Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reconnecting with Ben Parzybok

About seven years ago, we launched this blog as way to do more of what we love to do, talk about books and share them with readers. We quickly saw it was an opportunity to connect authors and readers through author interviews. (Well, and as an opportunity to get our questions answered, of course.) Just about the same time we were launching our blog, Ben Parzybok’s debut novel, Couch, came out from Small Beer Press and Ben became our very first author to be interviewed on our blog. Ben’s second novel, Sherwood Nation, came out this fall as the store was also celebrating its 10th anniversary so we decided to touch base with him again.

Set in Portland Oregon after a massive drought has crippled American society west of the Mississippi, Sherwood Nation is a different kind of dystopian novel. No magic. No zombies. No tyrannical overlords ruling with iron-fists and tournaments. It brings a fascinating realism to the genre, creating a uniquely human and tangible version of the apocalypse story. Sherwood Nation is about real people grappling with an all too real catastrophe in ways that reveal aspects of our culture today, while exploring the best, worst, and, most importantly, the vague middle between the two ideals, of what we could be. 

How have you changed as a writer between Couch and Sherwood Nation?

Part of this answer is easy: I wrote the first draft of Couch during a languorous stretch of six months while I was living in Ecuador, living under incredibly cheap rent and with no job. I had the luxury of writing as many as six hours a day. Finishing Couch (editing) took longer, as these things do, but that first six months was an incredible surplus of time in which to compose.

I wrote Sherwood Nation during a five year span where I ran a startup and raised two children. I started the book after a visit to Brazil and upon my return, kept my jet-lag, waking at 5am to compose in a dream-like fog. So I flipped my natural tendency for late-night frittering to early morning writings. I wrote Couch while abroad, I wrote Sherwood Nation in the town I live. These are the surface things.

The deeper things are less easy to identify. I began this book during a period in which there was an air of doom. I started during the economic collapse, and an incredible lot of apocalyptic media was being produced (still is!). I wanted a book that tackled that, and yet fought against it, eked some hope into those visions. I wanted a big book, an ambitious book, something that came out swinging. I wanted to examine our version of democracy, and to watch how people, in hard circumstances, became resourceful and ingenious. So in general, I wanted more, and I was intent on tackling much more difficult material, and, I think, braver about doing so than I was with Couch. Is this a change for me? I don’t know. I’m working on my third book now, and the goals are less ambitious, and there’s a thread of the fantastical again.

What have you learned in that time that you applied to Sherwood Nation?

I learned a lot about myself as a writer, discipline-wise. I invented (for myself) a different style of writing — patchwork and weaving, with many POVs. A style that would allow me to work on a large project while so occupied with other things. And certainly there are family dynamics that made it into the book, whether real or spoofed (I have not yet, but at many times considered, building an extensive labyrinth of tunnels under house — though I did build a long tunnel for my rabbits recently ).

Dystopian novels are now completely mainstream, but the most popular ones tend have elements of fantasy and science fiction. Do you think there is special value in a realistic dystopia, like Sherwood Nation, or is it just a different way of approaching the same human problems?
I specifically worked against the fantastical, hyperbolic dystopias that we frequently see in order to play with versions of how I thought humans as a whole might react, and how we might re-form, under dire circumstances. A mainstay of those other books is a single hero, fighting against all odds, etc etc. While this book has a primary character, it is many characters that make up the varying shades of gray that form the community that, in my mind, does a heroic thing. That is to say, in Sherwood Nation, there’s a utopian scenario within the dystopia. For that, I felt like painting it realistically would be far more compelling.

Did Sherwood Nation start out as a drought story or did you consider a couple of other types of cataclysmic disasters?

Actually, the book was originally about a drought, a flood, and an ice storm. I was going to examine how the nature of the disaster alters our relationship to each other and to our selves. The drought was first, though, and obviously the plot wanted to go somewhere else. I didn’t realize when I started it, but droughts are orders of magnitude more complicated than floods or ice storms. You can deny a drought is even happening for the first few years (hello, California!), and then you have all the time in the world to wallow in the anxiety of it. I started the book before California’s drought, and so it’s been startling and fascinating to watch what’s happened there. Another five years and they’ll essentially be living Sherwood Nation…!

One of the interesting aspects of the character’s in Sherwood Nation is their different relationships to their vocations or even to the idea of having the vocation. Some have direct connections to their vocation, whereas other characters struggle to find theirs, while other characters have vocations, but don’t really understand them. Do you think it is important for people to have vocations? Why or why not? Does the idea of a “vocation” have different significance in a story than in real life?
Phew, that’s a good question and one I’m not sure I know how to answer. If you mean by vocation their calling — no, I don’t think it’s necessary to have a calling. That pre-supposes some kind of relationship with destiny which I’m not sure is there. Do I think it’s necessary to have passions? Absolutely. I think every attempt to root out and explore passions should be made. These are what make life enjoyable, what makes life fun and worth living. And by extension, people who think life is fun and worth living have positive influences that go way beyond their own selves. But the idea of a calling is an elusive one for me. If I ever find mine, I will write post-haste.

Don’t want to give the plot away, so I won’t be specific, but in order to have conflict and stories, something has to go wrong and they do for Sherwood Nation. Do you think the “something always goes wrong” of storytelling reflects reality? If so, how does telling and reading stories help us or not, with what goes wrong in the world?

A story in which nothing went wrong would not be much of a story. The stories we tell each other in life — for them to be re-tellable, by their very nature, there has to be tension/mishap/etc. Do stories help us manage our world? Hell yeah. See my comment below, but also: I strongly believe that novels, and perhaps particularly speculative novels, allow us a sort of decision tree for the future. We absorb them and with the power of those visions, continue to shape our world.

Can we do this without heroes and martyrs or do people always need someone or something charismatic to follow?

We absolutely need heroes! We’re a social, emulative species. We learn who we are by watching others. It is by wanting to become the people that we admire that we become admirable people. I don’t consider the world to be divided between sheep and shepherds. I think each of us is allotted with the seeds of heroism, and it’s our job to grow those into our own heroics. A martyr… on the other hand, is someone who makes the ultimate sacrifice for their heroics, and that’s a much rarer thing. I think these people have certainly shown to be useful in bringing about large-scale change in society.

And, of course, what are you reading?

I’ve got a few books going. I’m reading Alice Munro’s Runaway (I’m embarrassed to say I’ve not read her before this), Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man - a captivating non-fiction piece about a present-day mountain man. The book has a lot of astute observations on American men (and how they were shaped by a history of wilderness). Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (wow! whew!). And finally, Goodhouse, by Peyton Marshall - a sci-fi dystopia by another Portland author who I’ll be interviewing soon. The book that I’m not reading yet but am most excited about, is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari…it doesn’t come out until next February in the States.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tim Riley on The Goduncle of Funk

Affectionately known as the "Goduncle" of funk, just a rung beneath James Brown's godfather, George Clinton's career as a black rock innovator spans the past fifty years with three number 1 singles and three platinum albums.

Clinton's work mirrors the story of black pop from doo-wop through Motown pop and soul to dance music, and gained iconoclastic stature through extended guitar solos, cartoonish concept albums, and exuberant stage shows with outlandish costumes.

Most of his work revolves around two distinct groups, Parliament and Funkadelic, who appeared as the P-Funk All-Stars after 1981. Well-known albums include "Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow," and "The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein."

Key role models for Clinton include Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, but he presided over his many casts of musicians as a mentor and svengali, spawning solo careers for bassist Bootsy Collins and keyboardist Bernie Worrell. His work can be palpably felt in the music of Prince, and rappers have sampled his recordings almost as much as James Brown's. He was inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. His new memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You? recounts his zig-zag career with New Yorker writer Ben Greenman.

See George Clinton in conversation with Tim Riley on October 25. More info and ticket details here.

Tim Riley is a professor at Emerson College and author of several books, including Lennon: Man, Myth, Music.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Our NYRB Top 10

We always been big fans of NYRB Classics here at PSB and so were very excited to organize an event in which Daniel Mendelsohn (who is brilliant) talked with William Giraldi (who is also brilliant) about John Williams’ (yep, brilliant) National Book Award-winning novel, Augustus. Alas, illness forced the cancellation of the event, but we can still celebrate the good work NYRB Classics does in keeping great old books alive and in bringing great foreign books to America. So, to thank them for all the work they do for books and reading and to compensate as best we can for the canceled event, here is my NYRB Top Ten.

Quiet and humble this is a beautiful, yet melancholy, story of a simple life, that offers a precise and fascinating look into Japanese culture, while touching on  events and themes universal to human experience. 

A 19th century Quantum Leap, if Mark Twain were a consulting writer. Lee hops from body to body touching on just about every aspect of 19th-century America in the process. Along with being a classic of satire, Sheppard Lee would be a great text for any history course taking a deeper look into daily life.

Would you rather be held captive by Caribbean pirates or a group of children? After reading Hughes’s somewhat surreal high seas adventure, you might have some trouble answering that question.  

Part narrative history, part reference guide, Stewart’s account of how American places got their names is a fascinating read for anyone interested in history and culture. Read front to back, look up your hometown, or just dip in and out.

For fans of Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri (who wrote the introduction for this collection) Gallant is one of the great short story writers who almost fell into obscurity. Start here and you’ll find yourself quickly snapping up her other collections.

Not only does Neil Gaiman love this book, Gary “The Most Interesting Bookseller in the World” was overjoyed when he saw it come back in print. He staff picks it and recommends it to anyone (of any age) looking for a great story.

Renata Adler’s funny, wise, insightful novel accumulates through a series of vignettes; each one acting as both a brilliant portrait in its own right and a tile in the mosaic of the novel. Politics, journalism, class, wealth, sex, singing "Happy Birthday," money, parties, and lovers, Speedboat reads like the Facebook feed of the most interesting person you know.

The greatest adventure novel ever written. In related news, Vikings are awesome.

Suddenly, everyone was talking about a forty-year-old book. Not only were they talking about it, but folks like Ian McEwan and Colum McCann were heaping praise upon it. So big was the impact of Stoner’s re-release that it was even a Waterstones book of the year.

Definitely the greatest novel of WWII. Arguably the greatest war novel, period. Should be included in any discussion of the greatest novels ever written. Further description would just diminish this monumental achievement of the written word.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A PSB A-to-Z

Our anniversary party is right around the corner, and bookseller Susannah has gone above and beyond the call of duty to put together an A-to-Z of our indie decade.

A: Is for Anniversary! Our tenth! How time flies when you love what you do. And so happy to be a fiercely independent bookstore during these times. Time to party! Also A is for Authors! We never know who might be visiting us season to season but hosting new authors never gets old. Meeting John Waters and Ian Rankin were personal highlights for me.

B: Is for Bestsellers! Our Indie bestseller list has held such gems over the years as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Olive Kitteridge and Seamus Heaney's Beowulf.

C: Is for Customers! For all those loyal customers who have supported us since the doors opened and for all the new ones who continue to find us. And for all the avid readers who love to browse, who can't leave with just one book, and love an impromptu book discussion at the cash register. Also for the children who have graduated to the Young Adult section who first came in as babies. And for those who come looking for that elusive book with almost no information - I love a good treasure hunt! Keep coming back - we love you all.

D: Is for Dogs! Dogs are customers too and we love to see them. We even printed a calendar a year or so ago featuring regular canine visitors. We have cookies behind the counter for all good dogs - please come up and shake paws!

E: Is for Events! Famous authors, local authors with their debut book, poetry readings, Harry Potter parties.... and so much more - we've done it all in the last ten years.

F: Is for Froggy paper! What do you mean you've never had a purchase gift-wrapped in our signature froggy paper? What are you waiting for?

G: Is for Neil Gaiman! We had over 5000 special orders for The Ocean at the End of the Lane and a sold-out speaking engagement that none of us will forget for a long time.

H: Is for Handselling! Over ten years of being able to inflict my personal taste on as many people as possible! What a great job and my personal favorite part of being a bookseller, especially at Christmas when everyone needs some ideas!

I: Is for Fresh Ink! Our innovative young readers review program which has been a huge success. Hundreds and hundreds of reviews received and uploaded on our blog.

J: Is for the Janes! For founders Jane Dawson who retired last year and Jane Jacobs who did so very recently, I thank you for being such great colleagues, for picking such funny greeting cards to sell and for the amazing knitting and mystery sections!

K: Is for Kobos!  I love the Kobo app for my iPad which I load up with e-books when I travel through the Porter Square Books website. (And you can too!). In the next ten years I hope to see Kobo become The Last Word in e-readers for the Indie savvy book lover.

L: Is for libraries! For Cambridge Public library's Cambridge READS. For the holiday donations of books to the shelters. For all libraries for helping create readers and book buyers.

M: Is for moveable expandable shelves! I wish. Especially around the holidays.

N: Is for NPR! Just how many great books have we heard about on NPR? What a great "partner" they are for bookshops and authors, especially our friends at WBUR. I used to love driving in on a Saturday and hearing Scott Simon and Daniel Pinkwater laugh themselves silly over a new children's book that we would then sell out of promptly.

O: Is for Off-sites! One of our first projects, even before we opened, was selling books for the Lesley University Low-Residency MFA plan and sold or provide books all over the Cambridge area ever since.

P: Is for Prizewinners!  For the excitement of listening to the announcements on the radio to find out first who has won the Caldecott and Newbery Awards for each year. For the honor of being asked to vote for the New England Book awards.

Q: Is for Quilt! We held a competition a few years ago to win a beautiful handmade Halloween quilt made by staff member and crafter extraordinaire, Jane Jacobs.

R: Is for Reading! I suppose I should have kept a log over the years with which to impress but please just believe me when I say I've read an awful lot in the last decade. From Wolf Hall to Donna Leon, Publishers Weekly magazine to the London Times book review section and it's all been wonderful!

S: Is for Staff!  We're a varied lot with many different backgrounds and interests, with a common love for books. For those retired or just about to, those we have sadly lost, those who have gone on to other careers and those just joining us, we have all made PSB the unique place it is today.

T: Is for Teddy! A permanent fixture in our Children's Section, our big Ted has lots of little fans. And he's a really good listener if you feel like reading him a story.

U: Is for Ultra cool stuff! Our knickknacks, puzzles, games, stationery, mugs, t-shirts and things you didn't even know existed are unique and highly desirable. It's difficult actually getting out of here with a paycheck most weeks!

V: Is for the Vacuums we have lost over the years!  Most have had names (My personal bête noir was Windsor!) and have been loved and reviled in turn but whatever form they come in, its hard to run a shop without them!

W: Is for World Book Night. As a dedicated WBN book pick-up location, we have been hugely successful with over 600 books given away free by participants this year alone. We’re very sad it won’t be happening again next year.

X: Is for eXtraordinary!  Which we are in my opinion. Extraordinarily good booksellers selling eXtremely good books to eXtremely knowledgeable customers. Can I move on to Y now please, that was tricky?

Y: Is for New Years Day sale! For a fun tradition started soon after we opened in Porter Square.  Time to spend those gift cards, treat yourself for some reading for the long cold days of January.

Z: Is for Zing! For the coffee and treats that have fueled us all these years.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

From a Job to a Community

After two years as an Americorps Vista volunteer in Burlington, VT, family reasons brought me to the Boston area. I already knew I wanted to be a writer and so was only looking for a job that left me enough time and energy (both physical and mental) to write. I figured working in a bookstore would do just that. I got a temp job or two and then a job at an after school program. Finally, the sign went up that Porter Square Books would be opening about a five minute walk from my apartment. For the next two weeks I walked by the windows every day, waiting for them to put up a “Help Wanted” poster. They finally did, I emailed my resume and a letter of recommendation, had the interview, and was hired.

I started part time, working nights and weekends on top of my job with the after-school program. When the store needed someone to manage their website, I fit the “under thirty so he must know computers” qualification, and so, with no prior experience, started managing the website along with working on the floor. Not too long after that I started buying the store’s magazines.

Ten years on I’m still writing and still finding new things to do at the store. (Still mostly on the Internet even though I no longer fit the “under thirty” qualification.) When I started at Porter Square Books, I mostly focused on what a bookstore wouldn’t do: make me wear a suit, compromise my lefty politics, and leave me too drained to write; but my decade with PSB has been much more about what the store would do; create a community of writers, editors, and other publishing professionals, connect me to hundreds of readers, give me access to all the galleys I could ever read, allow me to be a champion of the weird books I (and a few other tortured souls) love the most.

One of the buzzwords writers hear at the beginning of their careers from potential agents and publishers is “platform.” One’s “platform” consists of the resources, publicity potential, and community that will help sell an author’s book. For example, a celebrity author would already have a substantial “platform” built from her existing fame, as would an expert in some field who presents at related conferences. A non-celebrity writing a novel is going to have to build that platform himself, most likely through social media and publication in magazines and journals. Porter Square Books has been a lot of things to me this decade; it started out as a job, but now, with my novel coming out in March, it is my platform, and it will always be a part of my community.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Introducing David's Dinners

I've found that often publishers invite me to dinners with authors I've never heard of, and I end up meeting some super interesting people and, usually, reading and liking their books. And as often as not, they're books I wouldn't otherwise have picked up. I’ve gotten to meet a number of authors this way and I’ve had great conversations that have really informed and enriched my reading of their books. I’ll often be at the counter when someone comes to buy a book whose author I’ve met, and I find I can tell the customer so much more about the book and the experience of reading it because of that special contact I’ve had with the writer.  

This got me to thinking: we should do something to make opportunities like this available to our customers as well. After all, authors go on tours, many of them come to Porter Square – and they too love the idea of connecting with readers, of schmoozing in a context less formal and structured than a reading at the store, and of enjoying a good meal while talking about their books. And our readers love to come to events – how much more would they love to come to dinner? We’re lucky enough to have a lovely restaurant across the street, Christopher’s, and so I came up with the idea of author dinners as a way of introducing our customers to less-than-famous writers. (Not that this was really my idea; there are certainly other bookstores that have done author dinners, but it’s a first for us.) If it works as planned, it will become a regular way of introducing our customers to authors they might not have otherwise read, and who we know (through having met them before) are particularly fascinating or cool people who have written particularly fascinating or cool books. We decided to call them David’s Dinners, mainly because we couldn’t come up with anything cleverer and we love alliteration.

One author I met in the late spring at the BEA conference was Laird Hunt, author of the new book Neverhome. A couple of weeks later we went to a dinner with him and had a grand time. As I always do when I’m invited to these author dinners, I read the book. It really struck me; I’m a sucker for narrative voice, and Laird was a man writing as a woman who was pretending to be a man. He rooted the book in real history – there were many real-life Ash Thompsons in the 1860s – but added a clear and direct, unsentimental but touching, compelling narrative style. I was so taken with the novel I chose it as my staff pick for this month. I then found out Laird was going to be in Boston in the latter part of September and I was able to arrange for him to spend an evening in Cambridge. Voila, the kickoff event for our dinner series. Sunday evening the 21st. He’s interesting and personable, the book’s a terrific read – and to top it off, it’s on the Indie Next list for September so it’s even 20% off (only $20.80, hardcover). We worked out an arrangement with Christopher’s, so we have the room upstairs all to ourselves and they’ve given us a menu with choice of appetizer, choice of entrée and a beer or glass of wine, for only $36 including tax and tip. You don't have to buy the book, but if you do (either in advance or at the event), Laird will of course inscribe it for you.

I really want people to come to this – I’m hoping to make the series a success so we can have a regular way of introducing our customers to some of our authors in a way that can complement our normal schedule of in-store readings. So I hope you’ll sign up. I guarantee you’ll have a delightful, literary, insightful, and gastronomically satisfying experience – and you can say you were there when it all started.  Here’s the link.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Staff Picks of the Decade

It all comes back to books. Every month for the last ten years, the booksellers at Porter Square Books have made staff picks. We’ve picked brand new books by debut authors, masterpieces by established literary stars, unjustly forgotten books from the past, quirky books, classics to revisit, beach reads, dense tomes, and everything in between, under the sun, and over the moon. And out of all the hundreds of picks we’ve made over the years, and the thousands of other good books we’ve read in that time, the booksellers of Porter Square Books have each chosen their Pick of the Decade. For some, the pick was obvious and for others it was about the most difficult decision you can ask a reader to make.

Over the course of September, leading up to our anniversary celebration on September 28th (where you’ll hear about these picks again, in the context of a raffle prize!), we will be sharing Picks of the Decade on Twitter and Facebook. You can keep track of all the shared Picks here. So much goes into keeping a bookstore open and thriving and with all the daily challenges and little triumphs, it can be easy to lose perspective. But it all comes back to books, and we couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate our ten-year anniversary than doing what we most love to do: introducing readers to great books.

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