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


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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Q and A with Gioia Diliberto about her most recent book, Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped

1. Tell us a little about your book.

Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped is a biography of one of the most influential and controversial legends of American fashion, an iconic designer whose creations captured the modern feminist spirit and whose private life kept the gossip press busy for decades. I’ve taken a “life and times” approach in the book, so that it’s more than the story of one woman’s life. It’s the portrait of an era – the very particular and vanished Manhattan of the 1970s. At least, that’s what I tried to do.

2. Diane von Furstenberg has been considered a fashion icon since the early ‘70s, but I don’t think as many people are aware that she's also a feminist figure.  Was it both of these characteristics that first interested you in writing this book?

Diane’s feminism definitely played into my decision to write about her. I’m always looking for subjects who either in their personalities or accomplishments or circumstances embody the spirit of their time. Diane, to me, symbolizes second wave feminism. She showed how a woman could have a man’s life of power and money and success and still be a woman. She could also smoke a lot of pot and sleep around and still make it to the top!

3. What were the biggest pleasures of researching and writing A Life Unwrapped?

Meeting people I never would have met otherwise (like Fran Lebowitz), and traveling to places (like Bruges, Belgium) I never would have visited otherwise.


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Q and A with Zoe Zolbrod about her new memoir THE TELLING

1. Tell us a little about your new book.

It’s a memoir that’s structured around the times I told about my childhood sexual assault.  When I was four, a teenaged cousin came to live with our family, and he molested me for the year he was there. It wasn’t until I approached puberty that I understood the nature of what had occurred. I told a friend then, and I told a handful of other people as I grew into adulthood, interpreting the events differently according to what was going on in my life and in the culture at the time. But it wasn’t until I had my first baby and learned that my cousin was now in jail awaiting trial for abusing another little girl the same age I had been that I had a visceral reaction of horror that led to me reexamining my experience and the topic of sexual abuse and pedophilia in general.

That said, the book is about more than child sexual abuse, and I’ve been so grateful that readers and reviewers are picking up on that. It’s also very much a coming of age story—sometimes a joyful one—and a parenting story. It weaves together sections from my childhood, from my adolescence and early adulthood, and from my contemporary perspective as a writer and parent. It’s a story about forming an identity and finding a voice.

2. You weave a lot of compelling cultural commentary into your memoir.  It’s an expansive and engaging book, not solely a record and synthesis of a difficult time in your past.  Describe how The Telling became a memoir that addresses many different aspects of America and its attitudes toward parenting, adolescence, female sexuality, and sexual abuse.

One way I tried to make sense of my experience was by researching child sexual abuse. I learned so much! For example, I learned that I basically came of age with the awareness of the issue in the US. When I was born in the late 1960s, there was hardly any information about identifying or preventing child sexual abuse. In 1974, the year after my abuse ended, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which funded research and prevention initiatives. In 1979, the National Abuse Coalition was created in order to pressure Congress to create more laws specifically around the area of sexual abuse.  And then in the 1980s, when I became a teenager and started learning enough about sex and taboos to realize what had happened to me, public awareness of child sexual abuse exploded to the point of mass hysteria.  It was in the news all the time, along with talk of victims’ rights and victims’ voices. I wasn’t consciously aware of most of this, but looking back, I can see the way it affected my interpretation of what happened to me.

What I was more consciously aware of, because early on I identified as a feminist, were issues around gender and sexuality. And—probably again because I’ve identified as a feminist for so long—I do believe that not only is the personal political, but that the political is personal. I’ve always had an instinct to connect individual stories to larger systems, which has informed this book.

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