Ellen Kanner

Interview by

Barbara Kingsolver was a little girl of seven when she and her family left their Kentucky home to spend two years in the Congo. When she returned, the world looked totally different to her. “I understood the way we lived in my little corner of Kentucky was just that,” says the author. “One little corner where we had certain things we did, possessed, believed in, but there was a great big world out there where people had no use for many of the things my community held dear. I came home with an acutely heightened sense of race, of ethnicity. I got to live in a place where people thought I was noticeable and probably hideous because of the color of my skin. These weren’t easy lessons,” says Kingsolver, “but they were priceless.” She has not forgotten what the Congo taught her. It made her the person, the writer, she is.

“I’m extremely interested in cultural difference, in social and political history and the sparks that fly when people with different ways of looking at the world come together and need to reconcile or move through or celebrate those differences. All that precisely describes everything I’ve ever written, Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven, all of it.” It also describes Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a novel of post-colonial Africa which brings to bear all she observed as a child in the Congo and all she came to understand of it as an adult.

“Given that this is what we did as a nation in Africa, how are we to feel about it now?” asks the author. How do we live with it and how do we move on? Given that this is our history, what do we do with it? One thing is very clear, there isn’t a single answer, there’s a spectrum of answers. Representing that spectrum is Nathan Price, a Baptist missionary, his wife, and their four daughters. The Prices arrive in Africa believing God is on their side. That changes quickly. “I always believed any sin was easily rectified if only you let Jesus Christ into your heart,” says Nathan’s daughter Leah, “but here it gets complicated.”  Indeed. A stranger tells Nathan, “I do not think the people are looking for your kind of salvation. . . . they are looking for. . . the new soul of Africa.” But in his eagerness to save everyone’s soul, Nathan is deaf to the truth, just as he is deaf to the nuances of the Congolese culture. “We sang in church, Tata Nzolo! Which means ‘Father in Heaven’ or ‘Father of Fish Bait,’ depending on just how you sing it,” recalls Nathan’s wife, Orleanna, who returns from her time in the Congo marked and stricken by loss.

Leah, on the other hand, embraces Africa in the 30-year course of the book, even at the risk of rejecting the cornerstones of her past. ” I had only faith in my father and love for the Lord. Without that rock of certainty underfoot, the Congo is a fearsome place to sink or swim.” Leah’s bookish twin, Adah, is a darker presence, a witness to the country’s horrors. Rachel the eldest Price daughter, is vain, contemptuous of her new life and full of comic malapropisms, given, as she is to feminine tuition. Ruth May, the youngest, is the Price always in a hurry, propelled by a child’s innocence and enthusiasm. The Price girls and their mother narrate The Poisonwood Bible in alternating chapters. Kingsolver chose multiple voices to portray the enormity, the complexity of her subject. That choice, however, created complexities of its own.

“I wasn’t very far into this book when I realized what I set out to do was impossible.” The author laughs. “Or at least extremely difficult, much harder than anything I ever did it before. The most difficult thing was to fine tune the voices five narrators, all in the same family, most of them about the same age. How do you make each voice distinct enough that the reader could open to any page and know who’s speaking? It led to many quiet little fits of flying paper in my office. But it was also great fun. What I love best about being a novelist is I get to do something different every time. When you’re flying by the seat of your pants, you’re never bored.” Writing is Kingsolver’s passion, but she’s no artiste. “I consider myself a writer of the working class, I’m a little bit smug about it, have so little tolerance for writers who have elaborate three-hour rituals before they even get down to work. I think, oh, please. My idea of a pre-writing ritual is getting the kids on the bus and sitting down.” The years she worked as technical writer taught her to produce “whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writers’ block, oh I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.

“I love revision. Revision is where the art really happens, when you begin to manipulate, shift things around so your theme begins to shine through.” While Kingsolver was revising her novel, the Congo itself began its own revision. Mobutu, the Congolese dictator in power for over 30 years, died and his regime fell. The new president, Laurent Kabila has clashed with Tutsi rebels, and the Congo is once again in the throes of bloody strife.

“It’s very odd,” says Kingsolver. “This book is in some way timely, and nothing could surprise me more. When I began writing, I thought my primary task would get my readers to believe there was a dictator called Mobuto, that all these things really happened somewhere far away and they should care.” As America and the United Nations study the Congo and analyze strategies for intervention, Kingsolver hopes governing bodies will heed some of the lessons she learned as a child, the lessons of The Poisonwood Bible. “We can never know, never look at history with anything but a narrow and distorted window, says the author. We can never know the whole truth, only what’s been recorded for us and what our cultural and political predisposition understands. Leah says history is never much more at a mirror we can tilt to look at ourselves.”


Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami, Florida.

Barbara Kingsolver was a little girl of seven when she and her family left their Kentucky home to spend two years in the Congo. When she returned, the world looked totally different to her. “I understood the way we lived in my little corner of Kentucky was just that,” says the author. “One little corner […]
Interview by

What makes a place home? As he researched his book Home Town, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder (Soul of a New Machine, 1981) wasn't sure he knew the answer. That's why he writes.

"I can look into parts of the world I don't understand and don't know about, and that's pretty wonderful," said Kidder in a recent telephone interview. The only thing he felt sure of was he wanted to study Northampton, Massachusetts. "It still preserves the old pattern of the New England township," he writes, "a place with a full set of parts."

Like Plato's ideal city-state, Northampton is home to 30,000 people. It also stands out in bold relief from Haiti, where Kidder had gone as a reporter during the military takeover after Aristede. In Haiti, absolutely nothing worked. After his return, Kidder thought he might research all the components that make a place function, and more, make a place feel like home. "I'm sickened by strip malls, gated communities, decaying, dying old downtowns. We've lost that sense of ancestry in a place, longevity," he said. "I grew up in Long Island, a place that vanished in front of my eyes. I grew up there in the '50s, in the great building boom. It was pretty distressing—you go away and come home and find a whole town gone, a cloverleaf in its place."

While he pondered how to approach his subject, someone approached him at the gym. "This guy on the machine next to me, baldheaded guy, completely shaved head, said, 'You don't remember me, do you? I arrested you five years ago for speeding.' Then he said, 'Why don't you come and ride around in the cruiser with me? You'll see a Northampton you've never seen.'"

This was Tommy O'Connor, a cop born and bred in Northampton. Two years of riding around with Tommy gave Kidder something different from the vantage points you usually see. "Northampton has layers and layers. I saw a whole side of it I didn't know, hadn't imagined had existed." It also gave him a way to tell his story. Though richly peppered with archival research about Northampton, the heart of Home Town is its people. "The world doesn't make much sense to me generally," said Kidder. "I don't feel like I'm good at that. I like particular people, particular places."

Northampton feels like home because the author has created a montage of the lives of its citizens much the way Sherwood Anderson did in his 1919 short story collection, Winesburg, Ohio. "I read it a couple of times again—not that I had the same kind of story or constructed it in the same way, but I love the thing." Unlike Anderson's characters, those in Kidder's book are real, even though some, like eccentric Alan Scheinman, resplendent with obsessive-compulsive disorder, make it hard to remember Home Town is nonfiction.

"Curing yourself of obsessive compulsive disorder by going to a strip club is pretty strange," admitted the author, but Alan is as much a part of the town as Laura, a single mother from California who's come to study at Smith College and Frankie, the town's well-meaning vagrant. They all call Northampton home, but the book's center and its moral compass is Tommy O'Connor.

Fate—or Kidder's lead foot on the gas pedal—may have brought Tommy to him, but Tommy continued to compel Kidder. Having lived all his life in Northampton, he knew every person in town. It gave him a sense of connection and responsibility palpable even beneath his brash exterior.

"There's a moment in the book where he is reinventing Kant," Kidder recalled. "It's a little more elegant than Kant, actually. He says, what's right is right, what's wrong is wrong, and the state of your internal being doesn't matter. You do the right thing even if it makes you feel bad. The purpose of life is not to be happy but to be worthy of happiness."

Home Town chronicles what happens when reality corrodes Tommy's ideals. "Memory is so much a part of imagination, so plastic, so wonderfully plastic," said Kidder. "If you had an essentially happy childhood, that tends to dwell with you. It was certainly true in the case of Tommy O'Connor. No childhood was as happy as the one he had assembled for himself, no town so wonderful, and that's sort of something he had to get over. If you live in the same small place long enough, something you don't like is bound to happen."

That something didn't happen to Tommy, it happened to his best friend, whom Kidder refers to in the book as Rick Janacek. Rick was Tommy's childhood friend, his friend on the force and in many ways, Tommy's mirror. Then Rick announced to Tommy he was an alcoholic, he was getting divorced and his wife had issued a restraining order against him, accusing Rick of sexually abusing one of their daughters. This sort of thing shouldn't happen in Northampton, not the Northampton Tommy knew and policed. Charmed by the place himself, Kidder explained, "It's one of the few civilized parts of America. I like the way it looks, the sense that history surrounds you in a constructed landscape. It's picturesque, authentic. It's where people grew up or wish they had grown up." The potential for evil in Tommy's home town felt to him like a betrayal, a rending in the fabric of his life. For the first time, he questioned the place he loved and his role in it.

Tommy's story—and Rick's, Alan's, Laura's, and Frankie's—are engaging as stories and amazing in their candor. What made these people tell Kidder the sad truths of their lives? The author cited a remark attributed to both Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers: "'Nothing human is alien to me'—that's the state of mind I'd like to aspire to. You don't get far with people by judging them, and one of the nice things of my profession is I don't have to. It makes things a lot more fun, more interesting. It's important to hang around with people for a while, let people know what they're getting into. I try to make people have their eyes as open as they can be."

And like Tommy O'Connor, he feels both affection for and responsibility to the people he connects to with his writing. "I think," said Kidder, "there's a certain level of decency and honor."

In Home Town, as with other works like Old Friends and Among Schoolchildren, Kidder learned a big lesson from a small place. "One of the things I wanted you to feel in this book, when you were with each of the characters, you'd really be with the person, engaged, wondering what would happen and why. Then I wanted to move you away and have you feel, oh, yes, this is important, there's something larger, a bigger vessel. Home is," said Kidder, "the strange combination of history and present life and culture that make a place good for human life."

The home town he portrays in his book embraces more than pretty streets and solid infrastructure. It evokes sanctuary, nostalgia, longing, belonging, and loss.

Ellen Kanner has interviewed many authors for BookPage.

What makes a place home? As he researched his book Home Town, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder (Soul of a New Machine, 1981) wasn't sure he knew the answer. That's why he writes. "I can look into parts of the world I don't understand and don't know about, and that's pretty wonderful," said Kidder in […]
Interview by

In Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, Broke Heart Blues, headlines scream SUBURBAN TEEN TRIED IN SHOOTING DEATH OF MOTHER’S LOVER. That teen, John Reddy Heart, is the book’s mysterious, romantic central figure and the source of endless speculation. Though Oates is neither murderer nor teen idol, she knows what public scrutiny feels like. One of America’s most innovative and prolific literary writers, Oates maintains a low profile, causing fans and critics to wonder who she really is and how she does what she does.

Not only does she write great novels, Oates has written a lot of them, 30 to date. In addition, she’s been teaching at Princeton for the past 20 years, and is releasing this month both a new collection of criticism, Where I’ve Been, and Where I’m Going and Starr Bright Will Be with You Soon, a psychological thriller written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith.

Oates may be a brooding figure of intrigue to others, but her creativity is no mystery at all, just hard work. “I do only one work at a time. I tend to be obsessive and haunted by the work,” said the author, speaking from Princeton. “I don’t work fast but I work a long time every day. I start fairly early in the morning and go till about 1:00. I take time off in the afternoon and I teach two days a week, but then I can sometimes work again till midnight.” But attempts to demystify herself have done no good. Like John Reddy, Oates is often a figure onto whom others project their own personal myths.

The difference between how things appear and how they really are is Oates’s lifelong literary focus. Oates has never indulged her favorite theme with the playful sweetness and humor of Broke Heart Blues. Set in the 1960s, it “deals with murder and a family idealized and ostracized — ” familiar Oates turf — “but mostly it’s about kids and innocence,” said Oates. “I wanted to write about the American infatuation with high school life, of collective nostalgia. It’s not satirical, not cruel. It’s a sympathetic look at these powerful, genuine emotions we forget about when we get older.”

Articulating those volatile emotions are the assembled voices of 40 Willowsville High students Oates crafts to speak as a single, impassioned narrator. They all love John Reddy, but “Most of us at WHS, even guys who’d played varsity basketball with him . . . even the few girls who claimed to have gone out with him, would have to admit we’d never had an actual conversation with John Reddy Heart.”

“That was the most exciting part of writing the novel, putting the voices together in a kind of chorus,” said Oates. “There’s the disparity of what they imagined and what is.” The book’s middle section, written in omniscient third-person narration, is where readers find out “what is.” The real John Reddy can hardly compete with his classmates’ elaborate perceptions.

Similarly, the truth about Oates doesn’t live up to the image of her as an intense, bookish creature. She is not like Broke Heart Blues‘s Evangeline Fesnacht, who, the book tells us, grew up, left Willowsville, and became the author “E.S. Fesnacht, a voice of disturbing but penetrating insight into the tragic human condition.” The line sounds like every Oates review, but the author created Evangeline Fesnacht “as a gentle satire of my own self as I’m perceived by other people. I know my image is different, but I was captain of the basketball team, I played field hockey, I was very athletic. I belonged to many, many clubs.”

Author Photo
Nostalgia implies sentimentality, something of which the author could never be accused. Rather, she evokes the cauldron of adolescent yearning as though still stinging from it. “It’s a time of great excitement and imagination. All kinds of emotions are unleashed. You can be blissfully happy one day and the next really melancholy. These kids in my novel could be plunged into extremes.”

Though she calls Broke Heart Blues her happy novel, it involves strong emotions, “preppies, hoods, jocks, geeks” and other high school cliques, and murder, themes which seem to presage the high school violence of Littleton, Colorado. “Littleton has always been coming,” she said. “There have been school shootings in past years. I certainly hope there won’t be a larger one, but there will probably be other shootings. The emotions of adolescent boys have always been volatile. Now instead of getting into a fight, they get a gun.”

Boys may always be boys, but the times they live in change. Oates notes a loss of innocence in America. Compared to a generation ago, American youth is “much more catapulted into adult life, but they’re not ready for it, not emotionally.” Maybe no one ever is. Oates believes that at our core we remain the awkward, insecure people we were in high school. “That side of American men, the boyishness, is very touching,” she said, “the way they look back to the school years and still feel inadequacy. That makes them human.”

The last section of Broke Heart Blues, a 30th reunion at Willowsville High, reverts to the collective voice of the students, some settled, some bitter, all very much older. Hoping John Reddy, the mysterious outsider of their youth, will somehow appear, they discover the welter of powerful emotions they thought had died.

Thirty years on, Willowsville High students still obsess about John Reddy Heart, and 30 novels since she began writing, Oates still has the ability to surprise. “There are writers who basically write the same book, but some of us as we get older get more playful and experimental,” she said. “Broke Heart Blues is not a form I would have dreamed of using 20 years ago.”

Freewheeling with form, Oates is still driven by the same core content, probing the dark, unknowable heart, piercing the veil of appearance. She has started work on a new novel about Marilyn Monroe — someone who was, like John Reddy and his creator, an outsider. “I’ve been haunted by her image. I wanted to write about Norma Jean Baker, not Marilyn Monroe, the real person rather than the icon. In America,” she added, “we make our journeys from the outside to the inside.” Her new novel will end as Monroe’s life did — tragically.

But that’s not what Oates wanted for Broke Heart Blues. “I end it with the words, ‘we love you.’ It’s like saying we love America, and we love youth. It’s a valentine to that experience.”

Ellen Kanner has interviewed many authors for BookPage.

In Joyce Carol Oates’s new novel, Broke Heart Blues, headlines scream SUBURBAN TEEN TRIED IN SHOOTING DEATH OF MOTHER’S LOVER. That teen, John Reddy Heart, is the book’s mysterious, romantic central figure and the source of endless speculation. Though Oates is neither murderer nor teen idol, she knows what public scrutiny feels like. One of […]
Interview by

With her new novel Fortune’s Rocks, Anita Shreve, author of the bestseller The Pilot’s Wife, returns to the time she loves, the 19th century. Though she believes that, at their core, people’s lives have not changed in a hundred years, the way we talk about our lives has. She likens modern speech to a corset, finding it "spare, tighter, bereft. It’s much harder to write contemporary language. The language of the 19th century is more forgiving, more luxurious. It’s the difference between using really expensive silk and voile and velvet as opposed to using cotton."

Written in a richly wrought style evocative of the age, Fortune’s Rocks is set a century ago, in an affluent seaside community in upstate New York. It follows the life of self-possessed Olympia Biddeford. Fifteen years old when the book opens, Olympia has reached the moment when, as a character tells her, "a girl becomes a woman. The bud of a woman, perhaps. And she is never so beautiful as in this period of time, however brief."

"It’s an extraordinary age," says Shreve, speaking from her home in Massachusetts. "The maturity may not be there, but the sexuality is so ripe.

It’s an age of great beauty; it’s fascinating. I have a daughter who recently went through that and two stepdaughters who are all stunningly beautiful. It’s been interesting to watch how they dealt with it, but more [interesting] to imagine how one would deal with it then."

At this precarious age, Olympia has an affair with a married man, John Haskell. Their forbidden love echoes other great American novels, including Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which Shreve even refers to in the course of Fortune’s Rocks. "As a reader, as a writer, The Scarlet Letter was one of my earliest influences. Ethan Frome, a simple work of American literature, also had a lasting and profound impression on me. I’m interested in passion, betrayal, great love, how they can twist a character as well as forge a character." As her works have shown, Shreve is fascinated by characters thrust into extreme circumstances. "It’s a perfect scenario for a moral testing ground of character."

Like The Scarlet Letter‘s Hester Prynne, Olympia must endure hardship and humiliation, and though she and Haskell are parted, her feelings for him endure. "To be told not to love is useless, she discovers, for the spirit will rebel. Though she thinks it unlikely she will ever see Haskell again, she cannot stop herself from remembering him," writes Shreve, who both is and isn’t Olympia.

At that age, Shreve lacked Olympia’s emotional certainty, but shared with her protagonist the ability to enjoy solitude, nothing most teenagers admit to. Her voice dreamy, Shreve recalls, "I valued quiet and liked nothing better than to take a walk and be left alone and be able to observe." The author, who says she would hate to write a memoir but loves to write fiction "because it gives me a mask to hide behind," admits that like Olympia, she has "a willingness to take incredible risks for something as strong as love."

In that way, she says, people have not changed from the last century. Cell phones have replaced letters and bathing costumes have given way to bikinis, but in the end, people are always kindled by their passions and constrained by circumstances. These things are as constant as the sea, a force and presence in five of Shreve’s six novels. "The sea," she says, "is an inexhaustible metaphor. I think every single one of my books takes place on the coast of New England, with the exception of Eden Close."

Fortune’s Rocks not only returns to Shreve’s favorite time and landscape, it takes place in the very house where The Pilot’s Wife is set. "The house . . . was once a convent, the home of the Order of Saint Jean Baptiste de Bienfaisance . . ." writes Shreve in Fortune’s Rocks, and in both books, the house itself is a character, stately yet haunting, evocative of the past.

"This is an idea that’s been with me some time," explains the author. "Any old house has a history. Other women lived there, every person who lived there had a story."

Setting and the epic forces of passion and betrayal link The Pilot’s Wife and Fortune’s Rocks, yet Shreve says, "A lot of readers may be shocked by Fortune’s Rocks. Every one of my books is very different. I have no desire to recreate. In the past, it’s been a commercial liability." She no longer has to fret about marketability, not since Oprah Winfrey chose The Pilot’s Wife to be part of Oprah’s Book Club.

"What a fantastic thing that was," says Shreve, still amazed. "Now I have many, many more readers." After being in Oprah’s spotlight, the author found herself inundated with requests for interviews and readings. It is fun, she admits, to be on the bestseller list, but otherwise, "my life is exactly the same." She knows, though, that the interest in The Pilot’s Wife will draw readers to Fortune’s Rocks, where Shreve will usher them into an earlier time, whether they’re ready or not.

If she could turn back the clock for herself, Shreve wouldn’t mind in the least. "I would have been just so happy to be writing then. I love the language. I don’t know how long I can get away with writing 19th-century language, but I just enjoy it so much." She first experimented with 19th-century language in The Weight of Water "and loved it so much, I was determined to find my way back. I’m interested in the marriage of story and language."

Fortune’s Rocks is where it all comes together, a compelling tale knit with elegant prose. Though how Shreve tells Olympia’s story sets her new novel apart, Olympia’s struggles are not all that different from the experiences of women throughout history and on into the present. "It’s an intimate look at a woman’s life, her grappling with a biblical sense of obsessive love and betrayal and moral decisions and loss, terrible loss. It’s about how to continue with life."

Ellen Kanner writes from her home in Miami, Florida.

Author photo by Norman Jean Roy.

With her new novel Fortune’s Rocks, Anita Shreve, author of the bestseller The Pilot’s Wife, returns to the time she loves, the 19th century. Though she believes that, at their core, people’s lives have not changed in a hundred years, the way we talk about our lives has. She likens modern speech to a corset, […]
Interview by

Jane Smiley doesn’t do autobiography. You won’t find her in Ginny, the narrator of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, or in any of the ensemble cast of her wicked academic satire, Moo. "I don’t write to investigate my own life or sensibility," says the tall, elegant author. "I write more to investigate the world."

Specifically, Smiley investigates America, both its inner and outer landscapes, and never more so than with her new novel, The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton. The author calls this book a look at "the intersection of ideology and violence in America." It’s a daunting subject, but as always, the author gives it a very human face. The face belongs to Lidie Newton, a gangly young widow who recalls all that happened a year ago, in 1855.

It begins when Lidie meets Thomas Newton, an abolitionist passing through on his way to his claim in the Kansas Territory. Lidie has no strong moral feelings about slavery but is intrigued by Thomas, who declares it to be "evil incarnate." When he proposes marriage, she agrees. "He’s appealing and he likes her," says Smiley. "She doesn’t have many prospects and so she sets off the way we all do — why not?"

Lidie’s sense of "why not" defines her. Marrying a man she barely knows and moving to a strange, dangerous place seems no more to her than an adventure, and Lidie loves adventure. She is, after all, the only woman in her home town of Quincy, Illinois, to swim the Mississippi River. She isn’t, however, the first wild spirit in fiction to do so. First came Huck Finn.

"I was conscious, of course, of Huckleberry Finn. Huck Finn grows up in the same period she does, grows up across the river, and they swim in the same river. But I was also conscious of Uncle Tom’s Cabin," says Smiley, who in her 1995 Harper’s article, "Say It Ain’t So, Huck," asserted Beecher depicted slavery more realistically than Twain. Smiley sighs. "The American myth is that things work out. But if we look out on American history, they didn’t work out. The real typical slave escape is that [the slave] doesn’t get away and everybody has to deal with that."

For Lidie, her stand on slavery, which people slyly refer to as "the goose question," is only one more part of the complicated life she finds in Bloody Kansas. She and Thomas face hardship, hatred, and violence as the free-staters clash with the slave-holders of Missouri.

Smiley, who immersed herself in research, is encyclopedic on the subject. "Ideology and violence came together with pioneers and getting rid of the Indians and making claims and claims jumping — all the forces of American history are present in Kansas," says the author. "All along the Kansas-Missouri border was something we would recognize now — Bosnia and Rwanda and guerrilla-type wars."

Bloodshed and hate, believes Smiley, are part of American heritage. Though they’re nothing new, they’re always devastating. The week Smiley began her book tour for Moo, she found another link between the past and the present, another manifestation of American ideology and violence — the federal building in Oklahoma City blew up.

Such random slaughter occurs midway through Smiley’s novel, when Thomas is gunned down, leaving Lidie alone in a wild place. "I had lost every single thing, including . . . my very name and history. . . ." says the narrator. "I was a new person, one I had never desired or expected to be."

Grieving and in shock, Lidie discovers that like Thomas’s murderers, she, too, is capable of rage. "I wanted to kill something, preferably a Missourian, preferably more than one." She cuts off her hair, dresses like a man, and sets out into hostile Missouri to avenge her husband’s death. But Lidie’s plans unravel when she falls ill and is taken in and cared for at a beautiful southern plantation.

Lidie, who has never paid much attention to slaves before, meets Lorna, a strong-willed slave, a woman rich in humanity. Though the plantation owner treats his slaves well, "the mere fact of being a slave is galling and appalling to Lorna, and it should be," says Smiley. "That’s why I didn’t do a Simon Legree sort of thing — we don’t have to ponder the worst case in order to ponder the moral outrage." When Lidie decides she must move on, Lorna announces, "Well, you is takin’ me wid ya."

Just as Lidie assumes disguises, The All-true Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton is a call for freedom and tolerance dressed as page-turner, a ripping good read. "Every novel I write is political," says the author. "It’s not possible to suspend your critique of the world and enter into some sort of pure apolitical realm. Your political views and your moral views connect you in a responsible way to other people, to society."

Connection to others, to what is real, resonates with Smiley. Winning the Pulitzer, she admits, was nice, but it didn’t change her life. "It made me famous, but that’s something that exists in other people’s minds. Becoming a mother at 43, buying a horse at 42, that changed my life." Indeed, Smiley’s affinity for horses comes through in the novel with Jeremiah, Lidie’s own beloved gray.

Being a mother and a raiser of horses has taken Smiley away from working in her head to an awareness of herself. "I went from being a teacher of literature and a writer to being a student of a whole different set of life questions — a student of riding, a student of [the] body, a student of fear, of horse psychology, horse care. I went from being in the advanced class back to being in kindergarten, which is not what I thought was going to happen," says the author, still surprised. "It has been wonderful and it has been painful. It opened me up. It changed who I was."

This is where Smiley, who does not do autobiography, turns out to have something in common with lanky, guileless Lidie. They share the same why-not attitude. "I think her voice is similar to mine. I certainly felt comfortable writing in her voice," admits Smiley. "And I’m tall."

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami, Florida.

Jane Smiley doesn’t do autobiography. You won’t find her in Ginny, the narrator of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres, or in any of the ensemble cast of her wicked academic satire, Moo. "I don’t write to investigate my own life or sensibility," says the tall, elegant author. "I write more to investigate the […]
Interview by

"I must still be a girl approaching puberty," says Judy Blume, creator of Blubber, Margaret, Deenie, and Fudge — some of the most enduring characters in young adult fiction. Blume may be 60, but she has the heart of a girl and a childlike wonder that comes through in the way she writes and lives. She can't get over the purple bougainvillea blossoming around her winter home in Key West, Florida, or the fact that it's always warm. "I love summer. That's why I'm here."

Summer figures prominently in Blume's newest work, Summer Sisters, her 21st novel and third book for adults. Summer Sisters traces the lives of Vix and Caitlin, two friends who summer together on Martha's Vineyard. Vix is the shy one. Caitlin swears in class and gets away with it. Their first summer as "summer sisters," "they clasped hands, closed their eyes and vowed they would never be ordinary." Blume takes them from adolescence — "'You're really growing,' Caitlin said, focusing on Vix's chest" — into adulthood, from friendship to forgiveness, with a healthy mix of drama and wry humor.

An effortless, enjoyable read, Summer Sisters was less so to write. "I call it my book from hell," says Blume. "This book was very tough to get right because these two young women were on my mind for a long time." The idea for the story came to her back in the early '80s but kept eluding her. It took over ten years and twice as many drafts to get right, a confounding experience for a prolific author whose previous works came to her whole. Why did she stick with it? "It haunted me, I had to go back and do it. I couldn't let the characters go, they were so real."

They're still real to Blume, who speaks of them as she would about friends. "Caitlin plays games. I love her, but she's really hard to take sometimes. Still I'm glad she was there to encourage Vix to try her wings."

The two women will be real to her readers, too, some of whom, like Blume, identified with Margaret in Blume's young adult classic Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Summer Sisters is the least autobiographical of her books, but Blume admits, "Caitlin represents one side of me, and Vix another. I was the good girl but excited by the idea of being the bad girl."

Of all the characters in Summer Sisters Blume feels she has the most in common with Abby, the stepmother Caitlin resents, the loving, nurturing figure Vix wishes her own mother could be. "My husband doesn't like Abby. He says it's the worst of me, the leftover New Jersey in me." She laughs, but it's not all a joke. When Blume was young, "there was no one like that for me. You're lucky if you have an Abby in your life, who really cares about you."

A whole generation of readers have looked to Blume the way Vix looks to Abby, for assurance, acceptance, and guidance. Readers feel less alone reading her books. They feel a tremendous bond with her. Many have written her letters telling her things they couldn't tell their own families — something Blume finds to be both an honor and a responsibility. In 1986, she published Letters to Judy, a collection of readers' letters confiding in the author everything from guilt over sibling rivalry to drug use. "I didn't know how to deal with it, and I let it paralyze me, the responsibility overwhelmed me. I had to get help to find out what I could do," she says. "I wanted to save all those needy kids."

Blume has created an easier forum to connect with her readers — her own Web site (http://www.judyblume.com). Upbeat and colorful and designed by her husband — "George is so high-tech" — it's visited "by all these people in their 20s and 30s who come to share things. I get about 200 hits a day. I am approachable. I like people. Everything I have today is because of my readers. We have something to give each other. There's a connection, you know, and it's so sweet."

Blume says her publisher would like her to use her Web site to promote her work, even though sales of her books exceed 65 million copies. But that isn't why she created it. "It's about giving information to my readers, it's not there to sell something."

The way her work is sold is a long-standing issue for the author. Blume captures the weird, exciting time known as puberty better than any other writer, and as a result, publishers have pigeonholed her as a young adult author. An outspoken opponent of censorship and more sensitive than many to the pangs of adolescence, Blume knows that no teenager is going to walk into the children's section of a bookstore for a book.

"If Catcher in the Rye were published today, would it be published young adult?" she asks. When a novel like Salinger's or Summer Sisters has a younger protagonist, Blume thinks the responsible thing is to "publish it adult. The kids who want to read it will find it. The only difference between an adult novel and a young adult novel is the voice and the characters. There isn't any difference in the process, just the experiences."

What makes her want to write about adolescence and childhood is the energy and ardor of the age. "Everything's new and fresh, everything is a new experience. You haven't done it all yet."

Still, being an adult has its own advantages. "You get to make your own decisions. Nobody can tell you what to do. I'm on my way to being an older adult, and I feel this great sense of I don't have to prove anything. I'm not angry, and life is good."

Blume manages to have the best of both worlds. She tootles around Key West on an old bicycle that reminds her of her girlhood Schwinn. "Being here is the best," she says. "I'm a kid and I get to play and nobody tells me what to do and when to go home."

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami and a frequent contributor to BookPage.



"I must still be a girl approaching puberty," says Judy Blume, creator of Blubber, Margaret, Deenie, and Fudge — some of the most enduring characters in young adult fiction. Blume may be 60, but she has the heart of a girl and a childlike wonder that comes through in the way she writes and lives. […]
Interview by

For Connie May Fowler, stories are medicine. There is might and magic in them. "Speak or write the words down, and the world becomes a clearer place. Sometimes it even changes the world," the author says.

Mattie, the narrator of Fowler's fourth novel Remembering Blue, feels the power of the stories as strongly as her creator does. "That act of memory and telling the story is something that Mattie is absolutely compelled to do. It's a life-saving act for her," says Fowler.

Mattie, 25, wants to tell the story of Nick Blue, her husband, a shrimper who loved the sea and who has vanished. But in speaking of him, she must also tell her own story, of the shy, broken creature she was before they met and how his love helped her grow and blossom. The themes of love and loss are timeless, and Fowler makes them even more resonantly so by setting her story away from modern distractions, in the present, but on an island off the coast of north Florida.

Cut off from the mainland, life on the island with Nick puts Mattie in touch with herself and with what's elemental in the world. "On my last few trips into Tallahassee I was lost. I mean, lost in my heart," says Mattie. "Cities don't make sense to me anymore. Yes, I was once a city girl. But now I am wild. I'm salvia and sea oat."

The island, Lethe, takes its name from the spring of forgetfulness in Greek mythology that the dead would drink from in order to live again. On Lethe, taken in by Nick and the boisterous Blue family, Mattie forgets her past unhappiness and learns to forgive. Fowler, whose previous novel Before Women Had Wings won the 1996 Southern Book Critics Circle Award, makes myth a palpable force in Remembering Blue. As Nick explains to Mattie, there's a legend in his family that "'some of us . . . used to be dolphins. And if we're dolphins, we're free, see? But when we're men, we're not.'" Mattie gently explains, "'myths are just stories we create to make our pain go away,'" but Nick believes in the story's power.

In a way, so does Fowler. The "quiet magic" of Nick and Mattie's world is drawn from model as well as from myth. While walking along the beach near her home, Fowler spotted a dolphin close to shore. It kept pace with her as she walked up and down the sand. On impulse, she called to it. "It nearly came out of the water, shot like a torpedo . . . It was so astonishing, maybe for all of us. That started the mythology part for me, creating someone who had a connection with another species."

Readers may not recognize the part of Florida Fowler writes about in Remembering Blue. It isn't the south, though it's very close to Georgia. It's not the tropics, though it's in the same state as Key West and Miami Beach. Lethe, with its "shell-scattered shorelines building and receding in response to storms not yet spawned. Infinite vistas of open water that at high noon cannot be looked upon because of the blinding glint of the sun. . . ." is fictitious, even mythical, but Fowler's rich descriptions of it are real. She lives outside Tallahassee in north Florida and is passionate about that connection with place.

"I kind of fell in love with the people and landscape and water in this part of Florida. I wanted a story where I had a character immersed in that, but also needed a character who was new to it, who could learn about it through others."

Fowler depicts the unspoiled beauty not just of the region, but of the people who live there. To make Mattie's experience authentic, she spoke to local shrimpers' wives. "They love their life and love where they live. They really wanted me to do it right. They opened up their world to me. They took me in, they didn't withhold anything. They were so giving."

Fowler responds to such generosity of spirit because she didn't get a lot of it as a child. She grew up knowing abuse, poverty, and neglect, but like Mattie, the daughter of "a withholding woman" and a "booze hound" father, Fowler shrugs off self-pity. She transmutes her pain into stories, and did it so movingly in Before Women Had Wings that Oprah Winfrey made it into a film. Fowler herself wrote the screenplay.

It was like a Cinderella moment for her, and "I didn't want that moment to go by without doing something to help other people." She created the Connie May Fowler Women With Wings Foundation, which serves battered women in Florida and gives them safe places to go to, like Tallahassee's Refuge House.

"If my mom had had a Refuge House in her life, things would have been drastically different for all of us," Fowler said. "I became really committed to raising funds so the women and children in this area could be taken care of in grace and safety."

Appearing on "Oprah" has given Fowler more readers, but has also made her popular in a way she can't fathom. "People are all the time calling me, asking me how to get on her show. Once you're on TV, people think you're somebody, which is the oddest thing. Once you buy into that, then you're in a lot of trouble."

Celebrity for its own sake doesn't appeal to Fowler at all. She believes people want to be on TV talk shows because they crave a forum for telling their stories. "They just want to share their stories and hear someone say, I understand," she says. "It goes back to Remembering Blue — that act of sharing your story is really empowering. I understand very acutely the power of stories and myths, of religion in that context. That's one of the things I deal with — how do we retain any sense of myth, of the fantastic, of transcendence in a technological, postmodern age?"

For Fowler, the answer lies not in technology, but within us and the world around us. Mattie says it for her. "Everything that I want . . . to understand is right here. The mystery is in the sand. And in the water. And in the air we breathe." And in stories like Remembering Blue.
Ellen Kanner writes from her home in Miami, Florida.
For Connie May Fowler, stories are medicine. There is might and magic in them. "Speak or write the words down, and the world becomes a clearer place. Sometimes it even changes the world," the author says. Mattie, the narrator of Fowler's fourth novel Remembering Blue, feels the power of the stories as strongly as her […]
Interview by

Like an archaeologist delving into the earth, unsure of what he'll find, Toronto author Michael Ondaatje immerses himself in the writing process. "I don't have a plan for a story when I sit down to write. I would get quite bored carrying it out," he said. He knows in time, all will become clear.

"It's a discovery of a story when I write a book, a case of inching ahead on each page and discovering what's beyond in the darkness, beyond where you're writing."

What he's unearthed in his gripping new book, Anil's Ghost, may surprise readers who know Ondaatje only from his previous work, the Booker Award-winning novel The English Patient. While The English Patient is dreamily set in an abandoned villa at the end of World War II, Anil's Ghost, which took seven years to write, takes place in the violent present. Set in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Ondaatje was born, it tells the story of Anil, who like the author, is both a native of the country and a stranger to it.

"I'm a Canadian citizen," said Ondaatje by telephone, his voice low and musical. "But I always want to feel at home in Sri Lanka. I'm a member of both countries." Both the author and his protagonist have beautiful memories of growing up there, memories overlaid by horror.

"Sri Lanka now is a more complicated world morally," said Ondaatje, and in his new book he writes, "The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. But the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared to what was happening here."

Anil, who has lived abroad for 15 years, returns to her old home as a forensic anthropologist on a human rights mission to find, examine, and identify the bones of the Disappeared. During Sri Lanka's 16-year conflict which began in the mid-1980s, the government struggled to crush uprisings by the Tamil Tigers and separatist guerrillas, and thousands of people simply vanished. Most were assumed to have been killed, their bodies flung into mass graves. However, without remains, without proof, the government-sanctioned massacres could not be proven, and the families of the Disappeared could find no peace.

As he writes in Anil's Ghost, Death, loss, was ”unfinished', so you could not walk through it. "It is," said Ondaatje, "a subject I wanted to write about for some time, but I didn't know how to encompass it." He chose to do it one body at a time. In the midst of her forensic work on a skeleton, "Anil stops to reach forward and lift [the skeleton] into her arms, to remind herself he was just like her. Not just evidence but someone with charms or flaws, part of a family, a member of a village who in the sudden lightning of politics raised his hands in the last minute so they were broken." Ondaatje's depiction of Anil's painstaking work reading the bones of the dead is as haunting as it is true to life. He interviewed and worked with forensic anthropologists to understand and portray the details of their craft. "To me, the book is dedicated to people like that and to doctors, who tend to be unsung heroes in these situations."

Anil and her archaeologist partner Sarath aren't the only of Ondaatje's characters to descend into the earth. In his second novel, In the Skin of A Lion (1987), characters mine and tunnel. In The English Patient (1992), Almasy discovers a cave and Kip, the sapper, lowers himself into the earth to diffuse bombs. "I'm just fascinated by other much more physical careers," said Ondaatje, who notes that writing isn't as far from these other fields as it seems. For the author, the goal is the same to get at the truth.

"A writer uses a pen instead of a scalpel or blow torch. As a writer, one is busy with archaeology, he said. It's what the writer does with any character. On one level you're moving forward, but in the other, you're revealing the past." Ondaatje has a gift for linking the most disparate things. It's why he writes so fully and fluidly about other lives, other professions, about what is, at first glance, outside his realm. The prevailing literary wisdom may be to write what you know, but the author prefers to write what he doesn't know. "That's how you learn," he said. "You don't want to write your own opinion, you don't want to just represent yourself, but represent yourself through someone else. It doubles your perception, to write from the point of view of someone you're not. To write about someone like myself would be very limiting. It seemed very natural for me to start with Anil."

Ever interested in craft, Ondaatje has studied his own process over a 30-year literary career. He's written two other novels, a memoir about growing up with his wonderfully eccentric father entitled Running in the Family (1982) and 11 books of poetry. "Prose is much more public; I would like it to be as private, intimate, casual, not structured as poetry, not having an agenda. That's why I do not plan my novels."

Earlier works like Running in the Family, his first two novels, and a book of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), focused on a single character. The last three books are much more a case of a moment of history, what happened almost by accident or coincidence, like being in the same elevator or lifeboat. Then you see the link between strangers, which we do all the time, wherever we are. We may be strangers brought up in different cultures, but there's always a link. What links Anil's Ghost and The English Patient is their depiction of strangers thrust together in a time of war. Anil neither knows nor trusts her Sri Lankan partner Sarath when they first meet, but by the end of the book, her life depends on him.

Ondaatje, who sees connections between all things, hastens to add that the situation in Anil's Ghost is not endemic only to Sri Lanka. "Other countries, other cultures have tried to obliterate the truth, obliterate their very own history. It's more a state we're all living in now, in Africa, in Yugoslavia, in South America. It's a very contemporary situation that goes on everywhere around us."

It is still difficult for the author to reconcile the Sri Lanka of his childhood with what it has become. "I grew up in a country that was very different the germs of racism were there then, I just wasn't aware of it. But I didn't want the dark violence to be the only portrait of the country. It's not just a culture of death, it's an intricate, subtle, and artistic culture," said Ondaatje. "I wanted to celebrate it. In a way, the archaeology was there for that purpose, as well. I allowed that to represent the country, not just generals and politicians."

Though it explores the darkness, Anil's Ghost shimmers with beauty and hope and ends with a human touch. "I had no idea how I was going to end that book," Ondaatje said, and laughed. "I was terrified." He wrote until he reached the truth, the bones.

Ellen Kanner writes from Miami.

Like an archaeologist delving into the earth, unsure of what he'll find, Toronto author Michael Ondaatje immerses himself in the writing process. "I don't have a plan for a story when I sit down to write. I would get quite bored carrying it out," he said. He knows in time, all will become clear. "It's […]
Interview by

In The River King, ghosts appear in photographs and people are knocked out by an overwhelming smell of roses "though the weather was dismal and no flowers bloomed." This isn’t the real world, it’s the world of Alice Hoffman, whose 13 novels sparkle with enchantment.

"There are people who write fiction to come to terms with their own lives. I’m much more interested in creating alternate universes, not everyday reality," said the author, speaking from her home outside Boston. Hoffman, who has peopled her novels with witches (Practical Magic, 1995) and giants (Illumination Night, 1987) and armed her merely mortal characters with charms and spells, never outgrew her love of fairy tales. She thinks at heart, no one has. Everyone wants to believe.

As a girl, Hoffman adored Mary Poppins and stories by the Brothers Grimm and Ray Bradbury, but more than that, she believed in them. "I believed anything can happen. It was a huge escape for me as reader. I loved anything that could remove me from reality and make me see possibilities," she said. "Fiction in general gives you the freedom of exploring the truth without boundaries, to get to a deeper truth, and fairy tales have always been my model."

The River King, with more than a whisper of fairy tale to it, takes place in Haddan, Massachusetts, at a school haunted by the ghost of Annie Howe. "Most newcomers are apprised of Annie’s fate as soon a they come to Haddan. . . . The house is called St. Anne’s, in honor of Annie Howe, who hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March. . . ."

Once Hoffman envisioned this gothic image, the rest of the story unfolded. "It’s a strange process, writing fiction," she said. "Here, the town kind of appeared for me, then the school and the river, and people moved in and filled it up." Among the people filling up Haddan are new students Carlin Leander and Augustus Pierce, new teacher Betsy Chase, and Abel Grey, the town’s policeman who has lived there all his life. They meet as strangers, but the mysterious death of one unites the other three. While uncovering the truth, they each discover some truths about themselves. Hoffman writes, "It was the truth that was always as clear as water until it had been broken; shatter it and all that’s left is a lie.""More important than the story you tell is the voice you have," said the author, who achieves that voice by not thinking about it too much. "I’ve always tried to go directly from sleep to the computer, before I have the time to start censoring myself. I like to get up at 5:00. I do my best work early in the morning before the world’s awake. For the kind of fiction I write, which is emotional fiction, you have to let go. Let the walls down, the defenses down. Don’t worry about what people are going to think."

She tries to work quickly and never looks over her first draft until she has told the whole story. Then she burnishes her prose. "I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite," she said. It took three years before she was satisfied with The River King.

Though Hoffman may have the most in common with the book’s impulsive, exotic Betsy Chase, she feels the most protective of the teenagers, Carlin and Gus. The author’s children are 12 and 17, but Hoffman didn’t use their behavior for the book. She didn’t have to. Her own teenage years still feel achingly fresh. "It stays with you like no other time does. Falling in love for the first time, succeeding for the first time, failing for the first time — it’s intense. I remember how important, how dire everything seemed. Everything seemed so life or death. I think it’s still that way."

Adolescent angst may be eternal, but some things have changed since Hoffman’s high school years. The killings at Colombine High School occurred while she was writing The River King. "I felt like changing the book because of Colombine, but decided to leave it the way it is. There seems to be so much intolerance about sexual orientation, so much bullying, more people getting guns," said Hoffman. "It’s harder to be a teenager now."

Harder, even than when she wrote about New York gang life in her first novel, Property Of. The book came out in 1977, when Hoffman was in her early 20s, barely out of her teens, herself. "I was a baby, I knew nothing, I had never heard of Farrar Straus [her first publisher] when I started," she said, laughing. "Back then, you got no money, no publicity, but they took more chances. It was much easier to get published. [Her current publisher] Putnam’s stayed with me in a way I’m not sure publishers do anymore. If you’re not having huge sales, they don’t want to see you."

Hoffman doesn’t think about sales, huge or otherwise, when she works. "I always feel you’re writing the book you couldn’t find, so you have to write it yourself." Though she confessed, "Some people pressure you to write the same book over and over again," Hoffman doesn’t pay much attention. She’d rather stretch herself as a writer and keep her own council, something she learned to do as a girl. Back in elementary school, her "very, very smart" older brother was the teachers’ darling. Hoffman, who was not, wasn’t above filching his old papers and resubmitting them under her own name. "His would get an A and mine would get a C or D. I realized it didn’t matter what anyone else thought and whatever judgment I got was going to come from myself. You have to have faith in yourself."

The author of The River King also has faith in the power of myth and the power of literature. Though reading and writing may seem like solitary acts, she believes books bring people together, providing "that feeling of community, of what feels true for you feels true for me, the sense you’re not alone and somebody knows how you feel. I believe literature can change things," Hoffman said. She believes it the way she used to believe in fairy tales — with all her heart.

Ellen Kanner writes from Miami.

Author photo by Jake Martin.

In The River King, ghosts appear in photographs and people are knocked out by an overwhelming smell of roses "though the weather was dismal and no flowers bloomed." This isn’t the real world, it’s the world of Alice Hoffman, whose 13 novels sparkle with enchantment. "There are people who write fiction to come to terms […]
Interview by

Superhuman strength, x-ray vision, the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound — Superman’s got it all, believes author Michael Chabon. But if Chabon were a comic book superhero himself, he thinks he would have been "one of the also-rans. There’s Daredevil, who was blind; Hour Man, who had his powers for an hour; Bouncing Boy bounced into people; Matter Eater could eat anything," he said. "As a nebbishy Jewish guy from Cleveland, I always identified with characters with greater frailty."

And that’s the key to Chabon, who was all of 24 when he dazzled the literary world with his 1988 debut novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. While grateful to be published, the mad celebrity he garnered at the time struck him as "a horrible fate — I felt thrust forward," said Chabon, who though he seems neither nebbishy nor frail, holds his inner Bouncing Boy close to his heart. He combines his empathy for nebbishes and people who are "prisoners of their own limitations" and his love of comic book superheroes in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

The novel, set in New York in the 1940s, features lavish descriptions and cameo appearances by historical figures including Al Smith and Orson Welles. The world Chabon portrays is so vivid, it’s hard to remember the author, 36, wasn’t even born then. "I’m drawn to the history of that period," he said. "Not just the battles, but the home front."

The home front is where The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes place. Joseph Kavalier escapes from Hitler’s Prague and comes to America, specifically Brooklyn, and the home of his cousin Sammy Clay. Sammy’s a huge comic book fan. Joe’s a killer artist. He’s also a deft magician skilled at Houdini-like escapes. Sammy, whose head is filled with stories, possesses, as Chabon writes, "a longing — common enough among the inventors of heroes — to be someone else . . . ."

The cousins, both in their teens, create a new superhero. "Armed with superb physical and mental training, a crack team of assistants, and ancient wisdom, he roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains! He is. . . the Escapist!"

The Escapist earns his name. He eludes the forces of evil and beats up German soldiers with his righteous fists, while the comic books themselves provide escape from the grim backdrop of World War II. As Chabon writes, "Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather . . . his city, his history — his home — the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf."

At one time, the author, who lives in Berkeley, considered creating comic books himself. "I like drawing, I like graphic art," he said. "But I didn’t seriously think about doing anything other than being a writer. I never had parental resistance. I said, I want to be a writer, and they said, okay."

Growing up, Chabon was a devotee of DC and Marvel comics. When he got older, "Comic books were out of my life. I sold my collection for $1,000, which I frittered away. Except I held on to Jack Kirby’s, dug them out about seven years ago, and I remembered what I’d given up," he said, green eyes glowing. Chabon feels Kirby, the King of Comics and creator of Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America, has influenced everything he has written.

Superheroes and supervillains have played a part in Chabon’s writing since he wrote his first short story at the age of 10. "It was Sherlock Holmes meets Captain Nemo," he recalled. "I started writing on my mother’s typewriter and to my amazement, I finished it. I put an explosion at the end." He laughs at his 10-year-old self but learned a lot from his first writing experience. "I was trying to write in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. It was my first awakening to style, word choice, voice, diction."

Since his Sherlock Holmes days, Chabon has become master of the short story and is author of two collections A Model World and Other Stories and Werewolves in Their Youth. And yet he isn’t comfortable with the short story form. "When I’m working on a short story, I’m in a constant state of anxiety and doubt," he said, raking a hand through his brown hair. "I’ll get really, really lost. I don’t know what it’s about or how it’ll end."

Chabon, whose second novel Wonder Boys is now a film, feels freer when writing novels. "I write with a vague idea of the ending I’m working toward and it will organically emerge. It’s like the opening scenes of "Get Smart," with all the doors opening. This will happen, then that will happen. There’s a certainty to it."

Chronicling Kavalier and Clay’s wild, funny, and poignant adventures, Chabon’s 736-page novel is longer than a comic book and 200 pages shorter than it was in its first draft. The epic novel took an epic four years, four months, and four days to write. "Every year there’s a big honker of a book that does really well," he said. "Maybe this’ll be the one."

He produced The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as he always does, by keeping to a rigid schedule. "I don’t like not working," he said. "I write five days a week, starting Sunday, 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. I sleep till 11." This cockeyed system somehow allows Chabon to be not just a writer, but a father and husband. In the afternoons, he gets to play with his children, Sophie, 6, and Zeke, 3 (and proud owner of five Superman T-shirts), while his wife, mystery writer Ayelet Waldman, works.

Chabon has come far from being the kid who wrote The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and that’s okay with him. "The older I get, the more amazed I am by that whole time. I’m embarrassed by the book in an affectionate way, like you feel about a younger brother — he’s irritating, he’s precocious, but he’s your brother."

That affection, compassion for the flawed, is the hallmark of Chabon’s writing. It’s what makes the very human Kavalier and Clay more compelling than the superheroes they create.

Miami writer Ellen Kanner is Wonder Woman.

Author photo by Patricia Williams.


Superhuman strength, x-ray vision, the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound — Superman’s got it all, believes author Michael Chabon. But if Chabon were a comic book superhero himself, he thinks he would have been "one of the also-rans. There’s Daredevil, who was blind; Hour Man, who had his powers for an […]
Interview by

Remember when your parents told you you’d always treasure your teenage years? So does Mary Karr, and with Cherry, she debunks that myth with all the dragon-slaying verve she brought to her 1995 best-selling memoir, The Liars’ Club. "We all hit this age and get juiced on hormones, and our parents become gargoyles, and we ourselves become gargoyles. You’re not estranged from your parents, you’re also estranged with yourself," Karr said in a recent interview.

Cherry takes up where The Liars’ Club left off, with Karr, a scrappy kid in Leechfield, Texas, hitting the wall of adolescence. But where her first memoir focused on her hard-drinking, troubled parents, here Karr turns her gaze inward. Cherry recalls her efforts at self-invention, or, as she writes, "to manufacture a whole new bearing or being, some method of maneuvering along the hallways that will result in some less vigorous psycho-social butt-whippings than those endured in junior high. . . . By fall you arrive at school a whole new creature."

"I felt like I was strapping things onto myself," said the author, who retains a hint of Texan drawl. "One day I would want to be a hippie and then a surfer, then Emily Dickinson. You change a million times."

The agony boys endure as teens may not be easier, but Karr thinks it makes for a better story. "Male adolescence is James Dean and Mick Jagger and Kurt Cobain. It’s a celebrated form. It’s got dramatic action. For women you just hit that age, you begin morphing in ways that make you foreign to yourself. A girl’s feelings are so interior, there’s no language for them," she said.

"There is no language light enough to write about masturbation, passion, longing for someone else. We don’t get sexual the way boys do. You don’t want someone to boff you into guacamole, which the average boy at that age does, you want something much more generalized. It does have sexual feeling attached to it, but it’s less linear, less of a story from point A to point B. You want John Cleary [her enduring first crush] to skate over and couple skate with you. Those images have erotic feelings attached to them in a way most men would not fathom. I know from my own experience those things were very titillating."

To depict the precise feelings she remembered, Karr wrote a mountain of drafts and revised without mercy. "I just felt like I was wrestling a dragon. It was very hard," she said. "I probably wrote and threw away 500 pages before I started aggregating pages, and I threw away another 200 pages. Even to find the voice, that sense of estrangement from yourself, changes. It’s different in the 6th grade than in the 9th grade. I tried to give that sense of change with each age. I did it by writing it really badly 87 times, finally hitting on a noise that sounded true to me, and I thought oh, yeah, we can work with this."

One of the sections Karr felt she could work with describes the dazzle of first love and the sexual feelings awakened when John Cleary kissed her. "Some unnamed luster has rushed into your pelvis with whole swirling star colonies and nebulae, and to withdraw your mouth from his would extinguish that glitter and leave you shivering cold."

"I’m sure my memory is flawed," she said and laughed. "I’m waiting for someone to file a lawsuit. I don’t want to record every dot and tittle of my often pedestrian experience." Instead, she seeks the resonant moment and gives it shape through language.

Karr, who’s written three books of poetry said, "I’m invigorated by language. Poetry saved my life. Really transformed me, really saved me." The magic of words helped her escape a father bowed by "an alcohol-soaked heaviness" and a pill-popping mother who put Karr on birth control before she turned 15.

Filtering memory through language is "an inefficient process. It means spending a lot of time alone in a room. You get ambushed," said Karr. "I have to find the story within the story, to write my way to what is most true. "

That sense of truth, of resonance is why the memoir form has become so popular, Karr believes. "I think the form that reveals the most about a culture is the favored form. With memoir, there’s an intimacy, a sense of emotional engagement. People are lonely for each other."

If she remembers more than her friends do about that time, it’s because she’s worked at it. The process of memory for her involves filtering the past through the self she has become. "When you’re sobbing your guts out because you have to wear ugly clothes and your mother says you’ll look back on this and laugh — and you do. It’s that sort of looking back."

Though Karr still thinks of Texas as home, she prefers to do her looking back from a distance. Now a professor of English at Syracuse University, she left home at 17. She may not have known who she was but she knew she had to leave Leechfield and her family. "No road offers more mystery than that first one you mount from the town you were born to," she writes.

She and her druggie bunch of friends lit out for Los Angeles in 1972 in a cross-country adventure she thought meant she’d escaped her past. It turned out Karr took a lot of her problems with her.

"I buried people," she said. "Many people of my generation did. So many of the people in this book died of AIDS, overdose, got hit by cars in the witness protection program, ended up in prison. It’s a happy accident that I am none of those things. I didn’t realize I had felt guilty until I wrote this book. I don’t miss anything about drugs. I don’t even drink. When I did that stuff, I drove into things and my life was unpleasant. There’s no reason I’m not dead. I feel I dodged a bullet someone else caught. I feel I’m way ahead of the game."

She has emerged from the past not unscarred but with her basic core, what she calls her "Same Self" remarkably intact. And as Cherry proves, she’s lived to tell the tale.

Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.

Author photo by Philippe Bordas.

Remember when your parents told you you’d always treasure your teenage years? So does Mary Karr, and with Cherry, she debunks that myth with all the dragon-slaying verve she brought to her 1995 best-selling memoir, The Liars’ Club. "We all hit this age and get juiced on hormones, and our parents become gargoyles, and we […]

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Features