If you’ve ever visited carp(e) libris reviews before, then you know I usually review books from the indie publishers: literary fiction and nonfiction, memoirs, works recently translated to English, even art books. But did you know I’m a sucker for thrillers and mysteries too? My shelves are not only lined with the books you’ve read about here, but I also have quite a collection of everything from Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie to Dean Kootz and Stephen King. So when indie bookseller Schuler Books & Music welcomed Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen into their store for a book signing, I took over my podcasting equipment and sat down with the Johansen’s for an interview.

Podcast, did you say? Yes, this is the latest addition to carp(e) libris reviews, a longtime goal I’ve had. In fact, I’ve wanted to podcast ever since iTunes first introduced me to the addiction. So I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to speak to Iris and Roy about their first book together, Silent Thunder.

A special thanks must go out to the Johansen’s for answering my questions and giving me my first shot at a live interview. I’d also like to thank Schuler Books & Music for their high level of professionalism. What an amazing and friendly staff! No wonder I shop there all the time…


Sometimes the author is as fascinating as the book. In the case of the poetry book A Cartography of Peace, I find myself drawn to both poet and poems. Jean L. Connor writes poetry befitting of its title, filled with a peaceful calmness that is lacking in most of our days. Her prose focus on the beauty of a flower, the wisdom of age passed to younger generations, the grace of a winter’s snowfall. As I read each page, I felt my blood pressure come down from my day’s work, and I found myself taking deep breaths as the words restored peace to my soul.

Just as wonderful as her poetry is Jean L. Connor herself, a nearly 89-year-old first-time published author living in a retirement community in Vermont. I have the very great honor of sharing an interview with Ms. Connor, which was done by letter writing, an art I sorely miss in this age of email. Following are the questions and answers we shared. As cannot be done as easily with email, I’ll treasure this letter from a rare and poetic soul.

(e): How long have you been writing poetry?

JC: About 30 years. When I was in grade school a writer was a person who told stories. That would be fun! I had no thought of being a poet. By college years, an English literature major, I aspired to poetry, something wonderful, but somewhere out there, “far beyond”. Not for now… time for a career and “real work”. I deferred the pursuit of poetry until retirement from librarianship, my profession, a profession I found absorbing, worthwhile, satisfying. After retirement I began the pursuit of poetry in earnest, writing, taking workshops, etc. A new world opened.

(e): Do you have plans to publish any more books?

JC: I’m not ready to close a door. The important thing is not a book, but to keep writing, poem by poem…to encourage their coming, to welcome them. I like to think of Stanley Kunitz, his life, his work. Exemplary! So encouraging to an older writer. So humbling.

(e): What keeps you driven to work; to write?

JC: I write because there is joy in writing and discovery, too. There is also a desire to be faithful to a gift given me, no matter if small.

(e): What advice do you have for young poets and writers who dream of being published?

JC: Keep writing. Keep reading. Give the muse your best. Open your work to criticism by fellow writers through workshops, discussion groups. Become acquainted with poets, their work, in your city, state, region. Open your life to things of the spirit, be attentive to the beauty of the created world, savor the riches of silence – then sing!

Published by Passager Press. Look for the upcoming interview with Passager.

12. May 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Book Reviews, Interviews · Tags: ,

If you’re searching for a book of poetry that is both beautiful to read and expanding to the mind, The Logan Topographies delivers on both counts. In a rhythmical and flowing voice, this poetry collection describes a West Virginian mining town and the difficulties to the ethnic groups who make their living in coal mining. Alena Hairston’s debut poetry book, divided into four distinct sections, reflects the devastating effects the evolving coal industry has on both the environment and the people of Logan.

With such a long and difficult history behind it, I wanted to know more about The Logan Topographies, so I asked author Alena Hairston a few questions about her award-winning work (winner 2006 Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize):

(e): Your poetry has a unique and worthy theme. Can you tell us a little more about that?

AH: Presently, West Virginia and other Appalachian states such as Kentucky, Virginia, and Ohio are suffering and struggling against government/corporate-sanctioned mountaintop removal schemes (the latest, most disastrous form of mining) that are a total insult to the integrity of the communities and environments in which the mines are located. Much has been said about this issue (though, to my mind, not enough). A recent interview between Amy Goodman, co-anchor of the excellent “Democracy Now,” and Ed Wiley, a West Virginian activist, gives a poignant overview of the issue. The link is here:

The city of Logan has been impacted by this process and by the historical rapaciousness of the coal mining industry in general. This history explains the nature of the people, their beauty, poverty, frailties, and so on. While I am not a native Loganian, I lived there during my formative years (13-17) and was greatly influenced by the culture.
While my book does not seek to necessarily speak for this history or to completely fictionalize it, I did intend for the complexities of the area, its history and culture, to undergird the various stories within the book. West Viriginia has a mythic aura and I wanted the poems to represent this by virture of the themes, technical strategies, and overall approach of the book.

(e): I love the rhythm of your writing. Do you have to do a lot of rewrites to achieve that, or is it something that comes naturally?

AH: Thank you. No. I don’t do much rewriting. But I wait sometimes. The rhythm is “natural” I think. I like the mathematics of the line, the constriction of the page layout, syllabics, meter. I believe that I am both consciously and unconsciously “aware” of this as I write, even in notes.

(e): That’s a rare talent. I often find the most flowing writing has gone through many rewrites to appear effortless. I think you just made a lot of writers jealous! Are you working on any new projects that we can keep an eye out for?

AH: Yes! But, if I just didn’t have to work work. I am trying to finish a poetic novel — a novel in poems or poem-like vignettes. And I’d like to finish a screenplay. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and so the cost of living is quite steep. Teaching tends to keep me from writing. But, soon, I’ve a month long break, and I plan to write all day every day.

(e): Thanks, Alena! Keep us posted on your new work. I’d love to read it when it comes out.

Yesterday I posted my review of the book Voices of the Lost and Found by Dorene O’Brien. (If you haven’t entered to win the book yet, make sure you do!) Today I have the interview with Dorene, as promised. If you’re a writer, reading these interviews with the authors can really give you a good inside look on what writing takes.

(e): Dorene, your character voices are very realistic and different from one another. It’s as if you “borrowed” a real person and recorded all their speech nuances. How do you go about developing them?

DO: When a character begins to take shape in my head I allow him or her to take up residence there for a while, and before long that character will speak to me. What is said is not as important as how it’s said–the sound of the voice, the dialect, the inflection. Once I can hear the voice in my mind’s ear everything else is easy; then I can have “conversations” with the character. I have a standing joke that on the first day of creative writing workshops I ask students if they hear voices in their heads. Half the class eagerly nods and the other half drops. But I stand by that: Hearing voices is a good thing.

(e): I sure heard voices in my head while I was reading your book! Where do you get inspiration for your stories?

DO: I’m curious about everything–graffiti art, string theory, weathervanes–and my research usually turns up some fascinating information that I can use as “background” material. My favorite stories are those that both entertain and educate, so I try to “quietly” do that in mine. “Way Past Taggin’” is a story about a young urban graffiti artist who is being harassed to join a gang–that’s the story’s central conflict. But while wondering what he will do and worrying about his sick grandmother, readers are being shown how piecing and tagging work and learning about pecking order on the street. Reading also inspires me to write.

(e): “Way Past Taggin’” was actually one of my favorites, and that one had a very unexpected ending. I’m always curious as to whether or not an author knows, when heading into a story, how it will turn out. Are you a writer who plans ahead, or do you like to let the protagonist show you the way?

DO: Once in a while I know how a story will end even before I start, but typically I allow the characters and the plot to evolve as I write. If I experience no moments of surprise in the writing I don’t know that my readers can experience them in the reading. At any rate, those unexpected events are always the most perfect–I’ve never excised one. In fact, I’ve rewritten stories just to accommodate them. I have several unpublished stories, and I think they remain unpublished because they’re too “controlled.” I think I’ve plotted the spontaneity right out of them

(e): Any plans for a full novel? Another short story collection?

DO: I’m currently writing a novel about fossil hunters in Ethiopia which asks and explores some pretty big questions about evolution, religion, hubris in scientific professions and gender bias. The protagonist, a female paleoanthropologist on extended excavations in Africa, becomes estranged from her husband and her runaway son, so she seeks not only the oldest human fossil but her son as well as some sort of redemption. Are all-encompassing careers worth the sacrifice they impose? How do scientists who have not fallen prey to the type of evidence-twisting that garners large grants compete in a field rife with graft, collusion and dishonesty? Can a fossil hunter reconcile the creationist view of her mother and the evolutionist view of her father to explore human origins through an original perspective? Will her family ultimately reunite or become torn apart by her discovery? My inspiration for the book was my curiosity about our origins. This is a fundamental question about which people–or at least people who are not religious zealots–seem largely unconcerned. My challenge has been to simplify and translate the utterly fascinating scientific and philosophical perspectives into an accessible and compelling story.

(e): Thanks so much for the interview, Dorene. Please let us know when your novel is out, and all the best to you!

22. April 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Interviews · Tags: ,

Yesterday I reviewed the book Sandrine’s Letter for Tomorrow. Today I have a special interview with the author, Dedra Johnson. I love to find out how an author goes about constructing a story, especially when it’s a book I enjoyed as much as this one.

Now let’s see what Dedra had to say:

: Sandrine was such a well-planned and endearing character, one you no doubt grew attached to yourself. How do you as a writer handle placing your characters in harm’s way over and over? Does it affect you when you’re away from your writing as well?

DJ: Without dangers, obstacles and threats, characters never reveal themselves or grow. I don’t think about it one way or another–for example, I don’t fret about a character getting into more trouble than I’d like her to–and simply do it. With a child narrator, it’s a little easier–because Sandrine is a child, there are a lot of factors in her world that are in the control of adults who have their own motives and needs that usually conflict with Sandrine’s.

There’s a danger in being too attached to a character. In the earliest draft, Sandrine was too good, too much a victim, and lacked agency. I had to find or create “bad” things about her to round her out and keep me as the writer from being over-attached and unable to craft the story and characters as they needed to be.

In the heat of drafting, yes, the character’s ups and downs affect me temporarily, a heaviness to the day or a sense of relief that a particular scene is over or that a mystery is now clear. But after the drafting and revising, I feel “done” with the character, her obstacles, her needs, her pains and tend to look toward the next character, story, work, etc. One way to put it–Sandrine told me what of her story she wanted told and now has nothing more to say to me. As a writer, I did a good job–she lives on and on for readers but she and I have waved goodbye so I can move on.

And though Sandrine comes off as well-planned (thank you!), she wasn’t really. I was trying to write a totally different story, got stuck, started some description and scene sketches and gradually Sandrine evolved.

: Your characters are rich and full and the story line is so well developed. What did you grow first; the characters or the story line?

DJ: Character always comes first. I need to know who it is I’m writing and thinking about. In early drafting, before I really knew Sandrine and her wants and needs, I floundered and got nowhere. When her concerns and needs became clear to me–and not all in an intellectual way; some of this understanding has to be emotional and intuitive–I could then move her through her world.

I didn’t plot the novel, really. I knew there were points I wanted Sandrine to get to–her father’s house, back to New Orleans, through a year of school–and tried to stay open to possibilities, tangents and forks in the road, emerging characters, etc. As a matter of fact, until people started reading it and saying so, I didn’t think of it as having a developed plot at all. That comes, though, I think, from looking at it from the inside. I know what I didn’t plan. But the idea is to make it all look totally deliberate and planned. So I succeeded.

(e): I spent a lot of time carting this book around, not able to stop reading, even late into the night. What’s your secret to keeping the pages turning for your readers?

: My secret? I wish I knew! Perhaps it’s because I like to read novels in which there is a lot of character development and things happening–conflicts, journeys of any type, changes, surprises. I firmly believe that it is the writer’s job to make the reader turn the pages and I’m just glad I succeeded.

(e): Are you working on something new? I’d love to hear about it.

DJ: I’m working on a couple of ideas now, both post-Katrina but only one set in New Orleans after the flooding. The one set in New Orleans is/was sparked by my shock over the most basic losses after Katrina–not lives or property but community and family ties. In New Orleans, it’s not uncommon to live within blocks of your mother, sister, cousins or grandmother’s high school sweetheart, and people, women especially, relied heavily on those ties. The poorer the person or the more demanding the job, the more those social and familial networks are relied upon–meals, child care, lodging, employment, entertainment, psychological support, transportation, guidance, tradition, all of it. In New Orleans, you always know that if something goes wrong, divorce, job loss, illness, you can move back in with your mama. And when people were shipped off and scattered across the country, the networks people relied on were gone. Many of the public institutions we relied on, like child care centers and schools, were closed or in flux. You can’t work if there’s no one to watch your kids and few jobs let you leave every day at 3 PM to go get your kids. So I’m trying to look at what happens when those support networks and systems are gone, especially for women with children. I can’t write about it as an intellectual exercise, though, and the challenge has been to develop the necessary characters and get to know who will be my narrator. It’ll fall into place. Just when it looks like I’ll have to toss an idea out, usually some breakthrough in understanding occurs. I may have had one already, can’t tell yet, too early in the game.

The other project is more about family and family conflict, who’s valued or devalued, who’s used and why, who knows what and who will never be told or who can’t even begin to tell the truth. Not as high-falutin’ sounding but a story I’ve wanted to get to for some time. I tend to hold my barely-formed ideas close to the chest. And who knows–my next novel may be neither of these ideas.

(e): Thanks, Dedra! I appreciate you taking the time to talk. Please let us know when your next work is out. Both projects you mention have my attention already, so I look forward to reading whatever you send our way.

Last week I reviewed Joe Borri’s short story collection entitled Eight Dogs Named Jack. Due to the fantastic response in that review and giveaway, I have a special follow-up interview with the author.

(e): I recently reviewed your book, and I loved it. Could you give us your description of Eight Dogs Named Jack?

JB: First of all, thank you so much for giving my work some exposure. I really appreciate that and the great interest shown on your blog. I would describe the book as an attempt to entertain an audience while leaving behind the footprints I’ve walked, from Detroit and the northern part of the state. As an avid lover of movies, stories and jokes, I’ve always been fascinated by the ability to keep an audience engaged while trying to tell a multi-layered story. I try to take what I’ve gleaned from all those stories , combine it with what I’ve dreamt and what I’ve experienced and convey it in a story. Being an artist, I think there’s an inherent want to describe many things and create visuals. I sometimes fear I overwrite or over-describe, but it’s who I am.

(e): There is great variation in the characters, from moral upright people to murderous criminals and everything in between. Where do you get your inspiration for such realistic characters?

JB: I always tell people I’m the Italian son of a Detroit cop who married a Sicilian girl whose father hated Detroit cops. That’s pretty close. I’ve always had a sick memory, remembering things in great detail from when I was 2, 3 years old. It’s kind of scary. So I always wondered why all these “sticky” memories were there. All of it sticks in my head and comes out into these amalgams of character. My father is a tremendous storyteller. Some are based on him, the more heroic, honorable ones (he’s Lou in Honest John). Many are mixtures of my wife’s uncles or cousins, my father-in-law. Some are based on hearsay; a guy knew a guy who knew a guy, that kind of thing. A lot of it is just mashing little things I’ve experienced and having some fun. It’s amazing what you can do by just observing. Part of it’s the fact that I wrote from 10 pm until 2 or 3 am. Your mind wanders pretty freely when you’re that sleep-deprived.

(e): I finished reading your book about a week ago, and many of those characters are still walking around with me, Hopper and Roman in particular. From a writer’s viewpoint, what do you think it takes to make a character memorable?

JB: I try to remember the hero myth. The presence of heroes in stories are necessary in some way or another. I’m a big Joseph Campbell fan, so much so that I quoted him in the epigraphs, which I encourage the readers to pay attention to. For me it’s relying only on their physical attributes. Believe me, I’m a raw writer at best, but I’ve tried not to rely on telling the reader too much, instead trying to show, use inference to flesh out the character, the way a filmmaker might do. I think Hopper for instance, is a good example. You see this young black kid’s almost savant-like ability on a trick bike, so you realize he’s special. There’s a lot of interior thought, and through a couple sparse comments on his physical appearance, an image of who he is sprouts, or at least I hope it does.

Dialogue certainly is huge in my opinion. Inflection, the choice of words. Are they polite or profane. I struggled with how much cursing to use in the dialogue because many of these characters are surface-toughs. That’s the talk I remember, that I experienced. I feel it would be disingenuous to the reader to water it down. Names, too. Sherman Armbrewster, the huge contractor in I’m From Detroit, was meant to evoke a tank-like man (Sherman tank) and an armbuster, hence his surname. The hero in that story, Roman Materra, was a mix of my wife’s uncle and movie heroes. The extra R in Materra to evoke terror. He’s kind of an aging warrior, a real man’s man. He’s in three of the stories and mentioned in a couple others.

(e): Why did you decide to include the illustrations?

JB: As I said, it’s who I am. At one point I thought, “I don’t want it to take away from the writing.” Then I thought, “Maybe drawings would pull it all together.” And for me, it felt like a way to create a pulpy, noir look, a call back to illustrated fiction. Now I’m glad I did it. But I doubt I’d do it again. Maybe the cover of my next book, if I’m fortunate enough to get it sold.

(e): That leads me to my last question; what are you working on next?

JB: I’m in the second draft of The Claw, a novel I started before selling Eight Dogs. It’s a dark humor look at our compulsion to collect things.

Thank you very much for the interview, Joe!  It’s been great having you as a guest here, and I wish you all the best with Eight Dogs Named Jack, as well as your upcoming novel.  Please let us know when the new book hits the shelves.  Personally, I can’t wait.

(I wonder if The Claw will mention anything about people who compulsively collect books?  That would make this girl nervous.  If I did that.  Which I don’t.)