This week I have the pleasure of sharing my conversation with Don Swaim, author of The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story, Hippocampus Press, New York, 2016.
1) Why a writer?
It beats math. Besides, the creative impulse is a compulsion in people like myself, and I was comfortable with my childhood reclusiveness of reading and writing, at the age of six tapping out my first fledging stories on my mother’s Remington.
2) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
As early as high school I planned to be a writer of some sort, and studied journalism in college because, well, journalists wrote. After a career as a broadcast journalist, working in radio at CBS in New York for more than thirty years, I resigned to write full time. In the process, I fostered the Bucks County Writers Workshop, which initially met at the county’s free library.
3) Why did you choose the genre you write in and how would you describe your writing style?
I never chose a genre, but if I adopt any they choose me. Apologies for the cop-out, but if my writing style can be described, it’s eclectic.
4) Tell us about The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story.
I had written a slim literary thriller about H.L. Mencken, which was published by St. Martin’s Press, and was considering fictionalizing some other literary figure. I was familiar with Ambrose Bierce, having read his Civil War, supernatural stories, and humor, but was intrigued when I learned about his mysterious disappearance into Mexico, where he had gone hoping to reach Pancho Villa in 1913. To this day, Bierce’s whereabouts are unknown.
Carlos Fuentes had published a poetic short novel centered around Bierce, The Old Gringo, but I thought I might write a more extensive book focusing not only on Bierce’s bizarre eclipse in Mexico, but the totality of his life. The first part of the novel occurs in Mexico as Bierce rides with Villa during the revolution, the second part is set in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Bierce falls in love with a young widow; thus, validating the book’s subtitle. Both sections of the novel are filled with ample flashbacks to illuminate Bierce’s dramatic, often turbulent life and career.
In the many-year process of writing the novel, I launched an early Internet site devoted exclusively to Ambrose Bierce (http://donswaim.com), which is now the definitive online Bierce resource.
Researching and writing the novel was both exhilarating and difficult, but publishing it was a different challenge. I went through at least three agents and scores upon scores of rejections. It was the renowned scholar of fantasy and imagination, S. T. Joshi, who read a draft of the novel and championed it, which led to its publication by Hippocampus Press, a feisty, independent publisher in New York focusing on classic horror, poetry, and the scholarly.
5) If you could live in any world from a book or movie which would it be and why?
I’d be reluctant to live in a world without computers and antibiotics, but would relish standing at a bar quaffing cognac with the often misogynistic Ambrose Bierce as he pontificates on literature, politics, and the nature of man. He wasn’t always right but he was colorful and flamboyant.
6) I imagine you’ve been reading all your life (all great writers have). What was your favorite book growing up?
I was in love with the childhood classics, not knowing at the time they were jewels in our literary crown: The Wizard of Oz, Alice, Treasure Island, everything by Jules Verne, and in addition a beautiful little storybook for young children read to me by my mother, Little Buffalo Boy, written and illustrated by H.C. and Lucile Holling (1939).
7) What do you do when you’re not writing?
To most people, my existence would be an incredible bore since writing commands nearly all of my attention. That said, I’m a voracious reader, collect rare books and first editions, build and maintain websites, and fill my ears with enchanted music of all flavors.
8) The infamous question- what advice would you give to any aspiring and new authors out there?
I’d never be so presumptuous as to give anyone writing advice (outside of a workshop context), other than to say that if one doesn’t stick with it it’ll never be written.
9) What can we look forward from you in the future?
I have much to say, assuming I can find a forum for my tales about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Walt Whitman, disc jockeys, and tabloid crime reporters.
10) Where can we find you on the internet?
The Ambrose Bierce Site: http://donswaim.com
Wired for Books: http://wiredforbooks.org/swaim/
Book Beat: The Podcast: http://donswaim.com/bookbeatpodcast.html
Bucks County Writers Workshop: http://donswaim.com/buckswriters.html
WCBS Newsradio88: http://donswaim.com/wcbsnewsradio88.html
Thanks for your time, Don. The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading it. By the way, love the cover.
I wasn’t thrilled when our book group chose All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Duerr. I’d heard a lot of good things about the book, plus it was suggested by someone whose opinion I particularly admire, so I didn’t object, but I have to admit my first thought was Oh, no. Not another book about World War II and German brutality. I was wrong. This book is different from most that I’ve read. I was immediately drawn in by the writing itself: sumptuous descriptions, inclusion of details that added texture and layers of meaning to the settings and the people who inhabited them. Even more important was the theme of the story: the humanity of individuals trapped and transformed by the inhumanity of war.
The story unfolds in short chapters – so short, in fact, that they seem more like bursts of memory than episodes in a novel. There are multiple points of view (one of my favorite story-telling devices). The two main characters are a French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, six years old and newly blind when the story begins, and a German boy, Werner Pfennig, age eight, living in an orphanage in a coal-mining town, obviously intelligent, but without much promise of a future when we first meet him.
Doerr juxtaposes the girl’s lack of sight and the resulting heightening of her other senses with the boy’s fascination with invisible radio waves to evoke the unseen life teeming around us – to make us aware of possibilities waiting to be explored.
I won’t go into plot points because the book isn’t about events, but rather about the inner workings of the human spirit. We witness the step-by-step progression from innocence to evil as we are shown the training methods of an elite school for German youth, but, even here, no one is totally evil. Even the least admirable character is given small moments in which we sense what he might have been had it not been for the horror of war.
Some characters risk their lives to help destroy the invading force, but they can’t accomplish much on their own. In order to prevail, good needs good. To me, the most tragic figure in the book was Frederick, a sensitive boy who became part of the Hitler Youth – not to further his own interests, but because his patriotic German parents desired it. Without actively rebelling, he resists efforts to break and dehumanize him and is ultimately destroyed. Having said that, I have to wonder if his actions were really in vain. At least one other boy recognized his heroism and was moved by it. Were there others whose thoughts we did not see who were similarly affected?
One of the points that came up in our group’s discussion was whether or not Werner was an albino. Doerr makes it a point to repeatedly state how blond (actually white) the boy’s hair is, how pale his eyes. My own feeling is that he was not an albino, but that the author used his physical appearance to portray the ultimate example of the blond Aryan favored by Hitler. This, coupled with Werner’s performance when he is chosen to attend an elite school, shows him as the seemingly ideal Hitler Youth. The genius of the book lies in the fact that the reader understands the sensitivity and humanity that lie beneath that façade.
Volkheimer, a brutal killer who loves music, says of Werner: “What you could be.” I closed the book thinking the same could be said of any character within its pages.
I agree with Edward Abbey. Sometimes we get so distracted by big things that we forget the importance of small ones. I usually talk about writing-relating things here and this quote certainly applies there, but that’s not the only place. It covers a much wider range – in fact, every facet of life.
One small example: My mother loved to cook. She expressed love with food. I remember as a young woman wishing that I could give her a shiny new kitchen, one with all the bells and whistles. Now I wish I’d thought to bring her flowers every now and then. Not huge, expensive arrangements. A handful of freshly picked blooms from a daughter who’s a klutz in the kitchen would probably have meant more to her than a whole array of the shiniest gadgets. There are so many other instances when I could have done some small, thoughtful thing for her – or for other people in my life – or for strangers. Moments I let slip by when I could have taken a couple of minutes to do something seemingly inconsequential – and made someone feel important.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I think we all let small the opportunity slip by because we’re busy dreaming of the grand gesture.
Writers may be the more guilty than most. We so long for the satisfaction of a completed manuscript that we forget to savor the individual words as they go on the page, the small details that build the story, the description of a place that exists only in our imagination, the little tic of personality that defines a character we’re creating. These are the things that make a story come alive for a reader. I know the things I remember when I think of my favorite books are not huge, dramatic plot points. A tiny throw-away detail that connects me to a character, a setting, or a situation will stay with me long after I’ve forgotten the plot.
Have a good week, my friends – and remember not to pass up an opportunity to do a small act of kindness. It may go unnoticed, but it may have an impact you’ll never know about.
There are a lot of National This Days or That Weeks – periods of time set aside to celebrate a person or a group of people, an event, or an institution that has special meaning for us. This week, we’re celebrating one of my favorites, something we all too often take for granted – the library. A good library is the heart of a good community.
One of life’s real pleasures is curling up with a good book – a simple pleasure – or maybe not. It seems simple enough: select a book (preferably a nice thick one), find a comfortable chair, add a cozy quilt to tuck around yourself, snuggle in – and lose yourself in another world – actually two other worlds.
Your outer self luxuriates in the tactile sensation of the book in your hands as your eyes skim over a page covered by a series of funny little squiggles that, through the ages and the ingenuity of man, have been organized into something called writing. Each squiggle is a symbol that represents a sound. Grouped together, they form words. Combined with other words, they convey ideas, thoughts, emotions, knowledge and, in the best of times, wisdom.
Your inner self takes this amazing accomplishment for granted while it travels to another place – maybe to Czarist Russia with Anna Karenina, maybe to Jazz Age America with Jay Gatsby or maybe it stays close to home and delves into the psyche of a person of another race or another gender. This journey of the inner self can take you to another century – long past or far into the future. You can visit another planet or another universe. You can become part of a colony of rabbits or soar over the earth in the form of a seagull. Wherever you go, whatever guise you assume, you’re likely to experience something that will enhance your appreciation of the world to which you eventually return.
All of this happens because, somewhere in our history, human beings agreed that a line shaped in a certain way represents a certain sound. Simple, and yet amazing, especially when you consider that, as a species, we tend to disagree about almost everything.
Surely this is man’s most important invention. Compared with the written word, the wheel is trivial. Assembling the stories created by our words into treasures that we call books was another giant step forward. But not all books are stories. Some are filled with raw information that can be analyzed and assembled to help us understand our world and make it better. Some tell of past mistakes so that we can avoid repeating them.
Books are my favorite part of the library, but they are far from being the only attraction. The number of ways in which ideas are being dispersed and experienced is growing with bewildering speed. Libraries and writers are faced with choices unimaginable a few years ago. Some of the choices may not be wise, but that’s okay. As mankind has always done, we’ll learn from our mistakes, try something else, and (I type with crossed fingers) move ever closer to the best of times.
The idea to build libraries so that our stories and our knowledge could be preserved and shared – brilliant! Well worth celebrating.
Today, I’m pleased to welcome Nicole Loughan to Birth of a Novel. Nicole is an award-winning journalist and a talented fiction writer who loves mysteries. Her favorite female sleuths were dreamed up by Charlaine Harris and Janet Evanovich. She also draws inspiration from the classics such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, an inspiration that is evident in her books.
Okay … that’s enough from me. Let’s hear from Nicole how she sets the tone for her writing.
Sometimes, I need something to get me in the mood for writing. I have gone so far as to light candles and dim the lights when I need to write a romantic scene. Though, what helps me more than anything to set the tone of my book is a little mood music.
What I listen to depends on the story that I’m writing. For my newest book, Divine Hotel, set in the 1960s the mood was light. I wanted to convey a feeling of excitement as my characters stepped back through time. I kept finding myself listening to old swing music or big band classics. I am especially feeling the song “You’ve got to Accentuate the Positive” by Johnny Mercer, which happens to have a tie in to the book. Accentuate the Positive was said to be inspired by the real Father Divine. A fictionalized version of him plays a role in the new book. Father Divine was the Leader of the Peace Mission Movement and his powerful sermons play a role in pop culture with many artists saying they drew inspiration from him.
When I listened to Accenutate the Positive, I tried to feel what Johnny Mercer felt when he heard Divine Speak, Divine was said to have other worldly charisma. The song always put a smile on my face.
While writing the Saints Mystery Series, Dark mysteries set in the Bayous of Southern Louisiana I listened to a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival, songs like “Born on the Bayou” or “Bad Moon Rising.”
The vernacular from the songs ends up in my story, such as when the lead singer of CCR sang about Hoodoo, rather than Voodoo, I never knew there was a difference but after hearing that line several times I looked up Hoodoo, and decided one of my characters Beau would always mistakenly refer to Voodoo as Hoodoo.
The other group I listened to while writing Saints was Modest Mouse especially “The Devil’s Workday” It has a heavy Jazz influence, with a lot of horn. It reminded me of my visits to Louisiana. I listened to it on repeat when I wrote the final scene of All Saints’ Secrets. I highly recommend reading it with that on in the background to see if you got the same feeling from the music that I did.
The next chapter in the Divine Series will visit another point in time and I will find something completely different to listen too, right now I’m feeling some depression era jazz is in order.
Nicole, thanks so much for visiting and sharing your inspiration with us.
Readers, if you’d like to know more about Nicole Loughan, you can visit her website –nicoleloughan.com
Here’s a link to her newest book, Divine Hotel – amzn.to/1pUp2Cl
It’s my tradition to begin the blogging year with a look back at the books I’ve read in the year just past. I admit it’s a self indulgence – something I do more for myself than readers of Birth of a Novel. I enjoy looking at my reading journal and savoring the memories it evokes. I’m a bit late looking over 2015 – almost the first quarter of the 2016 is already gone – but I’m going to do it anyway. It’s part of how I move forward. (I guess that tells you how far behind I am in my writing life at the moment.)
Anyway, here goes:
The first book I read in 2015 was Durable Goods by Elizabeth Berg. It was a good start to the year. I enjoy her stories for the way they reach into the hearts of ordinary people. Over the course of the year, I read two more books by Berg. It’s hard to resist the temptation of a familiar author, but I also love to discover new voices. Discovery seems to be the theme of the first half of the year. I’d heard about Susan Elia MacNeal’s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary (pubbed in 2012) and finally got around to reading it. I liked it so much that I read the next book in the series, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy. The others in the series are on my TBR list.
In 2015, I had a great opportunity to discover more new-to-me authors when I was asked to monitor a panel at Malice (more formally known as Domestic Malice, an annual conference of mystery readers and writers). My panel was called It’s All Relative: Dysfunctional Families. I’m sure you can imagine how much we had with that topic. My panelists were Victoria Abbott/Mary Jane Maffini (she writes two series under two different names), Beverly Allen, Maggie Barbieri, and Susannah Hardy. As I said, I wasn’t familiar with any of their works so, in the weeks leading to Malice, I played catch up and read their books. What fun! Four writers with four distinct writing styles, four distinct senses of humor. It was like a crash course in how to write funny – and how different cozies can be. I can honestly say I enjoyed them all and loved getting to know the writers while we shared ideas about how to make the panel interesting and to win new readers for them. That took up most of April and early May. Then I read books by some other relatively new authors, some of whom I met at Malice and some who were members of my own chapter of Sisters in Crime: Jane Kelly, Marilyn Levinson, James M. Jackson, Augustus Cileone. Next, Off Kilter, a memoir by my friend, Linda Wisniewski, finally made it to the top of my TBR pile. Loved it! This is how a memoir should be written – so that it tells not just about the writer’s past, but shows how she is moving forward into her future. Kudos, Linda!
About mid-summer, I became a volunteer at the Pearl S. Buck House and, since then, have usually been engrossed in either a book by her or about her. I didn’t actually re-read all of The Good Earth or Pavilion of Women (one of my all-time favorite books), but I did skim through them to recapture the essence of their stories, then went on to read several new-to-me Buck novels. Among them were Peony, Kinfolk, and Imperial Woman. In addition, I read her memoir, My Several Worlds and Hilary Spurling’s Pearl Buck in China, a biography of the first half of Ms. Buck’s life. Another non-fiction book I enjoyed last year was the autobiography of Agatha Chrisitie. I was struck by the similarities between these two women writers. The details of their lives could hardly be more different, but they were alike in the way they reacted to challenges and unexpected setbacks. Both were strong women who made their own lives.
I read Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman despite the negative things I’d heard about it. (I like to make up my own mind about things.) After I finished, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and appreciated it even more. Though Watchman isn’t wonderful in the way that Mockingbird is, reading it added another dimension to the story and to Ms. Lee as a writer. I’m glad I read it.
Of course, there were a fair number of other books. Too many to list, but I will say that I finished my reading year with Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma: A Modern Retelling. What fun. A combination of Austen and Smith. If you enjoy subtlety and humor, it doesn’t get any better.
Did I have a favorite book? That’s like asking me to pick a favorite child.
This blog has been dormant for a while and Spring, the season of renewal, seems the perfect time to bring it back to life. In preparing to do that, I looked through some previous posts and came across this review that I wrote of ROOM by Emma Donoghue several years ago. At the time I had no idea that the book would be made into a movie – a very successful movie. (Yay! Love it when good storytelling is acknowledged and rewarded.) Here’s what I had to say:
ROOM is the story of a young woman kidnapped and held captive in a small space for years. The premise itself isn’t that original; in fact, it seems lifted straight from the evening news, but Donoghue’s treatment is fresh and her characters so real they leap off the page.
I won’t spoil it by going into a lot of plot details. As I said, the plot itself is not unique. What sets the book apart is the point of view. We experience the story through the eyes of Jack, the child born to the kidnap victim, fathered by her captor, a shadowy figure known to him as Old Nick.
It begins on the morning of Jack’s fifth birthday:
“Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.”
Who could resist an opening like that?
Donoghue has taken a nightmare scenario and created a surprisingly uplifting story. It’s a story of unconditional love, of resilience and the will to survive, a story of civilization in primitive conditions. The only person Jack has ever known is his mother, whose love for him is achingly real. He has never known meanness or hatred. He is a precocious little boy, happy most of the time with life in his 11 x 11 world. He doesn’t know enough to be dissatisfied with the little he has.
Among the few possessions Jack and his mother can claim are a few books. She has taught him to read and given him a love of stories. She has also devised a daily routine filled with a variety of activities. They sing and play games of their own invention. They do have a TV, but Ma only allows it to be turned on for a short time each day, because, as she has taught Jack, too much TV will rot their brains. They exercise every day, doing laps in their small space, sometimes jumping from one piece of furniture to another (Jack’s favorite). They do crafts, using materials they salvage from the meager supplies that Old Nick brings to them. One of Jack’s playmates is a snake who lives under the bed, constructed from egg shells and other bits and pieces that he and Ma have gleaned from things most of us consider trash.
Jack thinks there are “thousands of things to do”. We know that for his mother it is a very different story. Though the story never shifts to her point of view, we understand the significance of her moods in a way that the innocent child telling the story cannot. We feel her desperation and her sense that time is running out and appreciate all the more the remarkable job she has done in making life bearable for Jack and her attempts to give him the skills he will need if they should ever be freed.
Donoghue has established a unique voice for Jack and, in doing so, has created a provocative novel..
If you’ve read the book, seen the movie, or (most likely) both, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the story.