What I Did on My Summer Vacation

My last post here was about Anthony Bourdain and it bums me out every time I see it, so I think it’s time to tell some new stories. Let’s catch up.

So what happened in the last couple of years? As the man said, I went outside and was gone for some time.

Shortly after moving to California, I got a job, which is a seismic event in the course of my freelance existence. I even remember accidentally getting it, kind of. I was browsing the web when I hit a Facebook advertisement for an Events Manager at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park.

Kepler’s is a funky joint with a fascinating history. The Grateful Dead are said to have held court in the back of the place when it was in its original location, and Joan Baez was known to play the stage as well. When the market crashed some years ago and the financial doom at hand threatened to shutter the place, the public outcry was so loud that the place literally wasn’t allowed to close, by its customers and by the community at large.

I had already been to Kepler’s a few times—even applied for a job as a bookseller that I was woefully unqualified for, despite several gigs in shipping and receiving at university—but the events manager opportunity was intriguing, for a few reasons.

First, I had already worked in a couple of bookstores, and knew I enjoyed the vibe of the joints. Secondly, I’ve been reviewing books and interviewing writers for some years now, so my base knowledge of the publishing industry and the book market is pretty sound by this point. I know half the publicists in New York, have interviewed a handful of authors on the bestseller list at any given moment, and I’d spent the past four years leading an events team at Denver Comic Con, let alone years of managing guest experiences, committees and retreats at various gigs around the country. I was bizarrely, uniquely qualified for this job.

And then I got the job. (For those of you playing at home, this is not normal for me).

It was one hell of an interesting gig.

My first day was a blustery day in January. We hosted T.J. Stiles, a renowned historian I had already interviewed a couple of times for Kirkus Reviews. In the course of the next week, we would host bestselling novelist Elizabeth Strout, the noted hip-hop activist Jeff Chang with one of my favorite novelists, Adam Mansbach. We had a crazy crowd of 400+ people for Dr. Lucy Kalanithi, who graciously presented her late husband Paul’s heartbreaking memoir When Breath Becomes Air.

I met a former CIA agent in Barry Eisler, my second after interviewing Valerie Plame, and I’m sure not the only two former spooks I’ve met. My dear friend Dr. Mike Martin was impressed when Dr. James Doty showed up with Dr. Philip Zimbardo—that’s “Uncle Phil” to you—who famously masterminded the Stanford Prison Experiment. Rabia Chaudry talked about the case of Adnan Syed, famously chronicled in the podcast Serial.

Booker Prize winner Yann Martel sat in the audience and signed all the books in the store before talking about his latest bestseller The High Mountains of Portugal. I sat in the green room with Augusten Burroughs to talk about celebrities and their various ailments. Dan Lyons came to talk about working in Silicon Valley and the perils of a candy wall, among other things. I traded quips with Dave Barry, and saw a genuine prize-winning bestselling author—not to be named—have the biggest, babyish meltdown I’ve ever seen in another human being.

Somewhere in there was a trip to New York, which was deeply weird. To meet face-to-face with publicists that I’ve been working with for over a decade was a little strange. There was a journey back to Black 47’s old stomping grounds at Paddy O’Reilly’s, and a deeply moving experience seeing the play Blackbird on Broadway starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels.

Finally, there were a few triumphs. It was an education to host Walter Mosley after having interviewed him a bunch of times, only to go completely unrecognized when we finally met in person. Walter was, as Walter is, the charming, funny and brilliant raconteur that continues to delivery both the fantastic traditional mysteries at which he excels, and the offbeat experiments that I’ve been assigned to tackle from time to time.

 

We managed to get Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the creators of my favorite podcast Welcome to Night Vale, to come sign their new script books and hang out with Mallory Ortberg. In fact, I interviewed these guys again in advance of the publication of It Devours! and in the case of Joseph, his upcoming novel based on the podcast Alice Isn’t Dead.

My last event was hosting Peter S. Beagle, the legendary author of The Last Unicorn, which was exactly the trip you would imagine it to be.

But I did get to come back for one more show, as it turns out.

My favorite author in this whole wide world is the infamously cantankerous Warren Ellis, which is a strange thing to realize late in life. Over that summer, Warren tweeted to ask if anyone remembered that he had a book, Normal, coming out that Fall.

Having had a glass or two, I tweeted back that yes, yes I did know that he had a book coming out, given that I had just flown to New York to, among other duties, lobby his publisher, Farrar Strauss Giroux, that the author should come tour the U.S. and sign books in our bookstore, thank you very much. To my surprise, Warren responded that this was not a particularly wise move and that a phone call surely would have sufficed.

And then…

A day or two later, I got a call from a publicist in New York City who asked if Warren Ellis could come to Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, and sign copies of Normal.

And so he did. We limited the signing to 150 guests, no comics, and the events staff went out and bought a hell of a lot of Irish whiskey. “A Drop of Whiskey with Warren Ellis,” came to pass, just as I had imagined but never hoped to realize. Many thanks to Robin Sloan, author of Sourdough and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore for hosting the conversation.

And that is the story of how I played a tiny part in getting Warren Ellis to fly 5,000 miles to drink whiskey with us in Silicon Valley.

I think it was probably my best moment there, and my last. Even the Kepler’s Books team has evolved again, now that the events program has migrated to a new non-profit organization, the Kepler’s Literary Foundation, which continues to do good works and plan great events at the bookstore and beyond. People say this all the time, but in this case it’s true: it was an honor to serve.

Life moves on. I finally got to see Cat Stevens that year, and was regaled by Bryan Cranston for a couple of hours about his role in Breaking Bad and his approach to acting. I interviewed Cory Doctorow about his great new novel Walkaway, thankfully after moving away from Silicon Valley because Cory’s ideas scare the bejesus out of me. I talked with Joseph Kanon about his latest spy novel Defectors, and in about a month I’ll have an interview out with Hank Green about his debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.

And so it goes. How have you been?

The Criminal Mind of Anthony Bourdain

BourdainBelieve or not, Anthony Bourdain has a truly criminal mind.

Oh, sure, you might have gotten hints of his felonious character in the pages of his wildly entertaining memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, or on the small screen as the former chef travels the world eating strange things and getting into trouble on No Reservations and Parts Unknown.

But what even hardcore fans and casual foodies probably don’t know is that Bourdain not only has a serious jones for crime fiction but he’s one of the genre’s most gifted practitioners. They say to write what you know, and Bourdain does it to perfection by writing about the strange intersection of crime and cooking in three deft novels, two outlandish graphic novels, and one hard-to-categorize urban historical.

The One-Two Punch

Long before Kitchen Confidential was even a glimmer in the chef’s eye, Bourdain was already a well-established crime novelist. His debut novel, Bone in the Throat, was published in 1995. The book is about an up-and-coming chef, Tommy Pagano, and his misadventures working around the mob in Little Italy. While it’s clearly the work of a novice writer, it’s here that Bourdain starts to captures the sounds and smell and blistering heat of a working kitchen while also developing his own twisted sense of humor. This gets real obvious when Tommy has to explain how a hit man entered his kitchen but isn’t seen leaving.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything,” Tommy tells his boss. “I mean, what am I gonna say, ‘Sorry chef, I had a couple of friends over last night and they sort of chopped a guy up with your knife and I think it’s maybe damaged a little bit’?”

Gone BambooThe author starts to stretch with his 1997 follow-up Gone Bamboo, which follows a CIA-trained assassin and his wife down to the Caribbean for semi-retirement until a mob boss in the witness protection program screws everything up. It’s a wackier setup more suited to readers who enjoy the late Elmore Leonard but Bourdain’s mouth-watering descriptions of island grills and five-star restaurants are sure to leave them hungry for more.

The Pièce de Résistance: Bobby Gold and Typhoid Mary

Bourdain has admitted plenty of times that fame and his work on television puts a dent in his writing. That may be why two of his best works came directly on the heels of Kitchen Confidential’s publication in 2000. In 2001, the chef published two new short works that demonstrate his writing at its peak.

Typhoid MaryThe first is a strange experiment that attempts to humanize a woman who has long since been demonized by history. In Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, Bourdain pays homage to Mary Mallon, the Irish cook who became an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, leading her to infect at least 50 people during her term as a cook. In a gentle remembrance, Bourdain describes traveling to Mallon’s grave in the Bronx to lay his first chef’s knife at her resting place.

Something a fellow cook would appreciate, I hoped – a once fine hunk of quality French steel – a magical fetish, a beloved piece of my personal history. And a sign of respect, I hoped, an indicator that somebody, somewhere, even long after her troubles and her dying, took her seriously, understood, if only a little bit, the difficulty of her life as a cook. It’s the king of gift I would like to receive, one that I would understand.

I looked around the graveyard, making sure that no one else was watching, leaned over and with my hands, pulled back the grass at the base of her stone. I slipped my knife down there, covered it up the way it had looked before and left it for her. It was the least I could do.

A gift. Cook to cook.

Bourdain followed up this delicate wonder with his finest work, a slender, vicious portrait of a New York bonebreaker, Bobby Gold. It’s an incredible book not because its prose is florid but because Bourdain has stripped the novel down just its elemental parts, like a chef breaking down a side of beef. It opens on Bobby in the seventies, already in trouble.

Bobby Gold at twenty-one, in a red-and-white Dead Boys T-shirt, blue jeans, high-top Nikes and handcuffs, bending over the hood of the State Police cruiser, arms behind his back, wished he was anywhere but here.

Continue reading

Four in the Morning, the End of December

It’s raining in San Francisco.

It’s kind of amazing because I was starting to feel like I had escaped weather entirely by moving to the Peninsula. After a very wet spring in Colorado, the weather here hadn’t deviated more than five degrees for months until the monsoon started a few days ago.

(See, I broke one of the cardinal rules of writing there. Never start with the weather).

Anyway, I just popped in to archive a few stories and refresh the blog before another new year begins. This one has been crazy enough.

IMG_3549Just to finish up the project, in mid-October I flew down to Austin to award the Kirkus Prize in Literature for nonfiction, along with my comrades-in-arms, Marie du Vaure of the Getty Museum and prolific essayist Meghan Daum. It was a closer race than you might imagine but in the closing minutes, the prize went to Ta-Nahisi Coates for his emotional and brilliant book, Between the World and Me. In some ways, it was a strange year to be a judge for the Kirkus Prize because of the wealth of nominees. But despite the diversity in this year’s starred books, there was still a clear winner, as evidenced by Coates winning the National Book Award just a month later. Can I pick ’em or what? You can read about all of the other winners here.

Working my way through the Kirkus Prize and applying the skills to pay the bills has been pretty much all-consuming through the fall, but here are a few stories that have been published in the meantime.

  • ZeroesI interviewed one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig, about his new novel, NOT STAR WARS. I’ve always liked Chuck’s writing advice that he inflicts on his audience at his blog, Terrible Minds, so it was a pleasure to talk to him about his new sci-fi novel Zer0es. Check out his violent and horrible series that starts with Blackbirds as well. I was sad to hear that the adaptation of his Miriam Black novels over at Starz is now kaput but he did offer the perfect writer’s reaction to the news: “Hey, I got paid at least.” It didn’t hurt that when I interviewed him it was a month away from his publishing the first in-canon Star Wars novel since the original trilogy ended, Star Wars: Aftermath. Chuck has since fielded some, er, “interesting” reviews for the bare minimum diversity he chose to include in the book, and his reaction is dead on: ” If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars. It’s like trying to picture Jesus kicking lepers in the throat instead of curing them. Stop being the Empire. Join the Rebel Alliance. We have love and inclusion and great music and cute droids.”
  • StrangersAnother title that has kind of flown under the radar is Larissa MacFarquhar’s fascinating and terrifying debut, Strangers Drowning. Just after I moved to California, I caught up with the New Yorker journalist to talk about her portraits of extreme altruism. What I loved most about this book is that the author doesn’t bring any kind of moral agenda to her work. “If readers are moved to do more themselves, that’s terrific, but as much as I want to show that these people are admirable, I also want to show that what they have chosen to do is very difficult and they are very tough to be able to deal with it,” she told me. “I didn’t want to cover that up or simplify their difficulties.”
  • SamI think I’ve ended the year with my interview with music journalist Peter Guralnick about his comprehensive biography of Sam Phillips. Long before I decided to do this for a living, I remember listening to Peter’s Elvis biographies as audiobooks when I was working for a library. Sam was also still kicking around Memphis when I was a kid, so it was interesting to take this deep dive into the guy who pretty much made Elvis, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Okay, I think that’s it for now. There are more stories to tell at some point, like the bizarre job interviews I’ve had here in the start-up culture, but I think they’ll wait for another day. See you on the other side.

Dog Days

It’s been quite a summer, so forgive the radio silence. In addition to moving to the San Francisco Bay Area (where housing costs as much as a moderate heroin addiction), I have also been talking to a lot of writers, working to pay the aforementioned rent, and reading through the incredible books that are nominees for The Kirkus Prize (for which I am one of the aforementioned judges for nonfiction). Add to all that writing reviews and features and trying to cross the El Camino Real without getting squashed like a bug, and it’s been a little busy. Now, where were we?

Less Than HeroJust before the move started to get serious, I finally got around to interviewing S.G. Browne, another San Francisco denizen who has been cracking me up since his first book, Breathers.

(“Was that the one about the dead kid who falls in love with a live girl? I love that movie.)

(No, Twilight, you’re thinking of the movie Warm Bodies, which was based on Isaac Marion’s book of the same name, and which is not nearly as funny as Breathers.)

Anyway, enjoy this interview at Kirkus Reviews with Scott about his new novel Less Than Hero, in which we talk about drugs, superheroes, Chuck Palahniuk, and the meaning of life.

The CartelJust as I was packing up to leave Colorado, Kirkus published my second interview with the inspiring Don Winslow. I’m a fan of Don’s lighter work, notably the surf novels The Dawn Patrol and The Gentleman’s Hour but you have to admire his ambition in writing The Cartel, a massive magnum opus of a crime novel that follows up from his 2005 novel The Power of the Dog and connects four decades of drug-running, unimaginable violence and unnecessary bloodshed while simultaneously eviscerating the idea of a “war on drugs.” I like to think of this interview as a companion piece to my first interview with Winslow, when we talked about his novel Savages long before it was universally praised by critics and turned into an underrated film adaptation by director Oliver Stone.

There are plenty of other features over at Kirkus as well. Among this summer’s entries you’ll find:

  • I had a fascinating conversation with Dr. Paul Offit, one of the world’s leading researchers on infectious diseases. I think Dr. Offit has a fascinating point of view and I think more people should listen to him, although he’s often demonized in the press and by idiot celebrities. “Watch what parents go through when they watch their child slowly die over a period of a few days because they chose not to give their child an influenza vaccine,” he said. “You become a passionate advocate.” (This is the part where anybody that doesn’t believe in vaccines or physics or gravity or whatever should just move on down the road).
  • I called London and published this interview with the preeminent British artist Bryan Catling about his otherworldly novel The Voorh.
  • A chat with journalist Mark Ribowsky about the shock and awe of Otis Redding in Dreams to Remember. “It’s like Hank Williams,” Ribowsky said. “These people endure because they were just so authentic. Music today is so phony and so superficial. It’s a bunch of people get together in a studio and they don’t know what they want to make. When Otis Redding came into a studio, he knew exactly what he wanted the song to sound like because it was all in his head. He knew how to make music come alive.”
  • I had a great talk with music journalist Fred Goodman about his new biography of Allen Klein, the guy who talked his way into managing both The Beatles and the Stones. His relationship with the Stones was so famously brittle that it led Keith Richards to dryly comment that knowing Allen Klein was “the price of an education.”
  • Science, yeah! It was my pleasure to interview Dr. Carl Safina, one of the world’s leading experts on Marine Ecology. His new book, Beyond Words, is about his journeys into the wild to see animals for their own nature, not as beasts that exist in the context of being around human beings.  There are lots of good ideas in that interview but my takeaway from the interview came down to just four words from the good doctor: “Their flood is us.”
  • Imagine Richard Nixon as the sole defender of our universe against unimaginable Lovecraftian horrors. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Now imagine you get to talk to Tricky Dick all day long and get him to explain just what the hell he was up to all that time. That’s what Austin Grossman did with his wild new novel Crooked and I got to grill him about the experience.

ArmadaFinally, I kind of buried the lede, but I finally got around to interviewing Ernest Cline, which was a real pleasure. I first met Ernie during an event at the Boulder Bookstore to publicize Ready Player One back in 2012. He was really nice then, gave me a business card, and readily agreed to do an interview. (Yes, I know I’m a geek. My copy of Ready Player One is signed by both Ernie Cline and Wil Wheaton, who narrated the audiobook of RPO and his new one, Armada. Get over it.) Of course, this was before Steven Spielberg famously signed on to adapt RPO for Warner Bros. and Ernie subsequently did an interview with anyone with access to electricity, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless.

Most of Ernie’s commentary made it into the interview but it was fun to find out that he has more games and Easter eggs planned for Armada. The book has been out for a while now, so I think it’s fair for kids to find out that there is lots of cool stuff out there on the Interwebs related to the book. I’m not obsessive enough to go search for it all like Wade Watts, but it’s fun to run across things like:

So that’s all tons of fun. Upcoming I’ll also have an interview with Chuck Wendig, who famously tweeted that he wanted to write a Star Wars novel. One year to the day later, his novel Star Wars: Aftermath will be released on September 4th. That book is all hush-hush but I’ll have some good stuff about his new thriller Zeroes and his terrific little horror series that starts with Blackbirds.

delorean_back_to_the_future_wallpaper-other  In the meantime, I will see you all again in the future.

The Kirkus Prize

kirkus-prize-2015-170x170Just stopping by with a professional update.

The Kirkus Prize is one of the richest literary awards in the world, with a total prize of $150,000 awarded annually in recognition of outstanding literary achievements. It was created to celebrate more than 80 years of discerning, thoughtful criticism that Kirkus Reviews has contributed to both the publishing industry and readers at large. Books that earned the Kirkus Star with publication dates between November 1, 2014, and October 31, 2015 (see FAQ for exceptions), are automatically nominated for the 2015 Kirkus Prize, and the winners will be selected on October 15, 2015, by a panel composed of nationally respected writers and highly regarded booksellers, librarians and Kirkus critics.

I am honored to be chosen to judge the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, along with highly-respected bookseller Marie du Vaure of the Getty Museum, and prolific author and essayist Meghan Daum. You can read about all of the 2015 judges including those for fiction and young readers’ literature here. You can also find all of the 2015 nominees for nonfiction here, the 2015 nominees for fiction here, and the 2015 nominees for Young Readers’ Literature here.