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Tag Archives: Fiction

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A friend recommended this book to me a couple of weeks ago.  She hesitated to do so because the content was … well, a little bit tough.  I immediately went to Amazon and ordered the book.  I crave intense subject matter in my books and movies.  She told me she cried during reading the book.  I told her I needed to feel that emotion reading a book again.  It’s been too long.  I looked forward to reading A Little Life.

From the book cover:

A Little Life follows four college classmates — broke, adrift, and buoyed with their friendship and ambition — as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged by addiction, success, and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma.  A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.

The book came.  I dove in.  It’s a big one at over 800 pages.  This is no small commitment, one made the harder by the fact that the first 120 pages are a complete mess.  At least that’s how I felt.  Absent my friend’s recommendation and the promise of intensity and human horror, I may have given up.  But it was close.  And somewhere between page 120 and page 150, the story started to click.  The narrative got a little cleaner, a little more straight forward, and it pulled me along.  It is one of those books that I needed to finish, that I couldn’t stop thinking about in the moments and hours when I wasn’t reading it.

This is not a story for the faint of heart.  As I wrote that last sentence, I thought of The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  The stories are completely different.  But they also are similar in the unstinting honesty in which they deal with absolutely brutal events.  The Road, with its simple, spare depiction of the fundamental horror of trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic word.  A Little Life, with an epic portrayal, that feels almost never-ending, of the horrors humans can inflict on others and the scars that sear themselves into the souls of the victims.

I cried at one point in the story.  Not when my friend did towards the end.  But early on, in a moment of unbridled happiness for Jude.

If you’re looking for something to read and do not have issues with searing, brutal depictions of what people do in abusive relationships (and I don’t want to share more because, well, you know, you have to discover the details by reading the book), I recommend A Little Life.  It’s a pretty stunning work.  I have this feeling Jude and the story of him and his friends will stay with me a long time and that I’ll come back and read this book every now and then.

Naked Alliances by S.K. Nicholls

First an acknowledgement … I was a beta reader for this book.  At least once, probably twice.  I have been a big behind the scenes supporter of Susan’s efforts.  So, take my review with a grain of salt if you must, but know that I have read the manuscripts for a couple dozen self-published books over the last couple of years and you haven’t seen a review of many of those books here on my blog.

Naked Alliances is the first of what Susan promises to be a series of Florida crime fiction novels.  We’re introduced to private investigator Richard Noggin and Brandi, a particularly unique character you may find only in Florida (okay, maybe in some places in California and New York City, too).  Noggin is asked to solve a cold-case murder.  His investigation and a twist brought into his life by Brandi thrust him into a different side of Orlando — nudist resorts, swingers clubs, sex slave rings, and murder.  It’s a tale with suspense and intrigue and characters you’ll look forward to reading more about in future entries in the series.

Because I’ve helped Susan along the way with Naked Alliances, I know that she is one self-published author who cares about the craft and quality of her published work.  She hasn’t taken this lightly and rushed something out before it was in great shape.  Her dedication shows.  Naked Alliances and the stories that will follow should take their place alongside the rest of Florida’s crime fiction genre.

I recommend Naked Alliances to you.  Give it a try, support an author who cares her readers and the quality of her work.

Buy it here.

Check out S.K. Nicholls’ website here.

A Conversation With Kevin Brennan, Part Three

Part One.

Part Two.

MP. In your last comment, you mention that you like to think of your books as deceptively simple.  You also clearly like “journey” stories.  Somewhere I have read that there are only a handful of story plots that drive just about every story ever written.  One of those story types is “journey.”  It can be a physical journey, a mental journey, a journey to find the truth.  There are all sorts of journeys that can form the structure of a story.

Thinking about Fascination, I realized that all of your novels stem from the journey concept.  And in Fascination, it seems you have doubled down, or tripled down, on the format.  All of the main characters are on journeys of different types, and even many of the minor characters are on journeys of their own.  The question is whether this was intentional or whether it just happened.  The second question is whether you ever found yourself tempted to go away from the “deceptively simple” structure of the story.  There are so many places in Fascination where you could have started to wallow in a scene or a concept.  Do you ever want to stay there for a bit and wallow?

KB. I guess when you think about it, most stories are at least partly built on a journey of one kind or another. Sometimes metaphorical, but often literal. That’s because life is that way. When we meet someone, we’re on our journey and they’re on theirs, and we travel along together for a while until our paths head off in different directions.

There’s also the practical fact that, in fiction, the journey is a terrific plot engine. Things have to happen as a matter of course.

I’m not sure all my books are journey tales. Occasional Soulmates not so much. Town Father only partly. Yesterday Road is for sure, but it’s both a physical journey and one through time. My next book is definitely not a journey, though one of the characters fantasizes about one — to get the hell away from her family. (More on that in the coming months …)

On the question of “staying and wallowing,” I’m usually concerned with keeping up a lively pace, so when I do linger a little bit I want to make sure it serves the story well.

Do you have an example of “staying and wallowing” in other books? I don’t think you just mean a digression from the plot. More like longer internal monologues or poignant flashbacks?

MP. A lot of what you say here makes sense.  Every story is, in the end, a journey.  But what intrigues me about Fascination is just how many journeys there are in this one novel.  One could argue that Mason Speck’s piece in this really isn’t a journey, but to me it is.  It’s a journey to the life he believes he wants for himself.

Fascination is essentially a physical journey that wraps itself around a whole lot of internal journeys.

When I referred to “staying and wallowing,” what I meant was that there are so many places in which you could have stopped and spend so much energy and detail to explore more in depth one of Sally’s stops along the way.  In New Mexico, for instance.  There’s detail there for sure, but so many writers would have, could have written an entire novel based on just one of Sally’s stops along the way.  That’s what I refer to as “staying and wallowing.”  What you seem to have mastered is the ability to bring the reader to a place, raise the questions that place or plot turn brings out, and then moving on to the next, without wasting time or words.  It’s one of the things I really appreciate about Fascination.  You let the reader decide where they want to wallow rather than forcing it on them.

I don’t necessarily have examples of “staying and wallowing” from other published works.  But I will say that it is one of the reasons I’m struggling with my own writing.  As I write more, my stories become more complex and I find myself getting far too much into the details.  I’d like to avoid the wallowing.  😉

Let’s move to guerrilla publishing.  As far as I know, your first novel was published the traditional way.  By William Morrow, which is no small thing.  But then it seems you left the world of traditional publishing behind and have self-published since then.  Is this remotely accurate?  Before I get to your guerrilla publishing stage, is there any story there about why you went from the traditional approach to self-publishing?

KB. I see Fascination that way too — a baker’s dozen journeys. Even Matt Damon is on a journey of sorts.

And you’re right about how any of Sally and Clive’s stops along the way could have become its own novel, but I saw this as kind of like “The Game of Life,” that old board game, where you don’t stay in one place very long. Pretty soon you have to spin again.

As for your question about traditional publishing, I’m the first to admit that any writer — or better yet, every writer — would prefer to land a contract with one of the Big Five. The truth is, I was unable to persuade them to take a chance on a second novel. I think I had three different agents after Parts Unknown, and none of them was able to make the sale. So, because I wanted to get my work out into the world, I decided to go indie, and the rest — say it with me — is history. Or my story, anyway.

Bottom line? Them’s the breaks, I guess. At least I can publish my books on my own terms now, on my schedule. And I’ve enjoyed it too.

MP. Well, if it’s like the game of Life, where are all of the kids?  Oh wait, scratch that.

I wonder if we writers are making a mistake in our belief in the holy grail of a publishing contract.  It’s kind of what motivated me to self-publish initially and why I still aim towards that with my future efforts.  There is something about traditional publishing that seems to be just a one-in-a-zillion crap shoot.  Unfortunately, self-publshing has become the same thing.  There are so many of us writers now publishing their own works, it seems impossible to make the noise that will create the attention to really attract an audience.  It’s particularly difficult when you try to occupy some space on the literary fiction shelf as you and I do.  It seems to be a forgotten genre in the world of indie publishing.

So, you indie published in the traditional way for a few books and now you’ve launched this book via what you have termed guerrilla publishing.  I know you’ve blogged about this on your own site, but for anybody visiting my site who doesn’t know about you, can you explain what guerrilla publishing is and why you decided to try it?

KB. I do think the nature of traditional publishing has changed over the last ten to fifteen years. As a bastion of literary fiction, it was geared toward building writers’ careers, so there was no expectation that a debut novelist had to sell a lot of copies. As my own agent told me, publishers didn’t expect writers to have much of a following till their fourth or fifth novel. It’s different now. If you don’t hit that home run on your first at bat, it’s back to the minors for you.

So that’s why indie was attractive, but you’re totally right on two counts: that the field is unbelievably crowded now and that there’s not very much literary fiction in the indie world. What there is seems really hard to find, except by word of mouth.

And that’s why I landed on #guerrillapublishing (I use the hashtag in case it catches on over at Twitter …) as an alternative. To my mind, #guerrillapublishing is simply a way of getting books out into the world without relying on anyone but ourselves as writers. No corporate platforms, no cover designers (unless you want to use one), no ebook formatters. And, like the old Soviet samizdat, where people passed around typed copies of banned books, this work is completely dependent on the efforts of readers to spread the word. If they like it, they tell someone else about it.

But another interesting slant here is that readers buy the book directly from me, via PayPal. I sign and inscribe each copy to the buyer (electronically, anyway), and deliver the book myself. It’s hands on. Plus, if you have any trouble getting the book onto your e-reader, I’ll walk you through it because I want you to read this book.

Who knows, this might be my only #guerrillapublishing attempt, but Fascination felt like the right kind of project to experiment with.

MP. Your description of the why of #guerrillapublishing is exactly why I came up with the idea for myself a couple of years ago.  After my second indie-published novel, which was much more literary than the first, completely and totally failed to attract any readers beyond people who knew me or followed my blog, I despaired.  And then there is the fact that the reading public basically expects that indie authors will charge a minimal amount for their book — or nothing at all.  And I despaired again.  A potential solution to all of that despair is what you have done with #guerrillapublishing.  Sell directly.  Cut out the middlemen, Amazon, the publishers, the agents.  Charge what you can, or invite the reader to pay what they believe your work is worth, and keep it for yourself, instead of the fraction you get through all of the other avenues.

There has got to be a better way for this to work for both the reader and the writer.  I hope your experiment opens some doors.

So, let me end our conversation here.  Not that the conversation you and I have about writing and publishing will end, but this small chapter of it needs to close.  One final question for you … is there anything else you want readers to know about Fascination and #guerrillapublishing?  Here’s your chance.

KB. I would add to everything we’ve already talked about that I hope readers out there — and maybe writers too — can become more open-minded about what books can be and where they can be found. With all of the tools available to us now, writers don’t have to limit themselves to traditional publishing or to the Amazon model — not if those don’t suit their needs or their material. We can publish on our blogs, via Tweets, on thumb drives — the possibilities are many, and many of them might just be better for the author than the current models.

As I say about Fascination, you don’t know till you try.

 

 

A Conversation With Kevin Brennan, Part Two

Part One is here.

MP. As the author of Fascination, is there something about the story that you particularly like?  Is there a part of the story, or an element of it, that you think you got particularly right?

KB. It’s not always easy to be super-objective about your own work, but in this book I like the overall tone most of all. I set out to write something in the mode of, say, Tom Robbins (without trying to imitate him, of course), but I wasn’t sure I could carry it all the way through a 300-page book. I hope readers think I succeeded!

I think the main thing I got right was telling a sprawling, convoluted, funny story that also gives the reader some interesting things to think about by the end. Ultimately, as the characters come to understand, the journey to heaven is heaven.

MP. It’s interesting that you describe Fascination as a “sprawling, convoluted, funny story that also gives the reader some interesting things to think about by the end.”  I want to use that comment to finally get into what I thought about the story.

When I think about what to write about Fascination, I struggle with how to describe it and why I think it was so good.  What I come up with is that it is an engaging story.  And that’s how I have felt about most of your previously published novels.  It’s engaging and entertaining.  And the other thing is that Fascination is actually a pretty simple story.  I hope you don’t find that offensive, but it’s one of the things that attracts me to your writing.

There are times when I read something that just strikes me at my core.  Stories that speak so incredibly to where I’m at with the issues in my life.  Everything Matters by Ron Currie and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein are two examples of this.  There is this quality to both of those stories that made me want to wallow in them and left me in tears by the end.  And then there are the stories that are just a joy to read.  They are the stories that I think of as “race to the end” stories.  And Fascination, as well as Town Father and Occasional Soulmates fit that description.  There is something in these stories you write that just catches the reader’s imagination and, for me at least, makes me want to soar with the words and the tale that follows and get to the end and see how it all comes out.

Sally Pavlou and Clive Bridle and, yes, even Sally’s not so dead husband and his baby mama are characters that are, on one level somewhat odd and not really relatable to me, but on another level, they are.  They are just people, human beings like the rest of us, on this journey called life.  And each of them was on a different journey, but each of their journeys was related nonetheless to the other.  You drew me into these characters and their journey with lighthearted fun, without going into too much unnecessary depth with each stage of their journey (which would have been yawn-inducing for me at some point).

In some respects, Fascination is a story that a reader who is looking for light entertainment could enjoy at the same time a reader who is looking for something deeper also could enjoy.

I don’t really have a specific question here, other than to ask whether any of that has any meaning to you?!

KB. I’m glad you put Fascination in the category of a “race to the end” story. Thanks. I was trying to pace this book in a way that would make readers wonder what the heck could possibly happen next, and even though there’s kind of an inevitability about the plot, I wanted enough surprises along the way to interest all kinds of readers. And it’s not offensive to call it a “simple story” — not at all. I like to think of most of my books as “deceptively simple,” so that they can be read in a more casual way or with an eye toward themes that aren’t necessarily megaphoned through the books.

In Fascination, buried in a fun tale of “self-realization and vengeance,” are themes about the pursuit of happiness, personal identity, religion, social groups, self-delusion, and family, but readers are free to nod at them as they go through the book or to think about them in detail — and relate to them in their own lives. It’s always, at least casually, a fun road story.

As a writer, do you find that you gravitate to characters who have some kind of relation to your own life and issues? In some ways, writing fiction can become a way of working through things and trying different strategies to see how they might turn out.

MP. When I first started writing, I began with situations or characters that I could put myself into. I thought that would make the writing easier to accomplish since I had no idea if I would be able to write a story.  Once I established I could do that, I wanted to see if I could write characters who weren’t me and the stories that are as far removed from me as possible are the stories I am most proud of .

It’s interesting that you refer to fiction as being “a way of working through things.”  One of the struggles I have had over the last couple of years is that every new idea I have had for a story has quickly become about the same theme.  About characters who yearn for the thing that is missing from their lives.  And that is really about solving my own personal issues and I’m done writing that story.  So I haven’t written much in the last couple of years.  I have some WIPs that are about other themes, but they’re a struggle too, unfortunately.

One final comment before we take a break…  You say there is an inevitability to the plot.  I can’t disagree with that, but one of the story’s strong points is that there is always a surprise around the next corner.  Sally obtaining her vengeance may have been inevitable, but the manner and style with which she did it was a complete surprise.

Next up:  More on Fascination, journeys, and guerrilla publishing.  And if you haven’t already, here where you buy it.

A Conversation with Kevin Brennan

Kevin Brennan has published another delightful story.  Fascination.  Only he’s taking the bull by the horns and is selling directly to his readers.  No publishing contract, no Amazon, nothing more complicated than buying the e-book directly from him.  Here’s how you do it.

Fascination tells the story of Sally Pavlou, Clive Bridle, and Mason Speck.  Three people who are on different journeys that wrap around each other forming the tale of one grand journey.  Mason and Sally have been married for years when suddenly Mason commits suicide.  Only he didn’t.  He faked his suicide and disappeared into a new life.  Once Sally realizes that he isn’t dead, she embarks on a journey of self-realization and vengeance, with Clive as her private investigator and erstwhile friend and companion.

This is the fourth book written by Kevin that I’ve read.  Each one is a lighthearted read that pulls the reader in.  I wanted to post a review of his book but thought there was a better way to draw attention to his work and his publishing direct effort.  Kevin and I have started a discussion about Fascination, writing, and what he refers to as guerrilla publishing.  I’ll be posting the discussion in parts over the next few days and weeks.  I hope you enjoy it.  More importantly, I hope this will prompt my readers who don’t already know about Kevin to hop over to his website and buy Fascination.  His idea is exactly what I have pondered over the last couple of years as I consider my own writing and publishing efforts.  Guerrilla publishing is an idea that needs to catch on but it only will if readers take a chance on writers.  Kevin Brennan is definitely a writer worth the chance.

MP. Is (or was) there an old arcade game like Fascination?

KB. There really is an arcade came called Fascination. I think it originated in the 1920s or ‘30s, and it was the kind of thing you’d find on beach boardwalks and places like that. In fact, I know there are still a few Fascination parlors (as they seem to be called) in operation, so if you’re in the mood for a little retro recreation, you can plan a road trip and try it for yourself.

MP. I may have to find myself a Fascination parlor.  It’s kind of amazing that such things still exist these days.

Whenever I read fiction I find myself wondering how the author came up with the idea for the story.  What was the spark?  Stephen King has always provided a little glimpse into his storytelling.  When I’ve published things, I try to do the same thing.  With Fascination, there are so many ways in which I could see where this story originated.  So, what was it?  What was the spark that started this story for you?

KB. Since this is a book that I started a long time ago, its origins are a little hazy. I went back to my early notes about it and was surprised to learn that I began with Sally’s husband, Mason, and not Sally at all. He was the one left alone after a faked suicide. And he was the one heading out on a journey to find his wife. It wasn’t going to be comic, and I think it was headed in more of a semi-thriller with philosophical overtones. After a couple of stabs at it, I just couldn’t make it work, so I switched characters and everything started falling into place. As for the Fascination part, I happened to see an article in the Chronicle at the time about the old Fascination parlor on Market St. in SF (which is pictured on the cover, by the way), and I thought it would be interesting to make Sally an aficionado. Or aficionada. It also seemed to have odd metaphorical potential — a game that’s almost impossible to win is a lot like life …

I’ll add that this isn’t the only book I’ve ever written that I put away for a long time then came back to with new enthusiasm. A lot of writers find that changing things up after a long hiatus offers a new slant on a project. You might just land on the perfect approach.

MP. If I remember correctly, Occasional Soulmates was told from the perspective of the female character.  In Fascination, you also tell a significant chunk of the story from the perspective of the primary female character.  One of the ways in which I want to challenge myself as a writer is to write from the perspective of narrators that aren’t me.  Old guys (I’m not that old yet), women, members of ethnic groups to which I do not belong, etc.  You clearly want to take that challenge on as well.  Do you ever doubt your ability to do that?  I mean, how can you as a man possibly narrate a female’s tale of self-realization and vengeance?  Or do you just roll with it and see what happens?

KB. One of the benefits of writing fiction is that you get to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you think about it, unless you write nothing but autobiographical fiction, successfully assuming the identity of any character is going to be the challenge because it has to be believable. I think, in a general way, that men and women aren’t that different psychologically. Socially, culturally, sure. But in terms of human instincts and tendencies, male/female isn’t a problem. That said, you can’t phone it in. Female readers are rightfully critical of male writers who don’t try very hard to draw believable women in their fiction.

I do doubt myself sometimes, but not just writing female characters. There are times I’m on shaky ground with, say, a character’s profession I don’t know enough about (like my doctor in Soulmates) or, in historical fiction, getting the period right in a way that doesn’t bother the sticklers out there.

 

I know your WIP has at least one first-person female character. How did you approach writing her, and did you have to go through a lot of drafts to feel comfortable in her head?

MP. I don’t generally go through a lot of “drafts” when I write because I edit a lot as I go along.  I consider my best stories to be the ones where I am able to narrate from the perspective of a character that is as far removed from me or my own experience as possible.  How do I do it?  I don’t really know.  I think it helps that I generally write stories about common life experiences.  As you suggest, there may not be much difference in how different types of characters react to common life experiences.  I also base the character’s actions and words on my own experiences.  For instance, in the second novella for the WIP you refer to, one of the female narrators is going to get pregnant.  How do I write in first person about her experiences with pregnancy and childbirth?  I look to the experiences and words and thoughts my wife shared with me during her pregnancies, to my sister’s when she was pregnant and I was her delivery coach, and to the many other women I have known through the years who went through pregnancy and who shared those experiences with me.

It’s these kinds of characters and efforts that really require writers to be educated and observant and to have good mental filing cabinets.  So, when it comes time to write a character that isn’t you, you’ve got something in there to base it on.

KB. Good point about having at least some awareness or familiarity with a character’s experiences. Talking to people is a great way to get the nitty gritty. Even better when you’re married to them…

Part 2 Coming Soon.  Don’t hesitate to go here and be a part of Guerrilla Publishing and treat yourself to a good read at the same time.

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