And third and fourth, it seems. The once-single mother who survived on welfare, then struck platinum-status with her seven-book series on the magical world of Harry Potter has reinvented herself again, this time as a novelist for an entirely new audience – adults.
Rowling’s post-Harry era begins Sept. 27 with the release of “The Casual Vacancy.” The new novel is a 512-page tale of class warfare, morality, and small town politics set in an idyllic fictional English village.
The question on everyone’s mind: Whether Rowling can successfully crossover from her stratospherically triumphant reign as a children’s author and creator of the 450-million-selling Potter books, which made her net worth almost $900 million and set the bar for forthcoming books frighteningly high, to well-received adult novelist.
This much is clear: “The Casual Vacancy” is no “Harry Potter” and Rowling, thankfully, makes no apologies for this decidedly different track. Set in the fictional English village of Pagford, the book begins as a “rural comedy of manners” that builds into a portrayal of class warfare, strewn throughout with treatises on social welfare. Following the death of Pagford council member Barry Fairbrother, the well-heeled town is pitched into a divisive battle about its connection to Fields, a neighboring town characterized by its public housing and poverty. Historically, Pagford extended a hand to Fields – children from Fields could attend primary school in Pagford (“a place of flower baskets and other middle-class comforts) and the town also ran a drug-treatment clinic that served many in Fields. But with the death of council member Fairbrother, Pagford’s “anti-Fields faction sees an opportunity to rid Pagford of this burden.”
After reading the 512-page novel and interviewing the famously reserved Rowling, writer Ian Parker shared his thoughts in a 10,000-word feature in the New Yorker.
“Within a few pages, it was clear that the novel had not been written for children,” Parker writes. “The Casual Vacancy,” after all, is a tale of “class warfare set amid semi-rural poverty, heroin addiction, and teenage perplexity and sexuality.”
“…But reviewers looking for echoes of the Harry Potter series will find them. “The Causal Vacancy” describes young people coming of age in a place divided by warring factions, and the deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother – who dies in the first chapter but remains the story’s moral center – had the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his – tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.”
Even Rowling found similar themes. “I think there is a through-line,” the author told Parker of the New Yorker. “Mortality, morality, the two things that I obsess about.”
But, by most accounts, the similarities end there. For those accustomed to Rowling’s more traditional, buttoned-up children’s fare, “The Casual Vacancy” is most certainly not that.
There’s this: “The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.” And this, about a lustful little boy who sits on a school bus “with an ache in his heart and in his balls.”
Some have asked Rowling whether she felt some responsibility for her band of youthful fans who grew up reading Harry Potter and would now, surely pick up “The Casual Vacancy.” “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” Rowling told the New Yorker. “I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.”
Following the unprecedented success of her Potter series, it would have been easy for Rowling to continue writing Potter adventures, or at least, more children’s books. With this new adult novel, she drummed up the courage to branch out and take a risk.
Writes the New Yorker’s Parker, “I asked her if publishing the new book made her feel exposed. ‘I thought I’d feel frightened at this point,’ she said. ‘Not just because it’s been five years, and anything I wrote after Potter—anything—was going to receive a certain degree of attention that is not entirely welcome, if I’m honest. It’s not the place I’m happiest or most comfortable, shall we say. So, for the first few years of writing ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re very lucky. You can pay your bills, you don’t have to publish it.’ And that was a very freeing thought, even though I knew bloody well, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to publish it. I knew that a writer generally writes to be read, unless you’re Salinger.’”
“Authors, and especially successful authors, are expected to keep producing more of the same,” writes the UK’s Telegraph. (The curse, if you will, of the Harry Potter phenomenon.) “To change genres can upset their fans.”
In an autobiography A.A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame complained “that the artist who has early success with a painting of a policeman is expected to paint policemen forever,” as the New Yorker writes. “If you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills, criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, obviously directing the traffic.” Although Milne is best known for his children’s books centered on that lovable bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, he attempted at various points in his career to explore all genres, including sketches, plays, mysteries, novels, short stories, even war pamphlets – with mixed success. “As a discerning critic pointed out,” Milne wrote, “the hero of my latest play, God help it, was ‘just Christopher Robin grown up.’ So that even when I stop writing about children, I still insist on writing about who were children once.”
Though we have yet to get our hands on a copy of “The Casual Vacancy,” we wager to say Rowling has already accomplished something remarkable in having the courage to walk away from the “easy success” of another Potter novel or even another children’s book and leap into a new genre. With “The Casual Vacancy,” she is attempting to escape the curse that accompanies any smash success.
As we page through this new, and no doubt very different piece of the Rowling canon, we’ll do our best not to superimpose upon every second character a certain beloved boy wizard we once knew. Because whatever Fitzgerald said, everyone deserves a second act – and a fresh read.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
The move comes after fellow retailing giant Target also stopped stocking Amazon devices in May.
As Amazon increasingly attempts to position itself as a go-to retailer for everything their customers need, experts say Wal-Mart may have wanted to stop supporting the competition.
"Every time you pick up your Kindle, they’re trying to get you to buy patio furniture [at Amazon],” technology analyst for BGC Financial Colin Gillis told The New York Times. “If I were Wal-Mart, I certainly would not be encouraging my customers to go down the path of owning a Kindle and buying things from Amazon."
Amazon recently began building warehouses in several states to get closer to their goal of same-day shipping for its customers. Besides books and DVDs, the Amazon website also currently offers items under categories like "home, garden and tools," "grocery, health and beauty" and "sports and outdoors." Devices like the Kindle Fire encourage users to purchase e-books, movies and TV shows.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman told Reuters that the stores will continue to sell "a broad assortment" of other tablet devices, so readers will still be able to purchase devices at the stores.
Caris & Company analyst Scott Tilghman told Reuters that the reason for the change was simple.
"Wal-Mart and Target view Amazon as a competitor," he said.
The New York Post says Lewinsky will earn a $12 million advance for a detailed memoir about her time with Clinton.
Those who claim the book exists says it contains more details on the affair as well as complaints Clinton made to Lewinsky about his wife, Hillary, and letters Lewinsky wrote to Clinton which have never been previously released.
"In them, she opened her heart about her love for Bill and how much happier she could make him,” an anonymous source said, according to the Post. “Some of what she wrote was so raw that she never sent them."
But then others say Lewinsky has no such plans. Someone called a friend of Lewinsky's told the Huffington Post that despite demand for it, Lewinsky will not be penning a memoir any time soon.
"Several publishers would love her to tell all, but she has no intention of doing so,” the friend said. “She has been through enough already and all this happened 14 years ago. She has put it behind her and moved on with her life."
Lewinsky previously spoke about her alleged affair with Clinton to writer Andrew Morton, who published the book "Monica's Story." Morton was also the author of the controversial biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, titled "Diana, Her True Story."
A new two-and-a-half-minute trailer for the first installment of “The Hobbit” arrived online this week, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the publication of the book, which will be celebrated on Friday.
The preview features the reappearances of several “Lord of the Rings” characters, including wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), elves Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Gollum (Andy Serkis), whom Bilbo encounters and must engage in a battle of riddles.
The character of Thorin (Richard Armitage), the leader of the company of dwarves which Bilbo joins in an attempt to take back the dwarves’ home from the dragon Smaug, also makes several appearances.
The trailer begins with Gandalf explaining the dwarves’ quest, after which the dwarves show up at Bilbo (Martin Freeman)’s home.
“I like visitors as much as the next hobbit, but I do like to know them before they come,” Bilbo complains. But soon after, he’s seen running through Hobbiton, clutching a map.
“I’m going on an adventure!” he hollers.
Gandalf also explains to Galadriel, co-ruler of Lothlórien, why he chose Bilbo for the quest.
“Perhaps it is because I am afraid and he gives me courage,” he says.
A character who appears to be the wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) states that “a dark power has found its way back into the world,” perhaps referring to the ring that jumpstarts the plot of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
The character of Gollum is seen entering into the battle of riddles with Bilbo, discussing the terms of the game.
“If Bagginses loses, then we eats it whole,” he informs Bilbo, with a head tilt suggesting this is a perfectly fair deal.
Various battle and adventure scenes are also shown, including wargs (wolf-like creatures) attacking, the dwarves and the trolls which the party encounters around a campfire as well as the dwarves braving a rockslide.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first movie in a planned trilogy, is scheduled for a Dec. 14 release. The films’ director Peter Jackson originally stated that the book would be adapted into two films, but recently announced that a third movie will be released in 2014, with the second installment coming in 2013.
Check out the full trailer below.
“Goodnight iPad”? Maybe not quite yet.
According to a new study, parents still overwhelmingly choose print books over electronic ones when reading together at night. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that more than 70 percent of parents still choose print books to read for their children. More than 50 percent of children selected print books over e-books.
The results came with a caveat – if a family is on vacation or if a parent is busy with some task and needs to sit a child down with something to keep the child occupied, parents preferred giving a child an e-book over a print version.
The survey was conducted among iPad users and did not take other devices into account.
"Haunting." "Atmospheric." "Harrowing." These are the kinds of adjectives readers are applying to "The Light Between Oceans," the debut novel by London attorney M. L. Stedman. Set on an island off the coast of Western Australia (home territory for Stedman), the book tells the story of a World War I veteran and his wife, a childless couple with a loving marriage but no child to share the remote outpost that they call home. This couple – with a single breathtaking decision – set into motion an unimaginable course of events. I recently spoke with Stedman about her book.
Q: The story of "The Light Between Oceans" is so atmospheric, intense, and – in several senses – remote. How did this story come to you?
A: I write very organically – a picture or phrase or voice turns up in my mind, and I just follow it. For this story, I closed my eyes and could see a lighthouse and a woman. I could tell it was a long time ago, on an island off Western Australia. A man appeared, and I sensed he was the lightkeeper, and it was his story. Then a boat washed up, carrying the body of a dead man. I kept looking and saw there was a baby in it too, so I had to keep writing to see who all these people were and what happened next.
Q: Several of your characters face difficult ethical dilemmas. Some make poor decisions, but in the end, as we come to understand them, most turn out to be quite sympathetic people. Would you say that this reflects your world view?
There’s a great deal to be said for that old expression ‘walk a mile in the other person’s shoes’, don’t you think? I believe that people are born with a strong instinct for good. Of course, views of what ‘good’ looks like differ wildly. But I think it’s usually possible to find compassion for even the most misguided of individuals: that’s different from condoning harmful behavior. It’s just recognizing that the business of being human is complex, and it’s easy to get things wrong. Compassion and mercy allows society to heal itself when we do.
Q: Much of the story involves either loss – or fear of loss – of love. Would you say that you see this fear as the great driver of much of human experience?
You probably only fear losing love if you already have it, so I’d say that the driver starts a step earlier – satisfying a basic human need for love in its very broadest sense: that includes giving as well as receiving it. In its infinite variety of forms, it plays a role in bestowing life with meaning.
Q: The plotting in this novel is tight and neatly crafted (almost like a ship, I kept thinking as I was reading). Do you think that your work as a lawyer has impacted your writing style in terms of attention to details, an ability to cross all the "t" and dot all the "i"s?
I love the idea of the plot being as sound as a ship! I think the greatest impact of my legal background is that it allows me to write freely and spontaneously, without meticulously plotting in advance. Lawyers are probably hard-wired for structure, so it’s a reflex rather than something to spend a lot of conscious thought on. And yes, the legal training helps on the detail, too, making sure that things are consistent.
Q: When it comes to the setting, the book seems to be written with much love. Is that coastal setting close to your heart?
Definitely! I’m always happiest beside an ocean. I grew up with the West Australian landscape, and I so enjoyed putting it on the page – describing the place I’ve loved all my life.
Q: Who are your own favorite writers? Do you think any of them have had an impact on this novel?
A few favorites who spring to mind (in no particular order) are Graham Greene, George Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Gardam, Andre Gide, Ian McEwan, Edith Wharton, Katherine Mansfield... I suppose what they have in common is an unflinching eye, a profound understanding of the human heart, and a mastery of language. Those are the qualities I find most rewarding in books, so they’re the ones I’d like to bring, in however pale a reflection, to what I write.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.
When Rushdie published “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, it was immediately met with controversy. Many Muslims objected to the novel's plot, in which the devil tries to convince the Prophet Muhammad to add extra verses to the Koran accepting three goddesses as deities. Some in the Muslim community also charged Rushdie with blasphemy because several characters in the novel who are prostitutes have the same names as Muhammad’s wives.
The book was banned in several countries, including Kenya, Indonesia, and Singapore, and Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, asking “all valiant Muslims” to attempt to kill Rushdie and any editors or publishers associated with the book.
Several bookstores were bombed, including Dillons in London and two stores in Berkeley, Calif. The office of The Riverdale Press, a community paper based in New York, suffered damage from firebombs after the newspaper ran an editorial supporting Rushdie.
Hitoshi Igarashi, the translator who rendered the book into Japanese, was killed in 1991, and other translators were injured in or narrowly escaped assassination attempts. Some citizens were killed in the violence that broke out around the globe.
After the UK broke diplomatic relations with Iran, Iranian government leader Muhammad Khatami stated in 1998 that it would “neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie,” but some in the country still embrace the fatwa, including Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who stated in 2005 that the fatwa is still in place.
Rushdie’s letter thanking independent bookstores for their support has been made into posters that will be hung at various locations.
“The independent booksellers of America put the book in windows, mounted special displays, and courageously stood up for freedom against censorship, refusing to allow the choices of American readers to be limited by the threats of an angry despotic cleric far away,” Rushdie wrote. “The bravery of independent booksellers influenced other stores to follow their lead, and in the end a key battle for free expression was won…. I’m glad to be able to honor your courage and give you all your due…. It was a privilege to be defended by you, and I have been trying, and will continue to try, to be worthy of that defense.”
The author was recently the subject of another threat when the head of a religious organization in Iran, Hassan Sanei, told the Iranian Students' News Agency that he was increasing a reward for killing Rushdie to $3.3 million, adding $500,000 from its previous standing.
“I'm not inclined to magnify this ugly bit of headline grabbing by paying it much attention,” Rushdie told the Los Angeles Times.
A new novel by Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay, titled “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” was discovered by a Columbia University graduate student and recently declared to be authentic.
The novel, which focuses on Harlem during the Great Depression, was found by Jean-Christophe Cloutier in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia in 2009 when Cloutier was sorting through materials belonging to writer Samuel Roth. The manuscript was discovered inside one of the boxes. Cloutier worked with a professor at Columbia, Brent Hayes Edwards, who was also his dissertation advisor. The two examined materials at other schools as well as McKay’s personal correspondence to try to determine if the book was actually written by the author. They also asked three experts to help them verify that the manuscript was genuine.
The novel pokes fun at Communists and also depicts Harlem night life, with the book’s characters visiting salons, night clubs, and other establishments.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and one of the experts asked to examine the novel, said the discovery is an impressive one.
“Because it was written in the second half of the Harlem Renaissance, it shows that the renaissance continued to be vibrant and creative and turned its focus to international issues – in this case the tensions between Communists, on the one hand, and black nationalists, on the other, for the hearts and minds of black Americans,” Gates said.
Writer Claude McKay was born in Jamaica and is the author of such works as “Home to Harlem.”
The Civil War unleashed a tide of grief and mourning that remains unimaginable today when American wars are fought by the few.
On Tuesday evening, Sept. 19, PBS's "American Experience" documentary series will try to help us understand the toll – which for some would last well into the 20th century – by airing a new film titled "Death and the Civil War." It is based on the 2008 book "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War" by historian Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University.
In a review for The Christian Science Monitor, Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe called the book "a harrowing but fascinating read" that "makes a convincing case that since the heartbreak of the Civil War the US has never been the same."
I talked to Faust last week about the Civil War's legacy of immense grief and mourning, the ways the war changed perceptions of American citizenship and government, and the evolution of her own beliefs as a child of the South.
Q: How did the death toll of the Civil War – an estimated 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians and perhaps even more, according to a new estimate – change us as a nation?
A: We learned about our obligations to the dead. If we are to understand ourselves as a nation made up of citizens, and if we ask people to fight in defense of that democracy, there are obligations owed to them.
Before the Civil War, there were no national cemeteries, no processes for identifying the dead in the battle. There weren't any dog tags, and there was no next-of-kin notification.
You didn't necessarily even hear what the fate of your loved ones had been. It was up to their comrades to write and inform you.
Those kinds of practices were transformed by the recognition of what the country owes to the citizen in the way of an honorable death and the responsibility for the remains and for the kin of those who have died in war.
Q: How was the government itself transformed by its new responsibility to take care of soldiers who lived and those who died?
A: It had never had so much work as was represented by the bureaucracy necessary to rebury the dead, with more than 300,000 Union soldiers relocated and buried in national cemeteries.
That was an enormous logistical undertaking. And the pension system that was set up to take care of the relatives required a level of engagement in the lives of citizens and bureaucracy that didn't exist. Before, the government was very small.
Q: What did the loss of these lives mean to the nation's understanding of itself?
A: The war is captured in the Gettysburg Address: these honored dead died that a nation might live. The nation itself becomes the product of the sacrifice. There is a sense of the obligation of the nation to the principles for which the war was fought.
This was a war about citizenship, about equality, about emancipation, and the values that define us.
Q: How did it change people's views of death itself?
A: Human beings were confronted with death in what they called particular circumstance and necessities: Young people were dying in ways that wouldn't have happened outside of war.
A lot of individuals found themselves asking questions. What does death mean? What is heaven like? Do I really believe in a benevolent God if He allows these things to occur? What does it mean to be a human being and confront this level of inhumanity?
Q: When I think of this era, the modern violin tune "Ashokan Farewell," popularized by the landmark Ken Burns "Civil War" documentary series, comes to mind. It's so tremendously sad and mournful. Does the music ring true to that era?
A: The mournfulness you describe is very much at the heart of so many individuals.
When I was growing up in Virginia, the Civil War was presented to me as glorious with dramatic courage and military honor. Later, I realized how death was central to the reality. It was at the core of women's lives. It's what they talked about most.
Q: How did writing this book change your own perception of the war?
A: As a kid, I was growing up in an era of celebration of the Civil War centennial, with a lot of "Lost Cause" emphasis on the Confederacy.
I used to play Civil War soldiers with my brothers as a child, and my older brother always insisted that he got to be Lee, and I got be Grant. I never knew that Grant won until quite some time had passed.
As I became older, I began to recognize what the war was fought about.
I also grew up in the era of civil rights. My perspective was one that led me to feel proud that I'd gotten to be Grant.
Q: How did people of that time get through the pain and agony of loss?
A: That was in my mind every minute. Some people didn't cope.
There's a story of a young man from South Carolina named Oliver Middleton. He goes off to war at age 18, he's killed, and his father, a very wealthy man, scours the battlefield to find out what happened. The parents are grief-stricken, and his mother dies within a year. She just dissolved and disintegrated.
I'm also struck by how many soldiers write about what they were seeing. Henry Taylor from Wisconsin writes to his parents saying, "I don't know what to say, my mind is all jumbled up. I can't explain it, I can't talk about it."
I see what we might regard today as post-traumatic stress.
Another factor is the powerful role of religion in enabling people to cope. Thomas Hampton of Georgia, who dies in the absolute last month of the war, writes to this wife, two years before, that he'd already gotten to Heaven. He writes about a better place. It's as if he's living parallel lives, one in his religion that allows him to survive the fighting.
There's a Biblical verse that says "as thy days, so shall thy strength be." This is a sense that you won't be called upon to do more than you're able. God will get you the strength to put you through what is in front of you.
Q: What sort of emotional scars would linger?
A: There's a quotation from [author] William Deal Howell, talking about President James Garfield. His experience in the war made him lose a sense of the sacredness of life that never returned to him. It came from seeing dead men whom other men had killed, seeing human beings killing one another. This level of destruction and inhumanity affected him in ways that lasted his whole life.
Q: What does the documentary add to the book?
A: The film can capture of the dimensions of the experience. The letters that are so familiar, but having an actor read those words with the visual accompaniment of the film is very powerful.
One letter to a soldier's parents says: "I know you would be delighted to read a word from your dying son." The letter is shown on the film and read by an actor. The camera can focus in on these words, each of which is so forceful about what it communicates. It can also focus on the bloodstains on the letter and have the words articulated at the same time.
It has people in tears who watched this movie.
Q: What else touched people about the film?
A: Just the human experience of coping with death and what it means to confront death and what it means to do the work of death, preparing for it, contemplating it, understanding it, and mourning. This happens to all of us.
I've had many people reach out to me who have said they've used the book in bereavement groups and in hospices. It's about war but also a larger problem: We're all going to die. How do we relate to that?
The other response has been from soldiers about what it's like to die in war, what sacrifice for one's country means, what one's country owes in return.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
Interview conducted by Miwa Messer for The Barnes & Noble Review
Between the two of them, Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman have produced some of the most mesmerizing literary fiction today – vibrant and soulful, often screamingly funny, and always searching. Each of their debuts was selected for the Discover Great New Writers program – Díaz's "Drown" in '96 and Goldman's "The Long Night of White Chickens" in '92 – and since then, both have published to ever-growing acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize for Díaz's "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."
Goldman's most recent novel, the haunting "Say Her Name," is now out in paperback, and "This Is How You Lose Her," Díaz's long-awaited follow-up to "Oscar Wao," was released today.
The longtime friends generously agreed to let the Barnes & Noble Review eavesdrop on their conversation, one that I kicked off – and closed – with some questions of my own. – Miwa Messer
The Barnes and Noble Review: Which comes first, voice or place?
Junot Díaz: For my first three books the setting (or place if you will) has always been a given – NJ and the Dominican Republic and some NYC – so from one perspective you could say that the place in my work always comes first. But really what comes first is something even more basic – my desire to write about the Dominican diasporic experience, to write about a movement of people, a set of experiences, a history, which I witnessed firsthand and which shaped almost every part of my life, and yet which was largely ignored, erased, and misunderstood by the larger culture. That was the first impulse, certainly. But with all three of my books there were other very specific evolutionary conditions that made them possible. "Oscar Wao" or example cohered in a period of terrible distress. All the novels that I wanted to write were not happening. I was living in Mexico City, next door to you, Frank (in fact you were the one who enticed me to come down to the DF [Distrito Federal], thinking the distance and the city would inspire me.) My apartment had almost no furniture and garbage bags for window shades – I definitely wasn't taking care of myself. I was going nuts from my lack of success, and I kept playing the "Conan the Barbarian" soundtrack over and over thinking that it might spark something.
Now that I've had time to reflect, I realize that in all the failed books I was attempting to write about the deepest sh*t in both my life and in Dominican history. I was trying to tackle the traumatic after-effects of dictatorship, specifically the afterlife of the Trujillato, starting with my own family and projecting that out to my fictional characters. This was not an easy thing to do. Not for me certainly. I grew up in the shadow of the Trujillato, saw how the regime had ravaged so many families. The sexual violence that the Trujillato deployed to terrorize the Dominican people was one of my principle concerns and given all the silence and shame that surrounds it – no wonder I was having trouble with the material.
So one night we were all at a party with some Mexican actors, and I was drinking beers and listening to the chatter, and one of the actors came up to me and said that his favorite writer was Oscar Wilde, but of course I heard it as Oscar Wao and that was how it all started. With a name misheard. As soon as I heard Oscar Wao the title came to me, and then this vision of Oscar and his sister and their crazy mother and over them all the shadow of Trujillo. I wrote the Oscar section of the book very fast; the rest of the novel came much slower. What kept me going even in the darkest periods was that strange third person first person voice that mixed the nerdish with the historical, which was so vibrant and flippant and yet so dark. "Oscar Wao" more than any of my other works was a delicate balancing act – keeping the voice from becoming too funny or too bleak, too historical or too nerdish. "Drown," my first book, was something else altogether. I was an immigrant kid who grew up in a neighborhood that I never saw depicted anywhere, who remembered a Dominican Republic that was very much alive and kicking. I wanted to write stories about both these worlds. I floundered for years until I hit upon Yunior's voice. Then suddenly the pages started flowing out of me but before Yunior's voice crystallized in my head nothing was working. Nothing at all. Even stories I was dying to tell were flat on the page.
Francisco Goldman: And what a creation Yunior's voice is, one of the great literary character voices of our time! Some people probably believe that Yunior's voice must be close to your own, a directly autobiographical voice. But it's something, as you imply, that you developed. I'd love to know more about what went into your discovery of that voice. Are there earlier versions of that voice filed away somewhere that make you cringe?
The sources of most of my novels have been a mix of things. What is interesting to me is the question of what finally sparks the writing, how do you get to that moment when, as you say, Yunior's voice crystallized and the writing took off.
My first novel, "The Long Night of White Chickens," grew out of my immersion, beginning in 1979, in the war and nightmare repression in Guatemala. Sure, I had a Guatemalan mother, but I'd had a mostly typical suburban middle-class New England upbringing. I was so innocent that I thought that our old family cottage on Lake Amatitlán, just outside Guatemala City, would be a perfect place to hole up and write the stories I needed for my MFA applications. When I arrived and told my uncle my plan, he freaked. Don't you know there's a war on in this country! The cottages are shut down, the night watchman who looked after them was murdered, the police station was attacked by guerrillas, etc. So I was forced to live in my uncle's house. That's where it started: when, miracle of miracles, a short story I'd written for the MFA applications was accepted by Esquire magazine, the editors invited me to write non-fiction, and I asked to be sent to Guatemala, and just like that I became a freelance journalist, that's how I (barely) supported myself, working out of Central America until 1991. One of the reasons I was so committed to this was that I thought it would make me grow as a writer. In that grand tradition, I was after experience.
But I didn't know how to write fiction about violence, suffering, injustice, absolute evil, the inevitable political and moral entanglements, didn't really understand my place in all that as a human, never mind as a would-be fiction writer (Me quedaba grande, as they say here in Mexico.) I was obsessed with writers who'd written novels that were also rooted in historical tragedy and violence and that somehow managed to balance light and darkness, the all too real and the mysterious. How did they do that? One of those was Faulkner of course and when reading that he described Caddy from "The Sound and the Fury" as his heart's darling, something clicked. Flor de Mayo Puac was partly born in that moment, but she was still only an idea for a character. In 1986 Morgan Entrekin offered me a modest advance. I escaped to Madrid, worked on my novel every day, failed every day, had stupid fist-fights with Spaniards who thought I was a moro, and a few months later returned to Guatemala having blown my advance, and without a single page of the novel.
One day I said to myself, Okay, this is a ludicrous and complicated story you want to tell, but ludicrous and complicated things happen to people here all the time, and if it had really happened to you, and you absolutely had to tell it to somebody, you'd be able to. And that's how the narrator Roger's voice finally came forward, with him speaking as if to a friend about what had happened to him, and that opening page never changed. Since then, every novel but one has begun with this terrifying process of failing every day that lasts for months and months. I'm convinced that while we are consciously flailing away, trying, say, to find that voice, our subconscious is actually doing the work, laying down a foundation, exploring paths, a sponge absorbing ideas and impulses until it begins to take on the weight of obsession and conviction. Twice, after months of anguished failing, it's been a dream that's finally gotten me rolling. A dream that I was on a freighter at sea with no other person on board gave me the tone I needed for what became "The Ordinary Seaman." I'd done a ton of research for "The Divine Husband," but when I tried to start it nothing came, I gave up, went back to it a few years later and it was the same. At a party in Mexico City I drank a daiquiri made with bad ice, ended up in bed hallucinating with fever, and dreamed a scene of convent servants searching the streets of 19th-century Guatemala City for a suitable Indian to take back to their Mother Superior for her foot washing ritual, and it was only then that the novel finally found a spark of life and lurched forward.
"Say Her Name" was different. I began it six months after Aura's death and was helpless to do anything else. Now I've gone back to a novel that I was working on when Aura died. It's a different novel now, just as I'm a different person. I failed at it for much of this summer. The difference is that this time, the weeks of failing didn't panic me, I'd been down this road before and knew that sooner or later it would resolve.
So Junot, my question to you is up at the top. Related to it is another question: how do you find your way forward when you write a novel? Did you know where you wanted the novel to go when you began "Oscar Wao?" How radically different was that process for you than when you write short stories?
Junot Díaz: I have hundreds of pages filled with failed versions of Yunior's voice. That's how I roll; I always have to write a lot of crap before anything useful emerges. I don't necessarily cringe. I just shake my head, amazed that I have to sow so much to glean so little.
But I totally agree with you – my unconscious mind does better work than my conscious mind. And it was without question the best guide to get me through the earlier stages of my novel-writing process. In the first abortive stages of "Oscar Wao," I was trying desperately to write a Rushdie-esque encyclopedic novel about contemporary Dominican history. I wasn't listening to what the writing was telling me – I, Junot, was trying to be in charge. I wanted an encyclopedic novel for no other reason than I wanted it. The arrogance of our executive selves. I lost years chasing that lame dream. Turns out that Rushdie-esque is just not my bag, but I still persisted, writing hundreds and hundreds of pages of junk. All the while my hidden brain was putting together a different kind of book, one that was more fractured and more filled with silences, an archipelago of a book, whereas the usual Rushdie novel is a god**** continent. Honestly if I'd not insisted, if I'd not been stubborn, I probably could have finished "Oscar Wao" in half the time. But I kept trying to push my agenda, and boy did my agenda suck. But every now and then I'd put the encyclopedic novel crap down and just play around on the page, and that was when the real work would come out, the sections that make up the novel today. But between each of those sections was always a massive time-consuming battle between my pride and my creativity. Between my conscious and unconscious selves. Hopefully I've learned a lot since that time, but we'll see. Right now the book I'm working on is not going well at all, and I fear I might be falling into the same bullshit pattern. I keep telling myself listen to the work, but you know how hard that can be.
Short stories unfortunately are not a whole lot easier for me. I've never been able to jump from one story to the next, can never build up any flow or momentum. I'm like some shoddy warp drive that has to take long breaks between jumps. As a form, stories require me to be vicious in my discipline. I'm always trying to cut things, to pare them down – excess truly is the enemy. (Not for every story but just the ones that I find myself writing.) There's a spirit of restraint that guides my writing of stories that is not present at all when I'm working on a novel. The novel has always been a lusher process for me, less teleological, more generous. A novel can easily withstand any number of digressions, but rare is the short story that can sustain even one.
In all honesty I doubt I'll write any more stories. They're too damn hard. Besides, I find myself resisting the small canvas these days, wanting to test myself on the longer form. One should never say never but I feel like I've done enough of these bad boys to last me a lifetime.
So let's talk inspiration, Frank. Am I wrong to suggest that your complex relationship with Guatemala brings out the best in your work? Or maybe this is just how I think of my complex relationship with the Dominican Republic. From where did this new book of yours spring? Is it an old dream or something else altogether?
Francisco Goldman: But I don't really think of Guatemala that way, as bringing out the best in me, but maybe I'm taking Guatemala for granted now, because I did learn and see so much there. (I think Mexico City is the place that brings out the best in me, but not in the way you mean.) I mostly grew up in a mean, almost Shirley Jackson-type of New England town, that's how I experienced it, where my house offered no escape, where we all lived in fear of my father for one, always angry and often violent, and where my mother, like some kind of Tennessee Williams diva, was always holding Guatemala out as a lost paradise, where her family was respected, a loving and happy family, where we owned toy stores, where I could have a pet monkey. Never forget you're Guatemalan too, she was always saying. So home was also always somewhere else, and that home was this place that didn't really exist. In my twenties I really got to know Guatemala and I learned about fear, every kind of violence, the suffering of so many other people, and so much else, not all negative, far from it, but all playing out on that horrifying stage. The traumatic reality versus the dream of another reality, I think that's a fundamental conflict for me. The reality of death versus the dream of life, that more than anything else intrigues me now, though I think it's always been there. I'm probably pretty happy by nature, yet, as for so many others, the reality has often been cruel, incomprehensible, sad, overwhelming, whatever. I'd always dreamed of loving and being loved and had rarely experienced it, and when I finally truly did, it was taken away in an instant.
Anyway, that kind of conflict or incongruity or engaging of loss drives my writing (though if I'm going to be totally honest, maybe all this is just a guess, something that sounds about right to me today.) I partly mean the imagination as refuge and even rebellion, but mostly fiction writing as a way of making something out of words that has meaning and coherence in a world where it's hard for me to find it any other way, or that I could never express in any other way, or just as a way of making something that for some reason I really want to make, so that I think that it's actually writing that brings out the best in me, though obviously not in a social way, the discipline and conviction of it, the getting up every day and working hard at it, living with the mystery and insecurity of it, challenging yourself to be as brave and true and even ruthless as you can or need to be in the writing, and so on.
Bolaño said writers should leap head first into the abyss, but you really can't do that, you'd never come out alive, and anyway, I didn't have to leap into it, I was already there. After Aura's death, I wrote a book that is mostly about her, a very poor substitute for Aura, of course, but something to put back into the abyss so that it won't only be emptiness. The new book is something like that too, an unhappy person, the death of her essential loved one, and how will she live now? Things will happen to her and hopefully some of those will be marvelous and hilarious, but others will be awful. (It's set in a sort of Lovecraftian New England, but it does have Guatemalans in it, and also Mexicans.) I think you were suggesting something similar to all this at the end of your amazing short story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love." It's a story about Yunior's loss of his fiancée, which devastates him, the loss of his great love and his relentless remorse, and in the end his seeming answer to that loss is to return to his writing, and it is such a lonely solution and such a powerful and inspiring one, and I don't mean in a therapeutic way, it's actually kind of mystical. Why is that the answer, or the only way he can find? I know we're not supposed to confuse a character with the author, but now Yunior is a writer, teaching at a university in Cambridge, and so that ending seemed very revealing and hard-earned. You seemed to be saying something about what writing means to you and about why you need to do it. What does it mean to you and why do you need to do it and what is it that inspires you? Brotherito, take a few decades away from them if you want – more novels! – but please don't stop writing short stories.
Junot Díaz: Frank, no one could have said it more clearly or more beautifully than you so I'll just paraphrase: at the end of "This Is How You Lose Her," Yunior, who has lost about as much as he can lose, turns to the writing to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be loss and regret. In my mind Yunior re-engages with his writing to bear witness, to inform on his self. This bearing witness, this reckoning with self, with all his actions and lies, this shouldering responsibility for what he has done to his ex-fiancée and to the other women in his life, represents a tremendous step for Yunior. A movement towards recognizing the humanity of the women he has so persistently denigrated and in recognizing their humanity finally finding some of his own. This is not insignificant. Not every guy achieves that simple breakthrough in the imaginary that transforms women from objects into full human beings. This writing/bearing witness is a sign that Yunior is finally becoming the person he needs to be in order to find the intimacy that he so desperately longs for but was never able to achieve.
OK, I'll see what I can do about the short stories, but damn, Frank, these things have just about worn me out. These days I'd rather read the short stories than write 'em but let's see what the future holds. I guess I'd have the same reaction if you suddenly announced that you were going to abandon journalism. I'd be like: you better not. Every time I read your nonfiction works, whether it's the chilling "Art of Political Murder" or your excellent profile on Camila Vallejo, I am forcefully reminded that you are that illest kind of switch hitter: you are brilliant in more than one genre.
But before I lose the thread you asked about me and my relationship to the word: I guess we all have our covenants with the world (or at least we should have). For people like my mother, it's her religion. For other people, it's their children or perhaps their families. For me storytelling is my sacred. About the only covenant I have. As reader and writer I believe in the infinite worldmaking power of stories. I'm with Leslie Marmon Silko when she says in "Ceremony": "I will tell you something about stories, (he said). They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death." If I have a faith, that's it. Stories are all we have to fight off illness and death. I suspect Silko's words resonate with you too, Frank.
But there are many reasons, really. On the most selfish level I write to make sense of the universe, to make sense of my self, of my immigrantness, my Dominicanness, my New Jerseyness, my maleness. I feel like I've lived so many weird disparate lives, often simultaneously – DR, NJ, native, immigrant, first generation, Dominican, Latino, Black, Spanish, Black English, Official English, hiphop, nerd, military family, high school dropout, grunt worker, Rutgers, Cornell, activist, writer, professor – sometimes it's hard for me to fold them all into one coherent identity. But in my writing all the pieces of me come together, if not happily then at least beautifully. Writing allows me to be simultaneous in ways that the larger culture seems to resist.
Also: I grew up in a Dominican community that was totally erased, totally ignored by the mainstream. I grew up never seeing myself or my neighbors or my friends in any kind of literature. I grew up with no books or movies or TV shows that reflected my world, my identities, my struggles. The brief instances my community did appear in, say, the news or books it was always as monsters: either some drug-dealing pathology or illegal immigrant menace. The real us was never shown, totally elided. (In college I read books like "Down These Mean Streets" and "The House on Mango Street" and "Sula," which came close to showing us, but when it comes to seeing yourself in the representational universe close is never enough.) Growing up I felt that absence, that wound, viscerally – who the hell wants to come up in a hole, in a silence? It's astounding how little some of us have in this culture to build healthy selves from. The Jeremy Lin phenomena writ large – some groups have thousands upon thousands of athletes that reflect them – some groups have only one or two and when that one or two appears you suddenly realize how long you've lived with none. If I had to parse my first motivations for becoming a writer down to one it would have to be my profound desire to battle that f*cked-up erasure (which is really a violence) by singing my community out of that silence. I guess that's really what launched me into the words – I wanted to be part of that movement of artists that were insuring that the next generation wouldn't have to endure what I endured.
But ultimately I suspect what keeps me on the page, despite all my slowness and all my difficulties, despite the failures and the long doubt, is the same force that returns Yunior to his writing: the profound need to bear witness, to leave a trace, a record, an account of a people that many, including many of the people themselves, didn't know existed. For a people like mine, children of the abyss, of apocalypses without end – from slavery to dictatorship to immigration – bearing witness is sometimes all we had, like firing a flare up into the dark vault of the universe. Bearing witness in order (to quote you Frank) to put something back into the abyss so that it won't only be silence and loss. In order to mark that we were here, we lived, we mattered. In order to have a little light by which to see ourselves and others with, a little light to carry us into the future, a little light to call our own.
Francisco Goldman: You witness a lot as a journalist, and what you witness becomes a part of you. "The Art of Political Murder" is about the nine-year Bishop Gerardi murder case. More than twenty people related to the case were murdered, and numerous others fled; throughout it I worked closely with some of the most wonderful, courageous people, but it brought the vilest people imaginable into my life too. The last two times I went to Guatemala I had to have bodyguards, and was taken out by a side exit at the airport. Just a few weeks ago I received a creepy anonymous Twitter message. I don't feel like I can go back to Guatemala right now, I don't want that stress. The Gerardi case was incredibly complex, and it could only be narrated with authority through the most devout attention to concrete detail and substantiated acts. I had to learn to write in a new way, to strive for a transparent style that would let those details and acts convey the story. You're always learning, with each book hopefully pushing ahead. "Say Her Name" wasn't a book, of course, that I ever expected to write, but one of my writer friends has pointed out that it's as if "The Art of Political Murder," with its forensic detail, and "The Divine Husband" too, which is about the yearning for love, prepared me to write it. Because, as you know, "Say Her Name" is framed as a sort of trial or investigation, conducted by myself against myself, seemingly in response to the legal dangers I was threatened with in Mexico after Aura's death. I knew that a journalistic examination of Aura's death would never reveal that I'd been legally culpable, and even though I did include those facts in the book, that's not, finally, the mystery I was "investigating." I was nearly finished writing it when I came across this sentence that I love, from Lydia Davis's translation of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way." "For one thing love and death have in common, more than those vague resemblances people are always talking about, is that they make us question more deeply, for fear that its reality will slip away from us, the mystery of personality."
I've been living in Mexico City and love it here, I have the best friends in the world and am only half-ashamed to admit that this summer I've carried on at times like a wild teenager. Mexico City has largely been spared the violence happening elsewhere in the country. None have it worse than the Central Americans who trek through on their way to the US, who get kidnapped by the Zetas and others, their relatives in the U.S. extorted for money, and often they get killed anyway; the Zetas rape the women and girls and kill them, or they take a young man and say, Okay kill those other two or else you'll die too, maybe he has to kill his brother or friend, and then they force him to become a Zeta sicario, or else he refuses and is killed anyway; the deserts of Mexico are filled with the graves of kidnapped migrants, no one knows how many have vanished. What, as a writer, do you do with that? I don't know, but I don't see myself writing about it in a documentary way. But it's something I know about, and that strikes close. After college I got a scholarship to a summer writing workshop where William Gass was a teacher. Gass is a philosophy professor, and when a student asked if his "philosophical ideas" inspired his writing, Gass answered no, that he knew he was "smart," and so he just worked on his sentences. You have to trust that who you are is going to come out in some way. You focus on your sentences or on the most daring and delirious narrative vision, and trust that you'll show up. In US discourse, immigrants are mostly represented as less than human, a policy problem, or as just that, a category, and categories are prisons. The novels I love are prison breaks – what you did, Junot, in "Oscar Wao," and Bolaño with the Ciudad Juarez femicides in "2666," Yuri Herrera with the narco war in "Trabajos del Reino" – the categories get smashed open and the unexpected, the unthinkable, the forgotten, the ignored, the unknown, the terrifying, the secretly beloved, the misunderstood and astonishing, the mesmerizingly human, it all breaks out.
Junot Díaz: That's what we dream about, what we long for, books like those. Certainly as a reader that's the kind of books I've loved. Of course what you end up writing is something else altogether. You're working on that new novel set in New England and I'm trying to imagine the world of a young teenage girl in Santo Domingo, a Third World striver, the kind of girl that wants to do everything right in a country where for poor people even that can't keep the catastrophe off you. I'm hoping she'll lead me through to my next novel. But who knows – it takes me years of patient scribbling before my characters ever deign to speak to me.
The Barnes & Noble Review: Before we finish, I can't resist asking you both the classic question: Tell us what books you'd want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island?
Francisco Goldman: Desert island books, damn. How big is the island, and how long am I going to be there? Long books, I guess. "In Search of Lost Time." "War and Peace." "The Collected Shakespeare." "Moby-Dick"! "The Collected Borges." "2666," why not? Something immense that I haven't read yet, "The Man without Qualities." Emily Dickinson's poetry too, which I've been reading all summer. And definitively the "Guia Roji," which contains all roads, a Borgesian cartography of Mexico City, as immense and dense as the city itself, but all its maps packed into a single fat book. Currently, for a piece I'm writing, I'm using it like the I-Ching, closing my eyes, opening it to any page, and then trying to drive to the spot my finger touches down on. I've never driven in Mexico City before, and it terrifies me.
Junot Díaz: "Les Miserables" is perfect for the stranded. It's immense and has a lot of Melville-esque post-modern outbursts, and it's about justice – few books are about that anymore – and it always gets me crying. I'd also need something from my childhood. "Watership Down." Every time I read this line – "My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here." – my heart feels like it's going to burst. And I'd need something from real life. Maxine Hong Kingston's "China Men" or Edward Rivera's "Family Installments." And something from home (the Caribbean). Patrick Chamoiseau's "Texaco" or Cristina Garcia's "Dreaming In Cuban." And a book of poetry. Aracelis Girmay's "Kingdom Animalia." And a comic book. Katsuhiro Otomo's "AKIRA." And something for the ancestors: "Song of Solomon." And something I haven't read before, something that ain't out yet but that will be by the time I'm shipwrecked.
Miwa Messner is a Barnes and Noble Review contributor.