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BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)


Q and A with Floyd Skloot about his new novel The Phantom of Thomas Hardy

Adapted from the book jacket:  On a street in Dorchester, England, there is a gateway between real and imagined lives. A plaque on a Barclays Bank identifies the building as “lived in by the Mayor of Casterbridge in Thomas Hardy’s story of that name written in 1885.”  Floyd, an American writer, and his wife, Beverly, are pondering the enigma of a fictional character living in a factual building when Floyd is approached by Hardy himself—despite his death in 1928.

This phantom—or is he just a figment of Floyd’s imagination?—tasks Floyd with finding out what Hardy missed in love. Floyd and Beverly set out to discover what they can, visiting Hardy’s birthplace, home, and grave, exploring the Dorset landscape and the famous novels with their themes of tormented love, and meeting characters deeply invested in Hardy’s life and reputation. Peering into the Victorian past, they slowly fold back the clutter of screens that Hardy placed around his private life to uncover long-hidden truths about his romantic attachments and creative work. At the same time, Floyd and Beverly’s own love story unfolds, filled with healing and hope.

1.  The Phantom of Thomas Hardy is such a unique and beautiful novel-memoir hybrid.  I know you based some of it on an actual trip that you and your wife Beverly took to England to visit Hardy territory a few years ago.  From there, the fictional aspects took off.  What were the seeds of this novel? Was it the trip itself or did you take the trip to do research with this book already in mind? 

Our trip to England in the spring of 2012 wasn't planned to be research at all. We just rented a car and drove through southern England with the idea that we'd include for Beverly visits to some great gardens and areas she'd long wanted to see and also allow me to pay homage to some writers whose work had been significant in my life. I made a grand list of writers, but since we only had about 2 1/2 weeks, we both had to make hard choices about what to include and exclude. For me, it boiled down to visiting Dylan Thomas' home in Wales and Thomas Hardy's territory in Dorset. I  figured it was likely that after such a journey I'd write an essay about it all--and I did do that, publishing "To Land's End and Back" in Boulevard two years later--but I didn't have any idea that a book would emerge as it did.

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Q and A with Jaimee Wriston Colbert about her new story collection WILD THINGS

Wild Things began in that post 9/11 decade where everything felt (and still feels!) like it was falling apart: wars, terrorism, the unconscionable disparity between the rich and the poor (and of course rural America has a large share of these poor, particularly post-manufacturing areas that have lost so many jobs), drug addiction and the scourge of crystal meth, climate destruction and the absolutely terrifying rate of species extinction in our world. Wild Things is a linked collection that explores these losses, personal, environmental, and economical. Set in twenty-first century, rural America, there are various thematic threads that unify the stories: drug addiction, job loss, the economic free-fall of the middle and working classes, along with accelerating environmental damage. The stories take place in (or are linked to) upstate New York, in a fictional, dying, post-manufacturing town on the Susquehanna River, where nature, both benign and devastating, becomes an emotional refuge for my characters. The abduction of a young girl that happens early into the story cycle is at the heart of the overarching “plot,” providing unifying moments in a community of otherwise disparate lives: lonely, yet not without grit, humor, and moments of grace.

2. The range of characters and situations in Wild Things, despite some of the stories being linked, is very impressive. Where did you begin, with setting, a character, a situation - all of the above? 

I think it was with "Ghosts,” and the characters of Jones and Loulie. I had written a couple of the other stories before that one, but “Ghosts” focused on the abduction of Loulie by Jones, where he believes he is, in fact, rescuing her instead of abducting her. That started to make me realize I was in the bigger territory of where (and how) stories are connected, rather than in a collection where the stories are more independent of each other. In fact, for a little while, I wondered if I needed to write it as a novel. But the growing relationships between the characters and where they lived made me start to see it as a "story community." That was how I was originally thinking about "Ghosts," because once it ended, with the girl still tied up in that trailer, I knew I had to revisit it. You don't leave someone tied up and feel done! Then, as a story community, I began thinking about others who would live there; how their lives would manifest, being affected by the economical and environmental challenges of this community, along with their own struggles, losses, and triumphs. Thus the range of stories with different characters, all united by the place itself.

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Q and A with Phong Nguyen about his new novel THE ADVENTURES OF JOE HARPER

1. Tell us a little about your new book.

The Adventures of Joe Harper is a spin-off of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and it concerns Tom Sawyer's best friend and first-mate Joe Harper. It was inspired by this quote from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "As the two boys walked sorrowing along, they made a new compact to stand by each other and be brothers and never separate till death relieved them of their troubles. Then they began to lay their plans. Joe was for being a hermit, and living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief; but after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate." The Adventures of Joe Harper imagines that Joe Harper has returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Missouri after a failed life of piracy, and, finding it full of strangers, decides to fulfill his lifelong dream to become a hermit and find a cave to die in. Instead, he meets a cast of characters on the hobo road who give him reasons to live: Lee, a Chinese-American railroad worker; Ruth, an Amish woman fleeing a forced marriage; and eventually Tom Sawyer himself.

2. As I read The Adventures of Joe Harper, I was struck by how funny it is - did you find that the comic tone was with you from the beginning?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite American novel. I still find it incomparably funny, poignant, and thought-provoking even after the 20th time I've read it (and taught it). I live and breathe that book, so when it came to writing The Adventures of Joe Harper, I did my best to channel Twain, knowing that if I were able to access a fraction of what that Huck Finn accomplishes, that I would be proud of the result. In fact, the dedication is written to "Mark Twain, who, though I stand knee-high to his genius, would not, I believe, try to shake me off of his leg." So if the book is funny, it's because I succeeded in tapping into that vast reservoir of humor that is the mind of Twain. 

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Q and A with Rocco Versaci about his new memoir THAT HIDDEN ROAD

1. Tell us a little about your book.

When I was forty-two, I rode my bicycle across the country, from San Diego to North Carolina. I did this alone and with no history of distance biking. That Hidden Road is a memoir of this journey. More accurately, the “through line” of the book is this ride, but it’s also very much about the events that led to it—my divorce (after eighteen years of marriage), my first bout with cancer, my relationships with my kids, my brother, and my parents. In the book, the ride becomes a way to confront all of these things (which impact each other both directly and indirectly) and my deeper motives for “lighting out for the territories” on my bike (named Rusty). Because I traveled on smaller roads through smaller towns and at a fairly slow rate, I got a rare and unique look at America and Americans, and I attempt in the book to capture those places and characters in interesting ways. Also, there are comics.

2. Have you always been a cycling aficionado before you embarked on this cross-country trek?

Not really. It’s actually embarrassing how little I know about bike mechanics; I can fix a flat and that’s about it. My later-life biking began out of necessity. When my (now ex-) wife and I moved to California in 1997, we had only one car, so she used it to drive our young son around, and I biked to work. Before that, I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a kid. But when I was going through chemotherapy for the first time in 2003 and wasn’t able to do much at all physically, I remembered how important my bike was to me as a kid. In the summer, I would pedal and pedal for hours, getting completely lost in our suburbs. It represented a kind of freedom for me—though I would have never thought of it in those terms as a kid—and the idea of heading out on my bike, of being free, had a lot of traction in the mind of someone who, at the time, couldn’t even make it up the stairs without stopping to rest.


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Q and A with Anne Raeff about her new story collection THE JUNGLE AROUND US

1. The stories in The Jungle Around Us take place mostly in the U.S. and in South and Central America.  I know you've traveled extensively and have also lived abroad.  Would you say that one of the themes you're most interested in is how being a foreigner - either as an exile or as a tourist - exerts pressure on character, and as a result, often creates internal and external conflicts? 

Living and traveling abroad has certainly been a major part of my development both intellectual and emotional, and, thus, has very much influenced my writing. In fact, I began to write seriously when I was living in Madrid in the early 1980s. Though I had traveled with my parents in Europe and even to the Soviet Union, this was my first big adventure on my own. I arrived in Spain with just a couple hundred dollars and a few dozen Spanish words. When I moved to Spain, I preferred reading about people to being with them, but Madrid pulled me into life, and it was there that I learned not only to appreciate stories but to be part of them.

 Traveling and living abroad are also an essential part of my life and relationship with my wife Lori Ostlund. Together we have lived in Spain and Malaysia and traveled extensively. Just this summer, for example, we spent a month in Eastern Europe, focusing on Ukraine, where my maternal grandmother was born and lived until she moved to Vienna (where my mother was born) when she was fourteen.

I agree that there are stories in the collection that deal with how a foreign place exerts pressure on a character and, in some way, forces the character to confront something in himself. This has been my experience as a foreigner as well. Traveling and living abroad have exerted pressure on me as a character and as a writer. Yet, in my writing I am equally interested in the conflicts that cause my characters to leave, and, in many cases, flee where they are from and how those places and those conflicts carry over into their lives in exile. My parents were refugees from the war in Europe.  Their youths were consumed by the upheavals of war and revolution, and, though I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, the echo of war was always there just beneath the surface, beneath the sound of lawnmowers on Saturday mornings, beneath the call of crickets on hot summer nights. This is what so much of my writing is about—the influence of the place that was left behind.

2.  I love that some of the stories feature the same main characters, the sisters Juliet and Simone Buchovsky, in particular - what kept you returning to them as point-of-view characters?


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