21 October 2011

I am obviously late with this, given that the winner of the Man Booker Prize has already been announced (congratulations to the eminent Julian Barnes).  But this is fun Friday viewing I couldn’t resist:

This video makes me feel happy, old, and desperate to move to Cambridge, MA so the Harvard Bookstore can be my local bookstore.  Thanks, Lisa Peet at Like Fire, for posting!

4 April 2011

You’ve seen them in your favorite bookstores; usually there’s a special section for them, something like a shrine.  They have beautiful covers and the paper stock is somehow more substantial, more serious, than other paperbacks.  They are paperbacks that feel like hardcovers, whatever that “means.”

Random House describes the NY Review of Books Classics series thus:

The NYRB Classics series is designedly and determinedly exploratory and eclectic, a mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

Inevitably literature in translation constitutes a major part of the NYRB Classics series, simply because so much great literature has been left untranslated into English, or translated poorly, or deserves to be translated again, much as any outstanding book asks to be read again.

The series started in 1999 with the publication of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica [...] Published in handsome uniform trade paperback editions, almost all the 250 NYRB Classics included in this collection feature an introduction by an outstanding writer, scholar, or critic of our day. Taken as a whole, NYRB Classics may be considered a series of books of unrivaled variety and quality for discerning and adventurous readers.

I discovered the series at The Corner Bookstore in Manhattan, one of the most blessed book places on earth.  I have it in my mind to work my way through the entire series someday; but thankfully, I also came across this – a Top 10 NYRB Classics list – over at Conversational Reading.

There’s a subscription club that is looking very irresistible right now… this is one Book Club I can imagine joining.

8 March 2011

I know the title of this post sounds like something from a trade magazine.  I actually am a self-proclaimed un-expert on this issue, but I’m trying to get up to speed. According to Publisher’s Weekly (a week or so ago – see, I know, I’m behind), Random House was the last of the big publishing houses to switch to the agency model of e-book pricing:

In the agency model, publishers set the price and designate an agent—in this case the bookseller—who will sell the book and receive the 30% commission. Adopting the model for e-books tends to mean e-book prices will rise, something both publishers and independent retailers applaud. Publishers believe low e-book prices devalue their books and cannibalize hardcover sales. Under the agency model once a price has been set it cannot be changed or discounted by the retailer and independent e-book retailers believe the higher prices of the agency model allow them to compete with big e-book vendors.

What I’m not clear on is why Random House took so long, what were they weighing in terms of the downside of the agency model.  I know it’s great for consumers if e-books cost $1.99; but it’s not good for book sales, and thus not good for authors.  Some things (this author believes) are worth paying for, and if we value them, we’ll hopefully be willing to do so.

18 January 2010

I thought this Q&A was rather funny, and unexpected, from Jane Smiley (via Gotham Writers’ Workshop):

Q. What is your best method for overcoming writers block?
A. Learning something–either by reading a book or going somewhere or talking or gossiping.

I love the gossipping part! If gossipping can be creatively productive, there’s hope for us all.

Q. What is your favorite or most helpful writing prompt?
A: I always get into the hot tub and read a bit of a novel before I start the day’s work. If I feel reluctant, I reflect on the bills I have to pay. If I feel really reluctant, I time myself and say that I only have to work for an hour.

Lying in the tub and thinking about financial obligations. I love the ironic contradiction of that.

Q. What is the most valuable advice you received as a young writer?
A: Leonard Michaels told me that I had to change my name from my married name (Jane Whiston) to my maiden name (Jane Smiley) because JS was easier to remember and had more personality. I think he was right. My piece of naming advice would be that if your name is Kevin, you need to use another pen name, because the first name Kevin always seems to overwhelm its last name, and so no one can remember which Kevin you are, and therefore cannot find your books on Amazon.

I am only half joking.

This makes me laugh out loud, and then cry a little.

12 December 2010

Here is a book you should know about, if you don’t already:  The Literary Life, by Robert Phelps and Peter Deane.  The book’s subtitle is, “A Scrapbook Almanac of the Anglo-American Literary Scene from 1900 to 1950,” which rather says it all.  It has the physical feel of a high school yearbook, and some of the gossipy excitement of Facebook.

Year by year we learn of seminal books published in the US and around the world, awards granted, important works in other artistic disciplines, deaths (of literary personages), and a particularly fun section called “In the Margin,” made up of tidbits like

DH Lawrence, 27, elopes with Mrs. Frieda von Richthofen Weekley, staying at Metz, Germany, where local authorities arrest Lawrence as a spy (1912), and

Employed as an assistant night manager in a New York hotel, Nathanael West, 25, works on his first novel, and “arranges” special rates and free rooms for various friends, among them Dashiell Hammett, who finishes The Maltese Falcon (1927)

The book is also filled with notable (and little-known) author quotes and photos (just like a yearbook).   The Literary Life is out of print, but ABE Books can point you to some copies.

1 September 2010

An interesting piece at Publishers Weekly about fall indie picks (list of 40) and the crucial role that independent booksellers play in helping titles from indie presses break out.  One sales rep (whose enthusiasm is identified as having contributed to the success of Paul Harding’s Tinkers),  says that the book buyers at Book Passage and City Lights serve as her litmus test for whether an indie can make it.

Read more here.

Long for This World at City Lights this past spring.

6 August 2010

Some months ago, I wrote a piece at The Millions about Sergei Dovlatov’s Ours: A Russian Family Album, after having listened to a story (“The Colonel Says I Love You”) from the collection read by David Bezmogis on the New Yorker podcast.  Recently, David Haglund at PEN America blogged about having also listened to Bezmogis and subsequently having read my piece; and then deciding to include a story of Dovlatov’s in the most recent issue of PEN America.   Read about it here.

I’m so happy to play a small part in reviving interest in Dovlatov’s work.  Sharing our passions, spreading the word, das what it’s all about

22 May 2010

… for shelving Long for This World face-out in Syosset, and at the Madison Square Garden store.

(Thanks to Sarah and Sophie for this pic)


(These copies at Mad Square are now signed)


As I’ve been saying (probably too often), it’s a jungle out there for debut novelists; so every bit of support means a lot!

13 May 2010

Today, I step up onto the soap box for a moment — hopefully we can all bear it and emerge the better for it.

The thing about “waiting for the paperback” is that, if you knew what I know about the state of literary fiction in the marketplace right now — “It’s a damn shitty time for literary fiction,” an agent said to me recently — you’d recognize the folly of that position.  (A “hot” writer’s novel — someone who’s everywhere in the press the last few months, who’s work has been critically lauded everywhere you turn — has sold somewhere around 7,000 copies.  That’s not a big number, commercially speaking, in case you were wondering.)

Here’s the zinger, folks: if you “wait for the paperback,” there is a pretty good chance there won’t be one.  And if a publisher decides not to issue a paperback, this becomes an X-mark in the “no publish next novel” column for that writer.

“It’s too expensive” is something that’s begun to grate on my ears as of late.  I hear this most often, about hard covers, from middle class people.  I think to myself, “Seriously?  It’s too expensive?”  I follow the e-book pricing wars — $12.99 vs $9.99 — and I hear readers weigh in on it — educated, middle-class people — and I think, “Seriously?  The three bucks is a deal breaker?”

Let’s talk about what healthy, middle-class people spend three bucks on, without even thinking about it:

a cup of coffee
a protein bar
a transit ticket (instead of, say, walking)
a $10 bottle of wine instead of a $7 bottle of wine
anything at Bed Bath & Beyond (which is overpriced)
one day of heating your house at 71 degrees instead of 69 degrees

Ok — now I’m getting too personal and mean. But let’s move on to what you might spend the 6 bucks you’ll save by “waiting for the paperback” on (I’m not here even going into the support-your-indie-bookstore argument; most hard covers can be purchased at Amazon for $16.50):

two ice cream cones
three Vitamin Waters or bottled waters
a matinee movie
an $11 bottle of wine instead of a $5 bottle of wine
a fruit smoothie
a full tank of the middle-grade gasoline instead of regular
a fast-food meal
pretty much name-brand anything over the generic

We spend money in this way, regularly, without a second thought. But a hard cover is “too expensive”?

At a high-ranking major state university in California, a new policy has been instated, whereby instructors are forbidden from requiring students to purchase hard covers.  Many students are funding their own educations, acquiring debt that will follow them for years into adulthood; I get this.  Still, I question this institutional message about priorities.  Food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care.  No arguments here.  But what comes next?  And doesn’t it matter?

I am a middle-class person who has, at times, made a decent living and at other times made almost no living at all.  I’ve done this with a partner and alone.  I’m not someone who doesn’t understand that every dollar counts.

And I’m not — let me be clear, since I’m someone who’s just published a novel — arguing for the pity purchase. I’m not saying buy the hard cover of a book you don’t really care about because the writer needs you to. I’m also not trying to convince anyone of the value of literature; I’m addressing this to the people who already claim to value literature. I’m saying, if you know this is a book you want to own, and that this is a writer whose long-term career you want to support, because you believe in the beauty and/or importance of this writer’s work and care about his ability to continue producing it; then buy the hard cover. For God’s sake. “Every vote counts,” I swear it does.

5 May 2010

So I’d set up this reading at a Border’s in northern VA a few months ago, thinking that it would be nice to do a bookstore reading while in the DC area (for the Asian American Literature Symposium). I grew up in Maryland, so I thought of it as a sort of “hometown event.”  As the date (4/26) grew near, though, I started to worry a little.  I haven’t actually lived in the DC area since 1986; many of my friends have left the area, and many others I’d lost track of (and vice versa).

Every book event is a little fraught, I’ve learned.  Will anyone come?  Often, the folks you were sure would come out don’t; and then people you’d never imagined would come show up.  It’s pretty unnerving, and yet at the same time really fun; surprises are always like that, I guess.

The Border’s reading was no exception.  When Long for This World first hit the stores, the question arose:  who will be the readership?  I had no idea.  I especially wondered if there would much of either a Korean or Korean-American audience.  I did not at all take that for granted; it’s much more unpredictable, and complex, than that.  Friends who knew the Korean publishing world, for instance, intimated that Koreans only read “famous” writers, i.e. reading is more about celebrity than literary engagement in contemporary Korean culture.  I don’t know how true that is, but more on that in a moment…

The Border’s reading turned out a mostly-Korean audience (but let me not forget to thank to Devra and Pete, our intrepid non-Koreans!), the first in my experience thus far.  (Even my reading with Nami Mun, also Korean American, at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, did not seem particularly populated by Korean Americans.)  And, interestingly, the audience was almost split down the middle, between first-generation Koreans and second-generation Korean Americans.  Thanks to a friend from the Korean church I attended as a child/youth, who brought out a handful of her friends, and to my “little” (now married) cousin Susan; along with an old family friend of my parents, who spread the word with a local first-generation writers’ group; it turned out to be a really interesting event and Q&A.

It was such a treat, and humbling, to have an attentive and interested audience among the older generation, who asked a slew of good questions (in English, thankfully!). The younger folks, too, engaged in the Q&A, and bought books for me to sign. A number of the older attendees bought books for their children and grandchildren.

Finally, friends Val and Pete came with daughter Claire (9).  It was Claire’s birthday, and I was especially honored by her offer to be my “assistant” as I signed books.  Claire is apparently now working on her own book, publication date TBD.

In a million years I would never consider myself a “representative” of my race or ethnicity. But that night, at Border’s, it was as if I was making a lot of people proud, more than just the people in the room; it was a great privilege.

Will a Korean publisher decide to translate Long for This World for Korean readers?  We sincerely hope so.  Stealing from my friend Ed Lin, whose Facebook-status-series, “C’mon, Chinese People!” cracks me up:  “C’mon, Korean people!”

29 April 2010

The generous and talented Edan Lepucki, fellow novelist and Millions contributor, has interviewed me at The Millions.  Read the interview here.

9 April 2010

Back from a packed, whirlwind Seattle-Portland tour.  I could write pages and pages about it — the events, the new people I met, the old friends I reconnected with.  Think about all that happens in a life over 14 years — I lived 7 years in Seattle, and it’s been 7 years since I left — and all that catching up to do (there were even a few people I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years).

My friend Elisabeth summed it up, at the last reading event of my trip (an Elliott Bay Book Co. reading at Hugo House on Wednesday night): she looked at me and smiled and said, “So… how’s it been.. doing all this… as an introvert?”  My eyes grew wide, I nodded my head, and nothing else needed to be said.  Except that we agreed we would catch up properly another time.

It was a great 7 days, though (boy, what’s with the magic number 7?  Didn’t even register until just now).  Readings, talks, friends, food, coffee coffee and more coffee.  A little fish ‘n’ chips, too, of course.  I read 4 times in total, and in honor of Lisa, who lovingly accompanied me to each reading, I read a different passage each time.  By that final reading, I felt emboldened to try a section I’d never read before, one that included a scene that takes place in Korea.  It went well, and now I’m having a brainstorm — to record an audio pronunciation guide, a companion to the “List of Main Characters” in the front of the book.  It would seem that hearing the characters’ names spoken is very helpful to readers for whom the Korean names are challenging.

Now, I just have to figure out the tech side of DIY audio recording.  Suggestions welcome.

Scatterbrained for most of the time, I failed to arrange for consistent photography on this trip.  I have these two pics, provided by new friends Ben Wirth (one of the UW grad program readers at Castalia, where I read on Tuesday eve ) and Karen Maeda Allman (of Elliott Bay Books).

Castalia Reading Series (UW graduate writing program)


Book signing following the Elliott Bay Book Co. reading at Hugo House


And here are a few lousy ones I took with my Blackberry.

Hugo House exterior, Capital Hill neighborhood


At Evergreen Radio Services, my first radio interview – with the lovely Rachel Glass (whose 8 year-old daughter has written 120 single-spaced pages of a fiction adventure).


Shawn Wong, reading from  a new novel he is working on, entitled The Ancient and Occupied Life of Greg Li


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