Michael Ondaatje discusses the clues that lead to stories

The mindset of a writer—from the relationship between character and author to the process of creating a literary work—is an exploration that fascinates many readers. Michael Ondaatje, the author of several critically acclaimed literary novels, including The English Patient, considers himself an archaeologist. Not the kind that roots around in the dirt for prehistoric skeletons, but the kind that extracts memories and transcribes them to the written page.

Michael Ondaatje discusses his novel, Warlight, at Parnassus in Nashville.

“Many of my books—many writers—are in an archaeological situation of unearthing story, of unraveling clues and events to find out what really happened, who was the patient and so on,” Ondaatje explained during a recent visit to Parnassus Books in Nashville to promote his newest novel, Warlight.

Like an archaeologist who may discover a tiny fragment of a bone prior to exposing a larger find, Ondaatje’s books tend to begin with something very minimal, “almost like a clue,” which in turn leads to a more encompassing narrative. In The English Patient, it is a nurse speaking with a patient in bed. “I don’t know who he is, I don’t know who she is,” Ondaatje said. But as he wrote further, he began the process of discovering who they are, how they got to this particular point in time and how each feels in this moment that gives rise to their fascinating story and relationship.

“A lot of novelists know where they are going to go, which is just terrific for them. I just don’t,” he said.

In Warlight, the author (born in Sri Lanka but now a Canadian resident) had only an image for the first sentence: “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.”

“Right away I had the possibility of not just the parents and the children who invade their lives,” Ondaatje said. “They kind of take over the story and govern what happens to Rachel and Nathaniel in the story. So I could kind of go anywhere with that.”

The first line immediately evokes the possibility of adventure, whether ominous or joyous or both. The narrative ultimately follows Nathaniel into adulthood, where Ondaatje adds another perspective as Nathaniel is able to reflect on his memories of his childhood.

The process of discovering his characters through their memories and interpretations of events—rather than simply listing events as they happen—adds authenticity and richness. “In The Cat’s Table—some people think of it as a memoir, but it’s a novel—it was supposed to be a story about an 11-year-old boy [coincidentally also named Michael] on a ship and his journey,” Ondaatje said. (The author took a similar trip in his childhood from Sri Lanka to England.) “But there came a group of people getting involved with the boys on the ship, so it became a story not just from the point of view of the boy.” Like the characters in Warlight, Michael also offers his interpretation of events from that of an adult looking back on his journey.

As with a spelunker of fossils, Ondaatje’s process is one of patience and intuition. He writes the first three or four drafts by hand (“I don’t think I could write on a computer or typewriter. I need to see the scratches and doodle. It makes me feel closer to the story.”) and avoids thinking about sentences as he’s writing them (“I just try to see what’s happening as clearly as I can, not just physically but mentally, about how people are thinking about what’s happening.”).

It’s a lesson in trusting the process, and it allows readers to act as archaeologists, too. “In a poem, you don’t say everything. You suggest. The reader is a participant. In prose, I want to keep that.”

This article originally appeared on BookPage.

Karen Robards surprises readers with action-thriller for fifty-second book

By G. Robert Frazier

I didn’t discover Karen Robards until she’d written her fifty-second book.

Well, why would I? She writes historical romance novels. Not exactly my thing. I like my novels more hard-boiled: crime, mystery, suspense, action-thriller, that sort of thing. Horror and sci-fi are also favorites.

The UltimatumBut with book No. 52, The Ultimatum, Robards muscled in on my book reading radar. (Of course, her recent appearance at Parnassus Books in Nashville also helped draw my attention.)

The Ultimatum is Robards’ first foray into the realm of the action-thriller novel and features her feistiest, and perhaps sexiest, heroine to date, Bianca St. Ives. Part con artist, part savvy businesswoman, Bianca is all-action. The first hundred pages find Bianca in a bit of a bind: first as a $2 million heist goes horribly awry and, second, as she must use her cunning and expert fighting skills to escape capture. Unfortunately, her father, Richard St. Ives, isn’t as fortunate and is killed in an explosion.

With her father’s loss weighing heavy on her, Bianca tries to put her life back together and keep her security consultant business afloat. But when the U.S. government comes calling, claiming that her father is still alive, she is thrust back into the thick of things as bait to lure him out of hiding. With her life on the line, Bianca discovers a secret conspiracy involving genetically enhanced super soldiers and the truth about who she really is in an action-packed finale in the mountains of Austria.

“If you’ve ever wondered where the equivalent of Jack Reacher was for women, the answer is, in this page-turning global crime novel,” Robards said in a tweet about the book.

As Robards writes late in the novel, “It’s all fun and games until the Glocks come out.”

Persistence Pays Off

After 52 novels, it seems Robards is doing something right.

Karen Robards“You have to stick with it. It’s a really hard profession,” she says. “I’ve written 52 books; they’re all two-book contracts, so you have no job security beyond that. It’s a very solitary profession. It’s kind of draining. The last month of a book is misery, but it’s a good kind of misery. It hurts so good.”

Robards initially went to law school. She didn’t even think about writing books until her professor assigned the class to write “something publishable.”

“I didn’t know what was publishable,” she admits. “So, I went to the bookstore and historical romance was really, really hot. I bought a bunch of those books, went home and read them. They were great. I thought, I can do this. I sat down and wrote fifty pages of what I called The Pirate’s Woman. It had lots of action, lots of dialogue, and lots of sex.”

The rest of the class all wanted to write the Great American Novel.

“They had themes and symbolism, but I was good with what I wrote. Until the professor said we’re going to read what you wrote aloud. If I had known I was going to have to read it, I would never have written it.”

When Robards finished reading and looked up, she thought she had really wowed them.

“And then they laughed and laughed. My professor got up and said, ‘Karen, you’re a really a good writer, but we’ve got to do something about your choice of reading material.’”

Robards was naturally demoralized.

“I was embarrassed, my feelings were hurt. I was angry,” she says. “On the other hand, I thought what I had written was good. It wasn’t great literature, but it was a good entertaining fifty pages. I just thought, no, I’m not going to let them limit me in that way. I wanted that more than anything.”

Robards dropped out of law school, took a job in an orthodontist’s office, and wrote on a legal pad during her lunch hour while squirreled away in the rest room. The rest, as they say, is history as her book eventually sold and a new writing career was born.

The most important lesson she’s learned along the way is to have the commitment to write every day.

“Writing is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says. “I can’t have a bad day. You always have to be the very best you can be. You have to be able to concentrate and write that book and make it as good as all the other books, no matter what’s going on around you.”

Even when her son had cancer, Robards recalled how she had her notebook in hand.

The Ultimatum was recently named one of BookList’s Top Ten Romance Novels for 2017. But don’t let that fool you: this “romance” novel packs plenty of punch for any action fan.

“I’ve written 52 books and Bianca is one of my favorite heroines. I really, really like her and I enjoyed the process of writing her,” Robards says, adding that another adventure with Bianca is already in the works.


  • KarenRobards.com
  • Facebook: @AuthorKarenRobards
  • Twitter: @TheKarenRobards


Nothing You Can Do but enjoy these tales of murder, mayhem from Ed Kurtz

by G. Robert Frazier

Nothing You Can DoAs author Ed Kurtz so eloquently puts it, “Sometimes people kill for profit, sometimes revenge, and sometimes they do it just for the fun of it.”

In his new anthology NOTHING YOU CAN DO: STORIES (Down & Out Books), he demonstrates the theme with seventeen tales of crime, murder, and vengeance.

“I hope these stories entertain more than anything else,” Kurtz says, “but if the dubious morality of the characters in this collection doesn’t serve as something like a mirror the reader isn’t too keen to look into, I’d be a bit disappointed.”

Read my full interview with Ed Kurtz here.

Jerry Kennealy still mastering his craft after 22 books

by G. Robert Frazier

Polo's Long ShotAfter 11 novels featuring private eye Nick Polo—the latest being POLO’S LONGSHOT—and 22 books overall, you might think Jerry Kennealy has this author thing licked. He’d be the first to tell you otherwise.

“I’ll never get it licked, but this was a fun book to write: expensive wine, glider crashes, and interesting characters,” Kennealy said. “And, as in all of my books, it never would have been written without the help of my Shirley, my beautiful wife and in-house editor. She’s a very detail-minded person. I’m not.  So, I ramble along and she will come up with some interesting findings, like, ‘Jer. The character Polo is talking to on page 223, died on page 110.’ Oops.”

This time around, Polo is enlisted by billionaire Paul Bernier to find a kukri, a priceless golden jewel-encrusted 14th century dagger, designed by the Emperor of India. The dagger has a long, bloody history, passing between warlords throughout the ages, including Saddam Hussain. The search has Polo bumping heads with Bernier’s vindictive stepdaughter, his eccentric household staff, a Miami con man, a crooked private investigator, a drug dealing nightclub owner, a New York Mafia Don, and two vicious murderers.

Read my full interview with Jerry Kennealy here.

Things get personal for Susie Steiner’s protagonist in Persons Unknown

By G. Robert Frazier

Persons UnknownEven as the excitement over Susie Steiner’s first crime novel, Missing, Presumed, is reaching new peaks, the author’s second book in the series featuring Detective Manon Bradshaw, PERSONS UNKNOWN, hits stores this month.  Missing, Presumed was recently shortlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, one of the UK’s most prestigious awards for crime fiction.

If anything, however, the new book ramps up the stakes for Steiner’s protagonist, with those she loves among the suspects in a high-profile murder case. Add to that a detective who is five months pregnant while trying to be a good mother to her two children, and the complications multiply.

“The story is based on a real miscarriage of justice, which took place following a stabbing in London in 2011,” Steiner says. “I heard the story—or the remarkable ‘twist’ in the story—from a lawyer friend of mine over dinner. I then contacted the barrister in the case, and interviewed him, then the solicitor, and got a copy of the pathology report. So the spine of my story took place in real life.”

Read my full interview with Susie Steiner here.

Author Interview: Armand Rosamilia

by G. Robert Frazier

dirty_deeds_3Armand Rosamilia has a lot going on in his head. At any given moment, he could be writing a crime thriller, a zombie novel, an over-the-top humor book, or a paranormal thriller. With more than 150 stories published—from shorts to novellas to novels—the only time he’s not writing is when he’s sleeping.

I keep it all in my head,” the New Jersey boy and Florida transplant says. “I usually write three to five projects at once. I’m not sure how I do it. I just do it. “

Rosamilia’s latest, DIRTY DEEDS 3, continues a crime thriller series starring main character James Gaffney. This time around he’s called upon to give testimony against The Family, a branch of the New Jersey mob operating in Philadelphia. The Philly crew takes exception to Gaffney’s impending testimony and attempts to eliminate him.

Read the full interview in the April issue of The Big Thrill.

Author interview: Danny Gardner

 by G. Robert Frazier

A Negro and an OfayDanny Gardner first made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. So, what’s he doing scribing dark, gritty tales of crime in 1950s Chicago? Turns out the author of A NEGRO AND AN OFAY (Down and Out Books) has also toiled in scriptwriting, acting, and directing—a real Renaissance Man of the literary arts.

When you take them separately, it seems like a lot,” he says. “But be it stand-up, or screenwriting, or acting, it all comes from my deep, spiritual love for words. First, comedy and acting gave me a career and, eventually, a small place in pop-culture. Now that I’m a published novelist, it’s the ultimate expression of that love. I’m always going to write, be it the next Elliot Caprice novel, or just doing improv on stage for ten minutes. That’s who I am. That’s how I love myself the most.”

Read the full interview with Danny Gardner in the May issue of The Big Thrill.

‘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.”


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.


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.


Killer Nashville logo

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.

_ _ _

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.


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.

 FACEBOOK: facebook.com/markzdanielewski 
 TWITTER: @markdanielewski
 INSTAGRAM: @markzdanielewski
Jim Nesbitt

Hard-Boiled Books

The La Vergne Life

At Work. At Play. At Home.


Book Reviews ∙ Bookish Tags ∙ Book Discussions


The Future Writers of America

US Review of Books

Professional Reviews for the People


A Killer Conversation

National Day Calendar

Fun, unusual and forgotten designations on our calendar.