Category Archives: Adults

Matthew Quick Interview

Mom,

I had the privilege to speak with Matthew Quick a few weeks ago, through my gig at School Library Journal. I wrote up the interview over there, but due to space constraints I had to cut out a lot of really interesting things that we discussed. SLJ has graciously allowed me to post the rest of my interview with Quick here. I was particularly anxious to publish his answer to my first question, as it’s something that you and I have talked a lot about.

I think I’ve edited this so that it makes sense by itself, but you (and our readers) should probably read the original SLJ piece first anyway.

Me: I’ve been furiously rereading some of your older stuff over the last couple of days – actually I had never read Sorta Like a Rock Star and I just read that in I think about 3 hours last night and really enjoyed it. One of the things I noticed and it’s present in Silver Linings too is the role of Catholicism and religion. It’s really rare to find a YA book that takes religion really seriously when it isn’t a “Christian” novel. I wonder what you think about that in terms of YA literature or in terms of how it works in that book.

MQ: I did an event in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Free Library, and I remember a nun showed up in the audience and during my talk she was looking at me and beaming and afterwards she came up to me and said I am Amber Appleton [from Sorta Like a Rock Star], I am your character, and she said “tell me that you’re Catholic.” And I said “I’m not.” And she said “noooo” but I quickly told her that I married into a Catholic family and my wife’s great-great uncle was Br. Andre Bessette of Montreal who was just canonized so it’s kind of like having Catholic Rock Star Royalty in your family. But I was raised protestant in a Methodist Church and my parents were pretty serious about that. And my grandfather was a big church guy and he had me pegged very early on as a minister.

But growing up I was always at church – that’s where I learned about stories. Religion, particularly protestant religion, was ingrained in me from a very early age. And I went to college and I studied the religions of the world. I’ve always been one to ponder the big questions and the religious background that my parents gave me was a starting point for me so I return to it often in my work. I think also I’m intrigued by Catholicism because I can were that mask and it’s a little less personal. I haven’t written a Protestant character I felt like maybe I would have the temptation to be autobiographical.

I’ve had religious kids write me about Forgive Me Leonard Peacock [about] Lauren who’s the Christian girl –  a lot of that stuff is taken from things I experienced in my youth: the passing out of tracts and I think there’s a little bit of a wild story about what happens if your let your friends go to hell. And that was all stuff that was very real to me in my early teens. I don’t attend church now but I consider myself to be a pretty spiritual person and those big questions are still really important to me.

I had one girl write me who said “I love Leonard Peacock but it’s obvious you haven’t spent a lot of time around Christian people” I wrote her back and said “that was my entire childhood.”

Me: I think that segment of fundamentalists is kind of obscure to a lot of people and it maybe seems like a caricature when you write it in a book like that, and you think “people don’t really believe that, do they?”

MQ: But they do. In fact many of my family members do. I think if you know, you know. I say that a lot when I write about mental health too: if you know, you know. There are some characters that are very authentic to some members of the mental health community that others don’t see because they don’t know those characters in real life, they have a hard time engaging with them. And I think it’s true whenever you write honestly about something – not everybody’s going to be able to make that equivalent with someone in their life. But I think that’s why we read so we can learn about different people and look at it from different points of view.

Me: That’s something as a critic I can get into trouble with, where I say “I don’t know these people, I haven’t had this experience so it must not be very realistic. Matthew Quick must not have done a very good job of it”.

MQ: It’s always frustrating, especially when you write about marginalized people but it’s even more frustrating for me, especially when I hear teachers saying things like that because those kids are in your classroom, and if you’re going to make dismissive comments about my characters that means you’re also making dismissive comments about people your interact with.

But I saw that again and again when I was teaching. There are just some teachers who didn’t believe that there were Leonard Peacocks in the building.

I found as a high school English teacher as soon as you gave a kid permission to tell the truth, they always told the truth. As long as they felt comfortable and you gave them permission. I just think that we tell kids “don’t be who you are, conform, and be somebody else.” And then we’re surprised when they explode.

Me: The Good Luck of Right Now is told in the form of letters written to Richard Gere. Letters seem to play a prominent role in a lot of your books–the Haikus in Sorta Like a Rock Star, the letters from Tiffany in Silver Linings–is there anything there or am I pulling out a random coincidence.

MQ: I was always writing, even at a young age. I had a penpal when I was in my early teens, through college. I’ve always found –I’m kind of a secret introvert—I’m most comfortable alone in a room. I also feel a lot more comfortable in letters than in conversations. And I think a letter is so interesting because you can take the time to say what you really mean.

And reading someone else’s letters—a letter that you did not write and that wasn’t addressed to you—is a really great window into somebody’s psyche. It’s a kind of “emotional pornography”– it’s very intense, it’s voyeuristic, but you can get to know someone very well.

I also think, you know, we live in an age of email and text messages and twitter and it’s increasingly hard for us to interact with each other face-to-face. I think when we write letters, it’s a time to slow down, maybe a time to correspond in way that we don’t usually do in real life. And I think it’s a little more intense too.

Me: [I asked Quick for his thoughts on the movie of Silver Linings Playbook]

MQ: David O Russell’s motivation for the film was his son. He wanted to make a movie that would give his son hope. His son had dealt with some pretty serious depression. He was coming at it from the opposite end. Robert De Niro too, as fathers—I was writing it as a son and they were coming at it as fathers. So they kind of flipped it around a little.

I’m a huge David O Russell fan. I said to myself “you’re going to learn a lot from this”. When I sold the film rights, I had been living with my in-laws for three years and I hadn’t received a paycheck in all that time. When I got that option movie it allowed me to buy some dignity. My wife and I were able to live for the first time as fiction writers and pay our own rent. To me it was all about being grateful that my book got a lot of exposure and remembering that I’m a novelist and not a moviemaker.

I’m eternally grateful to David and to Harvey Weinstein. And you start to realize how lucky you are. I have a lot of friends who are writers some of them are 10, 15, 20 years older than I am who have never had a break like this. And that is not lost on me. Because they are fantastic writers, they’re good people, they’re people who’ve helped me out tremendously, and I can’t answer why did I get picked. It’s important to remain humble and grateful and to realize as a fiction writer it’s an almost impossible task to make your living and so when these things come along, you just have to be grateful.

Me: Did you get to meet Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence?

MQ: I met everyone except Jennifer Lawrence. I met Robert De Niro he was incredibly humble. Bradley Cooper – I met with him several times, and he plugged my book everywhere and that was not lost on me. He said “why wouldn’t I?” It was really classy, because it wasn’t his job to plug that. I was very appreciative of that.

I got to do a lot of interviews with David. I spent more time with David than any of the actors.

But I’m much happier getting an email like I did today from some kid who’s heard me and my story’s helped them out [see the SLJ interview] than I am going to the Oscars.

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Sarah’s 2013

Mark,

I was just working on my own stats when I saw your post. I’m humbled by your prowess!

I read 127 books in 2013, which is a pretty typical year for me.

The breakdowns:

74 YA and children’s books–mostly YA; 53 Adult books.

35 by male authors; 92 by female authors.

111 fiction; 16 nonfiction.

86 were published in 2013 or 2014.

I only read a couple of graphic novels–one fiction, one nonfiction, and one poetry collection, which I lumped in with nonfiction.
Favorites:

I want to start by mentioning a book I read at the end of 2012 and reviewed for AB4T: Eight Girls Taking Pictures, By Whitney Otto. I read it too late in the year to nominate it for the best of the year list, and in any case, I think it has limited (though real) teen appeal. But this book has been my reader’s advisory triumph of 2013. I recommended it to four different women (including your wife), and each one of them came back to me afterwards to tell me how much they had loved the book and how much it meant to them. Considering how much reader’s advisory we all do with no feedback whatsoever, that’s obviously a success! What was intriguing to me was how each reader noticed and commented on different aspects of the book: father/daughter relationships, mother/child relationships, art/life, career/family, and more.

This year, I read my first Maisie Dobbs book, by Jacqueline Winspear. I know Maisie Dobbs was an Alex winner back when it was new (10 years ago) but I hadn’t read any of the books until this year, when I read the first five.  I also went back and read some of Kate Atkinson’s earlier books in the Jackson Brodie series: Case Histories and Started Early, Took My Dog.  I’m planning to read more of both series.

I also indulged myself by listening to Jim Dale’s masterful productions of all seven Harry Potter books . Thanks to my library’s Overdrive subscription, they were my near-constant companions for a couple of months this fall, while I was knitting some rather large Christmas gifts! It was really pretty fascinating to listen to all seven books in a row, and see the connections.

I feel like I’m way behind on reading Printz-worthy books, and I didn’t really push myself too much this year.  Books that are still rattling around in my brain months later include Black Helicopters  (Woolston),  Yellowcake  (Lanagan), Charm and Strange (Kuehn), Picture Me Gone (Rosoff), and September Girls (Madison).

Books I don’t think have a chance at the Printz but that I personally loved included Just One Year (Forman), The Beginning of Everything (Schneider), and Fangirl (Rowell).

Books we’ll want to talk about in 2014 include Laurie Halse Anderson’s upcoming The Impossible Knife of Memory, and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars.

I see I didn’t read much science fiction or fantasy this year.

And, as always, I wish I had read more nonfiction, although percentage-wise, it’s a pretty typical amount: 12.5% of my reading. I anticipate correcting that in 2014, when I will be on YALSA’s Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults committee. (Of course, although I’ll be reading plenty of YA nonfiction, I won’t be discussing it here.)

– Mom

 

 

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2013 Wrap Up

Mom,

We did this last year, so I thought we’d do it again. In last year’s post I said: “Next year will in all likelihood be back down in the 100s, for my own and my wife’s sanity.” That . . . didn’t happen.

Statistics

Books Read: 279

Gender Breakdown:

  • Female authors: 141
  • Male Authors: 132
  • Both male and female authors: 6

Genre Breakdowns

  • Fiction: 220
  • Nonfiction: 59
  • GNs: 32
  • Poetry: 7
  • Short Story Collections: 7
  • Plays: 6

Age Breadown

  • Adult: 138
  • YA: 83
  • Children’s: 58

Books Published in 2013 or 2014: 178

Favorites

I feel like I’ve talked endlessly about my favorite Adult Books 4 Teens, teen books, and children’s books, so in lieu of listing overlapping favorites, I’m going to leave this year by briefly mentioning my favorite books that I wasn’t able to discuss, generally because they were adult books without teen appeal, were published prior to 2013, or both.

1. The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noemi Szecsi. A brilliant adult book with absolutely no teen appeal, more about language and Hungarian culture than vampires. Hilarious.

2. Between My Father and the King by Janet Frame. Previously uncollected and unpublished short stories by New Zealand’s greatest writer. Unpublished stuff unusually stays unpublished for a reason, but not in this case–these are amazing stories.

3. Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law by Joe Mazzone. One of my favorite pet issues–which I did get to discuss in the context of Phil Lapsley’s Exploding the Phone. IP is arcane and difficult, but utterly crucial for all of us living in the digital world to understand.

4. Mr. Posterior and the Genius Child by Emily Jenkins. Jenkins/Lockhart’s sole adult book is just as good as anything she’s done for teens and children.

5. The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner. The story of the creation of Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary. No seriously, it’s fascinating.

6. Tenderness, Heroes, and Tunes for Bears to Dance To by Robert Cormier. I went on a little Cormier kick in October which confirmed for me that he remains one of the towering greats of YA literature.

7. Early Modern Playhouse Manuscripts and the Editing of Shakespeare by Paul Werstine. Throughout most of the 20th Century, editors based their editions of Shakespeare on a set of assumptions about the way plays were transferred from the author to the playhouse to the printing house. These assumptions turn out to be almost entirely baseless when you look at the actual manuscripts which we still have access to. Werstine does look at them, and demolishes most of 20th Century editing in the process.

8. A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry. Lowry’s first novel. I was stunned at how much of her greatness was already apparent.

9. Revolutionary Summer The Birth of American Independence
by Joseph J. Ellis. A history of the summer of 1776, looking at the parallel’s between Washington’s military battles and Jefferson and Adams’s political ones.

10. The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno. A decidely minor, but nonetheless engrossing, postmodern detective story.

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The Art of the Memoir

Mark,

I have been thinking lately about what makes a successful memoir. This came up because I recently read two memoirs, and they made for an interesting contrast. The two new books I read were Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates; and Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke, by Rob Sheffield. To test my theories, I also re-read Jack Gantos’s Printz-honor winning memoir, Hole in My Life. 

I have thought for years that memoir is a particularly difficult literary form. For one thing, to be effective, a memoir has to have a structure–it can’t just be “I did this, then I did that.” The best memoirs have a theme, and/or focus on only one relatively small part of the author’s life. All three of these books do that, to some extent.

Gantos tells the story of the years when he was about ages 17-20, in which he finished high school living on his own in a welfare motel, then got a job sailing 2000 pounds of hashish from St. Croix to New York, then got arrested and jailed for it, served his time, and started college and his writing career. Sheffield focuses on karaoke and how his love for it helped bring him out of the funk he was in after his first wife died (when they were both 31), and led him to his second wife. He uses a frame device of a night of karaoke to tell his personal story, as well as the story of karaoke and of some of the music involved. Bates is an English professor who spent more than ten years teaching Shakespeare in prisons, including in super-maximum security facilities and focuses on one particular prison and one particular prisoner.

So far, so good. However, even on this initial criterion, Bates stumbles by failing to keep it tightly focused. She can’t quite seem to decide if the story is about herself and her writing/teaching/volunteering, about prisons, about Shakespeare, or about Larry Newton, the prisoner. In fact, the longer the book goes, the more she veers into the story of Newton, and the less interesting it gets, in many ways. I would have been quite happy to have had the whole book be about just the prisoners and Shakespeare–how they interpreted the plays, their discussions, and so on. Although even there, I was a little irritated by her constant assertions that Newton had come up with brand-new, never-before-heard-of interpretations of Shakespeare. Really? After 500 years and thousands upon thousands of Shakespeare scholars, no one has ever discussed that particular aspect? Well, she’s the one with a PhD in Shakespeare studies, so maybe she’s right, but I somehow doubt it.Shakespeare

I have decided that there is another critical component of the well-written memoir: the author has to be able to tell stories  without coming across as completely full of himself/herself. On that score, Gantos soars, Sheffield does pretty well, and Bates flounders. She can’t seem to tell a story without patting herself on the back. Even the stories about mistakes turn into stories about what a great recovery she made.

Gantos, in contrast, has got self-deprecation down to an artform. He is honest, straightforward, and absolutely hilarious. His story about the days after his arrest, when his face broke out in a massive acne attack, and how he squeezed the zits: “This was very satisfying, this cleansing ritual. I’d punish my face as if I were a cop roughing up a suspect for a confession. . . . I figured my face was the landscape of my attitude.” Brilliant! Gross, but funny and very, very true. Hole

The whole book is like that–an unflinching look at himself at one particular time in his life, when he made a whole series of stupid decisions, but somehow managed to land on his feet. Running throughout is his love of literature and his desire to write. I’m glad I re-read this, because it is wonderful, funny, touching, and beautifully written. I’ll be interested to see how it fares when you get to 2003 in your What Should’ve Won series.

Rob Sheffield is cut much more in the Gantos mode than in the Bates mode. I read and loved his first memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, which was the story of his life with his first wife, told through the lens of the mix tapes they made for one another. Sheffield writes for Rolling Stone, and he obviously loves popular music in all its many variations. To some extent, Sheffield can’t quite decide if this is a book about karaoke, or if it’s a story about his life. There were a couple of chapters that, while delightful, didn’t really fit into the overall arc of the story. But he has a way of pulling you along, especially if you know any of the music he’s talking about.

Bright eyesLike Gantos, he can be absolutely unflinching when talking about his own foibles. His chapter about going to a rock and roll fantasy camp is hilarious: he can’t sing, can’t play and instrument, and even has trouble with the tambourine (including massive bruises on his thighs). He can’t even talk to the  rock musicians who are at the camp without feeling stupid. He says:

“Why am I like this? Is it because I want to show off? Is it because I want extra credit for all my extra listening? Is it an ego thing where I’m trying to impress them with obnoxiously knowledgeable insights? Or is it because I want to reassure them their lifetime of music was spent wisely? I really don’t know. But remembering which dude in which band sang which song, or knowing every dusty nook and cranny of their discography–it’s like an obnoxious party trick I can’t stop doing.”

Later in the same section he says, “The possibility that I’m a dick, not for the first time this week, hovers before me.”

I don’t think a memoir has to be funny in order to be good, but I do think that a memoir writer has to have a sense of humor about himself, and acknowledge his failures as well as his successes.

I know you’re not much of a fan of the memoir/biography/autobiography form, but any thoughts on the subject?

– Mom

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Bad Covers

Mom,

Yeah, expectations can be a tricky thing, and are the subject of what I was planning on writing about yesterday morning when I saw your post.  So I’ll just keep to it: bad covers.  We’ve talked about covers before: how to judge a book by its cover and why NBA Winner Goblin Secrets changed its cover while still in hardcover.  But today I want to talk about the truly terrible covers of a couple of books I read over the weekend–terrible both because I think the artwork is atrocious and because I think they give entirely misleading expectations to the prospective reader.

janet frameThe first is a “new” story collection by Janet Frame called Between My Father and the King. I put new in quotations marks because, of course, she’s been dead for a decade, but it is new in the sense that these stories have never been collected before (and many of them never published).  First, take a look at the cover to the right and think about what it might be about.  If you’ve never read Frame before, her writing can be bitingly sarcastic, heartbreakingly moving, and formally inventive.  She writes sharply about her childhood, her time in a mental institution, the hypocricies of small-town life and much, much more.  None of that is even vaguely hinted at by this dreadfully boring photograph of the New Zealand countryside (or at least, I hope it is New Zealand, since Frame is New Zealand’s preeminent writer). 

a-corner-of-whiteThe other book I read over the weekend was Jaclyn Moriarty’s A Corner of White, which was suggested by our friend Beth Fama, though she hasn’t read it yet.  I read the Janet Frame collection because I know she is great and I’ve read one of her novels.  In the case of the Moriarty novel, if I hadn’t been stuck on a plane for five hours on Friday, I wouldn’t have read it at all.  Honestly, I was embarrassed to be reading it.  The novel itself is funny, with a distinct hint of Pratchett, with a nice metafictional conceit–Elliott, who lives in the magical Kingdom of Cello, and Madeleine, who lives in The World (that is, the “real” world) begin to communicate by letter through a crack between the worlds.  But Madeleine is convinced that she is communicating with a fellow real-world teen with an overactive imagination, and quickly begins critiquinig the more cliched aspects of Cello’s fantasy world.  There’s much more to the book, and I quite recommend taking a look at it.  But the point is: that cover!  It looks like it’s advertising a direct-to-DVD Disney movie or something.  The sparklering stars! The flying umbrella! The red rain boots!  None of that has anything to do with the novel, by the way. 

corner of white2As I was looking for a jpg of the cover for the novel, I noticed that there’s another cover out there.  Moriarty is Australian, so presumably this is the original cover.  I’m not terribly crazy about this cover either, but at least 1) the rainbow has something to do with the plot (too complicated to explain), and 2) the photograph is mildly aesthetically pleasing.

Anyway, I don’t particularly want to get into a discussion of the worst covers ever, or anything, but the connection between these books gave me a good excuse to let you know what I’ve been reading, and, as I said, I think it ties into questions of expectations, since in both cases, the intended target audience of the cover art is a very different group from the intended audience of the book.

Mark

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Monica Never Shuts Up

Mom,

monicaSo, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but AS King has a book of short stories out–it’s aimed at adults, and was originally only available as an ebook but at the prodding of myself and some other librarians who wanted to buy it for our collections, Amy put it out in paperback as well.  

Anyway–it is fantastic.  Twelve very short stories (the whole thing comes in under 100 pages), each one a tiny gem.  In a lot of ways, the short story is the perfect venue for Amy’s talents, because (as you and I have both noted elsewhere) her gifts for characterization are such that it only takes a line or two for the reader to completely believe in the character.  With that kind of talent, it’s almost superfluous to write a 300 page novel, when 8 or so pages can get the same level of depth. 

I can’t see any particular reason not to recommend the book to teen who love her novels, but I do see why she is calling it an adult collection.  The stories are bleak. A compulsive liar; a thief and hoader; a little boy who knows the exact time everyone will die and a little girl who knows how; a man (and then his son) sent to a distant planet as a punishment for littering: pretty much every premise is depressing.  That said, the point of the stories seems to be finding the moments of hope, humanity, and love within these bleak situations.  Many, if not all, of these stories are quite heart-breakingly beautiful.  There’s somewhat less of Amy’s trademark humor (hence, the bleakness), but that’s there as well, particularly in the first and last stories.

It would be a little tedious to try to describe the plots of each of the stories, so I’ll just say–go read it (if you haven’t already).  You can by it in various e-formats here, or  pick up a print copy from Amazon.

– Mark

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