- Novelist and poet Susan Fromberg Schaeffer has died at seventy-one.
- Ruth Rendell speaks out on health cuts.
- Snape, the dark-horse winner of a Harry Potter popularity contest. This is controversial.
- What to read when you’re sick.
- P. G. Wodehouse: the movie.
- Javier Cercas: “I respect music too much—if I write I write, if I listen I listen.”
- Tweeting from beyond the grave?
- Samples of Obama’s summer reading.
- The most-wanted out-of-print title? Madonna’s Sex.
- The first Kashmir Book Festival has been canceled amid fears of violence.
- She Loves You: the Beatles and pronoun use.
- A. S. Byatt: “I am a profound pessimist both about life and about human relations and about politics and ecology. Humans are inadequate and stupid creatures who sooner or later make a mess, and those who are trying to do good do a lot more damage than those who are muddling along.”
To grow up in the South is to be fed a steady diet of grits and ghost stories. Ask any household in Alabama, and they’ll tell you about a friend or family member with a rogue phantom that blows out candles or stomps around in the attic. Being haunted is a permanent condition below the Mason-Dixon, one that defines the region as much as the voracious kudzu and the iced tea so sugary it hurts your teeth. William Faulkner, who was known to spin particularly scary fireside stories, described the Deep South in Absalom, Absalom! as “dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.”
No one knew that better than Kathryn Tucker Windham, an Alabama folklorist who spent much of her life collecting and patiently preserving Southern superstitions, recipes, and, most of all, ghost stories. Before passing away last June at the age of ninety-three, Windham published four cookbooks, eight ghost-story collections, and more than a dozen works of regional mythology, memoir, and fiction, most of them featuring her own household ghost, a Slimer-esque jester whom the Windhams affectionately named Jeffrey. Read More
Most dust jackets list only literary accomplishments, but I’ve always been a fan of offbeat author bios. So I asked some of my favorite writers to describe their early jobs.
Darin Strauss: I worked freelance at The Aspen Times as a nightlife correspondent: seven hundred words for fifty bucks, an article a month. Then I thought, Hey dummy, you published with The Aspen Times, you should go to New York and write for their Times! It didn’t work out. I lived with my parents on Long Island and delivered Chinese food. To avoid the embarrassment of being seen doing this, I took a gig at a restaurant two towns over. My first day, a girl opens her door to me, and it’s someone I went to summer camp with. “Darin,” she says, somehow unsurprised to find me on her doorstep. “Good timing. Come in, I just ordered Chinese food.” I told her I knew, I knew.
I finally got a job at a financial technology newsletter, where I wrote stories with openings like: “Morgan Stanley is reported to be buying the Telerate trading platform to replace its Thomson real-time, turning from Unix to tcb/ip servers, with four hundred real-time end users.” I never bothered to learn what any of that meant; I wanted to keep my mind free for fiction. I was going to write, write, write. I thought I’d be fired instantly. When my boss said, “Telerate’s TIB is in trouble with its real-time market data platform—find out if data delivery is … ,” I didn’t know whom to call, what to ask, even what I was supposed to do if I found out. Some kind woman gave me a list of questions to ask, and some numbers to call. Three years I worked there, interviewing people without a clue what I was asking.
Deb Olin Unferth: In Birmingham, Alabama, I taught “self-esteem” in the Department of Family Services waiting room, where four or five hundred people showed up at seven in the morning and waited for hours—sometimes six, seven hours—for their appointments to get food stamps, or to sign up for welfare, or to meet with their caseworker about the children who had been removed from their homes and placed in foster care. My main activity was to get them to play self-esteem bingo. I handed out blank cards, and people were supposed to write adjectives that described them in the spaces. I provided a sample list: “beautiful,” “smart,” “funny.” I’d call out the words and when someone said, “Bingo,” I’d read their card aloud and say, “Now does she have a good self-esteem or a bad self-esteem?” and whoever didn’t completely hate me by that time would chirp, “Good self-esteem!” And I’d give the winner a tiny cheap notebook and say, “Here’s a place for you to write your hopes and dreams.”
Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in the fictional Mississippi Gulf town of Bois Sauvage in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. It centers on Esch—fourteen years old and pregnant—and Esch’s family in the aftermath of her mother’s death in childbirth. Her alcoholic and abusive father readies the house for the storm; her brother Randal dreams of a basketball scholarship; her brother Skeetah obsesses over China, his prize pit bull; and Junior, the youngest, clamors for attention. Bois Sauvage, also the setting of her first novel Where the Line Bleeds, was modeled on Ward’s hometown of De Lisle, Mississippi. Ward, the first person in her family to attend college, received her MFA from the University of Michigan and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She teaches at the University of South Alabama.
Why did you want to write about Hurricane Katrina?
I lived through it. It was terrifying and I needed to write about that. I was also angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the storm. Finally, I wrote about the storm because I was dissatisfied with the way it had receded from public consciousness. Read More
This weekend marked the fortieth anniversary of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I was swept into the adventure of the restaurant almost at its inception; though I had no restaurant experience, I was recruited to fill in for someone who didn’t show up for work. Alice is a dedicated Francophile, and early on she wrote out each nightly menu, in French, in her elegant calligraphy. Eventually, her devotion to France was replaced with the appreciation of California’s food and culture, and the names of growers, producers, and ingredients took prominence on the menus. Over the years, many Bay Area designers, poets, writers, calligraphers, and printers have placed their stamp on the Chez Panisse menus. I’m lucky to have been one of them. Read More
I would like to know how to find jobs writing, as someone very new to the field. I am unsure where to start looking. Some ads just look like scams to me.
We received two queries on starting out as a writer this week, as it happens—maybe it’s the time of year? I always think of “back-to-school” as a much more logical starting point for new ventures than January 1, personally. But to answer your question, to the extent that that is possible in a few short paragraphs? First of all, the necessary warnings. Making your living as a writer is hard. Obvious, maybe, but it bears repeating. My parents—and for that matter, my grandfather—wrote for a living, and stable isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind when discussing my childhood. I often think that if I had any other marketable skills, I’d do something else. And keep in mind that many of the great writers in history have done so while holding down day jobs. I’m sure the structure of regular employment—not to mention the financial security—is a real help to many.
But if you are serious about writing professionally, in any capacity, the best advice anyone can give you is to write, and as much as possible. Which is not to say you should go for any “gig” advertised on Craigslist; you’re right to be wary. People have different views on blogs. In my case, I found keeping a personal blog to be useful both in developing a voice and in forcing myself to be accountable to a readership, even if that readership was just my grandmother. I’d add the caveat, though, that you want to be careful what you put out there—this writing, as much as anything in your clips file, will define you both professionally and personally. For the pitch, think of interesting takes on things that genuinely engage you. Don’t be shy. Familiarize yourself with publications and Web sites and get to know their tones. Not everyone can pay much; that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile clip. Ask questions. Go to readings. Talk to everyone you meet. Keep in mind that there’s no shame in striking out—and you will—and that no rejection feels as bad as the knowledge that you haven’t tried.
What are some of your favorite author twitters?
I think we can all agree that the best writers don’t always make the best twitterers, and vice versa, but there are a few who have mastered both genres. (Is Twitter a genre? I’m afraid it might be.) Polymath Wil Wheaton—as one might expect from someone who exercises such economy of characters in the spelling of his own first name—is a Twitter star for a reason. Ditto the ever-entertaining Stephen Fry. Maud Newton is necessary reading for the reader. And Shakespeare (@WillShake) isn’t half-stepping, either.
Who is your literary style icon?
Fictionally speaking, I’ve definitely gone through phases where certain characters exerted undue influence. I’m no particular lover of Hemingway, but who wouldn’t be seduced by this description of Lady Brett Ashley: “She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.” Oh, and she also sports a fedora. (Not recommended for an undersized sixteen-year-old, in case the younger me is reading this.) If we’re talking literary figures beyond the page, the list gets even longer: Carson McCullers, Barbara Pym, and my personal inspiration for the years 2003 to 2005, Sylvia Beach.
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