One of Reading Group Choices' Featured Books for the month of September is The Legacy by Katherine Webb. Here we get a peek at Katherine’s story of her first novel, favorite authors, and loves and qualms about being a writer!
For book club members, using an interview of an author during a meeting can bring interesting points to your discussion that you may not have thought of with just the novel as a reference. For example discuss the setting of The Legacy after reading why Katherine chose it!
1. When and why did you begin writing?
I started to write as a child – I was always coming up with stories - and I won several poetry and prose competitions at school and college. I did start to write a fantasy novel in my teens, but quickly abandoned it! I sat down to start my first “proper” novel after a post graduate course I'd enrolled on was cancelled, and I found myself in the north east of England with little idea of what to do next. I finished it having moved to Venice, and started the next one straight away.
2. Who has influenced your writing?
This is such a hard question to answer! I'm sure all writers like to think that their voice comes entirely from within, but I'm also sure that we're all a product of everything we've ever read, all the people we've met and the experiences we've had. My mother cultivated a love of reading in me at a very young age, and introduced me to a wide variety of excellent books, so I would say that she has been very influential.
3. Who is your favorite author?
There are so many! I love Helen Dunmore, Joanne Harris, Kate Atkinson, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood and Terry Pratchett.
4. Why does your book make a good holiday read?
I've always thought that a good holiday read should be one that you can take the time to really get caught up in; one that draws you deeply into a story and transports you to different places. I hope that The Legacy embodies these characteristics.
5. Why did you pick the setting/settings for this book?
The modern day strand of the book is set in a faded English manor house during a spell of bitter winter weather. This is a place that has changed very little since my characters, Erica and Beth, spent time there as children, and I wanted them to feel somewhat isolated and cut off from the rest of the world; the house being almost like a time capsule where they are beset by memories, and forced to confront their demons.
The historical strand is set in Oklahoma Territory, in the USA, between 1902 and 1904. I wanted my character, Caroline, who has left New York to marry a cattle rancher, to find herself in the real wild west – an untamed place of vast landscapes and harsh conditions that would be a real challenge for her to adjust to. Because the area had been reserved for Native American tribes until the last years of the nineteenth century, Oklahoma Territory remained relatively untamed in the early twentieth century, when a lot of the prairie elsewhere had been cultivated and settled by white farmers by then, and opened up by the railways.
6. How long did it take you to write this book?
The first draft took about ten months to complete, including all the historical research beforehand. I tend to write very quickly, once I'm under way. I then worked on a final draft with my editor at Orion, which took another two or three months.
7. What are the best and worst things about being a writer?
The best thing has to be the satisfaction of creating a story and characters from scratch, and seeing both of them come to life. I also love the research involved in writing a historical storyline. I love the chance to keep learning.
The worst thing would have to be finding the will power to stay at your desk on a sunny day and get that word count up, when all you want to do is walk to the pub or lounge about in the garden.
Katherine Webb grew up in rural Hampshire, England. She has lived in London and Venice, and she currently resides in Berkshire, England. Having worked as a waitress, au pair, personal assistant, potter, bookbinder, library assistant, and housekeeper at a manor house, she now writes full-time.
Hi everyone! I’m Laura and will be continuing the blog my Aunt Barbara loved so much. Whether it is an author interview, a new intriguing book, or even a dress made out of book pages, I look forward to sharing and discussing all aspects of book clubs with all you book lovers! Click here to learn more about me.
Kate Spade has done it again!
In a previous post, Kate Spade's purse designs were highlighted -- The Great Gatsy by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
Now, there are more literary clutches. Pride and Prejudice and Emma by Jane Austen, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
Cool and hip. I Married Adventure is very on-trend -- a zebra print background!
Just in time for holiday gift-giving!
" . . . I don’t look forward to a future in which my Kindle (or whatever device inevitably succeeds it) is the only book on the shelf. But it’s a future I’m fairly convinced is awaiting us, and it’s one that I, as a consumer, am playing my part in advancing us toward. There are moments when I wish I could follow the lead of Borges’ retired librarian and bury my book of sand on some obscure shelf in a library basement and just forget all about it. But then I realize that the thing is just too useful, too crazily convenient a tool to not embrace. And then I tell myself that it’s not possible, anyway, to shelve the advance of technology, and that history is filled with examples of beautiful things being supplanted by more efficient versions of those things. Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save."
Great article by Mark O'Connell yesterday in The Millions blog The E-Reader of Sand: The Kindle and the Inner Conflict Between Consumer and Booklover.
I agree with O'Connell -- don't pull against progress. Enjoy it and be creative with it.
What do you think? Are eReaders enhancing your reading -- making books more convenient thus reading more?
Author On the Bookcase
I'm excited to welcome Mara Purl, author of The Milford-Haven Novels, to On the Bookcase. Milford-Haven is a fictitious town on California's Central Coast. Pre-9/11, housing is on the rise, the stock market is booming, and Milford-Haven is full of the upwardly mobile pouring out of Los Angeles in search of a fresh start or a weekend getaway. The novels are based on Purl's BBC Radio drama Milford-Haven U.S.A.
The first in the Milford-Haven series, What the Heart Knows, features Miranda Jones. Artist Miranda begins to trust her heart enough to escape from her life of privilege and start over in Milford-Haven. Now that she's moved, deeper questions surface: What is her life purpose? What's missing? And what does her heart know that her head keeps ignoring? Miranda connects with environmentalist Samantha Hugo -- a brilliant PhD twenty years her senior who gave up a son years earlier and with restaurant owner Sally O'Mally who left Arkansas to create her own dream. Each woman wrestles with her own core issues while balancing demanding careers. What happens in Milford-Haven when journalist Christine Christian is found murdered while investigating a half-built house?
Look for the sign to Milford-Haven, pull off Highway 1 and discover for yourself . . . What the Heart Knows.
Mara chats about her Author Chat with a book club and how her "characters became springboards for philosophical considerations and self-examination" during the book club discussion.
Mara, what does your heart know?
When I think of book clubs, I think of a special evening when I was the guest of a group in Thousand Oaks, California. The meeting was held at a beautiful home nestled in the hills. Spacious and comfortable, the home was also fragrant with cooking aromas when I arrived.
After being welcomed, I was invited to sit at a large dining table where the group of twelve women assembled. Our plates were heaped with a sumptuous array of perfectly cooked foods, and as we began to share the meal, one of the book club members introduced me formally.
It soon became clear that not only had everyone there read my book; each had read it carefully and apparently made notes, as notebooks and index cards, and print-outs of the Reading Guide from the Reading Group Choices website began appearing next to their plates. The first volley of questions were about story details: Why did Samantha, an environmentalist, drive a Jeep Cherokee? Why was Miranda, obviously attracted to Zack, suspicious of his behavior? The second set of questions were aimed more at larger writing issues. Did I really believe I could keep developing so many characters? How did I plan to inform readers who started with book three what had already happened in the series?
Some of their questions put me on the hot seat, but I experienced it as more of a “warm” seat—a comfortable place to be, gratified by their obviously genuine interest. But as dinner finished and desert was being served, things got even more interesting. Now the characters and their experiences became springboards for philosophical considerations and self-examination. Now we were a group of women interested in working on our lives, talking through issues, and revealing deep feelings.
We were women who’d moved from our heads to our hearts. And this was the most thrilling part of the evening for me. For this is the theme of my entire series, and the reason book one is titled What the Heart Knows. In our culture, we’re not only encouraged to “use our heads,” but admonished that the only way to get ahead is to use smart tactics and learn how to strategize. This is all to the good!
Yet, when it comes to “following our hearts,” we’re often advised we’re being “overly emotional,” “immature,” or just “foolish.” I believe the heart—our intuition, our instincts, our gut-feelings—can offer information that is every bit as valuable as what our heads have to tell us. So I challenged myself: what would life look like for a character who began to listen to what her heart says? This is my protagonist’s journey. And, to some extent, it’s the journey of each character in Milford-Haven.
The thrill of that evening with the book club was that the very questions I had posed for my characters, were the questions my readers were now posing for themselves. On the surface, my books are good reads because they entertain and provide escape—something we all need from time to time. But beneath the surface, these deeper issues swim patiently, waiting for a chance to surface.
At the end of the evening, I felt not only physically full, but emotionally and intellectually well-fed. The book we’d discussed that night happened to be one of mine, but the experience went far beyond the content available between the covers of the book. Indeed what had happened was the book had become a window into the heart.
Thanks so much, Mara! Reading groups love to extend their book discussions outward to their lives and the world.
Bonus for Reading Group Choices Fans!
A Milford-Haven Single
Read When Hummers Dream, Mara's prequel to the first novel in her series. This is your chance to read the story before the story. . . .
also includes the Prologue and Chapter One of What the Heart Knows.
Praise for The Milford-Haven Novels
"In Mara Purl's books the writing is crisp and clean, the dialogue realistic, the scenes well described. I salute her ingenuity."
—Bob Johnson, Former Managing Editor, The Associated Press
Mara Purl pioneered small-town fiction for women with her popular and critically acclaimed Milford-Haven Novels. Her beloved fictitious town has been delighting audiences since 1992, when it first appeared as Milford-Haven, U.S.A.©—the first American radio drama ever licensed and broadcast by the BBC. The show reached an audience of 4.5 million listeners throughout the U.K.
Early editions of Mara's novels have won fifteen gold and finalist literary awards including the Benjamin Franklin, the Indie Excellence, the USA Book News Best Book, and the ForeWord Book of the Year. Mara's other writing credits include plays, screenplays, scripts for Guiding Light, cover stories for Rolling Stone, staff writing with the Financial Times (of London), and the Associated Press. She is the co-author (with Erin Gray) of Act Right.
As an actress, Mara was "Darla Cook" on Days Of Our Lives. She was named one of twelve Women of the Year by the Los Angeles County Commission for Women.
Learn more about Mara and Milford-Haven.
Author On the Bookcase
Susan Gregg Gilmore
Thrilled to welcome Susan Gregg Gilmore, author of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, to On the Bookcase. Susan novel's tells the story of Bezellia Grove, the daughter of Nashville's most prominent families. She is expected to embrace her position in high society. Nobody in Nashville has a bigger name to live up to than. In 1960's Nashville, relationships are complicated, where society remains neatly ordered by class, status and skin color. Bezellia and Samuel, son of her nanny, and the family's handyman, have a clandestine affair. Their romance is met with anger and fear from both families. In a time and place where rebelling against the rules carries a steep price. Bezellia must decide whether it’s her heart or her heritage that define her.
The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove was born at a dinner table. As a Southern girl whose family always valued the preparation of the meal as much as its consumption, this seemed like the perfect birthplace for a Southern story.
Truth be told, I was at a dinner party shortly after moving back to my hometown of Nashville when a woman at the table introduced herself as "Zee," a nickname for Bezellia (although she spells her name another way). I was immediately taken with the name, its rhythm and melody, and I knew at that moment there was a strong girl waiting for me who could propel a story forward on her own.
At about the same time, I was touring a home in Nashville that I had often played in as a child. It was a beautiful house directly across the street from my childhood home, but this was the first time I had ever walked into the basement. When I got downstairs, I stood still, breathless even. In front of me were six rooms - cinder-block walls, no windows, double locks on the doors.
It's not that I was unaware of racial inequality growing up in Tennessee. I was. Believe me, I was. It pained me then as a small child. And it pains me now. But seeing these rooms and realizing that while I was happily playing upstairs a very different world existed literally beneath my feet left me very, very disturbed.
I walked away understanding that I had to come to terms with the South I knew, the South I saw, in my way. And the only way I knew to do that was to tell a story. And thankfully, I had already found a girl with a very big name who was going to help me do what needed to be done.
Just yesterday I received an email from a reader who told me that she had grown up in the South during those final dark hours before the Civil Rights Movement really took hold.
She said reading The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove "had been like a window into the past reliving all these memories through Bezellia." What more could I have ever hoped for?
In celebration of National Reading Group Month, Susan is talking to book clubs in October. Details on Susan's website.
Thanks, Susan! Identity, sense of place, race relations -- great fodder for reading groups!
“Nobody knows how to weave a spell better than Susan Gregg Gilmore, as she draws us into the precarious childhood and complicated life of poor little rich girl Bezellia Grove, whose path winds through some of the South’s darkest woods—race, class, insanity—familiar ground for a Southern novel? Not so fast—surprises await. This novel is a pure enchantment.”—Lee Smith, author of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger and The Last Girls
Susan Gregg Gilmore has written for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. Gilmore currently lives in Chattanooga with her family.
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everything in between
Take it away, Michele and Cara!
Michele: I have some questions I’m dying to ask you.
Michele: So, So Much Pretty, is seriously one of the best books that I've read in years. I thought the small town was perfectly eerie and amazingly portrayed. The descriptions were active to the point that I didn’t feel like I was reading description!
Cara: Thank you. I'm really flattered, especially since that's coming from someone who can write the small town with such evocativeness.
Michele: Were you inspired by events/crimes you covered while a journalist?
Cara: Yes. It was a crime that actually happened in a more suburban area.
Michele: Wow! I loved the surprise ending. Did you know how the book would end when you were writing it?
Cara: I knew the ending before I knew anything else.
Michele: Was the ending what "really happened" or no? I ask b/c I NEVER know endings.
Cara: The book was partly based on an abduction/murder. The ending is kind of a logical conclusion to those events given the nature of the characters. Michele, do people ask you constantly about surviving a lightning strike?
Michele: You bet, but in this case, the fiction is better than the facts. I was "really" struck by lightning, but the "facts" of what happened to me were too boring for my novel.
Cara: God!! I assume you weren't struck twice
So what really happened???
Michele: I was knocked unconscious, age 11, but then regained consciousness at some point. We were in my parents' driveway and I was struck and my mom was there. We were both in such shock, like total real shock, that we actually drove to the mall--which is what we'd intended to do when we went outside that day.
Cara: Wow. Did you get any medical attention?
Michele: NO. Which sounds crazy, but that was the best thing about researching lightning and lightning strike survivors. More than 50% of people struck do not seek medical attention, and that statistic is probably even higher. No one believes the victim, and without physical burns, there's no evidence via xray because the lightning travels through your cardiovascular system.
The National Weather Service has only started taking lightning strikes seriously in the past ten years. Nowadays, golf courses and swimming pools have much stricter rules/guidelines concerning thunder. Because if you hear thunder, you are within range of being struck. You can be up to fifteen miles from a storm and be struck. Thunder is the sound lightning makes when it comes in contact with the ground.
Cara: Apart from life experience, what made you want to use lightning strike as the central metaphor for a novel about family and intersecting fates?
Michele: I had a writing professor who said, "There are a million books about dysfunctional families and especially about dysfunctional father/daughter relationships. What is going to separate yours from theirs?” I love magical realism so I thought that the lightning would enable me to do both. Cara, is your second novel also based on a story you covered while a journalist?
Cara: No. It's about the Iraq war and adjusting to coming home and living in a family again.
Michele: Ooh, that sounds fascinating. I guess you are doing a lot of research?
Cara: I'm doing some research--a lot of it not about the war. The book focuses on sibling relationships and trauma. Michele, are you working on a new book?
Michele: I'm working on a third book. Sarah, our editor, and I are going to decide this fall if the second or the third novel is the next to meet the reading world. I think we'll go with the third novel, but since I haven't finished it, we shall see. The third novel has more of an international appeal.
Cara: hmmm. Very curious. Can you talk about it?
Michele: Both the second and third novels explore violence against women. The third novel, The Saints of Los Vientos, tells parallel stories of two girls born with wings: one in Lithuania during WWII, and one in Florida in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Cara: Really interesting.
Michele: The girls are related and connected by more than wings. And the second novel is another "parallel" story about a woman in the 1960s as a teenager and as an adult in the 1970s. It's a love story where the man-woman relationship is the least healthy.
Cara: Do you work on your manuscripts simultaneously?
Michele: No. I can't look at the second book again until I am done with a complete first draft of the third. Otherwise, I would go seriously bonkers.
Cara: Ha. You must have a rigorous schedule
MIchele: I write every day. How long did it take you to write So Much Pretty?
Cara: A little over a year.
Michele: Did it take you a long time to find an agent and editor?
Cara: I was very lucky. My agent Rebecca Friedman picked up the manuscript immediately. It took about five or six months to sell. Which seemed, at the time, like a long time.
Michele: Did you do a lot of edits with Rebecca?
Cara: Very few. She's an incredible reader and has real insight. I have been so happy working with her.
Michele: That's awesome. And I'm sure, like me, you love working with Sarah at S & S. She was my editor at Shaye Areheart/RH, and I trusted her so implicitly, all I wanted to do was to work with her again. Cara, another thing I was wondering: well, two things: I really related to Claire and Gene, in So Much Pretty. Was there a character from So Much Pretty that you really related to (more than the others), and while writing the darker parts of the story, did you internalize any of the emotions, like was it difficult? Did you feel depressed, etc.?
Cara: I do love working with Sarah. It's a great process. As far as the characters in So Much Pretty are concerned, I guess it's no revelation that I related to Stacy Flynn. The reporter. But you know, you really feel all your characters’ emotions whether you want to or not. There were certainly hard scenes to write, and those scenes and the research I was doing on violence made some days pretty difficult. Michele, the parts of your novel that were so moving to me had to do with Buckley and his mom. They were so sad and also edifying. Was it hard to be with Buckley when you were making his life hard?
Michele: Yes. It was really hard being with Buckley. I love the characters Abigail and Clementine, and when I wrote the lightning scene with Bo, the dog, I sobbed. I didn't want to write it. While working on this third novel, I had the worst nightmare I've ever had. I couldn't wake up and every time I thought I was awake, I was still in the nightmare. It was terrifying, and I couldn't figure out where the dream came from, and then when I sat down at the computer the next day, I reread what I'd written the day before, and OMG, but it was a terrible violent scene where I'd had to imagine myself in this horrid predicament, and I'd been so immersed, it'd sunk into my subconscious.
Cara: Yes. It really gets you! I've had those kinds of nightmares before. A long time ago when I was travelling I had several nightmares in which I “woke” into another dream. The tip off that I was still asleep was that a dog started talking to me.
Michele: That's a riot. Thank goodness for that dog! So, I have to ask: Are you having trouble with the social media stuff like Facebooking and Tweeting and having a website? Or is it hard for you to read and talk in public?
Cara: I guess I'd prefer to be writing novels than using twitter. I think of those things as a distraction mostly, but a pretty innocuous one. How about you? Are you finding the time?
Michele: I have a six-year old. I don't know. I think that publicity stuff is super hard. I'd always prefer to write. I used to get really nervous reading in public, but I'm much more relaxed now. I really enjoy what I do. I can't believe I actually get paid to tell stories! It still freaks me out. I was a school teacher for ten years (English teacher). I've had to do a lot of publicity b/c two weeks after my book came out, my publishing house, Shaye Areheart, was dissolved. It was pretty chaotic for everybody so I knew that I had to do whatever I could to spread the word about my book. I didn't want it to die.
Michele: I CAN'T WAIT to read your next book. You have such talent! When do you think you'll be ready to show it to your agent? Or is that a "jinx" kind of question?
Cara: Likewise. I'm excited to see your new work. My agent sold the new novel to Sarah at S&S a few months ago. So it's just a matter of getting the time to finish it.
Michele: Kudos! Congrats! I understand how hard it is to find the time. I'm in that same boat.
Cara: I'm very interested to see what these girls with wings do, and how you make your characters lives intersect--which was such a great strength in The Handbook.
Michele: Yeah. I can't seem to write linearly. I like to have a hundred threads and pull them together. And, this is fun: for every novel I finish, I get a tattoo, so my third novel will be a pair of wings. It's incentive to finish the book.
Cara: If you have a prolific career you will be like the illustrated man.
Michele: LAUGHING!!! The tattoo artist said to me, "You need to write faster. You need more tattoos!"
Michele: Bye, Cara. Keep in touch and best of luck to you. I am so glad Sarah gave me your book to read. I really couldn't put it down. Thank you.
Cara: Thank YOU.
And, THANK YOU, Michele and Cara! Family dynamics, faith, and nature in The Hanhbook for Lightning Strike Survivors and murder, small town secrets, and a great sense of place in So Much Pretty make both books excellent book club picks.
Michele Young-Stone earned her MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Once, many years ago, she was struck by lightning in her driveway. She survived. Michele resides in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and son and a community of great friends.
Cara Hoffman has won a New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for her work on violence and adolescents and has worked as an investigative reporter covering New York State's rural and Rust Belt communities, where she reported on environmental politics and crime.
Author On the Bookcase
I'm so thrilled to welcome Alan Cheuse -- writer, professor, NPR book reviewer -- to On the Bookcase! I met Alan at the 2011 Virginia Festival of the Book, again at the 2011 Gaithersburg Book Festival and then at the St. John's College The Art of the Book. We keep bumping into each other!
What does the word "browsing" mean to you? A computer term? Alan shares his idea of browsing -- "a form of dreaming."
The Pleasures and Necessity of Browsing
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a browser. But it didn’t begin for me with books. My maternal grandparents owned a series of cigar and cigarette shops, candy stores, we called them in the family and from an early age I’d find myself standing in front of the candy counter trying to decide among various bars of chocolate and commercial candy bars and malt balls and licorices, the decision especially difficult not because I could buy only one but because I could have any one that I choose without paying.
The same went for the comic books. My grandparents didn’t allow me more than one or two free comics a week, though when it came time for garnering an allowance by doing extra chores around the house or running errands for my parents, both of whom worked a forty hour week and in the case of my father eveb more, I’d save and purchase more and more comics.
Archie, The Heap, Superman--these were some of the books I chose. And when it came upon me, like a slow-mastering fever, that it was books, mainly fiction. that I really cared about, I increased my browsing to an exponential level. In junior high school I found my way to the only book store, little more a narrow hole in the wall, on our Jersey town’s main street, and discovered my true addiction.
My first? A paperback reprint of D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent, in the old Vintage paperback, one of the first trade paperback series. I treated this, and all subsequent purchases of these new trade reprints I made with cash from an after school job as a stock boy at a womens sportswear shop a few blocks west, as old wine in new bottles. First I held the pages up to my nose, to take in the bouquet of the paper. And then I lavished my attention on the covers, front and back, all this before I even attempted to read a word. And when I finally did begin to read such work as this, alone in my room or sprawled on the front stoop of our row house a block from the Raritan River where it flowed into Raritan Bay, I savored the sentences, even as I rushed forward into the story.
When I saved enough money I bought new fiction, too, particularly horror and science fiction. How did I know what I liked? I browsed the shelves of our local store, reading opening pages, and snippets here and there from the rest of these books. Richard Matheson became one of my favorites, along with Alfred Bester, and Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.
I worked harder and put in for longer hours so I could buy a book a week. I browsed the library shelves as well. That’s how I found, much too early in my life as an unsophisticated reader, a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that took me a number of false starts to catch up with, though I finally did, and have since reread it a few times for emphasis.
Thus I became a browser, and yes, browsing did it all. Remember the stacks of a university library, the row upon row of unanticipated pleasures you find there if you drift among them, dreamy and a little delirious with browsing? Imagine a world without bookstores, so that you could not find your attention pulled away from one cover by the enticing design of another wholly unfamiliar work of fiction by a writer about whom you’ve
Some of our greatest scientific discoveries occurred by accident. Think of Madame Curie!
A world of only on-line purchases is a world without serendipity, a world without accident, a world without spice and flavor. Think of all the good accidents we know in life, from our parents to our
siblings to our choices and how sorry we are that we can only be one traveler in certain circumstances of friends and lovers and spouses.
Browsing is a form of dreaming.
It’s the way of the old world that will make the world new.
I urge you, browse, browse!
Thanks so much, Alan! I know exactly how browsing is a exciting flight of discovery.
Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of four novels, three collections of short fiction, and the memoir Fall Out of Heaven. As a book commentator, Cheuse is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Idaho Review, and The Southern Review, among other places. He teaches in the Writing Program at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.
His new book, Song of Slaves in the Desert, traces the thread of slavery from sixteenth-century Timbuktu to the plantations of South Carolina. Song of Slaves in the Desert explores one man's struggle to understand a world where honor is in short supply yet dignity cannot be sold.
Learn more about Alan.
Sisters of the Traveling Computers
Eight great writers are going to produce a progressive novel -- like a progressive dinner! Each one will write a couple paragraphs, a chapter, two chapters (whatever strikes her fancy) round robin style without discussing it with each other. This novel-in-progress will continue through the rest of the year. The scribes are Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters), Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From The Sky), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When The Men Are Gone), Therese Fowler (Exposure), Tanya Egan Gibson (How To Buy A Love Of Reading), Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You), Sarah Pekkanen (Skipping a Beat), and Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters.) All great books for reading groups!
First installment (May 15)
By midnight, he still wasn’t home. Or he wasn’t picking up the phone, which he knew would make her frantic with worry. She couldn’t leave the Martin’s now. Already, Mrs. Martin had told her that just cleaning up after the party wasn’t enough, that she wanted her to also redust (redust!) the figurines on the mantle because “You didn’t take enough care last time.” Should she tell Mrs. Martin how Mr. Martin groped her as she trying to arrange the baby chocolate éclairs on a plate? Should she tell her how Bobby, Mrs. Martin's son, called her a stupid bitch and kicked her out of his room so she wouldn’t catch him doing Jesus knows what?
She wasn’t supposed to use her phone when she was working, but she dialed again. Maybe he was with Bette, his terrifying girlfriend. Maybe he was walking again, clearing his head about what had happened.
Second Installment (June 22)
Maria wasn’t ready to become a grandmother at 42. And that was what she said first when--with his lips trembling—Mark told her that Bette was pregnant. She should have held him. He looked so scared. How could her teenage son become a father before he had a chance to become a man?
That was just five weeks ago, and now she wouldn’t have to be a young grandmother. She wouldn’t have to watch Mark struggle to take care of a family too young. Why couldn’t Mark see the miracle in this moment?
The phone went to voicemail again.
It was a thirty-minute drive home from the Martin’s. Let him be home by then, she thought. Just please let him be safe.
Third Installment (July 1)
“Dammit!” The most ghoulish figurine, the one with the trio of black-eyed children gaping up as if caught forever in the middle of wailing some god-awful song, skittered across the Pledge-shiny mantle and shattered on the floor below.
Maria dropped to the marble and quickly swept the delicate porcelain into the dust rag. Her right knee grinded roughly and she winced, maybe she would have been old enough to have been a grandmother after all.
“What have you done?”
Maria looked up at the doorway and saw Mrs. Martin standing there in that blue dress of hers, the one that had the extra padding in the front and made the woman look top heavy enough to fall on her face. What Maria would give to see Mrs. Martin fall on her face. Though it looked like tonight just might be the night as Mrs. Martin tottered over the smooth floor toward her. Maria tried to judge the distance between the door and the mantle—would Mrs. Martin, who clearly looked like she had finished off every wine bottle in her cellar, notice the missing figurine? Should Maria pretend she was just wiping up a speck of dirt on the marble and get herself to the department store tomorrow to find one of these ridiculous chatkas, get it back on the mantle before Mrs. Martin had finished nursing her hangover and got out of bed at noon? Whenever she had broken something in the past, Mrs. Martin docked her pay a good fifty percent more that the true price of the broken item. Maria knew that vase the cat knocked over, the one she got blamed for, had been a Wal-Mart special rather than any Shannon Irish Chrystal from Macy’s, but she had let it slide.
Now she curled those shattered little goth kids into her palm. “How was the party, Mrs. Martin? Did your guests just love those éclairs?”
“I thought I heard something break in here.” Mrs. Martin seemed unsure. Then she slipped, looked like she was about to do a split and quickly righted herself. That’s what she deserved for wearing those three inch hooker heels, Maria thought. Clear heels! No one could get away with clear heels except… well, hookers. Didn’t Mrs. Martin know that a fifty year old woman had a better chance of keeping her man if she let herself age gracefully instead of buying out Victoria Secret push-up bras and over-botoxing her face?
“Did you say something broke in the kitchen? I’ll get right on it.” Maria rose, again feeling that weakness in her knee. For a moment she felt a rush of sympathy for Mrs. Martin and the skin stretched too tightly across her face, the highlighted hair that only seemed to emphasize her grey, the manic way she held her wine glass as if it’s contents was the only thing allowing her to think that she was still young and lovely in the eyes of her husband.
“The kitchen is a disaster,” the woman sneered, and Maria felt her spine straighten, her sympathy evaporate. The kitchen had been pristine ten minutes ago, all the party’s washing up done and put away. The only thing left should be a few coffee cups from the hanger-ons who pretended to sober up before drunk-driving their Hummers and Mercedes home.
“I’ll take a look before I go,” Maria whispered, eyes down. Then she glanced up, rearranging her face as sweetly as possible. “Oh, Mrs. Martin, I think Bobby wanted you to go on in and say goodnight when your guests left, he seemed like he was waiting up for you.”
Maria left the room, shoving the rag deep into her pocket. She hoped Mrs. Martin walked right in on that little pervert and caught him watching whatever sicko pornos only rich tech-savvy kids had the time and money to become addicted too.
She peeked into the kitchen; the gleaming granite was just as clean as she left it. Two dirty coffee cups in the sink. Two dirty coffee cups now constituted a “disaster.” Maria shook her head and quickly put the mugs into the dishwasher. This family didn’t know the disasters that knocked them upside the head every day: Mr. Martin chasing anything that peed sitting down, Bobby talking to topless girls in Thailand through a web-cam, Mrs. Martin with a liver that wouldn’t see the next decade. Oh no, the only disasters the Martins recognized were the fluctuation of stock prices, a new wrinkle on Mrs. Martin’s rigid face, Bobby not getting into Princeton.
Maria set the alarm system in the foyer and shut the front door without further ado. She was reaching for her cell phone before she was at the end of the driveway and felt a sudden stab of pain. She tugged her hand out of her pocket, heard the chime of glass hitting the asphalt. A shard of figurine had sliced into the pad of her thumb and now jutted out of her flesh. Part of a face hung perpendicular from her finger, and one of the black eyes, souless and cold, stared up at her. It made Maria hesitate and stare back, jolted and afraid. That eye looking at her felt like a bad omen. She tugged it out, threw the piece on the drive, stuck her bloody thumb in her mouth. Then she started jogging to her car, her heart tight in her chest.
Mark, she thought, dear God, Mark, please be all right.
Bette answered the door, looking peeved at Maria for trying to get into her own home. Maria would have naturally apologized for waking anyone up, but the glint of Bette’s eyebrow ring, the twist on the girl’s perpetually red-lipsticked mouth, made Maria itch with irritation instead. First of all, Bette was not allowed to be in the house when Maria was not. Call her old-fashioned or absolutely ridiculous, Maria didn’t care. It was her number one rule. Second of all, there were plenty of bolts on that door that the kids could have locked that Maria had a key to open, but they had decided on using the chain, knowing Maria couldn’t get in, which made her think that they had deliberately locked her out so they could do the sorts of things Maria told herself sickos like Bobby Martin got up to. As if getting Bette pregnant once just wasn’t enough for these two. As if a miscarriage, yes, horrible, but in this case it felt like it was the will of God Almighty Himself, as if a miscarriage hadn’t spared them already.
“Mark’s here?” Maria asked immediately. Bette shrugged in that sullen way that made Maria want to wring her neck.
“Bette, is he here or not? And why weren’t either of you answering your cell phones, I was worried sick—“
“He hasn’t called me since ten,” the girl said. “I don’t know where he is.”
Maria blinked at Bette, noticing for the first time that she was wearing a pair of Mark’s boxers. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”
The girl followed Maria’s eyes. “He told me I could stay here, to make myself comfortable.” She put her hand on her hip. “It’s not like I could go home now that everyone knows Mark knocked me up.”
Maria felt exhausted, the room tipping to the left for a moment. It was too much. “Bette, where is my son?”
Bette sighed forcefully in reply, her thick fringe of bangs lifting off her forehead with the effort, and it reminded Maria that the girl was only a teenager after all. Granted, a seventeen-year old, and she lorded that extra year of experience over sixteen-year old Mark, it was part of her strange power over her son, Maria knew. But she was still a girl, at least in calendar years, and she had been through a lot, had been pregnant and lost a baby and now it seemed as if her parents had kicked her out of her home, all before her senior year of high school. If Maria had been a better person, she would have embraced Bette immediately, asked her how she was feeling, offered to make her an ice cream sundae. But Maria didn’t feel like being a better person tonight, she felt the taint of the Martin’s still on her skin, making her impatient and cruel. “Goddammit, Bette, don’t you sigh at me. If you don’t tell me where Mark is I will call the police and tell them to take you with them.”
Bette’s arms dropped limply to her sides. “He went somewhere with Figgy. He didn’t tell me what they were doing but he said not to worry about them unless they didn’t come home by morning. He told me to make up a lie to tell you but… but I couldn’t.” She glanced at Maria and Maria thought maybe there was something scheming in the girl’s eyes, something that didn’t match the poor-little-worried-me story.
Maria sat down at the small kitchen table.
Figgy. That name rang some vague bell. Was he one of Bette’s cousin’s? Yes, that’s right, he was the eldest Figuera boy, eighteen, the one who had repeated his freshman year of high school twice. Mark had never been friends with any of the Figueroa boys before. Before Bette. Maria should call the police right this minute, tell them her son was missing. Mark, her beautiful boy. She thought she had done things right with him, he never missed a day of school, teachers always telling her how good a kid he was with his ‘yes ma’am’, ‘please’ and ‘no thank you’s, his noble attempts at chess club, his weekend work at the Books and Boogie store downtown. And then this girl, this Bette-- who would give a child a French whore name like that anyway? -- always looking like she was laughing at the adults, like she knew something no one else knew, with her lip gloss and frightening piercings and tight black t-shirts that showed the small star tattoo just above her hip, this girl ruined everything. Maria thought of the first time she met Bette, how she was certain she had smelled alcohol on the girl’s breath, how the girl seemed impaired by something more than youth, and when she asked Mark about it the next day, he claimed Bette had had the stomach flu and the anti-nausea pills weren’t sitting well with her. It was the most preposterous thing Maria had ever heard but her son said it with such certainty, so hurt when Maria laughed at him, that Maria thought Mark himself believed the ridiculous story. Now Maria assessed Bette and wondered if she had even been pregnant. She certainly didn’t seem weak or fragile for someone who had miscarried just two days ago.
Maria put her hands over her face. They were only kids. Surely Bette couldn’t have lied about something like that just to tighten her grip. But Mark, where was he? One o’clock in the morning, off with a dumb-as-mud eighteen year old named Figgy, up to God knows what.
Suddenly Maria thought again of the Martins, of Mrs. Martin thickly snoring in her king sized bed, of Bobby on his computer all night, of Mr. Martin sending suggestive text messages to his secretary, and, for the first time in the eight years that Maria had worked for them, she envied them their minor disasters after all.
The light woke her, curling its fingers gently around the curtains, feeling its way into the room slowly. Squinting against the light, Maria reached out and turned the alarm clock towards her so she could see.
Six-thirty. When had she become unable to sleep in? The night before a day off, she invariably promised herself that she would sleep until some hedonistic hour – eight, maybe – and the next morning, she invariably woke at the same time she did every other morning, feeling, somehow, cheated, but unable to fall back to sleep anyway. Mark, on the other hand, could still keep the nearly-vampirical hours of a teenager, staying up until dawn threatened, and then sleeping happily until the afternoon.
The thought of Mark gave her a vaguely uneasy feeling, and she pushed the clock away. Had he ever come home? She slipped on a bathrobe and padded lightly down the hall, the carpet rough and stiff under her feet, the periodic stains a map of time. In the living room, Bette was sleeping on the sofa, face-down, one hand resting on the floor, the opposite foot hooked over the back, as though she had collapsed in the midst of some athletic event. Her makeup was smudged, her hair messy, and Maria felt a twinge of something maternal as she looked at the girl. Maybe she had been wrong about Bette. Maybe she should trust her more, see the elaborate makeup and aggressive piercings and the tight clothes as what they were: armor against the world, against anyone getting too close.
Mark’s door was closed – still, or again? Maria turned the handle gently, placing her other palm flat against the wood as she pushed. The room was dark, the bed, empty.
She closed the door, the worry in her stomach twisting and growing. Wherever he and the unfortunately-named Figgy had gone last night, they hadn’t come back. She padded softly into the kitchen and looked at her cell phone and the answering machine. No messages.
With a sigh, Maria ran her hands through her hair and rubbed her eyes. She caught a glimpse of herself in the window above the sink, a tired woman with tired eyes and a worried set to her mouth. She hadn’t always been like this, hadn’t always looked this way. Once upon a time she would have been gentler with the Martins, been gentler with Bette, been gentler with herself. But then things happened…life happened, and here she was, with money problems and parenting problems and job problems and a thousand responsibilities as long as her arm, and the gentleness had faded to an occasional guilt that slipped around the back of her mind like a ghost.
And now she had three new problems: Mark was missing, Bette was not, and she was going to have to call Danny and tell him both of those things.
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I'm so excited to welcome Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left to Burn, to On the Bookcase! Jay's memoir eloquently tells the story of a son’s relationship with his father, the fire chief and a local hero, and his grandfather, a serial arsonist. Jay returns home after college and lands a job at the local newspaper writing the police and fire beat. Three men of the same family share a passion or obession with fire. In digging into the past, Jay's story reveals layers of family secrets, lies, and half-truths about fire-fighting and arson. It is only when he finally has the truth in hand that he comes to an understanding of the forces that drove his father, and of the fires that for all his efforts his father could never extinguish.
In this post, Jay shares his high school struggles to get a girl and be accepted. These struggles lead to an enlightment of Jay's ultimate goal to "write a book."
In ninth grade, I was bused an hour away to a high school that mixed camouflaged country boys like my friends and I with Gap-decked city kids. My freshman class had 250 students, the most visible of which came from a wealthy neighborhood of lawyers and doctors. Oceans of them swarmed the halls between classes, talking about things like beer, pot, fights, automobiles, and sex. I watched spaghetti westerns, collected baseball cards, played video games, and stayed home Friday nights to read about the Civil War. I was an anonymous weirdo in a school, like most, defined by social hierarchy. Unless I wanted to end up like Grover Hutchins, the curly-haired senior who sat by himself at lunch and read fantasy dragon novels, I had to distinguish myself.
Nothing would better redefine my identity than a girlfriend. The logic behind my quixotic conquest was hazy. In middle school, as boys with peach-fuzz mustaches and Skoal-breath snagged the prettiest girls, I marveled at the Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and endured taunts of “Gay Jay” from mullet-headed boys. I didn’t chalk off the calendar days until the arrival of deer hunting season or ride four-wheelers and, thus, failed to meet the accepted definition of a real man. But, it seemed real men always had a woman by their side. Looking back, I think I needed to prove to myself that I could find a girlfriend—perhaps it really was the chase that gave me the greatest thrill. Beyond announcing that I had finally captured this long sought-after fantasy girl, I would have had no idea what came next.
You lived and died by lunch in high school. If you spent a month careening like a pinball from girl to girl in the hopes of receiving basic eye contact only to meet constant failure, you might as well consider seppuku. It’s hard to tell how much of what came next could be chalked up to adolescent angst and how much of it really was a black-eyed dog scratching at the door. I was depressed—or, rather, immersed myself in the things I imaged a depressed person would do, such as wearing black and reading the darkest and most cynical pieces of the canon. In a matter of weeks I tore through The Bell Jar, Catch-22, and The Catcher In the Rye. When I was in a bookstore, I saw something called Prozac Nation—how could I resist? This was my nation and the author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, became my first true, painful celebrity crush. I needed my beloved Elizabeth, just like the many girls at school, to finally notice me.
Perhaps this is why, not long after that my bacchanalia of depressive literature, I wrote a story for English class called “The Box.” It was an allegorical mish-mash between Matheson’s “Button, Button” and Stockton’s “The Lady and the Tiger”—someone finds a mysterious box and what’s inside answers questions and fills desires. “But what, dear reader, is inside the box?” Even though the story amounted to petty theft, my classmates loved all of it, especially that final line. I thought they would raise me onto their shoulders and carry me through the halls amidst a blizzard of confetti, celebrating a literary genius that had lay dormant for years. The slightest hint of acclaim was like heroin—I needed more fast.
The great scam of my adolescence started the following Sunday night, when I sat on the La-Z-Boy and tried to write a follow-up. I thumbed through the radio dial and found something called Dr. Demento, a syndicated radio show dedicated to novelty songs in the vein of Weird Al or Stan Freeberg. In the best of cases, they satirized society; in the worst, they featured harmonized burps. After a few minutes, I hit the record button on the tape deck. The first song I remember was called “God Told Me to Rob the 7-11” by Dick Price. Throughout that next day at school, the bouncy piano chords stuck in my head and when I stormed home that night, I rewound the tape and typed up the lyrics because they made me laugh. But—and to me, this was a vital distinction—I didn’t put my name underneath the title. When I handed out copies to my busmates the next morning, they laughed just as I had intended. But after they complimented me for writing the poem, I never exactly said that I didn’t write the words. And this is how it went, more or less, for the next two years. I was a regular Thomas Paine, if rather than extolling the virtues of freedom Paine had instead plagiarized novelty songs for his pamphlets and handed them out to his classmates in the hopes of becoming popular enough to net a girlfriend. Despite my continued defeats on the romantic front, it somehow seemed logical that a girl would fall in love with some lanky zit-faced kid who wore silk-screened sweatshirts and wrote funny poems. They did not and, when the radio station took Dr. Demento off the air, I felt the pressure of my audience—I needed to give them something. There would be no more jokes, I announced. I was going in a new direction and, for the first time, I put my name on the verses.
I should be in the gray clay
Of the frozen terrain.
Instead I keep breathing,
And things keep falling like the rain.
I turned that poem in to my senior-year English teacher, who passed it along to the office. As I made my case to the concerned principal, I told him it was only a poem, that plenty of poets expressed dark emotion in poetry.
“Take Sylvia Plath,” I said. “Her poems are loaded with stuff like this.”
The principal folded his hands, cocked his head. “True, but I remember it not ending well for her. Maybe you should write something else?”
So I did. First, there was my version of The Onion which satirized issues common to my school like heroin addiction with such knee-slapping hilarity that the principal threatened to sue if I used the school’s name again. When the late-90s rash of school shootings hit, I wrote a skit about competing school shooters who had all picked the same day for their rampage—eventually, they worked out a passable time-table. My English teacher sent that one over to the principal, who again saw no humor.
“It’s satire,” I said. “And great satire should push the envelope?”
“True, but this is a little scary,” he said. He leaned back in his chair. “You thinking about college?”
I wasn’t. Some of the parents where I grew up didn’t exactly swing for the fences when it came to dreaming about their kids’ futures. Employed, out of jail, and not dead from a bar fight or car accident was usually good enough. It seemed that so long as I was happy, my family would be proud. Problem was, I had no idea just what would make me happy. I had toyed with a few career options—farmer, movie director, police officer, mercenary, helicopter pilot, sniper—but, after losing interest in them all, I more or less assumed that after high school I’d put my name in at the local factories, a perfectly respectable life spent in the echoes of clanging hammers and cracking timber.
“You could major in creative writing,” the principal said. “You’d do pretty well with something like that.”
There was the seed. There was the thing that would define me more than any girlfriend. When we were instructed to pick a quote to include under our photos in the high school yearbook, most people picked something trivial to sum up their high school experience—quips from Meet Joe Black or lyrics to a Matchbox Twenty song. I wanted mine to carry some metaphysical weight so I chose a line by Phillip Larkin—or, as it was erroneously attributed, Phillip Carkin.
I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any—after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?
In my picture, I wore a drab gray shirt and a thin red tie that was not in style in 1999 nor anytime since. The severity on my face matched one of those stiff men in Civil War Daguerreotypes who tucked his hand into his jacket and looked bloated by indigestion.
Underneath Larkin’s quote was my life’s ambition. Many classmates wrote something like “To love Gina forever” or “Keep my truck running real good.”
Mine: “To someday write a book.”
Jay, thanks so much for revealing your trials and tribulations of high school. I'm so glad these issues finally led you to be a writer instead of "farmer, movie director, police officer, mercenary, helicopter pilot, sniper." Nothing Left to Burn has excellent discussion points for reading groups -- family dynamics, coming-of-age, faith.
Praise for Nothing Left to Burn
“Varner traces a scorched circle of memory in this affecting memoir, looking to fire to both destroy and purify the past.”
"At its core, the book is about the way we spend half our lives trying to understand the people who brought us into this world ..."
--Time Out Chicago
Jay Varner is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he earned his MFA in creative nonfiction. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is his first book.
Find out more about Jay.