I wrote a book called The Forest for the Trees and it’s an advice book for writers. For four years, I blogged every day about the agony of writing and publishing, and the self loathing that afflicts most writers. A community of like-minded malcontents gathered and thus ensued a grand conversation. Now, the most popular posts are gathered in Greatest Hits ( a work in progress) Gluttons for punishment can scroll through the archives. If I've learned one thing about writers, it's this: we really are all alone. Love, Betsy
GUYS: Give it up for KYLER JAMES, one for the first and kindest commenters here at The Lerner Home for Wayward Children. THE SECRET OF THE RED TRUCK, published by Rebel Satori Press, July 8
In a nameless town and a nameless country, THE SECRET OF THE RED TRUCK tells the story of Micky, a possible schizophrenic who finds God, his sister Viagra, a sensitive beauty who finds art, and a hot truck driver, Dave, who finds himself in a dangerous predicament. Through their misadventures and ensuing love triangle, our anti-heroes search for the answers, all hidden in the back of the Big Red Truck. If you think you know your mind, think again—but don’t think too hard. You might lose it after finally discovering…THE SECRET OF THE RED TRUCK.
“Writer extraordinaire Kyler James”
— Dennis Cooper, author of THE MARBLED SWARM
“Kyler James takes on time, madness, religion, incest, art and Freud in this allegorical novel with a mystery at its center so compelling, you’ll read it straight through. Nothing is what it seems and only the Red Truck has the secret! This is not like any book you’ve ever read or will ever likely read.”
— Trebor Healey, author of A HORSE NAMED
“THE SECRET OF THE RED TRUCK is a one-way trip beyond the limits of reality. In this really great novel, where everything is alive, Kyler James weaves a unique grasp of love and trauma through crystal-sharp prose, to shatter everyday illusions and caress the damage into a new way of experiencing the world.”
— Paul Curran, author of LEFT HAND
“THE SECRET OF THE RED TRUCK is built like a hall of mirrors, filled with constantly shifting identities, tales that change in the telling, and dreams that seem to be dreaming themselves. The novel is stripped of distractions and narrative niceties so that readers will be helpless to do anything but plunge headlong into its intoxicating mysteries.”
— Jeff Jackson, author of MIRA CORPORA
“Sanity and truth are relative terms, and in this compellingly bizarre debut novel, Kyler James lures us inside the dark caverns of one man’s twisted mind—and makes it all seem real.”
— James Gavin, author of IS THAT ALL THERE IS?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee
How many episodes of Law & Order can you watch in a row. I know. It’s a number so astronomical that it’s almost impossible to calculate. How many orange sodas? How many mechanical pencils? Advil PM caplets? Extra large. Impossibly small. In the end I don’t care for feta cheese. Have you ever watched a detective? I have thirteen blackbirds sketched out like chapters that don’t fit. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Everything you say is a small bubble. Every night as I pass the yellow house on our street I salute a small horse made of iron on the front step. Can I make him drink?
LOS ANGELES — Nobody expected much from Edan Lepucki’s debut novel. Her publisher planned a tiny first printing of 12,000 copies. She was assigned to an editor with almost no experience. Was there a marketing budget? How cute of her to ask.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Ms. Lepucki,33, won the literary Lotto.
A few weeks ago, the late-night television hostStephen Colbert began attacking Amazon for discouraging customers from buying titles from his publisher, Hachette Book Group. But Mr. Colbert picked another Hachette author — a startled Ms. Lepucki — as the focal point of his campaign against Amazon.
“We will not lick their monopoly boot,” he said of Amazon on “The Colbert Report” beforeexhorting viewers to preorder Ms. Lepucki’s post-apocalyptic “California” from independent bookstores. The Amazon-Hachette brawl, Mr. Colbert explained, “is toughest on young authors who are being published for the first time.”
Ms. Lepucki, watching TV at home in suburban San Francisco, watched Mr. Colbert hold up “California” with a mixture of elation and nausea. (She had been alerted a few hours in advance to watch.) And then he did it again a few nights later, this time challenging viewers to buy enough copies to get the novel on the New York Times best-seller list. He also recommended “California” to his 6.6 million Twitter followers.
“I felt kind of icky to be benefiting from this fight,” Ms. Lepucki said. “At the same time, the opportunity to reach readers is a fantasy.”
“I did still wonder whether anyone would care,” she added.
Oh, they care. “California,” which arrives on Tuesday, is now one of the most preordered debut titles in Hachette history, according to a company spokeswoman. Ms. Lepucki’s agent is negotiating rights with the producer Gregg Fienberg and Killer Films. Little, Brown and Company, the Hachette division behind “California,” has increased the initial print order and doubled the length of her author tour.
Ms. Lepucki found herself in Portland, Ore., this week to sign 10,000 copies of her novel for the independent superstore Powell’s Books, where “California” hit No. 1 on the best-seller list after Mr. Colbert directed viewers there.
“Occasionally, my brain would overheat, and I’d forget how to write,” she said of her signing session. “My signature is like a squished spider.”
How Ms. Lepucki ended up as perhaps the only author to benefit from the Amazon-Hachette spat over pricing is a tale of almost unbelievable luck. And it has a twist: Her husband, Patrick Brown, is employed, in a sense, by Amazon. He works for Goodreads, a social network and peer recommendation engine for books; Amazon acquired it last year.
“Amazon has historically been a bully, and I don’t shop there,” Ms. Lepucki said. “But I love Goodreads. For the record. And my marriage.”
Mr. Colbert’s promotion of “California” started with Sherman Alexie, an anti-Amazonian and National Book Award winner for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” Mr. Colbert invited Mr. Alexie on his show and asked him to bring a book by an author penalized by Amazon’s refusal to take Hachette preorders. Mr. Alexie said that he asked Hachette for a few advance copies of books by debut authors to peruse.“California” was on the top of the stack. “I honestly suspected it wasn’t going to be my kind of book — too earnest,” Mr. Alexie said in a telephone interview. “But I started reading it, and it turned out to be an earnest page turner.”
With its post-apocalyptic setting, “California” mines a very busy vein in contemporary fiction. But Ms. Lepucki sees it as a love story. A young couple, Frida and Cal, have fled the ruins of Los Angeles to make a home in the wilderness. Everything changes when Frida becomes pregnant, and they leave isolation for a strange settlement filled with threats.
It seems impossible that a story with such dark undercurrents could spring from someone so laid-back and gregarious. Over breakfast in Los Angeles, where she grew up, the freckled Ms. Lepucki displayed a surferish vibe, right down to the wet blond hair that she twisted to the side as she spoke. Still, her eyes, which are a striking shade of blue, had a tendency to flash mischievously.
“I have a darker imagination than most people,” she said. “If you don’t ponder the end of the world on a regular basis, I don’t think you’re really human.”
Ms. Lepucki winced when asked if the couple in “California” is modeled on her and her husband. It’s an easy guess to make, especially since she became pregnant with their 3-year-old son, Dixon Bean, while writing.
But no. “I’m madly in love with my husband, but it’s not us,” she said. “People seem to hate Frida, so I hope I’m not her.” (Her mother-in-law’s response to the book: “I’m sad she killed me in a blizzard.”)
Ms. Lepucki is a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is the founder and director of Writing Workshops Los Angeles, which has drawn 1,300 participants since it began in 2008. She is also known in book circles as a writer for The Millions, a highbrow literary website.
“California” is actually her second novel. But the first, a disturbing story about teenage girls that her agent, Erin Hosier, called “the novel equivalent of a Harmony Korine movie,” failed to sell to a publisher. “It was overly ambitious,” Ms. Hosier said. “We finally stopped trying to sell it, because the rejection became too embarrassing and painful.”
That put more pressure on “California.” “You really can’t fail twice in a row if you have her credentials,” Ms. Hosier said.
Even before the boost from Mr. Colbert, “California” was receiving praise from respected novelists like Jennifer Egan and Ben Fountain and popping up on summer reading lists. Little, Brown ultimately printed 60,000 hardcovers.
But insta-fame feels more than a little weird, and she confessed to feeling awkward about the experience of being interviewed. She had another confession to make, too: Yes, she shuns Amazon, but just to be honest she did once buy a tin of Bag Balm, a salve first developed to soothe cow udders. “I had a chapped elbow,” she explained.
Is writing genetic? There are certainly writing dynasties and by that I mean Kingsley and Martin Amis, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, The Brontes, the Cheevers, Cheech and Chong. My mother wanted to write. Does that count? My sister is a writer. I think the Safran Foers have seven or eight writers in their family. On the nature/nurture spectrum I gotta say these thighs are from my dad.
My insomnia continues. And my anxiety about home invasion is at an all time high. Other than that, I feel great. Look, I know that statistics are in favor of never having anyone enter your home more dangerous than a girl scout, but that doesn’t stop the panic attacks, and by that I mean a powerful desire for a cheese sandwich right around now. Only I’m too afraid to go downstairs in THE DARK. Maybe this home invasion thing is a METAPHOR for something. Fear of clients? Fear of a 1,000 page manuscript about Nova Scotia. Fear of Nova Scotia. Fear of marketing meetings. Fear of Alberto Vitale. Fear of calendars, magazines, and the environment. Fear of light bulbs, petitions and Thin Mints.
I swore I would never do it and last night in a bout of horrible insomnia I did it: I wrapped my arms around Mark Zuckerberg and smoked a cigarette with Sheryl Sandberg or Andy Samburg or James Franco between selfies and here I am the four billionth person to sign up for Facebook. The four billionth hamburger. The other day I compared an elderly woman’s eyebrows to the golden arches and really patted myself on the back for that one. Do you still write poetry? NO. Are you on Twitter? YES. Instagram? YES. Do you have a blog? You’re reading it. Where did you go to high school? Technically? Where did you go to college? What stairwell in which dorm did you write a poem about death? Can I friend my puppy? Can I friend all the men who failed to worship me? Can you love others before you love yourself? Easily. Can you friend the dead?
How much time do you waste on FB instead of writing?
Took this off the web, not entirely sure it’s SHana.
PEN Emerging Voices Fellow Shanna Mahin’s OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS, a roman a clef about a young woman in L.A. whose efforts to escape the manic orbit of her former child-star mother land her in the employ of one of the hottest starlets in Hollywood, to Dutton, in a significant deal.
You know, every once in a great while I actually feel completely happy for someone else. When I read in Publisher’s Marketplace that Shanna sold her novel I felt like this was the best motherfucking news I had heard in a long time. How many drafts, revisions, xanax? How many therapy sessions, break ups, tantrums, reams of paper, forests felled? How much blood? How many tears? And what about lift off? Days when you get out of your way, where there is a direct line from your brain to the words. When it all finally starts to happen on the page. ANd someone says, yes, we would like to publish your book. Our little girls is growing up. ! Give it up for Shana! Congrats girl! Don’t forget the little people!
Results are in. Winners of the “My Favorite Monster” contest have been selected by Jean Zimmerman. Please send me your snail mail address to firstname.lastname@example.org for your copy of Savage Girl. Thanks to everyone who participated.
There were a lot of freaky characters suggested. I have to go with the ones that scared me, personally, the most. (Dylan, in the liner notes of Bringing It All Back Home: “i know there’re some people terrified of the bomb. but there are other people terrified t be seen carrying a modern screen magazine. experience teaches that silence terrifies people the most”) And fear is always personal in fiction – I first read Lord of the Flies when I was in middle school, it made me quake when I read it in bed, and I still cannot pick the book up.
-Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s MISERY. Fandom turned on its perverted ear. You want it, you pathetic fame-grubbing scribbler? You got it.
-Chigurgh in Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Pure stochastic soul-sucking nihilism.
-Hannibal Lecter from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Not only amorality but his sadistic treatment of Clarice. By the way, how often to great books translate into superb movies?
Of the three, I’d pick Chigurgh as the one I’d like least to spend any time at all, even in shackles and wearing a face restraint. He breathes poison.
You’ve heard the expression, “no tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.” What do you make of it? I kind of hate it. But you know I’m a feelings fascist. On the other hand I know it to be true. I have cried while writing shit down. I guess the question is: does that make it good. Just because you can stir yourself, will the reader be stirred. Does “authentic emotion” produce great writing. Or “true” writing. All of these quotation marks are a little sickening. What am I trying to say? If I make myself laugh, will I make the reader laugh? If I fall asleep at my computer? If I eat green eggs and ham? How do you really create feeling in the reader, by having the feelings yourself or manipulating language to be evocative?
LAST CALL to WIN a FREE copy of SAVAGE GIRL. Who is your favorite monster in literature. Author Jean Zimmerman will select her top three picks at the end of the week.
Back when I was a mushroom getting my MFA, there was a woman in my workshop who dazzled. She wasn’t taller than everyone, she only seemed that way. I have had the great privilege of working with Jean Zimmerman as her editor first, now as her agent, and always her friend. Her dazzling historical novel, SAVAGE GIRL, has just been published by Viking to great early acclaim.
CONTEST: Who is your favorite bad guy (in literature) and why? I’ll ask Jean to judge the answers and top three answers will win a copy of Savage Girl.
Sooner or later, a historical crime novel is bound to drag you down some dark alley and into the nastiest, most lawless precincts of the period. Jean Zimmerman followed this tradition in her first novel, “The Orphanmaster,” a descent into the hellish criminal haunts of 17th-century New Amsterdam. In SAVAGE GIRL (Viking, $27.95), this canny author puts all that aside and turns to the Gilded Age for a sweeping narrative, set within the cloistered ranks of high society in 19th-century Manhattan, that raises touchy questions about what it means to be civilized.
Even in this exclusive world, the Delegate family is more privileged than most. The paterfamilias, Friedrich-August-Heinrich (also known as Freddy), has taken his family and a retinue of servants on his private, sumptuously appointed 12-car railroad train to Virginia City, Nev., to visit the silver mine that’s boosting his already considerable fortune. But when the Delegates depart from this brawling Wild West boom town, they have an additional passenger, a beautiful, feral young woman from a land that’s “savage, wild, forsaken by God and man” — who’s said to have been raised by wolves. Found at a sideshow, she’ll be the ideal experimental subject, Freddy thinks, for the nature-or-nurture debate roiling his intellectual set.
Using Freddy’s intelligent but decidedly peculiar son Hugo as narrator adds another layer of suspense to the story. A student of anatomy at Harvard, this young man has an unhealthy fondness for knives and a vivid imagination when it comes to Bronwyn, as the “Savij Girl” comes to be known. But who’s to say where imagination leaves off and obsession takes over, once the family is back in its Fifth Avenue mansion and the “Pygmalion”-like process of civilizing Bronwyn (who keeps her own set of razor-like steel claws and creeps out of the house to visit the wild animals at the zoo) begins in earnest.
The wondrous sights Zimmerman rolls out for us — a picnic on the banks of the Great Salt Lake, a stopover at the “fabulous, glorious” Palmer House hotel in Chicago and visits to mansions up and down the East Coast — are all the more piquant when Bronwyn’s admirers begin turning up, cut to ribbons, at almost every whistle stop. If this is civilization, bring on the wolves.
‘My Fair Lady’ Meets ‘Psycho’: PW Talks with Jean Zimmerman
A feral child unsettles Gilded Age New York City in Jean Zimmerman’s Savage Girl.
How did the book come to be?
I’d always wanted to write about a wolf girl—that is, one afflicted with the genetic condition known as hypertrichosis, which causes a person to resemble an animal, with fur growing all over his or her body. Many children with the condition were exhibited in American sideshows in an earlier period. Related in my mind was the phenomenon of so-called feral children, a girl or a boy purported to be raised by wolves (or by bears, or big cats, or goats, or, in one reported case, by rats). I ultimately crashed these two ideas together in Savage Girl.
What did the murder plot add?
A random killing here and there really focuses a narrative. We don’t know who is committing the murders in Savage Girl, but indications point to Bronwyn—and with good reason. The historical record shows that feral children were prone to violent outbursts.
You often write about the status of women. Was there something in particular about the women of the Gilded Age that intrigued you?
I found the debutante to be a fascinating creature and the coming out process one that was as constricting as it was lovely. Here were the grand dames of society, banding together when a girl reached the age of 18 or so, helping to usher her into a new social status. There was some power in the process for women. The learning curve was steep. There were new gowns and dance lessons, teas, ritualized social visits, and grand balls. The fashions were extraordinary. Yet debuting was filled with the strictest rules and obligations, and if you failed, there was the threat of punishment—remaining a spinster. I wanted to search beneath the opaque surface of the debuting process to find deeper meanings. That meant talking about both corsets and bloomers.
“Zimmerman’s dark comedy of manners is an obvious homage to Edith Wharton, a rip-roaring murder mystery more Robert Louis Stevenson than Conan Doyle and a wonderfully detailed portrait of the political, economic and philosophical issues driving post–Civil War America.” –KIRKUS