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After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people. – Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

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I recently had the pleasure of being introduced to author Paul Elwork whose debut novel The Girl Who Would Speak For the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) was released in March. The title and cover are good and gothic and more than enough to pull you in – but it’s the story that keeps you there. I’ll post a review as soon as I have time to do it justice. In the meanwhile, Paul has very kindly agreed to do a little Q&A for the blog. But first, a little about The Girl Who…

In 1925, at her family’s suburban Philadelphia estate, 13-year-old Emily Stewart tricks her gullible schoolmates into thinking that she can speak to the dead. But her game begins to seem like cruel deceptions when adults who have suffered the loss of loved ones start consulting her as a spirit medium. The Girl Who Would Speak For the Dead interweaves Emily’s experiences with those of several generations of family and friends devastated by tragic loss, and paints an unforgettable portrait of individuals traumatized by death and unhinged by grief.

Q. It seems like the paranormal is the publishing world’s Holy Grail at the moment. Were you at all conscious of this when you first began writing The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead?

When I started the book, years ago, there were certainly successful novels about the paranormal, but they weren’t the publishing rage they are at the moment—so definitely not in that sense. The other thing is that while my novel is built on a paranormal notion—communicating with the dead—nothing supernatural takes place in its pages. The Stewart twins in the book are pretending to contact the dead, as the Fox sisters did in the 19th century. I tried to fill the book with personal and historical ghosts for my characters, but no actual ones are rattling around in there.

Q. One reviewer described The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead as a “compelling tale of people coping with loss, and vulnerable to suggestion.” What are some of the other themes explored by the novel?

I think the novel has as much to do with people’s complicity as believers as it does with vulnerability to suggestion. Every one of us, even flinty skeptics like myself, navigate the world mostly through belief, since we can verify so little for certain. In the same way, I think people often choose what they believe, consciously and subconsciously (midconsciously?). The believers in my novel aren’t simply dupes; they bring complex psychological and emotional histories to their encounter with the twins’ spirit-knocking game.

Q. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Cottingley Fairies, where two young cousins in the North of England perpetrated a hoax that even fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Where did the idea for The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead come from?

I find the Cottingley story fascinating, too. Conan Doyle was also a big believer in Spiritualism, the belief system predicated on communicating with the dead, started by the Fox sisters of upstate New York in 1847. These girls pretended to contact the dead through phantom noises called “spirit rapping”; the sounds were actually made by cracking joints in their toes and ankles. Their performances spread beyond their hometown of Hydesville and ultimately lead them to tour abroad. Years later, one of the sisters—destitute and alcoholic in the decades following the sisters’ international success—got up on a stage in New York and made a confession, complete with a demonstration of how the trick was done. The true believers in the audience rejected the confession—they thought she had been coerced and/or bribed.

I took this basic story arc and premise, recast all of the players, kept things on a smaller, neighborhood stage, placed my story in the 1920s to follow World War I, and fictionalized everything.

Q. The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead was first released as a shorter work under the title The Tea House. How did the current version come about?

I contacted suspense writer M. J. Rose about using her AuthorBuzz service to help promote The Tea House (released by a small press, Casperian Books, in 2007). Much to my shock and delight, M. J. took an interest in my writing—long before I ever made any payment to AuthorBuzz—and she introduced me to my agent, Dan Lazar. Dan sold the novel to Amy Einhorn, who wanted me to flesh out more of the family backstory than I had in the original version, and here we are.

Q. In a starred review, publisher’s weekly said “Elwork’s first novel poignantly depicts the desperate need of people to believe in life after death…” I’m a huge fan of southern gothic literature and I think this “desperate need” is at the heart of that tradition. You also manage to leverage the details of 1920s Philadelphia in much the same way southern gothic writers leverage the details of the south. Are there any other parallels?

I’m also a fan of Southern gothic writers, and that tradition certainly influenced me in writing this novel. Southern gothic tones are actually featured in The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead as part of the family’s history, coming out of antebellum Virginia and shadowed by slavery. Being set on the outskirts of Philadelphia, my novel is actually more closely related to that Southern gothic tradition than to any historical writing in urban places like downtown Philadelphia. My novel’s action takes place in an insular setting—on a lonely, storied estate, along dry roads in the summer, and in the woods at dusk.

Q. What scares Paul Elwork? What inspires him?

I fear for my sons’ emotional and physical safety at times. Sometimes I still give myself the creeps in dark rooms, and have to shake it off and remind myself I’m a grown man. I don’t mind seeming goofy or silly (I’m frequently both), or even a little dumb in an absentminded way (again, guilty), but I’m terrified of appearing downright stupid.
So many things inspire me. Again, my sons. Music is a huge inspiration; I often arrange soundtracks in my head as I listen. I don’t have a deep scholarly knowledge of art history, but I love paintings. And storytelling inspires me, of course. I love the sense of “being brushed by the wing of a great feeling” while reading, as Willa Cather put it.

Q. If The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead had a soundtrack, what would be on it?

Cool—soundtracking. Love it. I guess I can’t find a place in here for Rage Against the Machine, which I’ve found myself listening to a lot just lately. I would want music that suits the period, but not so much Jazz Age/F. Scott Fitzgerald soundtracking—more like a haunting and subtle classical score with some traditional hymns thrown in, like “When They Ring the Golden Bells,” one I quote at the beginning of my novel.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about the making of a fictional Nazi propaganda film in the early 1930s. My idea is that it precedes the historical rise of such films in the mid-thirties. Once again I’m after a tight focus on a relatively few players; a series of events that could have fallen through the cracks of history. Or that could have been buried there.

Q. How would you describe your writing style?

Often sparse, sometimes lush, elegant but not prissy. I try to capture a lot in a few lines.

Q. Can you describe your writing process? What do you enjoy most about it? What do you struggle with the most?

I tend to edit and revise as I write rather than simply write through to the end of a first draft. I both enjoy and struggle with this approach, in that it allows me a deeper perspective on each new scene and slows me down. What I enjoy the most is the exhilaration of getting lost in the writing, of feeling unhooked from time as we usually understand it, and of watching characters do and say things I’d never planned for before I started typing.

Q. Do you have any advice for other writers or debut novelists?

For writers in general: Only things that sound like clichés but are all valid. Be true to yourself. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the work itself is the most important thing. Settle in for the long haul.

For debut novelists: Here’s some advice I’m still accepting myself. Don’t obsess over reviews. Don’t fret over sales. You can’t control either, in the end. You’ve put your work out there—and yes, you need to promote it and make yourself a presence wherever possible—but as far as actual outcomes beyond your control, now is the time to get as Zen as you can in a hurry.

Paul Elwork lives in Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For more information and links to short fiction and other content, please visit www.paulelwork.com or follow Paul on twitter at @paulelwork.

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Jane (Mia Wasikowska) and Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender)

I am, quite frankly, aghast that the movie Jane Eyre is only on limited release – 300 theatres nationwide, or something ridiculous like that. I never was much a fan of Jane Austen. I read her entire library in middle school, because that’s what you do when you’re a teenage girl obsessed with all things British. But I never rated her (Colin Firth notwithstanding). Not the way I did the Bronte girls. I thought Anne a better writer than Emily, even though I had a teenage crush on Wuthering Heights. But it was Jane Eyre that I fell so passionately in love with. Flynn and I saw the film separately over the weekend and we both agree, it’s wondrous. The novel itself is just under 400 pages, so it’s probably no surprise that a moment or two in the film seemed rushed. But these bits were brief because the actors were so compelling and believable in their passion and reserve. Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska are perfect as Rochester and Jane. Throw in Jamie Bell and Dame Judi Dench and …. you get a limited release.

Makes absolutely no sense.

If you can find a cinema showing it, you really need to get out and watch it. If you can’t, then beg for it. In the meantime, some Bronte inspired photos for your viewing pleasure.

West Yorkshire Countryside

West Yorkshire Countryside

Charlotte Bronte’s Manchester lodgings, where she began writing Jane Eyre.

The new 2005 sign reads: In 1846 the Reverend Patrick Bronte came to Manchester for cataract surgery accompanied by his daughter Charlotte. They took lodgings at 59 Boundary Street West (formerly known as 83 Mount Pleasant). It was here that Charlotte began to write her first successful novel, Jane Eyre.

The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire

The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire

The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire

The Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire

Path leading from the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire, to the Church of Saint Michael and All Angels

Clergy Daughter’s School attended by the Bronte sisters.

Clergy Daughter’s School attended by the Bronte sisters.

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Macaroni and Cheese and Richard Ayoade. The only things in the world that consistently help me beat the blues. The Euro’s all very blasé about the former, but the latter he loves – especially since the trailers for Submarine, Ayoade’s directorial feature debut, started surfacing. It’s all very Jean-Luc Godard and, you know, it’s Moss, so it’d be hard not to rock. Even harder still because Joe Dunthorne’s novel, upon which the movie is based, is pretty stellar. It doesn’t hurt that Alex Turner did the soundtrack. Or that it reminds me very much of Flynn.

The Penguin Blog: A Guest Post by Joe Dunthorne

Piledriver Waltz

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.99 each at the Goodwill

After sleeping vertically for most of the week, I managed to get all horizontal last night. And this morning. And this afternoon. I’ve kipped more in the past 24 hours than I have in the past 2 weeks. Now I’m all Greenwich Mean and groggy and trying to finish the books by my bedside. I’ve made it through Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” again and I’ve rediscovered Kurt Vonnegut and am trying to finish “TimeQuake” before I keel over for the night. Tomorrow, I’d like to get into Elmore Leonard’s “Mr. Paradise”. But I probably wont.

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There used to be a massive Borders bookstore just outside of Manchester. The Euro and I would spend rainy Saturdays there drinking coffee and reading American Magazines. It’s sunnier here (72degrees on Friday!) and more difficult to justify a day indoors but we manage to do it now and then. A few weeks ago we went to Barnes & Noble, this time to read British Magazines, lunch on lattes and peruse the cinematography books. I had a 50% discount code so I brought home this little lovely for under a tenner.

The Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classics Collection is gorgeous. They’re not Folio, which I understand hold up much better under thumbing, but they’re a steal for the price. I don’t buy these books to read – I use dog-eared paperbacks for that. I buy them to display. The Arabian Knights isn’t my favorite title in the collection but I think it’s the most beautiful.

The Arabian Knights (translated by Richard F. Burton)
Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classics Collection

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The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is Fear of the Unknown. – H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft was the forefather of modern horror fiction. His guiding literary principle was what he termed “cosmic horror”, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally alien. Lovecraft’s protagonists usually achieve the antithesis of traditional gnosis and mysticism by momentarily glimpsing the horror of ultimate reality and the abyss. Those who genuinely reason, like his protagonists, gamble with sanity.

But what led an Old World, xenophobic gentleman to create one of literature’s most far-reaching mythologies?

LOVECRAFT: FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN is a documentary that chronicles the life, work and mind of the man. I haven’t watched the whole thing yet because, to be honest, it’s been a long day and Lovecraft just doesn’t sit well with long days.

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I love the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Even my mother, not a fan of stoicism, calls him heavy. I own four copies of his meditations and can’t really justify buying another. But I’m tempted because The Puffin is doing beautiful things with paperbacks these days.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations

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Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell.

– William Saroyan, Advice to a Young Writer

On Christmas Eve I received a parcel from California. There was no name on it and I didn’t recognize the address. Inside was “The Whole Voyald and Other Short Stories” by William Saroyan, 1956, First Edition, Little Brown and Co. The sender included no note, just a holiday postcard postmarked December, 1919.

I’m very touched by every bit of it – the book, the mystery, the little card addressed simply to Miss Clara Durham, Whitehall, Mich. She doesn’t own to it, but Saroyan was a contemporary of Fante and speaks to me of Flynn. It’s possible, but it’d be a tremendous coincidence if it were from anyone else.

Saroyan was an Armenian-American dramatist and author from Fresno, California. His stories celebrated optimism in the midst of the trials and tribulations of the Depression, although his approach to autobiographical fact contained a fair bit of poetic license. Saroyan endeavored to create a prose style full of zest for life and seemingly impressionistic, that came to be called “Saroyanesque”.

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The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become. – Mark Twain

There’s a photo of me unwrapping Christmas presents, hands to head, squealing in excitement. I remember being tickled to death at my gifts but if The Euro had not caught it on camera I would have sworn he exaggerated. In addition to a new “Christmas Carol” illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith, there was Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, Roberto Bolano’s “2666” – which I can never manage to check out from the library long enough to finish – and “The Autobiography of Mark Twain” (Volume I).

For the few earthly individuals who don’t already know, when Mark Twain died in 1910 he left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs together with a handwritten note not to publish them for at least a century. The Manuscripts have been held in a vault at the University of California, Berkley, and until now only academics, biographers, and members of the public prepared to travel to the university’s Bancroft research library have been able to read it in full. The first volume was released in November and most bookstores, Amazon included, sold out as soon as.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain (Volume I); Freedom, Jonathan Franzen; 2666, Roberto Bolano

Scholars are divided as to why Twain wanted 100 years between himself and his memoirs. Some believe he wanted to talk freely about his views on politics and religions. Others, that he didn’t want to offend any of his friends. And still others, that he liked the drama of it all and didn’t want us to forget him. “When people ask me,” said Robert Hirst, who is leading the team at Berkeley editing the complete text, “‘did Mark Twain really mean it to take 100 years for this to come out’, I say ‘he was certainly a man who knew how to make people want to buy a book’.”

The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words.