Saturday, January 11, 2003

Politics creeps into the blog...

The Post's Lloyd Grove notices a new drink offered by the Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe in D.C: The "Trent Lotte." The $3.25 item consists of "separate but equal parts of coffee and milk." Customers are encouraged to mix them together.

and this...

Nine Things Strom Thurmond Is Older Than, from Maxim Magazine

1. AM/FM radio
2. Human flight
3. The Panama Canal
4. Wristwatches
5. Tea bags
6. Ice cream cones
7. The World Series
8. The states of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii
9. Dick Clark

Monday, January 06, 2003

Granta's grotto
Every decade Granta's list of Britain's best young novelists causes a literary sensation. Here The Observer presents an exclusive preview of the winners for 2003

Geraldine Bedell
Sunday January 5, 2003
The Observer

Granta's list is a marketing exercise on behalf of contemporary literature, and was the brainchild of Desmond Clarke, who ran the Book Marketing Council in the early 1980s, before literary novelists acquired their present status as minor celebrities. The first list, published in 1983, included Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Graham Swift. It was, in other words, a particularly fortunate time to have embarked on such an exercise, and Bill Buford, then editor of Granta, who devoted an issue to the list, decided to repeat the process himself in 1993.

The second list was, by general agreement, rather less starry, but nevertheless included Iain Banks, Louis de Bernières, Ishiguro (again), Hanif Kureishi, Ben Okri, Will Self, Helen Simpson and Jeanette Winterson. Both lists promoted the odd author who scarcely wrote another word (Ursula Bentley, Adam Lively); but, on the whole, the selections provided a telling snapshot of talent as it surfaced. Granta's list, like all literary prizes, is an attempt to bypass market imperfections, and is loved and loathed by publishers, who are inclined to dismiss it as irrelevant when they aren't included, and to applaud its detachment and authority when they are.

This year's judges ('Why no Sophie Dahl?' complained Ian Jack, editor of Granta) were Jack himself, as chair; Robert McCrum, The Observer's literary editor; Hilary Mantel, novelist and critic; Nicholas Clee, editor of the Bookseller; and Alex Clark, fiction reviewer for the Guardian and London Review of Books. They have been reading since September, when Jack and two assistants at Granta had already whittled down the original 140 submissions to around 50.

Almost constant email traffic helped to streamline their six meetings, which, according to Jack, 'sometimes followed a pattern of quite refined discussion, using words like interiority and plot strategy. At other times it was just: "I couldn't stand it".' Mantel was impressed that none of the judges seemed to be pushing a line. 'When it was all over, I realised we all had unpredictable tastes. I couldn't now pick up a book and say: "Alex Clark will like this".'

Clark thinks 'it's significant that a feeling came over us that we weren't battling each other to get our choices on the list, but that we were battling through what was in front of us to try to get to the gems. It can't be denied that we read some stuff that was absolutely shocking or simply lacklustre.'

Clee felt he suffered 'too many self-conscious works of fiction, and writers who didn't feel like novelists to their fingertips. There was some pretty bad stuff - disguised autobiography that didn't really work as fiction, books that were poorly structured, quite a lot of posturing from people who seemed to regard fiction as a kind of exercise, a too common desire to shock, quite a lot of overwriting and a certain amount of underwriting. A few were hard to read: the writers weren't engaged with the reader.'

Clark mentions 'work obviously rushed or clichéd, novels that were clever ideas not properly seen through, awful self-consciousness, and particularly, novels that could happily have seen a few more drafts. I don't think we came away with a very positive view of editing.' Jack finds it hard to avoid the conclusion that much publishing works on the slot machine principle: 'If you put out enough, you'll eventually come up with three oranges.'

Whether mischievously or incompetently, publishers submitted a number of authors who weren't eligible, three of whom would have been strong contenders. Claire Messud holds three passports, none of them British. Nick Barlay (author of a trilogy of low-life stories told in London demotic) and Andrew Crumey (who holds a PhD in physics and has written four novels) were both disqualified for being too old.

So were there any shoo-ins? Several judges mentioned, unsurprisingly, Zadie Smith. AL Kennedy appears on the list for the second time, 'and if anyone was a certainty, she was,' says McCrum. Mantel read Fingersmith (quite a fat novel) in two sittings. 'We were all bowled over by that book,' says Clee. 'I don't think there was much argument either about David Mitchell [author of Ghostwritten and number9dream, which was shortlisted for the Booker] or about Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room [also shortlisted for the Booker] which was very impressive. Ben Rice has only written one small book [Pobby and Dingan, a novella about a child's imaginary friends set in the Australian outback] but it's marvellous, such a perfect little gem of a thing that I wanted him in.'

A similar consideration influenced Alex Garland's omission. His publisher didn't submit any work, and it is rumoured that the author of The Beach is blocked and doesn't expect ever to write another word. Nevertheless, McCrum thinks that he ought to be there: 'Even if he doesn't write again, we're missing a towering talent without him. But it would have meant 20 blank pages in the magazine.'

Garland's is not the only striking absence. Giles Foden was one of two authors (the other was Zadie Smith) tipped by Bill Buford, now literary editor of the New Yorker; his first novel, The Last King of Scotland, about Idi Amin, garnered great reviews, excellent sales and a Whitbread award. Both Jon McGregor (If No One Speaks of Remarkable Things) and Maggie O'Farrell were frequently mentioned as likely contenders. (There was a groundswell of support for O'Farrell, but her bid foundered during a discussion of the plotting of her recent novel, My Lover's Lover, in which the protagonist sees something on a station which is not revealed until the end, although there is no reason to withhold the information; it is, as Jack says, 'a stunt'.)

Others who might have been expected to make it on include Welsh writer Niall Griffiths, Tobias Hill and Patrick Neate. Jack regrets the exclusion of Zoe Heller, whose as yet unpublished second novel is about a North London school teacher, and Rebecca Smith, who has written a charming first novel about an organic café on the South coast.

On the plus side, there are some unexpected discoveries. Monica Ali's Brick Lane won't be published until the middle of the year, but this story of the Bangladeshi immigrant experience 'sailed through,' according to McCrum. Adam Thirlwell was born in 1978, and he too is yet to be published (his novel, Politics, has been bought by Jonathan Cape). 'He was a late entrant,' says Jack, 'his agent wrote to me saying he was a cross between Milan Kundera and Woody Allen, which made me really not want to read him.'

Other authors were judged on a very small output - Rachel Seiffert, Ben Rice, Dan Rhodes. While some entrants were known to the judges, there were others whom none of them had encountered, such as David Peace, who has written four books with unappealing titles - 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983 - about the Yorkshire Ripper.

Clark acknowledges that the hardest thing was probably 'trying to give parity to new writers who show real promise, and more experienced writers who have already fulfilled a certain amount of theirs'. This could cut both ways. Rachel Cusk got on as much for her track record as for her latest novel, which was not greatly admired. Giles Foden conversely suffered from having produced a couple of books, Ladysmith and Zanzibar, that didn't live up to his debut.

So does a certain kind of writer emerge from this process? Or, to put it another way, does it make sense to talk of a generation of writers? At one level, these books have little in common: they are variously set in nineteenth-century London, in Scotland, Australia, Japan and Afghanistan, and they range in tone through comedy, melodrama and introspection.

'I doubt it's ever made sense to talk of a generation of writers,' says Jack. 'Ishiguro is not like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie is not like anyone, except possibly Marquez. There is, though, quite a lot of sex, and transgression generally, in this lot, and much more historical writing. This introduced us to what came to be known as the Bakelite knob problem. In one novel we read, a woman didn't switch on the radio, she turned the Bakelite knob on the wireless. There was a lot of that sort of thing. Sarah Waters is brilliant at not doing that.'

Clark suggests that the notion of a generation of authors is antithetical to the individual quality of novel-writing. In the end, the judges weren't looking for anything much beyond pleasure. 'An affection for the reader,' says McCrum. 'After all the discussion about what it said about the condition of England,' says Jack, 'we would ask, "If you weren't a judge, would you want to carry on?" So, the giving of pleasure.'

Mantel was 'delighted' to discover Ben Rice, Dan Rhodes and Monica Ali, 'whose big book came in quite late. It's not entirely without problems, but she has a wonderful commitment to narrative and to bringing us news of a world, a mindset. I hadn't read Sarah Waters before, but Fingersmith stood out. I don't think I've enjoyed a book for years in the way I did that - the feeling that you're in safe hands and can give yourself up to it. I read it as if I were a child.'

Even so, Mantel was disappointed with the overall standard. 'It would be nice to think people were making exciting, new, 2003 mistakes, but many showed the usual defects of bad writing - an inability to keep the viewpoint steady, to decide who the book's about, or to impart information, so that it's done clumsily through dialogue. Too many people seem to go into print without editorial support and are left to sink or swim, when one well-targeted question could have brought down the whole edifice.

'My feeling is that the list is weaker than previous lists because of the apparent ease of getting published,' says Mantel. 'There are half a dozen brilliant people on here, and not just the ones I've mentioned, but the competition was not that strong. Many of the others would not have been on in other times.'

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

The Granta list 2003

Sunday January 5, 2003
The Observer

Monica Ali, 35: her first novel about a Bangladeshi family living in UK is published his year. Unfair to call her 'the new Zadie Smith', though people will try
Nicola Barker, 36: the literary voice of Estuarine England

Rachel Cusk, 35: takes on mothers and daughters and the changing landscape of Middle England

Susan Elderkin, 34: one novel set in Arizona, the second, Voices, set in Alice Springs and coming out this year. A generous and ambitious writer

Peter Ho Davies, 36: two collections of short stories range across Britain and North America. His first novel, out this year, is set among German pows in North Wales

Philip Hensher, 37: his most recent novel, The Mulberry Empire, has a long cool look at the fantasies and failures of early Victorian imperialism

ALKennedy, 37: leading fictional anatomiser of anger, despair and - sometimes - happiness

Hari Kunzru, 33: one novel so far, The Impressionist, which had mixed reviews. Race is the subject. Several confident and comic set-pieces

Toby Litt:, 34: his most recent novel is deadkidsongs - Just William crossed with something more cruel and sinister

David Mitchell, 33: epics of modern Japan from an inventive and original writer

Andrew O'Hagan, 34: second novel, Personality, out this year. Showbusiness, Scots-Italians, Britain in the 1970s - described with the sincerity that has become O'Hagan's hallmark

David Peace, 35: a quartet of novels set in the West Riding of the Yorkshire Ripper. Powerful on police corruption and crime

Dan Rhodes, 30: First novel, Timoleon Vieta, to be published this year, which charts a dog's life in Italy. Funny, kind, but not sentimental

Ben Rice, 30: his novella, Pobby and Dingan, is set among Australia's diamond miners and relates the story of a girl's imaginary friends. Wonderful narration, perfect craftsmanship

Rachel Seiffert, 31: first novel, The Dark Room, comprises three stories about Germany, from 1920 till now. A huge subject expressed convincingly

Zadie Smith, 27: the most successful novelist on the list, and deservedly so, despite a second novel that was less generously received

Adam Thirlwell, 25: first novel, Politics, to be published this year, about a ménage à trois in North London. Funny, profound, about sex and sexual manners

Alan Warner, 38: his most recent novel is The Man Who Walks - disturbing view of decaying ruralism and the Highland life

Sarah Waters, 36: Fingersmith, a novel set in Dickensian London which doesn't rub your nose in over-researched detail. Compelling story-teller

Robert McLiam Wilson, 38: next novel - after a long gap - will be published this year. His previous, Eureka Street, evokes Belfast lives that are stranger and more various than the media allows

Women Publish From Prison
Victim Advocates Question Book Sales
Courant Staff Writer

January 5 2003

A month before its release, the latest book by best-selling author Wally Lamb is already sparking a discussion. But this time the conversation is not taking place on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

"Couldn't Keep It To Myself," is a series of autobiographical stories written by 10 women at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic who were participants in Lamb's writing workshop.

The book details the women's lives and the events that led to their incarceration. It is scheduled for release at the end of the month.

It is also raising concerns among victims' rights advocates who question whether Lamb, who volunteers at the prison, and the women, should be allowed to profit from its publication.

"This says that crime pays. It shouldn't pay," saidDee Clinton of Survivors of Homicide. "They should be paying their debt to society; instead they are making a profit."

Clinton, whose 28-year-old son, Anson, was gunned down by a hit man in 1994 in East Lyme, said she wished Lamb and other writers focused as much of their attention on the victims of crimes as on convicts. She encouraged him to come to one of her group's meetings and to provide a workshop for them.

"I think it's absolutely outrageous. The money should go into the victim's compensation fund," said Clinton. "I hope the legislature takes a good look at this. It makes me cringe."

Lamb could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the book's publisher, HarperCollins, said the company does not believe this is a case of people profiting from their crimes.

"The stories written by these women do not discuss their crimes. These are stories written as part of a prison-initiated creative writing class," said Lisa Herling, a company spokeswoman. She said HarperCollins published the collection based on the quality of the writing.

Department of Correction officials would not comment on the book's publication, but said they would review the matter of proceeds paid to the inmates.

"Connecticut does have cost-of-incarceration legislation in place. How this legislation will impact the money received by these offenders will be determined by our legal counsel," said Christina Polce, a department spokeswoman.

It did not appear that Lamb violated any of the department's volunteer and recreational service directives, Polce said.

"The department does recognize Mr. Lamb's service to the agency as a volunteer. He has provided females at the York facility with an educational as well as a positive therapeutic experience," she said.

A source inside the department said correction officials are reviewing Lamb's contract to determine whether he violated any of its provisions.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Connecticut does have "Son-of-Sam laws" that prohibit inmates from profiting from the crimes. It bans them from earning proceeds from ventures such as books and movie deals. But he said his office would have to review the book to determine whether its contents fall under those guidelines.

"At this point, we don't have any of the specifics," he said.

Lamb is the author of "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True," both selections of Winfrey's book club. He began volunteering at York, the state's only all-female prison, in July 1999. He initially intended to hold one session. Two years later, he and the women had secured a publishing contract for their project.

Robin Cullen, who served three years for second-degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle, said writing the book was not about making money. The workshop created a safe space where she could talk of about the loss of her friend during her drunk-driving accident, she said.

"It's really an act of courage," said Cullen, whose segment in the book reflects on the three Christmases that she spent in prison.

Cullen said none of the women attempts to sensationalize or specifically mention the details of their crimes, or makes excuses for themselves. The women, she said, talk about their feelings and circumstances such as broken homes, teenage pregnancy and poverty.

A copy of the manuscript was not available, but initial reviews have been positive. One writer described it as powerful and said Lamb "succeeds in giving the collection an intense, recognizable emotional core reminiscent of his blockbuster debut."

"Once people read it and feel the humanness of it, it will be understood because it is honest," Cullen said.
Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant

Sunday, January 05, 2003

You gotta love a story like this one.

Friday, January 3, 2003

Lessons in book promotion pay off for young self-published author


The fresh-faced young man sat at a table at last fall's Northwest Bookfest in Seattle, sometimes outfitted in costume as a storyteller of yore, but not altogether pleased with the number of buyers for his self-published fantasy novel. Eighteen-year-old Christopher Paolini of Paradise Valley, Mont., had been on the road hawking his book for most of the year and was used to far more buyer interest, sometimes approaching sales of 100 copies in a single day. So Paolini was not just indulging in idle grousing when he told a Saturday visitor to his display, "This is a bookfest, but nobody is buying."

Those frustrations are behind Paolini now. This young author became one of the latest graduates of the difficult world of self-publishing to climb into the major publisher big leagues. World rights to Paolini's "Eragon" and its two unwritten sequels were sold recently to the youth division of one of the country's most prestigious houses, Alfred A. Knopf, in a deal reportedly worth more than $500,000.

"I'm sorry," Paolini said this week from Montana, "but I can't confirm the size of the deal."

The young author, who recently turned 19, has now learned far more than just to sound like a big-time author. He has learned about the draining grind of book promotion, with more than 70 appearances around the country during 2002, from elementary schools to bookstores. And he has also learned the power of persistence, to keep slogging away through good times and bad.

Since his novel was self-published in February, Paolini says he had never spent more than three days in a row at his home near Livingston where he was home-schooled and where he graduated with a high school degree at 15. That was the same year when he first started writing "Eragon." He finished his first draft of the book at 16, his second draft at 17. And at 18, he was a published author with a 472-page paperback novel that also bore a cover he designed.

The road to Knopf in New York was paved with tireless personal appearances and strong word-of-mouth response from readers that soon resulted in some impressive reviews, including readers posting their comments at and in Publishers Weekly, the trade journal that described it as an "impressive epic fantasy."

Some of the interest in the young man's novel was, no doubt, generated by the huge popularity of "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" and their film versions. Paolini's publicity flier attempts to make that connection on its cover: "After 'Harry Potter' and 'Lord of the Rings,' read 'Eragon.'"

But there were also bookstore owners who trumpeted "Eragon" to their customers. Among the most enthusiastic was Roger Page, owner of Island Books on Mercer Island, who has sold 200 copies of the novel.

"I've had a 50-year-old reader say 'Eragon' is the best book he's read since 'Lord of the Rings' and a 10-year-old reader say the same thing," Page relates. "I've also had 25 people say this novel is just a great read."

So much momentum had been building for the novel that Paolini and his family were starting to find themselves overwhelmed by the demands of running their own publishing business, including an exhaustive Web site supporting the novel's sales ( And the author himself was feeling a tad tired from a promo schedule that left him finding it difficult to focus much attention on the writing of his second novel.

"We couldn't handle things any longer on our own, then Knopf came to us, so it was a case of perfect timing," Paolini said. "It's incredible to me, very, very exciting. I think it's wonderful that so many more people will be able to read 'Eragon.' "

Knopf plans to bring out a hardback edition of the first novel in Paolini's planned "Inheritance Trilogy" next September. Sales of the self-published paperback will be discontinued in the next few weeks.

Paolini's "Eragon" is the second self-published novel by a Northwest author to be given the big-bucks boost by a major publisher in the past nine months. Craig Joseph Danner of Hood River, Ore., received a six-figure payment for "Himalayan Dhaba," which was published last spring by E.P. Dutton.

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