Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Slush Pile Update - Eli Horowitz, McSweeney's

In response to my thoughts on the slush pile in contemporary publishing, McSweeney's Editor Eli Horowitz answers some questions on their slush pile. McSweeney's next book is Millard Kaufman's Bowl of Cherries.

Eli Horowitz: I don’t know if we really have a slush pile here — not because we don’t take unsolicited manuscripts, but because almost everything sits in the same pile. Sometimes we’ve heard of the writer, or someone recommended them, and some others are sent by agents, but still they all mush together. So it’s not like a daring expedition into the darkest swamps — it’s no swampier than our overall book-reading procedure (which is fairly swampy throughout).

Jay Johnson: How deep is your slush pile of novel-length manuscripts?

EH: Only ankle-deep, but several yards wide.

JJ: How many unsolicited manuscripts do you receive monthly?

EH: For books, maybe fifty? (A lot more for stories.)

JJ: How often do you read manuscripts out of the slush?

EH: All the time.

JJ: How many slush authors receive correspondence?

EH: Well, they all receive something, or they all should. But do you mean personal notes? Pretty rarely.

JJ: How many books have you published from slush?

EH: Again, it depends what you call slush, but at least half our novels, I think: Here They Come, Icelander, Bowl of Cherries, etc.

JJ: Do you and your assistant editors eat pizza, salads, or both?

EH: Burritos.

JJ: Would you rather read a slush pile MS or create a marketing sheet?

EH: I don’t even really know what a marketing sheet is.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Modern Life - Matthea Harvey

I've spent a lot of time and a considerable amount of money trying to connect with Matthea Harvey. I don't mean transcontinental jaunts or long-distance telephone calls, I mean diving into Sad Little Breathing Machine, ending my day with Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. Honestly, they've never really done it for me. So, when Modern Life arrived with the mail I decided to give it one last go.

And finally, it happened.

Harvey has developed into a master of prose. Her stories are abstract, surreal and bare-boned. "The Future of Terror" series puts so eloquently and almost slightly encoded, the feelings felt by millions as the politics of the last six years unfurled revealing smoke and mirrors, indescribable feelings of loss as our elected officials' transparencies became real. The setting is a direct route to apocalypse.

from 'The Future of Terror/3'

We wore gasmasks to cross the gap.
Goodnight, said the gravediggers, goodnight.
We looked heavenward but kept our hands
down when they asked for volunteers
so they simply helped themselves.
Our protestations sounded like herons
on the hi fi.

Progressing into a manifesto about the ridiculousness of the popularized/packaged idea of fear which has become the center of a maelstrom no one takes seriously, Harvey also touches on the very sincere inflection one has when all hope is seemingly lost, the unrelenting influence of nature and imagination.

from 'The Future of Terror/11'

Here was my hypothesis: we were inextricably
fucked. We'd killed all the inventors and all
the jesters just when we most needed humor
and invention. The lake breeze was lugubrious
at best, couldn't lift the leaves.

Beyond this series there are great, brief forays into new channels of physical and other observation- felt out by characters and a narrator extremely close to the work of Aimee Bender- which I naturally adore.

Bad Monkeys - Matt Ruff

Confession time; I loathe high-octane action novels following rogue CIA/FBI/NSA agents as they untangle a web of government corruption while saving the president’s daughter. Luckily, Matt Ruff’s Bad Monkeys is nothing like those. Sure, there’s a national conspiracy, shadowy cabals on both sides of the good and bad seesaw, and a rogue agent shooting her way through the danger; but her weapon of choice is an ‘NC Gun’, ‘NC’ of course, standing for Natural Causes.

Ruff has done the action genre a service by weaving some fantastical elements into what would otherwise seem by-the-book spy fare. In fact, with these additions, Bad Monkeys goes from airport read to a mindbender of a good time from the first chapter on.

The enigmatic Jane Charlotte is questioned about a murder she cops to in the name of The Organization. The Organization is an outfit dedicated to improving the world behind the scenes, and her branch takes care of the titular primates. Bad monkeys; too far gone to save, too diabolical to be allowed to go on living. It’s Jane’s job to hunt them down, using a variety of sci-fi tech and weaponry and the Big Brother-style surveillance provided by every eye they could hide a camera in.

Read on an action thriller level, Bad Monkeys would succeed easily. It’s a good thing that Ruff wasn’t satisfied with action thriller status. Jane’s story is picked apart at every turn by a doctor and fed back to her in a more believable and less heroic form. The reader is left to figure out what’s to be believed and who Jane is. The psychological aspect of Bad Monkeys is at least as important as the derring-do, and delivers on the Pynchon-esque promise of the premise.

Bad Monkeys reminds me of another twist-and-turn action story recently out in paperback; The Zero, by Jess Walter. I loved Walter’s book for many of the same reasons I find Ruff’s to be so engaging. It just goes to show; genre need not scare you away if it’s used as a basis for expansion and experimentation. Both action novels succeed brilliantly by melding some sci-fi in with their grit.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dean Young, wine, Bob Dylan, rain

I would like to highlight the importance of a glass of good cheap red wine, The Free Wheelin Bob Dylan on vinyl and Dean Young’s Skid and Elegy on Toy Piano at my side. I would like to describe the rain pouring outside onto the Wisconsin landscape, like sheets drowning my garden vegetables- in the words of Richard Brautigan “programming flowers and keeping snails happy”. These are the framework into which this particular blog entry must be plugged into.

I discovered Dean Young in McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets.

I would have liked to include Brandon Som in this but alas all I could find was what is printed in the McSweeney’s collection. Mr. Young has succeeded in pleasing the poetic palate of me, an obsessed media studies student, a viciously loyal Anne Sexton, Brautigan and Adrienne Rich reader. I have little insight into what someone familiar with these aforementioned works might guess Young’s work is reminiscent of- all I know is that it achieves a perfect balance of popular culture references, sincere emotional observations and scathing well-timed wit. The essence of his work is one that craves a certain level of sentimentality framed by grand inflection on the influences of his insight and abstract natural reflections. I could present Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Craig Finn’s songwriting on The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday as prime musical parallels; and if you haven’t heard The Hold Steady, you must, it is real literary rock’n’roll energy.

from ‘Knuckles’ off The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me:

i've been trying to get people to call me freddy knuckles.
people keep calling me right said fred.
it's hard to keep trying when half your friends are dying.
it's hard to hold steady when half your friends are dead already.
taxmen coming around the back with the kevlar vests.
militia men cooking up a batch of crystal meth.
there's a war going down in the middle west.
there's a war going down in the middle western states.
the kevlar vests against the crystal flakes.

Dean Young, however, achieves a music all his own- not with banjoes or guitar, but with prose, with commas and line breaks. What’s important to me, what really makes me lose my mind is the story-telling. I want stories- need them.

(I can’t listen to ‘Girl From the North Country’ enough)

from the poem Fire is Speaking by Dean Young:

Fire is speaking again,
Everything belongs to me.
A bird flies over- not even a challenge.
A handkerchief, a window, a war.
A little girl helped up the steps into a train.
Two crazy winos arguing about the formation of the universe,
one says, Time folding, the other, You’re not listening.
A valentine out of paper doilies with blunt scissors.
It’s almost eighty years ago,
the tree wants to tell how far it’s come,
the mountain how fast it can run,
the past in the form of a locomotive
knows it must switch from coal to electricity
to ever catch up.

Perhaps I’ve spent too many nights in trainyards smelling aerosol paint or maybe I just really love wine but what’s above is so very handsome.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Immortalize The Classics Personally

So, need more proof that the rest of the world is cooler than us? Check out this idea from Penguin Publishing's UK branch. I'm sure this is a pilot program, and if successful in the UK, Penguin will do something similar here.

Design Your Own Cover

I have to admit; early in my booklife, I had no clue about the impact covers made. It's only been since working in the industry that I've realized their impact, and grown to appreciate the well-crafted ones. There are studies citing the cover as THE most important factor deciding whether a book is picked up by a customer.

With that being the case, Penguin is taking a chance (but not too big of one; the books eligible are all classics, and will likely sell for the rest of time) that the spark of creativity and the chance to express yourself will overcome blank space on THE most important marketing aspect of a book.

Even if this idea tanks, I've got to applaud the effort and ingenuity on display. The book industry needs to be shaken up constantly, or we'll risk truly becoming the dinosaurs of media some already take us for.

* Note: The Dinosaurs of Media would make an excellent rock band name.

The Slush Pile is Dead - Long Live the Slush Pile

On Tuesday, NPR's All Things Considered ran a story about an Gather.com's (an online community referred to as "Facebook for adults") open competition for authors to have a novel published. While this method is nothing new - read any writer's magazine to find contests offering cash plus publication - the comments on the slush were particularly abrasive to my ears.

Before publishing houses were part of huge conglomerates, before Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare made all mail suspect, writers would often send their unsolicited manuscripts off to publishers, hoping against hope that they'd be discovered. Those manuscripts would end up in what the industry called the "slush pile." And every now and then, a group of editorial assistants might assemble in a boardroom, order some pizza and read their way through the pile — on the off chance that greatness lurked within.

But those days are gone.

"They're no longer eating pizza," says Mark Gompertz, vice president and publisher at ouchstone books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. "They're sitting at their desks eating salads. And they're most likely working on a marketing tip sheet for the sales department, to promote books that are coming in in the more traditional ways. So really the slush pile is no longer

Perhaps, as the Editor of the nonprofit literary journal cream city review, my experience is biased. Trent Hergenrader, a local SF writer and friend, recently alerted me to a post by the Slushmaster (Doug Cohen) at Realms of Fantasy, in which one of his short stories is mentioned. The slush is alive and well at lit journals and magazines - which I admit noone is arguing against in the NPR piece.

While pizza and the slush pile my have been replaced by the generalization of marketing materials and salads at Touchstone, I don't think it holds true across the industry, especially at the most vibrant level - the small publisher. Dustin Long's Icelander surfaced from the McSweeney's slush pile. Furthermore, the notion that you need an agent to get a book published isn't a maxim I want to believe, either. Frances Hwang, author of Transparency, recently reported in Poets & Writers that she got a deal with Little, Brown without an agent.

I want to believe that talent and originality will find an arena and supporters, both in the publishing world and from readers. But, I need your help.

Below, I will attempt to compile a brief, incomplete, and anecdotal account of the vivacity of the slush pile. Leave your stories and knowledge in the comments below or send us an email. Check back for updates.


It Came from the Slush...

Icelander by Dustin Long:

"[I] sent it off to McSweeney’s and sent query letters to a few agents. The agents rejected me. Eventually, about six months later, McSweeney’s contacted me to say they were vaguely interested. About seven or eight months after that, they decided they wanted to publish the book..."

(from our own interview)

agent sine agent

Transparency by Frances Hwang

"Michael Mezzo, an editor at Little, Brown at that time, saw my stories in Best New American Voices. He wrote and asked to see more of my work, and I sent him an unfinished manuscript with six stories. About a month later, he offered me a contract. I didn't have an agent, but this seemed like a pleasant dilemma now that I had a publisher."

(from Poets & Writers)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Twenty Grand - Rebecca Curtis

I've been looking for a new female writer to latch onto and tattoo on my body. With Aimee Bender on hiatus, Charlotte Bronte dead and the oppressive heat hindering my efforts in finding one on my own, I put the quest in the hands of the all-knowing Daniel Goldin. Thusly, I have welcomed Rebecca Curtis into my library. The characters are all a fraction away from transformation, mostly all do drugs in basements and seem to attract a myriad of venerable persons. My attraction to them is obvious.

The excitement which follows the discovery of mutual appreciation for a quaint debut paperback is immeasurable. Twenty Grand may be the 'lullabies for little criminals' of 2007.

"...Curtis's command of language, her nuanced and subtle, deceptively offhand gift with the interplay of character and dialogue, give the piece a lush dreaminess wonderfully at odds with its mundane, even dreary setting."
-Elizabeth Hand, Village Voice

"In our culture of self-improvement, we'd like to believe that every problem has a solution, that it's up to the individual to "heal the hungry self." Unfortunately, as this book reveals, for most of us it's not that neat; individualism is the root of unhappiness in Curtis' dystopian America, where everyone puts himself first. Real loneliness can not be relieved by blind dates or self-help books, but a good book -- as that character in "Big Bear, California" knows all too well -- can make a real difference."
-Malena Watrous, San Fransisco Chronicle

"If you're interested in the strangeness and sorrow of life — in the small and large interactions that are sometimes horrifying, sometimes merely cringe-inducing and occasionally lovely — you'll find much to admire in "Twenty Grand."
-Curtis Sittenfeld, The New York Times Book Review

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Smonk - Tom Franklin

If we assembled a list of our booksellers' favorite books of 2006, my guess is that Smonk would receive twice the votes of any other title.

Here's what our booksellers are saying about Smonk:

"In the town of Old Texas, Alabama, a series of horrific events is unleashed by the trial of the gruesome killer E. O. Smonk. If you can imagine the absurd but inspired styling of Cormac McCarthy mixed with Kurt Vonnegut, you are ready for an exhilarating ride that explodes from the first page."

- Dan Roubik, Bay View

"Shockingly bad people roaming Hell on Earth, committing unspeakable acts against each other. It isn't 'feel good,' but it is fantastic. At the risk of understatement, I would call Smonk a sense-shattering, soul-jarring, gut-wrenching work of profane excellence."

- Justin Riley, Downer

"Disgusting and despicable murderers and whores that you find yourself caring about - an unthinkable story that you buy into page after page. Like nothing I've ever read."

- Doug James, Downer

"There was a feverish, outlandish quality to the days I spent lost in the pages of Smonk. It's as if Tom Franklin filmed the most amazing Western imaginable and adjusted all of the settings to 'insane.' Reading Smonk forces us to recalibrate the instruments we rely upon for navigating fiction. Epic, horrific, visceral, violent, and yet somehow still aware of itself, Smonk is well crafted and believable for all its mythic monstrosity."

- Joe Lisberg, Downer

"It's dark, it's dirty, it's gritty, it's insane, it's vulgar... basically, it's fantastic."

- Taylor Rich, Bay View

"A page-turner not for the faint of heart. I read it almost in spite of myself. I lay awake after finishing it, the story's revelations not letting my brain rest."

- Colleen White, Shorewood

"Like a cross between Pulp Fiction and High Plains Drifter on an exponential scale. A bone-shattering, brain-fever trip to Hell and back. Smonk is something else."

- Carl Hoffman, Downer

"Some of the story is so violent that I found myself smiling. It's like Jesse James meets 'Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.' I loved it."

- Jerry Kannel, Brookfield

"Read it. Loved it."

- Conrad Silverberg, Downer

"Sin City in the Old West... or at least West Alabama. Outstanding."

- Eric Gesell, Bay View

"Base, ribald, quixotic. No redeeming value other than a damn fine book!"

- Bishop Hadley, Bargain Book Buyer

Smonk is one of those rare books that gets passed from bookseller to bookseller, ending in a tattered ARC, smudged with the fingerprints and stains of intense and marathon reading sessions. I read it almost a full year ago; it's influence on the subconscious is evidenced by the bizarre dream I had a few weeks ago, in which a squat, knobby man tried to pop my eye into his mouth. Read Smonk - and you'll understand.

Tom Franklin's other works, which are similarly admired, are Hell at the Breech (available for a limited time as a $6.99 Bargain Book) and Poachers.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Harry Gettin' Down at Downer

A happy book story in stills...

Potter Party Mequon

Thanks to Anne for passing these on to the Inside Flap.