by Campbell Geeslin
Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel is Station Eleven. She is 35 years old, has published three earlier novels, and lives in Brooklyn.
Mandel told The New York Times, “When I started writing, there were a few post-apocalyptic novels, but not quite the incredible glut there is now. I was afraid the market might be saturated.”
It wasn’t. Knopf bought Station Eleven with a six-figure advance. That was more than Mandel earned for all three earlier novels.
Times interviewer Alexandra Alter said, “Some trace the current literary fascination with the end of civilization to The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, which became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer.”
Mandel said, “It’s almost as if The Road gave more literary writers permission to approach the subject.”
In the September 14 Times Book Review, the reviewer of Station Eleven, Sigrid Nunez, wrote that the book “offers comfort and hope to those who believe or want to believe that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything, that people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.”
TOPICAL: Katha Pollitt’s column, “Subject to Debate,” in the Nation, has been collected in several volumes. In October she is publishing her first single-subject book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.
Pollitt told PW why she had written this book: “Open the newspaper! Every day you read about another clinic closing, another stupid regulation. Pretty soon it will be: ‘And you can’t drive on the highway to get to the abortion clinic, because that is the government paying for your abortion!”
NEW MUSIC: Leon Botstein is president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra.
He wrote in The Wall Street Journal about how biographies of composers help us understand their music. Botstein wrote: “Music, particularly music written for instruments alone, can be difficult to connect to ideas, events or politics—to aspects of culture and society considered beyond the confines of the art form. Rightly or wrongly, we use the writings of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville to understand 19th-century America, just as we project large meanings about the American experience in the 20th onto the canvases of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. Their work seems to tell us something about the world they lived in. Music, we might feel, should do the same. But a composer’s creations are more obscure, and so making inferences about personal motives and confessional intent becomes a convenient way to proceed.” That’s where biographies come in.
GOOD BOOKS: Randall Munroe is the author of a book entitled What If? His Internet site of the same name draws nearly 70 million hits a month.
Munroe told Time magazine: “A fun story is a fun story, whether it’s on a Kindle or a hardback book or a web page or an audio recording or in snippets on your iPhone.”
Books do have an upside. He said, “If you accidentally lose your place, you don’t have to click More hundreds of times to get back there.”
FUNNY TITLES TOO: The late Joan Rivers usually shared her byline with others on books with titles like Bouncing Back, Enter Talking, The Life and Hard Times of Heidi Abromowitz, and Men Are Stupid . . . And They Like Big Boobs: A Woman’s Guide Through Plastic Surgery. Amazon lists the titles but most are “Out of Stock.”
At her memorial service last week, Rivers’s business manager, Michael Karlin, said that she once autographed one of her books to him with: “Don’t read this book, read my balance sheet.”
READING ALOUD: The New Yorker called John Darnielle “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” Now Darnielle has written a novel, Wolf in White Van.
Darnielle told John Williams of The New York Times Book Review that “the only thing writing books really shares [with writing lyrics] is that I read what I’ve written aloud, all of it. I want to keep the connection to the sound of the words, to make sure it should be like something somebody would say.”
BIG JAM: Vanessa Thorpe, media correspondent for The Guardian, wrote: “Clear the bookshelves; no, clear the weekend diary until Christmas: the next few weeks are to see one of the biggest traffic jams of big-name, top-flight British fiction in recent publishing history.”
A few of the authors listed were Ian McEwan, Will Self, David Mitchell, Martin Amis, Howard Jacobson, Ali Smith, Colm Toibin and Nick Hornby.
AT THE CENTER: The Paying Guests is the title of Sarah Waters’s sixth novel. The London author told Sarah Lyall of The New York Times that the book is “a love story complicated by crime.”
Most of Lyall’s article is spent on assuring readers that Waters does not write genre fiction. But her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, had a title that was Victorian slang for cunnilingus. Lyall wrote, “Ms. Waters has succeeded in having it both ways, writing mainstream novels that happen to have lesbians in them."
Waters said, “It’s still exciting to me and somehow important to me to be putting lesbians at the center of the story—to be writing historical fiction that is hopefully kind of complicating our sense of the past.”
WHY STORIES? April Bernard is the author of Miss Fuller, a novel, and Romanticism, a collection of poems.
She wrote in The New York Review of Books: “Of all the reasons someone may tell a story—and there are many more than Cicero’s famous three, ‘to teach, to please, to move’—surely the most demanding on the art of fiction is the reason of inner compulsion. The felt personal necessity to tell a story is of course likely to be part of the motive of the storyteller; but it is another matter when it becomes the dominant, or sole, reason.”
HISTORICAL WINNER: Daisy Goodwin lives in London where she is a TV producer and editor of several poetry anthologies. Her first novel, The American Heiress (2011), is still a bestseller and so is her new novel, The Fortune Hunter. PW called this novel “a beautifully written page-turner.”
Goodwin recommended her favorite historical novels on the website The Week. Her first selection was Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, where she found “the women are gloriously villainous. No one in Game of Thrones has anything on Livia or Messalina.”
PEEKING AHEAD: Rick Bragg’s new biography, out in November, is Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. PW said that Bragg has told the story primarily in Lewis’s own words.
Sneak Peek, a promotional Internet site from Harper, the publisher, offers a video of Lewis’s performance of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On and comments: “If you think Lewis is on fire in that video, you should see Bragg in this book.”
FORBIDDEN: Francine Prose is the author of 16 books. The most recent is Lovers and the Chameleon Club. She was asked by The New York Times about the impact of “bad” books.
Prose said, “The only books I recall my parents forbidding me to finish were Bram Stoker’s Dracula (it was giving me nightmares that kept the whole household awake) and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which for some reason my father believed would inspire me to lead a dissolute life.”
STRESS: “Raised by wolves, Alex Marwood passed her formative years in the lands beyond the Arctic circle, developing pack skills, excellent night vision, and an ability to survive on raw protein. Ideally equipped for a life on Fleet Street, she then became a journalist.”
That brief bio, written by Marwood, appears on her Web site. Her novel, The Killer Next Door, will be published in October.
She told PW: “I always start off meaning to be a plotter, but in the end something else—some weird hypnotic influence from the characters themselves—will take over and lead me way off my intended path. The resolution[s] of all my books have come to me late in the day. I wish it were otherwise, because it makes the writing horribly stressful.”
ON CRIME FICTION: Sara Paretsky writes novels about V.I. Warshawski, a female detective. The latest one is Critical Mass. In an interview in the New York Times Book Review she was asked, “What makes a good detective novel?”
Paretsky said, “Believable characters first, a good story, an understanding of how to pace dramatic action. I like commitment by a writer, to the form, to the story—there are lots of slick writers of crime fiction who aren’t writing out of passion, but for the market. They write good English sentences, but for me, the lack of commitment makes them uninteresting.”