‘Your brain on literature’ a high for award-winning author George Saunders

by G. Robert Frazier

Many people can still recall the old anti-drug commercials depicting an egg sizzling in a frying pan with the message, “This is your brain on drugs.” The antidote to that is a “brain on literature,” says award-winning short story author George Saunders.

lincoln-in-the-bardoSaunders shared the analogy at Parnassus Books in Nashville this past week as part of his national book tour for his debut novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

“Having written this book for four years, I had this beautiful experience, as anybody who writes–or reads–knows, which is, on literature your mind lights up 380 percent,” he said. “You know, a comma can put you in tears, the right semicolon or a string of adjectives can kill you. So my thing is, our thing is, the brain on literature is maybe the best form of the human mind, except maybe the brain on love, but they’re not that different.”

When you’re reading or writing, Saunders says you’re in a state where “you’re more generous, you’re more curious, you’re more comfortable with ambiguity, you’re more inclined to look twice at a person to see if you’ve made a snap judgment, all those beautiful things.”

By comparison, he said he found his mind shrinking when having to cover a Trump rally this past summer.

“So I’m on social media, I’m watching CNN until I’m about to throw up, and all the things it involved me doing, and what happened? My mind shrunk. I got a little meaner, I got more combative, I wanted quick relief when someone would email me with his stupid right-wing beliefs, you know, I shrunk,” he told the standing-room only crowd of book lovers and fans. “I think that’s appropriate, but it was weird to notice.”

Because, when “you take the highest way that the mind can work and you marginalize it and vaguely mock it, and you don’t compensate it, what happens? Oh surprise, the culture’s language gets stupid,” he said. “So I think we double down on art.”

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Author George Saunders, left, shares stories about his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, with a standing-room only crowd at Parnassus Books in Nashville.

Saunders on his writing process:

My process is, it just happens. For me to write stuff that has any energy, I have to try not to plan it out at all. … I’m just trying to make the language livelier…I often imagine there’s a meter in my head. Over here there’s a P for positive and an N for negative. As you are writing, it’s just kind of looking to see what the prose is doing to the needle. When it’s in the positive, you’re good. When it drops…instead of saying, I failed, you have to say to the story, “I noticed the needle dropped..what can I do for you?” If you bear down on it, it’ll kind of say, “I’m bored.” If the story is pushing back at you, it’s just saying I want to be a bigger story, if you don’t mind.

Saunders on fiction:

Author George SaundersA work of fiction is kind of this black box you walk into and something’s supposed to happen. You don’t really know what, but it’s supposed to be intense. Maybe you don’t even know what it is as the writer, it shouldn’t be trivial. It should actually be a moment. If you come out of a good book, you’re kind of just dazed, and that’s the moment. … I found out a long time ago the model for fiction is it’s like a wind up toy. You wind it up, put it on the floor, and it’ll go under the couch as fast as possible.

‘The Devil’s Bible’ brings Carpenter’s historical hero into the present

By G. Robert Frazier

When readers last saw Mouse, the hero of Nashville author Dana Chamblee Carpenter‘s debut novel Bohemian Gospel, she was locked up in a cell writing what would become known in some circles as the eighth wonder of the world, the Codex Gigas. Better known as THE DEVIL’S BIBLE, the real-life book also happens to be the name of Carpenter’s sequel (due out March 7 from Pegasus Books).

No one really knows who wrote the real codex or where it was written,  though legend says it was written in a single night with the assistance of the devil. The book even contains an infamous rendering of the devil, which serves as the cover of Carpenter’s new novel.

Carpenter says she enjoyed a blissful month after turning in all her revisions and edits, until she got her box of copies of the new book. “That’s when the anxiety kicks in and you start wondering, are people going to like it? So I’m kind of mixed right now on trying to stay focused on the project I’m working on and being anxious to seeing how readers are going to take to this second book. The early reviews have been good, so I’m happy with that.”

Actually, they’ve been better than good. Some have even compared her to Dan Brown, the author of the bestselling The Da Vinci Code. Fine company indeed.

I recently talked with Carpenter about the new book, her heroine, reader expectations, and much more.

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How would you describe this book to someone new to Mouse and to you as an author?

In some ways it’s a little more conventionally a thriller than Bohemian Gospel was. There was a lot of historical fiction in Bohemian Gospel because it was starting with Mouse’s story and set in the 13th century. We’ve now moved forward so that we’re in contemporary times in Nashville, and that’s where the book starts. We have flashbacks to the historical period when Mouse is writing The Devil’s Bible and interacting with her father, so there are still historical elements, but I think readers will find this one more conventionally a thriller. There’s kind of a quest, a journey where Mouse goes looking for something and has to fight off some big bads, and that kind of stuff.

Did you intentionally set out to bring Mouse into the present or is that something the publisher pushed on you to try and make this book a little more accessible?

It’s actually where the story took me. Knowing the industry, it’s certainly not beyond thinking that a publisher would want you to write something that was a little more marketable and nichey.  They know what to do with those books, but they don’t know what to do with books that cross genres like Bohemian Gospel did. But I’ve not had any pressure. In fact, I’ve only had the greatest support from my editor at Pegasus. This is where I knew the story was going all along. I knew I wanted to sort of jump time… A lot of that, too, is not wanting to get pegged as just a historical fiction writer or just as a thriller writer. As a reader, I like to dabble in all the different genres and I want to write in them as well. I try not to think about the market and what people are wanting, besides being generally informed, which any successful writer kind of needs to know. You don’t want to go off and write some sort of daisies and aliens thing that nobody’s going to want to read. For me, at least, I have to let the story go where it needs to go.

devils-bible-cover-bookmarkDo you think bringing Mouse into the present could alienate some of your existing fan base who might be expecting more of the historical fiction?

There’s a little worry in that. But I think the publishing industry underestimates their readership a lot of times in assuming they only want what they’ve had before, that historical fiction readers only want straight-up historical fiction and they don’t want an element of the thriller, or in my case the paranormal or fantastic. What I’ve found in my readership is they love those elements.

The comics industry is very particular about their geekdom—if you get Batman’s origin wrong, the universe explodes. Historical fiction readers are like that too. I call them my New England Knitters who didn’t like the darker aspects of Bohemian Gospel, and I kind of expected that. And that’s fine, it’s not for everybody. But what I was really pleased with is the people who picked up Bohemian Gospel because they thought it was historical fiction and were pleasantly surprised as to how much they enjoyed the fantastic elements and thriller elements.

I’ve had a growing readership of fantasy readers who think they don’t like historical but love the historical aspects as much as the fantasy elements. Because of the readership already getting blended with Bohemian Gospel, I hope they’ll be happy with the blend I have in The Devil’s Bible.

Talk about the title for an instant—The Devil’s Bible. Do you have any concerns that the title might deter people from picking up the book?

The Devil’s Bible is a slang term for a real book called the Codex Gigas. It was considered the eighth wonder of the world at the time it was written because it was so huge. It contained all the world’s knowledge as they knew it at the time. It had a Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, several medical texts, several historical chronicles, as well as a chronicle of Bohemia, and, of course, it was written under mysterious circumstances. It was both written and drawn by the same individual, which was just unheard of. I know there are some people who are squeamish about devil stuff, but I’m not worried that there are too many of those people out there. Readers are pretty adventurous folks, so I don’t think the title is going to be a deterrent for them.

Is the codex what sparked the whole Bohemian Gospel story?

Mouse came to me first. I had her in my head and it took a good long time to get to know her. I knew she had secrets and she was holding them pretty close to her chest and wasn’t letting me know what they were. I spent six months to a year playing with this character, knowing that she was historical, knowing that she was unusual and knowing that she had secrets. Then I saw about 10 minutes of a documentary on TLC all about the Codex Gigas and the mystery surrounding it, and it was an “aha” moment that led me to the 13th century and Bohemia.

How long did it take to write the first book?

To actually write it, it came out in a flurry. About six weeks. As a writer, you know that’s just one part of the story. It took me probably another year’s worth of research and revision to get it to where my agent and I were ready to put it out on submission.

So you didn’t make any deals with the devil?

(Laughs) No.

Was it easier to write the sequel or more difficult and challenging?

In some ways it was a little more challenging because I was weaving a contemporary story with alternating historical elements. Figuring out how to do that in terms of just the structure of the narrative was difficult. For the first book it was researching everything about Bohemia and the 13th century—what soldiers wore, what dresses the women wore, layouts of Prague Castle… With this one, I had to really dig deep into the process by which scribes would have put together a medieval manuscript like the codex. I studied all the details of the Codex Gigas… I had access to a lot of the research—it’s held in the national library in Sweden. So there was a lot of time going through and learning how to make a book like that, the contents of the book, then you have to figure out, how do I use that in a way that pushes the narrative forward opposed to it coming across like a history lecture. It had its own challenges, but I think it was probably a little easier to write than the first one.

Are you worried that if you get something wrong somebody’s going to call you on it?

Eudora Welty wrote a short story that talked about an offhand reference of the moon on a particular evening and where it was in the night sky. She had done her research on it, thought she had it down accurately, and then she got this very angry letter from this old gentleman that corrected her and suggested that the moon would never be in that particular part of the sky and she was humiliated because she had gotten that wrong. None of it was vital to the story itself and she learned how to let that go. You’re always going to get something wrong or somebody’s going to think you got something wrong. It’s never going to be perfect. Most readers, I’ve found, are gracious enough to recognize that you’re writing a novel, it’s not a historical text or an encyclopedia. They care more about the story than those things. But that said, I work my hiney off to try to make sure that all of the details and anything grounded in reality are as accurate as I can humanly make them. But the human part there is key; we all make mistakes.

Do you feel comfortable taking creative liberties within the time period?

It’s easy when you’re talking about it in the 13th century because none of those folks or families are around to call you up and say, “Hey, my dad wasn’t like that.”  I think it would be a lot harder for somebody writing historical fiction set in the sixties. Even with that, I did feel ethically compelled to make sure I was as accurate in presenting real historical figures as truthfully as I could. The historical aspects in The Devil’s Bible are less about the people and more about the book, so there’s a little less pressure. The characters I have are totally mine and I don’t have to feel as responsible for that as much, but I did have to make sure that everything I was saying about the codex was accurate.

The crappiest things happen to this woman and she finds some way to pull something positive and good out of it. Her capacity for sacrificing in order for what she knows is right and good is also amazing to me. I kind of like her, in case you couldn’t tell.

Do you see some of yourself in Mouse? How much and what surprises you about her?

There are probably little bits and pieces of us writers in all of our characters. There are certainly other people I think of as inspirations for her. It’s not one single individual but kind of an amalgamation of people. My daughter, for example, has a very fiercely independent will that I am in awe of, because I certainly didn’t have it when I was her age, and Mouse has that too. Even though she’s struggling to fit in, she has this incredible confidence in herself and go-get-it attitude. She does surprise me. In The Devil’s Bible, we start off with her in kind of a wounded and damaged place. She’s not quite herself. That was the hardest part of the book to write because it didn’t fit with the Mouse I got to know in writing Bohemian Gospel who sees a struggle or challenge and is ready to climb it and fight it. The Mouse that we meet here is a Mouse who is on the run. So it was difficult to write that, but her strength always surprises me. The crappiest things happen to this woman and she finds some way to pull something positive and good out of it. Her capacity for sacrificing in order for what she knows is right and good is also amazing to me. I kind of like her, in case you couldn’t tell.

Is there going to be more with Mouse?

There’s a lot of Mouse’s story that’s left. I’ve had so many readers asking me for stories about Father Lucas’s journeys to collect the different types of mysterious books that he brings back as he learns more about Mouse’s nature, so there could be a lot more of Lucas’s chronicles as well. There’s a lot of Mouse’s story too to tell. Between Bohemian Gospel and The Devil’s Bible, we have 700 years of not really knowing exactly where she’s been or what she’s been up to that I could play with. I don’t think I’m done with Mouse yet.

I read that you were something of a pantser with the first book. Did that hold true with this one or did you have to provide an outline for the publisher?

I still got to do it seat of the pants. I honestly don’t know if I’m capable of writing from an outline. I can do an outline, but five minutes into the writing I’m going to be breaking away from it. I was fortunate enough that I didn’t wait, so I already had the majority of the manuscript ready to send to publisher not long after Bohemian Gospel came out.

As a teacher, do you find yourself editing as you go? Because I know as a former newspaper editor, I tend to edit as I write instead of just letting the words out, which all the writing experts say is a no-no.

I’m glad you confessed first. I do tell my students to turn your editor off and just let the words flow. I have trained myself to not be editing while I write. I’m writing every morning four to five hours… I usually leave in the middle of a chapter so when I pick it up the next day I kind of know where I’m going, so I’ll go back in the next morning and reread and edit as I go to get me back into the scene or voice, then I try to spend the rest of the time just writing. But I confess sometimes if I feel the flow not coming I’ll stop and go back and edit. For me it kind of unblocks things, for the most part. But you’re right, it’s supposed to be a no-no.

Are you a fan of Anne Rice?

I’ve read some of Anne Rice and liked Interview With the Vampire. But I think Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are probably bigger influences on me in how I want to tell stories in an organic sort of way. One of the things I like about Stephen King is his ability to be very normal and then throw the jarring, creepy supernatural into the normal. Charles de Lint does urban fantasy that way. I like it when a writer really grounds me in reality as I understand it, then weaves in either horror elements or the supernatural.

 

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You entered Bohemian Gospel into Killer Nashville’s writers contest, which seeks thriller novels, and won. Were you worried that the Claymore Award contest was not the proper venue for that?

I was totally flabbergasted when I won. I was at a point where I was very discouraged. My agent had sent it out and we weren’t getting any traction. There were people who were loving aspects of it, but I was a no-name author and it’s so hard to get anybody to take a chance on a new author these days. I had the exact same argument with my husband. I said it’s not a conventional mystery thriller, but he said they take all genres, send it in. I was totally shocked when it was short-listed and absolutely floored when it won.

So it pays off to take risks and put your stuff out there…

It really does. (Killer Nashville founder) Clay (Stafford) is very clear about that. He’s not interested in trying to follow some set parameters or somebody else’s expectations. The Claymore is open to anything that fits inside the broader genre of a thriller. Bohemian Gospel is certainly a thriller. It’s very historical, but it has mystery at its heart, trying to uncover who tried to kill Ottaker and trying to uncover the mystery of who Mouse is, is what drives the story. For any new writers out there, don’t limit yourself on what you think somebody else’s expectations are. Go for it.

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Dana Chamblee Carpenter will hold a book launch party and signing for THE DEVIL’S BIBLE at Parnassus Books in Nashville on March 9. She hopes to hit some of the same places she visited with Bohemian Gospel, such as Square Books in Oxford, MS, and Star Line Books in Chattanooga. You can also catch her at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in April and Killer Nashville in August. She also hopes to return to the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October.

You can visit her online at danachambleecarpenter.com and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/danachambleecarpenter/

 

Danielewski lets voices around him guide his words

Mark Danielewski’s novels are not for the timid, or the fearful. From the groundbreaking bestseller House of Leaves to National Book Award finalist Only Revolutions, each book combines typographical experimentation—pages that read upside down, sideways, or at odd angles—with multiple viewpoint characters, creating an immersive experience like no other. His latest, The Familiar Volume 4: Hades, is just part of a 27-part magnum opus about a girl and her cat.

Danielewski discussed the book, his writing process, and more with a packed audience at Parnassus Books in Nashville on Sunday.

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How do you keep your discipline, especially with projects on such a grand scale, and keep from getting bored by it?

I think part of it is, that’s my talent. I can be disciplined. I think discipline and habit is something you can cultivate… When you’re working on a long project, what you’re doing is kind of like taking little subatomic particles all around you and slowly bringing them together. It’s very easy to lose focus. It’s very easy to become like a little kitten, kind of pawing at little scraps of dust in the air. But the more you bring together drafts, understanding who your characters are, the more mass it takes on and eventually what happens is you find yourself in its orbit. It’s hard to escape. I’m caught in the orbit of these huge projects and it’s an absolute pleasure. If you really dedicate yourself to something, I think you find yourself more taken with what happens.

You used the word bored…It’s something to highlight for a moment, because when we feel bored it’s important to recognize that what we’re really feeling is fear. Boredom is just a secondary effect of fear. Now, it’s a low-grade fear and it’s built into our system… If  we’re staying in a place where there’s no food or water and yet we’re not like perilously close to dying of thirst or starvation, there’s a mechanism in us that says, you know we better start moving around. So, often when we get bored—and it happens to all professional writers—that’s the moment when things get really exciting. Because you’re right to be afraid. Once you start to open that  project up to all its possibilities, then it gets really scary, because then you’re getting out of the little shack of your idea, the little confines of something you can easily handle, to something far bigger.

The Familiar is a challenge unlike any I’ve ever faced. It’s so much larger. The characters in it go way beyond who I am and that’s the point. I have to be constantly open to what’s out there, wherever it may be. As soon as I feel myself getting bored, I’m like, “OK, what am I afraid of?” What door am I afraid to open and how do I move into that? So next time you feel bored, that means you’re on the right track.

What inspired you to write in a way that incorporates a lot of typographical design and challenges the way readers normally approach the task?

I think I was a bit of a brat to start with. You’re supposed to write between the lines and not draw pictures in the margins, but I like to cross the lines and drawing pictures. And part of it was luck because I was actually coming into a place where the technology was allowing me to play with typesetting, to begin to move text around. There’s a long tradition of it, going back to pop art, to concrete poetry, to the tablature of Rome and Greece…Also, my father was a filmmaker, so I was steeped in the language of how image works. We were constantly going to museums, so I studied art. I had an incredible intuitive flair for image and arrangement. All of these things seemed vital…both my parents manifested them. I saw them in the culture that I lived in, and I began to see a book as being possible in that way.

img_20170219_140457742It’s also the way I see the world. In some ways, there’s something very artificial about the way we’re supposed to read a book. We’re expected to read so many words per page, follow this line…and by learning that discipline we can get through a lot of information, but that’s not really how our eye tracks. Our eyes track all over the place. We read signs, we see where we are, we hear things. I think what was so vibrant is this incredible kind of synaptic, alchemical creation that happens when words are put together. It’s something that film can’t quite do. It can’t quite address complicated ideas. It has to represent them in terms of image, it can  provide voice but, it’s hard to follow a very difficult idea someone’s speaking to you… So it felt to me a book could really create an experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. I think that’s probably the gambit with everything I do. It’s can I offer you  an experience that you won’t get anywhere else, in any other media form or any other book? Because otherwise, it’s not worth your time. This book is kind of more of the way I see the world and I think it reflects the kind of the music that’s out there…

the-familiarIn The Familiar, there are nine different characters and they have all sorts of different voices, languages, background…Whether you’re talking about Homer, Hemingway or Toni Morrison, there’s just this singular voice and it’s framed in a certain way. But my experience of the world is actually the other voices, the voices outside the norm. It’s the juxtaposition of that, that begins to create the symphony we live in. With the Familiar, it goes further than just human voices. But how do we find a voice for that which will never have a voice, which does not have a voice, like animality, the environment, etc.? So central to The Familiar is this question of the cat…How does nature revive us, how does it depend on us, how do we depend on it? That’s the growing voice we have to begin to hear through all the other voices. We have to hear the voice that has no voice.

How much research into other cultures did you do to capture their voice?

As a privileged straight white male to start writing about all these characters,  there are all sorts of dangers…I would drive with Armenian cab drivers in Los Angeles, I would go to Singapore … I would talk with Latino gang members transitioning from gang life to a better life by removing their gang tattoos. It was time to get nervous around strange people. From an authorial point of view, it was a decision to get outside of myself and forget myself and embrace that which was strange. We do have to practice imagining other perspectives. It’s only through that, that we are going to have any empathy for the other. If we’re constantly realigning ourselves with the self, how are we going to begin to understand someone in a different position?

What is your writing process like and where do you get your inspiration?

I write six days a week, 8-10 hours a day. I don’t believe in inspiration anymore. Leave that for someone else. My approach is what I call the Jane Goodall approach to writing. You go to the jungle and you just sit there and you sit there every day at the same time and sit there for the same amount of time every time. And, eventually, you start to hear the jungle a little differently. Eventually you’ll hear the chimpanzees. And, eventually, the chimpanzees are going to start coming around and get closer and, eventually, they’re going to tell you their story, which, of course, are your stories, which are someone else’s stories. And you have treat that experience with great reverence and great discipline.  You have to be there every day, because if you don’t show up or if you come late, the chimpanzees are going to throw shit at you.

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Soring controversy keys mystery in Jaden Terrell’s A Taste of Blood and Ashes

by G. Robert Frazier

If you’re a writer or a fan of mystery novels in the Southeast, chances are you already know Jaden Terrell. Terrell has been an integral force behind the Killer Nashville Writers Conference along with founder Clay Stafford since 2006, has served as president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is the regional president of Mystery Writers of America. But beyond that, Terrell is a Shamus Award finalist and author of the Jared McKean private eye series. The fourth book in the series – A Taste of Blood and Ashes – was published late last year, and follows McKean’s investigation into a suspicious barn fire. Chemicals used in the soring of Tennessee walking horses – a painful method used to produce the exaggerated gait in the animals – are found at the scene. I recently sat down with Terrell to talk about the inspiration for the book, her involvement with the writing community, and more.

What was the inspiration for this novel?

Jaden Terrell: I had in my mind for many years to write about the Tennessee walking horse soring controversy. Way before Jared was ever conceived I wanted to write about this issue, but I didn’t have the story to hang it on. When I came up with Jared and this whole PI series, I realized he was a perfect fit for this story to happen to because he’s so involved with horses.

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In the previous books of the series, Jared also has to contend with some deeply personal stakes. Are there any personal stakes for Jared this time around?

JT: I didn’t figure I could have that in every book. In Book 1 (Racing the Devil), he’s framed for murder. Book 2 (A Cup Full of Murder), his nephew is first a suspect, then a target. And in Book 3 (River of Glass) is where he meets his half-sister he never knew existed and her daughter’s been taken by traffickers. So it was kind of straining the credibility for this family to keep having these issues, so I thought I needed at least one where he just takes a case. This case is one that’s particularly important to him because it involves horses. It begins where he’s investigating a barn fire. The insurance company is sort of hoping the couple that owned the fire set the fire so they don’t have to pay. The flashpoint, or point of origin for the fire, is chemicals in the tack room that are used for soring. But the couple is notably anti-soring, so the question is, have they been lying all this time or have they been set up? And then they find human remains amid the fire, so the plot thickens. So the personal connection is the horses for him, and then the couple because they are definitely underdogs and need his help.

Jared is a recurring character, but this is a standalone book, right?

JT: They all stand alone. Sometimes there are references to the previous book, but you can pick up the book and understand the story anywhere in the series.

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Beth Terrell, who writes as Jaden Terrell, leads a workshop at the Killer Nashville Writers Conference in 2016.

Are you creating an overall character arc for Jared?

JT: He goes through a lot. He does learn things from book to book. But you can’t have a dramatic reversal in a series of  books or they’d be unrecognizable. His relationship with his family continues to grow and they come to a mutual respect, learning about each other. The next book takes place in Alaska — I have 10 books in the series in mind.  Alaska has always been my idea for Book 5 and comes back to the family drama.

Did you have to do a lot of research for this one?

JT: I did. I don’t show horses and I’ve never shown. I’m not actually really much of a rider, I just really like horses. The two horses I have can’t be ridden, so I feed them, give them treats and massages. I went to a class in Virginia and got certification in horse massage. Soring is difficult to research because people don’t want to talk about it. They’re afraid. Several years ago I talked to a trainer who had left the walking horse industry because of the soring and I asked if he would talk about it, and he said, “No, they’ll kill me and they’ll kill you too.” But, I said, it’s fiction, and she said that doesn’t matter to them. I said I don’t even have to put your name in the book and she said they’d find out. For years I thought she was really overreacting. But when I got the review copies, I went to the tack store and gave it to one of the guys there and he said, “Oh darling, I hope you’ll be all right.”

There is certainly an undercurrent of fear about it. I could never really find any real proof of that. The Humane Society’s stance is the horse will never learn the big lick if they’re not sored because it’s a response to pain, but then there’s another school of thought that anything a horse can do it can be taught to do. They do feel like they love the horses, but it doesn’t cross their minds that this is a horrible thing to do to a creature, that this is just how you do it.

You know soring is there, but you don’t know how pervasive it is because it’s cloaked in secrecy. One of the challenges was to write a book about it without being preachy, without assuming everybody does it or without assuming everybody doesn’t.

Tell me  about your evolution as a writer.

JT: When I was really little, before I could write, I would draw stories. My great aunt and I would cut out pictures of people from catalogs and put them in families and act out stories with them. All my life I wanted to write stories and be a teacher. I very foolishly thought I could do both at the same time and I could not. I was really plagued by the editing syndrome. I couldn’t go on to paragraph two or page two until it was exactly the way I wanted it. I taught for 12 years in a comprehensive development (special education) classroom. I took some time off and wrote a big epic fantasy.

I then entered the Minotaur First Detective contest and got a really nice letter back from the judge and that really encouraged me to keep going. I found an agent (thanks to a recommendation from Nashville author and fellow Middle Tennessee Sisters in Crime member Chester Campbell). The agent was so excited and just loved the book, and then he just vanished. It turned out he died, but nobody told us. We had to figure it out on our own. I found another agent through a conference and he sent the book everywhere. People kept saying we love this, but we don’t want it. Something was wrong with it and I didn’t know what it was. Eventually, someone said it didn’t have enough twists and turns. I said I can fix that. They said they didn’t want me to, they wanted me to write another book. So I wrote book two. It went to the very top level with the publisher and they ultimately refused it because they had just signed one that had the same thing.

So I went back to the first book and realized why they didn’t take it. There was no plot. They loved the characters, but there was something about the story that wasn’t working. I completely reworked it, did an index card for each chapter, color coded it by character and plot. I had this lovely stack of multi-colored cards. I had to distill it down.  I wanted to keep the character parts they liked, but prop up the plot. And it was nominated for a Shamus Award.

a-taste-of-bloodAfter all that trial and error, the current book went smooth as anything right?

JT: (laughter) They all have their own challenges. The second book was hard in its own way because it was a lot more complex than the first one. The third one went better and quicker, but it was still mushy and I had to go back and prop it up a lot.

Most writers tend to write lead characters who are the same gender. Why did you choose to write about a male protagonist?

JT: Guys get kind of a rough rap sometimes, but the world is full of nice guys and they’re smart. I was watching Saving Private Ryan and the guys keep getting out of the boat and the water’s filled with blood. That’s what we ask our guys to do, these hard, horrible things and then come home and be good husbands and good fathers and good friends. That was the guy I wanted to write about — the guy who would move your furniture for you three years after you break up because you’re still friends.

I tried to write a feisty little female detective but it just wasn’t working. She was a bad V.I. Warshawski knockoff and she was a real bitch. I didn’t like her. I kept seeing this guy leaning against this fence in a leather bomber jacket saying, “I’m your guy.” I said, “No, you’re not,” and he’d just say, “OK, whenever you’re ready.”

So is Jared your ultimate fantasy guy, then?

JT: No. I’m already married to the perfect man. Jared’s probably an iconic kind of guy, but he’s flawed, he’s not perfect by any means. I think that’s what makes him so likable. He has noble ideas and wants to protect people and wants to help. He knows when he does something pretty bad and he has the good grace to feel bad about it. There’s a point in Book 4 where he says something unkind, and even though it’s probably justified, he realizes it diminishes him, just as it always does when you do something cruel.

You’re involved in so much. Sisters in Crime, Killer Nashville, Mystery Writers of America…

JT: I’m a big believer in promotion through service, whether I sell books or not. I did a very tiny bit with Killer Nashville in 2006, then in 2007 became very involved. (Killer Nashville founder) Clay (Stafford) had this incredible vision to bring everyone together, where aspiring writers could learn from established writers, established writers could get new readers and everybody could get agents and publishers. It was such a great idea and it’s been a real honor to help him bring that to fruition. I found my current agent through Killer Nashville. I was formerly president of Sisters in Crime – Middle Tennessee and am now president of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

What’s your writing day like?

JT: I used to go to work, come home and do Killer Nashville, then write. Now I go to my mother’s every day and exercise, go to the barn (to feed all the horses), and then come home and get to work. Once I start writing, a lot of times I don’t want to quit. A lot of times I write late into the night. I’m more of a night person than a morning person. (Terrell also offers frequent writing workshops in the Nashville area as well as services on her website.)

What else would you like to say to your readers and to other writers starting out?

JT: To my readers…thank you! I hope I can continue to give you books that you like. It’s really gratifying to hear from readers who really like Jared.

To writers…Don’t give up. Keep trying to be better. It’s so easy to publish things before they’re ready. Don’t let your baby out before it’s formed or be in such a hurry to get your words out that they’re not the right words. But never give up, because if I had given up I wouldn’t have any books at all.

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If you’re in the Nashville area, Terrell will talk about her book and sign copies of the book at 2 p.m. Jan. 28 at Parnassus Books.

Alana White’s Come Next Spring a timeless story of growth, change

By G. Robert Frazier

Nashville author Alana White’s first novel, Come Next Spring, is making a comeback after 25 years. First published in 1990 by Clarion, the book has been re-released with a 25th anniversary printing by Open Road Distribution, making it available to a whole new generation of readers as well as those who missed it the first time. Nominated for the Volunteer State Children’s Book Award and the Mark Twain Award by the Missouri Association of Librarians, the novel is set in the Smoky Mountains of  East Tennessee in 1949 and encompasses a universal theme of growth and the inevitability of change.

come-next-springThe book follows 12-year-old Salina Harris after a care-free summer on her family’s farm. She enters eighth grade only to discover that she and her best friend have drifted apart, her brother is preoccupied with his own concerns, her sister is about to get married and leave home, and a new student presents her with new challenges. At the same time, the quaint, rural lifestyle she and her family have grown to love is threatened by the government’s plans to construct an interstate highway through the community. Salina initially believes that “things are fine the way they are,” but ultimately comes to accept that change is inevitable and, in some ways, can be beneficial.

I spoke with White about the novel, where she drew her inspiration, and other works.

What prompted you to write Come Next Spring?

White: It’s amazing what you remember or realize after the fact of something.  I just wanted to write about a little girl going through changes and learning that change is inevitable. You just have to participate in life and see what comes to you next. The more research I did into the Smoky Mountains, I realized that was when the government was first talking about an interstate system across the U.S. The reason for that was the war. They were thinking ahead about transporting troops and weapons, so they went through and started buying up the farms, such as those sorts of places in the Smoky Mountains. They didn’t make people move right away. I thought, what would a little girl think about surveyors coming out to the farm with their equipment and stuff? And maybe her brother goes out with a shotgun and says get off our land, which is what he does. My family was originally from Kentucky. I’m not sure of the year, but the government was buying up farmland in the area because they wanted to flood these towns and build this tourist attraction that would become the Land Between the Lakes. I remember my mom crying because they tore down her high school. They sold the bricks to people for a dollar apiece. They bought my uncle’s farm, but he was able to buy a better piece of land and build a nicer house.  I’d forgotten all of that and when I wrote Come Next Spring, I realized I had transferred those emotions of what happened to this story. So, I was parroting exactly what I had been thinking about the Land Between the Lakes with this story without really realizing it. The mind is amazing that way.

You just have to participate in life and see what comes to you next.

What inspired you to become a writer?

White: I’m from an Air Force family. We traveled every two years. I didn’t go to the same school two years in a row until my junior and senior years of classes. I was always the new kid in school.  I might walk in in January or February or April and stand there to be introduced. It was excruciating. I didn’t know anybody and it was hard to make friends. So, I would end up in the library. I’ve always said the library was my friend and refuge, because I could hide in there until the next class. So, I started reading very early. I don’t remember the first book I read, but I always liked the classics like The Man in the Iron Mask, Ivanhoe, and Robin Hood. So it doesn’t surprise me that what I write is historical fiction. I started writing my first novel when I was about 12. I didn’t get very far because it was hard! I thought, wow, this is really hard!

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You followed Come Next Spring with Sacagawea: Westward with Lewis and Clark

White: Sacagawea was written for a publisher for a school market and there were probably five other books in the series. I really enjoyed doing that book. I didn’t know much about Lewis and Clark and I had to do a lot of research. Fortunately, my husband graduated from Vanderbilt so I could look at all of Lewis’s journals. It’s a fascinating story. Sacagawea was 16 years old and had a baby on her back, trekking 2,000 miles on the expedition.

Your most recent novel, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, is an adult fiction novel set in Renaissance Italy. How did that book come about?

White: I read about the Pazzi family plot to kill Lorenzo de’ Medici and Giuliano so that they could take over Florence. I thought, this is so interesting, I want to read a book about that and went to the library and there wasn’t one. I thought, well, I’m going to do that. So that was the seed for that. I pitched the manuscript to Deni Dietz with Five Star (at the Killer Nashville writers conference) and she was interested in it. They made it their lead book and it did well. I’m now writing the sequel, which is actually a prequel. It will go back seven years. Historical fiction is wonderful because it has a forever shelf life.

What is your advice for new writers trying to break in?

White: Work hard and apply your bottom to the chair and do it, even if it’s just for five minutes a day. Learn your limitations. I get so frustrated because I want to write faster. I wish I could churn out a book every one or two years, but I have to accept I’m not like that. I’m a slow writer and with each book it’s been like starting the process completely over. A lot of it depends on what you bring to something. If you take yourself seriously, other people will too.

White will  appear along with Kristin O’Donnell, author of John Lincoln Clem: Civil War Drummer Boy, for a celebration of children’s fiction at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, at Parnassus Books, 3900 Hillsboro Pike, Suite 14, Nashville.

National Book Award winner John Lewis inspires new generation with ‘March’

by G. Robert Frazier

I was fortunate to be among hundreds of Nashville-area residents this past week to hear  American icon, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, recount his lifetime of civil rights struggles.

A graduate of American Baptist College and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Rep. Lewis was a leader in the Nashville student-led, nonviolent sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and helped lead the Selma to Montgomery March as part of the voting rights movement in 1965.

His account of the events make up the pages of a historical comic book trilogy, March, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. March: Book One is the citywide Nashville Reads pick for 2017. The third volume in the series just won the National Book Award for young people’s literature and garnered him honors as the Nashville Public Library Foundation’s Literary Award winner for 2016.

Regardless of age, it is a story everyone should read.

You can read my full blog about John Lewis at BookPage.

Apex Magazine founder Jason Sizemore recounts zine’s origins, eyes future

By G. Robert Frazier

The man who founded one of the top online magazines of dark science fiction, horror, and fantasy literature in the country didn’t set out to be an editor. But once he set his mind to it, nothing could seemingly stop him.

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Jason Sizemore

Jason Sizemore is now 11 years into his run with Apex Magazine, with three Hugo Award nominations for editing and a pair of Nebula wins by his writers to show for it. (See Apex’s complete list of awards and nominations.)

“Three things happened simultaneously that caused me to go down this path,” Sizemore confessed during a question and answer session at last month’s Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, Ky. “I turned 30, and for the first time I started feeling mortal, I guess. I had my first kid, and that also made me feel mortal; it’s lot of work and I was always exhausted. And the third thing, I was at a completely dead-end job working for a risk management group for city government as a system administrator for their software.”

A disagreement with his boss led him to quit on the spot and go home to sulk, whereupon he noticed a zine he was a fan of and decided, “I can do this.”

“I did a six-month deep dive into language arts books, I studied the Chicago Manual of Style, and a lot of online stuff, videos; there are tons of resources out there,” he explained.

“I had a few stories published very early on that I hope no one ever has seen, but those early acceptances really gave me the confidence I needed at the time.”

From there, Sizemore pulled the trigger and Apex was born.

Not that things went entirely smoothly. The cost of starting a magazine from scratch led to a steep debt and a lot of consternation. But Sizemore persisted, learning more as he went, and garnered support on the conference trail that helped bolster not only the zine’s reputation but his own confidence.

Today, he even has an award named after him at the Imaginarium Convention.

For those wanting the full story, and a few laughs along the way, Sizemore writes about hisfor-exposure experience as an editor and publisher in the book, For Exposure: The Life and Times of a Small Press Publisher.

“I look back at those first few issues I edited and I can’t stand it, because I have all this experience now,” he explained.

As for the writing, Sizemore says the most important maxim to remember is, what works for one person may not work for another.

“There is never one concrete right way of writing. It’s a very different beast from editing. There are very hard set rules for editing. While I do editing 95 percent of the time, I do like to write because there are no boundaries.”

Sizemore said it’s important to set goals with achievable milestones.

“If you’ve tried getting in all the pro zines without luck, then try the semi-prozines. You need an occasional win to keep yourself moving forward.  My growth as a writer reflects that of a lot of writers. When you start out as a newbie, you tend to jump at the first person who wants to publish you. I had a few stories published very early on that I hope no one ever has seen,” Sizemore said, “but those early acceptances really gave me the confidence I needed at the time.”

Sizemore agreed to share some additional insights with Adventures in Writing as his magazine launches its annual subscription drive.

When you’re not on the conference trail, what’s your day like?

Sizemore: Emails. Lots and lots of emails. Oh, and coffee, can’t forget the coffee. I spend a lot of time scheming with my managing editor, Lesley Conner.

My mornings consist of website updates and maintenance, accounting work, and promotional activities. After lunch, I like to do the fun stuff like copy edits, submissions reading, book layout, etc.

What’s the best part of being a small press publisher?

Sizemore: It’s definitely the fact that I’m helping bring something thoughtful and entertaining to the world. I never tire of the thrill of holding a new Apex book in my hands.

Where did your affection for dark science fiction and horror come from?

Sizemore: I give credit to my mom. When I was but a wee lad she and I would have Friday mother/son movie nights. We’d venture down to the video rental shop and pick up great movies like Alien, The Thing, Silent Running, and Lifeforce. Sure, I had some sleepless nights and some terrific nightmares, but it ingrained a curiosity in me regarding the intersection of technology/sf and the darker side of life.

Who are some of today’s writers you follow? Do you read outside your genre?

Sizemore: I have a shortlist of writers who I read faithfully: Mary Doria Russell, Brian Keene, Nick Mamatas, Michael Chabon, Joe Abercrombie, Damien Angelica Walters, Charlie Huston, Richard K. Morgan, and my guilty pleasure Chelsea Cain (I say guilty since she writes ready-to-digest crime novels, but she’s an outstanding writer).

So, yeah, I read outside my genre all the time. About the only stuff I don’t read are romance and urban fantasy.

You describe yourself repeatedly in your book, For Exposure, as a somewhat shy, socially averse person. That’s a common trait among horror writers and writers in general, isn’t it?

Sizemore: Oh yes, most people in the book publishing business are introverts. Except for agents.

I’m way more outgoing than I was just ten years ago. Running a public facing small business requires you to be able to stand up in front of crowds, to be occasionally gregarious, and learn how to hob knob.

apex-magazineWhat’s on tap for the magazine in 2017?

Sizemore: We have two special guest-edited issues that I’m excited about. Maurice Broaddus is taking the reins this coming April for an issue. In August, Dr. Amy H. Sturgis is editing an issue focusing on indigenous authors. Right now we’re having a subscription drive to raise money to expand our fiction offering and to increase our pay to our writers.

Apex has been nominated a few times for the Hugo. Short of killing the editors at the competition, what’s it going to take to win one of them?

Sizemore: Now that Apex Magazine is now considered a “pro zine” and not a “semi-prozine” it has become quite unlikely we pick up any more Hugo nominations. I’m grateful that we picked up three nominations before we matriculated to the pro-level!

If someone is new to your publication, what do they need to know?

Sizemore: Expect to read stories that will have you thinking about the ramifications of how humans interact with technology, the weird around us, and one another. Not all our stories are dark and foreboding, but a majority are.

If someone were to submit a story to Apex, what’s your best advice for them?

Sizemore: Read one issue of the magazine first. I know many writers don’t have bottomless pockets, so if you can’t afford to buy an issue for $2.99, everything we’ve published can be viewed at http://www.apex-magazine.com. Our stories definitely have a particular style, voice, and tone. If you can recognize it and it appears in your submission, your odds for success will be greatly increased. (Leslie Conner, managing editor at Apex, and her reading team offer these additional tips.)

Can a non-science fiction or horror writer find something to like about the stories in your magazine, or should they just bugger off and go find some commercial fiction to read?

Sizemore: LOL bugger off? I’d never say that to ANY reader.

I understand people have their tastes. Even within the diehard Apex Magazine fan ranks, not every story pleases every reader. Having said that, I do think we offer a broad range of interesting work. The only readers I might warn off are those who can’t handle darker material or they’re wanting a Nicholas Sparks experience.

Special thanks to Jason Sizemore for taking time out from his busy schedule for this interview. Those interested in writing or reading dark science fiction, horror, or fantasy tales, check out Apex. And don’t forget to look over all the offerings in Apex’s subscription drive.

John Hart: Why he writes character first

By G. Robert Frazier

It’s a hard business, writing. Author John Hart, who spoke to a crowded room at the Nashville Public Library as part of the 28th annual Southern Festival of Books, knows that all too well.

Hart admitted that even after having written four bestselling books, two of them Edgar Award winners, he struggled to write book five, Redemption Road.

“Writers tend to fall into two categories: those who outline really clearly, like John Grisham or Jeffery Deaver who does 200-page outlines, and those like Stephen King, who are of the grope and hope school,” Hart said.

The latter set of writers “do strange things,” he added, like writing the ending first and then trying to figure out the story that gets them to the ending. “I think John Irving said once he writes the whole thing backwards, which just blows my mind.”

Hart confesses that he is of the grope and hope school. “I’ve discovered that works if I start with character.”

It is a simple lesson, but one that can easily elude the best of authors. Hart learned this lesson after making that rookie mistake of sending his first book, The King of Lies, to agents the day after he typed “The End.”

“After spending a year or so living with a manuscript, you get so close to it all you can see are the images in your head and the story you’re trying to convey,” he said. “But, it’s impossible to understand what story has actually been conveyed. What I see may or may not be what you perceive from the words I’ve written.”

For the next nine months, Hart said he was routinely rejected, becoming one of the most widely known unpublished writers in the great state of North Carolina.

It’s sad, but I don’t think there’s a more insecure creature in the world than the unpublished writer.

“It’s sad, but I don’t think there’s a more insecure creature in the world than the unpublished writer. People who have never done it can’t understand how many sleepless nights and sweat and blood and angst you put into trying to do this thing. It’s not something you do in a week or two. You’re talking about a year, two years, three years … and what you want as that young writer is the validation of someone at a publishing company saying, ‘We want what you’ve got.’

“I was very depressed about it,” he said.

After repeated rejections, Hart realized what he’d done was not very smart. He pulled the manuscript out again and immediately began to see all the problems with it. “I saw the plot holes, I saw the bad dialogue, I saw the trite writing, I saw the overwriting. I saw all the things that first-time writers do. So I fixed it.”

What’s more, Hart realized the importance of character first.

“If the person you know at the end of the book is the same as the character on page one, that book is going to fall flat. That character has to evolve” from beginning to end, he said.

In The King of Lies, His protagonist returns home to contend with the mysterious death of his father and the secrets he left behind.

Hart wrote his second book, Down River, from a different perspective, through the eyes of a man wrongly accused of a crime and “where he gets the strength to deal with this terrible thing I’ve done to him.” The emotional journey resulted in the first of his two Edgar Awards.

Another, for his novel The Last Child, followed.

“By this time, I’m figuring I know what I’m doing. I’ve got this figured out,” Hart said. “Hubris, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t let it get you down, it almost unmade me, I promise you. It’s my tale of woe.”

In writing book five, Redemption Road, “I just thought I could sit down and let it happen. I didn’t understand what I knew implicitly with those first four books. They work because of character, not the story. When I sat down for the fifth book, I had an idea for a story, a modern retelling of the Count of Monte Cristo, about a good man wrongfully imprisoned, bitter and hard through the experience, and what happens when he’s out.”

Hart plowed through the first fifty pages before he paused. It didn’t feel right. But he kept forging ahead, figuring it would work itself out. A year later, 300 pages later, he knew it was still not working in some fundamental way.

“I called my agent and said I’m not going to turn in the story. That’s a bad day, I don’t care who you are. Writers get paid to write, not to throw pages away.”

Looking back on it, Hart said he understands exactly what went wrong.

“I started with story and ended up with a main character that felt like a hundred main characters we’ve all seen before. He’s tough, he’s got scars, but there was nothing remotely interesting about him if you’ve read a dozen thrillers in your life.”

In reviewing the manuscript, Hart noticed something. A minor female character on the sidelines. She was dark, wounded, complex, and willing to walk through fire for the right people. “I figured out it was her story, not his.”

After two more years of rewrites and another year of edits, Redemption Road was finally published this past May to critical acclaim.

If there is one thing to remember from Hart’s “tale of woe,” he said, it is that “truly compelling fiction has to start with truly compelling characters. If the characters aren’t so real and vibrant that the reader cares enough about what happens to them, then it doesn’t matter how good your plot is.”

Southern Festival of Books: Authors sound off on Dylan’s Nobel Prize

by G. Robert Frazier

Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan is the first American in two decades to win the Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Before the ink was even dry on the announcement earlier this week, camps pro and con began forming. Many have praised his selection as an example of the oral tradition of storytelling, though others say it ignores more deserving authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth. One columnist went so far as to say the Nobel committee’s selection was “boringly predictable.” I asked some authors attending the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville on Friday what they thought:

dscf1231“Who wouldn’t want to win something like that. I find more philosophy in music than in some philosophy. Some of the most impactful lines I’ve ever heard or read are in music, so I get it. But, it does kind of defy the category. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not absolutely life-changing. I mean, some of his songs to me were mind-blowing. But by definition, is it literature? I don’t know. But I do love his stuff.”

Sean Patrick Flanery, actor and author

dscf1107“My only caveat with it is, I don’t think it’s going to help book stores that much. I feel like people are going to go, ‘Oh, I didn’t get his last album,’ and they’re going to go buy the album. I like it when someone like (Wisława) Szymborska wins and everyone goes, ‘Oh, I never read anything by her and I’m going to go buy the book.’”

Erica Wright, author of The Granite Moth

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“I don’t have a strong opinion. I’m not a Dylan fan. I’ve just never been huge into him, so part of me is OK, they get points for creativity for thinking outside the box, but part of me is like books are already a shrinking part of the cultural arts pie, let’s not be giving away one of the few prizes that is dedicated for books.”

Thomas Mullen, author of Darktown

“I love it. Bob Dylan is somebody who actually says something about the world and dscf1096life. Listen to Aaron Neville singing ‘With God On Our Side,’ written by Dylan. To me, that’s such a statement of how we are and who we are. But so much of his music is just beautiful and beautiful poetry. He’s a writer. He deserves it.”

Holly McClure, author of Conjuror

dscf1136“What this means is we are redefining literature to include song lyrics. If what he wrote, if the words he wrote, never had music to them, if they were simply put on the page as poetry, he would not be there. There are hundreds of greater poets. The thing that makes his words powerful in the full is that they are intimately connected to the music. I’m not sure I define literature that way, because the words do not stand on their own. If you just read them on the page, they are wonderful lyrics and there’s wonderful imagery there, but they are not fabulous poems. There are a thousand poets better on the page, so he has to have the music there with it. And that’s fine, that’s not a criticism, to make it a full work of art. But, it’s a redefinition of literature. I’m not putting a value judgment on that, I’m just describing a reality.”

Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author

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“I remember thinking as a younger man when I used to listen to a lot of Dylan, I thought he was a poet in his heart. I have no idea of his qualifications for that prize. It doesn’t offend me. I have no idea what the conversations were in the committee. The guy is a poet. It is a bit odd, but more power to him.”

John Hart, two-time Edgar Award winner

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“Why are we all so stunned and taken aback by this? We think of it as pop culture instead of something worthy of a Nobel Prize. I was only half kidding when I said, does this mean now that maybe Bruce Springsteen can win for literature?”

Alana White, author of Come Next Spring and The Sign of the Weeping Virgin

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“I have to say, I think he’s a genius and brilliant, but I feel sad for Philip Roth and Don DeLillo. I’m not suggesting he isn’t worthy of that, but I really kind of was hoping it was Philip Roth or a number of other people. I know there are Bob Dylan fanatics and I love Bob Dylan, but, to me, it really should be a writer victor. It’s such an honor for people to get that.”

Megan Abbott, author of You Will Know Me

“I think it’s pretty cool. I think it’s nice that they recognize song lyrics as a form of poetry and I think Bob Dylan has a pretty long history of your deeper than average song lyric.”

Kay Iscah, author of Seventh Night and editor of Tomato Slices

“I guess they’re going to sell a lot more tickets at the Hall of Fame now. He is definitely a street poet. A lot of people consider him to be similar to the French street poets. His longevity can’t be questioned.”

Randy Rudder, author, screenwriter and TV producer

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“I absolutely love it. I can quote so much more of him than I can of Dario Fo or Wole Soyinka. (Dylan) is somebody who has really spoken to people and changed their lives. I think that’s what Mr. Nobel intended. A lot of times the Nobel prizes are given to scold somebody . If China misbehaves, a Chinese dissident gets the Nobel prize. In this one, I couldn’t see very much of a political angle.”

Sharyn McCrumb, author of Prayers the Devil Answers

“I think it’s a legitimate thing. The Nobel Prize over the years has not always gone to the classic people like Faulkner, and it’s often gone to people far less legitimate than Bob Dylan. I speak from two ends. I was for many years a music publisher and now I’m a scribbler. So on one level, I’d say it’s about time.”

Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South and The Orphan Mother

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“I think it’s great. It opens up a whole new avenue for the Nobel Prize and takes it in a whole new direction. (Dylan) has always been a trendsetter and a groundbreaker all through his career. Hopefully, this is just one more avenue that he’s opened up for authors.”

Tom Wood, journalist and author of Vendetta Stone

“He was one of my heroes and I greatly admired him. I couldn’t ever imagine him winning the Nobel Prize, but I’m happy for him.” – Bill Peach, author and columnist

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“There’s no question that he’s one of the greatest writers of our time. He did it in song, but the stories he told were just as real. I think one of the great things about his stories is other people can tell them and reinterpret them. There’s a depth of meaning there to them. He’s a terrific songwriter and storyteller.”

Robert Mangeot, author and president of Sisters in Crime-Middle Tennessee Chapter

lisa-wysocky“Bob Dylan has permeated every bit of our cultural society for decades. I think it’s an excellent choice because he’s such a visual storyteller and such a visual songwriter. We can’t help but immerse ourselves in his words and his songs and his stories. Kudos to the committee that chose him, because it’s a really great selection.”

Lisa Wysocky, author of the Cat Enright equestrian mystery series

“Bob Dylan has certainly given a great body of work and devoted his life to writing songs that are meaningful to people. He’s a great lyricist, so, Go Bob.” – Beth Terrell, author of A Taste of Blood and Ashes and president of the Southeast Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America

ADDITIONAL READING:

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So, what’s your take? Does Bob Dylan deserve the honor of being named the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature? Join the conversation by posting in the comments below.

Author David Bell: Outlining novel is like having a security blanket

by G. Robert Frazier

Writers who insist that “pantsing” is the best way to write their novel probably won’t be afforded that creative luxury with future books, especially if they land a deal with a major publisher, best-selling author David Bell says.

Since She Went AwayThe author of Since She Went Away (New American Library, $16), Bell explained that with the first book he wrote and sold to Penguin, he wrote the way he wanted. But when he got ready to write the second book, the publisher said, “not so fast.”

“The thing about publishers and editors is, and understandably so, they don’t really trust writers,” said Bell, who recently appeared at Parnassus Books in Nashville to promote his new novel. “They think you’re going to blow their deadline. They’re like, hold on, you’re going to write an outline.”

Pantsing, for the uninitiated, is writing “by the seat of your pants.” That is, spilling out words onto a page without having a specific outline to guide you each step of the way. Pantsers argue that the method allows for more creativity and spontaneity than an outline allows, as you can explore new thoughts and ideas as they come to you.

“If you make an outline, you’re going to be able to answer any questions in advance,” said Bell, who is an associate professor and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Western Kentucky University.

Outliners, or plotters, like to know the beats or key moments in a novel, which helps keep them from veering off track or into ideas that don’t serve the main story.

“I really couldn’t imagine doing it any other way, because the time I spend on the outline is almost equal to writing the first draft,” Bell said. “It’s like having a security blanket.”

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Bell’s fifth novel, Since She Went Away, follows the story of Jenna Barton whose lifelong best friend, Celia, has disappeared. Jenna was supposed to meet her but showed up late, and by that time Celia was gone. As a result, Jenna is living with this huge regret and tremendous guilt. When her son’s new girlfriend also disappears, Jenna attempts to discover the truth, revealing long-buried secrets on the way.

Like his previous books, Since You Went Away takes place in a small town.

“I like writing about small towns because it’s manageable,” said Bell, who ironically grew up in the city of Cincinnati. “I think everyone makes assumptions that small towns are like Mayberry, USA. That nothing bad ever happens in a small town, which is not true. Just as much crazy stuff happens in a small town as in a big city. Also, the people tend to be more closely woven; everybody knows everybody, but you really don’t. It’s that kind of disconnect I like to play with in the books.”

Bell’s first idea for the novel didn’t go over so well, which is another important reason why editors want to see an outline beforehand.

“I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea, and the editor acted like I’d just handed her a turd,” Bell said. “So, I had to start all over again.”

Once the outline is in hand, Bell likes to forge ahead without a lot of editing as he goes.

“What works for me is getting the whole draft down. I have to see the whole thing, and then go back and try to fix it,” he said. “It’s like a security blanket for me. I always fear the editor is going to call me and say they need the book two months sooner, and I can say, ah, I have a draft.”

That’s not to say that the outline itself can’t change in certain circumstances.

“There was a different ending to Since She Went Away,” Bell said, “but as I wrote I realized there was a better option for the ending.”

Doing favors for your editor and agent aren’t likely to change their minds either. While in New York for the International Thriller Fest, Bell took his editor and agent to “Hamilton”, thanks to scoring tickets from the choreographer who was a school friend of his.

“The editor in chief of Berkley Books said it was the nicest gift any writer ever got an editor,” he said. But the sentiment didn’t last long. “There was a day where they were like, we love him, but then it was back to business as usual.”

 

Quotable David Bell

  • On indie bookstores: “I think a store like Parnassus is a miracle. This is the real deal here. This is a bookstore that cares about books, that wants to sell books, that wants to build relationships. It can be the heartbeat of the community. I feel lucky to be here, that I live an hour away from Parnassus. I think it’s great to be in a bookstore like this. Buy your books here.”

DSCF0446 (2)On Dean Koontz: “I opened a letter from Dean Koontz once and it said, ‘I was going to give you a blurb for your book, but my dog died.’ In the amount of time he took to wrote that letter, he could have written a blurb. But, just to show there’s no hard feelings between Dean Koontz and I, I had the characters in the book reading Dean Koontz.”

 

  • On book covers: “There is no significance to the red umbrella in Since She Went Away. They do the cover way in advance before the book is even finished. They did a first cover and it really kind of sucked, so they went back and redid the cover, which I think is now really great. In the past, I have gone back and added elements from the cover into my books. For example, in The Hiding Place they had a boy walking beside a pond on the cover. I added the pond into the book.”

 

  • On research: “Research is such a boring word. I don’t think of it as research. If you’re interested in reading about the stuff, It doesn’t’ feel like work. I’m always interested in reading about missing persons cases and crime cases.”