way Books), and his nonfiction can be found in Salon, The Baffler, The Iowa Review, and The Believer. He lives on an old farm outside Battle Creek, Michigan, with his wife, Thisbe Nissen, their son, and a couple dozen vulnerable chickens. Find Jay at www.nicorvo.net.


My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.


Monday, September 11, 2017

My First Time: Jarret Middleton


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jarret Middleton, author of the new novel Darkansas (now out from Dzanc Books!) and the novella, An Dantomine Eerly. He was the founding editor of Dark Coast Press and the classics library Pharos Editions, an imprint of Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press. His fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Shelf Awareness, The Quarterly Conversation, The Weeklings, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly, and HTMLGIANT, as well as appearing in the print anthologies The Breadline Anthology; Hotel Angeline: A Novel in 36 Voices; and In Heaven, Everything is Fine: Fiction Inspired by David Lynch. He lives in Seattle with his wife.


My First Book Tour

My novel Darkansas hit shelves last month. On the cusp of a calendar of wonderful bookstore appearances, I got to thinking back on humble beginnings, paid dues, and the fun and absurdity of it all.

Back in 2010, I put out a little experimental novella called, An Dantomine Eerly. I was a young author and editor active in Seattle’s bustling literary community. I was used to doing events and reading series, but I had never toured on the strength of a published book before. With a blue-collar work ethic and a not-at-all-characteristic sense of enthusiasm, I set out on a string of dates outside of my areas of influence into the great unknown.

I read at any bookstore that have would me. In food courts, strip malls, and airports, I didn’t care. I packed up my car once and drove five hours to a tiny bookstore halfway up the road to Mt. Hood in Oregon, only to read to the bookseller and her cat. We had a lovely dinner next door before I drove the five hours back home. A few weeks later, I read to rows of empty chairs at a small community bookstore outside a major city in California. After I slogged through the minimum amount of pages required for it to be considered a reading, one of the booksellers took pity on me and bought me a beer. I wallowed in my pity beer and had a great conversation with the bookseller about my crazy little book, which it turns out he had read, and other weird, experimental, surrealist literature we both admired.

Truth be told, I may have developed thicker skin than usual by being the editor of a small press that received over 2,000 fiction submissions per year. With the help of interns and an assistant editor, we read every query and sample, if not the full manuscript. I had put 8-10 fiction titles into print each year for a couple of years up until that point. When you handle that many manuscripts from authors of every stripe, you tend to see every possible mistake made over and over again on the page. In effect, I developed my chops as an editor, yes, but it also made me a better writer, and part of being a better writer is taking things in stride, whether on the page or out there in the world.

So when the crowds for my live in-person events somehow went missing, I went through the normal gut reactions: a wallowing pit in your stomach, a creeping sense of self-loathing, that you would literally rather be anywhere else doing anything else at that very moment, but you continue and show the character required to get through it. Whether or not anybody noticed or cared didn’t matter, what mattered was that I went out there and did what I said I was going to do.

All these years later, I don’t really recall the dread, constant worry, depression, the late nights, or the endless list of logistical details that got me from point A to point B. What I do remember is this: the quicker I was able to shake off the sting of it, the less power it had over me. Even though I couldn’t control any of the circumstances, I could control how I reacted to them. It wasn’t a reflection of my self-worth, or even the quality of my writing. The efficacy of that sort of writing in the larger book market? Sure. Maybe give the book a title in English next time? Got it. But good business-sense is something that can be learned and improved upon over time as you and your work inevitably grow and get better.

Fast forward to the end of that tour, I read to a standing-room-only crowd at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, wired with a cordless mic for a spot with a video team. Some friends, some colleagues, and a whole lot of readers I had never met (and didn’t know how they had heard of me or the reading) showed up, bought books, and stayed to get them signed and then talk over drinks. It was one of the first experiences I had where I knew for certain the reading had not only gone well but exceeded my wildest expectations. The smile and glow took an extra long time to fade, and I woke up on a friend’s couch in Brooklyn the next loud and bright summer morning wondering if any of it had happened or if I had dreamt it.

Looking back now, the moral of the story is one of perspective. If you can train yourself early on to handle failure and success in stride you’ll be better off for it. If you are interested in writing full-time or building anything resembling a career you can be sure the highest highs and the lowest lows are in store for you. You are not in control of when they come or how they unfold, but you are in control of how you respond, so respond in kind. Don’t let the highs take you too high and don’t let the struggles get you too low. Be the pier that stays grounded as the motion of the waves swell and rush by.

Get out there and be vulnerable, take chances, communicate honestly. Forge relationships with other authors, building a network of support is essential for the long run and it makes you a better human. Introduce yourself to booksellers, they’re smart as hell and they’re the lifeblood of the industry. Get to know readers, they can choose to read anyone and for a brief moment, if you’re lucky, they’ll choose you. Whether or not they do is inconsequential, so treat people the same way regardless, with kindness and humility, day in, day out. Training myself to stay grounded and mindful has helped me a great deal, especially during the toughest of times. Whether I’m out there reading to empty seats or a packed house, I remind myself that I am glad that I even get the opportunity to do this at all.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sunday Sentence: “A Catch of Shy Fish” by Gwendolyn Brooks


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


                    The winter trees
                    Are musical.


“A Catch of Shy Fish” by Gwendolyn Brooks


Friday, September 8, 2017

Friday Freebie: Close to Home by Robert Dugoni, Leona: The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby, and The Savior’s Game by Sean Chercover


Congratulations to John Smith, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The People at Number 9 by Felicity Everett.

This week’s contest is a thrilling one, in a manner of speaking. One lucky reader will win a copy of three new thrillers: Close to Home by Robert Dugoni, Leona: The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby, and The Savior’s Game by Sean Chercover. The latter is a hardcover, the other two are trade paperbacks. Read on for more information about the books...

In Close to Home, New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni’s acclaimed series continues as Tracy Crosswhite is thrown headlong into the path of a killer conspiracy. While investigating the hit-and-run death of a young boy, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite makes a startling discovery: the suspect is an active-duty serviceman at a local naval base. After a key piece of case evidence goes missing, he is cleared of charges in a military court. But Tracy knows she can’t turn her back on this kind of injustice. When she uncovers the driver’s ties to a rash of recent heroin overdoses in the city, she realizes that this isn’t just a case of the military protecting its own. It runs much deeper than that, and the accused wasn’t acting alone. For Tracy, it’s all hitting very close to home. As Tracy moves closer to uncovering the truth behind this insidious conspiracy, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. And the only people she can rely on to make it out alive might be those she can no longer trust.

Leona: The Die is Cast, a best-selling Scandinavian thriller, follows its troubled heroine as she investigates a high-profile robbery for Stockholm’s Violent Crimes Division. Naked and bloody, a seven-year-old girl walks into a bank in central Stockholm in broad daylight and gets away with millions. Leona Lindberg of Stockholm’s Violent Crimes Division agrees to work on the case. With a long, distinguished history in the police force, she seems the perfect choice. But Leona is grappling with deep issues of her own--a gambling addiction, a strained marriage--that could jeopardize the investigation. As she struggles to keep the volatile pieces of her life under control, the line between right and wrong becomes increasingly unclear--and even irrelevant. This is a hard-boiled crime novel, filled with unexpected twists and turns, featuring an unusual heroine. Leona makes for gripping reading while challenging feminine norms and posing questions about what lies behind the choices we make.

In The Savior’s Game, Daniel Byrne is haunted by the future. Literally. It happened to his uncle. It happened to the woman he loves. And now it’s happening to him. It started as a voice only he could hear. Then he found himself visiting another world. A world both familiar and strange. A world inextricably linked to our own. And the things he sees there, come true...here. It’s a power others are willing to kill for. There’s no one Daniel can trust. Nowhere to hide. Chased across the globe by mysterious assassins, he struggles to decipher the visions plaguing him. Visions of miracles and massacres, conspiracy and catastrophe. And behind it all, a powerful adversary the likes of which we’ve never seen before. One thing that’s clear: the universe is warning him of a cataclysmic change, an event that is either a bloody Armageddon or a shining new beginning. Daniel thinks he can see the answer—and maybe even change the outcome, before it’s too late. But there’s a fine line between messiah and madman.

BONUS! I’ll also throw in the latest issue of F(r)iction magazine because the short stories, poems, and comics of this slick, beautifully-illustrated literary journal are always pretty damn thrilling to read. Issue #8 features work by Karen Craigo, Mary Ruefle, Hart Hanson and Randy Brown. I’m particularly excited about this issue because many of its contributors are military veterans. I snap off a crisp salute in F(r)iction’s honor!


If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 14, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 15. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Things Are About to Get Dark: Montana Noir spills blood on the prairie



Sometimes I write with blood on the keyboard. The dark, thick, oozing kind, just released from the prison of vein, that greases my imagination as I turn down a series of midnight-black streets.

In other words, noir mystery. Not the cozy kind from Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, not the police procedurals of Ed McBain or Patricia Cornwell, but the hardboiled prose rolling off the knuckles of writers like Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald and Raymond Chandler. Tough stuff full of hard liquor, soft women, and the confusion of blood trying to find its way home to the vein.

One of my short stories in such a vein (so to speak) is called “Red, White and Butte” and it is being published for the first time in a new anthology called Montana Noir, officially out today. Montana Noir is the latest in the acclaimed series from Akashic Books (Brooklyn Noir, Montreal Noir, Atlanta Noir, etc.) and we Montana writers couldn’t be happier to see our famed Big Skies turn to Dark Skies, at least for the space of 288 pages. We’ve been waiting for this anthology for years. There’s not a city big enough in Montana to warrant its own Noir volume, so the publisher decided to spread the murder and mayhem across the entire state. But we’re easy-going Montanans and we’re okay with that. We’re just happy for the chance to finally spill some blood on our prairies and drive stolen cars (with bodies in the trunks) into our forests.

Where the bodies are buried

I was invited by editors James Grady and Keir Graff to write something set in Butte and I’m honored to be in the same pages as authors like Thomas McGuane, Jamie Ford, Debra Earling, Walter Kirn, and Carrie LaSeur, among many others.

As the editors write in their Introduction,
This anthology is a road trip through the dreams and disasters of the true Montana, stories written by authors with Montana in their blood, tales that circle you around the state through its cities and small towns. These are twenty-first-century authors writing timeless sagas of choice, crime, and consequences.
Choice, crime, and consequences. Yep, that pretty much sums up the arc of a noir story.


I took on the assignment with all the glee of Hannibal Lecter sharpening his cutlery at the dinner table. Though I would have liked to include more Butte icons in the story (sadly, I couldn’t fit Pork Chop John’s, the Copper King Mansion, or the Dumas Brothers brothel into the limited word count), I hope Butte-icians will like what is there on the page. Watch for the Finlen Hotel, the Party Palace, Duggan-Dolan Mortuary, Georgetown Lake, Headframe Distillery, Walkerville, and—of course—the Berkeley Pit.

Here’s a little taste of “Red, White, and Butte” to whet your appetite:
       Marlowe was dead and that was fine by me. The two of us had gone off to war together, but only one had returned with his jaw still attached to his face, able to describe what he’d seen. Which was also fine by me since I was the one telling the war stories.
       Marlowe lay in pieces in a coffin at Duggan-Dolan Mortuary in Butte, waiting for the official start of his hero’s welcome: a parade, lying in state for two days under the courthouse rotunda, and a picnic complete with a huckleberry pie bake-off, a three-legged race, and earnest old men in combat ball caps passing around a boot to raise money for a new veterans home. Next to Evel Knievel Days, everyone said it would be the highlight of Butte’s summer.
       The rest of us got a limp salute from our commander and a three-inch stack of discharge paperwork, but Marlowe would have a big to-do—the kind of fuss showered on the dead after they can no longer appreciate it: red-white-and-blue bunting along Granite Street, his widow the grand marshal of the parade, Republican senators inserting Marlowe into their campaign speeches, and Democrats a little more reservedly acknowledging the Butte native’s service and the terrible cost of war.
       Montanans love their hometown heroes. Dead or living, soldiers like Marlowe are praised with words that bloom like fireworks and boom like parade drums from their speakers’ throats.
       But I knew the truth: Private Chandler Marlowe had died a coward in Iraq.
The editors and several of us authors will be taking Montana Noir on the road in the coming days and weeks. For a complete schedule, go here.

If you’re in Montana, we’d love to see you at one of the events. It’ll be the stuff dreams are made of.


Monday, September 4, 2017

My First Time: Emma Smith-Stevens


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Emma Smith-Stevens, author of the new novel The Australian, now out from Dzanc Books. Her short story collection, Greyhounds, is forthcoming from Dzanc in early 2018. Emma has been employed as a server at a pancake house, a gift-wrapper, a personal assistant in Los Angeles, a scriptwriter for virtual patients used by nursing students, and an instructor at the University of Florida, Santa Fe College, and the Bard Prison Initiative. Her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Subtropics, Conjunctions, Joyland, Day One, Lucky Peach, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. Emma currently serves as fiction editor of The Mondegreen.


My First Time Calling Myself a Writer

After I graduated from a college two hours north of New York City, where I’d grown up, I felt exceedingly lucky to have a job lined up in Los Angeles. I’d never been there.

My friend Molly and I drove across the country with my dog Phil in the backseat. I’ve got this great snapshot of my passenger-side rearview mirror reflecting Phil’s head stuck out the window, ears flapping, and the Hollywood sign straight ahead of us.

Upon arriving at my sublet apartment, I emailed my employer that I was ready to begin work immediately. I did not receive a reply, but I was a couple weeks early so I thought little of it. Several emails, a few phone calls, and two months later it became apparent that I no longer had the job—or rather, I never did. The woman who’d held it before me had decided, on second thought, not to attend the PhD program she had been admitted to. I scrambled together work, two part-time jobs: as personal assistant to a woman whose father had been the first major collector of a very famous impressionistic artist, and in a very chic West Hollywood art gallery where I never did quite figure out what I was supposed to be doing, other than wearing all black and looking bored, which I was.

Six weeks into my time in LA, I’d moved into a studio apartment in Little Armenia, a small neighborhood wedged between Thai-town and the Los Feliz hills. Once, I search my address on the internet and learned that Charles Bukowski had lived in my exact apartment during the time he wrote Post Office. Before work each day, I brought Phil to the nearest dog park, which was situated rather unfortunately beside a freeway exit. It was grassless, dusty, and smoggy, but it was all the same to my dog. One time Phil peed on the leg of a woman seated at the lone picnic table. The woman was enraged, silent and smoldering as I apologized profusely and offered to give her money for dry cleaning, which for whatever reason she declined. Usually, I kept to myself.


Quickly, I became recognizable as a regular. Others who frequented that dog park began waving and smiling, then approaching me to talk. If there is anyplace where people are even keener on knowing what you do for a living than New York City, it’s LA. By that point, I’d been a restaurant server, a professional gift-wrapper, a bookseller, and—for a single hour—a burger flipper at Burger King. I didn’t want to talk about what I really did, because it only reminded me of the job I’d lost, and also I believed that my current work did not reflect my aspirations or trajectory. Since nobody at the dog park knew anything about me, because I’d published a couple short stories in literary magazines, and because I’d begun applying for graduate programs in fiction writing, I decided to try a new title on for size: writer.

I remember the first time I said, “I’m a writer.” I’d been asked, “What do you do?” by a bland-looking woman in a Patagonia fleece and khaki pants. When I responded, she quickly perked up and said, “Oh, you’re in the business?” “No,” I replied. “I write fiction.” “Oh,” she said, that one syllable like a sigh, and then paused, the way a stranger might pause if you casually mentioned you had a terminal illness.

Her response was common, and I realized that telling people I aspire to write books was usually a good way to fend them off. It was an unhappy time and I didn’t like talking to strangers. I couldn’t wait to leave that city. Unfortunately, sometimes when I disclosed my intentions with my writing—that I wrote short stories and hoped to write a novel—people launched into their own life stories, which they were certain were so inherently fascinating that even the most dimwitted scribe could parlay them into a bestselling masterpiece. Often they would tell me that they would write the book, of course, if only they had the time.

At some point I became known as “the writer” at the dog park, and without ever having spoken to me before, people began approaching me with their ideas, or to ask me whether I’d read whichever books were their latest favorites—almost always thrillers or romance novels, which I have nothing against but are just not my thing. And when I told them I wrote literary fiction, their faces drooped or grimaced. Their disappointment seemed equal to that of those who hoped---upon learning I was a writer—that I worked in “the industry”—meaning the film industry, as a screenwriter—that I was someone who might have the connections to help them gain entre into that world. It was only when, eventually, I’d firmly established myself as a nobody with a prickly attitude, who hadn’t read or published a thing, that I could take my dog to that park in peace. And then finally and to my most heartfelt relief—as my life in LA had been a series of professional and romantic disasters—it was time for me to move to Gainesville, Florida.

I attended the University of Florida’s MFA program in creative writing. I was proud and felt very lucky to be a part of that program. However, I took to heart what was perhaps the only thing I learned in LA, other than not to date anyone whom I first met while crying on the sidewalk, who describes himself as the “unofficial poet laureate” of another country, or who has zero degrees of separation from someone with a starring role on the remake of Hawaii 5-0especially when all of those descriptions apply to one person. During grad school, when asked what I was studying by anyone I didn’t want to speak with at length—a drunk guy at a bar, for example, or the person seated beside me on a plane—I had a new answer. What I said to people was true, but did not elicit interminable dialogue. “I’m in the English Department,” I’d say, keeping my face very neutral, like I had while working in the art gallery. And if pressed to elaborate: “Contemporary fiction, mostly. Literary fiction. I just love books.”


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


But, compass broken, Sir John had swept the wrong direction, swept in all his glory right off the stage and into the orchestra pit, where he crashed onto the kettle drums and crumpled like a bag of sticks and wet leaves, the drums making a sound like thunder, the great actor nothing now but an old man lying bleeding and unconscious on a cement floor.

“The Tragedie of King Lear” from The Girl of the Lake by Bill Roorbach

Friday, September 1, 2017

Friday Freebie: The People at Number 9 by Felicity Everett


Congratulations to Martha Burzynski, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt.

This week’s contest is for The People at Number 9 by Felicity Everett. Here is what Sophie Hannah, New York Times bestselling author, had to say about The People at Number 9: “Very occasionally, a novel that’s not in the crime genre grips me as much as the best thrillers do. The People at Number 9 held me in its vice-like grip from first page to last. It’s a fascinating analysis of an unhealthy friendship based on insecurity and delusion, and the characters are so vividly drawn that I sympathized with them and despaired of them in equal measure.”

Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

Envy. Longing. Betrayal. Have you met the new neighbors? Sara and Neil have new neighbors in their street. Glamorous and chaotic, Gavin and Louise make Sara’s life seem dull. As the two couples become friends, sharing suppers, red wine and childcare, it seems a perfect couples-match. But the more Sara sees of Gav and Lou, the more she longs to change her own life. But those changes will come at a price.

Want to know more about Felicity Everett? Check out her essay about her “first time.”

If you’d like a chance at winning The People at Number 9, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 7, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 8. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Girls in Lakes, Soldiers in Boots: A Conversation Between Bill Roorbach and David Abrams


David Abrams and Bill Roorbach first met at PNBA, Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference, which took place in Tacoma, Washington back in 2012, when David’s book Fobbit was new and Bill’s book Life Among Giants had just been released. These friendships on the road with new books bloom quickly, and are reinforced by chance meetings across years to come. On the occasion of the publication of their newest books, Bill and David thought they’d better have a virtual conversation, as the road wasn’t going to bring them close this time around.

Two dapper gents: Bill Roorbach and David Abrams at PNBA in 2012
Bill:  David, David—if only we could do this in person over a stack of books and a cup of coffee. I’m a fan since Fobbit, and love that you’re continuing to mine your own Iraq War experience for the new novel. I hope it won’t give too much away to say that Brave Deeds follows a squad of six men going AWOL and crossing an explosive Baghdad to attend the funeral of their late, lamented leader—sounds like they’re going to be up against it from both sides. Is there an incident in your own experience that got you inventing this terrifying journey?

David:  Bill, first of all, it’s great to have a dialogue with you again. We need to make plans to reunite more than once every five years; that PNBA encounter was too long ago, my friend. Fortunately, I have your newest book, the short story collection The Girl of the Lake, to keep your wonderful voice close at hand. I gotta tell you, I am enjoying the hell out of these stories!
       You know, I actually tried stalking you last autumn. My wife and I spent two weeks in Maine, driving all over the eastern half of the state. I never did see you, though. You’re elusive. Do you retreat to a rustic cabin in the Allagash and write your novels by kerosene light?
       But circling back to your question to me....
       Brave Deeds was initially inspired by a 2007 Washington Post article by David Finkel (whose The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service are war literature classics). In that account, an entire company of soldiers--27 of them--performed a similar “memorial march” across Baghdad to attend a funeral for their sergeant killed in a bomb blast a week earlier. While nearly every mission in Iraq at that time carried a considerable weight of danger, these particular soldiers were backed up by a full contingent of Humvees, gunners, maps, and compasses. In Brave Deeds, as a cruel creator, I stripped away all of that security. Despite their best-laid plans, my six soldiers are left with no Humvee, no maps, no compass, no food, and only limited ammunition for their rifles. They are AWOL and they have gotten in way over their heads. I thought that might make for more interesting reading. And so, I stripped away the reliable “comforts” of military life, heightening the “strangers in a strange land” aspect of wartime deployment and giving them a ticking-clock timeline to get the job done. So that’s how it began: I read a story in the newspaper while drinking my morning coffee and started plotting the fates of these foolhardy, loyal, and brave soldiers. Never having walked in the figurative footsteps of my characters--my deployment to Baghdad in 2005 was nearly all served within the confines of the Forward Operating Base--I was definitely writing as an outsider, a non-infantry soldier. But none of that mattered much once I got underway with this book because my intent was not to write a bombs-and-bullets military thriller but a character-driven story about six co-workers who go off the grid and must survive not only the enemy but themselves.
       How do you approach writing something that’s well outside of your experience? I’ve just finished reading the first story in your collection, the wonderfully-named “Harbinger Hall.” Surprises peel like an onion in these thirty pages, so I won’t say too much except that we, the reader, eventually end up in Russia around the time of the 1917 Revolution. How did this story come about? What paths brought you to these two characters--a sixth-grade boy skipping school and an elderly recluse whose first words to the boy are “You want to play war?”—and this dazzling story?

Bill:  I love that you stripped away the security apparatus. Your mission sounds like it cost a lot less! At least in dollars and cents. Yes, I felt your presence in Maine. Actually, I saw you were here through your posts on Twitter. We live a little isolated from the coast world up in Farmington, which is western Maine, foothills of the White Mountains. It’s been a great place to live relatively inexpensively and at the edge of civilization. We have a place now in Scarborough, too, that puts us closer to the sea and to Portland, a city I love, and full of writers, too.
       I wrote “Harbinger Hall” a while back, published it in The Atlantic, and then revised it for this collection. It starts with a ten-year-old deciding to bail out of school forever, using a method I dreamed up in sixth grade but never dared try. Great thing about fiction is you get to see what might have happened. We kids used to play war extensively, and one of our battlefields was on an estate you could approach through the forest from my neighborhood. We’d spy on the old guy who lived there, pretend we were going to rescue him or kill him or kidnap him depending on the various storylines. This story has a kid braver than I who goes ahead and skips out of school, begins to hang around the estate on the far side of the woods. But he gets caught, and gets a dose of history. I’ve always been fascinated by the Russian Revolution and all the mayhem that preceded it. Here was a chance to be in two worlds at once. I did a lot of research, but in the end, as you say, the story has to be about characters in motion. And really, a boy’s imagination, which is still alive in me.
       Did you have any personal experience to go on for Brave Deeds? I know you were part of some dark times in Iraq. Have you been back at all since? Is it hard to sit still and write when the memories, or the imagination they've unleashed, start coming back to life on the page?

David:  While portions of Fobbit were lifted almost whole-cloth from my war diary, the plot, characters and much of the setting in Brave Deeds were far beyond the scope of my experience in Iraq in 2005. I was, sadly, a headquarters-bound Fobbit during my entire time in-country. So, Brave Deeds gave me a chance to think about soldiers whose lives were vastly different than my own (infantry vs. support soldier) and to virtually and vicariously step out into the more dangerous world of Baghdad beyond the Forward Operating Base. If I had “dark times” during my time in Iraq, they came when I read about (or, worse, saw photos of) the grisly and unpredictable violence which more courageous soldiers saw nearly every day. Looking at a photo on your computer screen in an air-conditioned office is nothing compared to actually standing on a street, staring down into a crater made by an exploding mortar, smelling the blood, and seeing--well, sights too horrible to describe. I’ve seen the pictures—many of them—from these types of attacks and they were enough for me.
       To answer your other question: no, I have not been back to Iraq. Nor do I plan to vacation there in the future. Baghdad is a chapter in my life I hope to never re-read.     
       Speaking of stretching exercises we authors perform at the keyboard, what about your story “Broadax, Inc.”? The narrator is a self-proclaimed corporate shark who finds himself deep in a love triangle (and, boy, do I dig these lines: “Sharks do fall in love. It isn’t all just gnashing and splashing and arms coming off clean.”). You don’t strike me as the Wall Street executive type. (But maybe you have a hidden double life? If so, I have a few questions about how I can sweeten my investment portfolio.) Ted Broadax is the kind of guy who bites his sentences into chunks, prides himself on his immense wealth, and is a total mess when it comes to personal relationships. This doesn’t sound like the Bill Roorbach I know. How did Ted arrive in your head? And have you ever watched the Showtime series Billions? Your Ted reminds me an awful lot of Bobby Axelrod (whose name, if you stutter-slur resembles “Broadax”).


Bill:  Well, I’m loving seeing your imagination at work--it’s clearly well informed. I haven’t seen Billions, not yet, but I’m really enjoying these long-form cable series, which are like novels on TV. I can even read them the way I read novels, going back to check on plot elements I might have missed, flipping back a few pages when I realize I’ve been spacing out. I worked with HBO a while developing a show based on my novel Life Among Giants. It was fascinating to pull that thing apart into seasons and episodes, and to write scripts as opposed to novels, where nothing’s getting done by actors or cinematographers—that’s all in our hands. These are great narrative minds, is what I’m saying, and I learned a lot from them. Before they killed my show, that is. You wouldn’t want to see the pictures of that carnage. Though in fact my main emotion was relief--I could get back to being a novelist, which is where I live.
       As for Broadax—I just wanted a name that included a weapon, because that’s the way he’d come to see himself as the story opens. I’ve got a number of high school friends who went into finance, as they used to call it, and these guys, math whizzes, all of them, seemed pretty mild-mannered sitting in Algebra II. But the aggression when they went out in the world, and the pure focus on money! Astounding what was hiding behind those khaki slacks and Bass Weejuns. I just wanted to see what was left of a particular guy if every bit of his business success and money dependence was taken away from him. I’m also interested in how easy it might be to manipulate the electronic everything of our lives to destroy someone. Or a country, come to think of it. “Broadax” the story comes from that. In the end, what he’s got is love, and that turns out to be enough.
       You’ve been busy--this I know based on our exchange, which has taken quite a few weeks between questions and answers. A new book is a whirlwind, even months before it ever hits the shelves. The Girl of the Lake is my tenth book, amazingly, and the experience of every single book has been different, with emotions from despair to ecstasy along the way, and back again. And again. Second books are notoriously tough—how is this one different from your first? The reception has been fantastic. Did you feel more prepared?


David:  Putting out a second book is like the Grand Central Station of Neuroses for self-doubters like me. On the exterior, I may look much the same like I did when Fobbit came out in 2012; but inside, I’m a storm of worry. The early reviews for Brave Deeds and the reception I’ve gotten from readers on this book tour have certainly been reassuring. And yet, there’s always that second-guessing that goes on: a reverse of Sally Fields’ famous line from her Oscar acceptance speech, “Do you really like me?” But that’s just ego talking and has nothing to do with the finished, published book we now hold in our hands. No matter what my conflicted, complicated feelings are about the so-called “sophomore slump,” Brave Deeds the novel stands on its own. It’s written, it’s published, I’ve tossed it like a homing pigeon from my worrisome grip. It has to fly to readers with its own wings. But, yes, anxious voices inside my head still clamor. I’m not sure how to tamp them down, muffle the overthinking. As a seasoned veteran in this business (ten books!!), do you have any Rilke Letters to a Young Poet type of advice for me?

Bill:  We really like you! I have no advice for you—I think your art and life are well in hand. The only observation I really have after a lot of ups and downs is that nearly all of the pleasure of writing comes in the making. That’s what lasts, and that’s where we’re most in our element. Please keep it coming!

David:  You are entirely right! I will carry that forward with me to Books 3 and 4 and beyond. Thanks again, my friend.

Bill:  But wait—I want to ask you about the Cave of Rewrite you mention on your Twitter page. It sounds fucking scary!

David:  The Cave of Rewrite can be a dreadful place, can’t it? Sometimes I look at the process with the same amount of joy I once felt for trips to the dentist (Dr. Rusty Pliers, DDS). All those words—All. Those. Fucking. Words. –demanding reevaluation and judgment. It’s deflating, isn’t it? Or maybe that’s just me. One of my faults is trying to take an all-encompassing, long-range view instead of just relaxing and taking small bites from the elephant. Too often, I deflate my tires before I start driving. Then again, revision is the time of discovery: plunging my hand into my characters’ chests and pulling out surprises (“Wow, Rusty--I had no idea you were a dentist by day and stamp collector by night!”). So, yes, the Cave of Rewrite is dark and frightening, but if we self-doubting artists can swallow our fear and keep walking forward to that pinprick of light at the end of the tunnel, the rewards can be infinite.

Bill:  Revision is where it all happens, for me. It’s what makes our stories smarter than we could ever be. Okay, brother! See you in the wings!

David:  Maybe Texas Book Festival?

Bill:  Nope, not me, but I’ll be at National Book Festival over Labor Day weekend. We’ll cross paths again yet, my friend.

David:  Wait, wait! There’s still so much more to talk about. Like how “The Girl of the Lake” is shaping up to be one of my favorite stories of all time--it goes on the shelf of honor next to the other long-time residents: Mr. Carver, Mr. (Richard) Ford, Miz O’Connor, et al. Other things I still want to talk about include “The Fall”--good googly-moogly, I LOVE that freakin’ story about a wilderness hike gone bad!--your style/voice (alluded to a little in that remark about Broadax’s choppy dialogue), and the relationships between men and women in these pages, not to mention your marvelous novel The Remedy for Love. All those things, and more. I think the most bro-romantic thing I could say to you is, “You have a way with words.” So, if you’re up for it, I’d like to sustain this conversation on down the road (the literal and figurative one).

Bill:  That is a promise! Loved it, David. And thanks for kind words. More talk soon!