Becky Ohlsen

Maile Meloy specializes in writing short fiction about privileged but emotionally fragile characters who are self-aware to an almost destructive degree, and who can be startled by their own dark thoughts. Meloy delves deeply and expertly into these personalities, plumbing the repercussions of various events in their worlds. In her new novel, she takes that approach and revs it up to top speed.

Do Not Become Alarmed starts as two cousins and their families are setting out on a cruise to South America. At first everything is pleasantly relaxing, but things quickly begin to go wrong. Persuaded to take a day off the ship, the two families are divided: The men go golfing, while the women take their kids on a zip-line tour. Almost immediately, complications arise for the zip-lining crew. Their vehicle breaks down, and when they go for a swim at a nearby beach, the kids disappear. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare: You’ve lost your kids, and it’s your fault.

The book moves at a rapid-fire pace through the events that follow, as the kids get into deeper and deeper trouble and their parents become ever more distraught. The story is told from as many viewpoints as there are characters, and everyone gets at least one chapter. Meloy skillfully analyzes each person’s reaction to his or her situation in remarkably efficient prose that never scrimps on detail or emotional impact. It’s a grim story told with a light touch, and it’s completely addictive.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Maile Meloy specializes in writing short fiction about privileged but emotionally fragile characters who are self-aware to an almost destructive degree, and who can be startled by their own dark thoughts. Meloy delves deeply and expertly into these personalities, plumbing the repercussions of various events in their worlds. In her new novel, she takes that approach and revs it up to top speed.

Human relationships are tricky: They’re built on communication, which relies on language. And language, of course, is unreliable. This is the frustrating truth at the heart of The Idiot, Elif Batuman’s debut novel.

Batuman, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010 (and author of the 2010 essay collection The Possessed), says her novel is semi-autobiographical. Like its heroine, she was born and raised in New Jersey to Turkish immigrant parents. The two also share a fascination with language, which is evident on every page.

The Idiot is part coming-of-age, part love story. It’s steeped in travel and in the devastating power of words—or, more precisely, the general inadequacy of words when it comes to truly getting close to other people.

Our narrator, Selin, is about to start her freshman year at Harvard in the mid-’90s. Quiet and awkward, Selin observes her surroundings with an unfiltered blend of wonder and deadpan humor. Her running commentary is a pure delight. She’s at once hilarious, self-deprecating and painfully accurate—and free of the conventions of thought that can make the inner life of a college student seem so ordinary. Basically, she’s odd in the best way.

Meeting a professor in his office one day when she has a terrible cold, Selin silently ponders the similarities between a book and a box of tissue: “[B]oth consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case,” she notes. But one of the two—ironically, given the setting—has zero utility if all you want is to blow your nose. “These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful,” she adds. “I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.”

Part of the novel’s joy comes from Selin’s encounters with others, from her snippy roommate and her intense classmate Svetlana (with whom she travels to Paris) to Ivan, the enigmatic Hungarian she falls for in Russian class and follows to Budapest. Batuman is especially great at illustrating the torment of love. But nearly all of her characters’ efforts to achieve mutual understanding are imperfect—which, for the reader, turns out to be perfect indeed.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Elif Batuman about The Idiot.

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

BookPage Top Pick in Fiction, March 2017

All novelists are conjurers, ventriloquists and magicians, but Laird Hunt may be more so than most. In his last three novels, Hunt has inhabited the distinct voices of particular women so thoroughly and so comfortably that it’s possible, after you’ve turned the last page, to forget that the person you’ve just left behind was invented. His people follow you, like it or not.

Another remarkable thing about his novels is that, even though none of them could’ve been written by anyone other than Laird Hunt, no two sound the same. Some of his earlier books, like The Exquisite and Ray of the Star, are dreamy, trippy, ultramodern works of lyrical beauty and mystery, in which alert readers might detect an admiration for Paul Auster—but there’s also Indiana, Indiana, a simple, quiet tale narrated by an old man reflecting on an early love. As different as they are, his books share a richness of language and a vividness of imagery that can seriously blow the mind. Some of his characters speak coyly, some are forthright; many are first one and then the other, to devastating effect.

Hunt’s newest, The Evening Road, is the third in a loosely related trio of novels centering on strong female protagonists at different periods in American history. Neverhome (2014) introduces readers to Ash, aka Constance, a steely young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the Civil War. In Kind One (2012), most of the story is told by the tough-minded but not especially sympathetic wife of a slave owner in Kentucky; the second part of the story belongs to one of the young black women she used to torment.

The Evening Road follows a similar structure: It opens with Mrs Ottie Lee Henshaw, a spirited young white woman whose boss likes to drive her around and paw at her ineffectively. It's a summer night in 1930, and there’s news of a lynching in a nearby town called Marvel. Ottie Lee’s boss decides they’ll go see it. The lynching, which darkens the edges of the (somehow) often funny narrative, is based on a famous event that happened near where Hunt grew up in Indiana. (It provoked the poem and song “Strange Fruit.”) The second section is narrated by Calla Destry, a street-smart young black woman who is desperate to leave town, but not before having a frank conversation with her beau, a slippery, fast-talking political type.

It’s a road novel that starts from opposite ends of the same road. The characters travel the same miles, intercepting each other yet remaining always in their separate worlds. The harm caused by that separation is one of Hunt’s recurring subjects.

Though the three linked novels aren’t exactly a trilogy, they seem to haunt each other. Certain places and images turn up in all three, creating a sense of a complete world (as well as goosebumps). There’s no need to read them in any specific order, but if you read one, you’ll want to find the rest.

All novelists are conjurers, ventriloquists and magicians, but Laird Hunt may be more so than most. In his last three novels, Hunt has inhabited the distinct voices of particular women so thoroughly and so comfortably that it’s possible, after you’ve turned the last page, to forget that the person you’ve just left behind was invented. […]

“I guess I had a lot of peculiar people in my life growing up,” says Ransom Riggs, author of the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series of novels. “Probably the most influential, and peculiar in her own way, was my grandmother.” A farmer’s daughter who became a farmer’s wife, she also went to university and was a teacher of Latin and French. “She infected me with a love of books.”

Riggs, 37, spoke from his home in Los Angeles about the upcoming Tim Burton film adaptation of his dark YA fantasy debut, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a surprise 2011 hit that spent more than two years on the bestseller list. We also talked about his new collection of short stories set in the same world, Tales of the Peculiar. Readers of the series, which includes two other bestselling novels, Hollow City and Library of Souls, will recognize that title: It’s the name of a book that the peculiar children consult for advice and comfort. Riggs says he wanted the new book to seem like an artifact from the peculiar world, an imaginary object that readers somehow discover in their real-world bookstores. 

The design of Tales of the Peculiar helps achieve this effect. Where you’d normally find the copyright details, instead there are instructions on things not to do while reading the book (whatever you do, don’t dog-ear the pages) and some unlikely production notes (“Printed in a nomad’s tent in the desert of Lop”). The foreword maintains this conceit: It’s written by Millard Nullings, the invisible boy at Miss Peregrine’s home. In it, Nullings explains why he decided to edit and annotate this edition of the Tales. The stories are not just folklore, he writes: “They are also the bearers of secret knowledge. Encoded within their pages are the locations of hidden loops, the secret identities of certain important peculiars, and other information that could aid a peculiar’s survival in this hostile world.”

On the surface, the stories are moral tales, bedtime stories designed to be read aloud. In most of them, someone behaves cruelly toward a peculiar child because of his or her peculiarity, and that bad behavior is eventually, inventively, punished. In a few, the peculiar child himself is the one acting foolishly and must slowly learn his lesson. In one story, a girl discovers she can take away people’s nightmares; in another, a beautiful princess with scales and a forked tongue spits venom at her enemies. A big-hearted boy turns into a locust. A man may, in fact, be an island.

Riggs wrote Tales of the Peculiar “for fans of the series who want to know more about the world,” he says. “It casts a much wider net narratively.”

“There are some Easter eggs for peculiars hidden throughout,” he adds. “They’re waiting for me in case I need them.” (This is as much as he will say about the possibility of future Miss Peregrine novels.)

The fairy-tale format suits Riggs’ style—each character in these simple tales is richly drawn and memorable. We sympathize with them; even their bad decisions are understandable. 

It doesn’t hurt that each tale is illustrated with a gorgeous woodcut by the artist Andrew Davidson. “I knew I wanted a classic, wood-engraving style,” Riggs says. He had admired the covers on the adult hardcover editions of Harry Potter in the U.K.; maybe something like that, he told his publisher. A few weeks later came the reply: How about the guy who did those? “Great!” Riggs said. 

Davidson was “amazing to work with,” Riggs says. “His ideas were out of this world—so dynamic and detailed.”

The engravings add to the sense of Tales of the Peculiar as a weighty, otherworldly artifact, something that was important to the author. Even as a kid, Riggs says, “I liked how big, musty old books felt and smelled.” And ever since Quirk Books published his Sherlock Holmes Handbook in 2009—he has considered himself lucky when it comes to his books’ aesthetic: “I’ve been able to make books that look like they belong on my grandmother’s bookshelves!”

Working with an illustrator also affected Riggs’ writing process. The three Miss Peregrine novels are built around old photographs the author had collected over the years. Writing them, he says, “I had a fixed number of pictures and had to find stories that would fit them.” In the new book, though, “I could tell whatever story I wanted.”

The magical world created by Riggs has just been adapted for film by director Tim Burton. “Everything they did services the heart of the story,” Riggs says.

From an early age, Riggs sought out books that opened doors in the imagination, whether that meant fantasy or otherworldly realism. “C.S. Lewis, big-time,” he recalls when asked about his early influences, and “Tolkien of course,” not to mention Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. King’s work, Riggs says, “was never just horror—it was always also about discovering another world.”

He read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, a decades-spanning saga about forced-labor prison camps in the Soviet Union, at age 13. (“Intense!” is how he understatedly describes that experience.) At the opposite extreme, Riggs also loved reading James Thurber, a favorite of his grandmother’s.

Was it strange for him to entrust the world he’d created to filmmaker Tim Burton, who has an equally strong aesthetic? Not really, says Riggs: “I knew it was in good hands.” Unusually for Hollywood, the movie has only one screenwriter (Jane Goldman), and Riggs says he’s pleased with how it turned out. “I didn’t feel like they needed my help,” he says.

As always with an adaptation, certain changes were made along the way, but they’re all superficial, Riggs says. “Everything they did services the heart of the story.” He explains that the film adaptation has allowed for some “wonderful visual irony.” For example, the character of Bronwyn, a girl with super-strength, is no longer the bruiser shown in the novel’s antique photograph, but instead a comically tiny girl.

The main challenge in taking the story from book to film, Riggs says, was getting the tone right. The books have a “veneer of gothic horror,” but also bits of Monty Python and other lighter elements. “It’s a very strange balance of tone,” he says. With his penchant for the gothic as well as romantic wistfulness and visual comedy, Burton proved to be the perfect fit.

The film, which stars Asa Butterfield (Hugo) as main protagonist Jacob Portman and “Penny Dreadful” actor Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, arrives in theaters on September 30. As for Tales of the Peculiar, it was published on “Loop Day”—September 3, the same date of the 24-hour time loop in which Miss Peregrine’s home for peculiar children safely hides. Riggs visited several bookstores on Loop Day, and is currently on tour with his wife, the YA novelist Tahereh Mafi, whose latest book, Furthermore, was published in August.

“It’s an exciting time at our house,” he says. “It’s going to be really peculiar.”

 

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

“I guess I had a lot of peculiar people in my life growing up,” says Ransom Riggs, author of the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series of novels. “Probably the most influential, and peculiar in her own way, was my grandmother.” A farmer’s daughter who became a farmer’s wife, she also went to university and was a teacher of Latin and French. “She infected me with a love of books.”

BookPage Fiction Top Pick, May 2016

An inventive tale inventively told, Sleeping Giants is designed for people who like to take things apart and put them back together. Its jigsaw-puzzle narrative style works as a mirror for the project at the story’s center: the gathering and assembly of the scattered pieces of a huge and mysterious robot. But the real appeal of the book—the debut novel of Sylvain Neuvel, a Canadian linguist and software engineer—is the way in which putting together the robot tears apart the lives of the people involved. The book, like its namesake, is an elegant blend of technology and biology.

Sleeping Giants has been compared to The Martian and World War Z, but the story has more in common with the 2013 robot film Pacific Rim. The novel begins when a little girl riding her bicycle falls into a pit and lands on what turns out to be an enormous metal hand. Years later, that same little girl—Rose Franklin—is a scientist working on a top-secret project involving the study of that hand and the as-yet-theoretical body it belongs to.

We don’t spend much time with Rose, though. The story is told through transcribed interviews and journal entries, memos and the occasional news report. The interviews are conducted by a shadowy figure who seems to be orchestrating multinational backroom deals; he’s powerful enough to throw his weight around with the president’s closest advisors, but we don’t know much else about him, or even whether he’s bluffing. 

Most of the interviews are with two pilots responsible for finding the huge robot’s missing body parts, and then later, for figuring out how to drive it. The lead pilot is the feisty, unruly Kara Resnick, who, as seen through snippets, becomes the emotional heart of the book. There are also interviews with high-level government officials, techs and linguists, disillusioned soldiers and rogue scientists, not to mention oblique conversations about the world the robot came from originally. Put together, these puzzle pieces form a story about the way in which individual agendas can drive international decisions, for good or ill. 

Sleeping Giants is the first in a series called the Themis Files, which makes the book itself just a piece of a much larger puzzle—one readers will surely enjoy solving.

RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Sylvain Neuvel.

This article was originally published in the May 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

An inventive tale inventively told, Sleeping Giants is designed for people who like to take things apart and put them back together. Its jigsaw-puzzle narrative style works as a mirror for the project at the story’s center: the gathering and assembly of the scattered pieces of a huge and mysterious robot. But the real appeal of the book—the debut novel of Sylvain Neuvel, a Canadian linguist and software engineer—is the way in which putting together the robot tears apart the lives of the people involved. The book, like its namesake, is an elegant blend of technology and biology.

Canadian writer Sylvain Neuvel makes a thrilling debut with Sleeping Giants, a gripping sci-fi adventure that is innovative both in plot and structure. It all begins when a young girl stumbles (literally) into the archaeological find of the century: an enormous robotic hand created by an ancient alien race.

Fast-forward some 25 years, and that girl is now a scientist in charge of a military-run operation to find and retrieve other parts of that robot, which could be the greatest weapon the world has ever seen. Told in journal entries of the various characters as well as their interviews with a mysterious man who works as a go-between for the project and the government higher-ups, Sleeping Giants is an imaginative tour de force that will appeal to science fiction and mystery fans alike. 

How did the story first come to you: was it that image of the giant hand, an idea about the plot, a particular character, or something else?
The idea for the book came while watching Japanese anime about a giant robot. I asked my son if he’d like a toy robot but he wanted to know everything about it before I built it. We were watching "Grendizer" together and I started thinking about what it would be like if we found some giant alien artifact in real life. That got me started, but I tend to picture things before I write them. I need a strong visual to get me going. For this book, it was the little girl in the giant metal hand. 

How did you arrive at the format for the book (a combination of interview transcripts, news briefs and journal entries)? Did you try other approaches first?
Not really. I knew it was going to be epistolary from the start. That said, I couldn’t find the right way to do it at first. I wanted to switch perspective between chapters, but I thought they would feel somewhat disconnected. I needed something to hold everything together, a common thread. That’s when I got the idea for the interviewer. Once I figured him out, everything else fell into place.

Was it difficult to figure out the structure—which moments to show and what to skip over?
Yes. I wrote the prologue first. Then I structured the whole book. That took a while. I’d picture a scene in my head, then I’d figure out the best way to present it. Do I show it as a future plan, while it’s happening, or do I deal with the consequences before I let the reader know what really happened? Who gets to talk about it? The one who is most affected by the situation or the one with more knowledge about the facts? Can I create more anticipation if I change the time or the point of view? Sometimes, the best thing to do is to skip that moment completely and let the readers figure it out on their own. 

Reading the book, it’s hard not to “cast” the characters. For instance, I kept seeing the interviewer as Victor Garber, who plays Sydney Bristow’s dad on “Alias.” The evolution of his sympathies through the book was really interesting. Did you have a particular model or type in mind for that character?
I love the interviewer. I wouldn’t object to your casting, but I couldn’t really see his face when I wrote the book. He was all about the voice for me. Now, if I were making the movie, I’d probably go for Idris Elba, or Ray Stevenson, the way he looked in "Dexter," season 7.

"Would such a discovery bring humanity together, or would we wage wars over it?"

Do you find it scary or comforting to imagine a race of super-advanced aliens out there keeping an eye on us?
I think the most interesting question is how we’d deal with that knowledge. Would such a discovery bring humanity together, or would we wage wars over it? Fear of the other is a frequent theme in the news these days and I think it begs the question as to how we’d deal with a different species. I’m much more scared of us than I am of them. 

What books or movies do you see as having influenced Sleeping Giants?
I wanted this story to be about us. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the closest thing to what I was aiming for. Here’s a movie about an alien encounter and we’re watching a guy sculpting mashed potatoes and wrecking his backyard. I loved that. Contact is also similar in spirit to Sleeping Giants. The book is also part political thriller. I see a lot of The Hunt for Red October in there as well. 

Did you learn anything while researching the book that surprised you?
I learned a whole lot of interesting things researching that book. The science was all new to me, so was everything military. What surprised me the most was probably how many websites are dedicated to gathering evidence of secret government bases. I was looking for one plausible site to build one. I ended up with dozens to choose from. The time and energy that went into many of these websites is absolutely fascinating. 

You have a PhD in linguistics—what originally interested you about that area? What effect do you think this background has had on your writing?
I dropped out of high school when I was 15. When I went back to school for a B.A., linguistics seemed like a good idea, a way to combine my passion for language and science. I’m not sure what kind of influence my linguistics background has on my writing. I understand the mechanics behind some of the humor, for example, but I don’t know if I would have done the same thing without that knowledge. There’s a linguist on the team, though, and chances are he’ll have to work a bit throughout the series. 

What do you like to read for fun?
These days, I’m looking for quick reads. I like books with science in them, but I’ll try just about anything if it looks interesting. Favorite one I read lately: The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka. That book is so good. I wish I had more time. I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to, and I buy books way faster then I go through them. I think it was Stephen King who said: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” To that, I’d like to add time to exercise, fix the house, build robots . . .  

I’ve read that you like to build toys and small robots for your son—are there any that you’re especially proud of?
I do. I like to make physical objects. I work on a computer all day, then I go home and I write on the computer. I like to build things. I haven’t in the past couple years, but I usually spend six or seven months making my Halloween costume in my spare time. I built a robot from my book for my son. It looks good, but it’s not really playable. The idea was cool: it comes in pieces that are held together with magnets, but it keeps falling apart. I’m shopping for a 3D printer so I can build him a better one. I made him a spaceship bed, inspired by the Raptors in “Battlestar Galactica,” with a cannon, a joystick, some buttons. He really likes it. I do too. [photo at right]

Sleeping Giants is Book 1 of the Themis Files; can you talk a little about what we can look forward to in the sequel(s)? Anything else you’re excited about working on right now?
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can tell you that the stakes are even higher in book two. There are some questions being answered, some new ones being asked. There will be at least three in the Themis Files. I’m having a blast in that universe, and I love the people who live in it. I can’t wait to share. 

 

RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Sleeping Giants.

 

Author photo by James Andrew Rosen.

Canadian writer Sylvain Neuvel makes a thrilling debut with Sleeping Giants, a gripping sci-fi adventure that is innovative both in plot and structure.

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