Author Mary Anderson: “Is The Catcher in the Rye a YA book? Yes and no.”

I, a lady of fine literary stock, have had a sometimes contentious relationship with Genre over the years, and only as I’ve been listening to some of Iambik’s offerings have I discovered the hidden pleasures of titles whose shelf classification would have turned me off.  (This is not something I confess happily!)

Even still, I have to remind myself of this whenever someone recommends to me a Regency romance or a sensationalistic family melodrama, or some days, anything that doesn’t have to do with the upcoming zombie apocalypse.  In the first of our two-part interview with author Mary Anderson, she and You Can’t Get There From Here narrator Elizabeth Klett discuss the impact of theatre on writing, as well as what makes a Young Adult novel.

Elizabeth Klett: Mary, I really enjoyed narrating You Can’t Get There From Here. It’s a book I wish I had read as a teenager, since I would have related to it enormously. Like Reggie, I grew up in the suburbs (albeit New Jersey instead of Westchester) and wanted desperately to be an actress in NYC. Do you have a background in theatre at all? Or are you a particular fan of New York theatre? Are there playwrights (past or present), particular theatre companies or performers/directors whose work you admire?

Mary Anderson: Yes, I do have a brief background in the theatre.

Although I’ve lived in Manhattan all my life I never saw any plays when I was a child. My brother Andy and his wife were original members of the Actor’s Studio and attended during the well-known days when Marilyn Monroe and other famous folk were there, helping to make “The Method” a household phrase. Before that, Andy had moved into an acting school which is very similar to the one depicted in my book. That’s when Andy took me to see my first Broadway play… Richard II with a Royal Shakespeare Theatre cast. I was 17.

Up until then I’d wanted to be a writer but after that, my allegiance suddenly switched and I wanted to act on the stage. So at 18, I also moved into the acting school. Many of the incidents described in the book are based on my experiences there. In fact, it is the only book I’ve written which is essentially based on my personal life. I lived at the school for six months (the name of which I’ve changed in my story). In the book, Reggie’s brother Jamie is the one who points out the the potential dangers of the problems she encounters there, but in real life, Andy was sharing some of the very same problems. After performing in many of the original, weird avant garde plays, I felt I wanted to rewrite them all!

So I soon realized my original love for writing was far stronger than acting, although there are many similarities. The famous book Building a Character by Stanislavski, a valuable primer for young actors, is also a wonderful primer for fledgling writers. The steps required to bring a character to life on stage are the same ones a writer should learn to breathe life into a character on paper. Getting into the souls of people, seeing through their eyes, knowing what they feel, what motivates them, is also the job of a writer. So acting experience can be invaluable. Since those early days,I’ve been an avid theatergoer. My favorite playwrights? Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, of course for passion and understanding of the human spirit. On the lighter side, there’s Neil Simon (open a book of his plays to any page and there will be a laugh awaiting you). For those two things combined, I enjoy Alan Ayckbourn. My favorite plays? CYRANO de BERGERAC, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, OUR TOWN, HARVEY and NORMAN CONQUESTS — for a variety of different reasons. Performers? Too many to mention. In the past, I loved watching Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards on stage. At present, Ian McKellan, Mark Rylance, Liev Schreiber. Oh, and seeing Angela Lansbury on stage doing anything is a joy to behold. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Young performers get better and far more versatile every generation despite the fact that acting on stage is what one famous actor referred to as “writing in snow”. Each performance is a unique experience never to be repeated because each audience brings something new and different to the occasion. That’s what truly makes it “living theatre”.

Mary Anderson

Author Mary Anderson

EK: I was very impressed by the psychological dimensions of Reggie’s experience with Adam’s “method.” Could you talk about how you composed this part of the book, what might have influenced you, and if you did any research on this kind of “psychodrama”?

MA: Thanks for referring to the psychological dimensions of Reggie’s experience as she struggles through her acting sessions with Adam. Your narration captured Reggie’s frustration and confusion wonderfully. I didn’t research “psychodrama” per se because as mentioned, I based this on my actual experiences. The person who ran the Adam Bentley Studio in my book was based on my real teacher who used his own questionable method which turned out to be so damaging to his students’ psyches. Just as Reggie had to struggle to understand her emotions and frustrations, I did as well, before finally discovering the extent of mental manipulation and misuse of trust going on within his private sessions and acting classes. Personally, I could never decide whether the character of Adam (and the real man) knew how much potential psychological damage he was doing to his students. Was this his personal ego trip or his honest desire to get to the depth of understanding of genuine emotion? Was he using his students or trying to help them? Who is the ultimate judge of that? Hopefully, the readers can draw their own conclusions.

The important thing is that in the final analysis, Reggie decides to take total control of her choices and actions. She becomes quite a different person at the end of the book than she was at the opening. Elizabeth, you did such a great job of bringing this aspect of Reggie’s character to life. “Growing up” is a journey we all take in life and if we’re lucky, we begin it when we’re as young as Reggie because one way or another, it can last a lifetime.

EK: What do you think defines “young adult literature” as a genre? Although You Can’t Get There From Here is “YA” in the sense that it focuses on an adolescent’s encounters with the wider world and her attempts to define herself in relation to it, I think it’s easily read and enjoyed by adults (as is a lot of contemporary YA literature). I’m curious as to how you see YA literature as distinct (or perhaps not distinct) from adult literature.

Elizabeth Klett

Narrator Elizabeth Klett

MA: I feel YA literature is totally the same as adult literature in every and all ways except one. In a YA book, the protagonist is generally a teenager so the book engages the reader with problems faced by this particular age group. In every other way, there’s no difference. Remove that YA label from a book and potential readers wouldn’t make any distinction. Is The Catcher in the Rye a YA book? Yes and no. Is Jane Eyre adult literature? Yes and no. Is Alice in Wonderland just for children? No!

I teach children’s book writing which encompasses everything from picture books through young adult literature and always tell my students that if a picture book can’t engage an adult as well as a young child, it isn’t a successful book. A good story should hold any reader’s interest. There are some picture books I’ve read aloud to students endless times yet they never cease to make me laugh/cry/ feel renewed or provoke a thoughtful conversation. Of course, I ‘d say the same for all middle readers as well as YA.

Every good book should do this, no matter what age label is placed on its jacket.

You Can't Get There From Here


Stay tuned for Monday, when Mary gets serious with Step on a Crack narrator Xe Sands.  In the meantime, Mary Anderson’s You Can’t Get There from Here, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99, and is loved no matter how young of an adult you think you are.

HURRICANE PREPARATION BONUS: Enter the code “hurricane-listening” at checkout and receive 30% off any order.  Valid through Tuesday or until the storm blows over.  Even good for those of you not in a hurricane zone, should you want to have an adventure by proxy.


“Okayletstrythis”: Carla Gunn and Anita Roy Dobbs discuss Amphibian, clones, and getting started

When narrator Anita Roy Dobbs emailed Amphibian author Carla Gunn about conducting an interview for this blog, she received in response a wonderful disclosure.  Apparently, when Ms Gunn was first informed that we would be making the audiobook of Amphibian, she misread the name of our company as beginning with an L, and her brain perceived in our name something delightfully obscene that I almost printed here, until I consulted the Urban Dictionary.  Because while it’s hilarious, in the way that a young sheep’s specific anatomical organs is hilarious, it might open us up to an audience that we’re not prepared for.

In her response, Ms Gunn continued with the following expression of enthusiasm:

I’nm so glad you enmailed. NMy dog spilled coffee all obver nmy laptop and I lost all of nmy enmail fronm the last year. I nmanaged to get the laptop going again, but as you can see, the keyboard is f”ed and the keys are nmessed up. Anyway, I LOBVE LOBVE LOBBVE your recording!! (ýou know what I nmean – when I hit bv, I get a b too). You captured Phin’s bvoice so well and I couldn’t be nmore pleased. I also lobved your bvoices for Liza, NMrs. Wardnman and the others – all bang on!

I would be happy to participate in the interbview – sounds like fun!

I can’t be the only one who’s somewhat disappointed that Ms Gunn’s keyboard was apparently successfully decaffeinated when she sat down to answer Anita’s questions.  Fortunately, what she lacks in typographical speech impediment, she makes up for in quality.  Here’s Anita and Carla:

Anita Roy Dobbs: True/False — Phin is sort of the amphibian of his social circle: more sensitive to his environment, unable to block out what’s really going on.

Carla Gunn:TRUE. A CBC interviewer, though, asked if it was also a fitting title because these creatures live both on land and in water. He suggested Phin was like this, straddling childhood and adulthood. I liked that idea so much, I stole it. In time, I’ll forget the source and attribute it to myself.

Carla Gunn

Author Carla Gunn

ARD: Which description has not appeared in a review about Amphibian?
a. A Top Five Debut Novel of 2009
b. Features the best precocial kid narrator of all time
c. One of this year’s most original literary creations is Phineas Walsh
d. Amphibian is a blockbuster bestseller
e. Eco-anxious Phin Walsh guaranteed to become your new favourite fictional character

CG: Ha! Oh, but I wish it was a bestseller.

[Editor’s note]: The December 2009 issue of the Quill & Quire listed Carla Gunn’s Amphibian as one of the ‘overlooked books’ of 2009 – a list of titles that, in a just world, would have been blockbuster bestsellers.

ARD: Who was the *most* surprised to find he/she was having an impact on the world? Phin or Carla?

Anita Roy Dobbs

Narrator Anita Roy Dobbs

CG: That would have to be Carla. Phin knows he has an impact on the world: “I figure everyone changes the world every day. For example, if Gordon kills the spider that has its web in the corner of the window, then that spider won’t be able to eat all the fruit flies that hang around the rotting banana in Kaitlyn’s desk and that would mean more fruit flies in this world. This would mean Gordon changed the world all by himself. It also means that everything happens for a reason.”

ARD: Phin loves the Green Channel and pretty much anything it airs. What programs are your personal favorites?

CG: I rarely watch television, but my sons keep me up to date on the latest in science and animal news. For example, did you know that the shape of the universe when it was formed largely determines whether it will continue expanding infinitely or collapse in on itself and end up as a black hole? And also, did you know that the #1 animal collector (after the hoarding human, of course) is the packrat? It piles up found objects and binds them together with urine, preserving them for over a thousand years. The packrat will take an object (like a watch) from sleeping human and – because it can carry only so much in its mouth – drop something else in its place (like a pretty rock). No? Well, now you do.

ARD: Do you listen to audiobooks?

CG: Not so much. But this is changing now that I have listened to the amazing Anita Roy Dobbs and I inherited my very first I-pod from my son.

ARD: Phin doesn’t say “my cat” — he says Fiddledee is his companion animal, so they share the equal status of companion to each other. I think it’s a great example of reframing relationships to make better sense of our world. Can you give another example of your own reframing of things?

CG: In our house, when someone, horrified, points out an indoor spider, I say, “Yep, he lives here too. Give him a name if it helps.” Right now we have two who live above the kitchen window. I call them Margaret and Eddie.

ARD: Do you know whether Amphibian is marketed pretty exclusively to adults? Has its marketing expanded to include young adults, too?

CG: Initially, it was marketed to adults but pretty quickly it got picked up by young adults and even children. The most charming emails I received were from kids who told me that they are like Phin. I’m not surprised since recent research reveals that a lot of preteens think there won’t be an earth left by the time they’re adults.

ARD: I find this adage can soothe a hurt or lend perspective on something unpleasant: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance.” If ignorance won’t explain it, try “incompetence,” and failing that, “stupidity.” (It’s a graduated form of Hanlon’s razor.) What adage/insight do you find helpful in facing the kind of painful truths Phin refuses to turn away from?

CG: I find I calm down when I read Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, “… to use a computer analogy, we are running 21st-century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago. This human inability to see long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering.” And also, Anita, have you ever watched George Carlin’s talk about how he’s given up on his species? He argues we’ve squandered our gifts of a big brain, binocular vision and opposable thumbs for trinkets and gadgets and that we’re now circling the drain, as he calls it. They’re a bit fatalistic, but I find George’s truths mighty helpful when facing Phin’s.

ARD: In your Chronicle Herald interview there’s one of my favorite bits: ‘One of my sons once asked why plastic bags are even legal if they cause so much pollution,’ Gunn says. ‘I tried to explain that it’s because when they were invented they weren’t known to be so harmful to the environment and that, combined with the fact that they’re so convenient, has made it difficult to get rid of them.

‘He just didn’t buy this argument. After all, lots of other things — like peeing on the street — are convenient but we don’t permit them.’ Can you share another ‘that doesn’t make logical sense’ anecdote?

CG: When one of my kids was in third grade he came home and told me about a lockdown drill – what to do if a dangerous stranger comes to the school. He wanted to know why the kids were instructed to huddle all together in a corner of the classroom. “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to hide under our desks so that we’re not all lined up for the shooter?” he asked, all wide-eyed. If the goal is to prepare children for danger, it makes more logical sense to teach them to self-administer the Heimlich or even how to execute a safe parachute jump since the likelihood of a fatal landing – at 1 in 200,000 jumps – is higher than being accosted by a gunman at school. What makes no logical sense is to scare the bejesus out of elementary school kids by getting them to practice scenes out of Mortal Combat. Yeesh.

ARD: The Calgary-based theatre troupe, Downstage, is in production with a play adaptation of Amphibian, yes? How are they casting for such young characters?

CG: Downstage is approaching Amphibian in a very creative way, representing the internal world of Phin rather than the external. This will work well, I think, because the novel is largely an internal dialogue. So instead of an actual physical Phin, we hear Phin’s voice accompanied by incredibly original props of the creatures of Reull and the other inhabitants of Phin’s mind. Dr. Barrett, for instance, will be represented as two disembodied hands. I met with Ellen Close and Braden Griffiths in Calgary recently and I was impressed with the screenplay and with the puppets they’ve created so far. I am super-to-infinity excited about this adaptation and honoured that Downstage chose Amphibian for this project!

ARD: I know that if my clones ever show up, at least one of them will record audiobooks as her full-time job. What would you set your clones to if they were to show up tomorrow morning?

CG: I asked my partner what I should write for this one and he looked at me astonished and said, “Tell her you’d get them to grab brooms and rags and clean up the house.” It’s true that he does a lot more cooking and cleaning than I do, but in my defense, it’s partly because I have a much higher disorder threshold than he does. He has to learn to care less. But, okay, for Chris – as mundane as it is – I would get my clones started on the house first. I know for a fact they won’t stay at it for long, though, because if they’re truly clones they’ll starting mouthing off and unionizing or something. So I have to think this out and assign them to chores they will at least somewhat enjoy. With that in mind, I’d like three: Brainy, Bossy and Bored. Brainy will be the research assistant who will set about finding out things nobody knows nor cares to know; Bossy will deal with the kids and their lazy habits; and Bored will post random bits of amusing nonsense on Facebook so that my main avenue of procrastination is effectively cut off.

ARD: Meanwhile, going solo in a no-clones world, if I could make it so, my days would be equal parts visiting with friends and family, learning, teaching, cooking, gardening, sketching, recording audiobooks, knitting (etc.) while listening to audiobooks/bbc podcasts, dancing, playing games, reading, and sometimes a movie. That’s roughly one hour each after you subtract sleep and add necessary etceteras. What would be your ideal assortment of endeavors for the rest of your (cloneless) lifetime? (Condition: wishing makes it so.)

CG: Except for the recording audiobooks, cooking and dancing parts for which I’d substitute writing, eating and napping, I’m with you, Anita. Just a second…am I your clone?

ARD: Aside from the (very nicely printed) book (and the audiobook, of course), what do you think would be the coolest medium for Amphibian? Graphic Novel (gets my vote)? Animation? TV series? Movie?

CG: How about an App? I have no idea what apps do or even what they are (I just had to Google it to make sure I was spelling it correctly), but based on overheard bits of conversation, I’m thinking they’re darn useful, no? They’re in those gadgets that do your laundry and scratch your balls like Carlin says, right? I’d like ‘Amphibian’ to be useful in some way or another, so I’ll go with the App.

ARD: I extremely look forward to reading your next novel, Nuts. Great title! Could you give us a peek into your writing routine? (My son, Eddy, is a writer and loves to hear how other writers manage page after page.)

CG: With Amphibian, I started with one scene and named the file Okayletstrythis since I had no idea if I could write a novel never having actually written fiction before. That one scene spawned another and then another and another. About 40,000 words in, I had a mishmash of scenes and took a few days to knit them all together in some sort of coherent fashion. Then I kind of had a framework with which to work. I am doing roughly the same thing with this new novel. As for my writing routine, like most things in my life, there isn’t a routine. I’d like one, though – is there an app for that?


Carla Gunn’s Amphibian, published in print by Coach House Books, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99.  You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 3 of 6 titles for $29.99.

And if this doesn’t convince you, you should have a listen to Anita’s reading of the first chapter of Amphibian below.

Have questions for Anita Roy Dobbs, Carla Gunn, or any of our team?  Email Miette, and I’ll try to put something together for you.

“Only the blank page has limitless possibilities.” Matt Bell talks to Mark F. Smith

Have you ever known someone who does what you do, but who does so much of it, and does it so well, and with such great perspicacity, that at the very mention of that person’s name, you instinctively snap out of whatever idle time-wasting activity you’re up to, and get busy?   For instance, if the things you do include reading and writing ceaselessly, the thought of Matt Bell probably has you abandoning blog comment wars and Wikipedia surfing sessions and ceiling-staring contests.  This is all probably for the best.  In fact, you probably owe him a great deal of thanks for it.  But hopefully a blog introduction will suffice.  So here’s Matt discussing How They Were Found with audiobook narrator Mark F. Smith and me:

Mark F. Smith: I had an unusual amount of fun narrating How They Were Found. You took me strange places where I got to apply unusual emotion in telling the story. So, which of these captures Matt Bell: are you someone who is haunted by disturbing dreams, or are you someone maliciously hoping to intrude on the dreams of your readers/listeners?

Matt Bell: “Haunted” and “malicious” might be overstating it, but I have always been a person who dreamed vividly and often–and, when I was younger, repeatedly, with the same dreams reappearing over and over. Nowadays, I think that sense you’re picking up comes first out of the process of my stories, in that I often start without knowing where I’m going: I’m beginning with an intriguing image or pleasant sounding sentence, and then just trying to extend or explore that thing, whatever it is that’s set me in motion.

The other reason for that dream-sense might be impossible to prove, but I think it matters: Right around the time I started writing How They Were Found, I switched from writing late at night to writing first thing in the morning. I get out of bed in the morning and walk right into my computer and start working, usually trying to get at least an hour in before I even go make coffee or have breakfast or whatever. That transition from dreaming to writing feels like it diminishes the gap between the two activities, and drags some of the night into the day.

Matt Bell

Author Matt Bell

MFS: When you sit down to write your stories, do you already know where they’re going, or do they write themselves and you find out their ends as you go?

MB: I wouldn’t say they write themselves, but they do help direct me on where to go: Only the blank page has limitless possibilities. If you’re doing things correctly on the page, every sentence you write lowers the number of possible right next sentences, words, actions, and so on. So even though I’m starting with mystery, I’m writing to explore, to discover. The trick, really, is not to overdetermine it, or to explain too much of that mystery away: I always want there to be space remaining for the reader to work with, to insert their own emotions and sensibilities.

MFS: You’ve won prizes with at least of couple of the stories in this book. Which of the thirteen is your personal favorite? Which do you most like to read out loud yourself? Why?

Mark F. Smith

Narrator Mark F. Smith

MB: I think my favorite changes from time to time. “The Collectors” means a lot to me, because it was a big turn in my writing at the time, but “His Last Great Gift” was essential in other ways– both were born out of obsessions with their bits of history, so writing them was a great way to exercise and exorcise those obsessions. But others stick out too: “Wolf Parts” was an enormous challenge to write, and one I greatly enjoyed working on, and “The Receiving Tower” is certainly one that I feel close to, in part because I’d wanted to write a story in that mode for a very long time, and never could.

As for reading aloud: I’ve performed every story in the book at least a time or two, but “An Index of How Our Family Was Killed” was a staple in the early part of my book tour. Later, “The Cartographer’s Girl” became my most common choice, in part because of its length–it’s a good size for most events–but also because it’s one that consistently got a kind response from a wide variety of different audiences: It’s become that unexpected “hit” bands discover on tour, and I’ve really learned to enjoy performing it.

MFS: I once kicked you a question about categorization tags for this book, lamenting that I was having a terrible time trying to put labels on such a disparate collection. I believe your answer was something like, “Tough, huh?” followed by diplomatic silence! Now that the audiobook is “out there” would you like to add to or subtract from any of my tags?

MB: Well, it was less “diplomatic” and more “overwhelmed,” as I let the time slip by a bit on that. But tagging is difficult for any work, and harder for short story collections. I think it’s especially hard for most writers to do that kind of thing for themselves: It feels reductive, and while I realize this kind of thing is necessary for sales purposes, it’s hard to try to reduce my own art to ten words. If it only took ten words to talk about these stories, then that’s all I would have used!

MFS: I remarked as I was narrating How They Were Found that there is almost no dialogue. When someone says something, it is usually reported as having been said, and the words are echoes in the protagonist’s brain. In your upcoming novel, are you going to let people speak?

MB: I’d argue that summarized and indirect dialogue is still dialogue, but I know what you mean: There isn’t a ton of direct dialogue in the book. There’s more in my next book (Cataclysm Baby, a novella-in-shorts, which will also be from Iambik next year), but even there, it’s always filtered through the narrator, since the stories are in the first-person. Really, I don’t find direct dialogue very natural–when you tell me a story that happened to you, I’d imagine that very little of the dialogue you relate is truly direct, or worthy of quotes–and I think it’s generally the weakest part of many books. It also has other costs: unfiltered by the narrator, it can break the flow of the fiction’s syntax and diction, and it also reduces the writer’s ability to control time, as direct dialogue necessarily progresses in real-time: it takes the same time to read it as it does for it to actually happen, and that’s a rare thing in fiction. The only device, I think, that works that way.

MFS: You read a prodigious amount! To what degree does your reading find its way into your writing (or, are all the nightmares your own?)

MB: I’ve taken a lot of writing classes over the years, and had some amazing teachers, writer friends, and editors. But more than anything else, it’s books that taught me how to write, their authors who taught me how to be a writer. I must have read thousands of books before I was able to write one of my own, and–other than my day to day habits of writing–the only thing that’s going to keep accelerating what I’m capable of–and what I know the form is capable of–is to read as much as I can.

Besides, the reason I became a writer was because I loved to read. The two go together, and I don’t expect that to change. If anything, I might someday (somehow?) stop writing. But never reading.

Miette Elm: Mark was right in noting that your reading output is enviable, and you seem to have a better handle on today’s young writers of innovative, genre-defying American fiction. If you could curate a collection of literary fiction for Iambik, who would you be sure to include?

MB: I’d have to think about this a bit harder, but what I’d really love to see is a collection of fiction that seemed meant to be read out loud in the first place: A lot of fiction technically works in audiobook format, but not every writer is as alive to the acoustic possibilities of their prose as perhaps they should be. I think there are some really great fiction writers who just beg to be read out loud on every page, and Iambik would be smart to snatch up their books and match them with narrators who could really make their books sing.

ME: Do you listen to many audiobooks, and if so, what are you up to while doing so?

MB: I used to listen to tons of audiobooks, because I’ve spent a lot of time commuting: I went to both undergrad and grad school an hour away from home, and then my first job after I moved to Ann Arbor was an hour away too. So audiobooks took up a lot of that drive time. I still travel by car quite a bit, often alone on book tour or similar outings, and so try to squeeze in some whenever I’m gone. I’ve also listened to them while working out, while doing website or eBook coding, or anything that doesn’t require my fullest brain, leaving me some attention left. I’ve probably listened to one or two a month every month since 2004 or so.

ME: In addition to writing and reading seemingly ceaselessly, you’re the editor of Dzanc Books and its literary journal The Collagist. Being this exposed to the writing landscape, what stylistic/structural trends have you noticed lately? Are writers adapting the way they create text to work better online, in audio, for e-readers etc? What else is happening?

MB: One of the first things I thought when I listened to the Iambik audiobook of How They Were Found was that maybe I should have reordered it for audio, that maybe it worked differently in that medium. It hadn’t even occurred to me, even though I’d already made slight changes to the text in the first story (which I’d also done in the eBook version)– Now I think those changes are actually better, and if I were to be lucky enough to have the book go into another printing, I might ask to be allowed to change the text there.

I do think things work differently in these different mediums, and the writers who are most aware of this are going to have certain advantages over others, or at least certain opportunities. Sometimes you can tell a writer isn’t thinking about this: We’ll get submissions full of footnotes, for example, which is really a print artifact, and doesn’t work exactly the same way online. I’m also hoping that the expanded margins of the screen will open us up for new structural attempts: I think poetry is dominated by shorter lines in part because, if you want to get published in lit mags, there are line length limits marked off by the printed page. There are ways around this (the hanging indent, etc.), but I’m sure it scares off a lot of would-be long-line poets, by suggesting that the short line is the de facto standard.

ME: Thanks so much for letting us turn How They Were Found into audio. We hope to be able to do it again with the upcoming novel, and with other Dzanc/Keyhole titles.

MB: Thanks to everyone at Iambik for publishing How They Were Found in audio: It’s something I’d always hoped would happen with my work, and I’m so glad Mark did such a fine job narrating it.

How They Were Found

Matt Bell’s How They Were Found, published in print by Keyhole Press, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99.  You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 3 of 6 titles for $29.99.

You can also have a listen to Mark F. Smith’s reading of the collection’s first story, “The Cartographer’s Girl,” using the embedded audio player below.

Audio: Miette & J. Robert Lennon. “Inspiration is just the thing that gets you the pile of crap that will eventually be something good if you keep working on it.”

Back in the winter, I trekked up to Ithaca in six feet of snow (give or take), and stopped in to visit author J. Robert Lennon, whose novel Castle was released as part of Iambik’s first Literary Fiction collection. I wanted to know the basic reaction to hearing one’s work interpreted by someone else. We ended up covering the need to respect the process, uncovering and resuscitating one’s lost pile of crap, being reviewed alongside hand creams, and other topics of great literary importance.

The sound quality is that of your average punkrock bootleg, between my dying computer’s background death rattle and the occasional but determined plodding up and down Cornell’s hallways.  Hopefully you’ll get the idea, though, and while I can promise you it’s a fine listen despite these things, I can also promise you won’t have as good of a time as I did.  The guy knows how to yap with a booknerd.  Thanks so very much, John!

These things were also discussed and are here for your link-clicking delight:

Which of our authors would you love to see us chat with?  Email me and let me know.


J. Robert Lennon’s Castle, published in print by Graywolf Press, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $4.99. You can listen to the first chapter directly on our site. It’s also available as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 1 of 11 titles for $49.99.

“People have been very kind to me.” Lee Ann Howlett on conquering Thomas Hardy and The Ginseng O.

At one time, I was planning to run these Five Questions interviews only throughout June, as part of June is Audiobook Month (#jiam2011). But we have too many talented narrators and proof-listeners to pack them all into one month, and today’s featured narrator alone is charming enough to deserve a full month all to herself. Here’s Lee Ann Howlett, narrator most recently of With or Without You (Akashic) by Lauren Sanders.

Miette Elm: First off, what are you up to? What titles have you recently wrapped, what are you in the middle of, and how’s it going?
Lee Ann Howlett:  I finished a collection of short stories called Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman for Iambik around the same time that I wrapped a semi-autobiographical book for LibriVox called Three Girls in a Flat by Enid Yandell and two of her friends. (Yandell was a noted American sculptor.) Right now, I’m currently recording a romance for Iambik – Nanny Behaving Badly by Judy Jarvie (Salt Publishing). I believe it’s scheduled to be released as part of Iambik’s first romance collection. I’m also working on a mystery for LibriVox called The Mystery of Mary by Grace Livingston Hill. It’s always nice to have two very different projects going on at the same time.

Lee Ann Howlett

Lee Ann Howlett

ME: Anything stand out as the most notable sentence or paragraph you’ve narrated?
LAH:Well, a recent one was “Have you ever had a ginseng orgasm?” from Joe Coomer’s book One Vacant Chair. My proof-listener, Betsie Bush, and I had a laugh over that one.

ME: Care to share a memorable comment you’ve received about your voice or narration talents?
LAH: People have been very kind to me over the years with LibriVox and, now, Iambik. One that I hold dear was the first comment I ever received for my readings on the LibriVox group project for Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The listener told me that he particularly enjoyed my sections and felt I brought genuine emotion to my reading. I’ve also had similar messages from others about the same book. Since I recorded with my American accent, I was very pleased that the fact that I wasn’t English didn’t seem to bother these listeners. I know that it does disturb many listeners when it’s a UK author and that it’s a personal preference. I’m just glad I didn’t ruin it for everyone.

ME: What are the world’s top sounds? What are the worst?
LAH: Top sounds would have to include the cute little sound my dog, Sammy, makes when he yawns, the sounds of my toddler nieces laughing, and anything by The Cure.

Worst sounds are trucks driving by, airplanes overheard, cicadas and crickets doing their thing, and barking dogs (Sammy included) — all while I’m trying to record.

ME: Of any book ever published, what’s your dream title to narrate (even if your voice wouldn’t be a good match)?
LAH:  That’s a tough one but I’m going to go with some non-fiction. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. I’m a fan of true crime when it’s well-written. Also a biography or memoir by someone that I admire or whose work I enjoy who also has a knack for telling their story well.

Lee Ann Howlett’s audiobooks for Iambik so far include One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer and With or Without You by Lauren Sanders.  If you’re like me and can’t get enough of her, you’ll sign up for our mailing list and be the first to know when her future titles are released.  And if you’re like me but with a little free time, maybe you’ll start the Lee Ann Howlett fan club.  You should.

“The characters took on another and bolder layer of life.” Author Daniel A. Hoyt talks audiobooks with narrator Charles Bice. #jiam2011

Charles Bice and I sent a few questions to Then We Saw the Flames author Daniel A. Hoyt, and the next thing you know, I’m considering booking a trip to Dresden, enrolling in the MFA programme at Kansas State University, and have bought a hundred dollars’ worth of books.  Thanks, Dan, and just let me know where to send my expense reports!  Meanwhile, here’s Dan and Charles:

Charles Bice: Hi, Dan. You’ve created an amazing collection of thirteen stories in Then We Saw the Flames. Each seems drawn from a completely different place, as if written by a different talented writer. What process do you go through in creating a story?

Daniel A. Hoyt: I try to give each story its own shape, and ideally that shape is related to meaning and to character. I’m not a linear writer: I tend to start with an image or a moment, and then I add more sentences, paragraphs, and scenes in a collage-like way. Slowly I find a style that fits the piece. From there, I figure out where the story will end, so I know my destination: I write towards that ending. This process allows me to tap into voices and characters in an organic way, to live with them, to give the story over to them.

Daniel A. Hoyt

Author Daniel A. Hoyt

CB: A number of your characters are in a sense displaced. They are immigrants, like Amar and Tiananmen, or marginalized, as in Black Box, or neglected and far from home, as in El Americanito and Boy, Sea, Boy. What sorts of experiences or inspirations led you to create these characters and situations?

DH: I am often inspired in new ways when I’m on the margins, say, when I’m traveling in foreign countries. “Amar” came out of a visit to Dresden. I arrived a day after a minor riot at a punk rock show, and I remember having a bad head cold. I wandered around the city in the spring rain, and the neighborhood where I was staying had all kinds of kebab shops run by immigrants. I was there, but I wasn’t part of Dresden, not really. I use the margins as a position of inquiry, but my characters are trapped somehow, and that helps drive the conflict. “El Americanito” came from a trip to Acapulco for a wedding; Tiananmen sprang out of a desire to write a story called “House of Pancakes,” which eventually became “The Chez du Pancakes”; and “Boy, Sea, Boy” was inspired by a line from the excellent New Yorker pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones (about a Slint song). I try to be open to all kinds of story ideas. I like moments that I don’t quite compute, when I’m on the margins of understanding.

CB: How did the audio production of the stories match up with what you might have heard in your mind’s ear as you were writing?

Charles Bice

Narrator Charles Bice

DH: I’m so grateful for the thoughtful and rich work that you put into the narration. I read my work aloud a lot because sentence rhythm is so important to me. I’ve probably read these stories to myself five times each, and I feared I’d just be sick of them, but it was an absolute treat to hear them from a new voice. It put a slightly different spin on things, like hearing a cover of a song you haven’t heard in years, and I love cover songs. Sometimes you would read a sentence with some different cadence, which made the line snap differently, but most of all, you’re so adept at voices that the characters took on another and bolder layer of life. I got to meet them again and from a different angle.

CB: Have you tried your hand at writing novels? How would your approach to a novel be different than for a short story collection?

DH: I have a couple of novels in progress, and the novel form requires me to think about both process and progress in different ways. I’m a slow writer, but there’s a certain point with a short story, when I’m about 80 percent done, when I can immerse myself in a piece for a long weekend and really live in the story. (That works best when my wife’s out of town, but the pets get awful lonesome when I do this. I imagine them saying, “Earth to Dan,” and flicking their paws in my face.) I haven’t exactly nailed my own process for novel writing, and that’s one of the issues I’ve thought a lot about in my teaching. The academy encourages short stories, and the publishing industry asks for novels. I love short stories, and I wish the form had more readers, but I feel that graduate students should be encouraged to start writing novels earlier on. That’s one of the great things about teaching at Kansas State University. We have a class in novel writing, which is an all-too-rare offering in creative writing programs.

CB: You teach creative writing at Kansas State University. How has your experience in crafting this collection shaped your teaching—and vice versa?

DH: I try to get my students to embrace the work and the joy of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, of living a different life for a while. I encourage my students to write about things they want to learn. Toward the end of the semester in an advanced class, I also use anecdotes about my collection to help explore some of the nuts and bolts of the writing life. I’ll talk about how long I worked on a story (months to years) and how many literary magazines rejected it, and I’ll talk about an early draft of a story and then the finished piece to make some points about revision. These anecdotes are stories about craft and the publishing world, but they’re also little odes to patience.

CB: When it’s the last class of the term and those budding writers are moving onward, what is the one nugget of writing advice that you want them to take away with them?

DH: I want my students to respect words and to love them, to read things out loud and hear the snap and twist of a sentence, to push beyond the line everyone’s heard before. If you’ve seen if before, re-write it: Make it something new.

Miette Elm: Do you listen to many audiobooks? If so, what are some of the best you’ve heard, and when do you find time to listen?

DH: I don’t listen to a lot of audiobooks, which is more of a condition of my lifestyle rather than a commentary on the form. We live close to campus (we did at my previous academic position, too), so I walk to work every day, and sometimes I go weeks without driving. I’m not a headphone dude. I like to hear the world as I walk through it. My affiliation with Iambik, however, has inspired me to listen to more. I have J. Robert Lennon’s Castle ready for the next drive to Kansas City.

ME: Are you working on any writing projects now? What’s next?

DH: Those aforementioned novel projects are still swirling around, but my primary focus has been a new collection of short stories. The working title is Famous Women, Famous Men, and all of the stories deal with some kind of famous figure (Dickens and Van Gogh, for example) or someone dealing with unexpected celebrity or someone coming in contact with the “famous.” There’s a story about Hemingway impersonators that’s forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, I’m headed to Spain later this summer to write about Goya, and I have a couple of stories in progress that deal with digital fame: the curse of YouTube. This collection should have almost as many voices as Then We Saw the Flames, but I suspect most readers will see more overt thematic connections. I hope to have this collection ready to shop to university publishers and perhaps agents by the end of the fall.

ME: We take great pleasure in looking for sharp contemporary literary fiction that more mainstream audio publishers overlook. Who are we missing? What are some titles you’d love to see turned into audio?

DH: The first thing that comes to mind is people I know (either well or just via e-mail) whose books I love. Jerry Gabriel’s Drowned Boy (Sarabande), Darren Defrain’s Inside & Out (Main Street Rag), and Jeff Parker’s Ovenman (Tin House) quickly come to mind. My colleague Katy Karlin’s collection Send Me Work is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press, and it would make a great audiobook. I’d also love to see Iambik create some kind of literary magazine sampler, where new stories (and new writers) from places like The Kenyon Review or Indiana Review or Parcel could reach new audiences.

Then We Saw the Flames

Then We Saw the Flames

Daniel A. Hoyt’s Juniper Award winning Then We Saw the Flames, published in print by the University of Massachusetts Press, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99.  You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 3 of 6 titles for $29.99.

And, if you stop dawdling, you can still get 50% off any order by entering #jiam2011 at checkout through the end of June 2011. If you haven’t looked at a calendar lately, the end of June 2011 will happen in another several hours.  Hurry up!

“it’s fun to let loose that inner cartoon character every once in a while.” The many voices of Charles Bice. #jiam2011

One day soon, I will ask you to guess how many Iambik audiobooks Charles Bice has produced, and it will be not unlike those jellybeans-in-the-jar guessing games.  Today, that tally rests at 8 audiobooks, or over 52 hours of audio.

Now, I could issue one of those tired tropes about Charles Bice Clones, or Charles Bice Robot Factories producing all these books.  But the truth is, no robot could come anywhere near Charles’ suave delivery and pitch-perfect narration.  As you’ll read below, creating innumerable volumes of great audiobooks is seemingly all done before breakfast, if you’re Charles Bice:

Miette Elm: First off, what are you up to? What titles have you recently wrapped, what are you in the middle of, and how’s it going?
Charles Bice:  Iambik has kept me busy for much of the first half of the year. With next month’s release of Richmond Noir, I’ll have nine Iambik titles out since January. I’ve just completed a performance of The Art of War for a company that has developed a cool app allowing you to listen to the audio while the ebook automatically scrolls along with the text.

When I’m not recording audiobooks or other narration, I’m usually writing. With three novels in print and a fourth fully drafted, I decided to do a little side project with digital publishing where I combine my writing and my narration. To that end I just finished a short children’s book, Storytime Adventure in the Land of the Walking Trees, and am distributing it as a bundle using the Amazon Kindle store.

Another audio-related endeavor I have is a daily ‘poemcast’ on, called The Pause for Poetry. It’s great fun.

Charles Bice

Charles Bice

ME: Anything stand out as the most notable sentence or paragraph you’ve narrated?
CB: Sometimes for me the voice of a character rings off the page just as clearly as if the flesh-and-blood version has walked into the room me. This was the case with the voice of Andrew Whitaker in Sam Savage’s The Cry of the Sloth. I was smiling and even laughing aloud from the opening sentences. The brilliant thing is that the humor doesn’t stem from overtly funny sentences and phrases but instead from having them emanate from this subtly revealed, imperious, deluded character. We all know people who for whatever reason can make us laugh just by talking—saying the most matter-of-fact things. Creating such a character on paper is a terrific feat of writing, and I had a great time working on that project.

ME: Care to share a memorable comment you’ve received about your voice or narration talents?
CB: I’ve had a few compliments on my character voices and accents. Sometimes I think I overdo them to tell you the truth, but it’s fun to let loose that inner cartoon character every once in a while.

ME: What are the world’s top 5 sounds? What are the worst?
CB: The main character in John Barth’s The End of the Road suffered from a debilitating affliction known (in the novel at least) as cosmopsis. He experienced a state of near paralysis when faced with making choices. As I may be coming down with a touch of it myself, I’d better just give you my favorite and least favorite. Otherwise I might be stuck for days.

Favorite: The silence that befalls a symphony orchestra as the conductor steps onto the podium and raises the baton.

Least favorite: Heavy diesel trucks rumbling past my studio during recording.

ME: Of any book ever published, what’s your dream title to narrate (even if your voice wouldn’t be a good match)?
CB:  Oh, dear—more cosmopsis. One of my all-time favorite reads from my youth is Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe. I think it would be a joy to work on that— and to relocate my North Carolina accent.

Have your pick of Charles’ projects for Iambik, or keep an eye on his website to know what he’s up to.  These and all our titles can be yours at a 50% discount through the end of June 2011 (that’s only a couple of days!) by entering #jiam2011 when prompted at checkout.

Stay tuned as Charles and author Daniel A. Hoyt discuss crafting a short story collection and the voices in an authors head, coming tomorrow.

“The very best lines are far too naughty to quote here.” The glory of Cori Samuel #jiam2011

When I heard Cori Samuel was to read Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, I had no idea how she was going to pull it off. For starters, the text translates to over 17 hours of audio.   The book is set in America and features a highly imagined rendering of the (male) scientists responsible for the creation of the atom bomb.   Cori’s an English lady.  You see?  No way.

But Cori is something special, the pairing of text with voice was oddly perfect, and the resulting audiobook is truly one of Iambik’s treasures.  And as you’ll read below, putting her voice behind less-than-obvious titles is one of Cori’s natural talents.  Here’s Cori Samuel:

Miette Elm: First off, what are you up to? What titles have you recently wrapped, what are you in the middle of, and how’s it going?
Cori Samuel:  I’m currently recording Frankenstein for It’s been on my To Do list for a while, because I’ve long been a fan of Mary Shelley and of this story in particular — the book is so different to any of the film versions. Also, because the story is narrated by three male characters, as far as I could see it’d always been recorded by men in the past; so I wanted to try and bring something of the author’s own voice to it. An unknowable, impossible goal, of course, but I’m enjoying the process enormously anyway. I put it on hold earlier this year to record Around the World in Stilettos for Iambik, which was a very hard transition to make: classic horror to modern comedy-romance. I ended up buying several pairs of shoes to get me into the right mood, including an unwalkable-but-gorgeous pair of shiny black stilettos, that I perched next to the mic while I recorded. That’s the last book I finished. Poor Frankie needs to be paused again now, so I can record another Iambik romance in the next couple of months – though I’m not yet sure how I’m going to set the mood for that one (see also below.) Hopefully I’ll finish Frankenstein by the end of August.

Cori Samuel

Cori Samuel

ME: Anything stand out as the most notable sentence or paragraph you’ve narrated?
CS: My first Iambik book quotes some rather saucy lyrics from “Bad Touch” by the Bloodhound Gang. I’m used to recording older, public domain books, so to read something so vibrant and modern was great, and those particular lines make me laugh every time I hear that song. And my next Iambik recording project, begins: “My grandfather’s left me his nose. It’s in a matchbox.” I love that opening, but the very best lines are far too naughty to quote here — I’m really looking forward to working on it!

ME: Care to share a memorable comment you’ve received about your voice or narration talents?
CS: It’s always nice when someone’s willing to hear you read the phonebook — to me, that’s one marker of having ‘arrived’ as a narrator and someone said that to me for the first time fairly recently. I also really appreciated this blog comment from a Californian mom: “I had to smile with delight when my eight year old daughter was swirling around in her room imitating your lovely accent after listening to your audio that day.” How great is that! Anglophilia starting early over there.

ME: What are the world’s top 5 sounds? What are the worst?

  • Laughter, particularly the gurgly-baby kind.
  • Cats’ purring.
  • Boiling water being poured onto tea-leaves.
  • Alan Rickman’s voice.


  • Anything that one hears with one’s gut, rather than the ears (like screams, for instance)
  • Car alarms.
  • Running water when I KNOW nothing should be leaking / dripping …
  • The doorbell sounding when I’m in the shower

ME: Of any book ever published, what’s your dream title to narrate (even if your voice wouldn’t be a good match)?
CS:  I’d love to record A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes. It’s something like Lord of the Flies, only it adds girls, pirates and sailing ships — and is more psychological than visceral. It’s just wonderful. I don’t think my voice would be a terrible match, so if I cross my fingers really, really tightly …

As Cori mentioned, she’s got new Iambik titles coming soon.  If you’re on our mailing list, you’ll know when that time comes.  You can also keep track of her recordings at her website, or by following @CoriS on Twitter.  Cori’s first title for Iambik, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet, is available for only $5.99 as part of our very first Literary Fiction Collection (the whole collection is only $49.99.  Have a look.).  As you know by now, all our titles can be yours at a 50% discount throughout June 2011 by entering the code #jiam2011 when prompted at checkout.

“I’m embarking on post-graduate work here.” Anita Roy Dobbs on Amphibian and more… #jiam2011

Here’s my challenge for you, discerning readers and listeners of fine audio literature:  I challenge you to read Anita’s oozing-with-charisma answers to my questions below, and try to resist her innumerable charms.

Actually, don’t try that.  You won’t be able to, you won’t want to, and you might hurt yourself in the process.  Presenting Anita Roy Dobbs, narratrix of Amphibian, by Carla Dunn.

Miette Elm: First off, what are you up to? What titles have you recently wrapped, what are you in the middle of, and how’s it going?
Anita Roy Dobbs:  I just finished my first audiobook, Amphibian, in time for the latest Literary Fiction collection. You know how we learn most from our mistakes? Well, that was graduate-level learning, oy. I’m so glad that it was Amphibian I lived with for those months of spending far too much time on every minute of the recording. I long to sit down with folks who have read (or listened to!) the book and discuss Carla Gunn’s gifted juggling of themes and tone, her storytelling that’s profound enough for (older) children (watch out, it features the F-word) and entertaining enough for adults. It is a lovely book – humorous, touching, multi-faceted, warm – to have labored over.

But next up is the first in a series of four books – a series I’ve already lived with for over a decade. If I’m to manage all four, I’ll need a quantum leap in efficiency. Mmm, literally. It’s Fire Logic, first in the Elemental Logic Series by Laurie J. Marks, a fantasy rooted in modern problems, staked on vivid, strong-frail characters. I’m trying to be succinct but likely sound markety, eh? It has a challenging cast of characters needing distinct voices. That means I’m embarking on post-graduate work here. Oh, the mistakes I’m about to make!

So it’s going like this: I work more than full-time and narrate between leaf-blowers in the evenings, mornings, and weekends. I’m halfway through switching all my recording gear and (if the software ever arrives) learning a completely new (and appealingly geeky) recording technique. Hmm, better get back to those tutorials I have bookmarked…

Anita Roy Dobbs

Anita Roy Dobbs

ME: Anything stand out as the funniest sentence or paragraph you’ve narrated?
ARD: Nothing of that sort, but what that question brings to mind is an … awkward chapter I read for in a book I wasn’t familiar with. I discovered that a whole section was racist – I was going to say dreadfully racist, but that suggests there’s another kind, like graciously racist. I wanted to state a disclaimer, skip the passages, back out on the chapter, anything but read it like a proper narrator. So I went flat, or sour-flat, or whatever affect that bad taste in my mind caused in my mouth. And even today, my skin crawls that I read those passages into the public domain. (I think I should have backed out.)

ME: Care to share a memorable comment you’ve received about your voice or narration talents?
ARD: I’ll cheat a little on this one, too. I once received an email about something I’d read for LibriVox, and it seemed to say that the writer was so, mmm, responsive to something that I’d read, because of the way I read it, that he couldn’t express it just then, but it was important and he would try again later. He didn’t. So I could be wrong in my interpretation! But here’s the cheating part — I have had what I will clumsily call important responsiveness to a handful of narrators, or even a hand-not-quite-full. Tip of the pinnacle for me is Nigel Planer. His sheer intelligence as a reader – every instant spot-on, every skill of characterization mastered beyond mastery – just rivets me each time I re-re-re-re-re-listen to every recording he’s made. So that’s my strange and puzzling compliment to my world’s greatest narrator: I am importantly responsive to your narration, Nigel Planer, and wish I could express myself as intelligently as you narrate (or do ANYthing that intelligently).

ME: What are the world’s top 5 sounds? What are the worst?
ARD: Erg. Hmmm … after long thought:

Top: the tiny teeny itsy sounds a newborn makes in the first days; my mother’s voice as remembered; wind or rain in a full canopy of leaves; whale song; “Ah-ha!”

Worst sounds I’ve heard: that retching sound when nothing will come up but must; screeching brakes (typically on buses I’ve been waiting for); any wounded animal (including us); patronizing, dismissive, marginalizing tones in all their variety; spiteful hatred, snarled or raged.

And I am delighted to report that in Amphibian, young Phineas William Walsh will tell you precisely what the world’s top five most disliked sounds are, as discovered by researchers.

Worst sounds I’ve never heard: cries of terror; near-to-hand explosions; a tsunami wave crashing / tornado winds approaching / hurricane overhead / massive earthquake rumbling / volcano errupting.

ME: Of any book ever published, what’s your dream title to narrate (even if your voice wouldn’t be a good match)?
ARD:  How I wish I knew every book ever published. Wow. That’s a pauser. Since I was a child, standing in the library — the little, little, local, two-room library in Moundsville, West Virginia — I’ve enjoyed the recurring fleeting fantasy of absorbing alllllll those books into my knowing.

So I think, if I must narrow it down to one title, it’s the Encyclopædia Britannica. And I’m pretty unsuited for that. 🙂

Anita’s first title for Iambik, Carla Dunn’s Amphibian (published in print by Coach House Books), is available for only $6.99 as part of our Third Literary Fiction collection.  Along with all Iambik titles, it can be yours at a 50% discount throughout June 2011 by entering the code #jiam2011 when prompted at checkout.

“My tendency is to try to balance the ridiculous and the sublime.” Tadhg Hynes talks shop with James Greer. #jiam2011

If you didn’t catch James Greer’s The Failure, released with our 2nd Literary Fiction Collection, you should forgive yourself now and go get it.

While you’re working on the finer points of self-forgiveness, narrator Tadhg Hynes and I had a few questions for author James Greer.  Tadhg, of course, has excellent, thoughtful questions about structure and characterisation and message, while I hummed David Bowie songs.  Take a look:

Tadhg Hynes: You open the book more-or-less at the end of the story, but then take us back and forth through a shifting non-linear timeline. How did this come about? Did you write it in narrative chronological order? How did you decide to splice it where you did?

James Greer: I wrote the first chapter and the last chapter first. Then I wrote the rest of the book, in pretty much any order I felt like, because I had the plot in my head. When I was finished, I printed the whole thing out (it was a little longer then, maybe 50 chapters), stapled each chapter separately, and laid them out in a giant 5×10 grid on the floor. Then I walked around the grid and physically re-ordered the chapters according to rhythm, length, and so on. I think I was influenced most by watching movies in the construction of The Failure. When you edit film these days, you generally use a set-up (combination of hardware and software) called an NLE, or non-linear editing system. As its name indicates, this tends to produce, or at least makes it easier to produce, non-linear narratives. Of course, filmmakers were editing asynchronously long before the wide-spread use of NLEs. Jean-Luc Godard is a master of non-linear construction, and I was watching a lot of Godard movies around the time I was writing The Failure.

Tadhg Hynes

The Mysterious Tadhg Hynes

TH: I really enjoyed recording this book– how do you feel about having your work read to you? Have you listened to the audiobook?
JG: I enjoyed listening to it a lot more than I would have if I’d chosen an American narrator. Your Irish lilt allowed just enough linguistic distance to eliminate the cringe factor of hearing your own words read to you. I prefer listening to you read my book than listening to me read my book. You make my words sound better.

TH: While working on this book my proof-listener and I found it really humorous. But it defies genre – there are elements of noir and crime fiction, of parody, of satire, of romance, and underlying all of these is the humour. I know many writers hate to categorise themselves, but if you had to for this book, how would you?
JG: I would, if pressed, call The Failure picaresque, a once-common Spanish sub-genre that has fallen into disuse. Or Icaresque, which is not a word but should be. Neither are strictly accurate but better than the alternatives, I think.

TH: Several of the characters are spookily like people I know (especially Guy’s mother). Have any of your friends recognised themselves in the book? What’s been the reaction?
JG: Every character in the book was entirely a product of my imagination. I don’t know how people go about basing characters on real people. I’m sure it’s commonly done but I can’t do it. That said, I recognize parts of myself in every one of the characters in The Failure. I’d like to think that because I’m an entirely ordinary person the resonance that you and others might encounter is derived from our common humanity. But I may be over-thinking that bit. The stricture to “write what you know” has always confounded me. It seems to me the worst possible advice to give a writer.

James Greer

Author James Greer

TH: On my first reading, The Failure came across as a pretty light-hearted book. However as I reread it I became more aware of the serious social commentary. Was this by design? Did you intend for the humour to sit atop the more serious matters? Do you think the audiobook achieves the same layering?
JG: I’d hate to think there was any serious social commentary in The Failure, but I do think there are serious themes underlying the humor. And while I’m not sure that was something I set out to do, my tendency is to try to balance the ridiculous and the sublime. My congenital inability to take anything seriously inevitably undercuts any serious point I ever try to make. At the same time I have a tendency towards melodrama and sentimentality that I can’t always resist. Or that I’ve stopped trying to resist.

TH: Writing novels is just one of your talents; you’re also involved in films and music. Do you have a favourite? If you could only make art in one medium, which would you choose?
JG: Writing has always and will always come first. I love music, I love films, but I am compelled to write.

TH: Finally, what’s next? What do you have coming up, or what are you working on now?
JG: My next novel is half-way done. It’s as different from The Failure as The Failure is from my previous novel, Artificial Light. I tend to work in opposition to myself, for whatever reason.

Miette Elm: You don’t seem to shy away from social media– you blog, you keep Twitter and Facebook accounts, and you’re on Goodreads. And, for those readers who don’t know, the Internet is central to the plot of The Failure (note to those readers: this is not an internet book, honest! Unless you want it to be, of course…) Do these tools impact your writing? How?
JG: Oh, I shy away, believe me. Last year I deleted my Facebook account when I was approaching 5,000 friends and realized I didn’t know more than a few hundred, and even those few hundred not very well. I also stopped blogging for almost a year. Twitter I started up a few months ago at the same time I decided to revamp and relaunch my site, and re-join Facebook. I’m not sure if any of this is useful, but I do it to promote my books and am otherwise appalled and creeped out by online self. I think that same fascination/horror underlies the internet aspect of The Failure’s plot (leaning hard on the metaphorical sense of “plot”). The two main characters, Guy and Billy, don’t own cellphones or computers and don’t seem to understand the internet very well, despite their plans (or Guy’s plans) to exploit it. Guy reminds me of an 1849 California gold-seeker. He’s heard about the untold riches awaiting even inexperienced prospectors, but has no real clue how to mine for gold, nor, I think, any real desire. He’s self-defeating in the best sense. If not for the evil manipulations of the author he would probably have run off with Violet and lived happily ever after.

ME: The Failure contains offset ads, physics equations, and other typographic elements that, coupled with its non-linear narrative, might make it difficult to turn into a linear audiobook form. I think Tadhg did a fantastic job, of course, but did you have any reservations about allowing the book to be interpreted this way?
JG: None whatsoever, though in retrospect I should have. Early on, Tadgh emailed me in consternation when he got to the chapter that consists of several hundred nonsense words that purport to contain a subliminal ad. The solution he arrived at was both elegant and funny, in keeping with the spirit of the book. I like to think the non-linear construction makes it in some ways easier for the audibook listener, because if you forget where you are and jump in randomly, you won’t really have missed anything. There’s nothing to miss. That’s probably just wishful thinking on my part, though. But I am hugely indebted to Tadgh for finding clever ways around the problems you describe.

ME: The Failure opens with an awfully melodic first line: Guy Forget – careening across Larkin Heights in a stolen Mini Cooper – suffused with bloodlust and baring a grin full of teeth, failed to hear the polyphonic belling of his cell phone. To me, it looks as if it’s meant to be voiced, and very much looks like it could be set to music and sung. Really, try it. It works well to David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, and I’m not saying that for narrative verisimilitude. So what effect does your work as a musician and music journalist have on your fiction writing?
JG: To me the musicality of writing is entirely different from music. Music is choreographed math, and acts on our emotions directly, wordlessly, where writing organizes phonemes into strings of sense, even when clearly designed to prioritize sound over meaning, as in the first line of The Failure. I suppose that in both instances one tries to manipulate the listener/reader, but there’s no way (at least none that I have discovered) to reproduce the polyphony of music in writing, and similarly no way to reproduce the specificity/precision of language in music. But you’re absolutely correct that the sentences over which I take the most care are meant to be voiced, whether out loud or in the head. Writing and reading done properly produce a physical reaction not dissimilar to the reaction you might have listening to [favorite song or piece of msuic]: a pleasurable shiver that’s the only way I know how to judge great writing or great music.

James Greer’s The Failure, published in print by Akashic Books, is available from Iambik as an audiobook for only $6.99.  You can also buy it as part of our Complete Literary Fiction Collection 2 of 12 titles for $49.99. Plus, throughout June 2011, you can get 50% off any order by entering #jiam2011 at checkout.