Nicole Bonia | Linus's Blanket

Out of Twenty: Brian Payton, The Author of The Wind Is Not A River, Answers Seven Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  author Brian Paytonand they choose their own interview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Brian Payton is the author of  The Wind Is Not  River. Here is what Brian had to say about reading, writing, and the relevance of historical fiction.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’m a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. My latest book, The Wind Is Not A River, is both a survival story and a love story set in the wilderness of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands leading up to the only battle of WWII fought on American soil. My previous books, The Ice Passage and Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness are narrative nonfiction books dealing with history and conservation respectively. My first novel, drawn from events in my own life, was Hail Mary Corner. I live in Vancouver with my wife and our two daughters. I’ve been writing since my late teens.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I am resolutely non-superstitious so I have no writing rituals. Whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I approach it much the same way: I treat it not like “a job” but as a vocation and a call to action. With fiction, once I have an idea, I chain my ass to a chair for a few weeks to see if a character and story begin to show signs of life. I do not wait for the muse; I follow my interests and get to work.

Write the question you would most like to be asked and answer it.

Your latest book is historical fiction. What makes this story relevant today?

Great survival stories can tell us something elemental about what it means to be alive. This story is primarily a story of survival and devotion set against a history that has been lost in the popular culture—a history I hope to help reclaim. Great love stories can tell us something about the human experience, what it means to live with, without, and for one another… who we are in the presence or absence of love.

With this book, my goal is to transport readers to a stark, beautiful, and unforgiving landscape, then challenge them to ask themselves: How far would you go in search of the truth, or to honor a lost loved one? What are we willing to do to survive, or risk for the sake of love?

The Wind Is Not  A River by Brian PaytonAre you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

When I’m writing fiction, I allow myself to read nonfiction. Conversely, I read fiction when I’m writing nonfiction. Although I have no writing “rituals” per se, each day before writing I try and read some poetry no matter what I’m working on. During the writing and editing of The Wind Is Not A River, I immersed myself in the poetry of Seamus Heaney, particularly the bog poems.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

From the beginning, I had the title of this book in place: The Wind Is Not A River. I realize the title is a head scratcher, a koan, but it evolved naturally out of the course of the narrative and the struggle of one of the two main characters. It is of the place in which the book is set and is appropriate. I realize that some people might find it too cryptic and therefore may be inclined to give it a pass, but many readers are intrigued and curious to take part in solving the mystery. I’m more interested in telling this story to the second group of readers.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

Honestly, I can’t remember much of what I read as a child, beyond the Hardy Boys mysteries, ghostwritten by authors collectively known as “Franklin W. Dixon.” Then, as now, I loved being read to. I remember being mesmerized by my stunningly beautiful third grade teacher, who read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web to the class. I was hooked on every word.

And then I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when I was 14, and it shook me to the core. I vividly remember savoring the final scene while on the road, curled up in the hatchback of our Ford Pinto (infamous for having its gas tank behind the bumper!) because there were not enough seats for all us kids. By the time I reached the ending, I was sobbing loud enough to require explanation. I knew then that I had magic in my hands and wanted to become a magician.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

About the Author: Brian Payton is the author of The Wind Is Not A River, which was chosen as an American Booksellers Association IndieNext “Great Reads” Pick, an American Library Association “Library Reads” Pick, an Amazon Book of the Month, and a BookPage Top Fiction Pick (Jan. 2014). Payton is also the author of the novel Hail Mary Corner and two acclaimed works of narrative nonfiction: Shadow Of The Bear: Travels In Vanishing Wilderness, which was a Barnes and Noble Book Club Pick and a U.S. National Outdoor Book Awards Book of the Year; and The Ice Passage: A True Story Of Ambition, Disaster, And Endurance In The Arctic Wilderness, which was a finalist for the Hubert Evans Nonfiction Prize. Payton lives with his family in Vancouver.

Photo Credit: Alison Rosa, Doug Rosa

Review: A Walk Among Tombstones by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block - A Walk TombstonesSometimes it takes a book being turned into a movie to spur me to reading a writer’s work, or in this case, get back to it. With A Walk Among Tombstones, Liam Neeson and Dan Stevens are providing the impetus to return to the writing of Lawrence Block in anticipation of seeing the movie. I was introduced to Block back in 2011, when I read his most recent entry in the Matthew Scudder series entitled A Drop of the Hard Stuff. I loved the hardboiled feel of the book and the intricacy of the detective work as that novel examined an early case in Scudder’s career. However, I didn’t get a sense of Scudder’s history. It also seemed that he spent an inordinate amount of time attending AA meetings and contemplating his life and sobriety. Nevertheless I was intrigued by his character and had always planned to the earlier books.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff  follows Scudder as he’s first embracing his sobriety and AA. I remember wondering whether he would be less intense, even happier as he became more comfortable in his new life. Reading this novel both confirmed and disproved my thoughts on Scudder. Walk Among Tombstones begins with Scudder narrating the last hours in the life of Francine Koury, the wife of a modest heroin distributor. In the midst of buying groceries, she is abducted by two men who escort her into the back of a blue van and drive off with her. Scudder juxtaposes her movements and abduction against his own; he spends time with his girlfriend and contemplates a trip to Ireland to visit a wayward friend who is having problems returning to the country. His plans change when he receives a call from Kenan Koury and his brother Peter (whom Scudder knows from AA meetings) for help dealing with Francine’s abductors.

While Scudder had no love for drug dealers, neither does he have any qualms about tracking and handing over a pair of ruthless kidnappers to vigilante justice. And so the tale begins. A Walk Among Tombstones is a dark, gritty novel exploring a brutal and senseless crime, but I enjoyed reading it for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the character development and the portrayal of the interpersonal relationships- they strengthen what could easily have been a plot driven novel. While the number of AA meeting he attends hasn’t changed, Scudder is at a different place in his life, more balanced as he develops his relationship with Elaine, whose straightforward support and street smarts make her an engaging lover and confidante. He also deepens his relationship with TJ, a street kid with the smarts and connection to help Scudder track down the bad guys, while developing a firm rapport with Peter and Kenan.

I also found myself fascinated with being immersed in the grittiness of ‘80s New York. It’s almost like reading about another world. The subways were dangerous, cell phones had yet to make an appearance among the common man, computers weren’t wireless, and TJ’s big thrill comes from finally getting a beeper. I’m very curious to see how this translates in the movie, but Block masterfully conveys the New York of a bygone era and a complex investigator attempting to piece his life together in that world. Hollywood would be wise to stick to the main beats of this engaging and finely detailed crime novel.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

Out of Twenty: Martha Woodroof, Author of Small Blessings, Answers 6 Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  authorMartha Woodroof and they choose their own interview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Martha Woodroof is the author of  Small Blessings. Here is what Martha had to say about reading, writing, and making a bucket list helped her publish her novel.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I got my first rejection letter at the age of twelve from the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. As it was a personal letter asking me to send in more stuff, I took that as encouragement. I’m both a college dropout (Mount Holyoke) and a grad school dropout (the University of Virginia). My first real job was as a teacher’s aide in a pilot Head Start program in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the turn of the century, I’ve been attached to WMRA, the Little Public Radio Station that Can, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and actively freelanced for the NPR Culture Desk and for npr.org.

Before that – among a lot of other things, I co-owned restaurants, did a bit of acting, was fired as a magazine editor, hosted local TV talk shows and anchored the news, wrote a book called How to Stop Screwing Up: 12 Steps to a Real Life and a Pretty Good Time, cooked for an artist’s colony, was a country music disc jockey and a psychiatric occupational therapy aide, taught preschool, published a bunch of essays, was a morning drive-time personality on a tiny AM radio station, ran a college bookstore coffee shop, directed a college’s co-curricular programming, and failed to sell cars.

I finished an early draft of Small Blessings a couple of years ago and then put it away to work on some radio and non-fiction projects.
I’ve never been all that frightened of failing (which is lucky, as I have failed a lot). It seems to me we are each responsible for living our own lives kindly, productively and well; figuring out what we need and want to do with our time and our talents, and then going after those things full-tilt. With this in mind, when I hit my early sixties, I made a bucket list. As I’ve done (and failed to do) a lot of very different things, my bucket list had one item on it: Publish Small Blessings! I’d recently reread the novel, re-fallen in love with its people, and the one thing I really wanted was to land them a better gig than life in a cardboard box in my home office.

How Small Blessings came to St. Martin’s is a long, funny story involving some more major non-shyness on my part and (as any first novelist will tell you) a giant helping hand from the serendipity gods. One auction later, Small Blessings and I had fetched up at St. Martin’s, which is publishing heaven as far as I’m concerned.

Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof - JacketAs to the stories I want to tell: I want to explore the lives of ordinary people who have ordinary problems and somehow things happen that bring out the best in them. I am, and have always been, an optimist!

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

My process is not very mysterious; it’s what I think of as the Just Do It school of writing. I get up every morning and write for a couple of hours before I do anything other than give my email a cursory look. As soon as I start to interact with the outside world, the inside of my head turns a pinball machine and I lose my ability to hang out in my imaginary worlds.

As to rituals and food: Coffee. Brought to me in continuous supply by my husband, Charlie, who is bucking for sainthood.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

Q: Is writing fiction fun?
A: Yes!

What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?

I’m a long-term sober alcoholic/addict (hallelujah!). Sobriety has taught me that there’s always another chance. Or conversely, as the Doobie Brothers once put it: “You always have a chance to give up. So why do it now?”

If I had to be stuck on a desert island with only one book, it would be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. In one particular letter, someone asks Ms. O’Connor (who was a seriously devout Catholic) what our duty in prayer is. Ms. O’Connor replies something to the effect that our duty is to figure out what we want and ask for it. The italics are mine, as I read this at a point in my life when I was not yet sober and so was really floundering. And even though I wasn’t even a person of faith at the time, I remember those words hitting me like a blow. Our duty is to figure out what we want…

At the time I was clueless about who I was, let alone what I wanted. That moment with Ms. O’Connor began an ongoing process of learning to accept myself exactly as I am in the world as it actually is. This has been both challenging and, at times, very scary. But – yowza! – it’s also, in my opinion, the most alive way to live. How can we possibly be happy without first being our real selves? So – back to Small Blessings – in general, I think I’m interested in writing about nice, well-meaning people who are willing to face the extreme challenge of accepting themselves as they really are and, in the process, learning what it is they really, truly want.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

My mother read aloud to me way past the age when I could read on my own. She was an English professor who loved literature, and she made Dickens and Shakespeare and Jane Austen as real to me as second grade. I think that’s when I fell in love with words and their power to tell other people’s stories.

Long years reporting in the NPR system only fueled this love. Stories allow us to inhabit the lives of people we will never meet (or who will never exist, in the case of fiction), try on their viewpoints, experience their struggles and triumphs, feel their emotions. I can truthfully never remember not wanting to be a story teller in some form or other.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

I love all my characters, and I was surprised by how much I missed their company once Small Blessings was finished. Writing Agnes Tattle (Tom Putnam’s mother-in-law) was a real blast, because she is so no-nonsense and straightforward.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

About the Author: Martha Woodroof was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.

Weekend E-Reading: Americanah & The Vacationers

office-272813_1280While I am a big fan of reading books and turning pages, I read in fits and starts on my Nook and tablet. Books act as great physical reminders to me of their actual existence. I find that I forget about the books that I have downloaded. This weekend is all about making an active push to take a look at what I have going there and to finish some of the books I forgot I had.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I last mentioned Americanah back in April, when I anticipated reading it in order to attend a friend’s book club. Plans were changed but it is showing up in the book club docket again. That must say something about its effectiveness as a book club pick. Adiche’s writing is gorgeous, and at 74 pages in, her observations of Nigerian and American culture are astute, thought-provoking and sometimes humorous. Ifemelu and Obinze are characters with intriguing depth and complex lives. I’m convinced our discussion will be a lively one.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub: Summer was officially over at the midpoint of The Vacationers by Emma Straubthe week, but I don’t have to let it go completely. The beautiful weekend weather and Straub’s tale of family drama coming to a boil while on vacation in lovely Mallorca, will help me pretend for a little while longer. This one landed on my list after hearing so much about Straub’s debut novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (which I have yet to read). Also, nothing screams summer or beach read like the cover of this novel. I look at it and am immediately transported to warm weather relaxation.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

 

Out of Twenty: Thrity Umrigar, Author of The Story Hour, Answers 12 Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing  author and they choose their own Thrity Umrigarinterview by handpicking the questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Thrity Umrigar is the author of  The Story Hour.  Here is what Thrity had to say about reading, writing, and whether talking solves problems.

As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?

Honestly, it’s been the kindness of readers.  People who make the time to come to my readings.  Or write to me on my fan page on Facebook.  Or write me long, detailed emails that sometimes break my heart but always remind me that words matter, that literature matters.  That there is a good reason to spend months at a time lost in writing a book, neglecting friends, family, house, pets.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?

Honestly, I have loved writing all my characters.  Each one is different, each one carries his or her own history, and I’m intrigued by them all.  I love trying to figure out why they behave the way they do, what in their past tugs at their present.  I have to confess that Lakshmi was probably the most challenging one to write because of her ungrammatical, idiosyncratic English and the way she would turn a phrase.  In many ways, Lakshmi was a stranger to me—she grew up in the Indian countryside, she was the daughter of peasants, she had an eighth-grade education.  She had very little in common with me.  And she insisted in speaking in this very non-standard English.  So I had to get to know her in the course of writing this novel. Read more