Friday, November 16, 2012

Novel Nostalgia- A Trip Back in Timelessness


“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story's voice makes everything its own” - John Berger

It was during a recent trip to New York City, one of the epicenters of the literary world, that I found the sentiment for the hand-held book alive and well. There was a certain dichotomy between the trappings of the modern, technologically advanced city rushing by on Madison Avenue and the serene, sacred atmosphere in the metaphoric cathedral of prized antique volumes in Bauman Rare Books (http://www.baumanrarebooks.com/).  It seemed as though the glass doors were a portal between two different eras. 

This separation, co-existing with the all-encompassing oneness of the city seemed fitting as only the night before, we were ensconced in the Roaring Twenties of Fitzgerald at a chic Tribeca venue.  Sipping champagne in period dress, the music and costumes of our fellow party-goers spoke to the vibe of the Jazz age, yet the ambitious conversations and ability to make fast friends of strangers was signature, modern day NYC.  Just for the night, before the clock struck two, everyone seemed to share the same dreams.  There was the set of voracious readers, writers and artists united by tired feet and limited seating.  We were a group of disparate, creative individuals brought together for an evening.   

One woman spoke of her passionate quest to get her young students to develop a love for the written word; not only to instill a love of books, but also to inspire them towards the self-expression that would give them a voice in years to come.  We discussed our own literature-oriented upbringings, the importance of the generations we hoped to shape and reach, the virtues and distractions of technology as well as indulging in a few private laughs about aspects of pop culture we’ll neglect to name here.  There was the disillusioned young writer who had worked for one of the greater literary powers that be and discovered that they themselves didn’t even like to read.  There was a couple dynamically fond of taking the ‘road less traveled’ and building their artistic pursuits from scratch and a couple who’d met only that very night; yet this latter pair seemed as though, in their familiar, heads-close-together conversations of secret aspirations (for her design, for him the silver screen) and their nearly choreographed dancing, that they’d known each other for years.  Just as in The Great Gatsby, there existed amongst us a reach for the illusive green light, a desire to find one’s place, a time of possibility... all within the context of a good old-fashioned, carefree party staged in a place of extremes.

Holding a hunter green first edition of The Great Gatsby the next morning, the spell the night cast was complete.  Times change, but people don’t.  We still dream, we still reach.  It was part of this that reaffirmed my belief that the hand-held book will always have a place in our society.  Right there, in the middle of bustling NYC, is a place of the here and now where the book is honored and valued to an elevated spot of esteem.  Yes, digital books are opening doors and creating wonderful possibilities for both writers and literacy, yet our roots and history are timeless.  We hold a piece, an extension of ourselves when we hold a book that was written by someone who deeply, emphatically understood what it is to be human.  It was during an interview for a freelance article that I mentioned this subject to an educational director.  Though they expounded on the reasons why access to thousands of books on a single device was a wonderful development, they also felt that there was a longevity to the hand-held book that would remain.  They jokingly compared it to the difference between having and holding a teddy bear and keeping a digital picture of one.

Scanning the rows of books at Bauman, peering into the glass cases to see first editions or signed copies of A Christmas Carol, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Babar and a letter from Benjamin Franklin, I felt as though I was part of something very important.  The importance of words, the love of reading, writing and storytelling (in whatever artistic form), is something that unites us.  As I watched the gentleman washing the glass doors of the store from the inside, I felt that my inner vision was clarified and there was now a clearer view of the balance between the advancements of the fast-paced modern world and literary tradition.   

                        

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Interview with Ann Kingman, co-host of Books on the Nightstand, Board Director for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, and veteran of the publishing industry through her career at Random House



Ann Kingman began her career as a sales assistant at Dell Publishing. This led to a 24 year career spent at the same company under various names: Bantam/Dell, Bantam Doubleday Dell, BDD/Ballantine, and ultimately Random House. Ann relocated to New England in 1992, holding positions in Field Merchandising, National Accounts, and for the past 11 years or so, District Sales Manager, covering most of CT, RI, part of MA, VT and upstate NY. In addition, Ann works with colleague Michael Kindness to publish Books on the Nightstand, a blog and weekly podcast about books and reading.

Books on the Nightstand (http://booksonthenightstand.com/) is a weekly audio podcast with the tagline "Illuminating conversation about books and reading." Hosted by two veterans of the publishing industry, BOTNS focuses on topics of interest to the general reader, often with a peek behind the curtain of the publishing industry. Conversational in tone, the hosts keep it positive, talking only about books that they genuinely like, and giving book recommendations rather than book reviews. Despite holding day jobs with a major NY publisher, BOTNS is an independent project, and Ann and Michael feature books from numerous publishers and in almost every genre.



1) The premise of Books on the Nightstand, a great readers’ resource, is to recommend books you enjoy as opposed to simply reviewing books.  How did you and co-publishing industry veteran, Michael Kindness, decide upon this distinction and how do you personally maintain certain criteria for a book that thrills you (regardless of genre)?

Frankly, we just think that there are too many good books out there to spend precious time reading and talking about books that don’t thrill us. I am an unrepentant book-abandoner. I give a book 50 pages, and if it doesn’t grab me in some way, I’ll put it down and move on. However, I realize that we all look for different things in a book, and if I’m not finding what I need, it doesn’t mean that you won’t.  So I never proclaim a book “bad”. It might just not be right for me at the time.

A book can thrill me in many ways: it can be a book that is so beautifully written that I stop and marvel at a phrase or a sentence on almost every page. It can be a story so well told that I leave my real life and enter the setting of the book. It may contain a driving plot that makes me read well beyond my bedtime. Or it can star a character so real and intriguing that I want to invite him into my family (or put her behind bars). I am lucky that I can take any one of these elements as a point of enjoyment. If I’m reading for story, I can be more forgiving of the occasional wonky metaphor; if I’m reading for the writing style, an intricate plot is not so important. That’s also why I’d make a terrible reviewer.

2) Being on the Board of Directors for the New England Independent Booksellers Association, what do you think are the most important factors for readers/consumers to keep in mind about the role of the hand-held book and the brick & mortar stores with booksellers that give a personalized approach to shopping for a book?  What is one of your favorite memories of discovering something unexpected to read in an indie bookstore?

We are spoiled for choice when it comes to reading material. The biggest problem right now for most readers is discovering what to read. Our time is precious, and a great source of book recommendations is an asset to any community. If your town or city has an independent bookstore, love and cherish it, and if they don’t meet your needs, let them know (gently) so that they can do better. Independent bookstores are, in my very biased opinion, protectors of literature. That sounds overblown and hokey. But if we ever see the day where there is only one mega-retailer, it will be a sad day for readers and writers. That’s when much of our choice disappears.

There’s another crucial aspect to keeping the physical book alive: the kids. I can’t imagine living in a home without physical books. I can’t imagine a child growing up in a home without physical books.

That being said, many independent bookstores offer ebooks, and in fact a new partnership with Kobo should make it easier and more convenient for you to purchase ebooks from your favorite independent bookstore.

As to your last question, I discover something unexpected to read almost every time I step into an independent bookstore. My first stop is always the Staff Picks section, and inevitably there is a book there that I have never seen, have never heard about, and yet is just the book I didn’t know I was looking for.

3) In addition to working for Random House, you co-host BOTNS and are on the Board of Directors for NEIBA.  Books have a place of great importance in both your professional and personal spheres.  Talk to us about your earliest realization of your passion for the written word and share some of your favorite authors (contemporary, classic or both).   

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader. The first book I remember loving was a board book called "Twinkle Tots". It was my constant companion when I was about 3 and it’s the first book I could “read” by myself (today we call it memorization). I tracked down a copy a few years ago, and it has a proud place on the shelf next to the rest of my favorite books of all time.

In middle school, during a particularly difficult time (we all have them then, don’t we?) I discovered Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, and I truly believe that that novel got me through that period relatively unscathed.

Favorite authors: this one is tough, because I am terrible at committing to "favorites". But in the last few years, I publicly declared that my favorite author is Ian McEwan. While none of his books is actually my favorite book of all time, as a body of work, McEwan’s novels speak to me more than any other author.  I will drop whatever I am doing to read Cormac McCarthy, Richard Russo, Karen Russell and Aimee Bender. Oh, and Margaret Atwood is up there with McEwan. I’m also a huge fan of the mystery and suspense genre, and love the novels of Lee Child, Tana French, Jo Nesbo and John Sanford.

4) You provide Book Group Resources on your site and discuss their significance.  Many people wish for this kind of atmosphere of shared literary interests but struggle with the logistics (time/location).  If you were to design the ‘ideal’ book group, what would some of its attributes and parameters be if anything were possible (instant communication/travel across the world, any place, and yes, even any time period if we apply our imaginations to time travel for a minute here).

Well, don’t tell any of the hundreds of book group members that I talk with every year, but my favorite kind of book club is the “salon.” This is a gathering where you meet to talk about what everyone is reading, but not everyone reads the same book. I love the sense of discovery and sharing that happens when readers describe a book and how it makes them feel. I would ban all "reading group guides", which in my mind are good only to remind yourself of the plot when the book group meets weeks after you’ve finished the book. I would require wine and chocolate at every meeting, of course, and the author would be on speed dial (brain pings?) to answer any of our questions and settle any arguments -- but would NOT be online when we talk about our less-than-favorite bits.

5) There is a quote by Angela Carter that speaks of how we as readers, through our life experiences, add our own individualized meaning to what we read:  “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms.”  Is there a book you recall reading at a certain stage in your life that reflects this sentiment or have you recommended a book to someone based on an experience they were going through at the time which you felt the book could further illuminate for them?

As I mentioned above, The Chocolate War did that for me and I am certain for many, many other adolescents. But since I do unequivocally agree with Angela Carter, it’s very difficult to recommend a book to someone and expect them to have that experience that you think will help them. Instead, I look for books that help bring forth an emotion -- escapism if that is needed, or handing someone a very sad novel if they are trying to connect with their grief. The actual subject of the book may be irrelevant to that person’s life experience, but books can help tap into emotions in many ways.

6) In promoting reading and literacy, give us your personal view of why books are and will continue in the future to be so integral to the development of our society and those minds which would endeavor to shape it. 

Books allow us to walk in the footsteps of others in a way that nothing else does. It’s only through the understanding of others that we can understand the world around us. The exchange of ideas is easier and more understandable through story than any other means.

For more information, visit http://booksonthenightstand.com/welcome


Monday, August 27, 2012

Interview with Alexander Weinstein, Director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing



Alexander Weinstein is the Director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and works as a professor of Creative Writing at Siena Heights University.  He leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe and lives in Ann Arbor.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Cream City Review, Sou'Wester, Notre-Dame Review, Rio Grande Review, Zone 3 and other journals.  He is currently finishing his first short story collection.


1) Talk to us about the formation of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing; what went into its development (from selection/planning of workshops to instructors to choice of location) and what writers, books, experiences informed your outlook?

The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing came about from my years of teaching writing on the Vineyard.  I’ve spent summers at the Vineyard since I was born—my family has a house in Aquinnah—and the Vineyard is one of my favorite places in the world, so part of my dream was to create a center for writers in order to share the beauty and creativity of Martha’s Vineyard with others.  In 2005 and 2006 I taught fiction writing workshops at Featherstone Center for the Arts on the Vineyard.  This led to my forming a writing group of Vineyard writers to teach deeper level craft techniques and help them produce new work, edit, and finish novels.  From these experiences the idea of creating the institute emerged.   There was a real need for a place where writers could gain both artistic and professional writing experience on the Vineyard and so, in 2009 I began planning for our first year. 

My goal was to create an intimate program, one which broke down the boundaries between published writers and aspiring writers, and which helped to nurture an artistic literary community.  From my experiences in academia and publishing, I felt that one of the most vital elements, often missing for the writer, is community.  Artists need to receive guidance and support in their craft, and to celebrate creative expression together.  And so I founded the MVICW in order to create a place where writers and their art could flourish.  The first faculty was selected from my fellow fiction and poetry writers/teachers at Indiana University.  What better way to create community than invite my closest friends to launch the MVICW! 

In our second year I expanded the program to include The MVICW High School Writers’ Collaborative, a creative writing summer camp for students in 8th-12th grade.  Supporting young writers is of great importance, and I wanted to contribute to the student community on Martha's Vineyard.  Many of my friends are school teachers on the island, and I greatly respect the work they do.  Working with students is essential to nurturing art.  These students are the future artists of the world, and the more I can do to support and encourage their artistic expression, the richer the world becomes.

I’m happy to say that our first three years have met with great success, and I couldn’t be happier and more thankful to all the writers and faculty who have helped to make it so. 

2) You discuss the importance and oft-time difficulty of writers finding the space and the hours to devote to their craft and the workshop’s mission in helping them do just that.  How do you instruct writers to continue some of the practices of the workshop in relation to organization, goals and schedules once they return home?  Do writers leave with a heightened awareness about making the time for their work?

One of the greatest hurdles I’ve encountered during my years of teaching writing is confidence.  The writer is unfortunately always beset by an untrained inner critic—a voice which is all too ready to lambast one’s own creativity and keep the writer from producing.  For this reason I address the importance of separating the writer into two parts: the writer and the critic, so that the fear of failure can be put aside.   The underlying fear is, if you begin writing and it turns out not as good as you’d hoped, then this might prove you’re not really cut out for writing.  This is, of course, nonsense—but it’s a powerful fear all the same.   In order to help mitigate these fears, we write a lot during the MVICW workshops.  We practice craft exercises, take risks, and share our work, and this models the work ethic and attitude necessary to continue producing work throughout the year.   As I tell students, if you’re doing things right you’ll produce bad work.  The reason for this is that you’re writing so much that some material will naturally be bad.   And we need to allow ourselves the space to write poorly if we want the inspirational work to emerge. 

Our panel discussion and publishing/editing workshops directly address how to keep the writing practice alive, and it allows students to hear the strategies and methods that all the visiting faculty have used to pursue successful careers in writing.   Outlining, drafting, the submission process, dealing with both the rejection and acceptance of one’s work, are addressed by the faculty, and the attendees go home with a writing plan for the coming year.  Many of the writers form online writing groups with the other attendees, in order to keep working on their materials outside of the MVICW.

3) One of the unique qualities about the MVICW is the intimate atmosphere in which attendees can interact with faculty outside of workshop hours at nightly activities (including readings, discussions and editing sessions).  How do you feel this impacts the attendants’ overall experience and understanding of their workshop subject matter/ideologies?  What are some additional ways in which the MVICW is unique?

The close interaction between faculty and students is certainly one of our defining traits.  After workshops, attendees and faculty go out for drinks/food together, take trips to the local fishing town for a sunset, go on sailing excursions, and the final night I cook dinner for everyone and we celebrate together.  The one-on-one editing sessions also allow writers and faculty to spend significant time talking about poetry and fiction and how to prepare work for publication.  This close connection between faculty and attendees is vital because the central mission to MVICW is to create a nurturing community of writers. 

These more intimate events break down the boundaries between attendees and faculty, and this is essential because it allows attendees to see published and award-winning writers as regular people.  Often times a kind of celebrity culture can form around famous writers, especially at conferences and workshops, and this can lead to a feeling of real separation between aspiring writers and published writers.  It’s important that this sort of separation is broken down, for I believe that now, more than ever, we need to build community, share knowledge, and help one another as artists.  The effect, for both attendees and faculty is magical.  Faculty and attendees often say they feel the MVICW has created a writing family for them.  I couldn’t hope for better praise.

4) Your selection of instructors creates a diversified perspective from various views of the literary world (both from a publishing and academic viewpoint). How did the criteria evolve for choosing instructors?   Do they typically subscribe to similar philosophies on the craft and teaching or do they differ greatly in beliefs and teaching methods?

I aim to create as diverse a program as possible.  While I personally tend to write speculative fiction and fabulism, I aim to bring in writers who work in realism and other genres.  In this way, attendees are exposed to a wide variety of styles and approaches to craft.  I find teachers/writers who have different philosophies on the craft of writing, because these differences make for exciting conversations and discussions—and it drives home the fact that there is no one way to write, no single philosophy which reveals the secret to success; writing is a personal process.  My criteria for choosing faculty is that they are excellent teachers, powerful writers, and warm-hearted, generous instructors.   I seek teachers who are skilled at breaking down the elements of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and who can tailor classes which will challenge both experienced writers and beginners.  And again, I seek writers who are generous with their time and open about their process—writers who are willing to share both their successes and struggles as writers—so that they humanize the art of creative writing. 

5) Within the Specialty Workshops, editing for publication and submitting for publication (taught by Phong Nguyen, who edits the journal, Pleiades) are included for the publishing/business aspect of the craft.  It’s a good balance to have the inclusion of these necessary and pragmatic elements in a creative workshop.  Do the Specialty Workshops rotate based on instructors and might there be future novel/short story collection/poetry anthology pitching or marketing workshops as well?

The MVICW always offers an editing/publication specialty workshop.  For many attendees, the process of submitting their work for publication can be both daunting and mystifying, and so I want to demystify the process, as well as prepare students for how to deal with rejection (which is bound to come if you’re submitting your work for publication).  Having these classes led by faculty with intimate knowledge of the process is helpful because it allows attendees  to get an inside look at the publishing world.

In the past we’ve offered Specialty workshops on The Prose Poem, Science Fiction, Playwriting and Screenwriting, and I hope to offer specialty workshops on Young Adult Literature, Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction, and Marketing in the coming years.  

6) What are some future plans or goals for the MVICW?     

Our next big step is becoming a non-profit.  This will allow for greater funding opportunities from both individuals and organizations, and an expansion of our scholarship program.   I’m proud to have been able to offer scholarships over our first three years, funded entirely by MVICW.   However, even with scholarships, there are still students who cannot afford to attend.  My hope is to begin to secure endowments for the program which would give MVICW the ability to offer many more full scholarships, both for our adult and high-school programs.  Supporting writers is the central mission of MVICW, and it’s my hope to never turn anyone away due to a lack of finances.   I see becoming a non-profit and securing grants and endowments as the next crucial step towards this goal. 

I’m also very excited to be teaming up with the Nathan Mayhew Seminars for next year’s program.  The Nathan Mayhew Seminars has had a long and rich artistic and educational history on the Vineyard, and the MVICW is thrilled to find a home on their Vineyard Haven campus.   The new location will allow us to house the faculty and hold the seminars on the same campus, making for an even more intimate environment.   Being located in Vineyard Haven will make it possible for attendees wishing to commute from the Cape during the week possible.  There are also a number of bed and breakfasts within walking distance, which will allow for easier lodging and travel for attendees.  

For more information, visit http://mvicw.com/

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reading into Readings~ A Writer's Life: Guest Blog

Guest Blogger Bio:  SuzAnne C. Cole is a retired college instructor with an MA from Stanford. Her essays have been published in Newsweek, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Baltimore Sun, Personal Journaling and many anthologies as well as The Write Place at the Write Time. She also writes plays, poetry, and short fiction in a studio in the Texas Hill Country. 

Of Course, I’d Be Glad to Sign Your Book

For months before my first book came out, I spent hours on the phone lining up readings and signings in the city where I live.   My first reading was perfect.  The community relations coordinator, the daughter-in-law of a dear friend, promoted the event with mailings, posters, and newspaper publicity.  A guitarist provided soft background music, refreshments were served, my husband sent a beautiful bouquet, and the audience was warm and receptive.  I sold seventy-five copies and thought all readings and signings would be that wonderful. 

Unfortunately, they weren’t.  The publicity for my next signing announced that I would be “singing” my book.  However, I had a respectable crowd, sold thirty copies, and was happy at the end to write a loving inscription in one book for the mother of a bookstore employee.  Later that month, revisiting the store and checking the shelves to see if I needed to sign more copies, I found not only that particular copy with its long and tender inscription, but also another copy with my personalized dedication.

In a nearby city I held a signing on a warm Saturday; although I smiled my hardest and wore my prettiest summer suit, almost no one stopped to chat, inquire, or buy.   Restless near the end of my non-productive three-hour stint, I began to browse nearby shelves and went home having sold no books but having bought fifty dollars’ worth of other people’s books.

With another coordinator I arranged signing dates at two stores; however, she abruptly left the chain two days later, taking with her all records of upcoming events.  When I showed up for my signing, no one at the store had ever heard of me, my book, or the signing.    

Visiting another city on vacation, I asked an employee in a chain bookstore if they carried my book, To Our Heart’s Content: Meditations for Women Turning 50.   After checking the computer, the clerk coolly informed me they had ordered the book, but I had the title wrong, it was Mediations for Women Turning 50.  In vain I protested, “But I wrote it, it’s my book.”  I was only the author; the computer was the authority.   

I learned that I preferred readings to signings because readings permitted me to do something.  I found it difficult to sit, dressed in my best, behind a big stack of books, as, despite my best smile, people browsed everywhere but my table, refusing to meet my eyes even in passing.  Meanwhile the coordinator, in what sounded like an increasingly desperate voice, broadcasted my presence every fifteen minutes over the store’s audio system while I wondered if I shouldn’t consider another line of work. 

However, readings also had their drawbacks.  When refreshments were served, I discovered that some people sat to listen only as long as it took them to finish the snack; then they noisily gathered up their possessions and left, often right in the middle of my most tender passages.   

I learned that it’s possible to give a reading for an audience of two—but it changes the delivery somewhat.  Once my only audience was a young Vietnamese man.  Curious about his attendance since my book is aimed at midlife women, I asked why he was there.  When he said he’d like to write better sentences, I walked him to the grammar section of the bookstore and sold him someone else’s book. 

I also learned that the care and attention the author pays to makeup and wardrobe will be in inverse proportion to the number of people at a reading or signing.  And I found that community relations coordinators did not always share my ideas about an appropriate atmosphere.  One scheduled my reading to coincide with the in-store performance of a country western singer.  Over the twangy strains of an amplified guitar, I found myself shouting my suggestions to “reclaim silence and stillness for ourselves” in the process of achieving “inner tranquility.”

As that summer of my first book progressed, I learned that bribing spouses, aunties, writing support groups, friends, air-conditioning repairmen, fianc├ęs of friends’ daughters, and people I met on the street to attend these events was not egoistical; it was essential. 

Still, I wouldn’t have missed that summer; my biggest thrill as a writer is hearing those magical words, “Would you please sign my book?”


A 270-word excerpt from "Of Course, I'd Be Glad to Sign Your Book" was published untitled in the Bylines 2005 Writer's Desk Calendar