Tag Archives: Speakeasy

Speakeasy with Chang-rae Lee

Master storyteller Chang-rae Lee has been praised for his beautiful prose and heady novels that deal with deeply human issues: dual identity and alienation (Native Speaker), disaffection and belonging (Aloft) and the heroism of war and love (The Surrendered). His latest, On Such a Full Sea,  is set in a future dystopian America, where society is stratified by privilege and power. A young female fish-tank diver,  Fan, leaves her safe home of B-mor (formerly Baltimore) to find her missing love. Alone in the wild, she survives by enduring. We chat with Lee about his writing life, strong heroines, and whether or not we are already in post-apocalyptic America.

What book do you wish you’d written?
So many books. Yet one stands out, for the unparalleled beauty and haunting music of its prose: Dubliners by James Joyce.

What are your writing vices?
Nothing usually except some green tea. But when I’m in the last feverish stages of writing, when I need fortification, I might have some dark chocolate and Schimmelpennicks at hand.

What book is currently on your nightstand/next to your toilet?
We Others, a marvelous collection of stories by Steven Millhauser.

Write what you know or write what you imagine?
You can hardly imagine what you in fact know, so I guess a little of both.

On Such a Full Sea is set in the near future. America has dissolved into a stratified dystopia; the wealthy elite live in the walled-off Charters, a working class provides food and supplies in labor cities, and beyond are the wilds of the Counties. This seems like a structure that already exists in parts of the world (China, Southeast Asia, Russia). Is a global, capitalist society inevitably heading toward this future?
We’re already there! Perhaps they’re not readily apparent to us in the developed world, but the walls are going up. In our winner-take-all societies the concentration of wealth and the resulting calcification of class has become all too real. The scary thing is that we seem quite willing to accept this trend.

Clever, brave female protagonists are a staple of dystopian novels, particularly YA ones (The Hunger Games, Divergent). Our protagonist in On Such a Full Sea is a young woman of Chinese descent and an expert tank diver who embarks on a quest to find her boyfriend. How do you see Fan stacking up against her genre peers?
I think she could hold her own against those superheroines. Maybe not because of her physical gifts or leadership abilities, but because she’s endowed with the talent of persistence. It’s a quiet gift, nothing flashy; she simply endures.

There are some incredibly chilling scenes in the novel (the incident at the road house, the human dolls who become Fan’s “sisters”). Are these critiques on human nature or just wonderful, imaginative twists of horror to keep the reader on her toes?
The extremes of human possibility are always horrifying, because right up to the moment of such conduct or expression, we don’t want to believe it’s so; but when it comes to life we’re actually a little awed and unsettled, I think, with a shock of recognition.

Chang-rae Lee speaks with Lorrie Moore, author of Bark, at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday, March 13 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15. More information available here. On Such a Full Sea is available now at your local independent bookstore or as an e-book. 

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Speakeasy with Seth Fishman, ‘The Well’s End’

‘Young Adult’ no longer is just for kiddies. Thanks to The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and even those terrible Twilight books, more adults are reading — and loving — YA fiction.

Seth Fishman’s YA novel, The Well’s End,  is a great addition to the canon. Dystopian adventure? Check.  Strong female narrator? Check. A conspiracy combining science and the supernatural? Check!

For our latest Speakeasy interview we grabbed a moment with the busy man (Fishman’s day job is as literary agent at The Gernert Company and he is already working on the sequel to The Well’s End) to chat about Baby Jessica, YA for adults, and what skills he brings to his Team Apocalypse.

What book do you wish you’d written? 
Oh man, tons of them. Maybe Through the Looking Glass or The Sound and The Fury or anything with Gandalf.

What are your writing vices?
There aren’t many answers to this that makes me sound cool. I do drink a scotch after every draft but that’s tame. How about brazen confidence in the face of little research?

What book is currently on your nightstand/next to your toilet? 
Toilet: xkcd – Volume 0. Nightstand: The Vorrh by B Catling (yep, obscure, but hopefully not for long).

At cocktail parties, what do you tell people you do for a living? 
Literary agent.

Finish the joke. A writer walks into a bar…
…and realizes that most of his friends came to the after-party, instead of the reading.

The protagonist of The Well’s End is, in part, inspired by Baby Jessica. What was it about that story that left such an impression on you?
Honestly, I remember the moment she was freed. I remember so much about that instant in my life. And I couldn’t help but wonder what the life of someone like her would be. I mean, I remember her leaving the well. Does she remember the well? Does she remember anything? I loved that character, trying to imagine who she was, how such a thing could affect a young girl. I especially was interested in seeing a trauma that wasn’t caused by a parent or family friend, which felt more… innocent, out of anyone’s hands.

Why should adults read this YA book?
Because adults are the only ones who’ll get the Toy Soldiers references. Truth is, I wrote this book with no inclination of writing ‘down’ to teenagers, and I hope they respect that. I also think that means it’s readable for adults. We all read YA now, so it’s okay…

There is an element of apocalypse in The Well’s End — everyone is dying of a strange virus, a hearty band of survivors must track down answers from “The Cave.” How would you do in such a situation? What skills would you bring to your apocalypse team? 
Sadly, the first thing I’d need to do in an apocalyptical situation would be to ransack a LensCrafter and secure contacts and force a tardy ophthalmologist to make spare glasses for me. While that was going on, I think my friends would be dead. BUT, if I had to help immediately, I think I’d be pretty helpful in the strategy department. I like to think that excellence in board games like Risk and Settlers of Catan and social games like Mafia lead directly to leadership ability in group settings.

Seth Fishman and Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife) talk about their books and read fan fiction to each other on Thursday, March 6 at 7pm at Housing Works, 126 Crosby St., NYC. Free.

The Well’s End is on sale now at your local independent bookstore or on Amazon.

Image of Seth Fishman: courtesy Chelin Miller.

Speakeasy with Chad Harbach

Last year, n+1 published an essay by bestselling novelist Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) on the polarized world of American fiction: getting an MFA v. the school of NYC. [Read the original essay here.]  The essay struck a nerve and prompted spirited debate online and among writers. Clearly, Harbach was onto something.  MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction (n+1/Faber & Faber) is the new book edited by Harbach that digs deeper and features writers such as George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, and Jynne Martin tackling questions like: Should you seek an advanced degree, or will workshops smother your style? Do you need to move to New York, or will the high cost of living undo you? How has the rise of MFA programs affected American fiction?

In anticipation of the book launch, Culture Binge gave Harbach our grueling Speakeasy author questionnaire, chatted about day jobs and the impact of MFA programs.

What book do you wish you’d written?
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Hemingway had mojitos, Raymond Chandler had gimlets. Henry Miller had French prostitutes. Hunter S. Thomson had, well, everything. What are your writing vices?
French prostitutes seem more like an aprés-writing vice — it would be distracting to have them around the office all day. Brandy is the vice of my ancestors and I’m sticking with it.

What book is currently on your nightstand/next to your toilet?
The Art of Cooking Omelettes by Madame Romaine de Lyon.

Before becoming a full-time writer, what was your strangest day job?
I had a bunch. For a couple of years, I worked as the assistant to Boston’s foremost marriage therapist. He was in his seventies, and really wanted to stop seeing couples and concentrate on his writing and other projects, but he was so good that no one would let him quit. That was a pretty good job, actually. His office was in the basement of his townhouse. I would answer the phones and pay the quarterly taxes and sometimes do more engaging research, while he fixed people’s lives and sent them home holding hands.

Finish the joke. A writer walks into a bar…
… and clocks in for his shift.

For readers, what is the biggest impact that MFA programs have had on American fiction?
The programs have often been accused of fostering well-crafted but cautious books, and probably there’s some truth there. But they’ve also, I think, fostered daring and powerful books, by offering talented writers — as George Saunders says in MFA vs. NYC — “some time out of the capitalist shitstorm.”

In your essay in MFA vs. NYC, you mention that writers in MFA culture are obsessed with the short story, while the American reading public is not. Will technology (Kindle singles, blogs publishing short works and essays) change the public’s appetite as it has in other parts of the world? Or is this a form that is going to fade away?
Technology confuses me. But I definitely don’t think the short story will fade away — one consequence of the expansion of the creative writing industry is that many, many more undergraduates are taking writing workshops, and in these courses they’re reading contemporary short stories almost exclusively. So every semester thousands of college kids are being introduced to contemporary short-story writers — and it’s those students, more or less, who grow up to become the “reading public.”

Chad Harbach will read from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, Tuesday, February 25 at 7pm at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, 126 Crosby St., New York. Free and open to the public.

MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction is available at your local independent bookstore or can be ordered here. Visit the n+1 website for more information on the magazine and upcoming events. 

Speakeasy with Gary Shteyngart

Speakeasy is our weekly Q&A series with authors, publishers, agents and literary ne’er-do-wells. We put our interviewees through a grueling questionnaire and chat a bit about their upcoming projects. 

After three acclaimed novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, Super Sad True Love Story), Gary Shteyngart delves candidly into his own life with his latest, Little Failure: A Memoir. Using his trademark self-deprecation, linguistic wit and sharp observations, Shteyngart covers his childhood immigration from the USSR to the USA,  his colorful parents and being a cultural misfit. As in his previous works, Shteyngart has created a hilarious book that deftly exposes deeper truths and realities.

Culture Binge chatted with the always charming and clever Shteyngart on bathroom reading, dachshund-cuddling, and boycotting the Sochi Olympics (but not for the reasons you think).

What book do you wish you’d written?
Nabokov’s Pnin. It’s so much better than my books. But then he’s dead and I’m alive. Mwahahaha.

Hemingway had mojitos, Raymond Chandler had gimlets. Henry Miller had French prostitutes. Hunter S. Thomson had, well, everything. What are your writing vices?
Is dachshund-cuddling a vice? Cause I’m doing it right now. Instead of penning the next semi-okay American novel I’m doing belly kisses and snout snuggles.

What book is currently on your nightstand/next to your toilet?
All of them. My library is funneled directly to my toilet. That is also where I produce content.

At cocktail parties, what do you tell people you do for a living?
Air conditioning and refrigerator repair. It’s a growth industry.

In Little Failure, you mention the rather gruesome deaths of family members (an uncle mutilated in Stalin’s labor camps, relatives who were buried alive). What would you like on your own tombstone epitaph?
Here Lies Shteyngart. He Grew Up Without Gulags and Death Camps, So He Tortured Himself.

Little Failure is your first memoir. What does memoir allow you to express that fiction doesn’t?
It allows me to put in some truly amazing photos of myself in a sailor suit climbing a makeshift ladder in 1970s Leningrad. Couldn’t do that in a novel.

As someone very familiar with the absurd reality of modern Russia, which story coming out of the coverage of the Olympics in Sochi have you found the most amusing?
I’m celebrating 41 years of not giving a damn about the Winter Olympics. There’s no badminton in this thing, so who cares. Let it all go to hell.

Gary Shteyngart will speak at The Philadelphia Free Library on Monday, February 24 at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15. Little Failure: A Memoir is on sale now at your local independent bookstore or via Amazon.