When last October I began talking to friends about Ten Thousand Saints, I got in the habit of starting with a question: “Do you know about the straight edge scene?”

The answer, invariably, was No.

Undoubtedly, this lack of awareness can be pinned on my bookish, Portland-centric social circles, at least in part. No matter, eight months later, most conversations about Eleanor Henderson’s debut include a brief tutorial on the boys and bands that spawned a movement three decades ago in response to the drugs and drinking and generally hedonistic tendencies associated with punk music.

Now, as glowing reviews greet the novel’s publication — on the heels of a New York Times Book Review feature, Vogue and Entertainment Weekly have joined the joyous chorus — I’m starting to wonder whether “straight edge” might finally enter the mainstream vernacular.

If you’re curious to learn more, here’s Wikipedia on the subject. Also a straight edge FAQ. [click to comment]

Here’s Stacey D’Erasmo, writing for the front cover feature of this coming Sunday’s New York Times Book Review:

“The ambition of Ten Thousand Saints, Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel about a group of unambitious lost souls, is beautiful. In nearly 400 pages, Henderson does not hold back once: she writes the hell out of every moment, every scene, every perspective, every fleeting impression, every impulse and desire and bit of emotional detritus.”

“What is your novel about?” I’d asked Eleanor, months ago, in her Ithaca home. I’d read an advance copy of the book by then, of course, and brought my own ideas to the interview, but what did she think? After working with her characters for nine years, their story had grown to accommodate any number of interpretations. [click to comment]

What’s the best run of great books you’ve read consecutively? Books that one after another blew you away, back-to-back, so many in a row. What were you reading? Where were you living at the time, and under what circumstances?

Eleanor Henderson talks about one such hot streak, and a novel she read in the midst of it, Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, that wound up having a big impact on her writing. [click to comment]

Rin Tin Tin

May 19, 2011

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is my favorite kind of nonfiction: a colorful, completely engaging narrative that brilliantly pulls back the curtain on people and events I’d either thought I understood or had simply overlooked. Very few authors can be relied upon to perform this trick as consistently as Susan Orlean. (Bill Bryson comes to mind as another.)

For example: Did you know that at the first-ever Academy Awards, Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor? (In response, the Academy re-tallied its results and awarded the most popular human instead.) Or that the name of the first dog in a feature film was “Rover,” which singlehandedly explains why a hundred years later Rover remains the archetypal dog name in America?

A few weeks ago, I visited Susan at her home north of New York City. We shot several hours of footage, much of which will be released in the months leading up to the October publication of Rin Tin Tin. Here, to begin, is an introduction, starring the author and her Welsh springer spaniel, Ivy.

P.S. Booksellers and other publishing folks, note: Susan will be signing advanced copies of Rin Tin Tin in the Simon & Schuster booth at Book Expo America on Wednesday, May 25th from 2-3 p.m. This video will be available there, as well. [click to comment]

When you hear that an author has sold more than seven million books, a number of thoughts come to mind. Ideas about money, fame, perhaps artistic gratification. You probably don’t imagine the author in question turning into a nervous wreck upon meeting her peers. Funny, how easily we forget that most people who are drawn to the writing life started out as passionate fans.

Camilla Läckberg published her first novel, The Ice Princess, in 2003. Since then, in her native Sweden, Läckberg has returned again and again to the bestseller list, penning a shelf of crime novels, a cookbook, and just this month a story for children. Now, finally, eight years after the debut (and thirty-four countries of publication later), her books have come to America, with The Ice Princess leading the way. [click to comment]

What Scares Me

April 15, 2011

Time posted a feature today called What Scares the People Who Scare Us?, gathering responses from Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, and Elvira, among others.

Odd timing. Just last week I’d asked the question of Camilla Läckberg, the Swedish crime writer whose novels are finally being published in the United States after selling a whopping 7.5 million copies in dozens of countries (and languages) around the world.

I wondered if Camilla ever scares herself when she writes. Nope. But wasps—don’t even think about getting her near one. You might expect that a conjurer of bloody murder mysteries would hold her own against snakes and spiders, but you’d be mistaken. Fear knows no logic. [click to comment]

In October 2010, I visited authors Diane Ackerman and Paul West at their upstate New York home, where we spent two days talking about Diane’s forthcoming book. Several early readers had called it her best to date; without question, it’s the most personal, affecting work of her career.

Six years earlier, Ackerman had been on tour, promoting her twentieth book, An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, when her husband suffered a vicious stroke that stole not only his capacity to speak and write but also his ability to decipher language and symbols of all kinds. Global aphasia, the condition is called. Should Diane count it as a blessing or a curse that she’d spent the previous years studying—and celebrating!—the delicate intricacies of the brain?

Before his stroke, Paul had published more than forty books: novels, stories, poems, and a wealth of nonfiction. He’d been a professor of writing and literature at Penn State when Diane enrolled in his Contemporary British Literature course. That was in the early seventies. Their relationship thrived on a shared love for wordplay from the start.

Despite the frightful event that initiates its action, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing is no simple, tragic tale. Paul does recover. Within several years, incredibly, he’s writing books again. As Donna Seaman noted in a starred Booklist review, from these challenging times Ackerman manages to create “a gorgeously engrossing, affecting, sweetly funny, and mind-opening love story of crisis, determination, creativity, and repair.”

On the day of the book’s publication, we’re proud to present two videos, both constructed out of that October visit. First, the official trailer. And next, Diane’s short introduction to the “one hundred names” referenced in the book’s title. [click to comment]

Bringing Adam Home

March 25, 2011

Do you remember the Adam Walsh abduction? Careful, you’re dating yourself.

I turned twelve on the day in 1981 that Ottis Toole stole Adam from a Sears parking lot in Hollywood, Florida, while the boy’s mother shopped for lamps. Little of this registered at the time, just America’s horror during those next few weeks as the abductor—the killer, it was confirmed—eluded police. Who understood then that kids would never be quite so free again?

Once upon a time, before my ninth birthday, I walked nearly three miles with neighborhood friends to a local mall. A grade-schooler’s Odyssey, a summer day nonpareil. No parents, no older siblings; we didn’t get home until close to dinnertime and our parents didn’t worry one bit. But those unleashed days were numbered.

Cutting this video brought back all sorts of memories. I probably knew less about Adam’s father, John Walsh (who would later host America’s Most Wanted), than many of my contemporaries, but none of us knew much. Not until 2008 did Florida formally identify Adam’s killer, and now for the first time the full backstory has been told. Detective Sergeant Joe Matthews worked on the case for twenty-seven years before he closed it.

Thanks to Adam Selzer, Rachel Blumberg, and Cory Gray for crafting a powerful soundtrack, and to Bringing Adam Home’s co-author Les Standiford for the creative input that helped this video find its form. [click to comment]

When I read David Rakoff’s latest book, Half Empty, perhaps no passage stood out quite like the author’s description of a typical day’s writing. Suffice to say, it’s not a vocational endorsement that MFA programs will be tempted to cite in brochures.

A month or so later, during Wordstock, Rakoff sat down to talk. My first question arose naturally enough: Why do you write?

The Terror of Living trailer

February 15, 2011

Shortly after New Year’s, I told my friend Greg about the trailer I’d been putting together for a new thriller that would be published in February. “A hell of a good novel,” Stephen King called it. Already, comparisons to Cormac McCarthy had cropped up in two reviews. “The writer lives in Seattle,” I explained. “It’s his first book. Urban Waite.”

“Is that a pen name?”

“Not that I’ve been told.”

The Terror of Living tells the story of a drug runner near the Canadian border and two men who are desperate to find him after a shipment of heroin goes missing. The book’s epigraphs pull from Richard Ford and Milan Kundera, which should give some indication of its literary pedigree.

“I think I read the first few pages,” Greg remembered. At his office, more books vie for attention than he can possibly read. “It’s about a kid that we meet in a bar, or something like that?”

“That’s the book, but the kid’s dead before you know it. Someone’s hired to kill him. Not the main hired killer in the story, not Grady but another guy.” Greg nodded. Once there’s one hired killer in a book, odds aren’t so bad of finding another.

I said, “The publisher is banking on that audience to generate early word-of-mouth, hired killers who read.”

“What?”

“I made that up.”

Lots of footage for the trailer was captured here in Portland: under the Hawthorne Bridge; on North Interstate Avenue; at Tyron Creek State Park; and at Kelley Point Park, where the Willamette River empties into the Columbia. I shot the State Penitentiary in Salem, on the way home from Silver Falls State Park. Between one approaching plane and the next, outside a chain link fence at Scappoose Industrial Airpark, I played fetch with my dog. The driving scenes show Klickitat, Washington, and Route 503 east of Woodland.

Once a rough edit had been assembled, Adam Selzer and his friends Rachel Blumberg and Cory Gray watched it play on a loop, experimenting with treatments on piano, bass, and drums. Eventually they recorded the soundtrack’s bed. To spook it up, Rachel added vibraphone and Adam two notes of electric guitar.

The four voice-over bits come directly from Urban Waite’s text. Sweaty Sean McGrath did the reading. [click to comment]