Sunday, October 4, 2009

What to Read II

Below are a couple additions to my "What to Read" list, but first I want to give a shout out to Claire for sending me an email. Problem is, it went to my spam folder and I caught a glimpse of it just after I hit the 'empty' button, and then couldn't get it back. So Claire, if you're out there, please resend it. I'll be more careful this time.

A couple recent reads (within the last six weeks) that are worth your time: Lush Life by Richard Price; Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer; American Rust By Philip Meyer; Man Gone Done by Michael Thomas.

I have a public events coming up this fall. For a complete list, click here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What to Read Now

It’s been two months since I last blogged, and offering book suggestions strikes me as a good way to break the drought. What-to-read? is a question I’m asked all the time, and so here I’ve put together a list. To make this list a book had to be one I love, and I had to be able to see it on my shelf. Hey, I needed some way to limit the length of the list, and I didn't want any grand organizing principle (other than my random taste). Some of these books you’ll know, and some you won’t. There is no particular order. More suggestions will follow.

The Stories of John Cheever; The Zero by Jess Walter; World’s End by TC Boyle; This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff; Affliction by Russell Banks; A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo; Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon; Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo; Last Night by James Salter; In the Blue Light of African Dreams by Paul Watkins; Fay by Larry Brown; The Pacific by Mark Helprin, Accordion Crimes by Annie Proulx.

That should get you going. As I said, more to follow.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writers’ Conferences and Politics

There’s nothing quite like being in a room full of people who actually care about books. It’s why I like writers’ conferences, though in truth I’ve only ever been to one: the Aspen Writers’ Conference, which takes place right here in my adopted hometown.

Last week Ron Carlson, Ishmael Beah, Colum McCann, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chris Merrill, Luis Alberto Urrea and many others gathered in the mountains to talk about (and in some cases teach) things literary. There were many great moments. Here are a few: Carlson’s observation that the book will survive, but perhaps not the conversation, what with cell phones, tweets, texts, etc.; Beah chiding Adichie for how the Nigerians had screwed everything up in Sierra Leone (as if Sierra Leone needed any help); McCann leading Joe Hurley’s band (or maybe it’s McCann’s band) in drunken Irish songs (as a non-Irishman I leave open the possibility that there might be other types of Irish songs); local Cody Oates’s story of stopping to help Beah change a bike tire en route to meeting Lance Armstrong. (Ah, the Aspen life.)

If you caught half the events you received enough literary wisdom for a masters degree, all of it from an unbelievably talented group of writers.

I sat on the “how to get published” panel, as though I really understand anything about that. This subject is of burning interest to many conference attendees, who lead literary lives of quiet desperation. Indeed, conferences can be overwrought with desperation. My advice is to read a lot, and—if you want to be a writer—write a lot. A lot. It’s how you give yourself a chance.

More advice: buy books. It’s the only way they’ll flourish, and if you’re reading this you care that they do.

Careful if you invite Nic Pizzolatto over for a drink, as I did. Somehow, at his insistence, we soaked up a half liter of Talisker before the before-dinner drinks. Later, he questioned my manhood, this after I had to drag him, post-Talisker, up a mountain in a thunderstorm, this being a hike he said he wanted to do. His story may be different, but, I warn you, he’s a fiction writer.

On to politics. These past several weeks might go down as the golden period of American political scandal. (I understand that with the news coverage of Michael Jackson’s death you might have missed it.) Let’s look at a debacle or three. First, there is the holier-than-thou governor of South Carolina (Mark Sanford) who felt it improper to use stimulus money to help his state’s unemployed, but seemed to have no trouble traveling on state expense in part to schtupp his mistress, not to mention the Republican party. Then there is the (very) junior senator from Illinois (Roland Burris) who, it now comes out, did promise to do Blago’s bidding. Chicago rules, I guess. I’ll finish with the Detroit councilwoman (Monica Conyers, who is married to one of the most powerful men in the US House of Representatives), who took a paltry bribe on a sludge contract. Sludge? Couldn’t it at least have been a casino? The city, where I spent my formative years, has image problems already.

Together these infractions are so pathetic they could almost be funny, but in the end what I feel isn’t mirth but outrage. I’d like to let it go, but I can’t: I love this country.

(I’ll go back to books next time, I swear. I just needed to vent. This is a blog, after all.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009


After four recent readings for The Year That Follows, it’s worth noting the joy of going to bookstores—the real brick-and-mortar kind, where you can browse among the tables and shelves and even find an employee (or two) who knows something about, well, books! In the last week I’ve read in New York, San Francisco, LA, and Santa Barbara, at Borders, Book Passage, Skylight Books, and Chaucer’s Books, respectively. I’ll always have a soft spot for Borders, as I used to shop at the original store, back when Borders was an independent, a Mecca for books in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Book Passage is a book Mecca itself, just north of San Francisco in Corte Madera. Skylight Books, which has received earlier mention in this blog, is one of my favorite spots in LA—tons of books, a huge skylight and tree, a staff of Iowa graduates (who says you can’t get a job with an MFA?), and shelf after shelf of the publishers’ finest. The front tables at Chaucer’s are reason enough to visit, a smorgasbord of fine literary dining.

The point of all this is simple: readers need bookstores. We need them because we need places to browse, to ask questions and get suggestions, and we need the tactile pleasure of picking up a book we’ve never seen and making it ours.

There’s only one way to save bookstores: shop in them.

(And now, since you’re going anyway, pick up a copy of The Year That Follows. It’s been out a week, and received some nice reviews.)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Books and Publicity

With two days till publication of my new book, The Year That Follows, I’m going to use this post to touch upon an issue or two that came up in a recent interview I did for KAJX, my local NPR affiliate. (For full audio of the interview, click here and then click on my name.)

One question that came up: what have you been reading recently? I always find this incredibly difficult to answer, not because I haven’t been reading, but because I have. Once I finish a book it goes into the ‘read’ file in my brain and I have a hard time remembering what was ‘recent.’ So, I’ve started keeping a computer file, which, of course, I didn’t have with me for the interview. I do now, though, and so here are a few titles that I’ve read recently and enjoyed: How It Ended by Jay McInerney, Mr. Paradise by Elmore Leonard, Rules for Saying Goodbye by Katherine Taylor, Five Skies by Ron Carlson, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang, Jesus’ Son and Nobody Move by Denis Johnson, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. A bit of a random list, to be sure. I had my reasons for picking up each of these titles; more on that in a later blog.

Another question that came up: how do you publicize a book? Well, I wish I knew. The main purpose of this blog is to promote books (see the paragraph above), though my reach is, I’m afraid, a bit limited. I believe that of all the arts books offer the deepest satisfaction, but such satisfaction is not easily or quickly displayed on a screen—and if it can’t be sold on television (and it’s legal) it’s going to be difficult to sell. Nonetheless, we try. I’m heading out this week to make appearances in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara. If you happen to live in one of these places, please stop by. A full schedule of events is available here, or click on the Events link of my website,

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Time, Etc. II

The actor Bryan Cranston, lately of Breaking Bad fame, gave me a nice plug in the April 27 issue of Time Magazine. Yes, that Time Magazine. It was the kind of promotion you really can’t buy, especially with a new book (The Year That Follows) coming out in a month. (For a list of confirmed appearances, click here.)

If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, check out the first season, available now on DVD, then catch up on the second season on AMC. Cranston mentions me in Time; I mention him in my blog—hardly a fair quid pro quo. Let me be clear: I am absolutely sincere about Breaking Bad. Sometimes the thought really does count.

Back to the subject of book promotion: we need more of it. Since the Time Magazine piece, I’ve been receiving emails via my website, and several people have stopped me on the street to say they saw it. A few of these I didn’t know. The internet has done some real harm to books—especially by destroying a number of independent book stores—but can also be used to get the word out. Take the site Goodreads. My local librarian turned me onto it. I spent fifteen minutes the other night adding books I thought others might like. (I refuse to trash a book publically; there’s plenty of great books to read, and I’m well aware of just how hard it is to write one.) My technique was simple: I sat on my couch with my laptop in, well, my lap, then looked around at my bookshelves and picked out books I felt worthy. Some you may know (Ethan Canin’s America America, for instance), while others, like my friend Derek Green’s New World Order, you probably don’t. America America is a rare book, a wonderfully realized novel of the personal side of public life. New World Order is a book of stories about Americans abroad. The first, for example, deals with a guy trying to sell Harleys to GI’s inside the Green Zone in Baghdad. Check it out. Only fiction can put you in that world, and, sadly, you’re probably only going to hear about it here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Time, Etc.

With two months till the publication of The Year That Follows word of the first review has come in, and it is good. Very good. Kirkus Reviews will publish the starred review in roughly ten days. An excerpt: ““A taut, masterfully controlled and profoundly moving novel about family ties—blood or otherwise… A novel with barely a wasted word or an emotion that doesn’t ring true.” I’ve also received a couple nice blurbs from Wally Lamb and Anita Shreve, which you can read by clicking here.

Jeffrey Eugenides just gave a talk in Aspen, during which he commented that when people learn he’s a writer, they tend to say things like, “I’ve always wanted to write a book, if I could just find the time.” As if writers have time not available to the general public. One of my very best friends happens to be a trauma surgeon, and he assures me that no one ever says to him, “I’ve always wanted to save lives as a trauma surgeon, but I just haven’t had the time.” I wrote my first novel, Battle Creek, while working at Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. I typically left my house for work at 5:15 in the morning, and returned home between 7:30 and 8:00 in the evening. These jobs didn’t offer breaks, or even a lunch hour. I rarely slept five hours a night. I was a younger man then—I’m not sure I could do it now—but the point is simple: if you want to write a book, you will.

Which isn’t to say it’s easy—to write or to find the time. I’ve got two careers and two kids, and a need to sleep at least a few hours every night. Thus, after belittling excuses about finding time to write, here I am making them. I’m trying to explain why it’s taken a whole month to come up with another 400 word blog entry. I’m sure I could whip off twice that many words on procrastination, but I’ll hold off. I’ve got a daughter I’ve got to wake up and get to school.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Performance II

It’s hard to imagine what Hunter Thompson would have made of a book reception in the lobby of the Little Nell (my guess is he would have consumed as much of the free champagne as possible, then been kicked out for smoking), but that’s where we were to celebrate Jay Cowan’s new book, Hunter Thompson: A Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged-out Brilliance. The book is great; the title isn’t. Cowan, a friend of mine, wanted to call it I’m Not Like the Others, a line of Thompson’s. I would have gone with something like Fully Loaded: My Life with Hunter, but no one asked me. In any case, Jay lived on Thompson’s compound for years and knows things the rest of us don’t, or didn’t till we read the book. Little details have stayed with me. Thompson loved The Great Gatsby, for example. So do I. In the end, I almost found Thompson sympathetic, which was not my opinion before I read Jay’s book. Then again, a book can do that. Pick it up.
The Little Nell is arguably the swankiest bar in arguably the country’s swankiest town (Aspen, CO), so there was a cheese board and the aforementioned free champagne, all of it wonderfully elegant and anachronistic (say 2007). Then again, beyond our little gathering was the late-February apr├Ęs ski crowd, and a crowd it was. The room was packed. (A decent scotch in this room costs twenty bucks. The best deal on the bar menu is the burger for $17.) These people were partying like it was 1999. Maybe outside the walls the world was in economic collapse and emotional desperation, but not here. I should have gone in and convinced them all to buy Jay’s book (cheaper than the expensive scotch), but the idea didn’t occur to me till I sat down to write this blog. A drink is gone in a flash (not that I’m against a drink now and then), but a book lasts, in many ways. I’m making a simple argument here: books offer good value. Especially now.
On a related note, one of my local independent bookstores, TownCenter Booksellers, in Basalt, CO, is closing its doors. I have a link to them on my website, which I’ll soon have to take down. It’s a tough time for all businesses, retailers especially, but we need places like TownCenter. I read there last year from my new book on the very day I sent it off to my agent. I’d looked forward to returning.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Writing is not performance, not really, but writers are sometimes called upon to perform, live, in person. I’m glad of it. Sure, it’s what’s on the page that matters, but a writer’s physical presence can bring added attention to the words. And, like many, I’m curious about the person behind it all.
As performers, writers are a far-ranging bunch, from self-described ‘hams’ like TC Boyle to recluses like Cormac McCarthy. It is worth noting that McCarthy showed up at last year’s Oscars, where the movie made from his novel No Country for Old Men won best picture. So, perhaps McCarthy is rethinking his position. He reportedly can be charming, even gregarious, in person. In any case, the recluses seem to be taken more seriously as writers. This hardly seems right.
Let’s look at Boyle. First, let me say I’m a big fan. (McCarthy, too, but that’s a different blog.) I first got hooked when I read World’s End, Boyle’s ‘historical fugue’ about Westchester County, NY. It’s probably still my favorite Boyle novel. The hook got set deeper when, maybe 20 years ago, I found myself driving from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City with the writer Cammie McGovern. As I drove, Cammie read aloud from the title story of Boyle’s collection Greasy Lake. “There was a time when courtesy and winning ways went out of style, when it was good to be bad, when you cultivated decadence like a taste. We were all dangerous characters then.” Two sentences, and he had me. Finally, last night, I got to see him live.
I’d been stalking Boyle for some time. Not literally, but literarily. For instance, when I lived in Westchester county I traveled to Peekskill to see what Boyle would have seen in his formative years. I made a special trip to Ossining, too, on account of John Cheever. I was decades behind both men, but no matter. It was just something I wanted to do. When this web thing got big, I couldn’t bring Cheever back from the dead, but I was able to check if Boyle would be reading anywhere near me.
The event occurred in LA, where I happened to be visiting. We arrived at the store, Skylight Books, a half hour early—a new record for me—and couldn’t find a seat, of which there were perhaps forty, arranged around a large ficus tree, the chairs and tree inside a corral of bookcases, as if the setting for some new book-worshipping cult (perhaps the only cult I’ve ever felt the urge to join). All in all, there were perhaps 80 worshipers in the temple.
Boyle started a few fashionable minutes late, introduced by his daughter. For the first fifteen minutes or so he didn’t read—it was more of a spiel. Think of the German pronunciation, which is appropriate, as there was some guy with a big camera lurking about, filming for Austrian television. I think Boyle would have been happy to carry on as such, half way to a stand-up routine, but he did break down eventually and read a short section from his new novel, The Women. (For content, buy the book; or check it out on His reading style might be described as urgent, almost breathless. He performs, rather than merely reads, and more power to him. Fifty minutes after the scheduled start of the event we were waiting in line to have books signed, which was just right.
Note to self, I thought: keep it short. If you can, make it funny. Then stop. The performance, after all, promotes the thing; it’s not the thing itself. (For my appearances, check back in a month or so at, or go directly to my events page.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Here we go..

The word “blog,” like “literature,” is a deterrent to the thing itself. The latter term suggests physiology or engineering. The former brings to mind some unspeakable medical malady, probably pertaining to the digestive system.
I’ve always been skeptical of blogs, which writers produce without benefit of editing or money. In general, I’m in favor of both. Yet here I am, doing the unspeakable.
So let’s get some basics out of the way. This blog is part of, a website created (well, just about created) at the urging of my editor and agent; its main purpose is shameless self-promotion. That I am promoting books (albeit mine in particular) makes it less shameful. Lord knows, books need and deserve the help. My intent here is to keep my readers up to date on what’s new with me (read: please, buy my books), and, since my life and career often aren’t that exciting, to celebrate good writing and comment on anything else that strikes my fancy as it pertains to the written word.
Today is Groundhog Day, February 2, 2009; things are tough all over, and not just in finance (which happens to be my day job). A magazine editor of mine didn’t get his paycheck last Friday. Book publishers are letting people go; the magazine business is (obviously) dismal. And yet a friend just told me that fiction is what people are now buying (if they buy at all). She offered no proof, but I hope she’s right. She should be right. Where better to turn than fiction in times like these? As it happens, this June I have a new novel coming out, the first in seven years. The title is The Year That Follows. It’s about the search for a lost child, inheritance and bloodlines, and how we carry on after a terrible event. It’s a dramatic novel, but not without humor, and it’s mercifully short. Check it out. Order it and perhaps I’ll be able to keep writing here for free.